Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Themes Schmemes

So you know how you spent four or more years in college learning about what books mean and how to analyze novels for hidden meaning, and where you learned that the best books are the ones with subtext upon which you can write a twenty page paper on the use of metaphor as an elucidation of the philosophical constructs of the protagonist's society?

Yeah. Forget all that.

I get quite a few query letters that sound like this (btw this is made up, I will never make fun of your query letter in this space, agent's honor):

"My novel explores themes of love and themes of passion. The protagonist fights against the evils inherent in our society and must come to terms with his inner sense of frustration and futility. But ultimately the novel is about how we as human beings must develop a sense of self and prevail in the face of society's obstacles."

No offense to myself for writing that, but that does not exactly make me want to read more of my own writing.

It's really the oldest writing advice in the book: Show don't tell. College teaches you to tell. It teaches you to look for subtext and it conditions you think you should pack your novel full of references and themes so future scholars will have a job. And then people write their query like it's a term paper.

I'm not (praise Tyra) planning on writing a twenty page paper on your novel, so don't tell me what your novel is about. Tell me what happens. And hopefully you've written a novel in which things actually do happen. Because I like novels where things happen. Happening is good.


Laurel Amberdine said...

Oh, indeed, I'd never mention theme in a query. Sounds so dull!

Do you think it's useful for a novel to have a theme, or is that a YMMV thing?

green ray said...

Nathan, if material is requested, is it OK to BRIEFLY mention the themes in the cover letter? (I mean, really briefly!) Thanks.

Nathan Bransford said...

laurel and green ray-

It's definitely fine for novels to have themes, this just applies to the query letter. However I think for the most part (of course there are exceptions) you should stick to telling what happens and make the theme clear through your short narrative of the events. Hope that makes sense.

green ray said...

Makes sense, Nathan. (Boy, are you fast!) I meant mentioning some stuff in the cover letter (with requested material only)that I feel is important - not the previously written query letter.

Nathan Bransford said...

green ray-

Whatever you think is best. Honestly though I only use cover letters to refresh my memory on which manuscript I'm holding in my hands, so don't sweat it too much either way.

Christopher M. Park said...

Definitely good advice. My earliest draft of a query letter was a lot like what you described. It wasn't until I started reading about the art and craft of query letter writing (online) that I started to realize that this wasn't a good idea. I guess that a lot of us aspiring really think of agents and editors as being these deadly serious academics that would have been dowdy college professors if things had gone a bit differently (ha). Obviously, closer interaction with agents and editors on the Internet shows this isn't true, but I wouldn't be surprised if this sort of belief is why you get so many queries like that. The best thing about agent and editor blogs is that they dispell so many of those myths and misunderstandings.


Len said...

Wow. It's a good thing I never finished college!

Liz said...

Arghhhhh, twenty page literary analysis papers. You actually get queries that read like those beasts? I'd have to be on an IV drip of good chocolate to survive a day of reading such letters. Kudos to you for surviving thus far.

I've always wondered about the whole symbolism/theme construct in literary fiction. I'll never forget reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" for the first time and having the teacher spend the entire class discussing the symbolism of the chocolate milk scene.

Always wondered if Harper Lee knew what torture that scene inflicted on poor high school students.

Don't even get me started on what he did to Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers!

Roxan said...

I know my query letter could use some fine tuning. I will resist the urge I had while originally writing it and not stomp around like a two years old in a tantrum.
I find your advice on query writing reasonable and better thought out than most. Telling me that I have to do it results in my acting like a spoiled child. Telling me how to do it, is so much better for me and my children don't think I've gone insane.

Dan Leo said...

My oldest friend has a great phrase: "School's out."

sex scenes at starbucks said...

The thing about themes is that they're best discovered and they're personal. I rarely write with themes in mind, but I do love when someone tells me, "Wow, I love how the terrorism in that town really spoke to the war in Iraq. It was such a statement about the struggle of the people."

Or "When he discovers his purpose, it's like you were trying to say God has a purpose for all of us, and sometimes the path to it is through Hell."

(Actual quotes as I best recall them.)

I just smile and nod and let them think that's what I meant all along. Truly, I couldn't come up with that stuff if I tried, but themes emerge whether we want them to or not. The less said of them, the better.

Gerri said...

Yuck. It's just fine to put those themes in there, but to tell the reader about it? That's THEIR job, to find them, if they so desire.

I always write with theme in mind. Theme gives me a way to keep things coherent throughout. But, y'know, why spoil scholars' fun? Let them hunt it out.

Jennifer McK said...

One of the things that drive me crazy about the college courses I've taken is that I can't just READ. Once I was conditioned to look for "themes" I had a difficult time just reading for pleasure. In my head, I was composing a 20 page paper on the religious themes that were hidden in the author's sex scene. *rolls eyes*
I don't write in "themes". Perhaps if I did, the characters wouldn't feel the need to natter in my head all day and tell me what they want me to write.
*looks over her shoulder for men in little white coats.

Anonymous said...

The theme of my book is, "How many people can my main character kill before my agent starts to think I'm a psychopath?" The other underlying theme is, "Would you get your butt kicked if you said the stuff your MC gets away with?"

A Paperback Writer said...

Ah, geez. And I was gonna query you about my dissertation on Scottish poetry.......

Bernita said...

Academia corrupts.

Bryan D. Catherman said...

Hey, at least you're not getting the five paragraph essay. It seems that most English or Writing 101 courses start with the five P format. Then 102 moves into a new form, as do the subsequent courses, but for whatever reason, people get hung up on that five P format.

Intro with hook and all three points
Point 1
Point 2
Point 3
Conclusion, where the three points are restated in another way.


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