Before the Start

“I only need one gun, but it has to be the right gun.” – Lois Bujold

Very few ideas are perfect on arrival. Few non-writers recognize this, and almost none of them realize that the process of correcting them often begins before a word of a story gets written.

This is part of the unwise veneration of “getting a good idea” as applied to writing. The general notion appears to be that getting ideas is very, very hard (or at least, that getting a good idea is hard). The corollary to this seems to be that “getting an idea” is something that, once it happens, is finished and final; if it is a bad idea, one doesn’t use it, if it is a good idea, one does use it, and there’s nothing in between.

There are writers for whom that is true, but the vast majority of us (and the vast majority of ideas) fall somewhere in that large gap where, supposedly, there is nothing. That is, 99% of stories do not end up looking a lot like the idea that got the writer started writing them. Furthermore, they often start changing almost as soon as the writer has the idea.

Non-writers find this nearly incomprehensible (unless they’ve had a lot of exposure to the odd ways that writers work). Even a lot of other writers find it disconcerting when it’s someone else going through it. Those who aren’t used to it – beginners and writers who normally don’t make changes until much later in their process – can find it downright disturbing when it happens to them.

For those of us who normally work this way, though, reworking the idea is a necessary part of the process. And the reworking can happen on many different levels, depending on the degree of detail and the qualities involved in the original story idea. I have one particular story idea that I’ve tried to write three times; each time, it has morphed so extremely before I even started typing that the idea has remained usefully pristine. I may be able to keep trying to write a story from that particular seed-idea for the remainder of my writing career, without ever getting it down on paper.

Other times, the changes are less dramatic. I mentioned last post that the current project is now expected to open with my heroine visiting the State Fair; what I didn’t say is that I already have several unsatisfactory opening scenes on my hard drive, beginning, variously, with my heroine waking from a nightmare, sitting in her bedroom on a hot August afternoon, walking through a park, and leaving the library. Also one truly unworkable in medias res opening that will probably end up being cannibalized for Chapter 2 or 3.

None of those various openings felt right, and consequently, none have been seen by anyone other than me, but quite often, I find myself talking about plot twists and characters and elements that I want to “try on.” Things that might make it into the final story, but I’m not really sure about. The difficulty arises when one of my beta…listeners gets attached to one of these could-maybe-happens that, in the end, doesn’t make the cut.

Most of my beta-readers and –listeners have been putting up with me for a long time, and know perfectly well that until it’s on paper, it isn’t going to make it into the book for certain. Even so, they can’t really help but make sad faces when something they were particularly fond of doesn’t make it. And I try very hard not to cut stuff that more than one person really, really likes, because if two people like it that much, it will probably appeal to a lot of other folks, and appealing to readers is part of the point.

Sometimes, though, things have to change. What I have is a perfectly serviceable idea – a perfectly good gun – but it isn’t the right one. The idea sounds good, sometimes terrific, and everybody I’ve mentioned it to loves it, but I know in my heart that it just doesn’t fit the book I’m getting started on writing.

The obvious thing to do at this point is to go ahead and come up with something else: a new character, a different plot twist, a change in the magic system or the politics or the setting. Oddly enough, it can be just as hard to resolve to make this kind of change before one has written even a word or two as it is when one has 17 chapters written, 14 of which will have to be scrapped. Because whichever point one is at, making the change is going to require more work, and I, at least, resist the inevitability of “more work” as much and as often as possible.

Painful experience has taught me, however, that forcing a project forward when it doesn’t feel right always results in having to scrap a bunch of chapters later in addition to working out all the stuff that needs to be different. In other words, it’s a lot less work to stop and work out the changes when my backbrain first starts looking at something sideways and frowning, rather than waiting until it starts screaming and jumping up and down and refusing to move a foot farther into the story until things are put right.

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Second Opinion, anyone?

I have this new project, which I have been wrestling with for a couple of months now. Mostly pleasant wrestling, as there are a lot of elements that please me. The problem is, I couldn’t get the thing started.

This is extremely unusual for me, but it was pretty obvious why: the thing starts in the present-day USA, and I have no real interest in writing contemporary fiction. Zilch. To the point where I was trying to start with the Second Evil Minion knocking on my heroine’s door and whisking her entire family off to wherever they’re going well before the end of the first chapter.

I had a couple of good reasons for doing it this way – not making false promises about where the story will happen, not introducing a bunch of characters who won’t be in the entire rest of the book – but it really boiled down to “I don’t wanna write present-day stuff! Wah!”

Which, I eventually admitted, is a totally wrongheaded reason for writing something a certain way. Also, it didn’t work. At all.

Unfortunately, that left me with trying to write at least a chapter or two set in present day, without introducing extraneous characters and without misleading readers. There’s also a little matter of foreshadowing a bunch of developments that will happen later on…some of which I have no clue about as yet. And, incidentally, writing all of this in a present-day setting that a) wasn’t a total cliché, b) didn’t necessitate making up a lot of one-page characters who’d look important (like teachers and friends), but who won’t be appearing in the rest of the book, and c) didn’t bore me to write about.

So I did what I usually do when that kind of thing happens, which is go to a coffee shop or restaurant with friends and complain. (This turns out to be a vital, downright indispensable part of the writing process for nearly every writer I know, though it is seldom mentioned in how-to-write books.)

There was some back-and-forth discussion, and then one of my compatriots pointed out that what I needed was to have my heroine appear first in a setting that was inherently temporary and obviously ending soon, like the last day of the family vacation, or summer camp, or a visit with grandparents. That way, readers wouldn’t be expecting to have to remember a lot about the place and people in the immediate opening, but I’d have time and space to develop the character and get some of her backstory nailed down before everything goes pear-shaped for her.

