The last weeks of the year were cluttered with the howls of internet drama. Forums and Facebook posts filled with disappointment and rage- why? The Last Jedi is why. The latest installment in the Star Wars movie franchise proved its worth in record breaking sales and glowing reviews, but some fans were… less than pleased with the film. A lot of reasons come up, but it’s usually come down to three things: a different style of plot, a different direction with characters, and a different direction with lore. Different than expected, and unpredictable when compared to the previous seven Star Wars films.
Fan outrage is nothing new (indeed, we could argue that it’s become worse and/or easier to spot with the internet), but the question remains: why are some viewers and readers so adverse to change? Vocal push-back emerged when Avatar: The Last Airbender’s sequel series took a new direction, Star Wars fans never seem to be happy with new additions to the franchise, and every time a remake or new retelling is announced, there is an associated outrage attached.
Sure, we could argue that Hollywood’s run out of ideas, but are we prematurely judging something instead? Some push-back for The Last Jedi has been summarized with the fact that Star Wars is a modern myth or fairy tale, meant to be happy and heroic… And this ignores that folklore and myth was made to grow, and made for us to grow with it.
Let’s talk retellings for a bit. Disney recently started rebooting their animated properties into live action films, earning their share of sighs and groans. Nevertheless, some of these movies have tried to do something unique: Cinderella was a subtler, Grimm’s-based story when compared to its animated counterpart. The Jungle Book film integrated a few familiar scenes from Kipling’s original book- something the animated movie dodged. Maleficent, for all its flaws and silliness, explored a completely new angle of its main character and her relationships with others. Likewise, Disney’s theatrical release of the musical, Into The Woods, turned out to be a morally challenging fairy tale that outright ignored most of their canon.
And these are modifications on their own retellings, but let’s not forget that Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and The Sleeping Beauty are much, much older stories that Disney themselves retold many years back. I often wonder if people in the 40s, 50s, and 60s were rolling their eyes, complaining about more fairy tale retellings? I wonder if they were defensive of the original (much darker) stories now whitewashed for Disney’s growing public?
Likewise, when Disney’s young audiences discovered the original stories, did it change their perception of the movie? I know this happened to me as a child, after stumbling upon some of darker, more violent versions of Cinderella and the original story for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Not only did I find these versions better, I began to resent Disney for missing the original point of the stories.
These days, I still don’t like these movies very much, but… I see why they exist, and what audience they were for. Maybe not for me, but they were for someone. A retelling’s point, I suspect, is to offer incite to the original work. Interpretation and context that may have been missed once, and while we might roll our eyes at the trivial nature of these stories, we forget that the exchange of stories sometimes means those stories change.
Star Wars itself has gone through a few retellings, whether it be deep in the extended universe, which changes every time a movie revises the canon, or in the very tone of each trilogy. The originals came out to a young Generation X, starry-eyed and full of that 1980’s hope. The prequels released to young Millennials, a darker yet sillier galaxy far, far away to open up the franchise (notably, the only PG-13 entry to the prequels released right as most kids turned tween and teenaged. Hmm). The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, Rogue One, and the remaining unnamed films are probably, as is the pattern, meant for the young Gen Z. But they’re also for the older generations, who can connect with callbacks through Luke, Leia, and Han Solo, now aging adults with real problems, real flaws, and real shortcomings. Millennials can come in for the dynamic, relatable characters in Rey, Poe, Finn, and Rose (or Kylo, depending on your preference- no judgement). These elements have upset some viewers though, citing that they hate watching heroes fail and act “out of character.” Akin to learning that our parents aren’t perfect, or that or favorite celebrities are awful people.
But isn’t that true of life? Don’t these depths and shades exist? It would be a disservice to Luke or Han if they didn’t change after forty years, because that will be what happens to all of us as well. Perhaps we are resistant to change of quality in a series, but deep down, it’s worth wondering whether we resist it in face of something that’s different, or too honest, for our liking. “Witches can be right, giants can be good,” comes as a lyric from Into The Woods, stating well that our assumptions can be wrong about heroes, villains, and the norm.
One of my favorite scenes in The Empire Strikes Back is when Luke trains with Yoda, and enters the Dagobah Cave to meet his biggest fear. At first, he’s faced with Darth Vader, but upon defeating this phantom visage of a Sith, he discovers that what he truly fears is the evil within himself. This is paralleled in The Last Jedi with Rey, when she enters an undersea cave and faces herself against her greatest fear: her own loneliness reflected back at her for an eternity.
These are incredibly powerful scenes, but also summarize beautifully why we fear change. We don’t just hate that Luke Skywalker is flawed and old, we hate that we now see ourselves in him. We don’t resist retellings and sequels just because of faltering writing, but we resist them for defense of the status quo. We long for the moment when the cave confirms that Darth Vader is our worst nightmare, because anything more challenging will require thought, and inner effort, and reflection.
