Discovering My Sub(counscious)text

Welcome to the first of my novel process blogs, an occasional series that will appear as I have time and ideas and continue until it does not.

Today I’m talking about my experience, which I assume at least some other writers share, of discovering what my writing is ‘about’ as I write. What I mean by ‘about’ is the kind of subtext/allegory/deeper meaning that we were all taught to look for in high school English class. I don’t discover the plot and characters as I write. I need to decide on those beforehand, or I can’t write them down, but each time I return to my novel in progress, there are new things for me to realize nonetheless.

I went into my current work with some ideas about what it would be ‘about’. Specifically, I went in thinking about a story that would start as a very traditional hereditary chosen-one narrative, with traditional monarchist/feudal fantasy politics, but hopefully develop into an interrogation of those things. As a person deeply immersed in the section of the twittersphere covering the intersection of genre fiction and left-leaning politics, I’ve read many times in the last year or two about the importance of examining fantasy’s reflexive monarchism and long preoccupation with bloodline inheritance, and it makes a lot of sense to me. I made a choice to examine the trope I digested so many times, and I hope I manage to do it in a way that works and stays true to my old loves and my current politics.

In a less explicit way, I suppose I also went in expecting to write about a somewhat lonely, very studious, somewhat introspective child/young adult, because my protagonist is a teen and I have primarily my own experience of being a teen to inform my characterization of her.

It has turned out, two-thirds of the way into the book, that it’s going to about some other things:

This novel has a world falling into chaos, down to the weather and the passage of time, and it’s turned out to have something to say about climate change. I wasn’t intending to write about that, but there’s something to be read in what I have so far about communities changing and failing to change in response to a changing world.

It also has turned out that the book will be about solipsism, cultural imperialism, and anthropocentrism. This is less surprising than the global warming thing. I like philosophy, and I guess it was inevitable that a story about reality being defined by human magic would end up being about self and human centered philosophy. I suppose those are really more like subjects my initial idea was implicitly about that I’ve only realized explicitly as I write the first draft.

There are also certainly some things said about relationships and gender politics that I didn’t plan, but that arose from the narratives I found interesting for the characters, and what began as a critique of fantasized feudalism has expanded to, in my mind at least, consider the way in which capitalism reduces workers to their functions and forgets their humanity.

All that is just what I went in with and have discovered myself as I write two thirds of a first draft. In another month, I’ll send these pages to my writing group, and they will surely find new themes and subtexts that I am entirely ignorant of. A few months back, I learned in group critique that my hastily chosen name for a formerly nameless character, selected off the top of my head to improve the flow of a few sentences, inserted an entirely spurious folklore reference into a story already full of intentional ones.

I love this process, and I find it worth rambling about here, because discovering these potential subtexts in my work is a process of discovering my own inarticulate preoccupations. The meaning that appears in my work is, undeniably, a large part of what I have been thinking about for the past months of writing. Each time I find a new thread in the text, I have the chance to look at something that’s been bubbling below the threshold of my internal monologue and understand what has been bothering or fascinating the parts of my mind I don’t corral for conscious work. Even as a detailed outliner, these undercurrents can surprise me and change my own thinking about the text, and it is always wonderful to find new things in what I am creating.