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The Hero's Journey

If you're not familiar with The Hero's Journey, a.k.a. the Monomyth, it's a model of a common narrative arc found in myths and fairy tales across world cultures. Joseph Campbell, who first published the idea in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), describes it, "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

A couple of weeks ago I read a more recent book on The Hero's Journey, Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey. Vogler is a story consultant who's worked for many of the big guys in Hollywood: Disney studios, Fox pictures, Warner Bros. Though his book is aimed primarily at screenwriters, it's often on recommended reading lists for novelists, playwrights, and video game developers.

What I Liked

Vogler provides some great insights into story structures, and some okay insights into character archetypes. The archetypes are really additional comments on structure, because they're classified exclusively by function, not personality. The Herald delivers the Call to Adventure, the Mentor helps the hero with gifts and advice, etc.

I also liked the explanations of what each of the stages and archetypes do for the audience. I've read other writing books that say, "You must use an Inciting Incident to transition from Act I to Act II," but they don't explain why that's so important. But for each stage, Vogler includes his theories on the dramatic function and provides plenty of examples from well-known stories to get you thinking.

What I Didn't Like

To get to the good stuff, I had to sit through long passages parroting Jungian pseudo-psychology about "male egos" and "female energy." Modern psychology is a good, solid science. Hundred-year-old Freudian/Jungian "psychology" can be called philosophy, at best.

It's blatantly sexist philosophy, too. For example, Vogler explains the "psychological function" of the Shapeshifter archetype like this.

"It's natural for each sex to regard the other as ever-changing, mysterious....Women complain that men are vague, vacillating, and unable to commit. Men complain that women are moody, flighty, fickle, and unpredictable. Anger can turn gentle men into beasts. Women change dramatically during their monthly cycle, shifting with the phases of the moon."

The moon is in its waning crescent phase today—no wonder I'm feeling particularly fickle! Now I need to go provoke Sweetie and see if he turns into a werewolf.

Summary of the Hero's Journey

To save you the discomfort of reading about how the Wizard of Oz represents Dorothy's unconscious yearning for "mature male energy," here are the key points of the model of The Hero's Journey.

Hero's Journey Diagram

Different literary analysts have slightly different models for the Hero's Journey (or the "Monomyth"). Pictured above is Vogler's version, which is the most recent and the one described in The Writer's Journey.

Ordinary World

This is the set-up for the story. The hero leads his everyday life in a familiar setting.

  • Harry Potter lives with the Dursleys in 1990s British suburbia.
  • Katniss Everdeen lives in "the Seam" of District 12 with her mother and sister.
  • Bilbo Baggins lives in his cozy hobbit hole in the Shire, content with his well stocked larder and his favorite pipe.
The Call to Adventure

This is the story trigger, or the Inciting Incident. The hero encounters something (an event, an object, a person) that pushes him to leave his safe and "ordinary" existence and face challenging new experiences.

  • Harry receives a letter of admission from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
  • Katniss attends the Reaping.
  • Bilbo meets the wizard Gandalf, who literally invites him on an adventure. ("I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it's very difficult to find anyone....")
Refusal of the Call

The hero often resists the adventure for some reason or other. He might be afraid, or he might like his ordinary life as it is, or he has no interest in the reward of the adventure.

  • Bilbo is appalled by the very thought of taking risks and politely declines Gandalf's offer. ("I don't want any adventures, thank you. Not today. Good morning!")
Meeting the Mentor

A mentor often appears to prepare the hero and guide him into/through the Special World.

  • Hagrid bursts into the Dursley's hut on the rock and tells Harry he's a wizard.
  • Gandalf arrives for tea with a band of hungry dwarves and a treasure map. (Gandalf does double duty in this case, first delivering the Call and then pushing Bilbo to respond to it.)
Crossing the Threshold to the Special World

The adventure begins! The hero either leaves his ordinary life willingly or is forced to leave by other characters or circumstances.

  • Harry flies away to the world of magic on Hagrid's motorcycle.
  • Katniss takes her sister's place in the Hunger Games and boards the train to the Capitol.
  • Before Bilbo can even finish his second breakfast, Gandalf sweeps him away to join the dwarves as their "burglar."
Tests, Allies, and Enemies

The hero faces a series of trials that test the his mettle and force him to grow.

