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4.09.2008

So What's it All About?

I love to discuss books with the people I work with. The majority of them almost exclusively read non-fiction, so I'm not able to talk about fiction as much as I'd like, but I still get to chat about books and stories more than I would have in many other vocations. And so far this term, we've read about twenty short stories in my literature section. We'll be moving on to urban legends soon, always an interesting stretch of material.

But that question up there in the title is the one I get the most when I recommend a work of fiction to my colleagues. Let me give them credit. It's a far more complicated question than it would seem.

Sure, I can summarize the story for them, but that's a pretty fruitless exercise for everyone involved. The plot merely serves the theme, which is really what the book is about.

If you can take a work of fiction and run it through the idea sifter, what remains on the screen is what the piece is about. We're talking bigger ideas here, people.

Themes

Many of the stories we've read this term deal with the subject of the apocalypse ("Night Surf," The Masque of the Red Death," "The End of the Whole Mess," "The Things They Carried," "Otherwise Pandemonium," "When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth"). The apocalypse is a result of a theme. In "The End of the Whole Mess" that theme equates to man's destructive hubris. The themes of "Masque" are greed, isolation and hubris.

Chaos is not a theme; it's a circumstance or condition. Chaos may be the plot element that drives the narrative toward the revelation of a greater truth, but the two shouldn't be confused.

That's one of the reasons you have to admire the writers that come up with the jacket copy for all of these books. Here's the synopsis of Duma Key:

The tenacity of love, the perils of creativity, the mysteries of memory and the nature of the supernatural -- Stephen King gives us a novel as fascinating as it is gripping and terrifying.

Like I said above, it really is a more complex question than it seems. Think about your work in progress and pose it to yourself. If you can come up with the answer, you've gone a long way toward drafting your pitch packet.

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