Saturday, February 12, 2011

What Kind of Writer Are You? Career Themes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

"What do you write?" can guide your entire writing career.

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

But deep down, it’s more than that.

Years ago at an 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 protagonist 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.

Nya is tracked and wanted by authorities, trapped and taken someplace else and trying to uncover plans.

Doing it Again:
Nya learns 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.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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Originally posted during the Blue Fire blog tour at Necessary Writers.


  1. Oh I love this post and this idea. I am going to be thinking on this a lot.

  2. Yay! I kept thinking of this and while showering, I totally found my "career theme" and it adds so much knowing that these are my themes! (I love to explore the Masks people wear)

    Thanks for this post!

  3. If the benefits are so clear, why not pick multiple themes? I'd imagine most writers have several, at least. Choosing one could lead to pigeon-holing, and harm creativity by being a limit, self-imposed or otherwise. I'd go as far as to suggest that with the access to mind that a writer has, there is a great responsibility to be as open as possible to the riches of the world, and not impose artificial categories.

  4. I'm a happy amateur and hobby writer. Is that a kind of writer?

    Cold As Heaven

  5. I really luuuvvv this concept!!!

    What Kind of Writer R U? Not in genre-speak, but in a career-theme speak...

    For me, it's Sexy Sassy Smart Career-Driven Women and the Men Who Complete Them; or in other words, making love fit into and thrive inside of and/or despite a full-throttle, high-powered career.

    I've heard it presented as "discovering your core story"...what is your core story...

    And that's a huge part of MUSE THERAPY...just letting go and learning how to write that core story...that story your muses, for whatever reason, keep coming back to again and again and again.

  6. If directors like John Ford, Sir Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles are held up as cinematic auteurs due to the themes that crop up in all of their work, why should the same not be true of authors?

  7. Oooo! A career theme...great to contemplate. I have to go back through my (many, unpublished) novels and see if I have one. Thanks, and happy weekend to you. :)

  8. Clarification on career theme: is this something you decide on before you write or something that slowly emerges as you keep writing? Or neither? Or both?

  9. This is a really interesting idea. Do you think it's the same as your own 'worldview' showing through in your writing? ie: if you are a Christian, your view on life will trickle through, even if you're not writing a specifically Christian novel.

  10. Great topic, Janice, it really made me think, which some can argue I do too much of, but there's a time to think and reflect just as there's a time to act and take (Reasonable) risks.

    For me, Anna, I think it can happen naturally both ways. There are some writers who really do know at least one or two key themes they'll always explore.

    But there just as many (If not that tiny bit more) who have no clue until some time has passed, whether they have a book or two out, or still in the unpublished (At least for pay) like myself.

    I also think it's okay to have more than one. I knew one of my career themes early, and I'm just now learning my second one.

    In my case though, my career themes aren't as directly conflict inherent as the one Janice shared with us, but in spite of that, I lived the pain and joys associated with these themes long enough to write about them honestly and with as much empathy as humanly possible.

    As to what my career themes are, I'm going to talk about that on my blog this week. So if your interested, I hope some of you can check it out.

    I've taken a break from my blog for a few weeks, but I'm more than ready to start again, as I always eventually do.

  11. Wow. That's a really insightful concept. I'm not sure what my career theme would be, but so far, my finished manuscript and my current work in progress are both about a person learning that he must sacrifice his normal life in order to do what's right. In both cases, by the end they have (or will have) accepted that, despite what they've lost, there's still more work to do, for uncertain reward.

  12. Rachel: That's awesome! And a great theme. You can do a lot with that.

    Porky: You can totally pick multiple themes if you want. You can also decide not to do any themes at all if you prefer. This isn't something you *have* to do, it's an option that can help guide your work and your career if you so choose. Many writers are drawn to certain types of stories, and understanding that can help them when choosing what to write next or revising a current project. But if you want to write in nine different genres and use a different theme every time, go for it. What you write about it up to the writer.

    Cold As Heaven: That is indeed :) You write for the pure fun if it.

    D.D.: I love that, "discovering your core story." It's kinda the same thing if you have a certain type of story you like to explore. You can always put a different plot on the same story. Entire genres are built around that!

    Icy: Exactly! We go to those movies knowing exactly what we're going to get. We pick up authors we like for the same reasons.

    Carol: Hope you had a great weekend!

    Anna: All of the above. You might know the type of stories you like to write before you write them, you might see a pattern and realize that's your theme, you might change themes as you grow as a writer, you might decide you don't have (or want) a career theme. Every writer is going to be different. Just find what works for you and run with it :)

    J.T.Webster: I think it does on some levels. If you like to write about things you believe in from a worldview standpoint, I an see that being a theme in your work. I can also see the opposite of what you believe in being as theme, as you explore ideas different from your own. It could also be a recurring theme if your work, but not be the main thing you write about.

    Taurean: Glad to hear you're blogging again. I know you had a rough patch there for a while.

  13. Paul: Sacrifices people make might be your theme ;) Lots of good stories to explore there.

  14. Thanks. :-)

    I am generally more drawn to films and books where the protagonist has to lose something meaningful in order to triumph, whether it's because they learn that it was holding them back or because they decide that the final goal is worth more overall. I prefer that kind of choice, seeing the protagonist taking control of their environment and shaping it as it needs to be shaped, casting aside the rough pieces that don't fit anymore, rather than just having some external force take things away.

    I like seeing characters rewarded for making the right sacrifices, but I also like seeing characters who make the wrong sacrifices realise what they've lost.

  15. Same here. It's a lot more fun when they have to earn it. And when they make mistakes along the way.

  16. This is such a fascinating idea, and one which had never occurred to me! But when you think about it it's so logical; all the best authors of 'the old days' had some sort of central concern they kept coming back to. Dickens and the Victorian social system, Austen; women and marriage. I think that's why their work exists so well as a whole, because it's all ultimately interconnected.

    Thank you for posting this! :)

  17. Milena: Most welcome! I was just as blown away by the idea when I first heard it. Everything clicked into place.

  18. Having a career theme is going to be helpful for me. I'll go for it.