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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Designing magic, part 1

A couple of years back, I was on a panel about magic systems and how one handles magic in fiction. Near the end of the session, someone asked a question about “magical maturity” stories – the sort where children go through a sort of magical puberty during which they develop greater magical power or control or specific magical gifts. The discussion turned to exactly when such a magical puberty ought to occur: at some arbitrary age, like 16 or eighteen; in conjunction with some outside phenomenon, like whenever the planet of one’s birth returned to a particular part of the sky; etc.

One gentleman opined that any magical maturity ought to occur at the same time as physical puberty, “because it just makes sense, you know?” The discussion began to get heated, and finally I looked at him and said, “You do realize that we are all just making this stuff up, don’t you?”

What this particular person appeared to want was a set of rules that he could apply, in order to determine whether a particular author had or hadn’t “done the magic right” in a particular story. The trouble is, it doesn’t work that way. Mr. X was and is perfectly capable of deciding that he doesn’t like stories that have a magical maturity which occurs at an arbitrary age, and he is certainly within his rights to avoid them and even complain about there being too many of this thing he doesn’t like. But he doesn’t get to impose his views on anyone else, and particularly not on writers.

Because when it comes to writing about magic, the writer is really, really making it up, to a far greater degree than they are with any other aspect of story. Characters, plot, setting, dialog, action, etc. all start with some kind of relationship to real people and the real world. They can be realistic or cartoonish, but they’re all recognizable to some extent, even when they are deliberate caricatures. Magic is far more flexible, because it doesn’t have one obvious real-life analog.

One can, of course, opt for one of the systems of magic that human beings have believed in at one time or another in the past or present. However, magic isn’t like physics or chemistry – there aren’t things that everyone in real life agrees work, or reasons why everyone agrees they work. There are four or five or seven elements (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water seem to be agreed on by many of the magical systems that go this route, but some substitute Wood or Stone or Metal for one or another, or add them and/or Spirit or Ether or Blood…). There are spirits or demons or elves to bribe or force to perform tasks. There are elaborate ritual systems, some of which require rare ingredients (dragon bones, unicorn horn) or tools and careful drawing of diagrams, others of which require nothing more than extremely specific preparations by the magician himself (e.g., fasting, sex, knowledge of certain languages). There are systems that require animal familiars (cats, ravens) and systems where some, most, or all magic is a specific gift that you are born with (the Sight).

Consequently, there isn’t a right way to portray magic. It isn’t like orbital mechanics, where there are actual calculations involved that have a right answer and a wrong one (and you will get cranky letters from fans if you put the wrong one in your novel). When you are writing a fantasy, you have a plethora of possible sources, many of them mutually incompatible and/or contradictory. There is no “right answer.”

Most of the time, this means the writer comes back to the story. What kind of magic does this particular story need in order to work the way the writer wants it to? If I want to write a story about a thirty-something-year-old-woman coming into her magic for the first time, I’m highly unlikely to look at a magic system in which there’s a magical maturity that’s tied directly to physical puberty. The point of my story wouldn’t be the same if I had to make the main character twelve or fourteen in order to accommodate the “rules” of a magic system that I am making up just as much as I’m making up the rest of the story. Mary Francis Zambino’s A Plague of Sorcerers wouldn’t have been the same without Jermyn’s odd familiar. The Lord of the Rings would be a totally different story if the magic system had been one in which everyone, Hobbit, Human, Elf, Orc, or Dwarf, was born with a specific magical gift or talent.

As always, how different writers work with magic in their fiction varies along a continuum, from the highly intuitive writers to the highly rule-bound ones. The difference from other aspects of writing is, I think, that when you’re writing about magic, even the most intuitive it-just-feels-right writers need a bit of attention to rules, and even the most methodical follow-the-rules writers need a bit of feel for what makes their magic magical. Because the other main way to come up with an interesting and effective magic system is to look outside the story, at the things in the real world that the particular writer finds magical. J.R.R. Tolkien started with languages; C.S. Lewis with “Northernness.” Other writers have based magic on everything from poetry to cooking or gardening – whatever gives them that little thrill down the spine, whether it’s watching the space shuttle launch or standing on the edge of a remote cliff overlooking the ocean.

In any case, one of the most important tools a writer has for getting the readers to believe in the magic in the story (at least while they’re reading it) is consistency. If the writer decides that fire-starting magic only works on Wednesdays, he/she can’t suddenly have the hero using fire-starting magic on Saturday – not without a really good explanation, anyway. It is perfectly possible for the explanation to be “Well, that’s how they thought it worked, but they were wrong,” but in that case, one has to at least think about how likely it is that every magician in this world, for however-many years magic has been working, has believed that they can only start fires on Wednesdays…and why nobody, not even some ignorant kid who doesn’t know any better, has never, ever tried to use fire-starting magic on any other day of the week.

Consistency can be achieved in several ways: by working out the rules for magic in advance and then following them; by writing the story and then examining every scene where magic is done or talked about, deducing the rules, and then making sure all those scenes work the way they’re supposed to; or by having a really, really good feel for what works or doesn’t work in this particular story. I doubt that the author of Like Water for Chocolate had an elaborately worked out set of rules for how magic worked in that story, but the scenes work…in part, I think, because the author makes no effort whatsoever to explain them. They feel right, so they are.

