Thursday, July 11, 2013


It all starts with the question: What's your book about? I used to say THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL was about tuberculosis, that's it's based on a family story, and about a young girl's first love. While all of that is true, it took me several rounds of revision to discover the theme, and when I discovered it, I rewrote the beginning.

Sometimes when the kerosene lamp casts shadows, I think I see Ma's ghost. If she were still alive, she'd say, Jessie Pearl, you keep on studying. Not everybody is cut out to be a farm wife. We'll find a way to pay for teachers' college. Leave your pa to me.

The theme for THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL is "follow your dreams." Life throws lots of obstacles in Jessie's way, but she doesn't give up on her dream.

The novel I'm working on now is tentatively titled CAROLINA GIRLS. An editor recently posed the dreaded question to me: What's your book about? I said that it's about an accident, that it takes place in 1969, and has a subplot that deals with school integration. But as I've continued to revise, the theme has gelled. This book is about "courage." My protagonist, Sarah, sums it up very nicely:

Courage is doing hard things when you're most afraid, like saying you're sorry, or being friends with a colored girl.

In its essence, Sarah is on a journey to become a brave girl.

Discovering a book's theme is finding its heart. What's the heart of a book you're writing or currently reading? It's a question worth exploring.


  1. Saying Jessie Pearl is about Tuberculosis is like saying my MG is about war. Books are about a hero's journey, and TB or war are vehicles or mile posts.
    However, young readers, when asking what a book is about, are in fact asking about plot elements and not themes.

  2. I think readers are always surprised when they find out that writers don't always know what direction their book is going or what the underlying theme is, when they start the book. That's one of the things I love about's true even for my nonfiction. Sometimes what comes out surprises even me. Can't wait to hear more about Carolina Girls. Love the line about courage.

  3. Mirka, I agree with you that young readers are looking for plot points, but the editor I was chatting with was looking for more and at the time of the conversation theme hadn't gelled for me yet.

  4. Thanks, Lynn. I usually start with a rough outline that has major plot points, but I always discover theme during the revision process. There are probably as many different ways to write a novel as there are novelists!