What Kind of Writer Are You?

Posted by: Janice Hardy  :  Category: Write a Novel

After reading that title, you likely had some kind of answer. Most would probably reply with the genre they write. A fantasy writer, a fiction writer, an outliner, a pantser. When folks ask me that question, I say “I write fantasy for teens.”

But deep down, it’s more than that.
Earlier this year at the 2010 RWA Conference, I had an eye-opening experience. I sat in on a session about theme with English professor and literary critic Sarah Frantz, and romance author Suzanne Brockmann.

They utterly blew me away with their thoughts on theme (that’s a whole different post), but one thing that really resonated with me was when the author said she had a career theme.

A career theme? Whoa. What was that?

In this case, a career theme wasn’t a “What am I going to do when I grow up” question. It was more, “What am I going to do with my characters as they grow up,” question. In other words, what is the central theme that I weave through all my writing, regardless of it’s genre?

I’d never thought about it, but a career theme made sense, especially since I’d had a meeting with my agent that very morning about what project I should work on next. She’d liked one of my ideas because it had a moral gray area, same as my Healing Wars trilogy. Writing in a gray area had worked for me already, and it was the kind of story I enjoyed telling. Folks stuck in the middle where there was no clear right or wrong. Tales that made you think about what you would do in that situation.

This was a theme I could work with no matter what story I was writing. It was universal (as many good themes are) and offered depths I could plumb for conflicts. It also gave me something to think about when I was deciding if a story idea was going to work on not. I’m sure I’m not alone when it comes to staring at a list of ideas and wondering which one I should write next.

During that “next book meeting” with my agent, several of my ideas had sounded interesting, but she said there wasn’t enough inherent conflict in them to carry a whole novel. And she was right. The one that did have enough conflict had that moral gray area, because the theme had conflict on its own, and that translated to the specific story idea.

So, my career theme became: “Moral Gray Areas.” And this is how I benefited from picking it:

  • The theme actually helped me see and develop conflicts in my ideas.
  • The theme was also something that could help my writing career, by strengthening my identity as a writer.
  • If I ever want to try a new genre or age market, my theme can still tie all my work together.

That could make it more appealing for a reader of one genre to try me in another – a common problem when you switch genres. Readers don’t always follow you if you write a genre they don’t read. But if they like some universal idea and all your stories have that, it makes it easier to retain readers.

Back when I wrote my first book, The Shifter, I had no clear theme in mind. But since I was already playing with the moral gray area, it just developed as the story unfolded. “How many bad things can you do and still be a good person?” I guess you can even say, does the end justify the means? Another theme that developed was being trapped. Physically, economically, emotionally – almost everyone in the book is trapped in some way. So Book One became a story about a girl trapped in a situation where she’s forced to do bad things for good reasons.

When the second book (Blue Fire) came along, I knew my themes, though I hadn’t yet discovered my career theme idea. But in fiction at least, I was continuing my “bad things/good person” theme. This time, however, the secondary theme was about escape. My protag struggled with trying to escape A) the guilt over what she’d done in book one, B) the consequences of those actions, and C) doing it again. You can even see those themes in the book’s cover blurb:

Part fugitive, part hero, fifteen-year-old Nya is barely staying ahead of the Duke of Baseer’s trackers. Wanted for a crime she didn’t mean to commit, she risks capture to protect every Taker she can find, determined to prevent the Duke from using them in his fiendish experiments. But resolve isn’t enough to protect any of them, and Nya soon realizes that the only way to keep them all out of the Duke’s clutches is to flee Geveg. Unfortunately, the Duke’s best tracker has other ideas.

Nya finds herself trapped in the last place she ever wanted to be, forced to trust the last people she ever thought she could. More is at stake than just the people of Geveg, and the closer she gets to uncovering the Duke’s plan, the more she discovers how critical she is to his victory. To save Geveg, she just might have to save Baseer—if she doesn’t destroy it first.

The “Moral Gray Areas” theme is expressed in the following ways:

Guilt: Nya didn’t mean to commit a crime. She risks capture to protect others caught up in that. She has to get them out to keep them safe.
Consequences:
Nya is tracked and wanted by authorities, trapped and taken someplace else and trying to uncover plans.
Doing it Again:
Ny earns that resolve isn’t enough. To save one thing she loves, she might have to destroy the other. This is her critical role.

Some of these points won’t be clear if you didn’t read Book One: The Shifter, but they refer to things that all center on the theme “Moral Grey Areas.”