Intuitive and magical-realism writers do have to be a bit careful that they aren’t mistaking “What a super-cool idea; I must write this no matter what, and to heck with the rest of the story” for “This odd little scene just feels right for this story.” I’ve seen several stories that were, for my tastes, ruined because the author simply couldn’t resist writing a cool scene that was incompatible with whatever they’d said or implied about how magic worked. I find that even more unsatisfying than a deus ex machina, because one assumes that a god would have the power and ability to interfere if they wanted, it’s just that they generally don’t bother. If you absolutely love Fourth of July fireworks and want to write a magic scene involving them, find a story where that scene will fit; don’t stick it in the middle of your semi-historical tale about the building of the Pyramids (or at the very least, don’t call them Fourth of July fireworks, and give me some explanation as to how and when gunpowder got invented early in Egypt and what effect it’s had on your less-and-less-historical society).

Rules-based writers, on the other hand, run the risk of making magic look, sound, and feel exactly like science and technology. I’ve also seen stories in which the plot seemed to revolve around gaming whatever arbitrary magic system the author had invented – “These are the rules, and look how clever my hero is being at using them in unexpected ways!” They always give me the feeling that the writer deliberately designed the magic system with a bunch of loopholes just so their hero could exploit them, rather than that the hero was terribly clever and inventive.

Next time, I’m going to talk more specifically about what I have and haven’t done in making up the magic systems in my books, and then if there’s interest in some of the specifics of doing the actual writing itself.

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What I’m Up to

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a conference call with my editor and agent. One thing led to another, and I now find myself mostly-committed (i.e., I don’t actually have a contract, but the backbrain is moving ahead full steam anyway) to a totally new project on the basis of a what-a-cool-idea conversation.

This sounds great, and is in fact what a lot of folks think writing is all about: you have this terrific idea, everybody goes bananas for it, you write it and sell it (or sell it and write it, depending on how far along you are in your writing career) and presto, published novel.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually work that way. Oh, it is possible to have a terrific idea that everyone goes nuts for, and even to get a book contract on the basis of such an idea, if one has a sufficient track record. The problem comes with actually writing it. Ideas, however terrific, aren’t stories; in fact, they are almost always about situations or characters, or characters in a situation, and they need considerably more work before they turn into something that one can actually write.

At least half of the how-to-write books I read these days tell you to start with a log line or an elevator pitch, which in essence is what I had. That sounds like it ought to be enough to go on with, but for most writers, it isn’t.

In my case, this particular idea came with a main character, a situation, a setting, and a whole lot of problems for my main character to solve. This sounds as if it includes all the absolutely necessary parts of a story – plot, setting, characters, situation – and it was enough for me to come up with a log-line description and a two-paragraph plot summary that made it look as if I knew what I was doing and where I was going.

This is the fundamental problem with trusting to the elevator-pitch summary: it seldom gives a writer enough of a foundation to start writing, but if it is a well-crafted elevator pitch, it sounds as if it should. In my case, the elevator-pitch summary gave me just barely enough to write a two-paragraph “plot summary” of the sort that goes in a cover letter (and trust me, it wasn’t much of a plot summary, because I still didn’t know what the main plot was). It worked as well as it did (which isn’t very) because in a two-paragraph summary, there isn’t room for a lot of character names or plot twists.

When I sat down to write an actual plot outline, it became obvious that this idea was not ready to be written just yet. True, I had characters implied by the setting and situation, but apart from my heroine, none of them had names or personalities. The story description/summary (I can’t really call it a plot outline) that I wrote for myself referred to them as Mom, Little Brother, Dead Biological Father, Dead Adoptive Father, Head Minion, Second Minion, and Evil Aunt. The setting was Generic Epic Fantasy, which was deliberate, but there were still a whole lot of specific details to make up. For instance, do the Evil Minion uniforms come in black and blood-red, or the slightly classier black-and-silver?

I wasn’t really sure whether my heroine had one Aunt or two. I didn’t have an actual magic system or history. More critical than that, though, was the absence of a central plot problem. Oh, I had plenty of problems for my heroine to solve, but they were all at about the same level of difficulty and urgency. There wasn’t anything that stood out as “once she’s done that, the story is over.” Most of the problems, in fact, could be solved in any order; they didn’t depend on each other or build in a particular direction.

Having a central plot problem is a necessity for nearly all stories. It doesn’t always have to be an action problem; sometimes it’s a puzzle solved, or an emotional change, or a lesson learned. In this case, the central plot I’m leaning toward has a lot to do with avoiding the standard action-adventure solution to a typical action-adventure plot. Though there will probable be some coming-of-age stuff in there, too – that’s pretty much unavoidable when your protagonist is a teenager.

Fortunately for me, this idea has a lot of juice. I spent the next week answering a lot of those questions, naming some characters, and generally making up stuff. The plot outline actually started to look like a plot outline and less like a vague notion that “some stuff happens and then a miracle occurs and the good guys succeed at doing something important, The End.” It’s still not as clear as I’d like, but it’s getting there. My biggest problem at the moment is beating back various emergencies long enough to actually get some work done. (Did I mention the three hours I spent trying to stay ahead of the water pouring into my basement during the flooding a couple of weeks ago? I was lucky; all I lost was a rug, but I still have to have the waterproofing people out to inspect the place and make sure there aren’t any serious after-effects.)

