The Force Awakens; Joseph Campbell Sleeps Through Alarm

So I’ve seen The Force Awakens twice now, and will probably be seeing it again today. I like it. It feels like Star Wars should feel, and while I do have some complaints, this is not the prequels. We have left that dark age behind, and have entered into a new era of hope and wonder. Or something.

The thing is, it’s still not quite the Star Wars that I’m looking for. I think it could be a decent introduction to it, but this movie is definitely more fanservice and set-up than a story in and of itself, and while I honestly don’t mind it all that much, it is definitely its greatest weakness. And upon watching Star Wars (what some people call A New Hope, because they’re wrong) the other night, I finally put my finger on exactly what it is about Awakens that leaves me wanting.

Not enough Joseph Campbell. Not nearly enough.

Because even though Awakens has the look, the feel and the terminal velocity of a good Star Wars movie, it lacks that one vital ingredient that makes Star Wars quite possibly my favourite film of all time: a by-the-numbers Hero’s Journey executed with style, passion and, most importantly, understanding how and why the Hero’s Journey works.

Which Awakens does not. Let’s talk about Rey. Who I really like. And who does actually go through an on-paper perfect Hero’s Journey. Spoilers ahead; for that matter, if you haven’t alrady seen The Force Awakens this entire post might not be of interest to you, because it kind of assumes you have.

And as for the question of why, on my writing blog, I am talking about a movie: it’s Star Wars. This is where I learnt how to tell stories. If there is any film franchise that can be more or less directly translated into the medium of writing, it is Star Wars.

The first one anyway. As for this one …

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… guh … that title … I mean I could literally change it right now but … I won’t … ugh …

Today I remembered why notebooks – not just notes, notebooks – are so vital for writers: they don’t require you to log on before you start writing shit down. Yes they have a lot less “memory” than a USB stick or your hard drive or The Cloud, but they’re immediately available so long as you have a pen and a light-source. So I’m going to be re-discovering notepads in the coming weeks.

Because I have just started to crack the shell of the troublesome critter that is my intended Nanowrimo project.

I started off by beginning a re-read of The Magicians by Lev Grossman. I still intend to one day review and critique the entire trilogy, but I will take a moment to sum up my major, overarching issue with the ideological vein that runs throughout the three books: it is a Hero’s Journey where the hero doesn’t actually complete the journey. In fact they blatantly fail the journey; they basically end up with the exact inverse conclusion to how the journey should end.

I mean that’s my argument. There’s a few ways to look at it, as with anything, and I have one alternative reading of this being a successful Hero’s Journey. I just don’t think it stands up to the argument that it fails.

To be more specific (and spoilery, so be warned)The Magicians is the story of Quentin Coldwater, who is a self-loathing, bitter, reserved, naive, daydreamy young adult who has a hopeless crush on his best friend’s girlfriend, and spends much of his time wishing that the world of Fillory, the series’ Narnia allegory/critique, was real, so that he could escape into it. Quentin is defined by what he wants, which is what he can’t have – can’t beat the classics. But it’s not just that he wants what he can’t have; he wants it in a particularly heteromasculine way. He wants his best friend’s girl. He wants a magical land of adventure and innocence. He wants to want, because on top of everything else he’s neurotic and depressed. It’s very abstract, existential stuff lumped in with painfully predictable male-entitled material, and it works really well to that end. There’s a reason I wanted to analyse these books as an example of an “authentic” male lead – though probably not anymore, as that word is kind of useless.

What’s also useless is Quentin’s Journey. Because all throughout it he seems to transcend his selfish, hopeless desires that make him miserable because, as this is a Hero’s Journey, they’re not what he needs. They are the objects of desire for his ego, and as Joseph Campbell will tell you post-mortem, any hero is required to relinquish their ego in order to transcend and attain enlightenment, which is the general goal of any Hero’s Journey. He gets to Fillory, and it’s a pile of garbage. He gets the opportunity to sleep with his best friend’s girl, but it’s not in the way he’s always fantasised about it happening so he passes it up. He learns magic, but it’s basically just the same super-elitist academic test-oriented meaninglessness that he’s always been good at, so it’s not really anything new. He and his college buddies graduate and get a pile of money to live off for the rest of their lives, plus a loft apartment in NYC, and it destroys his relationship with his girlfriend (well, he does, but because he’s aimless and unsatisfied). It’s all classic ego stuff, and it’s shown to be vapid and unsatisfying. That part works. And by the end of the second book, he’s lost all of these ego-attachments and is reduced to zero, leaving the third book for him to build himself up again.

