It’s a cover! My Memories Of A Future Life – and how to find your novel’s theme

A crucial part of introducing your novel to agents or directly to readers is identifying your novel’s central theme. But that can be mighty hard to do. Here’s how I did it

Final tweaks are being twaught. Kindle hell beckons. Blurb hell too. But cover hell is over, at least the front.

And what theme is this pretty book scratching away at, you may ask? What questions are burning out of the red piano and the blue sky?

Answering that has caused me considerable grief. The journey in the book takes 100,000 words. How do I find one sentence – just one – that captures the heart of it?

It took me a while. Much pacing up and down.

My first thought was, it feels like it’s about the whole of life itself. Everything. The universe.

As a theme, ‘everything’ was a bit, well, vague. And it’s the very least you’d expect of a self-respecting well-rounded novel.

Then I made lists of common themes in fiction, as if I was doing an essay for A-level English. It was no help at all.

Everything seemed to fit. Love, loss, friendship, fate. Cheating, lying, haunting, being haunted. Nature, confinement, superstition, the weather. It was easier to find themes that weren’t in the book than themes that were.

I had to pull away from ‘subjects’, because every multi-layered novel will have plenty of them. So I asked myself: what are people doing in this book that gives it its distinctive flavour?

It had to come down to the MC. Her relationships. Her central problem. The patterns that repeat again and again with everyone she meets. The things she reacts to that show what she’s searching for. Her peculiar situation and what she needs to understand.

After quarrying down that seam, I had it. This is what My Memories of a Future Life is about.

How do you find where you belong?

Red piano: Bonnie Schupp Photography at iStockPhoto

Have you found your novel’s theme yet? If so, how did you do it? And if you have, share it in the comments

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  1. #1 by Suzanne Unruly Guides on July 23, 2011 - 3:52 pm

    Nice cover design. Love the red piano – an eye-catcher – and “red” can mean so many things – love, hate, anger…. Good job.

    • #2 by rozmorris on July 23, 2011 - 4:01 pm

      Thanks, Suzanne! I’ve always been fond of making things red that shouldn’t be… And as you say, the overtones are so rich. Perfect for this story too.

    • #3 by Cindy on July 25, 2011 - 2:30 pm

      I love this cover too! I have never seen a red piano – I would love one in the high gloss shine that the black baby grand pianos usually have. Can’t wait to read it!

      • #4 by rozmorris on July 25, 2011 - 2:47 pm

        Thanks, Cindy! A red piano seems to demand to be played with even more brio than a black one. While researching this book I saw some divine pianos. There’s one that made it into the book – a 9ft Bosendorfer. Sleek, black, like a limousine.

  2. #5 by blueghoul on July 23, 2011 - 3:56 pm

    Themes…they’re a curious thing, and different to every set of eyes. But that’s definitely a nice method to go about finding one. The reoccurring questions, the patterns within the text within the text. Reading in between the lines. I haven’t found my novel’s theme yet. Haven’t finished writing it yet. But I think to look for the patterns, the questions beneath the actions, beneath the story twists, that’s a rather lovely method to use. And from there, perhaps, to combine it with a larger subject and to find what, really, your novel’s about. I like that. It’ll definitely be interesting to see.

    • #6 by rozmorris on July 23, 2011 - 4:03 pm

      ‘Different to every set of eyes…’ That is so true. If a book speaks to a reader on a personal level, it will always be different for each person. There were so many threads I could have taken – and part of the problem was finding the right one.
      It’s that big question of About, with a capital A. Not the events, but about the life under the events. Good luck finding yours.

      • #7 by rozmorris on July 23, 2011 - 4:06 pm

        PS – love the title of your blog, BTW!

        • #8 by blueghoul on July 23, 2011 - 4:29 pm

          You’re right, with the About. It’s the story hiding under the events, beneath the plot and the characters just milling about. It’s what the story revolves around, that holds it stable and makes it mean something.

          And thank you!

  3. #9 by Stacy Green on July 23, 2011 - 4:01 pm

    The cover is beautiful. Love the red piano. And themes are the hardest. They take a lot of tough thinking and patience, at least for me. I like that you’re going beyond the character’s actions and the plot to find the heart of the book.