  • Harry starts his life at Hogwarts, where he encounters school bullies, bat-like Potions professors, and talking hats.
  • Katniss survives a series of attempts on her life during the Hunger Games.
  • Bilbo narrowly escapes trolls, goblins, giant spiders, and other enemies during his travels.
Approach to the Innermost Cave

This is the build-up to the Ordeal, the hero's biggest trial.

  • Harry, Ron, and Hermione conquer a series of obstacles on their way to stop Voldemort from stealing the Philosopher's Stone.
  • The Gamemakers force Katniss and Peeta towards the final arena, where they'll face off against the most formidable tribute, Cato.
  • Bilbo & Co. climb Lonely Mountain, the site of Smaug's lair.
Ordeal, Death, and Rebirth

The Ordeal is the ultimate test of the hero's skills and character, which all the smaller tests leading up to it have been preparing him to face. He often places everything on the line and "dies" literally or metaphorically, and then is "reborn" as a true hero.

  • Harry faces Professor Quirrel and Lord Voldemort. He struggles to protect the Philosopher's Stone until he faints, then reawakens in the infirmary.
  • Katniss defeats Cato and, when the Gamemakers change the rules on her, nearly commits suicide by eating poisoned berries.
  • Bilbo enters Smaug's lair and audaciously steals a cup to show the dwarves.
Reward, Seizing the Sword

The hero claims his reward for passing the big test. This is often an ultimate weapon of some kind, like a legendary sword or a powerful new skill.

  • Dumbledore rewards Harry with the knowledge that his parents loved him, Harry's "ultimate weapon" against Voldemort.
  • The Gamemakers reward Katniss for her defiant stunt by allowing her to live. The incident also earns her the popularity and romantic image she'll need to pass her final test.
  • Bilbo is rewarded for his bravery with the knowledge of Smaug's one weakness, a chink in his scaly armor.
The Road Back

The opposite of Crossing the Threshold, the hero starts on the Road Back to stable everyday life.

  • The school year winds down and Harry prepares to leave Hogwarts.
  • Katniss leaves the bloody arena of the Games and returns to the comfort of the Training Center.
  • After Bard slays Smaug, Bilbo returns to Lonely Mountain to take his share the treasure and go home...but his trials aren't over yet.
Resurrection and Return with the Elixir

These are basically repeats of the Ordeal and the Reward stages. If the Ordeal wasn't the final climax of the story, the hero will have to face one last test before he can return to a peaceful life. The "Elixir" is the ultimate reward for his troubles: wealth, love, fame, wisdom, etc.

  • Harry attends the final feast and goes through the emotional trial of seeing Slytherin nearly win the coveted House Cup. But at the last moment, Dumbledore adds the points for Harry & Friends' heroic deeds and Gryffindor wins. Then Harry takes the Hogwarts Express and returns to a marginally improved life with the Dursleys.
  • After the Games, Katniss must get through one last trial: her appearance on television as a victor, under the watchful eye of the wrathful government. Only then can she leave the Capitol and return to her family in District 12.
  • Bilbo survives the Battle of Five Armies, claims his small slice of Smaug's treasure, and returns the Shire a very wealthy hobbit.

The Hero's Journey Is a Subclass, Not the Parent Object

While writing this blog post, I tried very hard to squish every story I could think of into the Monomyth mold. But most of the stories on my bookshelf wouldn't cooperate. Jane Eyre? Nope. Pride and Prejudice? Close, but no cigar. Middlemarch? Don't even think about it—the attempt will turn your brain to goo.

Still, I tried. I insisted Pride and Prejudice might fit if you just ignore these stages, and repeat those stages, and think of Elizabeth's first unpleasant encounter with Mr. Darcy as "kind of like crossing a threshold, right?" Then I realized I was being foolish. My attempts to change the model and claim it fit the story were like Cinderella's stepsisters' attempts to cut off their heels and toes and claim their feet fit the golden slipper.