At this point in the writing, there are two basic approaches: 1) Do a bunch more development work, and 2) Start writing and see what happens. I’m usually a #1 sort of writer, but this go-around I seem to be using a combination approach. I’m bouncing back and forth between developing bits and writing the first couple of scenes. Every time I hit a spot where I don’t know something important about the background, the characters’ reactions, or the plot, I quit writing the scene and go back to examining different options for whatever I’m unsure of.

I have been working at this game for long enough that I’m reasonably comfortable with the idea that nothing ever seems to work the same way twice. (Being comfortable with whatever new way things seem to be working this time is another matter, but oh, well, that’s writing for you.) I shouldn’t be surprised that this book isn’t going to get written via the same methods as the last few did; in fact, now that I think of it, it was about time for my backbrain to spring a major change on me.

It’s still annoying when it happens, though.

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What They (Don’t) Want

When I was in high school, one of the rituals that came along during senior year was called something like Career Inventory Day, when you spent the morning taking a battery of tests that was supposed to tell you what career you were most likely to be suited for, personality-wise, and then you spent the afternoon listening to a series of lectures on how to figure out what you really wanted to do. Neither bit was particularly helpful to me in choosing a career – if I remember correctly, the test indicated that I wouldn’t really be happy doing anything, but my best match was 39% for computer data technician (which at that point meant being the person who ran the punch card machine, i.e., a very specialized sort of typist). The afternoon was even less helpful, except for one thing.

Near the very end of the day, one of the counselors had us do an exercise that I’ve since seen about a million times in different contexts: picture yourself in five/ten/twenty years, and describe your perfect, ideal day. About three-quarters of the class immediately began writing industriously, but the rest of us sat and stared at the page, minds as blank as the paper. After about five minutes, there were still five or six of us who hadn’t managed to write anything. The counselor, being reasonably good at his job, then said something I’ve only seen suggested once or twice since then: “If you are having trouble writing down your ideal, perfect day…write about the opposite thing. Write down the day you would hate to have to live through, in every most horrible detail you can think of. Describe your Day From Hell.”

I covered three pages in three minutes.

It wasn’t much help to me in choosing a career at the time, but the technique turned out to be extremely useful thirty years later, when I was trying to figure out the motivation of a character. For the life of me, I could not think what the guy wanted, and certainly not what he wanted enough to drive him to do anything story-worthy. And then I remembered that counselor…and I started looking at the stuff my character didn’t want, his “day from hell.” Not what he was afraid of, but things he’d purely hate doing or living through. Sure enough, that was a lot easier to figure out – boredom, repetition, somebody else being his boss, somebody else stupid being his boss… Knowing what the guy would hate to have happen to him gave me a lot of really good ideas about what he was secretly looking for but wouldn’t admit to.

I hasten to add that I did not go on to use any of that “day from hell” in the story itself. (I would have, if it had fit in, but it didn’t, and I wasn’t going to twist the story just to make it fit.) I wasn’t trying to figure out the worst thing that could happen to the character, so that I could then shove it into the story somehow. I was trying to understand him better. Specifically, I needed to know what kind of outcome he wanted from a particular situation and why, because it made a difference in exactly what actions he would take next.

This comes up all the time in writing. The princess has been kidnapped, and the writer knows, in a general sense, What Happens Next: the hero goes off to rescue her. But if the hero is rescuing her because she’s his ticket to eventually ruling the kingdom, he’s not going to behave in quite the same way as he would if he was riding to the rescue of his One True Love, which would, again, be different from how he’d act if he’s simply Doing The Right Thing so he can finish up this job and go back to his sweetie at home, or from what he’d do if the princess needs to be rescued because she has some obscure bit of knowledge he needs for his real quest.

Sometimes, the differences are subtle, a matter of the hero choosing a slightly riskier tactic, or being willing to wait a few minutes for a better opportunity to sneak into the dungeon. Sometimes, the differences are major and obvious. The main thing, though, is that if I have a certain level of understanding of what, exactly, the character wants or is trying to make happen and why, I’ll know what actions he will and won’t take, and I will be more able to write them out convincingly even if I never explicitly say, in the story, what the character wants.

This is not true of all writers. I’ve known at least one who never bothered with what her characters wanted or didn’t want. She wrote complicated action-adventure-puzzle stories that turned mainly on plot and ideas, rather than on depth of characterization. She’s one of the few writers I know who not only did fairly elaborate plot outlines, but stuck to them exactly. Her characters never surprised her, not because she knew them so well, but because she didn’t need to know them well – she kept them so busy putting out obviously important fires (“While we were dismantling the bomb at the spaceport, the villain kidnapped the ambassador’s daughter; if we leave right now at top speed, we can catch up and rescue her before the armada arrives!”) that they didn’t have time for anything else. It works for her, so there are undoubtedly others for whom the same thing is true.

