The Fulcrum of Chaos… Version 11

Well my commitment to blog everyday is starting to falter, so I dug deep into my vault of unfinished stories for today’s post. I stopped writing fiction … 15 years ago? and have only started to dabble in it again with a few flash fictions in the last 2 years. At that time (i.e when I started writing again), I tried to pick up the pieces of where I left off, but I couldn’t make head or tails of all the different versions in my old hard drive. So I stuck an arbitrary title on all the pieces (this one is titled with the supremely unoriginal “Prophecy”) and labelled each of the drafts with a word count. I have no idea which draft I wrote first or why I have 11 of them. I suspect that the stories are slightly different in each – enough that I couldn’t just continue writing in the same document, as I likely re-structured and rewrote everything. Take a look:

Screenshot of my Fiction folder

If you’re baffled why one version would have 40,000 words while another has 400, you’re not alone. Amusingly, the one I picked today WAS titled with the incredibly suitable “The Fulcrum of Chaos.” I picked a draft at random for today as I couldn’t bring myself to open up all 11 drafts at this point. I’m reminded of a tangle of wires or strings that I know needs to be untangled, but I’m going to let them sit in the box, put away neatly in my closet, pretending everything is neat and orderly. The following is the first page of a 30 page document. It’s essentially unaltered (although I couldn’t bring myself to let the grammar mistakes stand. The copy-editor in me cringes that I didn’t know the difference between things like ‘then’ and ‘than.’). In any case, enjoy! …..?

From the Chronicles of the Mages’ Guild


She heard screaming. The smell of burnt flesh. She froze in horror, looking down at the girl writhing in pain on the ground. Amber flames licked across the other girl’s skin, torching her hair. She reached a hand out toward her when the screaming cut off abruptly. Her senses were screaming at her to run. To flee.

Dropping her bag, she sprinted in the direct of the closet tree, looking for cover. The grass went up in flames behind her. She didn’t look. Kept running, dashing across the street towards the protection of the forest. She should’ve run the other way. Towards more people. But it was dark out, made darker by the new moon. There would be few people still on campus. No one to hear her scream. And whoever was after her didn’t care about harming others.

She tripped, her high heels catching on a tree root as she muttered to herself. Her breath left her in a rush as she went down hard, her knees scraping where her skirt rode up. Scrambling up, she abandoned her heels, running over the hard dirt of the path barefoot. Should she leave the path? Where would she hide? Adrenaline gave her speed, but fear robbed her of breath. She could feel her heart pounding, her chest tight. Pain exploded in her head, and she fell screaming to the floor. She wasn’t on fire. Where was the pain coming from? She couldn’t see! She patted the earth, trying to find her missing eyeglasses while she chocked for air.

Her attacker was on top of her instantly. She couldn’t see him. Her. Was it even human? Her vision was greying at the edges. The figure before her a shadow. She gasped in a breath before his fingers clawed around her throat.

Damned if she’d go without a fight! Drawing in the last of her energy, she focused on her hand, punching him in the stomach. She could smell the now familiar scent of burnt flesh, and he screamed in pain. He reared back, giving her enough space to knee him between the legs. Outraged, he drew up a knife, lashing out with a scream of rage. Searing heat speared through her chest. Her eyes blurred in pain. Movement flickered before her. A wolf. There was a wolf standing by the tree.

Then all she knew was darkness.

The University 411: Tackling the Blank Page

So you’ve gone to all of your lecturers and took notes like a diligent student. Now what? You’re sitting down at your desk to tackle your essay or research project, and you’re not sure where to start.

