(January 27 – February 2)

The novel is continuing to fall into place very nicely indeed. The formerly abandoned chapter is now finished (yay!) and has become one of my favourite chapters so far. It’s new position means it leads very nicely (thematically and emotionally) into the next chapter, which is a further bonus. 

With the new chapter I’ve once again enjoyed that excellent writerly experience whereby the words ultimately go where they need to go, but have taken some interesting and unplanned detours along the way. This, again, is why I prefer not to plot things out in too much detail: nothing more than a beginning, a middle, and a working idea of the journey in between, but enough space in between to let the characters find their own way if they want to.

One good thing

This week I’ve been rereading Dust, the third part of Hugh Howey’s excellent Wool trilogy. I dithered a bit with the first book, but then tore through the second. I’m keeping pace with this one, but it’s got to be said it’s a bit slower than the other two. It’s still an excellent read, but the plotting seems a bit less … compelling.

The principal issue is that not a great deal happens over the first 10 chapters: there’s one thing going on that proves integral to the plot, but it’s mostly scene-setting and catching up with wherever characters are in the wake of the previous book. Then, suddenly, a bunch of really interesting things start happening (and all is good again; except for the characters, for whom things are terrible).

So my main takeaway is this: when you have a handful of really good plot bombs to lob at your reader, don’t hold on to them. There’s at least one thread in Dust that could have kicked off much earlier, and would have helped carry the relatively unengaging first chapters.

That said, in Hugh Howey’s defence, the reason that those first ten chapters remain readable is that he’s an excellent writer who crafts strong, complex characters that you want to stick around with. So, I strongly expect he doesn’t need writing advice from the likes of me 😉

One bad thing

My ‘thing to fix’ this week was originally not going to be writing related. It was going to be a mini-rant about how hazardous YouTube is (in its capacity as a primary enabler for alt-right indoctrination) and, by extension, how much of a nightmare it is for parents like myself, given that Google provides only the most basic—and almost entirely useless—tools for controlling what your kids watch.

As a consequence, and mostly because I don’t know what else to do at this particular moment in time, I’ve taken a few dramatic steps towards limiting the Kinderbesten’s access to YouTube. For starters, I’ve blocked it by default on my kids’ device. I’ve mandated that there is no viewing of YouTube during the week. I’ve also set things up so that YouTube can only be viewed at other times via the living room TV (which at least have some capacity to monitor what’s being watched).

And that was going to be it. But then I happened to listen a recent episode of Our Opinions Are Correct, entitled “What’s The Matter With Star Wars?” Broadly speaking, this episode discussed how toxic Star Wars fandom has become. It also briefly addressed the reported interference of Russian bots into this space—you might recall the seemingly outlandish stories about bad reviews for The Last Jedi being blamed on Russia? Well, it turns out the strategy at play here is far more subtle and insidious than those news stories might suggest, and perfectly illustrates just how easy it is to gain a foothold within a relatively vulnerable and impressionable mind.

I’ve included a slightly edited quote below from the episode at the bottom of this post (from trans-activist Elena Rose Vera). What fascinates me about the quote is how it reveals the intersection of story and indoctrination. There’s a reason that Star Wars is so popular: it’s because it tells a universal story that we can all latch onto in some way. Almost all of us can find a way that it relates to ourselves. It’s the same with most pop culture phenomena: these things are popular because we can inject ourselves into those stories and, to an extent, either imagine ourselves living them or wish we were. 

So, when someone comes along and is able to tell you that ‘your’ story is being broken, or interfered with, it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that such interference is a threat to yourself. And when we’re threatened we often fight back, but we prefer to do it with the support of other people who are ready to fight for the same cause as us. And once we’ve identified the enemy … well, it’s much harder to stop fighting and admit we were wrong in the first place about them than it is to carry on fighting.

Which is why something as seemingly trivial and inconsequential as YouTube is one of the things that has me most concerned as a parent, because big problems always have very tiny roots.

Elena Rose: [00:06:33] … These are widespread narrative power sources … where people are involved in story and also invested in what those stories mean about the story of themselves, and of the groups that they belong to and the people they identify with. And [right-wing agents have] clearly have figured out: … we can introduce some really poisonous discourse here and it will spread like wildfire and we will be able to sow the seeds of a lot of discontent and resentment and anger, and we can use it to sort of farm for angry young men who will lash out.

And they look at something like Star Wars and they go, this is something everyone is going to be watching. This is something everyone’s going to be talking about. And if we can inject ourselves into this conversation, we can essentially put out a signal across the world that will help us identify more people to bring into our movement by seeing who stands up and is ready to hurt people for this cause we’ve made up. We can say your childhood was destroyed by The Last Jedi and if you are with me, here are the people we need to harass and threaten today. And then you just scoop up all the people who say, “I’m in.”