Tag Archives: novels

To Theme or Not to Theme

To Theme or Not to Theme

My new novel, The Good Know Nothing, scheduled for summer 2014 from Poisoned Pen Press, not only has an overall theme, it uses the theme as its title.

Being so forthcoming has concerned me, since I studied and taught in several university writing programs where the concept of theme was commonly viewed with disdain.

No doubt that attitude developed in opposition to the tendency of many student writers to approach a story as if it were a fable, only valuable insofar as it offered a warning or a moral. The stories written from that perspective were usually painful to read.

Yet I’m convinced that trying to avoid theme is equally mistaken. A few years ago, while judging a competition for a state writing fellowship, I read 100 stories. The language and style of about ninety of them were so polished, I imagine most the writers had attended university writing programs. But only five of the 100 stories gave me the least satisfaction.

So I’ll argue that either writing with a theme as the goal or with disdain for themes is courting failure. To create something that will captivate, entertain and satisfy, better to allow the story to flit here and there until it finds its own theme (or themes), then to use it (or them) as a guide.

I wrote about half of what is now The Good Know Nothing before I came upon this quote: “For only the good doubt their own goodness, which is what makes them good in the first place. The bad know they are good, but the good know nothing. They spend their lives forgiving others, but they can’t forgive themselves.” Paul Auster, Man In The Dark, New York: Henry Holt and Company, p. 63.

The truth of that statement startled me, and as I recovered I recognized that my new novel (like most detective novels) was about somebody attempting to get at the truth. But, at least in reality, the truth is damned illusive. Even “facts” are slippery.

As I returned to the novel with that theme in mind, elements that hadn’t quite worked began to feel right. I hope readers feel the same. If they do–thanks, Paul Auster.

To read about the Tom Hickey California Crime series including The Good Know Nothing, go to: www.kenkuhlken.net

Give It Up?

I was finishing draft five or six of a novel and wondering how many times more I would go through and make changes, when I realized I had best give it up or I might still be working on it when death does us part.

Raymond Carver commented that we know we should quit working on a story when we find ourselves going back and inserting the commas we removed last go through. But he was a short story writer, whom I believe never fulfilled his intention of writing a novel.

Once Dashiell Hammett got mixed up, through Lillian Hellman, with the “literary” set, he spent many years on a novel he never finished, though the part he wrote is mighty well-honed.

I have a friend, the wife of an English professor, who wrote a novel about Sigmund Freud and an “hysterical” patient. During the very early 1980s, she completed a compelling and finely crafted draft. She was ready to submit to agents, but changed her mind when an idea for revision came. The last time I checked, a couple years ago, she was still revising and had still submitted it to no one.

When Alan Russell and I team up for book tours, he tells about the short story I once began and didn’t stop writing until 1500 pages later. But that’s only part of the truth, which is that I have cut and reformed and made those pages into a trilogy, then condensed them into one novel, then expanded again. Though I’ve been working on the project for slightly over half my life, I’m still determined to finish it to my satisfaction.

And there’s the answer for which I’ve been groping. When I’m satisfied, I will give it up.

For now, I will submit this blog post and get back to revising a novel.