Harry Potter and the Death of the Author

I promised I’d talk about Pottermore and touch on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, so … here we go.

As someone who grew up with the Harry Potter books — in first grade one of our field trips was to see The Sorcerer’s Stone in theaters — I pretty much live and breathe this stuff. It’s not so much something that I actively seek out as something that I know like the back of my hand; it’s as familiar as a beloved stuffed animal, and the series grew along with us. You could probably call millennials the Harry Potter generation and we wouldn’t really protest that much.

Before the Pottermore site ever went live — I want to say this was around 2005 — a piece of fanfiction was written called The Shoebox Project. It centers on the Marauders, James Potter and Sirius Black and their little band, and it’s over two hundred thousand words. Now, say what you will about fanfiction, but even without having read it you’ve got to admit that 200k of anything is a great deal of time and energy to spend on something you’ll never get paid for. Having read it, I think the writing is pretty darn good, and it tells an engaging story. A pair of writers sat down and wrote this Project, and included drawings and photographs, and it was a labor of love.

The reason I was aware of the Shoebox Project — long before I ever felt the interest to read it — was because within that story, one of the plot points is that James Potter’s parents are murdered by Death Eaters.

J.K. Rowling went to the media to say that no, that was incorrect, James Potter’s parents died of old age.

… Which is … great, I guess, except that none of the actual Harry Potter books that were out at that point mentioned the fact that Harry’s grandparents died of old age.

And I remember being ten or so, watching the Today show before heading to school, hearing about JK Rowling saying, very seriously, that James Potter’s parents died of old age and it was incorrect for these fans to write a story in which they didn’t survive to old age.

Ever heard of a concept called “Death of the Author”? It means that once you’ve written something and published it, as long as people are drawing their conclusions from the text, they can draw whatever conclusions they want. You, the author, cannot force them to come to a particular conclusion, nor can you prohibit them from coming to a conclusion you do not like. What’s in the published work is all there is. If you want to write a sequel, then write a sequel; but whatever you write, once you’ve released it into the wild, you can’t control what other people think about it.

It’s the old English Major Maxim: As long as you can prove it with textual citations, you can argue for it.

So JKR, the author, had this idea about James Potter’s parents. She didn’t write it in the books. The fans aren’t mind readers. How could they know? How could she expect them to know? And how could she get mad at them for coming up with a perfectly logical idea with regards to what she had already written?

That incident in ’05 (or ’04, or ’06; I’m hazy on the dates) is JKR saying “Death of the Author doesn’t apply to me.”

Pottermore is that incident magnified, and prettified on a website.

And yeah, it’s neat to be able to Sort yourself into a Hogwarts house (Hufflepuff forever) and see what the website thinks your Patronus should be (polecat?), and it’s neat to have a message board for other fans.

But she’s continually coming out with new content about books that were published … over a decade ago. And treating it like it’s just as canon as the published books.

Sorry, lady, but at this point those are just fancy headcanons, as the fans call them. Ideas that are nice to think about, but that can’t be read as law within the fictional universe, because they only exist in your head. If you want us to think a certain thing about this character, then publish a short story or a sequel or a separate series. Don’t dump snippets on a nice website and then get your nose out of joint when people ignore it.

— which leads into the next subject, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Also known as, Harry Potter and the Flogging the Dead Horse.

Also known as, Harry Potter and the Maybe Quit While You’re Ahead.

Also known as, Harry Potter and the You Actually Wrote A Blue-Haired Daughter of Bellatrix Lestrange And Voldemort? Did You Take A Minute to Maybe Think About This First?

Sometimes — and I would count having your own theme park as one of those times — it’s okay to step back and let a series be finished.

creature of habit

I have a callus on the side of my right middle finger. I first got this callus when I was seven or so, I want to say, because that’s when I first started writing by hand extensively. Wooden pencils (or ‘analog’ as I like to call them) give you that callus, and make it a lot thicker than a plastic mechanical pencil or pen will. After I started doing more of my writing on a computer — I want to say it was somewhere in high school that I moved from composition notebooks to a computer permanently — the callus became less pronounced. It’s still there, but these days the handwriting I do is confined to jotting down notes on a Post-It or writing in my little black book. And it’s usually no longer than an hour’s worth of handwriting at a time.

It’s the nature of the beast that writing on a computer is faster than longhand. Sometimes my thoughts go slower than my pen, but sometimes the only thing that can catch up to how fast the ideas come is the keyboard. Thank goodness for all those “Type to Learn” classes they forced us to take in elementary school. (They’re still doing those, right? Hunt and peck is fun but only when you’re not trying to write over 3k at a time. Also, does seeing elementary school kids with tablets and smartboards(tm) make anyone else feel old? No? Just me? Darn.) In any case, while some people prefer the sensory feeling of writing longhand, I prefer the expediency of a keyboard to record my ideas and write my drafts. In the same vein, I prefer using my laptop to writing on my smartphone.

