Wednesday, February 24, 2010

On Writing Magic

So okay, I'm halfway through writing "Hunter," the 3rd book in the alternate history series, and I'm finding myself slipping away from the rigid rules of magic established for the series. Well, semi-rigid. Actually, fairly liquid and slippery, 'cause I keep seeing new and cool applications of the underlying source of magic. The temptation is always there to simply make it into the Force, or something akin to the Force, wherein anything is possible so long as you just concentrate hard enough.

Inventing good, new, and original magic systems is really hard. Most newbies just think their heroes should be able to blink and have anything they want appear. No rules, no limitations. Of course, if the Evil Overlord has no limitations, then there can't be any conflict or Heroic intervention, can there? His Exalted Evilness gets to do anything, can dominate the world effortlessly, and the fight is over before it begins. Even Homer, author of the world's first epic fantasy, knew this. The gods of Olympus needed to work through their pet humans, understanding well that when worship withers, so do the gods.

Magic needs rules, and I believe most gaming systems have very rigid rules in place to make sure the players aren't constantly running into arbitrary deus ex machina type solutions to puzzles and people airily throwing down impossible tricks. No Hero should be good at every aspect of the magic, nor able to simply invent new possibilities on the fly. If he can conjure fire at will, he should be miserably bad with water. Maybe he's creative enough to apply old magic in new ways, but it should be after some thought, or with at least the possibility of such application in his mind. Inspiration in crisis is wonderful, but it must be foreshadowed as a possibility first.

Magic should not come easily, and it should come with a price, either in a physical toll on the body or some unpleasantness in forcing the natural to bow to the unnatural. Maybe it's painful; perhaps it shortens the hero's life; perhaps the gifts are inborn and natural to the wielder, but were meant by nature for survival, and overuse sets nature out of balance and thus becomes actively counter-evolutionary. Maybe the magic systems are so intertwined that selfish manipulation results in unintended consequences, as in Tim Pratt's wonderful story where sucking the "cloud stuff" away indiscriminately lets the silver lining go flump onto unsuspecting people below. Whoops.

Consider the source of magic. Is it natural, rooted in elemental forces like fire, water, air? Is it mental, dependent on the strength of mind and will of the practitioners? Is it physical, dependent on proper placement of stones, brewing of potions, etc.? What happens when a practitioner is cut off from the source of his or her magic? Melanie Rawn did a good job with this in her Sunrunner series. A Sunrunner without light cannot exercise power, and if mentally running shafts of light when the sun goes down, will be left mindless forever. That is both powerful, consistent magic and logically limited.

Luke Skywalker, a mental practitioner, was mostly bounded by his own fears, his own inability to set aside logic to embrace the Force. He continually thought of it as something physical that must be stronger than the object to be overcome, instead of something that could be shaped to the desired strength. But Lucas's Force apparently has no outside limits apart from the mental will of the practitioner, and perhaps the strength of the physical vessel wielding it. This system is less logical, more prone to abuse as people display sudden new and unguessed-at powers.

It is well to think through how your magic works before ever putting your hero into a situation where he needs it. For every exercise of magic, think of the counterpoint the bad guy could use to negate it. For every time the hero goes out on a limb to use his magic, think of how you can saw the limb off behind him while he's exercising it. Give your Hero, at the outside, five things he can do well with magic. Give different powers to different people, or give them varying degrees of proficiency. Above all, set down the rules of logic for your magic system, and don't violate them; otherwise, your readers will rightly call foul.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Top 10 Reasons for Not Getting Published

After hanging around cons and workshops for awhile now, and after some soul-searching and self-examination, herewith is my personal list for why some people never get published:

  1. They never finish anything
  2. They never send anything out
  3. They never seek feedback
  4. They allow rejections to rule their outlook
  5. They don't research the markets
  6. They are careless in manuscript preparation
  7. They don't believe "Da Rools" are for them
  8. They don't understand what "professional" means
  9. They have a limited understanding of their own language
  10. They would rather "be" a writer than "become" one
I imagine a lot of people will have different ideas about this list. I think many writers will recognize themselves to a degree in one or more of these failings, at some point in their careers. For sure, I suffered from #4 for a long time. Rejections hurt; repeated rejections induce agonies of self-doubt and intense urges to just quit the whole game and find something less painful to do with one's spare time. Were it not for the sheer, equally intense joy of creating characters and watching what they do, writing would not be worth the abrasion of the soul caused by repeated rejections of one's efforts.

That said, persistence pays, and it only takes one acceptance to restore some of that wounded ego. You don't get acceptances if you don't haul the junk out of the drawer and send it out.