If you google “writer’s block,” you will probably discover pages of suggestions to address this problem. But, there are a number of scenarios which might have you staring at your screen or notebook in terror and we can’t find the right solution if we can’t diagnose the cause. So first, do a mental health check. If you’re in a depressed state, then you’re unlikely to have the energy or motivation to tackle work. While I talk generally about mental health here, I want to add advice I’ve seen floating around from Tumbler “redheadhatchet”: “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” I apply this advice almost daily to all sorts of scenarios. Consider my “exercise regime”; if I manage to do just one sit-up a day, that’s better than not doing anything. This is also the advice offered by the “Fabulous” App, which helps people establish healthy habits. Build on that one small habit a day (we’ll stick to exercise and the one sit-up example here, but it can apply to any habit). Start with one sit-up and move up to more. If one day, you don’t have the energy to do the 20 that you’ve worked up to, that’s okay. Do the one. Doing even one sit-up means you haven’t broken your streak of exercising every day. Doing one is enough. It’s better than not doing one at all.

Extending this advice to the university: Turning in a half-written assignment or a poorly-written one is better than not turning in one at all. (And, as my colleague Helga reminded me today, instructors also need to be aware of these hidden struggles that are students are facing; instead of condemning the holes, acknowledg the strength of the material that IS present and offer constructive advice for how to address and expand on the gaps). This is also the advice I would give for addressing anxiety (which might be combined with depression, but we’ll deal with it as separate entities for this discussion). Maybe you’re anxious because you’re scared of failing or because you want your work to be perfect. Unless you’re an prodigy – the university-assignment-writing equivalent of Beethoven – every mark you make on the page is NOT going to be perfect. I’ve heard rumours that Terry Pratchett operated like that; thought and thought and thought until he had the perfect sentence to write on the page. But we can’t all be on the same level as Sir Terry Pratchett. So go ahead and mark up your fresh new notebook with chicken scratch hand-writing. This is part of the process.

If you’ve done an assessment of your mental health and have determined that it’s fine (or manageable), then the next step is to determine what stage you’re stuck at: Is the problem that you don’t have any idea at all, or you have loads of idea and you’re not sure what to focus on? (Check out Concept Map as one of the tools to address this type of problem. Identifying your objectives is another.) Or do you have some semblance of focus, but you’re not sure what order to present them in? Or maybe the problem is you simply don’t know how to start; i.e. what the first sentence should be?

You can probably start to grasp why determining the cause of your blank page syndrome would be the first step in finding a solution. This is true in general about anything you’re procrastinating about or avoiding. Sit down with your bullet journal and dig deep into thinking about root cause. In my day job as a Quality Assurance Manager, we do root cause investigations routinely to determine what resulted in a part having flaws. There are a number of tools you can employ for root cause analysis. One of these is to keep asking yourself “why” (also called the Five Whys).


  • I’m late to work.
  • Why? I slept in.
  • Why? I forgot to set my alarm clock.
  • Why? I was so tired yesterday evening that it slipped my mind.
  • Why? My toddler was teething and kept us up late.

There’s not much further we can go with that unless we want to question the “whys” of evolution on the subject of teething pains. So we’ve identified the root cause and for there we can apply solutions to address it specifically, rather than investing it a new techy alarm clock that does a song and dance and shoots lasers at you. The alarm clock wasn’t the problem in this scenario.

The “Root Cause” of my Sleep Issues

Tomorrow we’ll dive deeper into the tools we can use to address the varying causes of blank page syndrome. As you progress through university, you’ll find that the fear of the blank page will have a number of causes, so keep track of a number of tools and techniques and what works best for you in each scenario. So until tomorrow, take care!

So You’re Considering (Post)Grad School?: A look back at a research proposal, and 12 years and 32 drafts later

**Note that different countries use different terminology. In Canada and US, a grad student is someone pursuing further education after completing their undergraduate studies. In UK, a graduate is someone who has completed their undergraduate studies, full stop. So, in UK, a postgrad is someone who has gone beyond being a graduate. I’m more familiar with UK terminology, but if you’re not clear on the specific jargon I’m using throughout this University 411/811 blog series (which I started here), please comment and ask so I can edit the blog for other readers as well.

32 drafts. I don’t know why I decided to sit down and count my drafts. And by ‘drafts’ I mean some form of submission or completedness – i.e. I sent it to someone else to look at or I said to myself “I’m done for now. I’ll focus on my other chapters and come back to it.” So ‘drafts’ doesn’t even count the number of tweaks and changes I’ve made daily while I worked to achieve that draft. And I’m also not talking full manuscript here. I’m talking about one chapter. THEE chapter. The one that put me on this path.

