Chip MacGregor

July 1, 2013

Refining Our Fiction



GUEST WRITER Tina Bustamante lives in Temuco, Chile with her husband and two children.  Her first novel, As Waters Gone By, releases in September with Leap Books.  You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or at where she writes about her life in South America.


By Tina Bustamante

 In thinking about the arduous task of refining our fiction, I see myself at my desk, staring at yet one more editorial letter from my editor asking me to think more about the theme of my novel.  When I see this picture in my mind’s eye, it is also accompanied with a clear and noteworthy desire to inflict painful harm on said editor, and write her a lovely letter in response, explaining that if she can’t figure out what the theme of my novel is, perhaps she ought to find a new job.  The problem is not me.  My book is fine.  I know exactly what I am trying to say.  Why doesn’t she?

 This has been the story with my editor for the last year.  I make changes, sharpen the prose, cut the darlings she thinks are superfluous, and re-send it, believing in the core of my being that I have sent her something good, maybe even amazing.  She writes me back, attaching some ridiculous advice about theme, about honing in on what it is I’m trying to say, and then asks me to do another short assignment on figuring out the theme.  Consequently, I would sit at my desk and rage, clenching my teeth in agonizing frustration.

For months, I chafed.  I wanted to throw her lovely editorial letters into a fishing boat motoring its way into the center of the Black Sea.  For a while, it was either forget her advice or forget the novel, because for the life of me I didn’t understand what she was talking about.  Until one beautiful sunny day, when the birds were out and chirping in perfect harmony.  The fog lifted … and I finally understood what my novel was about.  (I know.  I’m slow on the uptake.  Better late than never is all I have to say in my defense.)

I love fiction. It moves me in ways nothing else does, in the whole world. I read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and it took my breath away.  The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks stunned me to the core.  The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver brought me into a world that forced me to understand Missions from a different perspective, a sad one, that was far too recognizable to be comfortable.  The Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo, and The Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin went into my memory and awakened parts of me that were dormant, cold, tired and shook me, reminding me what it means to be alive.

We all have our favorite books, the ones that have shaped us, that form our thoughts, that move us to tears or command us to find our courage, or those books that have asked us to extend mercy, to love the weak and vulnerable, or the guilty in ways that make us squirm.  We remember them long after we’ve read the final page.  We remember the people, Gus McCrae and Captain Call, Inspector Lynley, Gabriel Allon, Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe, Olive Kitteridge, Meg and Calvin, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth Mae, Frodo and Gollum. We remember them because we know them, we know who they are, and in some tender, mysterious way, we understand their journey and feel we’ve been a part of it and love them for letting us into their lives.

As writers, we ache to hear that our books, our characters stayed with the reader.  We study the craft and recognize we are supposed to know much more about our character than the reader ever will.  We also believe that when we’ve done our job well, the reader will understand our characters in ways we don’t.

What my editor saw in my novel, that I wanted to scream at her for, was the simple truth that I didn’t understand the true point of my novel.  What was it that was coming out of me, demanding to be heard?  Why did I care for Eleanor Martinson so much that I was willing to spend five years refining her story?  What’s it all about, Sherlock?

I was sitting at my desk going over the maddening questions she kept sending me, opening and closing Safari in a meager attempt to escape the inevitable confession: The novel had five themes, not one. My editor wanted one – the primary theme, under which all the other themes would fall.  She wanted me to name it.  And I couldn’t… Until, I could.  In a flash.  I could breathe again.  I sent her those theme answers and told her in one word what the book was about.  Perhaps, she knew what she was doing, after all.

Every chapter, every scene must move your theme forward – underneath, covert, so no one notices.  Except they will notice, in a hidden, under the surface way.  Theme is not a message, it’s not a sermon.  It isn’t overt, it isn’t loud and clanging, it’s subtle and quiet, and makes its way into you like the ebb and flow of the tide, the way you learn the contours of your lover’s face, the way you recognize your own daughter’s particular whimper in the night.  Theme is revealed and played out in your novel slowly, deliberately, step by step, layer upon layer until bam.  It has permeated it’s way into the reader’s bones and they will never forget how they felt when they read your book.

Don’t believe theme is primarily revealed through dialogue.  That’s the poor man’s dinner.  Theme is revealed through setting, language, character, metaphor, the interweaving of people’s lives, through the core conflict, and in the resolution of that conflict, or the lack thereof.  This is not easy and if you think it is, you haven’t done your job.

Tell me how you discover the theme of your novels?  How you weave it in? I’d love to hear.

Contact Tina Bustamante at .

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  • AshleeW says:

    Tina, what a beautiful way to describe the almost indescribable meaning of “theme.” I have experienced what you have before, and the hours, and weeks and months of sitting, struggling, trying to find out the theme of a story whose theme I thought I knew already – and then the final breakthrough. I’ve learned over the years that, even when I start out with a clear theme, I have to keep reminding myself of it, with each page or chapter, or it tends to get lost along the way. I’ve also found that there is a strange comfort in the struggle of finding the theme, as if when it is hard-won, it suddenly means more to me, and shines that much brighter in my story. Thanks so much for your enlightening article, Tina!

  • Ron Estrada says:

    I choose my themes based on my experience first. In my current WIP, the theme is one of self-forgiveness. My protagonist discovers that many of those he trusted throughout his life–his partner (cops), his wife, etc.–had betrayed him. But he knows much of the betrayal was his own fault. Before he can begin anew, he has to forgive himself and accept the forgiveness of others. It’s something I can relate to, and I think most people can.

  • :Donna Marie says:

    Tina, I’d like to know if you’re a pantser more than a plotter. I tend to think pantsers are less aware of the central theme of a book, perhaps because for me it is the theme of my series that is pushing me to want to write them in the first place, and although I could write in “pantser” fashion, for theme’s sake, I’m more of a plotter.

    • Hi Donna Marie, You know that’s a great question. I’m right in the middle and every book is different. The last novel I wrote, An Ordinary Love, which is currently looking for a home, was different. I knew the theme almost immediately. When that happens I’m thankful. Hard core plotting is not my thing at all. I am a total creative thinker and love the creative process. But I usually have some idea where I’m going.

      I’m not sure pantsers don’t know where they’re going … I think it really depends on the wip. Some write to answer a question they have and so their story is themed from the very beginning. I think it just depends.

  • Clint Hall says:

    As a new author, I love blogs like this one. It’s tempting (and dangerous) to believe that the best novelists are so clever and brilliant that they get everything perfect the first time – every word, every idea, every decision.

    Blogs like this remind me that the best novelists are brilliant enough to understand you don’t get it right the first time; you get it right the seventy-fifth time. It’s a fight, a slog, a battle. The struggle makes it special when you finally achieve a breakthrough like understanding your true theme.

    • So true! I feel like this is exactly what I’m having to learn too. And I’m not yet sure how I feel about it. I wish it were easier. I really do.

    • Debra Marvin says:

      You’ve saved yourself some grief by learning this early!

      Great article Tina. I’m a plotter and yet I don’t really plot theme. It usually grows out of the directions the characters take the story I’ve given them, and I like it that way.

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