Vogler's book implies that the Hero's Journey is a universal model, and that stories that don't quite follow it are subtypes with stages removed or reordered. But it's actually the other way around. It's not that all stories fit the shape of the Monomyth, but that the Monomyth follows the basic shape of all stories: beginning, middle, end.

The first "Ordinary World" stage is simply a common type of beginning. The "Call to Adventure" and "Crossing the Threshold" stages transition to the middle of the story, the "Tests, Allies, and Enemies" stage. The middle culminates in the resolution of the main conflict through the "Ordeal" and "Reward." Then the "Road Back," "Resurrection," and "Return" stages describe the end, in which the hero ties up loose ends and returns to a life free from major conflict.

This is an effective way to construct a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it's not the only way. The Monomyth is common in stories about grand adventures, such as high fantasies, shōnen manga and anime, and role-playing games like the Zelda and Final Fantasy franchises. But it rarely fits quieter stories about personal growth and interpersonal relationships. Just because Pride and Prejudice also has a beginning, a middle, and an end doesn't mean it follows the Hero's Journey. Even some of the movie analyses in Vogler's book are iffy. The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars, Episode IV might fit, but Pulp Fiction is really pushing it.

What I Learned

Stories that follow the Hero's Journey structure are so common because their beginnings grab the audience's interest, their middles build towards exciting climaxes, and their endings deliver big emotional payoffs. Here's my understanding of what each of the stages do for readers.

  • The Ordinary World is an opportunity for readers get to know the hero and identify with him before the plot takes off.
  • The Call to Adventure is a signal to readers that interesting things are about to begin.
  • The Refusal of the Call highlights the high stakes of the main conflict, which ups the tension and excitement when it finally starts.
  • The Meeting with the Mentor pushes the story forward when the hero can't or won't do it himself.
  • Crossing the Threshold is the true start of the story. The setup is done and over with and we've entered the arena of the main conflict.
  • The Tests, Allies, and Enemies stage is the emotional roller coaster, the reason people picked up the book in the first place.
  • During the Approach to the Innermost Cave, the coaster car reaches the bottom of The Big Hill and climbs up, up, up, clicking ominously.
  • At the Ordeal, Death, and Rebirth, the coaster car slips over the edge and plummets down, giving readers the emotional rush of facing danger and coming out safe and sound.
  • The Reward lets readers share the hero's relief and happiness at accomplishing his goal and harvesting the fruits of his efforts.
  • The Road Back is the signal that the main conflict is over and the story's end is nigh.
  • The Resurrection and Return with the Elixir stages give readers one last burst of adrenaline followed by a feeling of relief and contentment. The conflict is over and all is well.

People across generations love Harry Potter and The Hobbit because the stories produce great emotional effects. But there are many ways to produce the same effects without following the same formula. Let's examine Jane Eyre.

We meet Jane as a young orphan, and we empathize with her because of her strong principles, her passionate nature, and the horrid way her relatives treat her. She encounters conflict on page one, when her aunt banishes her from the cozy drawing room saying "she really must exclude [Jane] from privileges intended only for contented, happy little children."

Jane faces many trials at her aunt's home, at the Lowood School for Girls, and at Thornfield Hall. The middle of the book delivers many emotional highlights that build towards the Gothic climax: Mr. Rochester's dramatic introduction and proposal in the rain, the insane Mrs. Rochester's attempts at murder and mayhem, and finally the big revelation at the wedding.

In the end, Jane cashes in her good karma to become a wealthy heiress and marry the tragically widowed Mr. Rochester. Her sufferings are finally over.

So when writing, instead of asking, "Does my story follow the Hero's Journey?" I think it's more sensible to ask, "Does my story move forward? Does it deliver emotional highs and lows? Will readers feel satisfied at the end?" If the answers are no, and you want them to be yes, you might borrow some tricks from the Hero's Journey to help. Give the hero more Tests and Enemies, introduce a Mentor to push the plot along, or make the climax a deadly Ordeal of epic proportions.