That sounded very promising, though the specific suggestions didn’t ring any bells. The general idea – starting in a place and at a time when things were obviously not everyday business-as-usual – felt spang on the money. We kicked it around a little more, looking for other possibilities, and then the obvious one occurred to me: the State Fair.

The Minnesota State Fair is an annual event, so it falls within the realm of “normal, recurring, part-of-everyday-life” for folks around here, but it only lasts twelve days. So it is inherently temporary, even if people go every year. There are weird things at the fair, and not just on the Midway (crocodile on a stick, anyone? Maybe the bacon-flavored ice cream?), so Second Evil Minion can show up without causing undue comment (other than “What’s he advertising?). And it starts next week, which means I can go and do some actual research, instead of having to rely on my memories of State Fairs past. Most important of all, it will be fun to write about, which will (I hope) get me to stop trying to move everybody out of town faster than they ought to be going.

Oh, and it is really, really going to be fun to see how Second Evil Minion copes with the butter heads, the llama costumes, and the crop art, among other State Fair perennials. Plus, I think the whole group can vanish in a puff of smoke in front of a crowd, and everyone who saw it would just assume it was a publicity trick or street theater or advertising or something. Which would be handy if and when my heroine has to come back, assuming I want to finagle the time differences so that she hasn’t been gone for months and months.

The trick at this point is going to make sure it doesn’t turn into a “Second Evil Minion does the State Fair” book. Not yet, anyway. Maybe a sequel…

The thing is, the story is moving. And I am pretty darned sure that it wouldn’t be, if I hadn’t gone out and whinged at the right people. I was spinning my wheels because all I could see was “writing boring contemporary school scenes – ugh!” (and trust me, if I’d had to write them, they’d have been boring!). I was so focused on what I didn’t want to do that I wasn’t looking for the right kind of alternatives. It took somebody who had no particular list of “things I want to avoid writing” (because she isn’t writing this book) to see what I needed in order to get around the initial problems: a setting that was both obviously normal and contemporary and obviously temporary rather than someplace readers would expect to come back to.

That kind of stuckness is especially frustrating because it isn’t what most folks think of as “writer’s block.” (It’s also a heck of a lot more common than all of the different kinds of “writer’s block” that I can think of, put together.) I know what the story is; I know where it’s going; I know more or less what has to happen next. I just couldn’t get it moving, because I could only see one way of getting it all started, and I really, really didn’t want to write that.

Every person looks at stories from a different angle, and sometimes that’s just what you need to break loose this kind of stuck. It certainly worked for me.

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Into the Unknown

There are a lot of jobs in the world, but for the majority of them, you know what you’re in for. You’re making something, or moving it around, or keeping track of it, or trading it. Even upper-level managers have a pretty fair idea what their job is. Writers, on the other hand, are always moving into the unknown.

I think this is why so many people are so devoted to various forms of pre-writing: they’re trying to make the trip knowable, or at least predictable.

It would be lovely if any of the techniques worked reliably. Not just because it would make the journey a lot easier and less stressful, though that would certainly be nice. Not even because it would make things move faster and more reliably, though that would be even nicer. But because, if you really could make a clear plan for moving into unknown territory, it would be a lot easier to a) sell the story to an editor and b) explain what I do to all the people with regular jobs that I meet every day.

I was thinking about this the last few days, in particular, because during my drive to Chicago last weekend, someone on the radio made the comment that you can’t play golf if you don’t know where the hole is. He was using it as a metaphor for setting goals, and it’s a good metaphor for that. It just doesn’t apply as strictly to writing as it does to other things, even though to some folks it looks as if it ought to.

Let’s start with something easy: My goal is to write a short story. Three to five thousand words, science fiction. That’s nice and clear, and doesn’t even get too specific about characters or plot. Yet I have, several times, sat down to write a short story and ended up with an 80,000 word novel. (The Harp of Imach Thyssel was the first time it happened.) I am not alone in this, either; I have a number of writer friends who routinely end up with novels instead of the shorter fiction they’d intended to write.

As soon as you throw in characters and plot and backstory, it gets even harder to end up where you think you were going. Oh, it may look good on paper, before anything actually gets written, but things nearly always start to drift the farther into the story one gets. Because one doesn’t actually know that the route one has charted through the vast empty unknown part of the map will get anywhere, let alone getting to the exact place it’s supposed to go. Add in process differences – there are folks who really need to know where they’re going, and others for whom having even an inkling of what the destination is like kills all desire to make the trip – and “know where the hole is before you try to play” starts looking positively problematic.

It’s a bit of a conundrum, really. On the one hand, explorers need to be prepared – it is much better to bring sunscreen and bug spray and an elephant gun and antivenin and extra rations, and not need them, than it is to need one of them desperately and not have it. (Especially the elephant gun and the antivenin.) On the other hand, explorers who are too sure that they know what to expect are prone to receiving nasty, sometimes fatal, surprises. Planning is often useful, but as the saying goes, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and other sorts of plans are just as fragile.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. There isn’t even a this-mostly-works recommendation that one can point a beginning writer at. About all one can do is try different things and see whether they’re helpful or not.

This is especially frustrating because the plots and structures and characters and above all process that’s hiding out there in the unknown keeps changing, so what worked for the last book, or the last three or five or seven books, will suddenly not work at all on the current one. The careful planner will find that the only way to get words down is to fly by the seat of her pants; the careless pantser discovers that the latest book requires reams of charts and maps and planning before he can get started. Or it may be less extreme: the writer who has never bothered with character sketches will find them a necessity; the other one who’s always used detailed maps has characters head straight for the blank area; the one who normally writes every morning before breakfast can’t put a word on paper til after lunch.