Here’s where shit goes downhill. While he loses all the Things that he “wants”, from his best friend’s girl to a life of luxury to being the King of Fillory, he also loses something that, while he was fond of it, he didn’t actually want: his relationship with Alice. Alice is perhaps the most blatant plot-prop I’ve ever come across in any story, and at the end of the first book she sacrifices herself to defeat the Big Bad, and thus Quentin loses her. This being after he cheated on her after a night of drunken debauchery at the loft apartment in NYC (where she also lived) and they were already broken up, but starting to reconcile. She is there to have a heartbreaking story that teaches Quentin a lesson about karma or some shit; she is a Woman in a Refrigerator.

In the third book, she comes back to life. Her sacrifice was not death; she summoned so much magical power that she became a Niffin, a being of pure magical energy and essentially a demon. She was basically all-powerful and found everything hilarious because she was all-powerful, immortal, uncontested in terms of sheer raw magical potency, and could do whatever the fuck she wanted. It’s suggested that Niffins are evil, but really they’re just both autonomous and beholden to no-one. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of like being a witch: a woman who answers to no man and has the power to back it up (anybody can become a niffin, but Alice is the only one who features in any real capacity in the series).

In the third book, Quentin encounters Alice as a Niffin and decides that he’s going to find a way to turn her back into a human.

Because of fucking course he does.

In a way, this makes sense: he’s lost everything, including the one thing he didn’t want and didn’t appreciate at the time – Alice. This is his chance to realise that even if it wasn’t what he fantasised about, it was something real, something that requires him to let go of his selfish egotistical whims and to commit to something unpredictable and distinctly non-fantasy in nature, something he can’t control or romanticise. When he does eventually restore Alice’s humanity, by this logic, you can say that he does actually complete his Hero’s Journey, and in that by restoring Alice’s humanity he returns the Elixir to mankind and allows others to benefit from his enlightenment.

But this is a story that is characterised by its sad puppy protagonist, whose anxieties and bitternesses are decidedly (white, upperclass, educated, heterosexual, cisgender, able) male, in the same vein as Garden State500 Days of Summer and Ruby Sparks, only at least with those examples the second and third examples wanted to do some deconstruction (and one of them succeeded) (hint hint it wasn’t 500 Days of Summer). And the thing that makes me feel like The Magicians fails in its promise of a Hero’s Journey where the ego is transcended/abandoned and enlightenment is achieved is that Quentin’s ego is, specifically, a male ego. And that male ego is, throughout the trilogy, repeatedly rewarded either with straight-up perks – rebound girl Poppy in The Magician King is perhaps the most blatant example – or character-development, vis-a-vis Alice’s heroic sacrifice serving mainly to punish Quentin for being a myopic douche.

Quentin fails in his Journey because he never actually transcends his male ego, and for me at least, the entire first and second books revolved around how much that male ego was hurting him. It was the biggest obstacle to his personal growth; it just seemed obvious that it would be the thing he’d have to overcome in order to complete his Journey. But apparently that was never the point, and it’s disappointing, because I think we could really do with a story like that. In the end, his ultimate “heroic” act is to force Alice into a form more pleasing to and manageable by him – her first human-again experience is sleeping with him while furious that he has restored her to human form, hello more rewards for male entitlement – and then they’re just together, like they were always meant to be or some shit. In a way it’s like a very extreme manifestation of why I hate Harry/Ginny as a couple; Harry does not respect what Ginny’s been through, at all, and just seems to want her because he’s a straight teenage boy and she’s physically present and has had a crush on him from the moment they met (which he’s known from the moment they met). It’s the utter lack of respect, of equality, that Quentin retains. He wants a thing; he gets the thing. That’s not a story. That’s sure as fuck not a Hero’s Journey. That’s a masturbatory power-trip.