What I Learned from Bridal Mask

I recently started watching one of the highest rated and most recommended Korean dramas of the 2010s, Bridal Mask (or Gaksital), starring heartthrob Joo Won as the titular superhero. The show aired three years ago, but I resisted watching it before this month because the premise didn't appeal to me. A 1930s Korean Zorro? Really? And the promo shots looked so dark and depressing.

Well, the promo shots weren't inaccurate. The show is very dark and depressing, and brutally violent and gut-wrenching. To watch it you need a strong stomach and an open mind.

But it's also lovely, and touching, and inspiring in its tragic way. Joo Won's acting is superb, the story is expertly plotted, and the cinematography is gorgeous. I haven't seen senseless bloodshed this poetic since Sweetie forced me to watch Hero.

The one fly in the ointment—and it's a very poisonous fly—is the heroine, Mok Dan. I can't stand her. She annoys me so much I had to take a break from the series after episode 20 of 28 and still haven't finished it. (Though I know how it ends because the Internet has spoilers aplenty.)

Mok Dan's characterization didn't bother me at first. I happily watched the first few episodes without caring much for her either way. But then I started to feel impatient every time her face appeared on screen. I noticed that many other people were aggravated too.

"Joo Won is amaaaziiing! The girl is blah, but Joo Won is amaaaziiing!"

"Ugh, less than ten episodes in and I already hate the love interest. I hope the writers keep the focus on Bridal Mask, and not on the clichéd romance."

"Am I the only one who wants him to end up with the villainess? Mok Dan just isn't cutting it for me."

For a while, I couldn't put my finger on the reason Mok Dan was so unpopular. On paper, there's nothing irritating about her. Mok Dan is actually the only "good" character in the cast. She's courageous, selfless, and filial. She has rock-solid ideals and is the perfect model of loyalty, piety, and patriotism.

Then I realized that's precisely the problem.

Every main character in Bridal Mask, with the exception of Mok Dan, is an ambiguous hue of gray: all colors mixed together in unique and interesting ways. The result looks like this.

Rembrandt's Night Watch

But Mok Dan is pure color, with no mixing or blending. The result looks like this.

My Little Pony

And that's what bothers me about Mok Dan: she's a cartoon inserted into a Rembrandt. Her flawless simplicity ruins the whole picture.

Bridal Mask, starring Pinkie Pie

There's no nuance to her emotions.

Mok Dan has four faces: an angry face, a sad face, a relieved/happy face, and a confused face. None of these faces ever overlap. In contrast, every other character usually has two or more emotions teeming under the surface: hatred fighting with sympathy; anger masking grief and despair; brittle happiness tempered by quiet worry and fear.

Because she's so "pure," Mok Dan feels fake. She cries prettily, sighs and gasps perfectly on cue, and transitions between expressions in a careful and controlled manner. Watching her reminds me that she's an actress playing a part. Real people have messy, mixed-up emotions. They're not neatly compartmentalized like the colors on a My Little Pony character.

She experiences no internal conflict.

Though a better actress might've been able to deliver a more complex performance, the fault with the character lies largely in Mok Dan's story arc, or the lack thereof. Her story creates no internal conflict, while the others' stories do.

Lee Kang To is a famously heartless detective in the Japanese police force. When he was a child his father was assassinated, and when he was a teenager his older brother was mentally disabled by extreme torture after participating in a political protest. To support his family, Kang To joined the police. Branded a traitor by his neighbors and a lowly Korean dog by his bosses, he coped by abandoning his humanity to climb the ranks. After several tragic events he becomes Bridal Mask and secretly joins a group of freedom fighters lead by Mok Dan's father, Mok Damsari. By day he's the enemy of the Korean people, and by night he's their celebrated savior.

Kimura Shunji is the son of the chief of police, and Kang To's best friend. He starts out as a handsome and kindhearted schoolteacher who's very popular with the local Korean children. But when Bridal Mask kills Shunji's brother, Shunji joins the police to bring him to justice. His personality is slowly corrupted by his obsession with catching Bridal Mask and by the influence of Kishokai, the yakuza-like organization his father belongs to. He eventually uncovers Bridal Mask's identity and becomes the mortal enemy of the two people he loves most: Kang To and Mok Dan.