If you are going to move out into the unknown, you want to be as prepared as possible, but still hang loose so you can be flexible when that totally unexpected thing happens and everything changes (whether the unexpected thing happens to your characters, or to you). You may wind up at a different destination, or you may get where you intended to go, but by a different route. The trip may be completely different from what you expected, or it may have only one or two surprises (there will always be some), but as long as you don’t get too hung up on getting every detail nailed down in advance and then sticking to it, it’s bound to be an interesting journey.

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Cliches and tropes

One of the questions that came up in comments recently was “What’s the difference between a cliché and a trope?”

The simple and obvious answer is “The way the words are currently used on the Internet, not much.” But there’s a bit more to it than that.

Clichés are universally defined as overused and unoriginal, whether the cliché in question is a plot twist, a metaphor, a situation, a character, or even the way someone in real life expresses a firmly held opinion. A trope, though, if you go for the longstanding literary definition, is “a figure of speech, especially one that uses words in senses beyond their literal meanings…The major figures that are agreed upon as being tropes are metaphor, simile, metonymy, synecdoche, irony, personification, and hyperbole…” – The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms.

Another definition of trope is “a significant or recurring theme, such as a motif,” and that is, I submit, where the confusion began. Because anything that recurs has, by definition, shown up more than once, and there appears to be a large segment of the modern would-be writing community that considers anything that appears more than once “overused” and anything that has ever appeared in a story before “unoriginal,” even if the previous appearance was in another story written by the same author. Which leads right back to the current status, where trope and cliché are treated as synonyms, and generally looked down on.

This presents a serious problem for many would-be writers, as there is practically no theme, style, concept, plot twist, or character type that has never once been used in the history of storytelling. Even if you limit yourself to stuff that’s come along in the nearly-700-years since the invention of the printing press, you’re going to have a hard time finding a modern story that’s completely original in anything but the specific details. Stories involving cell phones have only been around for a couple of decades; stories about communications problems go as far back as there have been people.

And that, in a nutshell, is why it is pointless to worry too much over originality. Take any story and start boiling it down, and it doesn’t take very long before you get to “Hey, ‘West Side Story’ is just a remake of ‘Romeo and Juliet’!” Almost every story focusing on an arranged or forced marriage can be boiled down to either ‘Bluebeard’ or ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ depending on whether the ending is horrifying or happily romantic. There are somewhere between 300 and 600 folktale versions of ‘Cinderella’ around the world, depending on just how strict the criteria are – and that doesn’t count any of the numerous modern versions, ranging from hundreds of Romance novels to movies like “Working Girl” and “Pretty Woman.”

The real problem, in my opinion, is that the terms “overused” and “unoriginal” – which pretty much everyone agrees determine whether something is a cliché – don’t have a clear and generally-agreed-upon definition. Even if they did, there’s the problem of personal experience: if Mr. A has seen Plot Twist X in fourteen of the novels he’s read in the past five years, he may well consider it overused and unoriginal; to Ms. B, who is encountering Plot Twist X for the very first time in her entire life, it is fresh and new. And there are also differences in taste – some readers may consider a particular stock character a special favorite, actively seek out books containing such a character, and consider it a problem that there aren’t more books in which such a character appears, even as critics complain about an overabundance of clichéd characterization.

Furthermore, books in general are not necessarily encountered by anyone in the same order they were written. This is why people can watch their first performance of Hamlet or see The Maltese Falcon for the first time and come away saying “I don’t see why people think that’s so great; it’s full of clichés!” It’s also one of several reasons why young writers are advised and encouraged to read widely and deeply, and not just in their chosen field. It can be very embarrassing for a writer to come up with a clever new idea (“I’ll tell half the story in first person, and the other half in third-person omniscient!”) only to have their professor, agent, editor, or critic comment that Dickens did it better in Bleak House.

Finally, there are genre requirements and conventions. There are probably people out there willing to argue that having a murder in a murder mystery is clichéd, but I doubt that there are many of them, and I don’t think the argument would be taken very seriously. Similarly, it would be rather difficult to write a Romance in which the two central characters have no romantic relationship with anyone, or a police procedural in which no one is a police officer, or a thriller in which nothing and no one is ever in danger. These things have transcended cliché and become requirements of their markets.

Personally, I’d prefer to see the terms “cliché” and “trope” decoupled. They are both potentially useful: cliché, for the truly overused extremes, and trope for the things that become more meaningful, more powerful, or just more comfortably familiar with repetition. Unfortunately, language doesn’t generally move backwards.

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Gaming and Writing

As some of you know, I did a lot of role-playing games in the late 70s and early 80s, some as a player character and some where I was the gamesmistress. Ever since, I’ve been running up against other writers with really strong feelings, pro and con, about gaming. The main objection I keep hearing is that “you get lots of bad habits from running a game or playing in a game.” The underlying implication is that running a game is actively bad for your writing, which is not universally the case.

Gaming is a different medium from writing, with different constraints and expectations. Saying “gaming is bad for your writing” is just as true – and just as false – as saying “Writing screenplays is bad for your writing” or “Doing comedy improv is bad for your writing.” Novels, plays, comedy improv, and gaming/gamesmastering are different forms of storytelling. Because each is a different medium, each type of storytelling places different demands on the storyteller, exercises different skills, and is subject to different constraints on the story itself. Because all of them are, at bottom, storytelling, there will always be some areas where the demands, skills, and constraints overlap.