Which is really upsetting, because I really like the first book and appreciated a lot about the second book, because it seemed like Quentin was going to lose his ego, be knocked down to the lowest peg, and then have to find a way to become a decent, non-selfish human being – and, given the nature of his ego, it would also have to be that he found a way to confront his male entitlement and, like, get over it. Apparently not. And honestly, I’m not surprised. Just disappointed.

(end spoilers)

This was an important step in me gaining traction with my intended Nanowrimo project because it deals with similar themes – in fact it’s sort of like a cross between The Magicians and Harry Potter, because I’m a hack and I embrace it like a real man. By identifying the specifics regarding my intense dislike for the resolution of the Magicians trilogy, I was able to get a handle on what I was missing from my project: a clear conflict, and a way to resolve it.

This step was completed via notepad, and thus I also learnt that notepads are awesome.

And now I have a story beginning to germinate, and it’s because I put some effort into it. I’ve been thinking about how and why I feel compelled to tell the stories I do try to tell, and for a while I’ve been operating under the assumption that the least effort possible is always the best decision, that trying to force things to work if they don’t work immediately is never worth the effort. It certainly didn’t work for Tallulah, or the 13-year project I gave up on when I was 25, while the stories I have gotten some traction with lately have been the ones I’ve put the least effort into shaping, the ones that were concepts that were strong right from the start. My rule has been, for the past little while (and one of the main reasons why I quit Tallulah), that I will not try to force ideas to become stories, because by and large it’s just not worth it.

Tonight I broke that rule by actually putting some time and effort into developing my thoughts about The Magicians and, by extension, my intended Nanowrimo project. It wasn’t a clear and obvious story; but it was a clear and obvious problem. It was a problem that I felt had to be worked through, and solving a problem is a kind of story all of its own. You start with an obstacle, you try to get past it, and only with time, effort and learning what it is that you’re really dealing with that you eventually gain enlightenment.

And I think, for one month, I can see if that’s enough to make a story out of. Because this is a story I would really like to work, even if it doesn’t fit my current criteria for Worth Putting Effort Into. But there’s a problem with that anyway, in that this rule of mine also presumes that the moment effort is put into it beyond just writing, it becomes sullied and unsuitable, spoiled, ruined, and not worth persisting with. It becomes a lost cause, and I don’t like that idea at all. I need more of a balance, and this story, one that I have had to kind of goad and nudge into the shape of a story, might just teach me that balance.

I guess I’ll find out by the end of November.

It’s the journey that matters

The writing world is fascinating. You’d think that, as an aspiring Writer (though also somebody who vehemently declares themselves Not A Writer Anymore), I would be more interested in what’s going on with my kin. Apparently not.

Thankfully there’s this wonderful thing called Twitter that does all of my engagement for me.

There’s apparently been a huge shitstorm brewing with the Hugo awards, the most prestigious sci-fi literary awards in existence, or so I gather. Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Le Guin won a bunch of them so I assume that’s all the evidence I or anybody else needs. TL;DR: a bunch of bitter white conservative cishet dudes are gaming the voting system to flood the nominations with their own selected nominees. It’s worked.

It’s disgusting.

The fact that the system works like that to begin with is … well, no system is perfect. It goes to show, though, that it is only angry white dudes who have opted to game the system in this way, despite it being open for exploitation for anybody with a chip on their shoulder and enough friends with enough money to do so. Then again, maybe that’s partly why it’s only angry white dudes who have managed to game the system.

The argument they’re making is basically that “the good old days” are gone, replaced by politically-correct placard-waving feminists, gay rights activists and people who aren’t white. Daring to speculate on things like pertinent social issues of the day, human nature, politics – absolutely nothing like the entire fucking point of science fiction. And one of them openly supports gamergate. I would pray for you, Hugo Awards, if I believed in any kind of higher power that responded to prayer. Instead, I just hope you get your shit together.

What really frustrates me is that within this viscous morass of inanity is, deeply submerged, a nugget of value: the issue of what is “typical”, and what is “neutral”. We’re talking about people like Orson Scott Card here, who openly and financially opposes gay marriage and gay people in general, yet has written one of the most widely-celebrated science fiction novels of all time, across political spectrums and social demographics. I haven’t read it because 1): I can’t be fucked and 2): I totally buy into personality politics and don’t really want to read something written by a raging homophobe. But that’s not to say that I don’t have my own problematic faves (hello Vampire Academy), nor to call out anybody who likes Card’s work from an artistic point of view. The one sliver of valid discussion in the Rabid/Sad Puppies’ rabies-infected rhetoric is that certain stories do get more celebrated than others – not the ones they’re talking about, because their outrage is so narcissistic they can’t help but miss the point – but, for instance, the Hero’s Journey.

