Not that I’ve been doing it lately – super-important procrastination takes priority most of the time – but writing genre for its own sake has been a pretty interesting experience thus far.
I used to write genre, of course, without thinking of it in such overt terms. I knew I was copying from other sources, other types of stories, established formulas that I recognised and knew other people recognised, was relying on being recognisable when I myself used them to tell my stories through.
Then I went to university and got all subversively-inclined, and my love for genre became refined and self-aware, and I told myself that I could only love it as much as I could undermine it, outdo it, turn it against itself and prove how well I could navigate and redeem it from its flaws. Only then would I have earned the right to enjoy genre conventions in any way whatsoever.
And then I saw City of Bones and decided that I was being an elitist stick in the mud, and even if you’re an elite stick in the mud, you’re still a stick in mud, and I think I can do better than that.
I had this idea when I started writing my YA project that it would ‘write itself’ – after all, it’s such an obvious and recognisable formula that I was following, surely no actual effort would be involved, right? I mean all the work had been done for me already!
No, obviously, that’s not how it works. For one – even if you’re following a formula, an established, done-to-death formula, and that’s the mindset you go into the project with, that’s different to understanding how and why the formula works as a whole, as the through-line of a coherent narrative – specifically, your narrative. What is the story you’re intending to use this formula to tell? Does it all work the way you think it does in practice?
For another, this whole idea of being a ‘pantser’ versus being a ‘planner’ – I’m historically a pantser, and as such it is my ‘mode’ to sweep myself up in the writing and get involved in the here and now. Which is great. I like working that way. But then when this mission of ‘writing genre’ comes into play and I remind myself that ‘this is what I’m trying to do’, I start to see how I could be doing it better, even more formulaic, even more generic and conventional. And that’s where I get stuck – not because I don’t like what I’ve got, but because it could be so much more generic, and that’s exactly what I’m going for.
In that sense I’m still kind of playing with the idea of genre, writing with a very keen awareness of what it ‘is’ and how to play it straight. As I write, and reflect upon that writing, I become aware of just how familiar I am with formula. I’m not just talking the Hero’s Journey formula, because that’s incredibly (intentionally) broad – I’m talking the kinds of formulas that stories I enjoy use, the tools that they use to get readers invested in what’s going on. The way a story opens, for instance – when I first decided I was going to write some YA, the idea of finding a way to write a really ‘hooky’ opening appealed to me like nobody’s business, a way to seamlessly integrate the introduction of characters, the setting, the core conflict, and the Cool Stuff (such as magic in Harry Potter, Pokemon in Pokemon, being a vampire in Vampire Academy, which I have now finished and have Thoughts about that I will share at a later date), and an attractive package to put it in and give it that little something extra, make it more than the sum of its parts.
Presentation is kind of everything, if you can assume that what’s being presented is as solid as it should be. Obviously this is not a given, and all the style in the world won’t save a badly-told story (and even parodies have to be told well to work at all), but if we take, for example, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, we get a really solid and engaging setup that does all of the things I want to do; and it’s this kind of formula that I’m looking to replicate as well as the broader, generic formulas of plot and structure and whatnot.
But since I’m writing YA, aren’t there tropes from YA that I should be following? Well, sure, but YA crosses over a lot, for me, with Fantasy for instance – there’s lots of Hero’s Journey stuff going on, and lots of Secret World stuff going on, too, so the trajectory is pretty similar. Start off with the Ordinary World (Privet Drive, The Shire), get the Call to Adventure (Hagrid, Gandalf/the Dwarves), and accept it (leaving the Dursleys, taking the Ring to the Prancing Pony), perhaps after refusing it at first (not leaving with the Dwarves), or at least hesitating a little (‘but I’m just Harry!’) – and really, that’s it. That’s all there is in terms of ‘formula’ in the general sense. The formula I’m trying to follow is not only generic, though – it’s text-specific.
And honestly, I can’t think of an example of what I’m actually trying to replicate here. Again, Philosopher’s Stone comes closest – it gets important information out there and introduces characters and basically uses the showing of character dynamics to help tell the reader what the hell is going on, and it does it all through the use of an energetic, over-the-top situation where the elements of the story being told and introduced manifest as a source of tension between the characters. More than the sum of its parts. I’m not sure quite how to deconstruct it down into composite parts for analysis, but that’s the ‘formula’ I’m talking about getting excited to replicate in the Opening Act as it were, that kind of dynamism – finding my own way to make it dynamic and involving so that the necessary technical information gets across smoothly and engagingly.
And that is part of the conventional formula in a sense – not every story does it the same way, or even well, but most at least make the attempt to give the reader something interesting to get them through the first act, where they will be beaten over the head with exposition whether they realise it or not. Something like Star Wars does this very well, but in a different way; the opening of the original Star War doesn’t tell you what’s going on, and that’s what gets you engaged – it shows you what’s going on, and makes you wait for answers. How do you set up a completely alien reality to our own? Just show it in action. And for Star Wars, this works because it doesn’t then cut to our world; the only world we ever get to see is this new strange one, with its own rules and normalcy that we’re going to have to get used to on our own time, and that is engaging.
However, Star Wars does also do a bit of the head-beating in the way that the Force is introduced – Obi-Wan literally just explains what it is, and it doesn’t really feel very significant, taking a back-seat to what he has to say about Luke’s father until later on in the movie, when we get to see a bit of the Force in action. But all things considered, while it introduces the world very well, the Cool Stuff could have been done a bit better.
Even Philosopher’s Stone does it similarly – Harry is told about Hogwarts and magic by … being told about Hogwarts and magic. True, Hagrid does give Dudley a pig tail, and if that had been the end of it until they actually get to Hogwarts, I might have thought it was a bit slicker. It works fine, but I’m keen to do one better, if not two or three.
That’s also why I haven’t been writing much of my YA thing – in fact any of it, not for about a week. This whole ‘writing genre’ thing comes with the pressure to ‘do it right’, and when I can see how to ‘do it right’, in my own sense of the phrase, it feels like I have no excuse to not go back and immediately change it to be ‘right’ before moving on, no excuse to do what I normally do and write the horrible first draft to work over later on. And I mean in principle it works, but in practice I just get all flustered and self-conscious and don’t want to do anything at all, let alone go back and re-write what I’ve just spent hours or even days writing. The stresses of perfectionism aside, that is the other issue with this ‘edit as you go’ approach – if you ‘know better’, then the implication is that you have to do better since you’re aware of it, which, when it comes to the writing process, is utter crap when it comes to the first draft, and also trying to do it is battling with the flipside of totally undermining all the labour you’ve just put into this thing. Which is another reason to just keep going, even if it’s not what you know it could be, even if you’re certain you’re going to go back and change it and undermine it anyway. Giving yourself a buffer of time is just good for sanity.
I shall try a new tactic, and just go back to making notes, but this time these notes will specifically be a summary of the ‘proper’ version of the story as the pieces fall into place while I’m writing the first draft. That way I get to vent my perfectionist tendencies without having to go back and physically rewrite all the stuff I’ve just written. Hopefully it’ll work.
In the meantime, I’ve got three days before my schedule tells me I need to be working on assignments, and in those three days I intend full well to get 50% of Tallulah revision done, and finish the current chapter of my YA WIP, which wraps up the first act. Then I get the most difficult part of any story – the middle – to squirm my way through. We’ll see how well my knowledge of genre tropes serves me then.
And even though I’m writing this post about this book I’m writing while I haven’t actually been writing it, it reminds me that I do actually enjoy writing about writing, rather than just writing about whether I’ve written much lately or not. So I’ll give that a go in earnest, too.