In large publishing houses, many manuscripts penned by first-time authors, never make it past the "first reader" who for all practical purposes is a gatekeeper of sorts. This person's job is to weed out manuscripts that do not fit certain established submission criteria. However, many never make it to the editor's desk, simply because they are badly disorganized and downright incoherent.
But even if you are self-publishing, you owe it to yourself as well as your readers to develop a theme. Not only will a theme tell what your book is about, it also serves to hold your book together. Every other element — your chapters, for example — should support your theme. It is what keeps you from rambling all over the place, and if you should stray, it is what can bring you back — if you keep it in front of you.
That’s literally, as well as figuratively. I wouldn’t begin to write or give a talk without having a developed theme. Have you ever been to a banquet or meeting where the speaker went on and on with a speech that was all over the place, talking about everything under the sun, except the topic the audience was waiting to hear about? Most likely it wasn’t because the speaker didn’t have a topic, but rather it was because the speaker didn’t have or didn’t take the time to develop a theme. If you want your story to be just as disjointed —then don’t develop a theme for it.
Unlike a working title that may change to something else entirely different or even several times before a manuscript is finished, a theme shouldn’t change during the course of your writing. It may become more obvious during the writing process, but I advise writers to spend serious time developing their theme so that they are clear about the message they are trying to convey. If it is not clear to you, how can you write it in such a way that it is clear to your readers?
Unfortunately, you cannot find the answer to why you are writing your story in this article, or in any book for that matter. You cannot even find it in a classroom setting. Books and classes can only serve to help you bring the reason(s) to the surface, but the answer must come from you. How then, do you determine your book’s purpose? How can you be certain that it is more than a good story? Your book’s purpose is, to a great degree, intertwined with your purpose.
Mark Victor Hansen, co-creator of the Chicken Soup series suggests meditation, or deep, controlled, concentrated thought. He says, "Relax and tap into your mind, way back there in the deepest, secret compartment of your mind, by asking yourself this question: ‘If I knew my life purpose, what would it be?’ Don’t just ask it once. Keep asking this question until you get the answer. It may not come the first day, or even the first week. But it’s there, and it will show its face if you earnestly ask."
Hansen states that this should be repeated every morning and every night for 15 minutes until the answer comes to you, and then write it down. He continues, “Be open to the answer, no matter when it comes to you. Remember, it wants you just as much as you want it.”
A good theme does three things: 1) it describes the story or book; 2) it captures the uniqueness of the story or book; 3) it motivates the author. If it accomplishes these three things, it will also make your outline easier to create. In business-speak, an “elevator speech” is a brief description about your company that you should be able to give to someone in the time it would take to ride up an elevator. I hold that everyone writing a book needs an elevator speech, or theme, for it.