Making a story thematically rich
With my writing, sometimes the theme's there at the start, sometimes it actually reveals itself during the process - either's fine. I think if you're writing something that means something to you, there will always be important themes that come out, whether they're driving the narrative or not.
I do think story comes first, must do. Especially if you want readers to to take something from your writing, you need to give them a reason to read it. Hook them in, engage them first - if the theme's woven successfully into the narrative, let the reader find it. I do agree, though, fiction is often a far more useful tool to tackle these themes than non-fiction. We're a species of storytellers, it's how we communicate (for better or worse).
A great unpack of the core themes in your book, thank you Simon! In my YA fiction, I take a common mental health issue (not disorder) and show how healing happens, wrapped up in a romance. Importantly, as you say, I focus on letting the story lead because then there’s room for the narrative to weave its magic and for the reader to bring their perspective. That’s a great combo!
So interesting about how parenting led you to explore a text with no adults. Writing fiction is such a great place to explore these inner conflicts and philosophical questions!
Psst, in the novel, Frodo is 50 when he sets out on his quest - the same age as Bilbo when he took An Unexpected Journey. I think Tolkien did this as a mirroring element, but, beyond being a pedantic asshole, a point relevant to this discussion is "Fellowship" also establishes Hobbits do not "come of age" until 33... Perhaps Tolkien was advocating for a sense of extended childhood and innocence?
(Either way, for the film I believe it's stronger for Frodo to be the same age as Merry and Pippen (which also applies to Sam, who is also older in the books), giving them better reason to be close mates (rather than creepy 50 year old Frodo hanging out with 20-year-olds). But, by making all the (movie) Hobbits about 21, and incorporating the "of age at 33" from the book we have Frodo and company as - quite literally - a bunch of kids.
As the Lord of the Rings is has a theme of the rise of Humanity - a younger race compared to the OLD races of Elves, Dwarfs, Orcs, Goblins, Ents, etc, and highlighted by Elrond's speeches of the time of the Elves (who have become static and unchanging) is at an end and they should return to the Western Lands, where the Valinor - literal "Angels" - live, making Valinor a literal Heaven on Earth.
So, yeah, LotR has a lot of "adults screwed up the world, give it to the young" subtext.
Me and themes in my writing.
Yup, young Mike had a lot of cool plots, concepts and characters. Not a lot of themes. I did quite well at parody, but parody is taking the piss out of something else and, unless completely anarchic, comes with the theme built in... Because you're poking at it.
Most of my more recent writing was my oft mentioned RPG narratives. Funny thing about TTRPGs is they tend to be plot/event driven. Not thematic. Sure, in the last few years there's been some backlash, particularly about tropes in "World's Most Famous TTRPG," centered around "Evil" races and "racial limitations," (which, even in the 80's I found stupid and limiting), but that's not bringing thematic play, that's making a public outcry about elements which I, and other gamers I knew, changed on our own back in the day. (Seriously, if your group doesn't like element "X" in your game of choice, house rule around it, and get on with your fun!)
So my narratives do, of course, have the laundry list of events. Every die roll and card flip came out... Yet the pattern (and most were told in the form of letters or reports) became as follows:
*Recap: Where are we, what's the mission, who is in the session, and if player "A" misses this week while player "B" missed last week but I'd here today, justify the movement of the characters.
*Shit Happens: The mechanical events of play. Where possible, add in some...
*Character Crap: Did a player crack a good line? Work it in. Yet, I tried to expand on the characters and work in more depth. Finally, and the end of each narrative we had...
*Thematic Musings: For awhile this had little to do with the Campaign, but HERE is where writin' Mike realized it had to be more than battles and looting. Themes were created and discussed.
I can only assume the target audience of three (and the others who read them in the party) appreciated things, because the narrative impacted the Campaign. Player portrayals of their characters changed to match how they'd been redeveloped and expanded in the narratives (It was months later I found out Laura had intended one of her characters to be a secret female, but enjoyed Moridin as a giant (and later as one who found peace by adopting the codes of conduct and mannerisms of a culture alien to his own) so much she moved that secret to another character - although as I re-plot these things as a novel Moridin will return to being a female in disguise. And I know who discovers the secret... But Leon won't tell.) Background and "historical" events I added for interest became part of the Campaign. Most importantly, the others embraced the underlying themes, and the later stages of this Campaign became something truly epic.
Interestingly, many of these themes were actually along philosophies with which I DISagree, which also became an interesting challenge.
Simon, years ago I sent you "Book 7" (about 40 pages) of the Campaign. Right when things were at their prime. The King had died, the Kingdom was in turmoil, and the party had to deal with going from trusted agents of the fallen regime to criminals, villified by those who had created the crisis. Don't think you ever read it (I certainly don't remember you making comments), which isn't a guilt trip, or anything, but, yeah, Book Seven did have some really strong character work and really solid thematic structure. Even if poor, misguided Bailey was trying to perpetuate a flawed, fallen system and turn back the clock. His heart was in the right place and he felt the system was better than it was. Then again, if the system had been run by more men like Bailey, it would have been less flawed.
Anyway, yeah theme important.
Good stuff, Simon. But what can you say about the decision to firstly serialize NAA and then publish it independently on Amazon- would this in any way make it less likely for potential future publication by large publishers or solicitation by literary agents, should you choose to go that route?
I ask because the trends may have changed in recent years, but I rememebr that in the past they would balk at such prospects, because easily-extractable digital files (let alone sent-mail versions) might be seen as limiting the saleability of any given book. But I have heard it argued both ways, so I'd be curious your opinion. I've held out on serializing my own novella as I hope to publish it the old fashioned way and don't want to do something that might reduce the chances of that happening. Keep up the good work mate!
Plot is over rated - the absolute basics if you like.
As a pantser, I don’t think nearly that deeply about my books in advance. I know what story I want to write (a girl getting chased by a vampire serial killer whom she must stop to, you know, not die). What evolves from there is entirely organic. I accidentally wrote a rape revenge story that plays with the very complicated emotions that can arise from seeing bad things happen to bad people and the lack of empathy that can result. Not schadenfreude, because my character isn’t experiencing joy. Just ambivalence and her focus on stopping the killer(s) because of what those acts can do to them (and why they’re doing them in the first place). I didn’t MEAN to write that book. It just happened. But all my books end up with that kind of retconned theme or themes. My subconscious speaks for me nicely.
Simon, great stuff. I always try to tiptoe between being preachy and being ambivalent; I really care about my readers, but I do not want to draw any conclusions for them. Great food for thought today.