Ueno Rie, born Chae Hong Joo, is a former gisaeng who was adopted by the boss of Kishokai. Under his tutelage she became a talented spy and assassin. He sends her back to Korea, disguised as a nightclub singer, to kill Bridal Mask. However, she discovers that Bridal Mask is the man who saved her life five years before, Lee Kang To. She struggles between her duty to kill him and her desire to help him.

Oh Mok Dan is the daughter of independence leader Mok Damsari. She hates Lee Kang To and is in love with Bridal Mask. That's basically it.

The only opportunity to develop Mok Dan's internal conflict, the fact that she loves and hates the same man, was wasted in the show. I would've liked to see her struggle with a growing attraction to her nemesis, but instead she despises him thoroughly until the mask comes off. I also would've liked to see her shaken when she finds out the hero she worshiped, Bridal Mask, is the same person who once tortured her and nearly executed her by firing squad. But nope, the moment she takes off his mask, all is forgiven. A mere ten minutes later she's declaring she'd happily follow Kang To to the bottom of the ocean.

She's predictable.

The plot of Bridal Mask keeps the audience in a constant state of breathlessness, because you rarely know exactly what the characters will do.

Will Kang To stand still and watch while Shunji tortures Mok Dan's mother figure for information, or will he expose himself as a rebel by interfering?

Will Shunji sacrifice Mok Dan to catch Bridal Mask, or will he give in to his personal feelings and save her?

Will Rie report the identity of Bridal Mask to Kishokai, or will she betray her adoptive father and protect Kang To?

The exception is, of course, Mok Dan. I don't recall being surprised by anything she's done so far. She always acts according to her crystal clear ideals, and she's never tempted to do otherwise.

She never second-guesses herself.

While Kang To, Shunji, and Rie often make tough choices and question their decisions, Mok Dan never does. She doesn't think twice about whether her father's terrorist tactics are right, or whether she should protect her friends by submitting to the Japanese instead of causing trouble. When Rie, the official villainess, points a gun at Kang To, she's falling to pieces inside. When Mok Dan, the official heroine, attempts to stab Kang To in his sleep, she shows no trace of doubt or guilt.

And it's hard for me to like a person who makes this face when she hears a bomb go off at a party, killing who knows how many people.

Mok Dan smiling after bomb

Mok Dan's "heroism" is the kind that rubs people the wrong way: self-righteous, unforgiving, and narrow-minded. This would've been fine if she'd been written this way intentionally. She could've been the fiercely patriotic rebel's daughter who falls for a Japanese supporter and faces the uncomfortable truth that her enemies have families and feelings too. Her growing self-awareness would've made her complex and interesting. But since we're supposed to think she's an angel just as she is, she's simply annoying.

What I Learned

Even in an action-packed thriller driven by external conflicts, like Bridal Mask, characters need to have internal conflicts as well. They need to struggle within themselves and display multifaceted emotions.

The character of Mok Dan is an example of what not to do, unless you want people to root for the villainess. Characters with no internal conflicts, who think and act according to the template of a perfect hero, are boring and unlikeable.

On the other hand, the character of Lee Kang To is a great example of what you should do. Because of his backstory, we can understand each of his actions, even if they're immoral. He has duty and self-preservation pulling him to one side, and love and ideals pulling him to the other. He often has to choose between doing what's right and doing what's necessary, and either choice will have painful consequences. This tug-of-war creates an emotional tension that makes him interesting to watch.

However, a backstory alone doesn't make a character interesting. Mok Dan has a painful backstory too, but she's still flat and boring. Tragedy might make a character pitiable, but it's only one color. To make the character complex, that tragedy needs to be the source of other clashing colors. Kang To's tragic past breaks his moral compass and generates and his internal conflicts. But Mok Dan's tragic past does nothing. Her character and behavior aren't affected in any way. We're just supposed to love her because she's "been through so much."

I often see writers make the same mistake with dark character traits. They'll create characters who are angry, or cruel, or steeped in enui, and they'll think that's enough to make their stories "deep" and "real." It's not. Angst-angst-angst is just as one-dimensional as pep-pep-pep. Darkness doesn't make characters interesting; the conflict between darkness and light does.