Wherever the skills and demands of storytelling overlap between one medium and another, they will carry over. (An obvious example: one would expect most playwrights to write good dialog, but to be less skilled at writing descriptions of large-scale action scenes that wouldn’t fit on a stage.)

Wherever the demands and constraints of a particular medium don’t match up with those of another, things get murky. A large part depends on the person who is switching from one type of thing to another. If they recognize that there are differences, then they’ll usually also recognize what they should and shouldn’t do differently. For some people, it’s instinctive; others have to work at it.

It isn’t just a matter of recognizing differences, though. It’s also a matter of how well different forms of storytelling fit each storyteller’s natural strengths and weaknesses. A writer who is very bad at worldbuilding can learn a lot from creating their own gaming world (and they’ll have to, if they want to keep their gamers coming back for more than one or two sessions). A writer who is obsessed with worldbuilding, on the other hand, will often gravitate toward games that encourage more and more worldbuilding at the expense of other aspects of storytelling. They won’t learn any new skills, and they may find themselves with a bad habit of overbuilding and overdescribing their background when they get around to trying a novel.

In my experience, most of the folks who discourage gaming and/or claim that running a game made writing harder are looking at places where there is little or no overlap between the skills demanded by the two forms, or else they are looking at places where they have found one way (out of four or five possible techniques) that works for them in one of the forms, but that doesn’t work for them in the other. For instance, one writer complained that games have far more magic items than is workable in a novel, claiming that so many different gadgets would be nothing but distracting clutter at best, and at worst would make the novel’s protagonist too powerful, rendering the plot too easy to solve. That, however, depends entirely on the writing and the worldbuilding. Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos has an enormous number of magical gadgets, paralleling the technological gadgets of the modern world, and everyone in the story takes them for granted and they don’t throw the plot out of balance because everybody else has them, too.

The complainer’s real problems were that a) he didn’t know how to build a world so that lots of magical gadgets would look reasonable, b) he didn’t know how to construct a plot where lots of different gadgets would make things fun and interesting without making it too easy, c) he didn’t know how to handle a lot of magical tools in the prose without bogging down in a lot of boring exposition, and d) the stories he liked and wanted to tell needed magic to be rare and valuable, not common as mud. D) was the only valid objection, in my opinion, and it trumps all the others…for that particular writer. My problem with him was that he wanted all fantasy to be the sort that he liked and wanted to write (i.e., where magic is rare and valuable and doesn’t have to be taken into consideration as a common thing when plotting).

Another writer of my acquaintance claimed that when one is constructing a plot, one has to narrow the central characters’ options down until they only have one choice, a technique that is known as “railroading” in gaming (and heavily frowned on). Whittling down the characters’ options is certainly one way of plotting, and it’s probably quite useful if you are the kind of writer who lays a plot out in advance and expects their characters to follow it, but I’ve never actually written that way. The closest I came was when I plopped an impassable swamp down to keep some characters from heading in the wrong direction. If it had been a game, I couldn’t have done that (because by then the players would have been around long enough to know I’d just invented it on the fly, since it wasn’t on any of their maps), but I could have done something else to head them the way I wanted them to go. One of the advantages of writing a novel is that you can go back to Chapter One and backfill the swamp or the gun on the mantelpiece; you can’t do that in a game.

On the other hand, if one handles things correctly as a gamesmaster, it is perfectly possible to set up a situation in which there is one and only one solution, and your players have to go for it. What you cannot dictate is how they go about getting their hands on the seven ancient statuettes they need for the ritual. It can be annoying when you’ve set up a dangerous obstacle course for your players to go through to get hold of Statuette #3 and one of them manages to bribe a guard to bring it out to them, bypassing all of your plan, but that’s how games go. And one of the advantages, for a writer, is that if things like that happen to you as gamesmaster enough times, you start getting better at finding interesting alternatives, which can greatly improve your plotting.

It all depends on what one’s style is, as gamer, game runner, and writer. I was lucky enough to get involved in a series of games that forced me to work on worldbuilding and characterization, rather than on plotting. I learned a lot from them, because I was working on some of my weaker areas. Somebody who was already good at those things would have likely found them unhelpful. It’s like any writing exercise: some people need it, some don’t; it helps some, but not others.

The reason I think this keeps coming up is that gaming looks and feels a lot like storytelling, with the GM in the role of the author. And it is storytelling – in collaboration. Most novels, however, are not collaborations, and the ones that are generally don’t involve five, six, ten, or twenty different authors collaborating. No, the writing model that best parallels RPGs is the shared-world anthology, where each author has his or her own main character whose adventures cross and intersect other authors’ characters, and the editor has to coordinate it all and has the last word on the worldbuilding and the stuff that affects the shared non-player-characters. The editor may or may not write stories for the shared world, but if they do, their character is not the “main character.” Because in a shared world, as in a game, every character is the hero of his/her own story, but a minor player in everyone else’s. This is, of course, equally true in a novel, but much easier to get around when there is only one author who gets to choose one story as the central focus.

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Too easy

At one of the recent conventions I attended, I ran into a writer who was having what she referred to as plot problems. Actually, they sounded more like ending problems; according to her, she did fine at creating all the setup, but then when she got to the climax, everything unwound much too swiftly and smoothly and she was worried that she was doing something wrong.

Without actually reading her novel, I couldn’t say for sure, but it seemed to me that there were three possibilities:

1) The climax felt “too easy” because it lacked any tension; there really weren’t any doubts or questions or revelations left. The central story questions had already been answered, and all that was left was implementing an obviously-correct and inevitable solution. When the hero’s army outnumbers the bad guys ten to one, the “big final battle” is unlikely to be very interesting, as the only surprises will be which of the characters (if any) are killed or injured.

