Friday, April 22, 2011

What's your theme?

I know, I know, themes apply to books not people. But I think we all have certain situations we gravitate to as writers - and readers - again and again. Actually conventional writing advice suggests we should embrace our themes, that one way to build a readership is to revisit the same types of plots/archetypes so that your readers know what to expect and then seek you out. Sometimes we don’t try to do that; it just happens. Either way, thinking about the kinds of stories you find yourself drawn to is interesting on both sides of the writer/reader table.

For me, I write a lot of stories about people who aren’t who other people think they are. The window dressing changes but the core of the book is about that dichotomy. Sometimes it’s obvious - in the erotic contemporary novella I just finished, the hero is a PI working undercover as a pretty inept stripper to try to get evidence on the heroine being a madam. The heroine isn’t a madam, obviously, and she’s not even the woman the hero’s looking for. But through a mixup with a sex cocktail, she believes her “wanton” behavior isn’t her fault. She’s wrong. In this case, she’s not even who she thinks she is. Those echoes show up all over my work, since way back before I ever started paying attention to them.

Some might question why I find that particular topic so engaging. I think it’s because I don’t think we ever truly know anyone, and I also don’t think we ever completely know ourselves. Our experiences and our values and the people we love all influence and shape us, but they don’t define us. All it takes is one event to elicit a new reaction and send us down an entirely new path. That trigger, so to speak, that sparks hidden parts of ourselves we weren’t aware of, or didn’t want to be. I think that partly explains why so many serial killers are described by their neighbor as “that nice, quiet man.” We never truly know what’s going on in each other’s heads or brewing in each other’s psyches...and that’s the stuff of GREAT fiction.

Not all of my books deal with this theme, but most of them do. I suspect most of them going forward will as well. The depths of possibilities are just too rich. But to show you how unconscious this theme business is, I’m not a plotter. Ask Taryn Elliott, my beloved CP, how much I plot. But yet time and time again I return to the same intrinsic storyline, told in many different ways. And I never consciously decide to do this ahead of time.

Don’t believe me? Below is a list of my published/soon to be published books to date and what they're about.

Full Disclosure - a man who has a secret sideline business falls for a woman in his law firm who’s keeping secrets herself about her personal life.

Ex Appeal - a couple who has broken up learn new things about each other when the heroine has a makeover and the hero decides to adopt a persona on an online dating site, something he never would have done in the past.

Personal Research - an erotic romance writer who channels her sexual side into hot fiction has a secret affair with the office computer guy, who turns out to be her boss’s nephew.

Reveal Me - a reporter looking to write an edgy story goes to a voyeurism club to try to observe how it really works, and runs into the girl he’d loved in high school, who never dropped her mask of being just a wild partygirl.

Insatiable - a man struggles to get his lifelong best friend to see him as more than buddy material and sets out to prove there’s a lot more to him than she knows.

Provoke Me - an assistant bookstore manager falls for her seemingly straightlaced boss. She then runs into him at a sex club and discovers he enjoys voyeurism--both watching and being part of the action. She also quickly learns she enjoys it as well.

See what I mean? Kinda weird isn’t it? Also shows how many ways there are to skin a cat (ugh, hate that phrase!)

Now it’s your turn. What’s YOUR preferred theme, either to read or write about? Do you have one or just go for whatever strikes your fancy? (I do that too, but it's amazing how often my "fancy" goes in certain directions.) I can’t wait to hear everyone’s responses.


Marie Rose Dufour said...

I have always gone gaga for paranormal and alien alpha males. My first ms was about a race of alpha aliens coming back to earth to reconnect with their ancestors. I will basically read anything paranormal or sci-fi but contemporary really has to strike a cord with me for me to buy it. But it always has to have an alpha male in it. They just make me weak!

Regina Carlysle said...

I see what you mean about themes and I guess I have a familiar thread in my stories too. Seems my hero or heroine (often both are searching for HOME, Love, and acceptance). My stories tend to be about small town life (almost always Texas) and quirky characters. Though I also write a lot of paranormals, my shifters long for home, family, and a soul mate and they also tend to live in small towns.

Taryn Elliott said...

LOL Yes, I can attest to the fact that she's a pantster to her very core.

I love this topic, because I tend to do the same thing---unconsciously as well.

I don't have as many stories under my belt as my dear CP, but I do find myself gravitating to snarky girls no matter how I try to steer the story, that voice comes out.

And I think it's just part of my 'voice' period.

GREAT Post, darlin'!

Harlie Williams said...

Since I've read all of your books except the last one, I guess I'm partial to yours. Love your books and themes.

To be honest though, I read a story for the characters. I guess I'm boring because I don't look for a specific theme in a book.

Harlie Williams said...

Now, I do follow most genres but I'm not fond of sci-fi or fantasy.

Cari Quinn said...

Hi everyone! Happy holiday weekend, or just weekend...whichever applies. :)

I love alpha males, particularly in paranormal series too, Marie. Bones from the Night Huntress series...YUM.

Regina, I love stories set in small towns. There's such a security about sticking close to your roots and yet still daring to reach for more when that special person(s) comes into your life.

Taryn, yeah, it's one of those things you do but don't always realize till after the fact. And it's not true for every story either, but ends up being a recurring factor. Your snarky girls are always fun!

You're not boring at all, Marika...if the reader doesn't care about the characters, the theme or what it's about doesn't matter. And thank you SO much for reading all my books! :)

Eileen said...

I tend to read most genres and go back and forth from historical romances to contemporary romances but tend to look for heroines as the major character to the story. What I love the most are series with a group of people in the community and you learn about some of them throughout a series. All time favorite our my western stories.

She said...

I read almost everything (if you don't believe me, check out my GoodReads or Shelfari pages.) I agree with you that no one really knows us, not even ourselves. I read a book this week by Norwegian author Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses, and his protagonist says something to the effect that people think they know you by talking with you and asking questions. He says they know facts but not your thoughts or feelings so they don't really know you. Playwrite David Hare also did a play called The Blue Room with 10 vignettes where one character from the previous story was in the next story but the role they played differed between each scene. The one I remember best is the politican. With his wife and on the campaign trail he is pro-family, straight, upright, pillar of the community but when his wife goes home and a prostitute comes to his room he is sexual, drunk, animalistic. After seeing that play I realized how often we wear masks and change out personalities depending on what we are doing or who we are with. We present ourselves one way at work, a different way with our family, another way with friends, different way with church friends, someone else with strangers. So we don't know ourselves any better than those who know facts about us.

Mia Watts said...

Excellent post. I have often noticed that my work goes through themes that I'm struggling with, too.

Janice Seagraves said...

I keep trying out different genres. Most feature nature, since I'm a nature buff. Most of my stories tend to be about losing something and then finding something better.