Chapter 1 of The Shape of Fantasy from start to finish – from the initial kernel of an idea taken from a short undergraduate paper to published chapter in an award-nominated book – was a process that took 12 years and 32 drafts. The chapter plays an integral part of my life. But the profound impact it had on me probably doesn’t come across in the dry academic chapter description:

Chapter 1 – The Shape of a Hero’s Soul: Interrogating the Destiny of the Hero in Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion (2001)

Prophecy or the idea of the ‘Hero of Destiny’ are essential motifs in Heroic Epic Fantasy fiction. This chapter argues that while prophecy may drive characters and events in a narrative, the hero’s free will is not limited. Drawing from a tradition of Stoic philosophy, chapter one explores that, while the shape of the hero’s nature is pre-determined by a metaphysical entity, it remains up to the hero’s free will to determine whether to fulfil the functions of their design. This analysis utilises Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion (2001), the first stand-alone novel of the Chalion universe (2001-present), as a case study. Using the novel as a model of Heroic Epic Fantasy, chapter one demonstrates that in a narrative with prophecy and fate, the hero interacts with these devices through an assertion of free will.

The TL:DR version: in chapter 1 I look at fate and free will in epic fantasy.

The Curse of Chalion     225

"No, don't waste the wine!" Cazaril protested, as Umegat reached for the jug. "I've seen it demonstrated before."
Umegat grinned, and desisted. "But have you really understood how powerless the gods are, when the lowest slave may exclude them from  his heart? And if from his heart, then from the world as well, for the gods many not reach in except through living souls. If the gods could seize passage from anyone they wished, then men would be mere puppets. Only if they borrow or are given will from a willing creature, do they have a little channel through which to act. They can see in through the minds of animals, sometimes, with effort. Plants ... require much foresight. Or"--Umegat turned his cup upright again, and lifted the jug--"sometimes, a man may open himself to them, and let them pour through him into the world." He filled his cup. "A saint is not a virtuous soul, but an empty one. He--or she--freely gives the gift of their will to their god. And in renouncing action, makes action possible."
Excerpt from Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion p. 225
(the sermon of the cup scene)

I’m trying to determine if it’s coincidental or not that a chapter about fate ultimately determined the path I took in life. At some point in my undergraduate studies I became fascinated with the concept of fate. Being a thoroughly unreligious person, I instead fell into a deep dark hole of tarot cards, astrology, numerology, and all the other pseudoscience paraphernalia. I’m almost too ashamed to admit just how much money I poured into astrology books. (Although I don’t regret my tarot card collection because the art work is awesome and tarot is fun when approached with the right sense and humour, i.e as a tool for introspection).

It wasn’t until 2007, in an undergraduate Classics modules on Greek Literature, that I started exploring the rich histories and nuanced philosophical debates of fate versus free will at an academic level. Taken from a context of Greek theology, my final paper for the class compared King Croseus in Herodotus’ Histories with Phaedra in Euripedes’ Hippolatus and considered whether their falls were fated. Did the Greek Gods plan for these characters to fall? Or was fate outside of the control of the Gods as well? Does even Zeus have to follow its dictates? Or do humankind have some measure of control in their lives?

These were all questions asked but never fully answered in my undergraduate paper. But for the rest of my undergraduate career, I kept coming back to the question of fate and free will. (If you remember in my discussion of how to prepare for seminars and lectures I talked about identifying things that interest you; fate and free will was big for me). Later, in a Roman Literature class I was introduced to the phrase:

ducunt voluntem fata nolentem trahunt


Fate leads the willing and drags the unwilling. While the English translation adds “the” and “and” to the sentence, these words aren’t strictly required in Latin. As well, in English word order is important. (For example, subject verb object. I like books: subject, verb, object.) But in Latin, instead of word order the spelling ending of each word indicates its function in a sentence. Thus, in Latin the phrase is perfectly balanced:

Leads. Willing. Fate. Unwilling. Drags.