The actual weird thing, though, is that which application I use also seems to make a difference as to my productivity level. I used to do all my typing on Word. Approximately one zillion of all the embarrassing body-swap and clairvoyant and historically inaccurate pirate stories that I wrote on my parents’ clunky old desktop in middle school were written using Word. And every last essay I ever wrote for high school and college was using the Word app. So I should still be okay with using Word for writing my manuscript drafts, right?

Nope. I can’t stand it now. For some reason, Word just isn’t comfortable for me anymore, like too many hours holding an analog pencil.

I’ve been using Scrivener for the last year and a half. I’m sure there are plenty of other writing apps that give you just as many cool doodads (like compiling the draft to pdf/epub, or viewing multiple sections of the same document at the same time), but I’m perfectly content with Scrivener. It does all of the things I need it to do, and after the first hour playing around in the tutorials, it’s fairly intuitive as to usage. But to be completely honest, I’m sticking with Scrivener because A) if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and B) I just seem to write better on Scrivener than on Word, and I’d probably feel the same with any of those other newfangled apps.

It’s the same sort of thing with WordPress. I can type my drafts in the WordPress site. The site offers that ability. But I’d rather transcribe an already written post into the WordPress site, than compose it for the first time in WordPress. I’d so much rather type up the blog post in an email app, save it as a draft, and then copy/paste or retype into WordPress. More effort? Yeah, but not longer than five minutes’ worth, and retyping gives me a chance to edit, anyway.

Call it an idiosyncrasy if you will. But if you ask around enough, you’ll find that everyone who writes has some kind of weird habit. I think I’ll take copy/paste and retyping over only being able to drink Mountain Dew any day.

NaNoWriMo

I am not officially participating in National Novel Writing Month this November. I’m not registering an account on their website, and while I have my own word count app to keep track of my projects (Writeometer, available on Google Play, if you’re curious), I’m not going to be publicly logging that word count every single day. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain … the little green one, over there, holding the mind control device. Ahem. That is to say, I don’t think any of you are interested in hearing me whine about how difficult it was to put fingers to keyboard on a Thursday evening, and mentioning plot points is kind of a spoiler even if it is for a first draft and therefore in flux. And while other people find it helpful to commiserate with a large online community, I’d much prefer to pester a handful of close friends. What else are Skype and Google Hangouts for?

But I am going to be writing a novel this month. And I am aiming for a minimum of 55 thousand words in the first draft. And, because public accountability seems to be the thing that kicks my butt into gear, I’ll be posting my weekly word count on Sundays until I finish the draft. (At which point you can bet there will be much throwing of confetti, even if I don’t do it on my blog where you can see it. As a relative novice I do still get excited every time I finish a manuscript. But that’s a post for another day.)

National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) posits that you can sit down for an hour or so and write about 1400 words in a day, every day, for thirty days, to produce fifty thousand words. To longtime veterans, this is half or one third of a novel. (Or one sixth, if you’re George R. R. Martin.) To newbies who’ve never written anything longer than 3k for a college essay, it’s Mount Everest. Perspective is one hell of a drug, as they say. Either way, the program encourages its participants to sit down and write a given amount of words, every day, for the month of November.

It’s an exercise in discipline rather than creativity, and if you’re looking to get into the business of writing, it’s good practice. Because the point of it is that the draft isn’t supposed to be perfect, it’s just supposed to be finished. That’s what a separate editing stage is for. And even if the drat you produce ends up a steaming pile of crap no matter how much you edit, who cares? You still produced something, and that 50k of crap got you 50k closer to something worth reading.

if you’re gonna break the rules …

… do it on purpose.

Because I’m more familiar with princess movies than, uh, a lot of things (what can I say: I grew up on Disney) we’re going to do the comparison using princess movies. But I’m sure you can find other examples in sci fi, or action, or any number of other genres.

Three princess movies that all contain fairytale magic, but are set in a sort of medieval/baroque/otherwise “period” era: Ella Enchanted, Cinderella 2015, and Beauty and the Beast 2017.

You know, right off the bat, that not everything is going to be realistic, because duh, there’s magic involved. At least one of the main/supporting characters is going to be inhuman. But the attitude that each of these movies takes toward that old-timey setting is very different.

You’ve got Cinderella 2015, what I’d call the middle of the spectrum. Most of the sets, the costumes, are based solidly in an 1800s French sort of style. The only obvious anachronisms are in the stepmother and stepsisters’ costumes, which are clearly done on purpose in order to show how different they are from everyone else in the story. And the fairy godmother, while she has little sparkly wings attached to her dress, is more glamorous than everyone except Cinderella — with LEDs in the skirts! — but in a way that doesn’t stick out badly, even if she only has one scene in the movie. The dialogue and setting and costumes mesh pretty well to provide that historical-feeling ambiance. (You can read a more detailed analysis of the costuming in Cinderella 2015 here.)

