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What is Your Novel about?

By 18/06/2012August 14th, 2019Uncategorized

Novels are never about what they are about; that is, there is always deeper, or more general, significance. The author may not be aware of this till she is pretty far along with it. A novel’s whole pattern is rarely apparent at the outset of writing, or even at the end; that is when the writer finds out what a novel is about, and the job becomes one of understanding and deepening or sharpening what is already written. That is finding the theme.


So, this is for the novelists amongst you:

At what stage of writing a novel do you know what it is about? At the outset? While writing it? When you pitch it to an agent? Or when it goes into print?

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her next literary crime thriller, The Blue Bar, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency, and was published by Thomas & Mercer on January 1, 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • I usually have an idea at the beginning but as I continue to write, the story takes forms and close to the end, the theme is clear (to me at least :D)

  • I sit down with an idea and don't always have a clue where the story is going. I just write and whatever happens, happens! Not sure if that's good writing but it works for me! LOL!

    Stacey aka Coffey Brown
    "BrookLyn's Journey," YA fiction

  • Sometimes I don't what the real theme is until I'm almost at the end or when I know what the climax will be. Interesting too, is the fact that the story isn't always what it seems to be at the start. It becomes something else as I come to know the characters better.

  • M Pax says:

    I usually figure that out when trying to write the blurb. I don't think it's truly apparent until the piece is done.

  • Melissa says:

    I read a post on theme a couple days ago and realized that mine evolve, or at least become apparent, as I write. I think they are there even though I'm not conscious of them. And I think partly they form along with the direction the scenes and the plot takes. I can always look at a finished or nearly finished WIP and see common threads that I didn't necessarily plan to put there. Good post! 🙂

  • Lynn Proctor says:

    if i am inspired to write, i don't have to know where it is going–just that i have to do it!

  • I have to quietly admit that often I have no idea. However, some stories I've written, I know instantly what the theme is and shape it around that theme. They are generally the easy ones to write 😉

  • Damyanti says:

    I love throwing out these questions, and get all the varied answers. As I learn with most answer on topics fiction-related, no one answer is correct. The answers vary with the writer.

    Thank you all for taking the time to come over and answer my question!

  • Usually after a first draft. Themes usually grow unconsciously, but by the time you get to editing you should have some idea what they are so you can consciously strengthen them. Sometimes you may know what they are at the outset and this can come from really knowing what your 'voice' is.

  • KarenG says:

    I usually see it about half way through revisions. And I LOVE that quote btw. Going now to write it down in my notebook of awesome writing quotes. . . .

  • Jo says:

    As a non writer, I am continually fascinated by all the aspects I learn about from all the writers who's blogs I read. My favourite theme is how characters often tend to go their own way no matter what the author thinks about it which would tie in with not really know what a book is about at the beginning of composition.

  • Nicole Pyles says:

    Funny thing is for my current novel, although I knew what drove the story forward, I didn't know until the end what it was really about. Sometimes being immersed in the story and taking a step back can help you gain perspective on what you are trying to portray.

  • I know what it's about before I begin, but as I write, even more and often deeper meaning emerge.

  • Excellent post 🙂 For me, I had an idea of what my novel was about at the start, but I'm fairly confident this will change as I work on the next few drafts and the characters start to flesh out a bit more and tell ME what it's about. I'm just happily plodding along with my writing, waiting for them to wake up and take the reign.

  • Interesting post.

    It does depend on the project, but usually when the first draft is complete, I can see the whole picture. Things come along while writing that I never expected. The story changes and evolves. So, I usually have a good grip on what the theme is after the first draft is complete.

  • Tina says:

    When I started mine (it's my first) I had no idea what it's about, because it began as a short story in pieces, each part dictated by the next prompt, all written by the participants as our stories unfolded. Then it sat. I am beginning to understand what it's about, but I'm still so new at this, that I'm not too afraid I'll be neon signing or anything. I'm just trying to get a first draft, while learning what my writing process is. Right now it's not only not chronological (it will have flashbacks) but it's not even written in the order that I want it to go. I'm just writing scenes I know I'll need, and then I'll have to figure out the best order for them. Don't even know if that's something that works…but I'm a learner by nature and willing to try just about anything. Today is a good day to visit me because I announced my title (which I finally found!) and you can also get an idea of the story.

    Tina @ Life is Good

  • D.G. Hudson says:

    When I was preparing to pitch to an agent while attending a conference, that's when the theme became evident to me. Trying to distill the essence into a pitch helped. Drafting a query letter also helps.

    Stepping back after finishing the first draft and aligning story arc and turning points made me focus on specifics.

    This could vary depending on the type of book (mine are scifi or suspense).

  • Depends on the project, honestly. Every novel is different, and this applies to the process as much to the content.

    With some, I know it at the outset, and so I spend almost the entire time trying to NOT THINK ABOUT IT, because I know that if I do I'll end up putting a multitude of heavy-handed "allusions" to the theme, rather than allowing the book to unfold the theme naturally.

    However, as I'm doing this type of avoidance with my conscious mind, my unconscious mind will often be whispering new insights into the theme — ways to grow it, reflect it, contort it, etc. While these are often golden opportunities, I still feel the need to be careful. If I get too excited, I'll probably end up doing the written equivalent of putting up gaudy neon signs around the passage, which is not only obnoxious, gaudy, and neon, but also an insult to the reader's intelligence.

    So it always seems like a balancing act to me where I'm never sure how much or how little I should be trying to fight against myself. Even so, in all that, watching a theme come together over the course of pages and pages of prose is one of the most exciting parts of the writing process for me. 🙂

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