“I look on my life as raw material for my novels: that’s just the way I am, and it frees me from inhibitions.”
Imre Kertesz, Dossier K
How do you choose your subject?
“Like a gambler. I like playing for big stakes, and I am quite ready to lose it all at any second. As we must all die, we have the right – even a duty – to think boldly.” Imre Kertesz writes about writing. Herman Melville puts it another way: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”
A mighty theme is an unfolding of characters struggles with a particular issue or event. To some extent you will be unraveling a mystery on the page, even if it is not a mystery novel. You will be unraveling the psychology of a situation or place or set of characters and this unraveling must intrigue you deeply since you will be immersed in it for quite a while and quite obsessively.
Many first novelists work with childhood traumas or childhood events because our minds are so vivid as children and hence it is easy to remember much of what happened. We are all emotion then and this emotion comes back to us in scenes and colors and textures and we can use these images to infuse our characters with life.
Sometimes you can intersperse some of childhood with a philosophy that you are wrestling with. In my first novel, I took the position that a relationship with the other sex parent affects the narrative of one’s marriage. I played that out in the novel.
But there is nothing that says you have to work with childhood memories. You can choose your deep caring for the homeless. You can choose to dramatize the period of your life where you worked as a dominatrix. You can bring to life a spy story and all the twists and turns of that. You must only pick a subject that you are sure will fascinate you over the long haul.
A novel is a journey of sorts and so you must choose a subject of which the journey is one you wish to travel thoroughly.
For a novel to truly resonate, the theme is illustrated through the subject matter. To use my own first novel, the subject of the story was a girl brought up by her father in an unconventional way, their attachment and the journey of that. Then there was the journey of whom she chose as a husband and what happened to her marriage, with all the misinformation she brought to the table by being raised by her father. These “subjects” reflected my theme.
In other words, you have to have a “story” to illustrate your theme. Northrop Frye explains it another way: “Beauty and truth may be attributes of good writing, but if the writer deliberately aims at truth, he is likely to find that what he has hit is the didactic.” You need to tell your truth through story, not through lecture and grandstanding.
So think what is the moral (or immoral) center of your novel, what philosophical or psychological issue you want to unravel and explore. Write that down. Write it down another way. Write it down yet another way.
Is it large enough to sustain a whole novel? For example, the fact that a certain mother doesn’t listen well enough to her child won’t sustain a whole novel. A whole lot more has to happen. Even a murder isn’t enough. You need the effects of it and what it does to the characters. You need events that keep turning on themselves, all driven by your characters’ demons or strengths or by external forces outside the characters purview.
But always keep in mind that novels are, even thrillers, psychological. People evolve. People learn something. People are up ended. People experience something. That is the essential journey in a novel.
So think out what your characters are going to learn and, in their way, will enlighten the reader about.
Interestingly, non-fiction is where we learn about the world around us. Conversely, fiction is where we learn about our own lives through the lives of the characters. “Would I have this type of bravery?” the reader asks himself as he reads your novel. “Have I made this bad a choice in love?” the reader asks herself as she watches what happens in your book. “When I think about getting married, should I ask myself the same questions as this character does?” “How would I hold up hiding someone from the authorities?” “Would I be able to buck religious mores in my community?”
Your novel will help the reader know him or herself better.
So when thinking of your subject or theme, think of the human condition.
Another book I wrote, LOST IN MONTREAL, takes the whole concept of a sexual competition between a daughter and mother, showing the daughter really wants the love of the mother when doing her flirting with her mother’s boyfriends. She wants the mother’s respect as being a worthy adversary.
You need to find stories/subjects that are complicated in their psychological dynamic. Stories that show how humans behave in different circumstances. How does your spy behave when captured? How did the crook end up saving the lives of the very people he was thieving against? That is the human story you are telling.
So think about the humanness of your subject, what you want your reader to leave the book having learned, felt, experienced and deepened with.
That is your theme.