2) The climax felt “too easy” because the writer mistook the last big action scene for the story climax, when in fact the action subplot was secondary. This is surprisingly easy to do, especially in a story that is character-centered but action-oriented. Action looms large in genre fiction, whether the idea is to find the Holy Grail, defeat the Evil Overlord, steal the Mona Lisa, or capture the enemy submarine. It is therefore natural to assume that the action climax is the story climax, even when the true central story problem is emotional, spiritual, or intellectual.

3) The climax felt too easy because it went by too fast. The hero and his ten stalwart companions end Chapter Twenty-Nine on top of the hill, looking down at the Evil Overlord’s 300 elite guards, and the hero yells, “Charge!” The next chapter has a one-paragraph summary of the battle (which the heroes win), followed by a couple of lines of chasing the Evil Overlord into the castle and capturing him, followed by another paragraph detailing all the precautions the hero and his companions take to keep the Evil Overlord from getting away, and then we’re into slightly more detailed descriptions of the after-battle cleanup, treating the wounded, and arranging for trials, weddings, and medals as appropriate.

#1, lack of tension, is more common than you’d think. The fact that there’s a huge battle in Chapter Thirty does not make the battle tense, or even interesting, if the outcome is obvious – and it is possible to set up a situation in which, by the numbers, there is considerable doubt about who will win the final confrontation, and still have it lack tension because it is so very, very clear from the rest of the story that one side or the other will win.

If the main character has, in every difficult situation thus far, pulled a rabbit out of her metaphorical hat without breaking a sweat, the fact that this situation is the worst one yet is unlikely to be enough to convince the reader that there’s a realistic chance that this time, she’ll lose. If the heroes are smart and cautious, and the author gives them time to work out the flaws in their plans and/or to collect massive amounts of firepower, the “final battle” can be a downright boring foregone conclusion.

You can also get a lack of tension from a one-peak plot – one where there is no build-up of tension over the early part of the story, or even the middle part, and then suddenly there’s this big urgent thing to deal with out of nowhere. For example, the first two-thirds of the story cover setting up a new system to detect asteroids…the political maneuvering, financing, interpersonal conflicts, but no particular outside threat. And then the system goes live, detects a giant asteroid heading straight for New York, and the main characters drop everything else for a chapter and blow it up, all in the last two chapters; The End. Even though most readers will figure out early on that there’s going to be an asteroid threat at some point in the story, holding it off until the next-to-last chapter and then dealing with it in a spectacular hurry means there’s really not enough time for the reader to get properly worried about it, so there ends up not being nearly as much tension associated with the threat as you’d expect.

It is, of course, perfectly possible to allow everyone to detect the asteroid in the first few chapters, in which case the story will be about figuring out how to deal with it before it hits New York. Having a clear, urgent deadline – a ticking time bomb, some editors call it – is one of the simplest and most reliable ways of upping tension. It has the added advantage of limiting the main characters’ resources (they won’t have unlimited time to plan or collect overwhelming firepower). This isn’t the only possibility, however.

Which brings me to #2 – mistaking the action scene for the story climax. If the real story is about the astronomer forming an unlikely alliance with the politician to set up the asteroid-detection system, then the actual climax may be the scene where they get the system approved and/or built; detecting the asteroid and destroying it may actually be part of the validation.

A lot of the older murder mysteries are actually like this. The true climax of the story is the point at which the detective says, “I know who did it;” the scene where he sums up the evidence and/or tricks the murderer into revealing him/herself is really part of the validation that proves the detective was right and wraps up the action plot. It’s tense because most of the readers still don’t know whodunnit, or how the detective is going to prove it, so there are still important central-plot-related questions, but the summing-up and trapping scenes generally roll along smoothly, because the central story problem has been solved and the reader knows it, even if they don’t yet know exactly what the solution is. Part of the fun is watching the revelations unfold.

#3 can happen when the author has gotten a little tired of writing this thing and just wants it to be over, or when the author has backed themselves into a corner by setting up a situation in which the Big Climax is something they purely hate writing (whether that’s a battle or a courtroom scene). Skating quickly past the Big Finale is perfectly OK in the first draft – one of my pro-writer friends used to have a finished first draft with at least one or two places near the end labeled “[Insert final sword-practicing scene here].” If you do that, though, you’d better be ready to come back and fill in or expand the scenes for the final draft.

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Expectations, Time, and What Really Happens

I was flipping channels yesterday and came across somebody – I think she was a life coach – giving advice to a thirty-something guy who said his dream was to become a writer. He had apparently given up (at least temporarily) when he didn’t make it into grad school in the creative writing program he wanted.

My reaction was really complex. First there was the “But you don’t need a degree in writing to be a writer!” reaction. It’s a product-driven field; credentials don’t mean much unless you want to teach. OK, some people find having classwork assignments and course deadlines useful, but if that’s what it takes to get you to write a book or a story, this is not the career for you.

Which led to the “Anybody who gives up after ONE rejection is not going to get anywhere as a fiction writer” reaction. Nobody I know has sold first time, every time (except possibly for the vanishingly small number of folks whose first novel sold on the first try, and who never wrote or tried to sell anything after that).

About that time, I tuned back in to what was happening onscreen and discovered that what Mr. Wannabe really wanted wasn’t just “to be a writer,” it was “to write a blockbuster bestseller, because otherwise it would be a waste of time.” Ms. Life Coach allowed as how that was perhaps a tad ambitious as a goal for his first novel, and perhaps he should start by just writing something. She eventually talked him down to committing to an hour of writing every Saturday morning until he finished the book. She was a heck of a lot more tactful than I would have been; I suppose that’s why she’s a Life Coach and I’m not.