I’ve been thinking for a while now that Joseph Campbell’s celebrated monomyth is not as universal as writers, editors and anybody who knows who Joseph Campbell is seem to claim it is. I mean it’s fairly obvious that it gets used to tell pariticularly sexist, racist, homophobic, trans-erasing and all other manner of regressive stories, but that doesn’t mean that the model itself is regressive. You could use the Hero’s Journey to tell a story about a trans protagonist, or Black, or disabled – it’s just that it either doesn’t happen very often or, as is more likely, mainstream readership doesn’t have it marketed towards them.

That’s what I thought up until very recently. While I still believe that you could do that – because, well, you could – there’s also a problem with it, because the monomyth is very heavily gendered. A posthumously published book of Campbell’s, Goddesses, does explore the feminine divine and the role it plays in world mythology and narratives, but I can’t help but find it a bit suspicious that Campbell never published these lectures in book format during his life – he obviously had a lot to say on the subject. I have to suspect a bias on his part, not finding the topic quite worthy of publication – or perhaps he had plans to do so but never got around to it, or was turned down, or fuck it why am I speculating on a dead guy’s motivations anyway the book exists and I want to read it.

But this book existing – as it has for quite a while – has done nothing to diminish the near-reverence that the hero’s journey is treated with, and it certainly doesn’t seem to have encouraged the big-money mainstream media to find alternatives to it. It may well be less that the gatekeepers of the storytelling industry view the hero’s journey as gender-neutral and more that they have a bias towards gendered-male narrative storytelling, probably without realising it, like I’m imagining Campbell didn’t realise he de-valued the importance of publishing a book about female and feminine myth and narrative. Perhaps unfairly, but I really don’t trust men. And being a man myself, I have quite a bit of material to back that stance up with.

Regardless, this question of whether the hero’s journey as a structure, rather than an actual story, is male-specific, because I think that it is. So what would a heroine’s journey look like? Would it be fundamentally different to the hero’s journey, or is the hero’s journey truly neutral enough to accommodate any protagonist, any setting, any quest, so long as the basic structure is kept in tact? I found a couple of articles discussing it, and in the process I think I’ve discovered my favourite topic ever: Narrative and Gender. There is nothing more me than this topic, and I need more of it.

The first article I found talks about what the hero’s journey lacks in terms of being a good fit for a female protagonist. There are a few points that I take issue with in the specifics of the argument – the suggestion that Katniss Everdeen is a heroic character in particular, though that is probably because I am a total book purist when it comes to the series – I absolutely agree with one of the big points: the hero’s journey, because it is an aggregate of myths and folklore throughout history, is inherently retrospective, lending itself to a “good old days” kind of thinking, and often that is exactly what happens (anybody who doubts me can go watch Seventh Son, and then rejoice in the fact that they are one of the only people in the world who watched Seventh Son). Trying to build a heroine’s journey out of the myths that Campbell works with in the hero’s journey, using the kinds of roles that he allocates to women in the monomyth, is a recepie for disaster unless you are looking to be very, very subversive. And subversion is fun as fuck, don’t get me wrong, but it also often feels like a response, a reaction rather than an action, and in doing so can feel like it has less of a self-determined identity. I hate stories like that. And thus the assertion in this article that a heroine’s journey must be “forward-looking” is one that I am absolutely on board with. The only issue for me is that it assumes that the monomyth is the full scope of our possible material to draw on for constructing a heroine’s journey, instead of looking at, for instance, some of the myths and folklore that feature girls and women in the leading role, but then seeing how prevalent and insisted-upon the hero’s journey is for storytelling at a commercially viable level, this implicit assumption is pretty fair. There’s only so much you can cover in a single argument and keep it coherent.

The second article expands upon this concept of the heroine’s journey, giving some specific examples of where a heroine’s journey would differ from a hero’s. Two points stuck with me in particular. The first was this line:

Sometimes, we rob the dragon of its fire by giving it a task.