    • #10 by rozmorris on July 23, 2011 - 4:04 pm

      Thanks, Stacey! Tough thinking and quarrying deep. You’re absolutely right. The blurb is going to be a challenge too. Biting my nails at the thought…

  4. #11 by Stacy Green on July 23, 2011 - 4:08 pm

    I’ve written a synopsis for Light and Dark on my blog that needs some work. It was hard enough. I shudder at the thought of a blurb, logline, etc. Some people have those before they start writing. I just can’t approach writing that way.

    • #12 by rozmorris on July 23, 2011 - 4:27 pm

      I’ve read lots of eminently sensible posts suggesting you start with loglines, synopses etc. I use various kinds of synopsis while I’m writing in order to give myself clarity. But despite all that, what emerges has many more layers – and seeing through them to the most striking one is very hard.

  5. #13 by David mark brown on July 23, 2011 - 4:29 pm

    I think coming up with the one sentence theme is the most ruthless part of the whole book creating experience. And to make it worse, it always feels like no one can help you, because no one else really knows the book. I dread the process every time.

    • #14 by rozmorris on July 23, 2011 - 4:41 pm

      Yes, it is ruthless. And like all the people in the land trying on Cinderella’s slipper. Many goes with the shoehorn but only one fits.

    • #15 by Stacy Green on July 23, 2011 - 6:01 pm

      Very true, Roz. It’s hard to see through to the bones of it all. Glad you accomplished it:)

  6. #16 by Carol Riggs on July 23, 2011 - 5:11 pm

    LOL–”It’s a cover!” How exciting, and it’s definitely a nice cover. Congrats! And yeah, it’s often difficult to boil a huge novel down into one pithy “what’s-it-about.” Good job. :)

    • #17 by rozmorris on July 23, 2011 - 5:51 pm

      Thanks, Carol! The relief of finding that sentence is enormous, I can tell you.

  7. #18 by Dan Holloway on July 23, 2011 - 5:18 pm

    I often start to realise what a book’s “about” when I run into trouble with its construction. When I don’t know what’s coming next, it’s often because I don’t have a real handle on the engine that’s driving things. The thing is you often start thinking it’s about one thing, which is why you end up in this position. The only real way I find of getting right to the centre of it is to strip it right down to the most specific details – anything more general than that can be misleading – it offers too much freedom for interpretation that can loosen our narrative focus

    • #19 by rozmorris on July 23, 2011 - 5:51 pm

      Wise words indeed, Dan. And you’re so right that a strong core can be diluted if we get too bogged down. That’s my biggest problem – I am at heart a very undisciplined ideas machine and I need to control myself all the time! I am always stripping stories back, asking myself how to strengthen their focus.

  8. #20 by K.M. Weiland on July 23, 2011 - 8:03 pm

    Love it! That red piano totally pops. Beautiful.

    • #21 by rozmorris on July 24, 2011 - 9:33 am

      Thanks, Katie! You set the bar high with your own great covers.

  9. #22 by last_lines on July 23, 2011 - 8:38 pm

    The cover looks amazing Roz. Love the premise too. You must be so excited. The premise of my novel is: “Fighting who you are can destroy you but embracing who you are may push others away.” There were also many other layers to my story but in the end I focused on my two MCs and what the story boiled down to for them. Good Luck with the next phase of the process.
    -Kim

    • #23 by rozmorris on July 24, 2011 - 9:34 am

      Thanks, Kim! Sounds like you’ve captured the essential conflict with your one-liner. That’s tricky to do.

  10. #24 by Elle Strauss on July 23, 2011 - 11:08 pm

    Congratulations–so exciting!

    • #25 by rozmorris on July 24, 2011 - 9:34 am

      Thanks, Elle! It’s so exciting to see it all coming together. At very long last.