5 words with “fate” in the middle sandwiched between 2 possible choices: “willing” and “unwilling”. That phrase became everything to me. It combined fate and free will together in this beautiful perfect sentence.

This concept sat in my head gestating for years. And finally, three quarters of the way through my MA studies, I had my eureka moment. The eureka moment wasn’t a “I figured out the answers” moment. Instead, the eureka moment was a moment of “I’ve identified a gap and a possible method of addressing it.” If you’re considering postgrad/grad school, focus on that. Find a gap. A gap that you’re passionate about. A gap that makes you ask “WHY HASN’T ANYONE LOOKED AT THIS??”

Now, before you get excited, Stop. First ask yourself if the gap has an obvious answer, or if you’re attempting to answer it with something most people won’t object to. Your thesis shouldn’t set out to argue things like “the world is round.” Yes, I realize that, in a world where everyone has an opinion on everything, there will always be someone that refutes obvious statements like that, but most educated people won’t object to that statement so it’s not an argument for a research project. Even if an educated person does object (i.e in the form of a peer reviewed publication), consider the statement within the larger field. DON’T set out to pick a fight with just one person/publication. That may work for a small section of an article, but NOT for the entirety of your dissertation. Also don’t argue for the value of something: “We should be looking at x.” That can be where your start exploring what research questions to ask. But WHAT should we look about with x? “We should be looking at climate change and taking it seriously.” Yes. Agreed. Not going to argue that. But now what? What exactly are we looking at and how?

Do some preliminary research. First make sure there IS a gap. If you find someone else has addressed the gap, that’s okay too! Remember the second part of my bolded statement? “And a possibly methodology for addressing it?”. Does your proposed methodology give you a different insight into the gap? Something new and different from what’s already out there?

During my MA in Comparative Literature I was fortunate enough to take a module on Popular Literature and Culture. I was doubly fortunate to have an instructor who let us use any popular culture text for a final paper. I decided I wanted to do a paper on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I loved the trilogy of course, but part of my decision was pure spite; we had studied the first novel for an English Literature class in Children’s Literature and the instructor danced around talking about agnosticism/atheism instead of tackling it head on because he did not want to “open up that can of worms” when I broached the topic in class. (15 years later and I still remember his exact response, so yes, that is a direct quote.) So here was my step towards finding a gap, with an instructor that didn’t want to talk about religion/anti-religion in Pullman’s trilogy. Of course, when I sat down to do the research I quickly realized how WRONG I was. This wasn’t a gap at all. There is a ton of material out there on religion and Pullman.

But while reading these articles and chapters I noticed another interesting trend: a struggle to successfully marry fate and free will together. That is, most of these literary critics saw the concepts in opposition to each other, as mutually exclusive terms. Why did no one see the beautiful marriage of fate and free will? Maybe it was because they didn’t know about Seneca and stoic philosophy? I quickly noticed this opposition of fate/free will applied to Fantasy criticism in general (in what little of it that was available in 2011). Given that Epic Fantasy is rooted in Epic Literature, this baffled me. Hasn’t anyone looked at the theology and philosophy of classic and contemporary epic literature and noted the connections between them?

This idea launched my PhD proposal. It set me on a path to Lancaster University, a journey that included moving from Canada to UK, from my parent’s house where I lived my entire life to my own flat in a city and country where I knew no one. I went on to make some amazing friendships as well as meeting the man I would eventually marry.