Me, though, I need to know more about my characters than which fire they have to douse next. Sometimes, I get to that by writing about them for a couple of chapters; other times, they walk into my head in all their glorious complexity; on still other occasions, I’ve cast them from my favorite stories (“I’ll make this character a cross between Chrestomanci and the Dowager Duchess of Denver, and the sidekick can be Hamlet crossed with Han Solo…”).

And sometimes, I get into the character by figuring out what they don’t want.

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Surprises and Themes

A while back, I was talking to an Earnest Young Writer, who informed me with great intensity that the story she was writing had a Theme, and that she couldn’t do anything about certain objections she was getting from her beta readers because that would destroy what she was trying to say. More specifically, she had several plot twists planned out that didn’t take things in the direction her beta readers thought the story was going…and when she told the beta readers this, they universally informed her that what she had planned would not work and that she had to send things in the direction they were expecting. One went so far as to tell her to “toss out your theme and let the characters do what they want,” which was, of course, what the beta-reader was sure they wanted. The writer was quite rightly indignant at being told she had to write her story their way, and wanted my opinion.

What I really wanted to do was tell her that both sides were right. Or wrong, depending on which angle you were looking from.

The writer was, as I said, perfectly right in her basic objection to being told what to write (the plot twists the beta readers expected) and how to write it (“set your characters free!”). She wasn’t starting with characters or an action plot and letting the theme develop out of whatever actions they took, which is how a lot of writers do it. That’s not how she works (at least, it’s not how she worked on this particular story). She started with a specific goal for the story – a theme, something she wanted the story to say. She was also correct to say that the plot twist the beta readers expected/wanted would have ruined the story she wanted to tell

Where she was wrong was in her assertion that she could not do anything about the objections of her beta readers, and should therefore ignore those objections completely.

The beta readers were wrong to say that the writer’s proposed plot twists could not work and would have to be changed. They were monumentally wrong in trying to force the writer to write the story they were expecting, instead of the one that she wanted to write.

But the beta readers were absolutely correct to say that there was a problem, and that as things stood, the writer’s proposed plot twists would not work. They were probably even right about the characters as presented not wanting to do the things the writer insisted they were going to do.

The real problem was that the writer was so focused on her Theme that she wasn’t paying enough attention to the believability of the story she was telling. It was as if she had decided to tell a story about the terrible effects bullying has on its victims, and cast The Terminator as the hapless victim. Of course her beta-readers were expecting a story about the bullies choosing the wrong guy (so very wrong) to pick on! And of course they were disappointed and disbelieving when she said that no, she was telling a story about how bullying can destroy even the strongest personality! She’d set her victim up as so strong that none of them believed she could pull off the changes in his personality that her theme demanded.

This doesn’t mean she couldn’t pull it off, though; it merely means that her readers didn’t believe it based on what they’d seen so far, which meant she needed to put a lot of work into making the story convincing – work she was determined not to even think about, partly because her betas had been so adamant in telling her she couldn’t do what she intended.

But starting with a theme, a specific agenda, or a moral point to make, means that the writer has to spend more time, energy, and attention on the characters and plot, because in order for the theme to work, the characters and plot have to be believable and convincing. Everything has to work together at least as smoothly as it does in stories where the theme grows naturally out of the actions and reactions of the characters and plot. If the writer does it effectively, there is no way the readers will be able to tell that the theme didn’t grow organically.

The other thing this particular write forgot to pay attention to is the power of tropes. There are a whole lot of story conventions and tropes that we are used to seeing over and over in stories. They work a bit like a subliminal sound track – when the music gets ominous, we know someone is sneaking up on the hero; when the bullies decide to pick on The Terminator, we anticipate their complete humiliation. A story-teller who wants to subvert these reader expectations has to work harder than a writer who is playing along with them, because the subversive writer needs to do more than convince the readers that these characters would do X. They have to convince readers that the characters really would do X instead of the Y that everyone is expecting them to do.

If the characters are selected and developed carefully, the readers’ expectations can work in the writer’s favor. If the reader is expecting the characters to do Y because Y is a familiar trope under these circumstances, but the characters just don’t seem like the sort of folks who would do Y, it sets up a certain tension, and then when they actually get to the point and do X instead, the reader gets a double tension release. There will always be a few who don’t like anything that doesn’t fit their preconceived notions of what must happen, and all one can do about them is ignore them. When all one’s beta-readers are complaining about the same thing, however, it behooves the writer to pay attention – not necessarily to their specific suggestions (“Do Y! We expect you to do Y!”), but to setting up the plot and characters so that when X happens, those same readers will believe and accept it even though they were expecting Y.

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Short-short queries

It’s been over a year since my last post on query letters, and frankly, after writing four different posts on the topic, I didn’t think I had anything else to say. After all, the basics of query letter writing don’t change much, mainly because its purpose hasn’t changed. You’re writing a one-page letter to persuade an editor that your manuscript is worth looking at.