Cooperation over confrontation, yo. It stuck with me because I cannot, for the life of me, remember this ever happening in a story that featured a male protagonist, unless that protagonist was also a small child and unable to fight his way out of the danger he was in.

The second is this passage, quoting Carol Pearson:

In our culture, the heroic ideal of the Warrior has been reserved for men–usually only white men at that. Women in this plot are cast as damsels-in-distress to be rescued, as witches to be slain, or as princesses who, with half the kingdom, serve as the hero’s reward… The Warrior archetype is also an elitist myth, which at its base embodies the notion that some people take their heroic journeys while others simply serve and sacrifice…

[Although] many women enact the Warrior archetype… they do not see slaying dragons as very practical, since the people who often entrap women are husbands, mothers, fathers, children, friends–people who insist that good women forgo their own journeys to serve others. That is why there often are no true villains in stories about female heroes.

Spirited Away, anyone?

Harry Potter is essentially in this situation until Hagrid comes along and jailbreaks him, and it is this tension that opens his story. It also makes for the tightest, most satisfying storytelling portion of Philosopher’s Stone, so very obviously this is one to consider. Also considering the kind of toxic socialisation that a lot of women and girls go through, where they are taught to put others before themselves, in both subtle and non-subtle ways – I’d say that’s a pretty damn solid setup for some heroics to follow.

But both of these articles – and the very act of questioning the gender-neutrality of the hero’s journey, or any other narrative model – also raise the equally serious issue of gender determinism, the “well why should a heroine’s journey have to be fundamentally different to the hero’s journey?”, and, of course, “why couldn’t a male hero’s narrative follow this supposed female-centric structure?”, never mind what happens if we have nonbinary protagonists (which I have yet to find any writing on). It is this question that keeps me from completely giving up on the hero’s journey as being doomed to serving the patriarchy, because I see the structure it offers as being, if not neutral, then at least very adaptable. But on the other hand, the proposed heroine’s journey – I like it a lot. I think we need more heroes like that; we already have a couple with Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins and the Guardians of the Galaxy, and if this article is correct in its assumptions – well, I hope it is. I want more of this collaborative-effort-heroism, and definitely more diversity within that collaboration. And while the issue of gender determinism is a really important one that should not be glossed over just because the rest of the argument is good … the rest of the argument is good. Particularly the part about involving other people in the journey, because I’ve always been drawn to ensembles in my storytelling, and I feel lately that my more recent stories are missing that element, which is perhaps why I’m so loath to actually write any of them. Heroics are all well and good, and I love A Wizard of Earthsea for its introspective hero’s journey. But at the same time, that’s a pretty subversive twist on the formula as well, because in the end it is Ged who is the main antagonist and main protagonist. It is his arrogance and pride that threatens the world, and only through learning to accept himself as he truly is can he save himself, and thereby save the world. Granted, that also makes it an incredibly myopic hero’s journey, but no less pure of an example for it. It’s just that stories of a lone hero doing lonely hero things really doesn’t appeal to me, unless that loneliness is part of the journey. Because there’s more than one important person in the world, and it certainly takes more than one person to change it.

Even the Puppies get that part.

I lament the toxicity that seems to have engulfed the Hugo Awards, but I am also somewhat hopeful that it is a backlash that is indicative of the death throes of that particular way of thinking, rather than a resurgence of it. I hope that’s what it is. And in the meantime, I am very glad to have found some eye-opening discussion on the way that we tell stories, the gendered assumptions we collectively make about our culture’s most defaulted-to narrative models, and to consider the possibilities that arise from this discussion.

It’s also gotten me to dig myself out of my creative writing rut a little bit, and has taught me a valuable lesson: there’s interesting shit going on in the writing world, and it’s not just interesting to read – it’s also useful for getting me out of my own head, opening up my perspective and getting me closer to being as involved in storytelling as a craft, a philosophy and a culture as I’d like. Because just like the hero’s journey suffers from isolation and myopism, writing suffers from trying to “go it alone”. I miss having a writing buddy. I miss the feeling of writing in the company of others, because storytelling is a very social act. And I’m remembering that I need that part of it.

Experiences writing genre

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.