Despite all that, while the gap I had identified launched my academic career and my personal life, it was NOT the research question I ended up answering or the methodology I ended up using for the entirety of my research project. My PhD dissertation, followed by my monograph, became so much BIGGER than that. My initial research question and methodology is still there for chapter 1. I examined the question of fate and free will using a comparative methodology that took Roman philosophy and applied it to a contemporary fantasy text. When I started my PhD, I have envisaged a dissertation that either: 1. answered the question of fate and free will using a number of different methodologies and perspectives, or 2. used the comparative methodology of comparing Greco-Roman philosophy and literature to contemporary epic fantasy literature in order to identify and see more connections. If you take a look at my chapter descriptions for The Shape of Fantasy, I did neither. My project shifted entirely from what I envisaged in 2011 when I planned my research proposal. And that’s okay. It’s okay if you’re unsure at any stage about your research. I know sometimes it feels like you have no idea what you’re doing, but that’s okay. You’re learning. If your research has not changed the slightest from proposal stage to submission stage, if your ideas are exactly the same at the end of your PhD as they were at the start, then have you learned anything? That’s the point of all this, right? To learn something new.

32 drafts. From start to finish, it took me 32 drafts to write just 1/10th of my book. So, whether it takes you 10 drafts or 100, don’t stop. Keep going. A new draft means you’re learning.

Today we’re going to start discussing how to tackle the dreaded blank page. Until then, take care!

Flash Fiction: The Mission

I’m taking a break from the University 411 Posts today before I get “fresher’s fatigue”. (News flash, your lecturers are exhausted by the first week of university too. And I’m not even teaching this year, but already I feel sympathy tiredness from everyone facing another year of covid teaching.)

my artistic representation of “fresher’s fatigue” using my kid as a model

In any case, I want to keep up posting everyday because I’m on a streak! I need my streak badge. So today instead of posting university/student tips, I’ve dug into my folder to pull out an unpublished story. (Constructive criticism welcomed).

It’s unpublished because flash fiction is HARD to write. 1000 words to introduce characters, plot, and a satisfying resolution?? But if you’re an aspiring writer (whether fiction or non-fiction), it’s a good way to practice your craft and hone your skills. Flash fiction makes you focus on each and very word, as you make sure that every letter and punctuation mark is both effective and necessary. Or, in other words, it makes you cut down on the waffle. (This introduction could probably benefit with some hacking and pruning. I’m meandering all over the place.) So, without further ado, here’s my first attempt at flash fiction.

The Mission

A sharp alarm woke Elena. She’d been having an eerie dream. Intensely green hills… and a bright light, pulsing in the corner of her eye.
“ELENA! WAKE UP!” Francesca’s shout shook her fully awake.
“What happened??” She charged into the cockpit. Francesca was crouched over the controls. Elena’s breath caught as she took in the view of the planet zooming in on them. Blues and greens peaked out of the rolling masses of clouds.
“Is that the planet? We’re coming in too fast!”
Francesca didn’t reply as the landscape came hurtling towards them.

