At its most conceptual

…what is your novel about? Can you sum it up in a one- or two-word phrase?

I have seen this exercise written up before, but this weekend my brain of its own accord (not because I saw a recent article about this) just sort of started filing some of my stories into categories of character/scenario dynamics. For romance I found I wanted two concepts: one for the external reason the characters were pushed together/held apart and one that best described what their relationship was about.

For example, for A Christmastide Courtship I came up with duty and acceptance. Duty is what draws Piers to court Catherine, but what they are each looking for – and find with one another – is acceptance.

The old/new/whatever it is WIP (maybe I should just say “the WIP du jour”….sigh…) has themes of familial coercion and trust. The characters are pushed together by family, and the main conflict of the book is that they do not trust one another when they marry and struggle to build it afterward. I might parse the two as “resentment and trust” since the coercion they both submit to in marrying causes resentment, and neither has anyone else to take it out on.

I like the clarity that being able to state a theme in one word offers me as the writer. Being able to do so tells me I have a solid grasp of the work as a whole.

Alas, I don’t, by this rubric, have all my works in progress firmly in hand – far from it.

For the long novel I am revising, I do not know how to distill either side of the story. I am not sure I can even clumsily lay hold of the themes. Maybe it’s because the hero and heroine have opposite themes: living for oneself and not society vs suppression of self for society. The story is in a way about loyalty to family conflicting with loyalty to self. It’s also about the hierarchy of needs, and which loyalties take precedence and whether that can change. The lovers spend most of the book with ambivalent feelings about their growing attraction and where they both fit in each other’s hierarchy of obligations. Their feelings grow into love almost despite themselves. “Split loyalties” might describe the external issues, but I am not sure how to phrase what is happening between them. It’s not the kind of breathless fated love words like “inevitable” or “inexorable” evoke, even though it is the sort of love that can’t be stopped once started, because they are right for each other…it’s more that they find in each other someone to lean on, someone who has their back, but in that specific way such that “trust” or “loyalty” doesn’t really convey the relationship. Fealty, except with sex.

I don’t know. Reading that paragraph back makes me think “split loyalties” covers both dynamics pretty well.

The Christmastide companion piece I would – ahem, Muse, looking at you here – like to finish and get up this fall so as to actually do seasonal marketing for the duology is another I have no effing clue how to distill. Perhaps that is why the muse went for the one story I know well enough to summarize without much thought at all.

…if I can tease out the novellette’s themes, will I find myself suddenly able to write it? I wonder….

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “At its most conceptual

  1. I spend a fair amount of time asking myself several questions as I prepare to write/rewrite a scene: What’s the purpose of this scene in the whole novel? What is the heart of this scene, the thing that matters? Where are the emotional turning point for the pov character and what are they? Am I missing a chance for more emotional depth?

    I haven’t tried summarizing into a short phrase, except for the placeholder chapter titles, but those just summarize what happens.

    The problem is, if I give myself too few words, emotionally complex plots either seem silly, trite, or obvious. There’s a lot of stuff in there – who’s to say which is the most important?

    Still a useful exercise, but the correct answer may take a while.

    • I have never been inspired to try this after reading about it, for those reasons. It’s a blunt tool, removing any trace of nuance and subtlety. I think I also thought “i write romance…of course ‘love’ will always be the answer!”

      this was just something my brain wanted to do. When it’s an organic thought process it’s sort of useful. Who knew? 😉

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