In order to be or become a writer, you have to write. Writing takes time. Also some thought and effort, but mainly the whole “butt in chair, fingers on keyboard” thing. Regardless of whether you are an intuitive writer or an analytical one, a plodder or a sprinter, actual words-on-paper/pixels has to happen, and that takes time. The odds are way below “slim” that you will find anyone to pay you to spend time doing this until you have a track record of having done it, whether you plan to shop your book around to traditional publishers or self-publish it. The only way to have a track record of writing and finishing stories under those circumstances is to spend a bunch of unpaid time writing and finishing stories. The less time you spend writing, the longer it will take you to finish anything (this applies no matter how fast or slow your absolute rate of word production is. Other things being equal, two hours per week spent writing will net you more words than one hour per week. There’s a point of diminishing returns, yes, but very few writers hit theirs at such a low level of committed writing time).

Mr. Wannabe has the dual problem of unrealistic expectations about his eventual goal (blockbuster novels are a rare exception for any writer; for a first-time novelist…well, “unrealistic” is probably too kind an adjective) and unrealistic expectations about what it would take to get there (producing a 120,000 word novel in one year requires roughly 2,300 words of final pay copy every week – which means he’d have to write and revise that many words in one hour, every single week. If he gives himself two years, he’s looking at 1,150 words of pay copy in each one-hour writing work-week. Maybe he can do it…but given his comments and reactions during that interview, I take leave to doubt it).

I am extremely dubious that Mr. Wannabe is going to ever succeed in finishing a novel, let alone selling one. If he does, though, I predict it will happen like this: Mr. Wannabe will start off determined to sit down once a week for an hour on Saturday mornings. He’ll actually do this for a bunch of weeks in a row, and he won’t think anything of it when some of the one hour sessions get a little longer than he intended. After all, that only happens when he’s really on a roll, and there are some weekends when even writing a paragraph in that hour is horribly difficult, so he’s just catching up a little.

Then he’ll start thinking of bits of dialog or cool new scenes while he’s on the bus, or doing filing at the office, or as he’s falling asleep at night. After the third or fourth one that he can’t remember, he’ll start keeping a notepad and pen with him so he can scribble them down. There will come a day when he gets a whole scene or plot segment or something and he has to grab it all, and suddenly he’ll be squeezing writing time into his coffee breaks and lunch hours.

At some point, it will all come to a screeching halt. He’ll have his notebooks, but nothing will get written in them. He’ll spend his Saturday hour staring at a blank screen, or going over and over the stuff he’s already written. He’ll be convinced he has writer’s block and will never write again, and it will make him twitchy.

The twitchiness will get worse, not better, and eventually he’ll start writing again in self-defense. It will be like trying to haul a refrigerator out of the basement without any help or mechanical assistance, but slow, slow progress will happen. It may take months, but there will be another chapter, and then another. And then, at some other random point, it will all break loose and he’ll be scrambling to find more writing time in which to get it all down before it escapes.

Unexpectedly, he’ll find himself at the end of the first draft. If he tells people about it, one of his friends will give him a copy of The Unstrung Harp, or Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel by Edward Gorey (or possibly a DVD of Stranger Than Fiction), which he will greatly appreciate. He will dive into revising. He may begin working on the first draft of his second novel before he finishes revising, or he may wait until the first one is pretty well done and he’s started sending out queries. By this time, “one hour a week on Saturdays” will have become “as much time as he can beg, borrow, or steal for writing,” and writing will be about as much waste of time as breathing, blockbuster novel or not.

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Designing Magic, Part 3 – Writing it

Once you have a magic system, whether it’s something that you just know feels right in the story or whether it’s something for which you have painstakingly laid out rules and structure, it’s time to actually write about it.

There are three considerations that fall under “writing about magic” – let’s call them Theory, Method, and Effects.

Theory is what you might call the physics behind the magic: how and why it works, what can and can’t be done, who can do it, where the energy for spells comes from, where the extra mass comes from/goes to when something large gets changed into something small or vice versa, and so on. Most of it is part of the original design of the magic system, the prewriting “rules of magic” that the author thought up beforehand (if the author is that kind of author), and it can be an extremely useful tool for writers trying to keep their Method and Effects consistent over the course of a long story.

However, there are very few stories in which the theory behind the magic really needs to be explained in detail in the story itself. If your magicians have to understand the theory in order to work magic and your main magician character is in the process of learning to do magic (as an apprentice, a student in school, or someone yanked from a non-magical world like ours into a magical one), then you may have to work in some explanations and rules, but even then you can avoid a lot of it if you like – witness the Harry Potter series, in which six out of seven books involve the main characters being at school to learn magic…and the rules for magic and magic system are never really laid out in any detail.

The Harry Potter books actually do provide a reasonably good example for how most fantasy can handle the theory part: by implication and dropping a few details here and there. We never get a blow-by-blow set of rules for magic in the Wizarding World, but from what is said and what happens, we can deduce a few things; for example, that most spells need both a wand and an incantation to cast, but advanced magicians can do without either. And the stories don’t need much more than that to work – in fact, a bit less might have been a good idea, since the “magic system” in the Potter books seems a bit haphazard and the dicey bits would have been less obvious if there’d been even less theory for readers to point at and complain “This bit doesn’t make sense with that bit.”

The fact that one doesn’t often require a lot of theory (or any) to make most stories work is extremely frustrating to some authors, who really want to display the cleverness of their magic system. It is, however, perfectly OK to put some of that theory in, as long as the author recognizes that after a certain point, it becomes like all the stuff about whales in Moby Dick – something that will put off a bunch of readers and cause many others to skim those sections, leaving only a handful of folks who are just as fascinated by the details as the author.