Six days. Six days of hiking up and down these god-forsaken hills. Captains Elena Norton and Francesca Bellini have been in worse conditions, of course. They had a mission to complete so for six days they trudged up one hill and down another until they began to see the outlines of a ruin. Over the past few days, a feeling of unease had grown. The green hills reminded Elena of her dream. But, she couldn’t quite remember what happened….
“It’s a shame we won’t be able to tell anyone about this mission,” she said instead. “Our ancestors destroyed so much of this planet. It still needs to heal. We can’t let— Do you see something moving in those ruins?”
“It’s probably just an animal,” Francesca said. “Come on. Let’s get in and out quick.”
They had their orders: land on the island, get in the building and destroy the machine inside.
“Do you know what the big deal is with this machine?” Elena asked as they headed to the run.
“It’s dangerous, of course.”
“On an abandoned planet? Lightyears away from our nearest civilization? Didn’t you think it was weird that they thought it was so dangerous out here in the isolation? And how is it still running? You’ve heard the rumours, right?”
“You mean the Quantum Machine? It’s a myth!”
The Quantum Machine. A device created by theoretical physicists to predict the future. Although, some say that it didn’t simply predict the future; that the act of observing the future made it crystallize into reality.
Elena opened her mouth to answer, but then froze. There was a sound…. “Do you hear a humming?”
“It’s probably the machine running.” Francesca switched on her flashlight while Elena pulled out the map of the building.
“It should be around the next bend.”
They stopped short at the doorway. There was a bright light. It pulsed slowly out of the corner of her eye. The humming crescendoed.
Together they crept toward the opening and peered in.
The room was filled with humanoids. Hundreds of them. Skin stretched tight over twisted grey limbs. They were humming, from the back of the throat, gathered around the device in the middle.
In the centre of the room was… a computer screen. A normal looking, antiquated computer screen. A big, squat, mammoth device. A cursor blinked in the corner. Was this it? The dangerous machine they’ve been sent to destroy? This old hunk of metal?
Behind the computer was a small platform. Overhanging it was a swaying lamp, pulsing white light. The lamp swung back and forth over the platform, in a perfect pendulum.
Looking at the light, Elena felt a sense of dread. The light pulsed as it continued its arc over the platform.
The occupants hadn’t noticed them yet. They were focused on the screen. And the words typing across it.
following the bright light in sky 6 days and 6 nights green hills green hills the captains norton and bellini will come to end
“Come on,” Francesca said. “The mission. If we move fast, we can get in and destroy the machine before these… creatures notice us.”
Elena shook her head, panicked. “This isn’t right. We need to get out of here. We shouldn’t be here.” She turned to run.
Too late, they both realised the hum had died down. Francesca’s voice cut through the room.
Before they could move, the creatures rushed toward them.
“NO!” Elena struggled in vain. Dozens of strong hands gripped them, pushing them into the centre of the platform.
The light swung toward them.

Elena opened her eyes. She was sprawled on a dusty floor. A bright light swung an arc behind them, casting shadows. Back and forth.
She could see Francesca haul herself up from the floor, could hear her coughing from the dust.
The room was empty. The creatures were gone.
Francesca had already moved toward the computer screen, her face surprised. “It’s broken!”
The computer screen was broken; an empty window with it’s innards hanging out. Dust lay in a thick film across it. The room looked as if it had been untouched for eons. Except for the swaying lamp on the platform, nothing moved.
Francesca looked around the room with a baffled look on her face. After a moment she said, “Well I guess. We can leave… Mission over.”
But the feeling of dread hadn’t left Elena. Instead, it continued to grow. “No…” she shook her head in denial. “We have to go back.” She looked at the light swinging back and forth over the platform. “This isn’t right. We have to go back.”
“Elena, what are you talking about?”
But Elena was already back on the platform. As the lamp swung toward her, she dove into the light.

Francesca stood framed in the open doorway.
They were back at the doorway.
But… how?
The occupants hadn’t noticed them yet. So focused were they on the computer screen. And the words typing across it.
Following the bright light in sky 6 days and 6 nights green hills green hills the captains norton and bellini will come to end
Francesca looked back at Elena as she started to tremble.
“Come on,” she whispered. “The mission.”
Elena shook her head in denial.
Run? Or stay and complete the mission?
The choice was clear.

The Problem of Placing the “Original” Draft onto a Pedestal

Every once in awhile I see a tweet or post pop up on my dashboard about how J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was rejected by nearly every major publisher. The message of the post always seems aimed at the foolishness of the industry, and how they missed out on publishing a successful author. To a struggling author, this message might give them hope, a “don’t stop trying” attitude. But, as an editor and author (albeit in the academic world), I can’t help but wonder whether her published work (or proposal letter) bears any relation to her original submission. In a society that values hard work, we also seem keen to hide the number of edits and revisions any art must go through before it reaches publication potential – or before it can even be deemed to be worthy of consideration.

In recent days, I’ve seen discussion of the Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker‘s so-called “original script” floating around on the internet. If this gives people some sense of reassurance that the studio hasn’t killed their childhood, then so be it. (I’ve already discussed in my last 3 posts why I think the movie was awesome, so I won’t get into it here.) But the point I want to draw attention to is the idea that the “original” script is authentic. For people who are extremely unhappy with the final product, they can hold on to this notion of the original script because it’s supposedly what the writers or director “really” wanted. This idea seems to leave out all the hard work of editing, and that, in fact, the final product is what the artist had aimed for all along. True, the artist might not be happy with the result themselves, but the first draft is like a hunk of unrefined clay, waiting to be moulded into something better.

