About a year ago I flew to New York City to wow somebody in the publishing industry with a murder mystery novel I created. While most agents are women — which, by the way, is a good thing since women tend to make up most of the people I see in a Barnes & Noble — I happened upon a male rep in the restroom of the Midtown Hyatt in Manhattan.
“Thing I hate the most is authors who can’t stop talking about the theme of their books,” he muttered to the wall paneling just above the urinal. Then he looked over at me and added, “Pitching to me in here taking a piss I hate even more.”
Like most everything I’ve learned in the publishing industry, that simultaneously made sense and made me wince. Oh, it’s not the only thing that came across as useful and insipid. I had an agent tell me my book would stand a better chance of getting published if I could squeeze “girl” in the title. Girls on trains and with dragon tattoos kicking over hornet nests and falling into spider webs. That sort of thing.
But I digress.
My point is beyond mentioning there will always be a disconnect between authors and agents. That’s apparent. It’s also obvious to mention that agents are the first bona fide readers of a writer’s golden prose. Your friends and family may think it’s brilliant, but nobody else is going to know if it doesn’t land on a bookshelf. That’s an agent’s job. If the agent doesn’t care about theme, chances are most readers don’t either.
But I must suggest that agents let their crabby little wordsmiths prattle for 45 seconds about the brilliance of the theme.
Themes — as hoity-toity as they come across — are what push a writer across the finish line. No matter how strong that first inspiration permeates a writer’s alleged soul, in my opinion there is no such thing as a muse for a novel. I have to have a compelling reason for why I’m writing in order to finish. My current novel, “Assumption Day,” checks in at about 300 pages. It’s not exactly as long-winded as “War and Peace,” but compare that to the average article in USA Today, and that’s a hefty amount of quality time at the laptop.
Most writers that I know don’t like to wing it. (As an aside, that’s called “pantsing” in publishing, another phrase that simultaneously makes sense and creeps me the hell out.) The writers I hang with, read, etc., they want to have a reason for slogging through the process.
Theme is that reason. They want to make a point. The story, the character, or just one particular scene, can make that point.
I write murder mysteries. The point is not to say “killin’ is bad.” If the Ten Commandments didn’t convince you of that, neither would Agatha Christie.
In the case of “Assumption Day,” I studied the lengthy and turbulent history of Northern Ireland. I appreciated its music. I shook my head at its petty divisions. I learned bombmaking, not hands-on, of course. I went through the research and filled notebook with ideas came because of one salient point that has more to do with the United States than it does about the Emerald Isle.
That there’s only one Martin Luther King, Jr.
In my mind, I wanted to use Ireland to illustrate the point.
Many have tried to stake a claim to King’s mantle, and yet nobody else has even come close in Western civilization. Not in America. Not in Europe, either. Definitely nobody among the legions of social justice warriors online. Perhaps that’s why things continue to be divisive among us.
If you enjoy “Assumption Day,” maybe you will pick up on that. Maybe not. I hope not to make things that obvious.
But “Assumption Day” wouldn’t be possible without that little point I wanted to make.
Having said that, I wouldn’t want to disrupt your time in the bathroom to tell you that.