Monthly Archives: February 2013

Theme: What it is, and Why it Matters

One of the main things that make a book resonate with the reader is theme. Often confused with plot, theme is what a book is about.

This confusion is quite apparent when someone tells you they’ve just finished a book. Ask them what it’s about, and nine times out of ten they’ll tell you what happens in the course of the book—that’s plot. So whereas the plot of “The Lord of the Rings” may be to do with a Hobbit finding the arch-enemy Sauron’s great Ring of Power, and so on, the main theme of LotR is simply the conflict between Good against Evil (there are sub-themes, such as the arrogance and temptations of power, the power of humility, and courage in the face of certain defeat). In “Star Wars,” the primary theme is the struggle for freedom against tyranny and oppression.

In order to avoid preachiness, it’s best to approach the creation of fiction with the idea of simply telling a story. If the story contains Truth—by which I mean universal human truths, verisimilitude, reflection on the human condition—it’s very likely that theme will be present and emerge organically from character and situation, without premeditation on the part of the author.

When I began to conceive my just-released novel, “Sutherland’s Rules,” I’d been thinking a good deal about aging (since I turned sixty last summer, this will come as no surprise). I’d wanted to write a kind of anti-hero, high-tech, fast-paced thriller for a while, and this idea collided in my head with my concerns about aging to create the driving idea for “Sutherland’s Rules:”

Billy Sutherland, an aging, retired dope smuggler seizes the opportunity to cash in a forty-year-old IOU given him by an Afghani hash farmer in 1971 after a deal went sour. At sixty-six, Billy can’t do it alone, and so asks his oldest friend, Christian, to help him in this crazy, illegal, and highly dangerous adventure. Billy doesn’t need the dope, and doesn’t plan to sell it: it’s all about closure to him, and not going gentle into that long good night.

When I’d let the first draft cool and went back to the book, I realized it was overflowing with theme, and sub-themes, too: aging, the need for closure, the last hurrah before night falls, loyalty, the power of friendship, intergenerational debts of honour, freedom…not quite what you’d expect from a thriller about two old ex-hippies trying to smuggle a huge load of hashish halfway around the world and into the UK without coming to the attention of fortress Europe’s police authorities and the UK’s sophisticated detection tech.

Now, I’d not set out with the aim of addressing such lofty concerns—my desire was simply to write a cracking good story and have some fun doing it. But looking at the reviews, readers get these thematic notes: one reviewer described the book as “life-affirming;” another spoke of “an interesting take on aging”; and two others remarked on the underlying, touching melancholy of these two lifelong friends on what will certainly be their final adventure.

These themes emerged, I believe, because I can’t help putting a great deal of myself into a book, and that includes my reflections on life and death and society. These things are my truths.  As a result, I believe I ended up with what I’ll call “an intelligent thriller,” as opposed to the typical, generic technoporn where forgettable characters just act out the plot, sowing mindless mayhem as they go.

So when Billy tells Christian, “And look, man, the game—our game, our life—is coming to a close. Maybe ten more good years, fifteen at most, then it’s good as over. I’ve got my exits mapped out, but I’m buggered if I’m going to die feeling I missed out”, he’s talking about what any reader who’s hit middle age—and certainly any reader old enough to remember the sixties—is very, very aware of: the final curtain coming down, the finish line clearly in sight, the end of adventure.

Theme matters because life is themed. As we blunder through this passion play, we can’t help coming to some conclusions, seeing universal patterns and currents, understanding that some things matter. When a writer puts all they have of themselves, of their Truth, into a story or novel, the reader will notice, and nod, and care.

In the words of the great poet, Robert Graves,

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

What’s your take on this?

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Panverse, Publishing, and Hollywood: I’m Back.

Last night my wife and I watched the 1997 Science Fiction film, “Contact.” And, like 95% of the SF movies I see, it annoyed the living hell out of me. Why? Because it was a copout*.

The movie was a copout because it took no risks. In a genre where you can do anything, here was yet another contemptible example of the failure of imagination, the refusal to take risks. The movie fails largely by resorting to tedious tropes: the ambitious politician, the evil, scheming intelligence baron, the tedious attempt to reconcile the dichotomy between faith and science, the heavy-handed, tired message that humanity is at a crossroads between self-destruction and transformation. Oh, please. We knew all this five decades ago.

In trying to reduce the ineffable mystery of being to a comforting, human scale, the movie manages only one thing: to reassert traditional, even Christian values and fill the viewer’s mind with a bland mush—which, comforting as it may be to some, gets us nowhere. It’s the cultural equivalent of the heliocentric view of the world. Given the choice, I’d prefer to watch something like “The Core,” which, though truly awful, is at least honestly and unpretentiously awful, and actually provides a good deal more entertainment value.

The last good SF movie I saw was the 1971 Tarkovsky film, “Solaris” (my impressions of which can be found in this post). Beyond being a daring, exceptional film by any standards, “Solaris” was true Science Fiction because it rejected convenient tropes and succeeded in communicating the inexplicable strangeness of the universe and the ultimate isolation of the human condition, rather than trying to simply comfort the viewer and rake in maximum bucks. “Solaris” was art; “Contact” was visual junk food. And no prizes for guessing which made the most money.