Take Rick Blaine in Casablanca. The movie is a classic not because of its plot, which frankly isn't all that exciting, but because of Rick's internal conflicts. Will he keep his safe and comfortable lifestyle by cooperating with the Nazis, or will he stick his neck out to help the resistance? Will he really betray Laszlo, or will he sacrifice his own happiness to help him? You're not certain until the final minutes of the film whether Rick is truly a cad or secretly a hero.

Or on the villainous side of things, take Michael Corleone from the Godfather books and movies. In his youth, Michael tries to be a nice guy. He's a war hero who wants nothing to do with his father's "business" and intends to settle down with his college sweetheart in the suburbs. But when rival gangsters attack his father and brothers and murder his bride, Michael's thirst for revenge transforms him into a full-blown mafia boss. He spends the rest of his life see-sawing between being a ruthless murderer to protect his family and a pious philanthropist to ease his guilt. Without this internal struggle, the trilogy wouldn't have been nearly as interesting or popular.

The Fear of Breaking Things

Today is the first day of Fall term at my community college. While the faculty and students are dragging themselves zombie-like through the campus, groaning about how hard it is to come back to school, I'm celebrating. When everyone else comes back to work, I can finally put my feet up.

Summer is the craziest season for people who work behind the scenes in higher education. As soon as the graduating students finish posing for pictures in their caps and gowns and the faculty turn in their grades and head for the bars, the staff left behind lock the gates and say, "They're gone! Quick, finish all the projects!"

My department schedules the big projects over the summer for two reasons. The first is that when nobody's around, we don't have emails titled "HELP!!!" coming in every hour. But the second, and more important, is that when we build things, we break things.

Every time I develop an application or web feature, I break it a thousand times. I often break everything my project touches, too. I regularly crash the entire library website and/or catalog with some silly syntax error (in a test environment, of course). Even after a project has been tested backwards and forwards and declared error-free, the implementation of it is often disastrous. So we work over the summer, in the middle of the night, and over weekends, when we can burn everything to the ground and build it back up before anyone notices.

If you're afraid of breaking things, it's impossible to become a good programmer. The same can be said of writers.

The fear of breaking things will kill your stories in the womb.

When I took a drawing class last winter, my instructor said the students who are hardest to teach are the perfectionists. Every term, she has some students who are terrified of putting charcoal to paper, because they might mess up. They take a long time to draw a small part of the composition, like one eye of a portrait. The eye doesn't look quite right, so they immediately erase it and draw it again. And again. And again. They don't finish their assignments on time, get frustrated, and drop the class, saying drawing is "too hard" or they "just don't have the talent."

We all know aspiring novelists like those art students. I secretly call them "chapterists." They never write whole novels, only the first chapters of novels. They'll write one to three chapters and show them to friends or post them on critique sites. When the feedback is less than glowing, they'll instantly give up writing the book. Or they'll tweak that first chapter over and over, never moving on to the rest of the story.

We also all know people who don't even make it to the first chapter. They say they have a fabulous novel or screenplay in their heads that they've wanted to write for years. They'll talk about their stories with great excitement. But when you say, "That sounds awesome! You should write it! Like, now," they avert their eyes. They say, "Oh, well, maybe one day, when I have the time...."

Why do people do this? Ann Patchett explains it like this.

[A] book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can't think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It's not that I want to kill it, but it's the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I'm left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That's my book.

The invisible force that prevents many people from writing, and prevents the chapterists from becoming novelists, is the fear that these fabulous ideas in their heads, these glittering dream books and movies, will turn into sludge as soon as they're realized.

The fact is, nothing written down in any language can fully capture everything about the idea it's attempting to convey. People don't think in words. We think in pictures, sounds, and physical/emotional sensations. To transfer our ideas to others, we have to translate them into a linear string of written characters and hope that when people read them, they'll experience the same pictures, sounds, and sensations we do.

So writing always requires compromises. We have to pick and choose which aspects of our ideas to write down based on what can be conveyed in a clear, concise, and interesting way. The work will always be stressful and the final result will always be a little disappointing. Sometimes it will be very disappointing, if it turns out the story you imagined doesn't work well in written form.

