Some thoughts on magic

MTG Alexi Briclot

Art from Magic: The Gathering, used without permission. The artist is Aleksi Briclot

Magic comes in many shapes and sizes. Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London and show you some of its forms and functions.

The Legend:

Magic is tough. It might even be in total abeyance, a rumour to be dismissed. To be a magician requires intense study, usually through an apprenticeship – and, if we’re in Dungeons & Dragons territory, you’ll forget the spell as soon as its cast.

It was this that Pratchett was parodying in The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic: that a wizard could spend his whole life studying how to summon a paradise of willing women only to not know what to do with them once he’d the knowledge.

Stories with this type of magic tend to be tales with enchanted objects – The One Ring is the best example, but here abound magic swords, mystic portals, hidden scrolls, and so on ad infinitum. Thus they tend to suit Quest-style stories and coming-of-age tales. Terry Brooks’ Shannara books provide a good solid example.

High-fantasists love this kind of setup. Create a world of ‘normal’ people and give two people (the protagonist’s mentor and the antagonist) special knowledge. Et, as they say, voila.

The Legend also works in a dystopian world, with magic replaced by technology of a lost Golden Age. Hunting for the secrets lost to the mists of time, the intrepid archaeologist hunts the tools to defeat some great evil.

Or she might voyage deep out into the stars to find the artefacts of an alien race whilst dark forces race to stop her. The balance of power of the very galaxy is at stake.

The Limitless:

Your magical power is innate and you only need a little teaching a la Harry Potter to unleash your abilities. This is much more modern in feel (magical shields are so last year) but also much harder to write because you have to start with one question: why don’t magicians rule the world? If there’s no limit to magic then you can do (literally?) anything.

So the writer has to impose their own limits on power. This can be something like Will, so only the strongest can thrive. Or it can be practice, or research, or closeness to a source…

Thus this sort of magic tends to produce a hierarchical setting – the God-Emperor lies in the centre, her acolytes around her, the powerless in the outer darkness. Until a poor peasant girl of uncertain lineage is discovered in mysterious circumstances…

The Limitless gives everyone a share. Sure, the rich have more powerful lasers but everyone has access to advanced technology in some form or other. See how egalitarian Star Trek is; all those races (unless they’re doing one of their ‘noble savage’ episodes) have a similar tech level. Disruptors? Phasers? Same thing different name.

The Laissez-Faire:

Superheroes don’t fit either of the above categories. Sure, there are odd societies of the latter kind, and I believe Thor (in an old incarnation, at least) got his power from a mystic artefact of the Type One variety. Mostly, however, superheroes have ‘magics’ that are thoroughly and completely individual. Thus we have a third category of magic: The Laissez-Faire. No two the same, the state frequently the villain, complete and utter irrelevance to the wider populace except as predator or prey.

In fantasy we see this too; in Piers Anthony’s ‘Xanth’ series everyone has a unique magical talent, some more powerful than others. Any freak born without one was banished. No-one wants those dossers hanging round scrounging off all the right-minded entrepreneurials with the correct birthright*.

We’re so used to the free market that this often slips by unnoticed. It’s become more common in science fiction where it takes the form of ‘upgrades’. Firefly is a good example, though the crew never got much upgrading done. Any story that sees the protagonist grow stronger by conquest, salvage or acquisition is laissez-fairing it right up.

*          *          *

The divide is not, of course, clear-cut. Harry Potter has its magical devices, its Marauder’s Map, its Deathly Hallows – so many, in fact, that it’s a wonder that none of the characters ever really looked at creating them themselves (maybe Hermione had a go but I don’t remember it being mentioned. The polymorph potion is probably as close as she got).

Star Wars is an odd mix. At its heart is the Legendary Force and its Death Stars. The feel, however, is quite monoculture; this is probably down to design aesthetics rather than story. It also has its Laissez-Faire backwoods planets and bartering for repairs – and the transformation (upgrade) from Anakin to Darth Vader.

Dr Who is also mostly Legendary – how many personal possessions did Rassilon leave lying around anyway? – but it pretends not to be. The Doctor himself is a Legend, as is The Master/Missy. But it wants to be Limitless. It maintains a veneer of science; that anyone can do anything with enough training. The Doctor’s mission is to make people better, not just situations. Oh, and as for the cybermen – can you get any more Laissez-Faire than that?

All this and I haven’t even got to the role of sidekicks, familiars and magical beasties of many stripes. Lying Cat is worthy of a column all on its own.

So: enough from me. I’m sure you’ll tell me all I’ve forgotten or where my crowbarring is all too obvious.

Write on!