However, it has come to my attention that there are still things to address. As I’ve said before, there are two basic types of query letter, the extremely brief elevator-pitch query and the slightly longer one that tries to sum up the plot in two or three short paragraphs. I’ve done a break-it-down-and-rebuild-it post on the two-to-three-paragraph version, but I never got around to doing the same thing for the short version. So here’s the starting example:

Dear Editor:

I have just finished my 100,000 word novel, The  Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, a hilarious romp through an improbable future in which a manic grad student and a purple monkey pull out all the stops to defeat the Evil Overlord. It’s a suspense-filled drama with darkness at its heart as the two unlikely heroes confront their all-too-human flaws, part Igraine Hughes and part Carlos Merriwether III with just a hint of the third season of the “Five Guys Pretending To Be Marooned On A Desert Island” reality show and a soupcon of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. I myself have a Ph.d. in history, and I can assure you that all of the historical references are perfectly accurate. Would you be interested in looking at it?

Sincerely, The Writer

This query starts off very well, with the mention that the novel is finished, the word count, and the title, but as soon as it starts trying to actually describe the story, it falls apart. Why? Because this author decided that the only way to keep the description short was also to leave out most of the specifics and instead try to describe what they think the story is like. She doesn’t even provide the name of the main character.

You know all those writing rules, especially the one about showing instead of telling? This is where you use them. You don’t say “this is a hilarious romp through an improbable future,” “they pull out all the stops,” or “It’s a suspense-filled drama with darkness at its heart…” There is almost no actual information in any of those phrases (and even the what-is-it opinions are contradictory – is this a comedy or a thriller?). And what’s with that mention of “historical references”? Isn’t this supposed to be set in the future?

Specifics are particularly difficult to come up with for a short-short query. You have 100,000-plus words of plots, subplots, characters, setting, theme, and overall hard work; when you start trying to sum it up, everything seems important and it’s easy to get tangled up in trying to fit it all in. The more that goes in, though, the harder it is to make it clear how things tie together (and there isn’t room in this kind of query for any explanation – it all has to be obvious from context).

Providing comparisons to well-known writers and stories can be useful and effective in this kind of short-short summary, but showing off your knowledge of obscure writers, poets, and TV shows isn’t going to win you points (especially if they are so obscure that the editor isn’t familiar with them). Using obscure references doesn’t make you look smart; it makes you look as if you don’t know which books or authors were and are important in whatever field or genre you are trying to sell your book to.

Next, a short-short pitch is not the place to be talking about your research or your credentials, unless they are both really impressive and directly relevant. “I have a Ph.d.” is neither. “I have a Nobel Prize in economics” would certainly be impressive, but since it isn’t directly relevant to this particular story, it still wouldn’t belong in this particular query. “I have six novels in print and my last novel was Number One on the New York Times Bestseller List for six weeks,” on the other hand, is impressive and relevant to pretty much any novel query.

Finally, a short-short query isn’t a teaser. Yes, you are trying to get the editor intrigued and interested, but you want to do it by giving him/her more information, as clearly as possible. So here’s my revised version:

Dear Editor:

I have just finished my 100,000 word novel, The  Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread. When manic grad student Linda Anybody accepts a research request from a purple monkey, she quickly finds herself on a whirlwind tour of the galaxy. Pursued by the Evil Overlord, Linda struggles to find allies among space mermaids, living rocks, and other aliens; to succeed, she has to face her own lack of drive and commitment. The final battle in which Linda’s forces unexpectedly defeat the Evil Minions and save the universe is a cross between Douglas Adams and H. P. Lovecraft. Would you be interested in looking at it?

Sincerely, The Writer

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Turning points

“Turning point: The point at which a decisive change takes place.” – Oxford American Dictionary

Some while ago, I got about a half-page of questions on turning points from someone who was writing an article on the subject. They were an odd mix of the sort of questions I remember from my high school English classes (“What is a turning point? Give an example. Are there turning points in both the external and internal story lines? Compare a turning point to a plot twist.”) and the sort of questions I get from earnest would-be writers (“Can I have more than one turning point in a story? Should I have more than one? How do I foreshadow my turning point?”)

I couldn’t provide any answers for a variety of reasons, chief among them that I write about writing, and not one of those questions has anything at all to do with the way I write.

For starters, the “turning point” that is the focus of these questions is a description of a particular point in a specific type of plot structure. It’s the moment in the Council of Rivendell where Frodo volunteers to take the One Ring to Mount Doom, or when Elizabeth Bennett refuses Mr. Darcy’s first condescending proposal.

And since turning points are  part of the bones of the story, talking about “making your turning point work” is a lot like talking about “making your hipbones work” or “making your elbow joints work;” if your hips or elbows aren’t working, there’s probably quite a lot wrong at a fundamental structural level, or else you have arthritis or some other problem that needs to be addressed before you can really look at what, if anything, is wrong with the joints.

When the story is in process, there are hundreds of possible “turning points” at which the story could go in a completely different direction – from the character missing a train or being held up by a car accident on the freeway to ninjas unexpectedly leaping through the window during dinner. None of these are visible in the finished story, but they are, to my way of thinking, a lot more useful and important to think about than trying to codify the how and when of the stuff that shows up in the final story.

Most of the writers I know don’t talk about their work in terms of abstract structure. They talk about their stories in metaphors – the First Veil, the Next Event Horizon, the Valley of Fog. Those points are often turning points and points of decision – but they are points of decision for the writer, not necessarily for the characters or the plot.