Then there’s Ella Enchanted, which has the fairy godmother in a mini skirt and go-go boots, and Eric Idle narrating, and Hattie as the president of the Prince Char Fanclub (zomg u guyz!), and the main character singing a Queen song during karaoke. None of this existed in the book this movie was loosely based off of, but the movie doesn’t care; it’s delightedly zooming its way through a story that can be whatever it wants, because there’s magic and elves and ogres, darn it, it doesn’t have to be realistic. The dialogue, setting, and costumes are all consistent in this regard. So the anachronisms, instead of being annoying, are entertaining. (See also: A Knight’s Tale, even though that one doesn’t have any magic involved.)

And then you have Beauty and the Beast 2017, which is very clearly trying to be modern in its sensibilities but historical in its setting and costumes, Which … really doesn’t succeed, because the modern sensibilities bleed over into the costumes, and not in a way that feels like it was done on purpose. Belle wears period clothes throughout the film except for the ballgown in the iconic scene. The contrast is pretty jarring, especially when you realize that that yellow dress wouldn’t look out of place in a high school prom; and that kind of dissonance is usually reserved for the antagonists, not the main character (c.f. Cinderella). Then you also have the dialogue, which in some moments is lifted straight from the original movie, and in some moments feels like it could have been lifted straight from the original movie, and in some moments has words straight from 2017 that just immediately ruin the moment. (At least for me: the Beast saying the phrase “too touristy” was a definite nope.)

I won’t even begin to go into the dance choreography.

The thing is, there’s always going to be something that doesn’t quite mesh with everything else. And that’s okay. But it’s like writing an essay for English class. If you want there to be a Solid Theme (i.e. Belle being “not like other girls”), then everything you do has to be related back to that theme. Make her other clothes more modern too, instead of just the ballgown. Or, if you want the solid theme to be “this could have taken place in a palace not far from Paris in the 1700s”, then even if you’re stuck on Emma Watson not having to wear a corset, you could at least make some kind of nod to the fashions of the time instead of that .. ruffled, cake-layered … thing. But the key is consistency.

I don’t care — and your audience won’t care either — whether you go full-on Research Mode and toss in as much trivia/jargon/whatever from that time period as you want, or whether everything is neon lights and karaoke. Just as long as it’s entertaining, and as long as it’s consistent.

Does it add to the story?

Sometimes a day feels like Groundhog Day (or Death Day, if you’re a horror fan or your life has hit a frustrating point); the same events repeating over and over. The lunch hour goes by too quickly, the phone conversation with the unhappy customer takes forever, the commute is a lifetime but at least you’ve got a good music playlist, et cetera.

It’s tempting to introduce a character by having them do something that happens every day in their life. Here’s Jane Doe brushing her teeth. Here’s Jane Doe making toast with jam for breakfast. Here’s Jane Doe almost forgetting her keys when she walks out the door to go to work. Here’s Jane Doe jamming out to “Billie Jean” at a red light. Here’s Jane Doe making small talk with the receptionist. Now you’ve got a great insight into Jane Doe, right? Right!

Well, that depends. Does that everyday thing (getting ready for the workday) have anything to do with the plot?

Whether you consider the plot to be a series of events (like a spy escapade or surviving a zombie apocalypse), or the development of characters (X falls in love with Y, Z accepts past trauma and moves on), the plot always has to be moving forward in some fashion.

If Jane Doe is brushing her teeth because she wants to get the taste of blood out of her mouth from a night of nefarious vampire shenanigans, then maybe it matters.

If Jane Doe makes toast with jam because that’s how her husband used to do it before he died, and she’s determined to solve his murder, then maybe it matters.

If Jane Doe almost forgets her keys before she heads out the door because she’s been having weird memory problems, and she doesn’t know why but she thinks it has to do with the mysterious stranger with the weird necklace she saw at the supermarket last Saturday, then it matters.

And if Jane Doe sees that mysterious stranger out of the corner of her eye when she’s talking to the receptionist at work — whose necklace, on closer proximity, turns out to be the symbol of a rival vampire clan — then, well.

Then you’ve got a scene that advances the plot.

Do what you can, when you can

Sorry for disappearing off the face of the earth, folks. The busy season at work started a couple weeks ago and we’ve been swamped, and we’ll probably stay swamped until Thanksgiving. Wading through ten times the usual amount of phone calls makes getting everything else done a little harder, and then coming home, well, sometimes a body just wants to veg out on the sofa and not think for a while.