This theme also continues in book three (out next October), along with the added theme of taking responsibility and taking a stand. Nya still struggles with everything she’s been through, but as she grows over the course of the series, that theme has also grown. She might still be trapped and trying to escape, but this time, she’s doing it on her terms, and figuring out where that line she can’t cross really is.

And for me? No longer am I someone who just writes fantasy for teens. Now, I’m someone who writes fantasy that explores the moral gray area between right and wrong.

If you’re still developing your skills and figuring out what kind of writer you want to be overall, theme might not be something you have to worry about yet. But thinking about the types of stories you like thematically, could gain you valuable insights into your own style. And if you’re embarking on a publishing career, determining what niche you might fill could save you headaches later on.

Janice Hardy Bio
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy THE HEALING WARS, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include THE SHIFTER, and BLUE FIRE from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins.  She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel.

Visit Janice:
Website: www.janicehardy.com

Blog: “The Other Side of the Story”
Link to: Blue Fire Online Retailer

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30 Responses to “What Kind of Writer Are You?”

  1. Rachna Chhabria Says:

    Thanks for this awesome post. I had never thought along those lines. A Career Theme is a wonderful concept.

    Actually if we look deep within our stories, there is an underlying common theme in all our stories; this common theme arises out of our inner beliefs. It also connects all our stories regardless of the genre, and it does retain readers when we get experimental as they can identify with the basic theme (career theme) which they have come to identify with each writer.

    Thanks for sharing!:)

  2. Janice Hardy Says:

    Twitter: Janice_Hardy
    Most welcome. It was such a light bulb moment for me, and made the whole conference worth it (it was good anyway). And you’re right, we do bring ourselves to our work, so it makes perfect sense that we have common themes even if we didn’t do it on purpose.

  3. Birgitte Says:

    Twitter: necessarywriter
    Thank you so much for this post, Janice. I too love the idea of a “career theme.” In looking back on my own work I see a theme developing that I could call a career theme if it’s one that is sellable. Seems all my characters are tweaked and have crazy mothers. LOL Is that a theme???

    Thank you again for posting. I love your books!!!!

    Hugs,
    Birgitte

  4. Mazarine Memon Says:

    What an insightful post Janice. The most wonderful advice was to take notice of the kind of books one reads and that in itself gives you an idea of the ones that appeal to you thematically.
    I have that list of ideas and now have to way to determine what might work as a work! :)

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  6. Vonna Says:

    Aren’t conferences great? I always come away with some wonderful new insight. Thanks for sharing this one. A career theme really is what draws me to certain writers.

  7. Melissa Says:

    Twitter: CrytzerFry
    Thanks for the fresh take on defining our writing, Janice. I agree that we gravitate toward READING certain genres/themes in fiction. And, as they say, ‘You write what you read.’ My ‘working’ career theme seems to be “woman against the odds.” Must think about this a bit more!
    .-= Melissa´s last blog ..Lifesaving Intervention =-.

  8. Janice Hardy Says:

    Twitter: Janice_Hardy
    Ms B, I think tweaked and crazy mothers could be a theme. Or even broaden it to crazy family members.

    I always learn something new at a conference. After that one, I’ve been thinking about theme so much more. I’m very curious (and eager) to see what I do with it for my next novel. I wonder how I’ll approach it differently? I think my outline template is going to change!

    Melissa, that’s so true. And when I started looking at the books I loved, but in genres I didn’t write, I saw the themes that I enjoyed.

  9. Lia Keyes Says:

    Twitter: liakeyes
    Love this post! There’s nearly always a theme running through a writer’s canon of work, but often the writer himself is unaware of it. How much more powerful the work might be if writers were conscious of the choices they were making, and why.

  10. Claudine Says:

    This is great! I actually think this is going to help me define my mc’s goal. I kind of knew the what, but not the why.
    Love the idea that my theme can cross genres. Even age groups. I’m going to look at a MG I’m working on now also to see if the theme is present there, as well as in my sci/fi.

  11. Birgitte Says:

    Twitter: necessarywriter
    Janice, in what way do you think your outline template will change?

  12. Janice Hardy Says:

    Twitter: Janice_Hardy
    Birgitte, I think I’ll try looking at a thematic arc as well as plot and character arcs. It might not work, but it might be a nice support structure to tie the story together. Give me another line of thought to explore when I’m deciding on plot twists and potential problems.

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