  11. #26 by Everyone Knows Me Here on July 24, 2011 - 12:55 pm

    I find my theme as I progress in the story. Sometimes it comes over me like a warm cup of coffee in the morning, or sometimes I could be washing dishes and I get flashes of a scene or a witty line pops into my head. There are days I plan and chart…but those days I find borning because they are contrived. As a writer, I find my best work is spontaneous…I let the characters speak to me…then I type their world into existence. Geez, I sound crazy, don’t I? LOL Have a great weekend. Stopping by from the Red Dress. Loved this post ;)

    • #27 by rozmorris on July 24, 2011 - 12:59 pm

      There’s nothing like getting your hands into something else to come up with the perfect wording for something. Our perverse muses, eh? Thanks, MJ!

  12. #28 by Sally on July 24, 2011 - 6:14 pm

    Dan said:

    “I often start to realise what a book’s “about” when I run into trouble with its construction. ”

    I’ve experienced that too. Actually my novel cover (which I designed years ago even though the novel was only half done; yep, I worked backwards!) depicts one of the bigger themes, which is that life is rarely as it seems.

    Roz, I really like the graphical design of your cover, which attracts the curiosity of the reader, but am not so sure about the font of the title. Personally I’d suggest making it larger and a different font to the author name. Hope you don’t mind this minor criticism. I couldn’t help myself, having designed covers for myself and others in the past.

    • #29 by rozmorris on July 25, 2011 - 7:27 am

      Hi Sally! Yes, I like that observation of Dan’s. I wonder how many times the average writer gets lost during construction and needs to be pulled straight again?

      As for the design…. troublemaker! No, of course I don’t mind a critical point or two, and thanks for the input. Although the concept and visuals were mine I did work with a graphic designer on the final technicalities. We tweaked the typography and font size etc (and graded the sky colour, which was darker in my original) and tried a lot of variations, and that was the design we felt best suited the book. I guess no two creatives are ever going to agree, or have quite the same vision. As I don’t have the typographic sensitivity that he has, I guess I have to leave it to him…

      • #30 by Sally on July 25, 2011 - 10:05 am

        Ah, can’t argue with a professional! :)

        Btw, will we get to see an excerpt before the official release? :)

        • #31 by rozmorris on July 25, 2011 - 10:19 am

          Ah, you ask the most marvellous questions. Clearly an excerpt of some sort will be needed, most likely with the BookBuzzr widget I use for Nail Your Novel. There will be a dedicated website too, which at the moment is in locked rooms around the back of this blog.
          You might well be thinking I’m getting a bit close to release date and haven’t shown anything… well I’m not going to make the end of July, so it will have to wait a couple more weeks. I’ve been having technical difficulties – with my sense of perfectionism…

          • #32 by Sally on July 25, 2011 - 11:17 am

            I can understand the need to hold off until everything’s just right. All the best with it, and looking forward to seeing the final product. One more question (and if you’ve answered it already somewhere, my apologies): Are you releasing the book in any other form (i.e. paperback)?

            • #33 by rozmorris on July 25, 2011 - 11:22 am

              Answered below as we’ve run out of room…

  13. #34 by Daniel R. Marvello on July 24, 2011 - 9:53 pm

    I like the colors in the cover too, Roz. It also looks like the cover would do reasonably well as a greyscale thumbnail, which is important on the Kindle.

    I learned an interesting way to deal with the blurb dilemma a couple of months ago. Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method has you *start* with the one sentence description and drill down from there. You would be coming at this from the opposite direction, but the suggestions he had may help anyway.

    One of the most useful suggestions was looking at the one-liners that get posted for books on the NYT Bestseller list. When I did that, I saw a pattern in what they say: A certain type of person does something interesting.

    For example, Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons had this blurb: A Harvard scholar tries to save the Vatican from the machinations of an underground society.

    If you get stuck or bored, just do a search on Snowflake Method, and I believe Randy’s page that describes it comes up first in the results. It might help. Cheers!

    • #35 by rozmorris on July 25, 2011 - 7:29 am

      Hi Daniel
      That is a good suggestion for the blurb dilemma. Although the problem is not so much describing what’s happening as putting exactly the right spin on it. Because it’s a literary novel, the events aren’t everything – and that’s my problem. But that’s probably the subject for another post. Thank you for the Snowflake reminder.