This week, I got my first rejection on a full manuscript. Three months and a handful of days into querying, I received a kind but stern “no” on my first novel. And I won’t lie- it stung. It doesn’t matter how many novels we’ve written since, nor how distant I claim myself from this book: rejections hurt. But after nursing my wounds on poetry and wine, I final;y understood one of those universal truths: your first novel is the hardest to sell.
And that can feel a bit unfair to the novice author. First novels, statistically, take the longest to write and revise. We toil over them with ink, and sweat, and tears, striving so much just to finish, polish, and share with the whole wide world. The greats got their first novels published, after all; surely you can too? There’s a six-figure deal in the wings, just waiting for you. Surely Warner Bros. will call you any day now for a seven-movie adaptation, pleasing your wondrous fanbase?
The reality of the first novel is much less glamorous, and more about becoming a novelist. To learn, after all, we must first try. We must fail, climb, change, and grow. This is true of life, and it’s true of writing. And I can think of no better example than the story of my first novel, and what I learned from writing it.
If you dug through my old, old, old notes, I mark Chimehour’s start point in 2012, which is half true. That summer, I scratched out concepts for a bunch of stories that I will probably never write. Almost 20, and not yet in college at this point. A good friend and I sat down one slow afternoon to kill time. The following conversation unravels:
“There should be a story about a seer therapist who deals with troubled monsters and fae. Like, he solves problems that way rather than having weapons and powers, like in Natsume’s Book of Friends.”
This is not Chimehour yet. But it plants a thought in my head.
My good friend and I started clashing. We were fighting; then we stopped the fighting, because we stopped talking. Unrelated issues unfold when I’m caught in a head-on collision with a drunk driver, leaving permanent damage to my leg. Your life does flash before your eyes in incidents like that, and you realize you still have a lot to do at 20.
In the following September, I sat down and wrote a prologue. The same prologue that begins Chimehour, sans some changes and edits.
I also begin the new year by losing that prologue to computer failure. I save what I can and start again. I begin camping out at my nearest Starbucks, and tell a couple of people that I’m writing a “steampunk zombie story.” I begin filling binders with notes, pictures, maps, dialect quirks, mythology. socioeconomics, and any related thing I can get my hands on. I spend the next year drafting this book and its sequel, from January to November.
And how much of that draft still exists, you might ask? One scene- maybe two. There’s a fight in the middle of the book where my protagonist first faces off this manic Druid. It was written at 4am to the tune of a lot of caffeine; it was the best writing session I’ve ever had to date, and the scene still reads perfectly. Everything else? Edited, revised, or thrown out. Because first drafts are always going to be pretty bad. Finishing them is the first step. Don’t fear the re-writes.
Revision was much larger task than I expected. I suspect this puts new authors off from editing a lot, because you return to a first draft a month later, only to find your precious novel is imperfect. Dare I say- messy. I treated this as a crisis for a bit, but eventually buckled down and began taking Chimehour apart. Re-reading, rewriting, and editing with two early readers for almost six months. A break, then I did it again: read, revise, rewrite, each pass making the story a little clearer. Working with different, trusted early readers and beta readers also helped clarify something- that authors do not always have the clearest perspective about their work.
In fact, they probably have the least clear perspective, muddled by closeness and the high of a first draft. My earliest readers picked out weakness and oddness in my writing that I might otherwise miss, allowing me an easier path with editing. Yes, I had to kill some darlings along the way, but editing isn’t a defamation of the author’s vision. Rather, it’s refinement; it’s the polish that makes the project sparkle.
I revised for almost three years, writing a few new projects along the way. A lot happened in that span of time (so much, it could easily fill a whole other blog), and slowly, I felt myself returning to Chimehour with less to say. When I finished a round of revisions early this past spring, I realized that there wasn’t any more I could do it. It wasn’t perfect yet, but… I was finished. This was hard to stomach, the idea that you will stop pulling returns from a project, and it can still be flawed. But then, I’ve heard plenty of stories about books that have been edited to death. NYT bestseller, Shannon Sanders, talks about how her first novel was deemed unpublishable due to over-editing. There comes a day where you recognize that your book- your baby, has grown up and entered the University of Queries and Publishing. You, the author, must now step aside and let the work speak for itself. It is no longer your work, but the world’s to read.
It’s hard. It’s heartbreaking, and there’s still so much rejection to be found. You look back at the years of writing, revision, and work, wondering if that journey was really worth it?
And the short answer is yes. Because novels aren’t just about finishing and publishing and fame. This is why it’s silly to compare yourself to other authors, because novels are the product of learning, and becoming a better novelist than the one you were yesterday. It’s also about learning to be a better you, in some ways. I know the person I was when I started Chimehour is not the person I am today, and I have my book to thank for that.
I started a new novel this year, unknowing of the roads it will open. But it’s that beautiful? When we start a novel- our first or our fifty-fourth, our work with it is more about a journey than a destination. It is about the lessons we learn, the projects we finish, and the person we become through creating something new.
Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.