Recently I’ve been fielding pitching questions from authors planning to attend conferences. One writer in particular told me he was concerned about pitching his “theme.” My response: You don’t pitch a theme, you pitch a story.
You don’t write a theme, either, I hope. You write a story and themes arise and develop. It should be an organic process, not something you build around.
If you approach your work with this mindset: “I want to write a story based on the theme of [fill in the blank],” it’s not going to be a good story. I realize that’s a huge generalization, but I can safely say I’ve yet to read anything written for theme that wasn’t clunky and heavy handed. And readers can tell the difference. They know when they’re being lectured and preached at.
Story should always, always come first. I don’t mean plot it to death, but I do mean there had better be interesting people and some stuff happening. Else it’s not a story. At least not one anyone will want to read. (As an aside, some people do start with plot. I start with character. I think either way can work, but starting with a theme or message does not.)
As for pitching, I approach it from this angle: I have a book [my own] that I’m trying to convince a friend [or agent or publisher] to read. First I’ll tell them why I think they’ll like it. “Oh, if you liked that John Le Carré book, you should definitely read The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller.” The next natural question they’re likely to ask is, “What is it about?” So I attempt to answer that in a natural fashion, same as if they’d asked me about any book. “It’s about a British spy in the 1960s. He’s gay, and his lover gets accused of being an enemy agent. So then Peter gets them both out of England, and after traveling for a while they end up in Austria. But then Peter starts to believe maybe Charles is a counteragent, so when Peter gets invited back to London, he starts to dig into Charles’ records . . .” And so on, depending on how much the agent or editor wants to know. They may ask more questions; when pitching Changers I had an editor ask questions about the world I’d built. After I answered them, she told me, “Good. You were able to answer all my questions, which shows you’ve put thought into why things are the way they are. I hate hearing, ‘It’s just that way.'” So be prepared for that, particularly if you write fantasy or sci-fi, anything that requires world building!
And do Peter and Changers have themes? Sure. Peter is about love and trust and being caught between one’s duty and one’s heart. Changers is about loyalty to one’s friends, and also about figuring out your true nature and accepting who you are. If an agent or editor were to ask, I’d be able to tell them that. But their first question is always going to be, “What’s it about?” And they don’t mean theme when they ask that. They mean story.