Everybody has different ways of writing. Sometimes I’m a bit jealous of the way other people can write. It often looks so much better then my way. One example of this relates to ‘Theme’. You know, ‘Theme’ – the higher purpose of your story, the basic tenet which drives the whole thing… you know ‘Theme’.
No, me either.
I sometimes envy writers who start out with their theme. “I know, today I shall write about ‘Man’s Inhumanity to His Fellow Man’, that’ll be good for a few smiles.”
It must be great to be able to do that, just grab a Theme and off you bloody-well go.
It’s not me, I’m afraid. It’s never a Theme that starts me off on anything. It’s more likely to be a phrase or a tune or a two-line dialogue between two unformed characters. Some scrap will start me on a writing road and I will follow it along as best I can.
But, chances are, I will never find my theme. Not until I go hunting for it. And I have learned never to do that until I am really close to the end.
You’ve got to play to your strengths when you write. If I was forced to sit on a chair and not write anything until I had my Theme all sorted-out, I would never get anything done. I’d sit there and look at the wall and eventually I would give up and decide I would never be a writer and go and cut the grass instead. But I want to be a writer so I don’t do that.
Here’s what I do.
I do everything but Theme. I do story and character and pacing and dialogue and editing and spell-checking and rewriting and… everything really. I do everything.
And then, when everything else is done, I go Theme Hunting.
It sounds silly, I know. It sounds wrong. But it works for me.
When it’s all done, all written – whatever it is – I sit and look at it and I say, “Now, what is this fecker actually about?” After a little looking at it, I start to see, very clearly, what it is actually about and then I have it, I have my Theme.
You must be disgusted with me. “How can you do this? This is not writing. How can you possibly write anything of value if you don’t know what you are really writing about?”
Fair points, all.
The thing is, I do know what I am writing about, I am just not aware of it. An element of writing is sub-conscious. If I’ve thought up something I want/need to write then there is a reason I’ve arrived at that thing, there is some good reason why I want it written. That, for me, is a given. But if I mooch around trying to figure out what that reason is, then I may never get the writing done at all. So, instead, I get the writing done and I wait for that sub-conscious driving force to turn up. And, generally, when most of the writing is done, when all the clues to the Theme are assembled on the page, then it will reveal itself as if by magic.
“But,” you cry, “it’s too late then. You’ve written an entire ‘Thing’ without any knowledge of the Theme. How can it possible by any good?”
And here’s the thing. The most important thing. It isn’t any good.
That’s why we rewrite.
Think of me writing a story as putting a wheel on a car. I tighten all the nuts to hold the wheel on. I tighten the ‘Story’ nut, the ‘Character’ nut, the ‘Pacing’ nut – I tighten them all. But there’s one nut I leave loose, mostly because I don’t know where it is. When I find it, that elusive ‘Theme’ nut, I tighten it and tighten it and then I’m done… right?
Because this late tightening of the Theme Nut has only gone and made all the other nuts loose again.
Yes indeed. When I finally find my Theme, as I invariably do, that Theme colours and changes and tightens everything I had written before I found it. Everything gets twisted to synch with my new-found Theme.
And, for me, this is the very best piece of the writing process. It’s a wondrous polish where all the work I have done gets tuned to subtly compliment the theme. You might not ever notice it, as a reader, listener or viewer but the product - the writing - becomes vastly more coherent and convincing as a result of this work. At least I think it does.
So don’t hate me too much, if you’re one of those blessed people who start out with their Theme. I may envy you a bit but I’ve found my own way to work around it.
It might not be great but it’s better than staring at the wall.