Method is just what it sounds like: the exact physical things your character(s) have to do to cast a spell, whether that’s wave a wand and shout a word, or spend hours drawing diagrams with goat’s blood and positioning red candles at particular points while chanting in Ancient Greek. It’s the mechanics of spellcasting, the tools and what your characters do with them. Pretty much any story that involves deliberate spellcasting has some method of doing the casting that can and should be described. Fortunately, this is generally the same as describing any other action; the only real difference is that the writer is making up the movements/actions/words to fit whatever Theory is behind the way magic works in the story.

The tricky bit with method has to do with viewpoint. If your viewpoint character is someone who is unfamiliar with spellcasting – either a new magician or a non-magician who hasn’t seen much spellcasting – then he/she will presumably be interested enough in what spells entail to notice and describe it in sufficient detail for your equally unfamiliar-with-magic reader. If, however, your viewpoint character is native to a world where magic is commonplace, then there may well be a lot of spells and magical effects that, to him/her, are as commonplace and not-worthy-of-notice as driving a car or flipping a light switch would be for us. In that case, it is often helpful to have someone bungle a spellcasting early on, which allows the viewpoint character to see or comment on the difference between the mistakes the klutzy magician made and what a “real” spell would look like. Another possibility is to have the viewpoint character admire some advanced tools or techniques (or complain about some sub-standard ones), or realize that someone is using a new technique they want to acquire and have to observe closely. What you’re looking for in these cases is reasons why your POV would notice the particular aspect of some commonplace (to him) spell that you want to get across to the reader.

Effects are all the various results of magic, from the obvious and intended effect of a particular spell (the boulder exploded), to unintended side effects (his hair stands on end and he looks like a dandelion puff every time he casts a spell, or there’s a pulse of colored light from her wand/finger), to the internal or emotional sensations that magic generates in the viewpoint character (the smell of ozone that lets them know they’re in a highly magical area, the tingle when they touch a magic object, the rising anger that powers a spell). Like the method of casting a spell, these generally need to be consistent with whatever Theory the writer has come up with, most especially whatever Theory the writer has actually put down on paper within the story itself.

The way the writer describes the effects of (and to some extend, the methods used to create) spells and magic determines to a large extent whether readers will find the magic convincing and believable. It therefore behooves the writer to put some thought into the physical, mental, intellectual, and emotional impact magic has – how a spell looks to a mage (and whether it looks different to a non-mage), whether spells have different sounds or smells, what sensations magic in general causes. The clearer and more vivid the writer can make all this (not just what the spell looks like, or the picture of what it does, but the sound and smell and sensations and feelings that are associated with working magic), the easier time most readers will have visualizing it.

The other powerful tool fantasy writers have is consistency, though not necessarily the kind of consistency that means everything is predictable and repeatable the way an experiment is. There have been books written where the way magic worked was by a consistent inconsistency (for instance, one where magicians got to use a particular wording for a particular spell one time; if they wanted to cast it again, they had to make up a new incantation, and the greater the difference from all the others ever used, the better. People did not tend to use this kind of magic to light a campfire every evening…). The important thing is that there is a pattern to magic, spells, and spellcasting…or at least, that the reader is pretty sure that there would be a clear and obvious pattern if only they knew a bit more of the Theory. Magic that operates according to a consistent pattern, especially a pattern that is obviously and clearly different from the patterns of science and technology, tends to be more convincing and believable for many readers.

Keeping the methods for spellcasting and effects of magic consistent can be harder than it sounds. I know rather a lot of writers who have gotten through two-thirds of a story, or several books into a multi-volume series, and suddenly had an idea for a scene or story that is just perfect…except that it doesn’t quite fit the “rules of magic” as they have been described in the material thus far. A great many of them have gone ahead and written the scene/story anyway. Usually, I personally find this a serious flaw, though sometimes a story has enough other virtues that I grit my teeth and keep reading. Not everyone has this reaction, however. Also, it is sometimes possible to get away with this kind of rules-changing either by revamping or inventing new rules (i.e., changing or adding to the Theory until the Cool New Idea actually does fit in), or by presenting convincing evidence that the Theory everyone in the story has believed thus far is as wrong as the pre-Copernican model of the solar system.

Alternatively, and provided the work in question hasn’t yet been published, one can rewrite the first two-thirds so that the magic is consistent with the Cool New Idea. When one is talking about a multi-volume series, however, this is frequently an unworkable solution, and the author may be better off saving the Cool New Idea for a completely different standalone book, rather than trying to shoehorn it into the existing work.

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Designing Magic, part 2 – What I Do

When it comes to magic, what I do depends on the story that I’m telling and what I already know (and what I know I still need to find out) regarding whatever that type of magic requires. Those things have all evolved over the years as I figure out more and more about what the heck I am doing.

My first fantasies were the first two Lyra books: Shadow Magic and Daughter of Witches. I started making up that world when I was in my teens; I had no clue about all this writing stuff, but I had a feeling about what I needed in order to make the story work. And what it needed was a certain amount of magical structure, preferably something that rested on ground I was reasonably familiar with. So I based the magic and everything that went with it around the tried and true four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. I did very little specific research, but I wrote pages and pages of classifying-things-in-fours to see what kinds of things matched up (in my head, at least) with each element. Almost none of that got into the books in any obvious fashion, but it was all there in the back of my mind as I wrote.