The fear of disappointment is understandable, but it's also irrational. What's the worst that could happen if your finished story is less awesome than you'd hoped? You'll feel ashamed of your inadequacies? You'll have "wasted" a few months of evenings that you could've wasted zoning out to Keeping Up with the Kardashians instead?

Honestly, not trying at all is much more embarrassing than trying and failing. Would you rather tell your friends and family that yes, you did write that book, but it's terrible, or would you rather tell them you gave up because you were afraid of murdering your twinkling butterfly of an idea?

The fear of breaking things will prevent you from improving.

One small step up from the chapterists are the drafters. They complete messy first drafts of novels, then come up with dodgy excuses not to clean them up.

"The first draft is my true voice. Rewriting would suck all the spontaneity and personality out of it!"

"This one famous writer says you should never revise your work."

"I need to publish this now and start the next book, or I won't make any money. That's the reality of the business."

All of these can be translated to mean, "I'm insecure about my writing abilities, and I'm afraid if I touch this draft, I'll break it."

Have you seen this commercial for Luvs diapers?

The first half sums up how drafters feel about their baby novels.

Writing a book takes a lot of work, patience, and persistence. A writer can spend many months or years crafting her masterpiece. Because this masterpiece was so gosh-darned hard to finish, she'll be very proud and fiercely protective of it. She'll feel like it's a delicate miracle that will die a horrible death if anyone so much as pokes at it.

When Sweetie suggested that I rewrite a character in Bubbles Pop, I shed many tears and inhaled many Oreos. (Then I rewrote the dang character.) Whenever I critique the first novel of another writer, I put all of my comments in the nicest and most playful way possible, but the reaction is always hyper-defensive regardless.

"No, I'm not going to change even one word of this sentence. Every grammatical error in it is necessary."

"No, I can't cut out the boring prologue. It's impossible to convey the same information any other way."

"I don't see anything wrong with hopping heads five times in three sentences. That's my style. You're just not used to it."

To my shame, the first two I actually said to other people during the Bubbles Pop days. The third someone else said to me. He truly believed that readers should change the way they read to suit the way he writes, not the other way around.

Resistance to editing comes from many different fears: the fear of confronting your weaknesses, the fear of conceding control of your baby to other people, and the fear of committing to even more months of arduous work.

But I think the biggest is the fear of messing everything up. The first step of rewriting is deleting. Pressing the delete key can feel like removing a block from a Jenga tower—you expect the whole thing to come crashing down at any second. It won't, though. A story is an abstract thing. You can rip as many holes into it as you want and patch them up at your leisure; the other pieces aren't going anywhere.

The fear of messing up also causes many writers to avoid trying anything new. They refuse to read widely (or even narrowly), because they're afraid other authors would "influence" their own fragile voices. They refuse to try writing in different styles or genres or forms, because they're convinced they'd be horrible at it without even trying. They vehemently refuse to try self-publishing, or they vehemently refuse to try traditional publishing, for reasons that are a lot more emotional than logical. So their careers and their skills stall as they write the same stories over and over, too afraid to leave their familiar bubbles.

How do you get over this fear?

Many bloggers have addressed this topic before me, but usually their conclusion is, "You have get over it. The only way to finish a book is to sit down and start writing." Which is perfectly true, but also about as useful as Bob Newhart's advice in this MADtv sketch.

If conquering the fears holding you back were as simple as "get over it" (or "STOP IT"), nobody would stay in an awful job or a rotting relationship. Everyone would follow their dreams and we'd live in a happy Disney universe filled with music and rainbows.

Since it's not that simple, here are some tricks to help you (and me!) "sit down and start writing."

Remind yourself it's just a draft.

A lot of people fear starting a novel because they feel immense pressure to write, as Anne Pachett put it, "the greatest novel in the history of literature." Worse, they feel like they're expected to write this work of staggering genius on the very first pass.