A bad habit of mine is that when there’s something big I need to get done, I divide it into the fewest number of steps possible. On the one hand, simplifying things is good. On the other hand, within each big step are a zillion tiny steps, and my brain likes to gloss over the big parts and then obsess over all the tiny things I need to do. They’re all important, I insist. Every single small thing is important and I have to do all of them at once before I can move on to the next step, my God, how am I going to do this, let’s sit and stare at the tv for a while instead because just thinking about it is too stressful.

It’s not exactly the most productive way to go about things.

So I’m trying to get a little more laid back about my personal writing requirements. I don’t have to pound out 1000 words in twenty minutes, but I do have to write something. Because if I get too fixed on the word count to actually write anything, that defeats the purpose. (Yes, I know, it doesn’t make sense. It’s like hating regular sized tomatoes but loving cherry tomatoes. That’s just how I roll. Sorry.) (Not actually sorry. I’m serious about the tomato thing.)

Do what you can, when you can. You won’t be able to climb the whole mountain today, but you can get started on the foothills, and even if you don’t get halfway up, you’re still farther than you were when you started. Any progress is still progress.

We’re looking at end of September/beginning of October for Book 2. Stay tuned!

It’s all in how you look at things

In other news, I aten’t dead, just … restin’.

Perspective is probably the first thing you notice when you crack open a book. Whether it’s first-, third-, or second-person — yes, I have encountered second-person — it’s going to make an impact on the reader, and of course on the story itself. I don’t usually like first-person stories, though there have been notable exceptions (the Resurgam books by Joan Frances Turner immediately come to mind). Second-person immediately gets jettisoned, unless it’s a choose-your-own-adventure story, and I haven’t read one of those since I was in middle school.

That’s a prompt for another blog post, though. There are other kinds of perspective thay matter in a story, and those are the ones I want to focus on today.

Innocence versus experience is probably the one used most in Western literature. You’ve got Wordsworth of course, and then you also have writers like Philip Pullman who prod at the notion, unravel it, and stitch it back together to make something new. Then you’ve got the hero’s journey where a character gets dragged kicking and screaming into caring about other people. There are other shifts in perspective, but usually they can be boiled down to innocence versus experience, or selflessness versus selfishness.

And these are interesting character arcs in and of themselves.

But — and I refer back to my favorite zombie book Dust by JFT– sometimes, using a changing perspective to look on the same event (or using the audience’s different perspective) can be just as interesting, and just as thought-provoking.

In one of the flashbacks, Jessie (our undead protagonist) meets up with a group of other undeads and becomes particularly attached to Joe, a Chicago biker who died sometime in the seventies. At the time of their meeting, Joe has been undead for over thirty years; Jessie, meanwhile, is fresh out of the grave, and was just fifteen when a drunk driver killed her. So we, the audience — as well as Joe, who keeps reminding her of the age difference — know that he has a huge psychological advantage over her, even if she can pound him into a pulp just as much as any of the rest of the undead crew. Jessie, freshly dead and twitterpated, stays with Joe when she has every ability to leave, and Joe of course is perfectly happy with this outcome.

But the main story takes place nine years after Jessie died, and when she narrates this flashback, it’s from a position of experience and disillusionment. “Like I said,” she tells the audience, and we can hear the bitter wistfulness, “I was fifteen.”

It’s that darn verisimilitude at work again. We’ve all had something happen that we feel differently about years after the fact. And if we can identify that same feeling with a zombie? Then maybe the rest of the story will feel real, too.

(Non)Sympathetic Characters, Revisited

So when you’ve got a protagonist who suddenly stops being, well, the pro- type of tagonist and moseys on over to the an- side of life, in media that you’re consuming you can basically do one of two things. You can give up in disgust, or you can hate-read/hate-watch it to see if they will get what’s coming to them.

As a writer, you want to have written the character well enough that the audience will choose the latter.

It is pretty risky to set out writing a non-sympathetic character in the first place. Sometimes villains are so bad, with only enough traces of humanity for us to recognize ourselves in them, that we ferociously cheer for their demises, and reading a good villain death can be quite cathartic. But your main character can, should be, different. After all, that character is the one the audience is supposed to identify with.

It’s kind of annoying to read about a jerk who just wanders around getting himself and other people into trouble.

Now, a sympathetic character who turns into a jerk? Again, if done well, with careful attention to the character arc, that can be a successful story that keeps the reader hooked. You can spin it as a tragedy, or as a slip in the road before the character becomes kinder/stronger/et cetera. Most of all, it has to be plausible.

The thing is, you have to be paying attention to your characters. If that development for the worse is on purpose, then you have to show the gradual — or sudden — progression of that descent. There has to be a reason behind it. If your heart-of-gold protagonist suddenly tortures a baddie into giving crucial information, I don’t care if it’s your character or not. You either have a solid reason for why, or you get jettisoned by the reader’s disbelief. Acting out of character (or OOC, as the fandom circles term it) is the number one way to lose your audience.