The in-story turning points are a matter of the instinct and intuition that make us storytellers. As such, they aren’t terribly important things to focus on (in the first draft, at least). They’re things the backbrain delivers, either well in advance as part of the initial story, or as a sort of “Aha!” moment when one realizes in mid-scene that the characters have some options that hadn’t occurred to one before…and that those options could take the story in interesting and unexpected new directions.

The writer’s turning points, on the other hand, are usually the “sticky spots” in the process, the places where the writer has a non-obvious decision to make.

Most of the writers I know have a pretty fair notion when a Big Important Scene is coming up, though not necessarily how it will play out. Some of the time, the writer gets to a chapter or so before the characters have their turning-point scene and then have to stop and think about who is going to do what, what the actions will be, what decisions the characters will make; only when they know these things can they go on and write the scene. Once the scene has been written, though, the consequences are obvious and the story (from the writer’s point of view) flows on until the next sticky point where decisions have to be made.

Other writers know a lot about the turning point scene, because they’ve been dying to write it for weeks…but they have no idea how the decisions and actions that come out of that scene will affect the next part of the story. So they can tootle steadily along through writing the in-story turning point, but then they have to pause to make some decisions about what happens next, given the scene they just wrote. And of course some writers have to make decisions before some Big Scenes and after other Big Scenes, and aren’t consistent about it either way.

And in all cases – the writers who stop before-hand to make decisions, the writers who stop immediately after to make decisions, and the ones who switch off – the Big Important Scene may not be the sort of thing an English teacher, critic, or editor would identify as a “turning point” at all, because it is not a point of “decisive change” within the story for the characters or plot. Epiphanies about the next key bit of action or emotional development can occur regularly two or three chapters before that action bit arrives, while the writer is describing a park or the hero’s casual walk through the Farmer’s Market (or, quite commonly, when the writer is in the shower, on the bus, or taking a walk, none of which have anything particularly to do with the hero’s big fight with the dragon or the heroine having to choose between the sidekick and the hero).

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Moving on

Having spent the weekend being very thoroughly distracted by my 40th college reunion (at which they gave me a Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award, much to my astonishment [and thank you to everyone who worked on that]), I didn’t have a lot prepared for today’s blog. So I thought I would talk a bit about writing the stuff that comes after Chapter One.

There are a great many different things that can be done in the early part of any novel, and there is seldom room to do all of them at once. As I have pointed out several times, one often can’t open a story as it needs to be opened while still doing all of the possible jobs in all of the possible areas in Chapter One. So the writer starts with a big action scene that sets up the plot, but at the expense of some deeper character development. Or the writer opens by introducing characters and the moody setting, at the expense of giving the reader a clear vision of the plot.

Which means that when you get to writing Chapter Two, there are often some pieces of the setup that are missing. This means that when one is writing Chapter Two, one has to look in both directions: backward to the previous chapter, to fill in any key bits that had to be left out, and forward to the next chapter(s) and the rest of the story.

If the story you are telling starts in such a way as to provide a good solid foundation in all of the main storytelling elements – if you managed to introduce the characters and get the reader a good way toward caring for them, establish the setting and enough of the backstory to be intriguing, and get the plot rolling in the right direction, however slowly – then what you have to do in the next couple of chapters is keep things moving. Basically, you have all your plates in the air; now you have to keep juggling (while perhaps adding another plate to the mix from time to time).

If you didn’t manage to get every single one of the essentials into Chapter One – say, the story needed to start in medias res with the hero in the middle of a tense naval battle, which left you with little characterization and even less backstory – then Chapter Two is where you introduce those missing elements. In this case, Chapter Two is doing some of the leftover jobs from Chapter One…but, because you’re already in Chapter Two, it also has to move everything forward.

Pacing is important here, and it depends a lot on what you did in Chapter One. If One was slam-bang action, you probably want to give the reader a little breathing space before you head into the next action sequence, but you don’t want things to slow down so much that the reader gets bored and moves on to another book. If One was more of a long, slow build, then Two might be a good spot for a shock or surprise or some sudden action, or you might want to build tension even higher with some more mysterious hints, but you don’t want the shock to be so great it gives the reader whiplash, or the tension to crank so high the reader leaves.

Reader need to know more than just “what happens next;” they also need to know who and how and why and where. In some stories “what happens next” is less important than who and why; in others, “what happens” is absolutely the key thing, and the rest is secondary. This doesn’t mean you can leave out the who, how, why, and where if you are writing the latter sort of story. It just means you won’t have to spend quite as much time on it.

It’s a balancing act, and how you balance depends on where you were in Chapter One and where you are heading for in Chapter Three and parts farther on. A character-centered story will need more characterization, and probably less physical action, than an action-focused adventure story. The difficulty here is in being sure of what kind of story it is – it is surprisingly easy to mistake a story about space mercenaries for something strictly action-adventure, when it’s actually a character-centered study of the relationships of a bunch of people who happen to be space mercenaries. If you aren’t sure of the difference, take a look at Lois Bujold’s work; in spite of an assortment of wars and dangerous missions and mysteries, they’re all fundamentally character-centered stories.

