Aiming the story at the central theme in the rewrite using Robert J. Sawyer’s timeless thematic advice

I finished yesterday. I started it in mid-October and finished it in mid-December and I couldn’t be happier with it. But I’m going to have to change a lot of it in the rewrite.

As soon as I finished it, I realized the central character didn’t solve the final issue with the growth that he’d learned over the course of the book. It’s an easy change to fix, but I’ll have to go back and change the outcome of one discussion that they had with another character that showed the growth prematurely. I may even try to swing a decision that goes south when he tries to make himself believe what he needs to believe by the end of the book in order to walk out of the room alive. The lingering doubt the first time has to make the situation worse.

Theme isn’t the moral of the story, it’s the compass. I learned that in an evening session I wasn’t even planning to go because it was a workday and I’d barely gotten finished in time. I don’t even think I ate dinner that night. The Sentry Box was only ten or so blocks from our apartment but they were ten blocks down one-way streets and some underpasses that only needed a Balrog to be scarier. But I was there that night for some reason and when Rob explained theme as the thing the character should to be against it that changed everything for me.

I learned it at a time in my writing career where I was starting to be able to show the reader what I wanted them to see and not just tell them all the cool things that had happened when the protag had just stepped out of the room/scene for a while. I’d been practicing showing the reader exactly what they needed to see for two years at that point but still hadn’t managed to write a story that was more than a character that did stuff. When I was breaking the rules, at least occasionally I’d managed to hit a story out of the park with raw talent and mute luck.

But even with that brilliant advice I’m sure a lot of writers could just write too, I still found it difficult to write to a theme I’d picked out for the story. I’m too much of a pantser to think that far ahead. But Steven King in On Writing talks about writing without a theme in mind only to pluck out what resonates from the text after the first draft is finished.

I use a combination of the two. Kakotopia’s central theme is not to serve power structures that don’t serve you when you have the freedom to resist no matter how deeply they’re disguised as cultural norms. It starts with a rigid code the character can’t break out of to being able to walk out of a room with his head held high where anyone with his history would have had to willingly die in on principle or have the decision he had to make break them.

But that theme only came to me after the work was over. I have to rewrite everything I do. My non-neurotypical brain thinks in perpetually run-on sentences and they scan as correct to me. With the fact I’m thinking two sentences ahead while typing the current one, words get missed. Verb tenses (much like House of Pain) jump around. But that’s just at the sentence level. My beginnings speed up in the rewrite. Things I only vaguely understood can be two-by-fourshadowed. I can echo past decisions in earlier ones so that when the right decision is made, it’s made on hard-earned knowledge. I can make everything that mattered in the first draft matter so much more in the second.

People ask me why I care so much about how bad my university as at teaching creative writing. It’s because they denied any graduate the ability to even think their prose may need to be rewritten because if their MFA tells them their work is perfect, they’re going to believe it (to borrow Taylor Swift’s Fifteen’s central premise.)

I gave up chess when it became less and less likely my Queen could sweep across the board like an avenging angel (or a weeping one) while I was playing against people who cheated by studied strategies. It took me ten years to learn how to make characters do the same thing and ten more to have that sweep matter on a thematic movement. There are a lot of sweeping attacks in this piece and I love each and every one of them.

And I look forward to tearing them apart and making them even sweepier.

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