Notes on Process: Theme
I didn’t know what my book was about until a week after I finished writing* it. Partway through writing it, I thought I knew what the main theme was, but I was wrong. Close, but very wrong. One of the things I’m looking at in my rewrite is if my anxiety that my book was going to make me look like a horrible, evil rape culture apologist (or worse, proponent) actually crippled what at the end turned out to be a pretty striking damnation of the character who embodies the worst excesses of the society I set my story in. That stuff I was scared of was just my fear coming out on paper, and it convinced me to change the course of my book before I was even at my destination. Now I have to go back and see if I undermined myself, and what I can do to fix it if I did.
It’s been a productive mistake. I’ve taken a lesion: have faith in yourself. If you’re writing and you’re afraid that what you’re writing is revealing something deep and horrible about you, or you’re afraid that it will look that way, remember that until you’re finished with the first draft, you don’t actually know what you’re saying.** Remember that talking about something does not mean endorsing it, and writing about things that scare you means you’re going to be afraid. Some of our darkest fears are tied up with our desires, and trying to hide from that is a disservice to myself and my readers. Theme is tricky and mercurial and comes up organically, at least for me, and trying to force it down a path that my political conscience approves of sucks my work dry of passion. So from now on, I hope not to do that anymore.
*Writing is different than editing. When I get to the last sentence of the last scene, I’m done “writing” but only about a third to halfway finished with creating a manuscript suitable for shopping around for publication. And then, once the publishers get their hands on it, I hope to run it through another round of edits and refinements before it hits the presses.
**Well, maybe you’re a genius and you do. But I certainly don’t.