Publishing today has just about caught up with Hollywood. Art and vision long ago went out the window, taking theme and relevance with them. Like Hollywood, no novel gets published without being heavily breathed on and hammered into formulaic conformity by several people, which likely include at minimum the author’s agent, the publishing house’s editor, and the marketing department. The result—at least in genre publishing—is an interminable deluge of fast-moving, relentlessly formulaic stories which are all event and movement without much content. If a story doesn’t conform to the iron requirements of genre and category dictated by marketers (e.g., no Romance without an HEA—happily Ever After—ending stands a chance of publication); if a protagonist isn’t relentlessly proactive; if the characters don’t all change in direct conformity to the industry-standard arc; if  the ending doesn’t resolve with all the  plot strands tidied up; forget it. Under these parameters, many of the  world’s greatest classics and most thoughtful, interesting novels wouldn’t ever see print today.

Oh, there are exceptions, of course. Once in a while, a standout will get through, like, say, “The Good Fairies of New York,” but those are very likely coming from an indie press or self-publishers.

And therein lies the only hope for risk-takers and nonconformist writers who put art, integrity, and theme front and center. Because if it doesn’t fit the suffocating template of Big Publishing’s category and genre obsession, it isn’t going to be published. I know too many good writers, even agented, Name writers, with excellent mss. that don’t stand a chance with the majors.

Which brings me to my own venture, Panverse Publishing.

I started Panverse in 2009 because I wanted to provide a venue for new SFF writers working at novella length, a then very underserved niche. As an example of how shortsighted even the relatively open SF market can be, I had the incredible fortune to be offered—and was delighted to publish—Ken Liu’s searing novella, “The Man Who Ended History,” which went on to receive terrific reviews and was nominated for both the  Hugo and Nebula Award. How telling that it took an unknown to publish it.

After publishing three annual anthologies of five novellas each, stories from which garnered several award nominations and one win (The Sidewise Award for Alan Smale’s 2010 novella, “A Clash of Eagles”), as well as a collection of short stories titled “Eight Against Reality,” I published my own bittersweet travel memoir, “Aegean Dream.”

“Aegean Dream” had been with my then agent over a year; but despite her best efforts, and several nice notes from editors saying how they loved the writing, nobody would touch it because it (i) didn’t conform to the saccharin “A Year in so-and-so” travel memoir formula, and (ii) at 135k words, it was at least 40% too long for the market category.

With zero advertising and no bookstore presence, “Aegean Dream,” published in both digital and POD edition by Panverse, sold almost 4,000 copies in 2012, was #1 book in both Greece categories on Amazon UK for over three months, and is looking set to sell strongly again in 2013. In addition, I was approached by Poland’s largest travel book publisher, Pascal, who noticed its success in the UK and are now in the  process of preparing the Polish language edition, due for release in July.

After a great deal of thought, I decided to call it a day with Science Fiction as both a writer and (with rare exceptions) as a publisher, for two reasons. First, as a lifelong fan and voracious SF reader, I’m rather disappointed by what’s going on in the field today (not much, IMO); secondly, it’s too limiting. And not just SF—any genre is limiting. When our very lives don’t observe genre boundaries, why on Earth should fiction? Readers, in my experience, are far, far smarter than most publishers give them credit for: they largely don’t give a fig about all the formulas, templates, and constraints the industry’s barons and gatekeepers typically try to impose on them—readers want a good book which is both well-written, well-produced, and which, most of all, entertains them, period. And if it breaks a few “rules,” and still works, all the better.

So, after much consideration, Panverse has moved from simply publishing SFF anthologies and my own work to being a real indie press. We have six novels and one nonfiction title coming out this year, and more scheduled for 2014. We have no separate imprints, no genre or category restrictions—our single and overriding mission is to publish books that absorb, reward, and stimulate the reader. Books that make the reader think, that affect them, that surprise them. Books that are about something rather than just being a breathless succession of events; books that are well-written and produced; books that stick with the reader long after the story ends.

The first Panverse title of 2013 is out, and it’s my own caper/thriller, “Sutherland’s Rules” (reviews at Amazon, Goodreads, et al). Best described as an intelligent caper/thriller with elements of the police procedural and the spy novel, finished off with just a shimmer of the fantastic, “Sutherland’s Rules” moves fast and introduces the reader to characters I hope they’ll enjoy and remember. Most of all, the novel is about something—in fact, several “somethings”—beyond the externalities of the plot; please check it out, and read an excerpt here.

As the year progresses, I’ll be posting more about Panverse’s upcoming books, my own work (I’ve just begun on the next novel), and, as usual, my occasionally eccentric and even contrarian musings on life. If you care to send your friends a link, I’d be absolutely delighted. You can also find both myself and Panverse Publishing on Facebook and Twitter, and of course sign up for this blog’s feed via the “Follow” link on left sidebar.

Thanks for visiting, and come back soon!

* The original Carl Sagan novel was rather more interesting, but not much.

What’s your take on this?


Filed under Books and Writers, Material World, Uncategorized, Writing