*This sounds like I’m hatin’ on Piers Anthony but all this only occurred to me as I was writing this post. I loved Xanth when I was thirteen and never saw a problem with this, which just goes to show. Anthony’s still going strong and is thus an inspiration to us all.

All the way down



Street art in Richmond VA. Artist unknown, by me at least

Everything is a trope. Every idea you’ve had, every thought, has come before. The precise number of plots is debatable but all who have managed to get others to pay for their opinions agree: stories are finite. Only the telling varies. Yet there is no algorithm to tell us how to write the perfect story. We continue to devour tales that seem to us to be distinct and unique and precious. Experts, our brains scoff, what do they know?

It’s the same with tropes. We can identify them: there’s the Dead Lesbian and the English Villain (beloved of Hollywood); there’s Women in Refrigerators and Humans are the Real Monsters. There are so many that it becomes almost paralysing. You don’t want to be part of a trend, do you? You don’t want to perpetuate damaging myths or be victims of the witch-hunt of the week.

I try not to be racist. I try not to be sexist. So when I’m writing I try to have a diverse cast. I try to have characters of differing sexualities – not representations but living, breathing people – in significant roles. I do this because it represents the world we live in and the future I’d like to see (and I try to read diversely too). But it’s also a minefield. With so many tropes littering the path it seems impossible not to trip up somewhere.

Do I, for example, dare to have a BAME villain? Or a woman? Can my nastiest character be homosexual? What if I cause offence? The internet is a rage machine: do I want to be defending my work – my character – and do I have to be defended by racists and other people I detest?

Recently Lionel Shriver caused controversy by pointing out that all fiction is inherently fake. It’s a difficult argument: she’s right, of course: everything I do is a lie and part of the job description is to put myself in the head of someone I’m not. But there is a horrible arrogance in her position; that we shouldn’t care about the opinions of the people we’re representing (appropriating); that we can take at will without hearing their voices directly.

Now we have sensitivity readers to help us, and that’s good. We don’t know everything and we need help in picking up the slack. It’s been said that this will limit the issues we can address, but I see the opposite. I think the growth in awareness will give us – us being, I suppose, white western cisgender writers, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t work the other way too – the confidence to address controversial issues and periods of history.

I am in favour of political correctness. I want to be challenged. I believe that it’s right to listen when someone tells us they’ve been offended. If nothing else these issues make us reassess our own prejudices; and, I hope, help us produce better work.

This is what I want to communicate here: being aware of all these issues makes our work better. You can rail against all these limitations or you can use them to build more rounded characters and plots. This is what I’m trying to do. If I realise that I’m falling into a trope-trap I will work harder to think of a more creative solution. The story will be richer as a result.

We still live in a massively ‘white’ world. If we want to write about other peoples and cultures then the least we can do is get it right.

Signifying nothing

Union Market

Mural at Union Market, Washington DC. Artist, at least by me, unknown

I’m beginning to think I can’t do this any more. The whole writing thing, I mean: I just have no ideas left. Aside from a few unedited short stories I haven’t knocked out anything new for over a year.

This is the 250th post I’ve written for this site. Not all of those have been posted – some, indeed, are files with but a single line in them. But still, 250 posts. Let’s say the average word count is 400. That’s 10,000 words on words, and, at a rough estimate of an hour and a half per post, that’s 16 days solid writing. That’s before we get to the whole stress it provokes.

You gotta ask yourself what the point is, dontcha? My only consistent writing is on a blog about writing.

I‘m not saying this for reasons of moaning, or despair, or to beg attention (though that’s always nice) but because this is something I’m sure most writers experience at some point: that sense that they have nothing, that they’re just going through the motions, that they’re a fraud.

And of course I’m in a privileged position. I’m going to be published (and I rather hope my publisher isn’t reading this right now). I’ve got the whole impostor syndrome thing to look forwards to. Right now, though, I’m in the whole ‘Oh God, I’ve got to do something better for a follow-up,’ hole. And circumstance is making serious brain-work a challenge.

I also compensate myself with the thought that all this blogging must be good for something. True, the edifice is hollow. But all words written are useful – just not as useful as the creation itself.

Hopefully this will be a temporary feeling and I’ll find a way to write what I want to write in the near future. And my post-modern writing about writing with no writing to write about self-reference-o-thon will soon be over. But for now the struggle continues.

A touch too much


Image stolen from this article, which you might also find useful

This is what I find most difficult: knowing how much is too much.

Description is simple: you just need to find the few details that let the reader fill in the rest themselves. Okay, I’ve got that. But when you’re writing lurid, emotion-laden sections like the post I hastily threw up a few weeks ago, how far can you go?

