I stayed up until 7 AM Monday night reading fanfic and I have not a singular regret. I don’t write it any more, but I still enjoy finding a piece – particularly AUs – that I can stink my heart into. Especially big, chunky stories full of domestic moments, family shenanigans, slow building relationships and quiet character development.
My love of internal development, however, always feels like it’s in direct conflict with my favorite genre: science fiction. I fell in love with sci-fi after first seeing start Star Wars in theaters during the rereleased in 1997. I was 14 and I’d never seen anything like it. I know that my emotions aren’t the same as those lucky souls who caught the bug in 1977, but I very much understand when they say “Star Wars changed my life”.
I spent a lot of my formative teen years falling in love with the adventures of Han Solo, Princess Leia, Mara Jade and more. Some of my favorite books – which I still have within reach on my bookshelves – are The Han Solo Trilogy (Paradise Snare, The Hutt Gambit, and Rebel Dawn). To this day, when I get stuck in a negative feedback loop that women can’t write good sci-fi, I think about how that very series was written by a woman – AC Crispin – and it’s a series I still look back on with fond memories.
One of the things I struggle with in writing in Open Season (my science fiction novel) is that “rule” about “starting where the action is”. In theory I completely understand this rule. No one wants to traipse through one-hundred pages of navel gazing and before the story even gets rolling. Unless, of course, it’s Tolkien. Then everybody worships it as the end all and be all of an entire genre.
Yes, I said it. I do not care for Tolkien. I read The Hobbit; it took me four months over one summer and I still enjoyed the movies more. I also think the first film was the best and Jackson probably should have condensed it into a duology rather than a trilogy. I’m praying a rewatch of TBoFA in extended edition will change that.
However, I did enjoy Hobbit more than Sense & Sensibility, which was fucking agony. I also enjoyed that movie – the Emma Thompson version, thank you very much – a million times more. I have been known to watch multiple viewings of it back to back. And now I’ve fully discredited myself as a proper nerd and bookworm. I’ll wait while you revoke of my Club card.
The rule of starting with action puts me in a sticky place because if I start with Nora being in treatment or the team coming back from a long deployment, there’s no foundation to set its main conflict upon. The entire engine of the story is hinged on a single question for Nora:
What Would You Risk to Be Normal?
Opening the story without proper exposition leaves no time to develop Nora’s baseline before I go fucking it all up with Earthquakes and Grenades Full of Doom. I mean, sure, I could have Nora or the people around her go on about relationships that’ve been shattered by the catalyst of her treatment, memories lost, and how her choice alters the fabric of the family they’ve built over time. But that sounds like a of characters monologuing and listing shit, rather than letting the story unfold. That’s not the same as bringing readers into the family, allowing them to experience her life – decades in the making – as it disappears, one memory at a time beneath her feet.
Without establishing who she is (her hopes, dreams, desires; who she loves, what her motivations are) beforehand, all that’s left is a character the reader doesn’t don’t know, don’t care about and won’t empathize with. In my mind that’s far worse than failing to start with “action”. Whatever the hell that means.
I realize that action can mean a lot of things, but it automatically makes me think of car chases and fist fights. Flashy, loud explosions that desperately attempt to snare the reader’s attention. Rather than taking the time to build the world around them and draw them in. That kind of writing hook immediately puts me off because I’m not good at them. I’m not even “okay” at them. I’m far better at picking a character apart, from the inside out.
I also don’t enjoy writing them. It’s not (typically) fun for me to watch a hero being heroic. I’d much rather see a hero who’s hurting and grappling to cope with a situation they have little (if any) control over. I like to take characters who are experienced, intelligent, mentally and physically strong … and drop them smack in the middle of a situation where that won’t do them a damned bit of good. Case in point, Gregor, the main male character in OS is a former British Special Forces soldier with a several extended military tours, a university degree, and forty-odd years of life experience on his CV.
He’s capable of handling intense, often violent situations and almost anything that life throws at him. Except when Nora’s treatment begins to go very, very wrong. Because it’s not only personal but there’s no direct objective or target he can defend. He’s listed as Vanguard personality type in his profile for a reason.
[All my characters are typed by MBTI personality type, Mass Effect 3 class and which classic 80s X-Men character they’d be. Gregor is ISFJ \ Vanguard \ Colossus.]
He has a wide range of skills, very few of which can help the woman he loves as she begins to deteriorate. Even as she grows more physically and mentally capable. Gregor is a doer who is used to functioning primarily through his ability to accomplish things. Stop the bad guy, be a meat shield for someone in danger, break down doors, reach the high shelf for Nora and so on. None of that does her any good.
Which means he struggles a lot with how to cope with the situation. I find that far more interesting than if he were to magically be able to cure her with his Heroic Hero-ness™ and save the day. It’s also not something I can show purely through action, considering the arc of the entire story is an internal journey set off by one or two external events.
This – after 1000 words or so – is why I loathe writing rules. Because rather than help me? I spent 1,083 words trying to untangled a fucking rule, written by some dude who’s probably dead, rather than working on my novel. Because rules, for all the good they can do, get stuck in my head like roadblocks and even when I know my skill and intuition can serve me better … I still struggle to break the habit of fixating on following them.
I think at their core they can be good margins for new writers who are all enthusiasm and no skills, but sometimes? They get in the fucking way. I’ve been doing this, for good or ill, since I was a pre-teen. I’m now in my early 30s. At some point, I’ve become moderately skilled at pointing sentences together. I think I can take the train wheels off now.