The editing process is long and arduous, and anyone that dismisses it as an afterthought seems to lack a basic understanding of how publication and production works. This last December, 8 years after I formed the initial concept, I finally published my article on the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle that I had sitting in my draft folder. In that time I obtained an MA, a PhD, got married, and had a kid. Nearly every year I sat down to re-draft the article all over again, completely revising the focus and perimeters of the paper. I can’t count the number of different forms its gone through – or the number of times it’s been peer reviewed. (In complete honesty, I used one of the earlier drafts to interview potential editors for Fantastika Journal. So if you’ve interviewed with me for the journal, yup, that was my rough work.)

The major problem with this draft (in my opinion anyway) was that there was two disjointed halves, a part A and a part B. This two part structure developed as a result of trying to expand a conference piece into a publishable item. While very few people picked up on the two disparate structure, many of the reviewers pinpointed that the article didn’t follow the argument I had proposed in my introduction.

I use this example, because it’s one that I see over and over again as a journal editor: conference papers that have been redrafted for article submission rarely fit the argument outlined in the introduction (or indeed, in the conference abstract), as, through the course of writing and research, the central argument will shift from the initial proposal. And really, if your article doesn’t change in the slightest after you’ve done all of your reading and research, then I’d question your research process. If you didn’t learn and adjust your ideas in the course of research, then I’m not sure what you might’ve gained from your reading.

To return to Rowling, based on the original synopsis, as an editor I would’ve rejected the work too! I’m not sure if the synopsis was a part of her elevator pitch (the “would you be interested in this sort of work” email), or part of a book proposal which was invited by a publisher who accepted the elevator pitch. But in any case, the first two paragraphs of the synopsis reads:

Harry Potter lives with his aunt, uncle and cousin because his parents died in a car-crash — or so he has been told. The Dursleys don’t like Harry asking questions; in fact, they don’t seem to like anything about him, especially the very odd things that keep happening around him (which Harry himself can’t explain).

The Dursleys’ greatest fear is that Harry will discover the truth about himself, so when letters start arriving for him near his eleventh birthday, he isn’t allowed to read them. However, the Dursleys aren’t dealing with an ordinary postman, and at midnight on Harry’s birthday the gigantic Rubeus Hagrid breaks down the door to make sure Harry gets to read his post at last. Ignoring the horrified Dursleys, Hagrid informs Harry that he is a wizard, and the letter he gives Harry explains that he is expected at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in a month’s time.

It takes two paragraphs to get to the fact that Harry is a wizard; an idea that is absolutely crucial to the plot of the first novel and the series itself. Yes, while Harry being a wizard isn’t revealed to Harry in the first part of the book, the audience knows it from the start, and once Harry discovers his identity, the rest of the plot doesn’t focus too much on this identity crisis. But, from the way this synopsis reads, it would appear that the book focuses on this hidden identity. His identity as wizard is discussed in a mysterious way (“odd things”; “truth about himself”). The reveal itself is delivered in a bland, boring way, “Hagrid informs Harry that he is a wizard.” And, to be honest, the whole language reads, kinda… dull. You can read the full synopsis here and judge for yourself. In fairness to Rowling, the synopsis is much longer than the brief introduction I’ve presented here, and she does go into the actual plot in more detail as she continues. BUT, publishers receives thousands of book proposals. You NEED to be able to sell them on the idea in the first few sentences. If you can’t entice the publisher to read past the first statement, then it’s a clear demonstration that you’re abilities as a writer aren’t at publishing quality. And, ask yourself honestly, if you had picked up this synopsis (on the back of a book at a bookstore etc), would you be enticed to read the whole story?

So go thank your editor today. Or, if you’re a reader and not a writer, give a big shout-out to the editors of your favourite books. They put a lot of hard work in helping the author finesse their writing and ideas into the amazing product you hold as gospel today.