sonata scenes

or, structure and emotion: an exploration

1147987_old_maritime_map I’m excited about editing. To be more precise, I’m excited about discovering a new system of editing long manuscripts.

With her usual clarity, Jenna St. Hilaire continues her confessional tutorial in the under-appreciated art of manuscript editing. ‘Confessional’, because, as readers of A Light Inside know, she’s been editing her own novel manuscript over the past months. Tutorial, because she’s using her experience to help others find a way to edit their own manuscripts.

The editorial board at Paradoxes (viz., me) extends their thanks. Because in reading this tutorial confessional, I (viz, Paradoxes’ editorial board) was reminded again how editing is like music.

Jenna’s editorial strategy has, I think, a healthy combination of empathy for the subject material needed to convey the story with the brute ruthlessness needed to tell it. So, for instance, she recommends post-draft outlining of the story, summarizing each scene, then aggressing all inconsistent details, weak scenes, dead action, and dangling ideas.

I take this to mean that the writer needs to submit to the story enough to understand its flow—that is, the contours of the structure and the harmony between structure and Story. But at the same time, the writer must not hesitate to smash and wrench and rebuild the structure. The goal is complete harmony between Story and structure (allowing for needed dissonance and atonality). Scenes, even endearing scenes, that don’t serve this end must be exterminated.

At this point in my exploration, I became irrevocably reminded of some memorable passages in Chesterton on faith and activism. And it struck me, with a near eucatastrophic suddenness, how much the act of sub-creation is linked to the greater acts of living:

Before any cosmic act of reform we must have a cosmic oath of allegiance. A man must be interested in life, then he could be disinterested in his views of it. ‘My son give me thy heart’; the heart must be fixed on the right thing: the moment we have a fixed heart we have a free hand. […]

Can [ a man] hate [the world] enough to change it, yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it? […] He is ready to smash the whole universe for the sake of itself. […]

One could be at peace with the universe and yet be at war with the world. St. George could still fight the dragon, however bit the monster bulked in the cosmos, though he were bigger than the mighty cities or bigger than the everlasting hills. If he were as big as the world he could yet be killed in the name of the world. St. George had not to consider any obvious odds or proportions in the scale of things, but only the original secret of their design. He can shake his sword at the dragon, even if it is everything; even if the empty heavens over his head are only the huge arch of its open jaws. [Orthodoxy (1908), ch. V]*

Scene editing is perhaps a sort of microcosm of social justice—cultivating in art and Story attitudes that escape into the real world, reckless love of the work at hand combined with an equally reckless determination to make it as perfect as possible in the time allowed you.

The attitude inherent in this sort of editing is one I applaud, and have tried to cultivate in myself for years. The actual procedure Jenna recommends is somewhat alien to me.

I tend to outline scenes before I write them, not after. And I don’t think it’s mentally or emotionally possible for me to follow her suggestion that, in the first read through of a draft, you ignore typos and sentence structure.

Perhaps I’m a holistic editor—any rate, my usual method of editing takes two forms. One, I edit while I write (paying the cost of low daily word counts), and try to get my words so they sound good at the time. Second, I charge into the jaws of a draft scribbling furiously, like a Nac Mac Feegle with a pen instead of a sword.

Everything I see to be changed, I change.

I like, however, the structural analysis Jenna suggests—it strikes me as more effective than my haphazard stabs at consistency, which usually involve word search. I’ve got a novella draft at hand—I think I’ll be trying Jenna’s five-and-counting- step method on it (marking typos and style as I go, however), and see how I like it.

Because structure, simply put, is important. It matters because of what a story is. It is not the structure of a speech or an article, used to convey information in logical sequence. It is the form, the meter, the instrument through which Story sings.

Consider, for instance, this telling comparison from George MacDonald:

The true fairytale is, to my mind, very like the sonata. We all know that a sonata means something; and where there is the faculty of talking with suitable vagueness, and choosing metaphor sufficient loose, mind may approach mind, in the interpretation of a sonata, with the result of a more or less contenting consciousness of sympathy. But if two or three men sat down to write each what the sonata meant to him, what approximation to definite idea would be the result? Little enough—and that little more than needful. We should find it roused related, if not identical feelings, but probably not one common thought. […]

Nature is mood-engendering, thought provoking: such ought the sonata, such ought the fairytale to be. [‘The Fantastic Imagination’ (1893)]**

Note that MacDonald doesn’t compare fairytales with music in general, or even with musical fantasies (although provide fruitful layers of comparison). He compares it to the sonata, a specific, highly structured classical form. If you violate the accepted form of a sonata, it isn’t anymore. It’s something else. Even a dream-tale, MacDonald seems to be saying, follows an inherent structure and form—albeit one not bound to logical expectations of a waking mind.

Much could be made of this. Chesterton, for one, had any number of things to say about the sorts of structure one finds in fairytales (see Orthodoxy, ch. IV). And they follow with dizzying neatness into questions of social justice, too. And I’ll probably have thoughts of my own to add in the near future.

But at the moment, as I prepare to launch on the excitement of editing (first excitement: finding out what color pen I’m holding), these things whirl around my mind in a certain cadence—a poetical algorithm, or a mystic syllogism—something that makes sense without being quite understood:

We edit for change, we change for beauty.
We change the world in a search for beauty.
We search for beauty in order to change the world.

Academic Stuff:
*G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, ([n.p.: John Lane Company, 1908; repr. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995) pp. 76-77, 84
**George MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination’, in The Gifts of the Child Christ: Fairy Tales and Stories for The Childlike, ed. by Glenn Edward Sadler,  (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1973) I, 26-27 (first publ. in The Light Princess and Other Fairy Tales, American edn. (1893))

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