One of my writing teachers used to ask what is at once a terrible and important question of the students in her novel-writing class: “What is the point of your book? Why should people read it?”
It is a terrible question, because in the throes of writing a book, putting as much effort into something as a novel takes, it’s easy to think, “Nothing, my book has no point.” Or, “People should read it to know the story.” But she is right that memorable books, the books that last in time and memory, are saying something more than just “here is a story.” Plenty of books do just tell a story, and they are fun books for a summer day, a beach read, a sick day, but they are not the books that climb inside us, and become part of who we are.
Her question was about themes and meaning–what important, unanswerable questions is the book wrestling with. The writer doesn’t always know when they begin, perhaps they should not even know, but they should know by the end. The book I have that is with an agent right now turns out to be about what sacrifices people make for freedom and for power. The book I’m researching and beginning the rough draft for is about how people live with their own hypocrisy in the face of moral challenges and death. I’m worried, though, that knowing that too soon will mean I put that theme too much in the front, at the cost of the story.
Books also engage with books that have come before. It is always a conversation.