This post started as a response to a comment left on yesterday's post, where I was going to agree that knowing that the book is about (as opposed to what happens in the book) is a map through the second draft. And then I started thinking about how very much I agree with that idea, and also, the specific ways in which I agree with that idea (said vigorous agreement cemented by a realization about a piece of the current book in progress.)
Stories, especially novel-length ones, are full of choices. Some of them, the ones my characters make, I want to be visible. I want the reader to see my character stand at the crossroads, throw the bones, read the entrails, and decide. I want the reader to feel the agony of a choice when there is no good option, only a variety of less bad ones. If I don't make those choices visible, with actual consequences, the story seems to be on rails, with the eventual outcome predestined from the beginning. Those, I can usually make up as I go along. (I know, I know. The magic, let me show you it.)
But there are other, more difficult choices, ones I want to keep hidden so that they seem as if they were always part of the book. These, I can't fully make until I know what the book is about.
For example, I have a friend who, whenever we talk about my writing says, "Did [spoiler] actually have to happen to [Redacted]?" Then she says, "I know, I know. It did. But I liked [Redacted] and I wished [alternate possibility]." And I make a sad face, and agree with her, and say, "I'm sorry, I couldn't do anything else."
Of course, I am a liar.
Plot-wise, I could have done something else. Or fixed things. Both could have been made to feel fully integrated with the other events of the book. No miracles, no deus, with or without machina, would have been required. But I would have been telling a different story then. Not just in terms of plot, but in terms of what the story meant.
Knowing who the villain is, and why he or she is villainous, knowing who gets out alive, and who gets out unscathed, knowing the right ending - the haunting one, not the happy one - these are things I don't know until I know what the book is about. Knowing what the book is about gives me the foundation I need to make the hard choices - to do the things that will break the hearts of my readers, or cause people to wonder what exactly goes on in that head of mine, that this is the sort of thing that I write. It gives me the ability to keep those things hidden, to make it seem as if of course those things needed to happen, the signs were all there, even if it hurt to read them.
If I don't know what the story is about, then I get tempted to listen to the weeping of my beta readers, who wonder why I'm so mean to them, and to my characters. I get tempted to make people happy - because who doesn't like happy people - rather than telling the right story. My job is to tell the right story, and I write until I know what it is.