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My theme is stronger than yours

The market is shifting at a heady speed hereabouts – and if not the market in itself, the way in which the authors marketed themselves. This morning I caught a colleague (an excellent writer, indeed) explaining that his fantasies always tackle strong themes under a thin patina of fantasy adventure. A thin patina that includes “hard knocks”, “big boobs” and “100% fanservice”, probably, considering that up to two days ago the same author was signalling those as the selling points of his fantasies.

This makes me feel infinitely tired, because I am really tired of this constant, desperate, aggressive hustling – writers trying to sell themselves as the answer to this week’s taste: this week is social awareness and “strong themes”, next week might be ultra-violence and mindless mayhem.
If it sells, it’s what I’m doing.
The quality of the story, and the quality of the writing, are becoming meaningless, when instead they might be sufficient to hook the reader.

And yet, the quality of the story is also directly connected with the theme – think about the five Conan stories you like the best, that stuck in your mind all these years, and you’ll see that under the surface, under the swordplay and the exotic venues and barbaric outlook of the Cimmerian, there will be a strong theme: the cosmic wonder of Tower of the Elephant and its reflection on man’s inhumanity, the theme of courage and self-sacrifice in Beyond the Black River, the killer interplay of power and loyalty in People of the Black Circle, love and loss in Queen of the Black Coast…

Then OK, in The Slithering Shadow there’s a large protoplasmatic monster and a sexy, evil and scantly-clad brunette flogging a statuesque and equally scantly-clad blonde.
You can’t keep your standards up 24/7.
But in those stories there is a theme, and it’s not the flavor of the week – it’s something that struck Howard as he was writing his story, and he wove it in the action and horror and swordplay, making the story better, more memorable. More significant.

Those stories were not marketed as “a fantasy with a twist” or anything like that, and Howard was not marketed as “a writer with a powerful message.”
They were solid good yarns, written by a master storyteller.
That was enough.

And you can pick any five stories by Harold Lamb, or Fritz Leiber, or Leigh Brackett, or Clark Ashton Smith, and you’ll see it’s the same – they wrote damn good stories, that also happened to tackle some less-than-banal issues.

This is, in my opinion, why we remember some authors, and some stories, and not others.

But actively seeking the strong theme or the “coming thing”, like some online web content provider might seek the trending keywords of the week to improve their contents’ SEO, strikes me as sterile.
A writer should be someone so connected with the spirit of the times, that relevant and current themes should enter almost unnoticed in the story as it develops, the writer serving as the conduit, smuggling big ideas and strong themes to the public wrapped in great characters, outrageous scenes, chills and thrills. Of course we have ideas, beliefs, axes to grind, pet peeves, worries and concerns, and of course they percolate into what we write. We can sometimes work from them outwards, other times we get to them by some circuitous way.
There comes a time, in my experience, when you start looking at the story you are writing and you see the theme underneath, like a sculptor may see the muscles underneath the marble skin of their statue.
It’s the moment when I usually go…

ah, this is interesting!can I reinforce the theme to obtain a better story?goodness, am I clobbering my readers with some unnecessary sermon?

Writing is hard work, it’s a physical and intellectual craft, it requires equal parts of design and improvisation.
And possibly a drop of honesty – that does not mean “try to look sincere”, but rather “accept what you are.”
And don’t try to sell it.

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