A-Z Writer's Toolbox: Theme & Ubiquity

A to Z Disclaimer:

Like all craftspeople, writers need to keep a bag of tricks handy. A set of tools for the job (writing), if you will. Some of these traits or tools are obvious--like the need to have a hide as thick as a brick, for instance. Some are not. This month, I've been challenged to do a post every day of the week (excluding Sunday) that begins with a letter of the alphabet. I'm going to use this challenge to examine some of those necessary writing tools, both conventional and not. Hold on to your #2 pencil, here we go!

NOTE: I've added a page dedicated to my A to Z Writer's Toolbox posts. I figured I'd soon have a bunch of these things and it'll make it easier for you to browse any of the letters you might have missed. You can find a link to the page under the, "MORE STUFF" heading at the top of the right-hand column of this page.

T is for theme

Do you ever finish a great novel and wonder what made it so great?  Most of the time I can quickly identify the source of my love for a particular book.  Maybe it's the story.  Like when an improbable hero wins the day against impossible odds (i.e. Frodo/Lord of the Rings).  Or when the unyielding love of two people manages to endure inconceivable threats, only to end in tragedy (Romeo and Juliet).   Other times it's a cast of extraordinarily diverse characters (The Great Gatsby), or a plot with such unexpected twists that you can scarcely catch a full breath in between paragraphs (Ender's Game).

Still, I occasionally finish a book that I've thoroughly enjoyed and struggle to understand what exactly it was that had me flying through the pages.  After some consideration, I usually find my answer hidden in the themes of the book.

Themes are those underlying--often unspoken--elements to a story that resonate across the varied experiences and backgrounds of the readers.  Like Good Vs Evil, love and loss, or death and life.  Theme is an emotion or experience that is so simplistic that anyone can relate to it, yet so complex that it can only be defined in the abstract.

Theme is a persistent story element, like a river flowing throughout the chapters.  Occasionally a theme is a loud and churning force in a story that forces the reader or characters to heed and cross it.  More often, the theme is only a subtle bubbling spring under the surface, quietly pushing the story and reader along a path of self-examination.

Surprisingly, theme is often as indescribable and elusive a concept for me as a writer as it is for me as a reader.  I tend to write scenes and characters first.  It's only after I've finished roughing out a story that I become conscious of possible themes.

I tend to look at theme as a sort of story 'natural resource', or something that can be used and manipulated, but not artificially created.  I think that's the way it ought to be, because a theme risks becoming a moral--or something preached and forced--if it is built into a story as opposed to something that grows out of the story in an organic fashion.

One thing is certain: themes are an essential aspect of great story telling.  Are you aware of themes as you write and read?  Do you try to accentuate them in your writing, or do you let them surface on their own in hopes that the reader will pick up on them?
U is for ubiquity

The idea of being ubiquitous, or everywhere and all-things at once, is a pretty unappealing concept for most writers.  Most of us only want to be left alone with our thoughts and keyboard, and the less we are asked to partake in the various distractions of the world, the better.  However, in the strata of modern publishing it seems authors are constantly being asked to be more than writers.

How are your PR skills?  Do you know how to promote yourself and your writing?  What about editing?  I'm not talking about the grammar, either.  Can you arrange a story?   Do you have a good understanding of what readers want?  Are you coldblooded enough to cut out your favorite parts for the sake of making a story better?

With the writing world quickly turning over to ePublishing, authors are being asked to become small business professionals as well.  In the Indie model, you're your own accountant, publisher, distributor and press secretary.  Did I mention you still have to write as well?

Truthfully, I'm not wild about all of that either, but I do think all of those things can be learned.  We don't have to master PR, but we need to be proficient.  I look at Twitter and Facebook like math in school;  I was never fond of the subject, but I learned enough to get a few diplomas.  My point is that authors need to know more than writing, and even if we don't enjoy that other stuff, we can learn enough to get by.



  1. Forget it. I'm not cutting out any of my favorite parts! LOL.

    Great post, E.J. I can tell you really worked hard on this. Very good and informative.

  2. I think marketing would be one of the hardest for me. Lots of writers start doing things at their local bookstores and then branch out. My local crowd doesn't speak English as a first language if they speak it at all. I am thousands of miles away from my intended audience. Not an easy task.

  3. Likewise, I think for a book to become great and have "staying power" it really must explore some universal theme that speaks to people. The themes in my current WIP are so obvious to me, mostly because I'm delving so deeply into a mythology and belief system where they already exist.

  4. @ Linda: That has to be an extraordinary challenge! I'm sure the internet helps, but probably with limits.

    @ Sarah: Totally agree!

    @ TDR: Thank you! I'll take praise any and every time!


  5. ...my upcoming release has of course led me down the PR path...and I'm quivering with anxiety. My editing team will be fortunately doing most of the heavy lifting, with me doing little more than manning the Sharpie. Hoping for a word of mouth miracle... :)

    Well worded post, E.J.


  6. My writing group was just talking about theme tonight. We were critiquing so we were talking about some of the themes running through the story.

    I think the trend to being better PR and marketing people is spreading to more creative fields than just writers.
    Even though I think editors and agents look at a writer's following on blogs, twitter, and facebook I think they are also looking for good writing.

  7. Most of the time, I'm clueless about themes. I don't see them until the book is finished.

  8. I guess the critical writing in college got me in the habit of always having a theme at the forefront. The characters and scenes take shape around it.

    You mean I have to do all of those things? Meh! Kinda like being a mom. Work's never done.

  9. Yes ubiquity is exhausting, isn't it? Writers have so many obligations nowadays, but having made such awesome writer friends like yourself makes it worth it.

    I love themes.And I can't help but identify them now in films and stories. My new WIP is a typical theme, but with my own twists and turns. Hey, I'd love your feedback on it if you want to trade in a couple months. It's fantasy MG with a 13yo boy MC and I could use a guy reader to pick out any unbelievable parts. Let me know if you're interested.

    Great post tho.

  10. Honestly, I understand book/author publicity. My degree is in PR, my first title was "publicist" and after that I was a journalist for best-marketing practices for five years.

    Doing it for other people is easy, but marketing yourself...that's hard.

  11. I agree theme is critical to a story's staying power - but I'm with Norma - a bit clueless :)

    I hate math.

    And as far as PR/self-marketing/promotion etc - Becky, are you busy? :)

  12. My latest WIP is the only one I've ever thought about the theme first. I try to let the story evolve naturally, but I also try to keep it true to my theme. I'm not good at editing, PR, etc. I'm not looking forwarding to learning/doing that.

  13. I tend to write and let the theme develop naturally (organically?).

    As far as the rest of it, that's what I'm trying to learn now. I never knew I'd need to be an expert in PR!

    Good luck with the last leg of the A to Z Challenge!

  14. Awesome post! Characters and voice carry me through a book. ALWAYS.

    And I have issues with being ubiquitous. I still haven't mastered the twitter thing. I'm on. But I'm not completely out there.

  15. I took a class in college called Public Speaking as a Liberal art that really shaped the way I write. Our teacher was amazing, but always taught us to stay on point with a goal (or theme) in mind. Great post!


“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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