My third book was Talking to Dragons, which I wrote without doing any prewriting at all. The magic was whatever showed up; it is perhaps unsurprising that what showed up eventually proved to be based on fairy tales, which I had been devouring in great quantities since before I was old enough to read (my parents were very good about reading to their pre-literate children). After reading enormous quantities of myths, legends, and fairy tales all my life (that section of my library is larger than anything but the SF/F section), I didn’t need to do prewriting or planning or even much in the way of thinking about how the magic worked. It was already sunk deep into the compost in my backbrain. I knew what felt right and what didn’t, even when I was making up things like fire witches and the quozzel.

The Seven Towers didn’t use elemental magic because it wasn’t set on Lyra, but the magic in it feels (to me, anyway) a lot like the magic of the Lyra books, partly because I did very little in the way of designing it besides reminding myself “This isn’t Lyra; it doesn’t go by fours” every so often. I was working on characterization and viewpoint in that book, so I more or less defaulted to what was familiar, with a few things thrown in to make sure it was different. If I’d gone on to write sequels, I would have had to get fairly creative about the logic behind some of those things, because they didn’t have enough thought put into them in the first place.

I went back to Lyra for The Harp of Imach Thyssel and Caught in Crystal, which was just as well – I had more technical writing stuff to work on, and doing it in a world where I wasn’t also trying to work out a new magic system made it easier to concentrate on. Around that time, I was also participating in the Liavek shared-world anthologies, for which we did make up a very specific system of magic in advance, with some very specific rules (which we and everyone else in the anthologies immediately set about bending and stretching to the breaking point). We wanted it to be relatively egalitarian – we wanted magic to be something that anyone could have access to, if they wanted it badly enough – but also dangerous enough that not everyone would try, and not something that would make doing things by magic a too-easy substitute for technology. I’m not sure which of us came up with the concept of birth luck (birth being something that everyone goes through, thus meeting the egalitarian test).

Then came Snow White and Rose Red, which was a semi-historical retelling of the Grimms fairy tale. That took a lot of research; it was set in Elizabethan England, in 1582-83, and two of the major characters (John Dee and Edward Kelly) were historical personages whose experimentation with magic and the occult was both well-known and well-documented. The Elizabethans also had very specific ideas about the magical properties of plants, and a great many equally specific ideas about fairies of different sorts, all of which had to be woven together to get the story I wanted. Dee and Kelly’s experiments were in the tradition of complex rituals, involving diagrams and special equipment, while the herbalism was verging on turning into modern medicine, and the fairies were subject to a host of their own rules with little apparent logic.

The next new venture was Sorcery and Cecelia, which, due to its genesis as a game played between writers, had no advanced planning of magic systems. Caroline and I threw in whatever seemed as if it fit and would make for an interesting letter, and justified it after the fact. I’m not sure it would have been possible to work that way if we had not both had a certain amount of familiarity with the period (England, 1811-1820) and with British history and British fairy tales and legends. The end result has a good many messy bits, where various real-world traditions fall over each other and seem contradictory, but a lot of real-life science was like that then, with many competing theories and no coherent overview, so we decided it worked. (But don’t ask either of us to explain what sort of Unified Field Theories of Magic the magical theoreticians came up with fifty or a hundred years after that time. We never made that up.)

Mairelon the Magician and Magician’s Ward were built on the research I’d done for Snow White and Rose Red, with a fair amount of additional reading about what people in post-Napoleonic-Wars England thought and believed in regard to the “occult sciences.” It was a bit before Mesmer and the séances of the Victorian era, and a bit after the Hellfire Club of the mid-Georgian period, but I read up on both and then adapted things freely to suit my stories.

From Snow White and Rose Red through the alternate-universe-Regency-England books, the magic systems were not made up out of whole cloth. Like the alternate history, they were more “what if all the things people believed about magic and how magic worked really were magic” than “how would having real magic change the way history would play out.” Building magic systems for those books, therefore, meant mainly reading up about what people in real life thought about magic, and then making use of the parts of it that fit my stories.

For the Frontier Magic books, I wasn’t trying to work with real-life parallels. I wanted a world where it looked as if there were several completely different and incompatible kinds of magic, but where the various schools of magic had simply developed different approaches to magic – rather as if classical orchestral musicians, jazz musicians, and the members of the high school band all insisted that what they were doing was completely different from what anyone else was doing, so that they thought a flute made to play in a high school band was fundamentally different and incompatible with a flute crafted to be played in an orchestra, and learning different kinds of music meant learning totally different skills, as different as spinning yarn and carving stone.

So I did a fair amount of up-front design of the magic system in order to come up with something that could have several different approaches that would look very different, but still be tapping into the same fundamental thing. Since I wanted my heroine to have to move toward teamwork (and I wanted doing so to be hard and non-intuitive for her), I made her part of the tradition that emphasized soloists and the difficulty and danger involved in magicians working together. The most collaborative magicians were both the most advanced and the farthest away (physically) from where she was; they didn’t actually show up in person until the third book (forcing her to figure out a lot of stuff on her own). I also put a fair amount of effort into the magical ecosystem, on the theory that if you have a magical apex predator like a dragon, there ought to be lots of other magical critters, in all niches of the natural world. (I never did get a chance to work in the magical bacteria, darn it.)

The current project also requires a considerable degree of careful advance planning for the magic system, as I want to ring some changes on an old fantasy trope. This means I have to have a good idea what the old standard version would look like, as well as thinking about where the cracks are that I can exploit later in my story. Outside of over-the-top parody, it seldom works to introduce a bunch of traditional vampires and then have the main character realize, right at the story climax when it’s needed, that they are all deathly allergic to lemonade and nobody has ever noticed this before.

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