Thursday, June 23, 2011

Prevailing Themes

by guest blogger Bill Cameron
Not long ago, I had a revelation. It was the sort of thing you'd think I would have figured out already, but an excess of brainpower is not something I'm blessed with. Takes me a long time to noodle through things. In this case, it took me four books and who knows how many short stories to recognize there's a prevailing theme in my writing.

Wait. What?

The first surprise is that there IS a prevailing theme. I honestly had no idea. Oh, I've had, "This story is about …" moments. Lost Dog was about (gasp) loss. Chasing Smoke was about confronting mortality. Day One dealt with the need for security. And County Line is about how a single choice can resonate throughout a lifetime.

Fancy, high-falutin' stuff. But only peripherally interesting. No one reads a story because you say, "It's about loss." 

For me, the recognition of each book's individual themes served as a touchstone during revision—does this scene/character/line of dialog fit what I'm trying to do here? Once I've sorted through those kinds of questions, broad observations about "theme" don't have much significance.

But this prevailing theme notion? Maybe that's something worth a second look.

So what's my thing? Turns out all my books and the majority of my short stories are about how parental neglect and abuse shape children into the adults they become. Each story is a different take on this issue. Sometimes I focus on how damaged children become damaged adults, sometimes my interest is in how they survive to become whole. But if one thing shows up again and again in my work, it's really crappy parents.

That's fairly specific. It's not "loss" or "mortality" or some other cruising altitude observation which can apply to a multitude of tales. Rather, it's a window into what preys on my mind. It's a problem I struggle to understand, perhaps even to solve. 

Of course, the issue is likely beyond resolution. But that's another matter altogether.

You might ask how a guy gets to be nearly 48 years old before he figures out what's important to him. It's not that I haven't long understood childhood abuse is important to me. In other contexts, this problem has been a priority for me for most of my life. 

It's one thing to have a priority in one area of your life and another thing to see how it influences another. Like I said, I can be slow on the uptake, and my approach to writing is so focused on the moment that I don't often see the bigger picture until later.

Those general themes—loss, confronting mortality, etc.—are rarely clear to me when I'm drafting a story. I didn't know the theme of Lost Dog until the third draft, and I had to complete at least one draft of the other three books before I had a handle on what I was attempting. When I consider that, it makes sense that I needed a body of work under my belt before I could see what I'm up to in my writing.

Now that I know this, what next?

Well, if nothing else, I hope the realization helps make me a better writer. Will I continue to explore these themes? And in so doing, with I be more mindful of the approaches I use in the future? The quick answer to both those question is yes. I'm working on a young adult mystery which I think will take a look at the domestic abuse issue in a way which is new for me. That's pretty exciting. 

But the other thing I find I'm likely to do is consciously choose to tackle other issues in future projects. Not that I believe I've said all I have to say about domestic abuse, but I'm looking for opportunities to explore new issues. If there is a lesson is in this, it's simple enough: one way to avoid a rut is to see it before you get stuck. Rut or not, understanding of where I've been helps me better choose where to go next.

Bill Cameron is the author of dark, gritty mysteries featuring Skin Kadash: County LineDay OneChasing Smoke, and Lost Dog. Bill’s short stories have appeared in Spinetingler, as well as Portland NoirFirst Thrills, and the forthcoming West Coast Crime Wave and Deadly Treats anthologies. His work been nominated for multiple awards, including the Spotted Owl Award for Best Northwest Mystery, the Left Coast Crime Rocky Award, and the 2011 CWA Short Story Dagger Award. He lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is currently trying to decide what his next great issue will be. 


Rebecca Bradley said...

I'm just coming to the end of my first draft and have no idea if there is a theme in there or not. I imagine there is, but at this point I'm just hoping I'm going to be able to put everything into some semblance of order in the second draft!

Joyce said...

Hi, Bill! Welcome to the Stiffs.

I seem to have a thread of loss through all my manuscripts--even though my current one is lighter in tone than the others. It's not a conscious effort. It sneaks in there all by itself.

Bill Cameron said...

Thank you, Joyce. Getting my coffee now, getting my brain on.

Rebecca, I know exactly what you mean. And my advice is not to worry about it too much. It will probably come to you as you revise. Or perhaps a beta reader with note something which clarifies it for you. It's most useful as a kind of checksum: does X work in the context of the general theme Y?

Of course, you can have multiple themes, and even themes in conflict with each other. Stories don't live or die on theme. It's one layer of many, and arguably the one which may grow the most intuitively. As Joyce is seeing, it doesn't have to be a conscious choice.

Patty Blount said...

Hmm. Interesting. I have to let this marinate a bit. Having trouble finishing WIP. I suddenly don't like the story or the characters anymore and after reading this post, I think I know why.

At first draft, the theme seems to be "I would do anything for love." When I consciously think in those terms, suddenly what's wrong with the MS just leaps at me.


Bill Cameron said...

Hi, Patty. Glad to help! This is another arrow in our quiver. Something which can help when we need it.

Patg said...

Well, fellow rose-city person, welocme to the Stiffs.
Theme? Hmmm, now there's a thought I've never considered. I kind of all over the place with my stories, so I'm thinking I don't have one.

Jenna said...

Hiya, Bill! Thanks for visiting! Interesting stuff. Sounds like you're on your way to figuring out your brand...

Bill Cameron said...

Thanks, Pat and Jenna.

Jenna, you make an interesting connection. I agree I'm zeroing in on a possible brand. The distinction I see is that understanding theme is an aspect of the writing process, whereas identifying brand is a marketing tool. That's not to say the two aren't connected--they are. But I tend to focus on writing first, marketing second, on the theory my best writing is my best marketing.

Still, if you understand your own personal thematic drivers, you're well on your way to establishing your brand--and vice versa.

CJ Lyons said...

Hey Bill, great post!

For me, a story's theme and characters are what I start with, diving in without any knowledge of where the plot is headed (although sometimes taking a leap of faith like that ends up with me realizing the swimming pool I was diving into was empty....)

But having an overarching "life" theme for my writing has been invaluable--once I realized what it was. Like you said, it gave me a sense of clarity about what I write as well as who I write it for--which I think leads to increased resonance with readers.

Maybe that's what marketing is...or should be? Connecting with readers on a deeper emotional level.

Such fun ideas!!!

Bill Cameron said...

Hi, CJ. Ultimately, I agree. Marketing should be about making a connection. Too much marketing is focused on artifice, and I think we've become inured and cynical as to its effect. And why shouldn't we be? If you look at the loudest voices in book marketing, for example, the intent of marketing is to do whatever it takes to make the sale.

To me, good marketing means understanding your audience well enough to know when to say, "I don't think you will like this." Taking a book out of a potential reader's hands runs counter to all we're told about marketing, but in the long run, I think readers and writers alike are better served by the emotional connection you describe, CJ, rather than "Sell first, ask questions later."

Understanding our themes is a critical part of understanding what will work for potential readers.

Joyce said...

CJ, thanks for stopping by. I thought you might like this topic!

Bill Cameron said...

Joyce, thank you again for hosting me yesterday!

Joyce said...

Come back anytime, Bill!