Looking forward, you want to think about both what’s coming up immediately in the next scene and/or in Chapter Three, and about where you are trying to get to in the longer run (say, Chapter Ten or Fourteen, or even the ultimate climax of the story). If you know the next scene or the next turning point, that’s usually enough to go on with, but if you do know what’s coming in the long run, it is frequently easier to plant the first mention of the antique goldfish bowl on the mantelpiece here, instead of waiting eight or nine chapters and only mentioning it a few pages before the hero needs to fling it through the picture window to escape the poison gas bomb.

For a lot of writers, the early chapters are one of the easiest and most fun parts (after they get past Chapter One), because you can just keep throwing in cool bits for a while without paying too much attention to how they will eventually fit together. (Of course, if you do it that way, you will probably need quite a bit of revision to make sure everything does fit in the long run, but if that’s how you work…well, you are not alone.) For a lot of other writers, the early chapters are acutely painful, and they don’t hit their stride until all of the basics have been established or introduced. About all I can say to this lot is that all writers have some point that is acutely painful, and at least you are getting yours out of the way early on.

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Fixing Chapter One: Putting it all together

Whether you end up revising Chapter One every few scenes or wait until you have a complete draft to revise it (or even to write it), it usually helps to think a little about the things that you want the chapter to do. First and foremost, of course, is to get your readers interested enough to keep going, but despite all the emphasis on “hooking” readers in the first scene, page, paragraph, or sentence, this isn’t actually clear enough to be helpful in most cases. It doesn’t tell you, for instance, whether it is most important to this particular story to get the reader interested in the plot, make them fall in love with your character, establish the main themes of the story, present an intriguing idea, or build up a fascinating background.

Ideally, of course, one would do all of it at once, probably in the first couple of sentences. Here’s the problem: you can almost never actually achieve that. Sometimes it’s a matter of not quite having enough skill to cram in one more thing; other times, the story itself is incompatible with getting one or more of the basic elements in early on.

So you have to set priorities – and those priorities will not be the same for every story. This is why all those people who advocate starting with action or dialog or the hero in trouble are plain old flat-out wrong: because any of those things will work for some stories, but not one of them will work for every story. Opening Pride and Prejudice with an exciting action scene – say, Mr. Darcy foiling a bunch of footpads who attempt to rob him on his way to Netherfield Park – would be totally wrong for the book. Starting The Hunt for Red October with a scene where the pregnant wife of the defecting ship commander worries about his possible infidelity would likewise be totally wrong for that book.

You can’t set the right priorities for your particular story without actually looking at the story and considering what you wanted to do and what you have actually done (which are often not quite the same thing). After all, you can’t fix something until you know what’s wrong with it. Adding a bunch of new background is not going to help if the problem is that your readers really need to like your main character, and making the main character more likeable is not going to help if the problem is that it is totally unclear where and when the story is taking place.

The writer therefore needs to consider what thing or things most need to be done in this particular Chapter One. As I have been saying, every element of storytelling does one or more particular jobs in Chapter One; the question is, which of those jobs is most important to this story? The second question is, which element would, if changed, have the greatest impact on the way the reader sees the rest of the story?

If you know or suspect that you have problems (in Chapter One or elsewhere) that you cannot see, there are three basic approaches:

First, you can find some readers whose judgment you trust and get them to tell you what things they found confusing, where they lost interest, whether they felt as if something was missing. This is probably one of the most common, though it is hard to find good critique. Even a casual reader’s input can be useful, however, if one is willing to think about it and puzzle out why they stalled dead in the middle of the second scene, or took an intense dislike to the character who is supposed to become the romantic interest. It is up to you whether you want to work really hard at finding or training top-notch critiquers, or work really hard at ferreting out what a less-articulate critiquer’s comments are pointing at. Either way, you will end up working a lot harder at getting and understanding the crit than most people realize.

Second, you can deliberately write several different versions of each scene or chapter that you think is problematic, changing different things each time, set them aside for a few days or weeks, and then come back and compare them; some folks find that there isn’t as much difference as they thought, while others find that it is suddenly blindingly obvious which is the “right” Chapter One. This method is a lot of work, but the work is all writing work, which appeals to some folks more than trying to puzzle out what someone else’s comments are really telling you.

The third approach is to train your own ability to spot problems and/or decide what to do about them. The best way I know to do this is to critique other people’s work; this not only gives you practice in seeing problems (which is often much easier when it’s not your stuff), it gives you practice in articulating them in ways that are useful to other writers (which can help with explaining to your own beta readers what kinds of comments you will find useful). The catch here is that some folks already have a ferocious Inner Editor that gets in the way of their writing, and they do not want to train that Editor to spot even more things to fix. Sometimes, people can get around this by drawing strict mental lines around the things the Internal Editor is permitted to look at during the writing stage, and insisting that everything else be left for the revision phase.

Finally, it is important to remember not to overstuff Chapter One just so you can get one more story element into it. Folks who have been following these posts will have noticed that I keep mentioning that sometimes the writer can’t get this or that element into Chapter One, because the story just doesn’t allow for it. Some things are just incompatible. When this happens, what you do is try to make the stuff you are putting in – the characterization or the opening plot elements or the early bits of backstory – so compelling and interesting that it doesn’t matter that you couldn’t fit one of them into Chapter One.

