I revise using a complicated schema that only I understand

Hello friends, I know that I promised I’d write more frequently in the blog, and that promise held for a month, but I got distracted.

I’m working on revisions of my YA novel. The last two revisions I did of this book were page-one rewrites. This one is much smaller in scale. It’s going quite well, but it just needed a lot of reconceptualizing, so that everything would fit and make sense. And that meant a lot of sitting around doodling in my notebook, drawing boxes and then drawing lines between the boxes.

I’d love to be one of these people with a complex all-encompassing explanation of how fiction works. Sometimes I come close to that, but I can never really make myself believe in the project. Still my approach has generally been borrowed, I think, from structuralism. I think of each element of the story as a box. And the meaning of the box is determined by the elements that you put inside it. And the overall meaning of the box determines the box’s relationship to other boxes.

So if you’ve got a character, and you want them to do or say something different, then you can’t simply go the proper scene and make them do a different thing–you’ve got to chance what is inside their box. That means adding or subtracting an element, so that their overall semiotic meaning changes, and that changes their character–the way they think and act. I like to think everything about a character or a situation or an organization can be concretely manifested or symbolized. Because a book is only words, you need to think about what’s the cleanest and most evocative element I can put into this character to make them a different person. Elements aren’t necessarily back-story things. Sometimes they’re interests or constraints. Like maybe they failed out of high school. Now how does that effect the other elements inside them.

Anyway, the point is you’ve got the external story: the things and places and characters and all their desires and actions. And you’ve also got the internal story, which is their self-image, their sense of themselves, their emotions, and the meanings of their emotions, as well as the semantic freight associated with various other institutions in the book.

But what authors forget is that these two stories are really one. There isn’t an inner and an outer story, there is only one story. Some things happen inside the box, and other things happen between boxes, but ultimately it’s all the same. And you can change any part of this, but it still needs to have an overall cohesion and make sense.

If boxes were just characters, this process would be a lot cleaner. Then boxes could be characters; elements could be fixed constraints (unchangeable by the characters without great effort); actions could be relationships between characters. But boxes aren’t just characters. Because, to the author, the world of the story can also be changed. So if you have a job, for instance, you can change the nature or meaning of the job, if that makes the rest of the story come together better. So when is something a box and when is it an element? Unclear!

I tend to think that actions are really not important, because they tend to flow naturally from what is inside the various boxes. You can’t really change the actions (i.e. the relationships between boxes) if you don’t change what’s inside the boxes.

So the question then becomes, how do I choose what boxes to have? If my characters and institutions and other constraints determine the story, then how do I determine those things?

Well, I don’t know–if there was a simple answer, computers would be able to do it. But my sense is that you can’t use this method to generate the initial story–the initial story has to come from inspiration.

This method is used to refine the story though. And here you use theme. And it’s really when it comes to theme that your past reading comes in handy. The development of theme is how the overall story, the entirety of the novel, comes to have some kind of meaning. And there are numerous different ways of developing themes, and numerous relationships between various themes. But essentially you start to organize what’s inside the boxes, based on your themes, so that all the boxes resonate in different ways, producing, in the end, a well-constructed explication of a handful of linked ideas.

Of course there’s a lot of art here. Because you can’t simply throw whatever you want into each box. The internal workings of the boxes are governed by your own understanding of human nature, and by your own fears about what is and isn’t possible.

The main point I’m making is that for me revising isn’t about the words on the page. I have a strong sense of the limitations of language. You can write something down–you can write down, “And then Martians attacked”–but that doesn’t make it real, unless those Martians fit organically into the scheme of the story. And in order to determine if they fit, you have to introduce them as a box, with their own history and desires, and see how that impacts the rest of your characters and institutions. And it’s that verisimilitude–that honesty and attention to the actuality of things–that to me is the essence of good writing.