Reason #3 is a major cause of failed-writeritis. Your story may be good. Or not. Aunt Martha's opinion may make you feel better, but is Aunt Martha an editor, a professional writer, an English teacher, or a bibliophile who has read everything from Kafka to Heinlein and knows the difference between good literature and bird-cage liner? Writing in a vacuum leaves you vulnerable to stupid grammar mistakes, tired plots, cardboard characters, cliches, and newbie uncertainty. Ask. For. Help. There are too many great workshops out there, freely accessible and mostly free of charge, to twiddle your thumbs in a self-imposed bubble. Unless, of course, you want to spend the rest of your life getting rejections without knowing why.

An amazing number of people blithely violate #5. Research smeesearch. They neither read the magazines they want to be published in nor even the writers' guidelines put out by same. They send fantasy to SF markets, horror to children's markets, and erotica to Christian markets because they did not bother to check what those magazines want. Nor do they keep up with what is being published to see if their story is using a tired idea or doesn't fit the writing standard the editors are looking for. Besides, what editors say they want and what appears in the magazine often seems to be a disconnect. They're people. Occasionally a story comes over the transom they just can't resist. However, the odds of yours being one of them sink dramatically by simply firing stuff off in hope.

There are many guidelines for manuscript preparation but many people are clueless anyway. This relates directly to #8. Failing to grammar- and spell-check your masterpiece is a sure road to the rejection slip. Badmouthing the editor who rejected your unreadable masterpiece is another. Professionalism means treating your writing with the same level of attention and respect that you would take to your day job. The editor is your boss. Your story is an interview, and it surely will not get you the job if it is not dressed correctly, doesn't have the proper job skills, and doesn't get there within the reading window.

Reason #8 relates to #7. Writing is full of rules, from manuscript prep to grammar. People who fall into the trap in #9 are not likely to overcome #7. Understand the language you are writing in before attempting to violate rules of grammar in the name of style. Prove you can write before you start using run-on sentences or other stylistic tricks. Get rid of the ellipses. Learn what parentheses are for. Understand what paragraphs are designed to do. Best of all, learn proper punctuation, because no editor will sit through abusive punctuation from page 1. Da Rools apply to everybody, because no reader wants to suffer in the name of art. That's your job.

And now we come to my personal favorite, #10. I used to get students all the time who, when asked, said they wanted to be web designers. These students invariably ended up in the middle or bottom of the class. On the other hand, the students who stated without doubt that they wanted to become web designers did very well. They understood the difference between dreams and the hard work required to make them happen. You can scribble words on paper all day long but it won't make you a writer. You must master the good sentence and the good paragraph before tackling the good story. Once you can string grammatically correct and pleasing prose together, you can worry less about the mechanics of the writing and more about the progress of the plot and character development. And people will be a lot more inclined to read it.

Let the quibbling begin. . .

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Joys of Writing

Okay, so I am erratic about blogging but I do enjoy it. The good news is that of late I have no time for it because I'm actually writing new stuff. What a concept! The Book in a Week challenge the last week of the year booted me back to the old writing discipline I used to have. I cranked 142 pages that week, most of which were really, really good pages, which finished that book and got the muse excited about starting the next one in the series. So now I'm over 100 pages into the new project and still wanting to face the blank page every day.

That has its drawbacks. It means I am less enthusiastic about the daily grind of making a living. I do not and will not let clients down, but I am remembering why I love to write, and how much fun it is, and how much I would rather be doing that all day, every day.

Writing, if you are not a writer, is an incomprehensible exercise in rejection coupled with continuing feelings of inadequacy. Yet we sit down every day and pull words from thin air and plop them on the page, knowing we will probably never get rich, or even famous, or even moderately well known.

That actually sucks.

Fortunately, the writing process saves us. I look forward every single day to finding out what my characters are going to do next. I don't actually know. I'm not one of those writers who sits down and sketches out everything in advance. What falls onto the page falls onto the page and somehow my subconscious, which is rather brilliant at putting patterns together (judging by my grades in school and the work I used to do for various and sundry agencies) manages to make a coherent plot out of it in the end. Sometimes the characters run off and do things unexpected, that I had not the vaguest notion of them doing. Usually that improves the plot rather than otherwise. At any rate, it makes it fun and exciting to sit down to that blank page every day. If I had to write to an outline, it would be just like being chained to a client's requirements. I can do it, even do it exceedingly well, but it's not as fun as turning the characters loose to play.

I am always amazed by where the words come from. I don't know. They just arrive, and I am grateful for all of them. I have always been able to turn the tap on and off at will, though some days it takes a little longer for the trickle to start, but eventually it always turns into a flood. Words are my friends, my enemies, and my constant companions. Without them I would not be who I am. I am a writer, and glad of it. So there!