HOW TO WRITE THE BREAKOUT NOVEL: Part 4 – A Deeply Felt Theme

June 4, 2010

Another very hectic week, and I’m writing this semi-packed for a late-afternoon flight to London. Yes, I really am leaving in just over three hours . . .
Our great news of the week, which you may already have spotted, was the fabulous deal for Megan Miranda’s debut YA novel FRACTURE, which sold during BEA in a joint transatlantic 2-book preempt to Emily Easton at Walker USA and Sarah Odedina at Bloomsbury UK (Walker US is owned by Bloomsbury, so this was a real corporate offer). All very exciting because these kinds of deals – for both sides of the Pond simultaneously – don’t happen too often. Plus a lot of toing and froing was going on by Blackberry while I was in New York for the Expo. And it was all sealed with a big hug between Emily and I in her office in Macmillan’s Flatiron Building at Broadway/23rd Street. (In case you’re wondering, Macmillan distribute for Bloomsbury, thus the location.)

FRACTURE is about Delaney Maxwell, who falls through the ice into a Maine lake. Death should happen almost instantly in this kind of cold, but when Delaney is pulled out by her friend Decker – after eleven seconds – she is somehow still living. And when she surfaces from her coma, she is well enough to look at the scans of her own traumatic brain injury. Something very strange is going on – just how did Delaney cheat death? And why does she feel a physical connection to the dying?

It’s a brilliant and chilling story – intelligent and crafted, supernatural yet very original, and we welcome Megan to the growing Greenhouse ranks of debut writers who are setting out on a whole new adventure. Sadly, you’ll have to wait till Winter 2012 for FRACTURE to publish, but no doubt we’ll have an ARC or two to give away much nearer the time.

So, continuing our series on the Breakout Novel. Sadly, a slighter shorter post this time (due to the whole imminent-and-not-ready flight thing), but nonetheless a very important topic for any new writer who wants to make their debut stand out.

A DEEPLY FELT THEME.

As someone once said (no idea whom – if you happen to know, please tell me!), ‘The best books teach us more about ourselves than about the characters.’

THE BEST BOOKS TEACH US MORE ABOUT OURSELVES THAN ABOUT THE CHARACTERS.

This one is worth capitalizing because it’s a wonderful line, and oh so true. Just think of all the books you love most. Which ones stay in your head and won’t let you go? I’m betting it’s the ones that moved you, spoke to you – and made you understand something new about yourself or your world as you read.

Please note that I do not mean you should PREACH or MORALIZE or ‘TEACH LIFE LESSONS’ in your novel. This is fiction, not an outworking of your secret agenda to do good to children the world over. And I must confess to a strong aversion to moralizing by stealth.

I am also not suggesting that you over-write, piling up adjectives, adverbs and metaphors in an effort to create an overlay of emotion. (I see a lot of this in my submissions inbox among new writers who are understandably trying so very hard to be ‘powerful’.)
Rather, I’m saying that there needs to be something DEEPLY FELT in your story that will stay with your reader after the last page is turned. Something that gives us a newly perceived truth about what it means to be human.

A NEWLY PERCEIVED TRUTH ABOUT WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN.

Wow.

Great, intelligent fiction, rooted in big ideas and strong themes, will also leave the reader with something to take away from the story that is implicit in its ideas and characters. And as always, I believe this is true in both ‘commercial’ and ‘literary’ work though in different ways and to different degrees perhaps.

This deeply felt theme needs to be built i to the story at planning stage at its deepest level and it should be something integral to your concept. What is YOUR theme and how will you get it across?

In FRACTURE, Delaney realizes that yes, life IS good and that it is love that overcomes fear and death.

In 13 REASONS WHY, Clay knows at the end that we all affect each other in ways we can’t always predict – and that ultimately there was nothing he could have done to stop Hannah taking her own life.

In PRINCESS FOR HIRE, Desi discovers the importance of speaking the truth – of being true to oneself.

In DEVIL’S KISS, Billi knows she must sacrifice her innermost wishes and desires for the good of the many and a destiny from which she cannot turn away.

In THE OTHER SIDE OF BLUE, Cyan knows that there is hope – fragile but beautiful.

That’s a tiny snapshot of very different books – have a think about YOUR favourite works and see if you can sense that ‘deeply felt theme’ which illuminates the ending.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Find the heart. Be beautiful. Be unique. Linger with us.

I know you can do it.

Cheers from flying-away Sarah. Back in the hotseat on the 16th.

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