How I found the theme, and by way of it the voice, of a book that wasn't working well enough.
I am currently 35,000 words into the fifth draft of the sequel to THE HAND OF THE SUN KING.
I wrote the first draft shortly after signing my three book deal with Gollancz. Before then, I knew what I would want the rest of the story after THE HAND OF THE SUN KING to be, but I had no expectation that I would get to write it. I put as much as I possibly could of what I wanted to say into that first book. Not that there weren’t more things I might want to say. But before writing that first draft, I had plot ideas for the second book in the Pact and Pattern series, but I was woefully wanting for thematic ideas. I had put them all into THE HAND OF THE SUN KING, and while I knew what I wanted the characters to do and what I wanted the story to be, I didn’t have a good sense of what I wanted any of it to mean.
For some writers, this is probably fine. Many (though of course not all) of the most successful Fantasy authors working today have talked of treating theme as a thing to be discovered. There’s almost a distaste for focus on theme, a distrust of trying to hard to have something to say, as though readers might catch on that you’re (ugh) trying to teach them something. A theme might be the soul of a story, but it should emerge from the meat and bones of characters and plot in a way that almost obfuscates its presence.
I don’t work very well that way.
I’ve been told by reliable sources that one of the strongest elements of THE HAND OF THE SUN KING is its voice. I’ve been told by some of those same reliable sources (specifically, my agent) that this is an element that was missing from the fourth draft (and presumably the previous three drafts) of its sequel. I put this down to my struggle to find the theme of the book. Or at least, a theme that I really cared about, and that my characters cared about, and that united the first chapter to the last and served as a through-line for everything in between.
When I read the stories that I’m most proud of, their thematic through-lines leap out to me. They are what the stories are, in a fundamental sense. The character’s choices and perspectives, the things they notice in their environment which come to define the details of the setting, down to the way they speak emerge from the thematic soul of the story. Theme (again, at least for me) gives rise to voice.
The feedback I received was the voice in this book is not strong enough. What I heard was you haven’t yet figured out what this book is supposed to say.
And, fortunately, along with that feedback I received a few suggestions. Specifically, two characters who were present in the narrative, but not present enough. My agent said of one “you can do a lot more with him,” and I immediately knew that he was right. The question became what.
So I reread the entire book from the beginning to the end, at first only looking for ways to draw out the themes that were already there and for ways to “do more” with those two characters.
What I discovered was that they were—both of them, in different ways—the keys I needed to unlock the theme of the book. I had put them into the story, knowing that they needed to be there, without realizing why. It was like my subconscious knew what I wanted to say with the book, but hadn’t had the courtesy to tell the conscious part of my brain that actually does the writing.
Now that I knew why those characters were there, unfortunately (or fortunately?), that meant not only giving them more to do in the story as it existed, but reconceptualizing the story around their presence and around the themes they helped to draw out.
Now, with themes in mind, I could look at almost every other decision I had made throughout the book and see incompleteness. There was a puzzle piece missing in almost every scene, in every character, in the dynamics between key characters, even in the parallels between different points of view. But, as I reread the book, the engine in my brain began to work, breaking apart the story as it was and reconstructing it into the story it could be, and should have been all along.
So, rather than revising the draft to fill in gaps and strengthen weaknesses--as I had been planning--I decided to open up a blank page and start writing. From the previous drafts, I knew what the plot and story would be (more or less) and what major beats I wanted to hit along the way, but now I also knew how all of those things fit together. And immediately, as I began to re-write the story from the first word, it felt better. Not that it had felt bad before, but now there was that missing connective through-line binding each word to the next, each sentence within each paragraph, each paragraph to the chapter that contained it. And I became excited about the book in a way I hadn’t before. It felt riskier. It was trying to say something, and trying on purpose.
It finally had a voice.
Hopefully this draft of the book turns out the way I’m hoping. I have about five months until my deadline, so throwing out four preceding drafts feels like a big gamble. But I think the book will at the very least be a better version of itself than it would have been if I hadn’t found the theme, and by way of it the voice, and taken the risk on the blank page rewrite.