Hopefully my own agent won't penalize me for reading the blog of another, but Rachelle Gardner posted something today about fiction queries that includes a suggestive observation. First a quote, then some commentary by yours truly:
"One thing I see a LOT are the queries that tell me about the 'theme' of a novel but not about the story itself. 'My novel deals with many issues Christians deal with—sin, forgiveness, and redemption.' Uh-huh. So do 99% of all novels, Christian or not. What's the story? Or they might talk about the characters: 'My novel is full of quirky people with unique personalities...' Excellent. But what do those quirky characters do?"
She goes on to offer advice on how to craft a good query, but let's stop right there. The key question in that paragraph is right in the middle -- what's the story? -- but there's a certain type of writer who has a hard time answering. I know, because I'm one of them. My friend Deeanne Gist taught me this lesson a few years ago. We'd just met. Her first novel was coming out, and I was busily at work on my never-ending Constantinople thing, so it was only natural for us to ask about each other's books. She answered succinctly, then waited for my response, which was a long, rambling muddle about theme, genre, technique, and the challenges of historical fiction. Um, yeah. But what's the story? Once I overcame my bafflement (I'd been trying to impress, after all, not confuse) it dawned on me that if I was ever going to sell a novel, I'd have to be able to lead with the story.
Common sense, but that doesn't make it easy. For those of us who want to tackle a specific theme, or want to write about a particular character, leading with story might not feel right. But Rachelle Gardner is right. No matter how eloquently I elaborate on theme in the abstract, my description could fit a hundred other books. And "quirky" characters engage us when we meet them in action, not when we hear about them second hand.
The trick is to tell a story that embodies the theme and reveals the characters, so that leading with story brings theme and character along. Without theme and character, the story would be an empty rollick. Without story, theme and character are no better. So when you have a hard time -- as I did -- leading with the narrative, it might just be that the story isn't ready yet. When it is, you won't have to talk about theme and character separately, because they'll be embedded in the tale.