Tuesday, 23 November 2010

What is the theme of your novel? Miriam Halahmy

I have just finished reading 'Boys Don't Cry' by Malorie Blackman and as I read through the book I automatically decided on Malorie's main theme - Taking Responsibility for your Actions. Why did I do this?
Because in the summer of 2009 I did an Arvon course with Malorie Blackman and Melvyn Burgess. One of the most significant statements Malorie made - for me anyway - was to make sure you are clear about the themes of your novels. This will help both to focus your writing and tighten the  focused pitch to agents/editors/ other gatekeepers once your opus magnus is ready to fly.

I hadn't really thought about my novels in terms of central themes before and so I spent some time that week thinking about the three novels in my Hayling Cycle and crystallising the themes. It was a very worthwhile experience. I had always known these themes but they had remained in the background, not clearly articulated. I had come up with clear and crisp one-line pitches for each book but these were not the same as themes. Once I had decided on the themes I then put them at the top of each synopsis or outline for the third as yet unwritten novel.
It was just in time really  because the Summer of 2009 was when all the editors suddenly sat up and decided they loved the first novel, HIDDEN, that my agent had been submitting. The year before it was all rejection including two on a single Friday afternoon - that made for a great weekend as you can imagine!
Here are the themes to each of my three novels in the cycle, followed by a bit of plot summary to show the role of the theme in the book. My publishers are Meadowside Books.

HIDDEN, March 2011
The theme of this novel is the courage to stand up for what you believe in, against the crowd.
The main character, Alix, sticks up for Samir, the foreign boy in her class, who is the victim of racist bullying.
Her courage is tested when they find an illegal immigrant washed up on a beach and Samir pleads with her to help hide him, to save him from being deported.

ILLEGAL, February 2012
The themes of this novel are identity and independence. Lindy is looking after Cousin Colin's cannabis farm which is fine. But then he forces her into pushing cocaine which terrifies her. She doesn't want to end up in prison like her brothers. 'I'm better than my family,' Lindy tells herself and the only way she can prove it is to free herself from Colin's clutches and find her own salvation.

STUFFED, September 2012The theme of this novel is loyalty : loyalty tested and loyalty reaffirmed. . As this is work in progress, I'll leave it at that.

When I was called in by editors and then as we went forward with Meadowside who ultimately became my wonderful publishers, having clear themes in my head which I could trot out and illustrate with bits from the books, clarified the whole cycle and certainly helped towards the offer of a three book contract.
It has also given me a much firmer base to build on when talking about my books.

My Hayling Cycle is not based on a theme, it is based on a landscape and a group of young people. This is intentional; I wanted each book to be stand alone, with specific links. However, clarifying my themes strengthened my concept of writing a cycle as opposed to a trilogy or a series.
And if my publishers want to continue with the cycle there are plenty more themes to build plots around that I can explore.

What are the themes of your novels?

www. miriamhalahmy.blogspot.com


Unknown said...

Good post. Having theme is a selling point. I think it is important to have a theme in mind when writing.

Savita Kalhan said...

I think it's great that the cycle is working for you, Miriam, and hopefully will continue to four, five, six books... (I am eagerly awaiting the publication of HIDDEN!)
My published novel, The Long Weekend, has a couple of strong themes; my unpublished ones do too, and all the novels are stand alone with no link between them. Although, the cycle idea is very enticing...
I tend not to think of the theme when I'm about to start writing a book, sorry Malorie. The story and characters arrive first and all else follows if I'm lucky!

Miriam Halahmy said...

I would have agreed with you Savita before the Arvon week but it certainly helped me and I think that's how I would go forward now. Thanks for your comment too Elaine.

Penny Dolan said...

I tend to feel that as you write, you gradually uncover your major themes - not sure (for me) it works the other way around.

But theme thinking is a very useful tool for analysing a m/s once it's well underway or at the end of a draft.

Liked you explanation of themes, Miriam, and envious of you being on that course.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Yes it was a good one Penny and good thoughts about theme thinking.

Stroppy Author said...

I agree with Penny - themes emerge as you write. My current themes are 'is revenge really what you want?' and 'adversity is good for you - eventually'. Though actually, the first applies to both books!

Sounds like a good course Miriam.