I’ve recently been working on a new passage for Oneiromancer to replace The Nasty Scene. The aim is to keep the horror but lose the distastefulness of the original. It must contain abomination and terror and make my character wish for death without the readers doing the same.

Horror is in the little things. It’s in the burst of the pimple or the sudden spurt as the eyeball ruptures. It’s in the smell of wet fur, the clacking of claws on tiles or the tearing of cloth. It’s in the changing pressure as the trapdoor rises. It’s in small. It’s in intimate. And it’s easy to go too far.

The trick is not in saying all these things but in making the audience experience them regardless. I’m not sure I know how to do it. It’s not just horror, of course – the same applies to any emotionally-charged scene. When do you lay it on? When do you take a step out of the action to describe what a bullet (or knife, or claw, or particularly devastating put-down) actually does? This sort of interruption can be terribly effective – a catch in the throat before momentum reasserts.

I just wish I knew how to use it.

I have a tendency towards purple prose. I enjoy the florid and ridiculous. I try to keep these urges well repressed, but there are times to go all organic and to burst out all exuberant and to push the poetic. It’s fun. It reaches directly out to the senses. And when it works it works wonderfully.

But a little goes a long way. Editing is a constant flow of addition and subtraction, trying to find the sweet spot, the perfect pitch, the golden mean. Too little is prosaic, too much parodic. Unfortunately, no-one seems to know just where the scales tip.

Trigger warning

Tower of destruction

The book was actually called Tower of Destruction, but there is no universe in which this is not better

So I had a blog-post all ready. I was going to write about the expectations a cover gives a reader and how these expectations can give a good book bad reviews; I was just dotting the t’s and crossing the i’s when this happened.

Goodkind 2

Originally taken from TG’s Facebook page but now widely shared online. Don’t be that guy, mmkay?

There’s a lot to unpick here. First and foremost I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you not to act like this. Criticising your own publisher is not a move conducive to success. As is pointed out by cleverer, more knowledgeable people than me, a book design is a collaborative effort. The artist works to a brief provided by a publisher. Sometimes an author will be consulted, but it’s not a given.

Secondly, Terry Goodkind has previous. If you’re in the mood, read this. Indeed, type ‘Terry Goodkind is an asshole’ into Google. See where you end up. Shout-out to Chuck Wendig for that top tip.

But let’s just roll back and ask: has TG got a point? Is this a bad cover? What makes a bad cover? That’s not such a simple question as it seems; Fire and Fury has a terrible cover – but that’s a good thing as it works for the genre. “It’s important that it follows the design conventions of political books, as anything more bespoke and crafted could restrict its potential audience and pigeonhole the content. Obviously, there’s scope for a more creative and explicit design response, but I think that misses the point with a book such as this,” says Clare Skeats in this article.

Fire and Fury-FINAL mech.indd

Design by Rick Pracher; copyright Henry Holt & Company

TG’s cover is, to my eyes, a good piece of art. Maybe stylistically it’s a bit old fashioned; it’s a traditional fantasy cover. But to really judge the merits you’d have to know the story (and artists/designers don’t usually read the story they’re producing work for). It would indeed be a bad cover if it failed to reflect to tone of the book – not only specific characters or events but the way the story feels.

The cover above suggests a novel of swords and sorcery and that it’s written in the style of that particular subgenre. Contrast that with a version of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself:

Blade itself 1

Copyright Orion Books; I couldn’t find an individual artist to credit

We expect a different type of read from Terry G’s novel. The language we expect to read changes. And though both could be described as high fantasy (font choice, the semi-hidden symbols, the ripped parchment), we’re told to expect a marked difference in the experience we receive.

If someone chooses your book to read it’s (unless they’re compelled by education or work) because they want something from it. They might want to be scared; they might want to be thrilled. They might want wonderful wordplay. They might just want to switch off their minds for an hour or so. They have a motive, a goal, and they’ve chosen your story because they think you’ll give them that.

That choice is influenced – if not determined – by the book’s cover. It’s down to your artist – be that yourself or a design team or a freelancer – to give the audience the right cues. You have to tell your readers what they’re about to get. You can judge a book by its cover, and this is why.

There’s an interesting article on cover design here, if you’re interested.

A cover doesn’t have to tell a story. It doesn’t have to show specific events, or characters, or anything at all: a blank page is a choice in itself. It doesn’t have to be ‘good’ – it just has to help sell books.

Your cover is your trigger warning. It’s there to tell your readers what they’re about to get into. And (in most cases) to reassure that it contains not a single morsel of Trump.