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Fixing Chapter One: Background, setting, backstory

The third problem that article-writer had with Chapter Ones was “too much background and too much telling.” His answer was to cut out all the description. Unfortunately, this “simple and obvious” solution isn’t a universal one – in the first place, it doesn’t allow for differences in taste, and in the second place, it doesn’t allow for books like Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, where it is three pages before a character appears, and eleven before a word of dialog or an action other than the (minor) character walking through more description of rooms and furniture takes place.

Once again, the trick to deciding whether or not to revise the description or backstory from Chapter One is twofold: first, the writer needs to have some notion of the purpose of background, setting, and backstory in Chapter One in general, and second, the writer needs to have some idea what will make this particular story achieve that purpose most effectively.

Part of the problem here is that four different things tend to get lumped together in this category – background/setting, backstory, simple description, and narrative summary. The first two, background/setting and backstory, are there to orient the reader. They provide the time, location, and culture, and a sense of how the characters got to whatever place, time, and situation they are in at the start of the story. They involve content.

The other two, simple description and narrative summary, are writing techniques. They have as much – or as little – place in Chapter One as dialog, action, internal monolog, or any other writing technique that is about how the writer is doing something and/or what exactly he is doing, rather than about what he is saying. There isn’t anything particularly different about the way techniques are used at the start of a story and the way they are used in the middle or at the end.

Problems with too much description and misuse of narrative summary are therefore usually general writing problems, rather than something specific to Chapter One. If Chapter One seems to have too much of them, but the rest of the story is fine, then it is probable that the writer has to write his/her way into the story the way some writers need to write their way into their characters. Sometimes the solution to this is to cut, or to treat the entire chapter as scaffolding; other times, rewriting the chapter from scratch works (because once the writer has gotten to the end of the book, they are into the story enough to be able to redo Chapter One the way it should have been written). It is, however, fundamentally a matter of the writer’s individual process and the way they need to work in order to get started.

Background, setting, and backstory are another matter entirely. They do have a specific Chapter One job – orienting the reader. The problem here is that readers and writers have a greater divergence in their tastes and preferences in this area than in just about anything else affecting Chapter One…and whoever you talk to about it will very likely be quite adamant that all writers must tell their readers a lot (or almost nothing) about the background, setting, character’s backstory, and/or descriptions of people and places. This tends to make many writers nervous, especially when, as is common, the tastes and preferences of the other reader do not match the writer’s own tastes or the story he/she is trying to tell.

The first thing to do is to try one’s best to ignore all questions of taste and preference, including one’s own, and focus on the job that needs to be done. That job is “orient the reader,” and the question is, how much orientation is necessary up front? What is the absolute minimum amount of information that is necessary in order for the reader to understand what is going on? What is the most effective way to get that minimum necessary information across to the reader? The opening scene of Romancing the Stone does a great job of placing the viewer in time and place…only to have that understanding turned completely upside down at the start of the second scene. But while that change makes most of the specific details of time, place, and character from the first scene irrelevant, it provides a much more fundamental understanding of the main character’s job and character than we’d have gotten if the story started with the second scene.

Once you have an idea what the bare minimum of background/setting/backstory information is necessary, you can decide whether you have enough (about 95% of writers, I think), whether you need to add more, or whether you need to cut some of it back. This is not an easy choice. In my experience, about 80% of the time, anyone who knows a lot about a particularly well-developed background or backstory is likely to assume that everyone else will need to know just as much in order to understand what is going on. This is seldom the case; usually, what the reader needs to know to go on with is not the complete history of the space colony at Betelgeuse and the tragic story of the heroine’s long-lost childhood love, it’s that she’s a spaceship pilot having trouble with the regulations at a colony spaceport. The rest can come out later, gradually (and the story will probably be better for it). It’s not like Chapter One is the only chance you’ll ever get to mention it, if it really is important to the story.

The other 20% of the time, all the “extra” information really is needed. Sometimes the need is structural (as with Alicia’s comment a few posts back about the first and last chapters mirroring each other in her work). Other times, the more-than-minimum information is there because it underpins some other important aspect of Chapter One (plot or characterization), or because it is stylistically or thematically important. And sometimes, it is there just because the particular author absolutely loves books that start with in-depth worldbuilding or long rambling backstories.

Ultimately, the question is “is doing it this way (whether that’s the minimal or maximal approach) the most effective technique to use in this story?” Sometimes, that means the writer will have to work outside his/her comfort zone, because the bare minimum he/she prefers just isn’t right for the particular book, or the in-depth background he/she loves is too much on top of everything else that needs to be in Chapter One.

Note that the “absolute minimum information necessary for understanding” is not the same for all books, all genres, or even all books within the same genre. A story set in present-day may need only a reference to stoplights or McDonalds to give the reader enough information to go on with; one set in Paris, 1798 may need a lot more description for most readers to figure out where and when the scene is happening.

As with the other basics – characterization and plot – sometimes there is just no possible way to do much in the way of reader orientation. It is difficult to start with the viewpoint character in the middle of a battle and still give the reader a clear sense of where and when the story takes place (though one can get a bit of mileage out of whether the battle is being fought with swords, guns, or phasers), much less any important backstory regarding why the battle is taking place or information about what the world and culture are like.

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