I blame two sets of people. First, I blame the K-12 and college teachers who evaluate students through in-class essays and written exams, conditioning us to believe a first draft is a final product that represents a writer's innate talents. Second, I blame the writers out there who preach that editing is artistic sacrilege, and that the rambling nonsense that flows from their fingers onto the blank page should be published as-is.

The first draft of a story is just that: a draft. Definition: "a preliminary sketch, outline, or version." Synonyms: "plan, scheme, design." It is a rough mock-up of your final product, not the final product itself.

When I took that drawing class, I was scared of making the first mark, too. The big paper cost some $2 a sheet and my art skills were a little below the level of a sixth grader's. Then my instructor introduced us to the miracle of scrap paper. Instead of starting on the big paper right away, she told us to first draw the compositions in sketch books, or on the backs of class notes and printouts. When I knew it was just a draft on cheap paper, and nobody was going to see it but me, it was much easier to draw uninhibited. I'd practice that way until I felt comfortable enough to start on the final drawing.

So if the blank Word document terrifies you, remember that you're just scribbling on scratch paper. If you write something truly awful, you can simply throw it away. Nobody will ever know.

Reward yourself for writing. Don't punish yourself for not writing.

A piece of advice I see a lot is to "hold yourself accountable" by publicly recording your progress on a blog or forum, or by telling everyone you know that you're working on a book. Then you'll feel pressured to deliver, and you'll force yourself to sit down and write.

My advice is the opposite: don't say a word.

Don't tweet your daily word counts. Don't join groups of writers who judge each other based on how quickly they can churn out pages. Don't talk about your project to any well-meaning acquaintances who will "help keep you on track" by demanding regular reports.

Putting yourself under social pressure like this doesn't address your underlying fear of writing. It only buries that fear under even stronger fears: the fear of looking like a lazy good-for-nothing, the fear of disappointing your friends and family, and the fear that your life-long dream will vanish into dust because you veered briefly off schedule.

Forcing people to do things out of fear never ends well. Instead of threatening yourself with public shame when you don't write, why don't you motivate yourself with rewards when you do write?

My personal rewards system is very cheap and simple. I have a whiteboard above my desk where I write the chapters of my WIP with red Xs next to them. When I finish a chapter, I erase the red X and replace it with a green check mark. I get a thrill every time I look up and see those green check marks. When I finish the book, I get to replace that last red X and see a whole column of green!

Kagemusha Inventory

If green check marks don't excite you (though I don't understand why they wouldn't), you could come up with other ways to reward yourself when you make progress. For example, pick something expensive that you want but don't strictly need, like a new computer or a fun vacation. Every time you finish a chapter, squirrel away a fraction of the cost. Do it even if you're not 100% happy with the chapter. Then if you get discouraged and start dragging your feet, remind yourself that even if you write a sucky book, you still get to go to Hawaii. You can turn it into a less sucky book when you get back.

Break up the huge task of writing a novel into smaller chunks.

Once I read a blog post from an author who said the idea of writing a whole novel was terrifying, but she could trick herself into starting one by committing to only "the first 100 pages." She would tell herself she's not actually writing the book, she's just writing a rough 100 pages for her agent before she starts the real thing. Those 100 pages always turned out to be the real thing, and she'd be halfway done by the time she officially "started."

Like most people, I procrastinate if a chore or project seems too big and daunting. Writing a book seems like A Big Deal. Writing a trilogy or series is An Even Bigger Deal. But if you break it down into smaller tasks than "write a whole dang trilogy," it becomes much more manageable.

Here's my general plan for writing my next three books, which are more like three acts of one book.

  1. Find popular books in the genre. Read them and take notes.
  2. Write very rough outlines of the three books (settings, characters, major plot points, beginning/middle/end arcs).
  3. Write a detailed outline of book one.
  4. Write the first draft of book one. Revise along the way as needed.
  5. Let book one rest, then show to critique partners. Revise based on feedback.
  6. Repeat with books two and three.
  7. Let all the books rest, then revise and polish them as a whole.

Within the "writing" bullet points I'll break it down even further. One day I'll focus on finishing one scene, the next another, until I can change one red X to a check mark. As long as I focus on one check mark at a time, I won't freak out so much about the enormity of the whole.

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