  14. #36 by rozmorris on July 25, 2011 - 11:24 am

    Sally just asked if there would be a paperback. Yes there will, but CreateSpace lead-in times mean it won’t come out at the same time as the Kindle version. CreateSpace need time for toing and froing with proof copies, which means back-and-forth across the Atlantic.

    • #37 by Sally on July 25, 2011 - 11:31 am

      Thanks Roz! I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but CreateSpace are currently running a trial run where some authors don’t need to get a proof (I’ve been put on the trial myself but haven’t got a book to print at the mo’!). But whilst it might be useful for some titles – like reprints of an ebook – I think it’s a bit risky to set up a book without seeing the proof.

  15. #38 by Cindy on July 25, 2011 - 2:36 pm

    I actually start with the theme and the one sentence blurb. Being a big picture thinker, I need it to help me focus my writing. Following Ray Bradbury’s timeless advice, I think about the things I really love and I really hate, make lists of those things, and then think about which one I would like to explore for a story. I usually also have a number of characters in mind that I want to fit into stories, so once I have the theme, I start thinking about the characters that make sense given what I will be writing about.

    • #39 by rozmorris on July 25, 2011 - 2:49 pm

      That’s an interesting idea, Cindy. I have characters and situations knocking around, and I’m waiting for the right puzzle piece to drop down and fit them together. Your (and Mr Bradbury’s) love/hate list is a very good suggestion because there has to be a spark of passion that connects you to the story as a writer.

  16. #40 by kailash srinivasan on July 27, 2011 - 5:47 am

    If it were me, I would have done away with the clouds in the background, bringing out the piano even more. Making the cover cleaner and sharper int he process.

    • #41 by rozmorris on July 27, 2011 - 7:33 pm

      Interesting suggestion, Kailash – and none of us thought of doing it that way. I think I always felt the sky was necessary because of the future life element. One of the subjects the book examines is reincarnation, although in a sideways, back-to-front way – and I wanted an image that suggested perhaps heavenly questions.

  17. #42 by jacquelincangro on July 27, 2011 - 5:15 pm

    Love the cover design! It draws me right in.

    Theme can be tricky, I think, because a story can mean different things to different people. People from diverse perspectives have different take-aways from a story.

    I like your suggestions on how to narrow down your theme when it seems that everything epplies.

    • #43 by rozmorris on July 27, 2011 - 7:30 pm

      Thank you, Jackie! That’s a good point that each story will mean something different to different readers. It’s part of the problem with writing a multi-layered work, I guess. Sometimes I think genre authors have it easy!

  18. #44 by Sonia G Medeiros on July 27, 2011 - 11:31 pm

    Great cover! The logline has given me endless trouble too. Glad you found yours!

    • #45 by rozmorris on July 28, 2011 - 6:14 am

      Thanks, Sonia! Best of luck finding yours.

  19. #46 by Lauren Michelle on July 29, 2011 - 3:18 am

    I love the cover! Can’t wait to hear more about it, and hope to see a release date soon. :)

    • #47 by rozmorris on July 29, 2011 - 6:34 am

      Thanks, Lauren! I now have a launch date – 30 August. There’s a website under construction (behind these walls) and lots of exciting guest posts coming up around the blogosphere. And nibbles to slake your curiosity on Twitter…

  20. #48 by Laura Pauling on August 2, 2011 - 11:28 am

    I like your cover. And darn those long titles! :)

    I’m curious about your decision to self publish as I believed you had an agent. And now that you have fiction you’re promoting, will you be blogging about topics other than writing. (Yes, I’m referring to Kristen’s statement of bloggers shouldn’t be blogging about writing to find their readers.)

    If you want to share privately, feel free to email me. laurapauling at yahoo dot com

    • #49 by rozmorris on August 2, 2011 - 2:33 pm

      Thanks, Laura! I don’t mind answering your questions in public, actually – they’re very good ones that maybe should be addressed in a post of their own. Stay tuned…

  1. To be continued… What everybody misses about chapter breaks « Nail Your Novel
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