Theme—Day 27

In her comment to Theme—Day 26, Karen Hancock , Christian fantasy author of the Legends of the Guardian-King series (of which the latest release is Shadow over Kiriath) said:

I’m not so sure the best way to achieve that [saying something relevant] is by deciding what you are passionate about and what you want to say beforehand — at least not in a way that’s hard and fast.

I think the key at the outset is not theme so much as personal honesty and courage. Write what you love. Write what you care about, what really matters to you, regardless of what others will say and think. And, specifically, regardless of whether they’ll respect you or think what you’ve done is “serious.”

Those are thought-provoking comments. I guess there could be a disconnect between what I think I’m passionate about and what I am actually passionate about. After all passion is of the emotions, and there are times my mind tricks me into denial of what I am feeling.

I guess, however, I am thinking of “passionate” in a different way. I’m thinking of what drives my life, whether I’m “feelin’ it” or not. It is from that source, that well of values, if you will, that I think I need to write. And do so consciously.

When I write about my values, however, I often learn more about them, so I would agree with Karen’s statement that my treatment of my theme shouldn’t be hard and fast. I don’t think I can go into the writing convinced that I know what precisely will come out on the other side.

But it is in exploring my deeply held beliefs that those become stronger—or become debunked. Both results are good. I want to hold to what is true and I want to throw off what is false. Can I do that without uprooting those beliefs and letting the light shine on them, studying their underside and maybe doing a little dissecting?

I do find it interesting that, a la Mount Hermon, writers are told to write their passion. Yet in the next writer’s book or editorial comment, the advice might be more along the lines of “Give us what we can sell.” Or, “Write an entertaining story, something fast-paced and jaunty that will keep readers turning the pages.”

I cannot get away from the belief that these two—value-driven stories that entertain—are not mutually exclusive. It is why I liked Mark Bertrand’s essay so much: I don’t think readers are dumb; I do think readers (along with me as the writer) should be challenged to think about the Big Themes of life.

Published in: on May 1, 2006 at 1:10 pm  Comments (6)  


  1. Writing is such an organic process, and we achieve our effects in so many ways, that you’re inevitably going to run into rough patches when you try to come to grips with the “how” of something as big and flexible as theme. When I told one author friend who manages to do theme extraordinarily well without didacticism my own theory about the subject, he said I was crazy. “Of course writing is didactic,” he said. “Everyone has a message.” And yet, what he was doing was nothing like the work achieved (or not achieved) by people who said the same thing.

    The reason I keep coming back to John Gardner’s thoughts on the “method” of fiction is that his approach seems to answer both the didactic and the organic concern very well. Characters subtly embody ideas that are tested through action. You can start with the idea, you can start with the character, you can start with the action. As you work, the “whole” begins to take shape and the gaps are filled — but that process won’t happen for me the way it does for you, or vice versa.


  2. I’m impressed and slightly amazed at the efforts to define the essence of writing and telling a story. The terms to describe the various methods authors employ to write, to the definitions of style, and even to what has become to me an arduous task of explaining the type or genre of fiction that I write–all of these have evolved into such a word study and high definition matter of expression and/or opinion, I’m not sure I can adequately do it.
    The passion comes from the heart of God–both for Him and to Him and because of Him by the life of Jesus Christ and the instruction of the Holy Spirit. Hallelujah! Rejoice that your gift is writing and do your best not to overthink it . . . and do your BEST ultimately for HIM.


  3. Mark, I gotta love that writer friend of yours: “Of course writing is didactic … everyone has a message.”

    And yet, it seems that oh, so many Christian writers want to pretend that the message isn’t really theirs, that it arose of its own from some place inside the characters.

    That may sound all mysterious and artsy, but what it really means—along with “seat of the pants” writing—is that the writer let his mind wander, and the finished product is what he settled on once he’d read through all the meanderings.

    Is that “wrong”? No. I would agree with you that how one author works does not mandate a system for another author.

    And yet I have heard repeated in seminars attended largely by Christians, the instruction NOT to start with theme. Why is that? The explanation invariable boils down to this assumption that an intentional theme must expose itself with preachy language.

    So, above all, I want to counter that concept, declare it a myth. If I over-emphasize one way of crafting theme, it is because I want to leave no doubt in the fact that I believe it does need to be crafted.

    Is crafting theme organic? At one time I might have said, no, but I know better now. I might as well say, Is crafting characters organic? Or is crafting plot organic? And with fantasy at least, is crafting setting organic?

    Then why wouldn’t theme be so as well? That to say, I see no dichotomy between starting out with the intenion of saying one truth only to end up saying it with a different slant or emphasis or nuance or maybe saying a corollary or a tangental statement instead.



  4. Nicole,

    Thanks for your comment. I do think you’ve identified the fact that writing is HARD work. I never used to think that.

    When I was in school and the teacher first taught us about rhythm in poetry, I remember thinking, Nah-uh. Nobody spends time counting out syllables, let along paying attention to where the accent falls when you say the words! That’s just some English teachers with too much time on their hands. 😉 Well, I was obviously wrong about that, but I didn’t learn my lesson.

    Some years ago I was reading a writing article about all that a writer needs to pay attention to: word choice, sentence cadence, variation of construction, character diction, etc. etc. Again I’m thinking, Nah-uh. Writers just tell a story, for goodness sake. Yet here I am, years later, combing my work for better word choices, repetition, choppy sentence construction, characters without unique voices, etc. etc.

    What am I driving at? Just the fact that I believe crafting theme should take as much of our attention as these other aspects of writing—as much as it might seem at times that I am over-thinking the issue.

    In reality, I probably am—but I think that’s because it has been “under-thought” for too long.

    I really do like the way you closed your comment, Nicole. It reminds me that, regardless of my efforts, God will make of my writing what He will. I do want to glorify Him with my writing, and I do believe that happens best if I work hard at it. But in the end, He “gives the increase.”



  5. Becky,

    You are such a cool girl. Your love for the Lord is evident in EVERYTHING you write–all your comments, etc. I appreciate that most of all. And perfecting your craft is the way to honor His gift to you, no question.
    I apologize for airing my frustration with the “process” of getting published. It’s the story-telling, the development of characters, watching where the story goes, the dialogue (as in Donald Maass’s book–having those characters say what you might never say but would want to, you know?), all that stuff is so fun! But when it comes to the query letters, synopses, book proposals, oh my word, do I ever hate that part. God has made me a resilient person, but that stuff gets as close to depressing me as I’ve ever come. If there was ANY way to forego that stuff, I would. That stuff takes more effort than I frankly want to give. Seems like they all want something different, too. I’m sorry–I’m rambling.


  6. Nicole,

    Thank you for your kind comments. (Don’t forget to send me your e-mail addy so I know where to send the check! 😉 )

    No need to apologize. I think every writer goes through periods of times when the frustrations bubble to the surface. This is a tough profession, in more ways than one.

    I’ve said before that for me the hardest writing is the proposal writing. I don’t think that has changed, but now I look at it as more than an assignment to get through. Rather, it’s an opportunity to make a first impression.

    God’s care as you work through that phase of the job, Nicole.



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