January 22, 2012
This isn't a post where I eat my hat and say how wonderful Harry Potter is. Neither is this a post where I denounce it as dreck. This is a post where I agree with Elaine Isaak, who said recently at Arisia at the Plot and Structure panel (and I paraphrase, probably poorly), that the plot of many successful commercial fiction novels is this: a likeable protagonist, against incredible odds, achieves a worthy goal. This is pretty dang easy to see in the Potter books. It's easy to see the techniques used to create the likeable protagonist. It's easy to see the incredible odds. It's easy to see the worthy goal. Wrap this in fun world-building, make the language entertaining and accessible, and it's really no wonder you have to stand in line at Potter World just to get into one of the gift shop attractions.
Lately, I've been looking at my old work, and kicking the tires. I have some folders on my hard drive: stories I've sold, stories I finished but haven't sold, and stories I never finished. I don't know what I want to do with those folders. In the past, when I've decided to spend more time writing fiction, I've opened up the folders and commenced fondling that old stuff. I opened one story yesterday and started noodling with it, but quickly shut it down. It starts in the wrong place. It's scoped to be 7500 words, but probably only ought to be 3500. All of my latest stories are over 5000 words. I remind myself that a novel is next. Not a short story to get my name back in the game, a novel. A novel, bonehead. I've been reading some short stories, but I'm mostly reading novels these days, and a lot of creative non-fiction. Read it, write it.
It's possible that my attitude toward the Potter books softened when I read and enjoyed the Hunger Games, which is today's Big Hot Thing. These books, in detail, are not alike. One has kids prancing around eating chocolate frogs and playing games on broomsticks, and the other has children hunting down and murdering one another. I hear the Potter books get darker later, and honestly, that's one reason I'm giving it another go. Read it, write it. I like dark stories. Am I studying up, so I can try to write a commercial fiction novel? Honestly, no. I can sit down and try to write something, but I can't sit down and try to write a commercial fiction novel. Or I could try, I suppose, but I'm not sure what the end product would be. I think setting out to write a novel at all is about all I can manage.
Can I learn something from the commercial fiction formula without actively planning to take what I learn and write a commercially successful novel? I think so. What makes a character likeable? What techniques are used in this book or that book to illustrate the incredible odds? Where does it get worse? What is the very, very blackest hour of the book, and how did the characters get there? How does the whole thing wrap up? Is there one ending (I prefer this) or seven/nine endings (see: the last Lord of the Rings film). What I can tell you about the Potter books in particular is that the writing in the first book is pretty darned ok, by me. But the writing in the start of the second book seems like it dripped from a different quill, and that's perplexing to me. I chalk it up to several things: most likely the author hunkered over the first book and polished it within an inch of its life, but didn't have the leisure to do that to the second; likely the same went for editing. I have the opportunity to read them all, back to back, in short order, and I wonder what other rhythmic things I will find. Afterward, perhaps I will read the entire Dark Tower series with the same ear.