Saturday, December 6, 2014

Blog Archive: Uses for Magic Similar to Playing Chess



When I was a kid, my Daddy taught my brothers and me how to play chess. Only one brother excelled after the first lessons, but the introduction to the game was exhilarating, like the opportunity to make fancy moves (oh, that space is open, so I can move my knight!) and to take the opponent’s queen. What fun!

Later we learned that chess is a game of strategy and the player doesn’t move pieces without a plan. Some strategies are used many times and have names such as a fianchetto bishop or back rank checkmate.  To maneuver into these board structures takes several accepted moves that your opponent will recognize with the very first move.

Magic drives the story:

Some writers are still in the learning stage (from which I never emerged as a chess player) where the intrigue rests with executing exotic moves. The purpose of writing is to explore the uses of magic.

The (often charming) development of magic systems in these stories overwhelms the plot and serves to engage the reader on its own level – sometimes a cloying banquet of magic where the love story or the need for a final battlefield are tertiary.
I place The Last Airbender and Percy Jackson in this category.

Magic enlivens the story:

Some writers have stepped past the stage of fun with magic and use the presence of characters with magic to drive the plot. These writers are similar to chess players who have studied some famous chess strategies and want to employ them in a match. One rule of thumb to recognize this type of writer is that the magic is similar from one series to the next – because the strategies are similar.

I place Eragon and How to Train Your Dragon in this category; formula writing using well-established plot points that delight audience expectation. But we know the outcome by page 60 because we know the strategy with the opening move.

Magic inserted just because we can:

In Theft of Swords by Sullivan, an entire early sequence was about rescuing a wizard from a prison that nobody had succeeded at opening for two centuries. The descriptions were fun and the logical problems intriguing. But when the wizard is free, he says thanks and leaves. I suppose he returns later to return the favor, but I didn’t get that far.

I read (part of) Throne of the Crescent Moon due to a recommendation from Kirkus Reviews. I suppose the readers at Kirkus are jaded and liked the story because the setting, and therefore the magic, was oriental. But the magic was everywhere, in every scene used by every character. I couldn’t follow the story – but I also couldn’t follow Battlestar Galactica, so go figure.

Magic provides a strong ending:

The duel with the basilisk in one of the Harry Potter books is an example of overcoming the raging opponent, after which all questions are settled and Harry can return to Hogwarts or the next term with a fresh slate. And the final duel with Lord Voldemort that winds up the series is a great example of using magic to bring all influences to a conclusion.

Magic is often tamped down in this type of story by the limitations of the user, but serves as deus ex machina in the story climax or end of a trilogy.  I enjoyed The Daughter of the Forest trilogy by Juliet Marillier and cried for the last 60 pages of the first story – something about swans and sacrifice to end a curse.

Marillier’s novels included elements of formula, though, just like with chess moves. A ingénue who is touch by magic but ignorant of its uses, guided by a would-be lover with unwavering devotion, an unrelenting female opponent, along with benign spirits and druids with little to do. Sound familiar?

The third story titled Child of Prophecy repeats these elements for a third generation while the milieu remains static. The climax is a battlefield, of course, where our ingénue enters without a plan, without her magic, and without a weapon, encouraged by spirits to “fake it”. Of course, the gods have a place for her that is not hinted at earlier in the trilogy (that I won’t reveal here), and the gods make all the combatants awestruck while our heroine performs her final farewells to family.

Magic is used sparingly or when necessary:

Some writers use magic to change the story rather than to bolster the story, a subtle difference. I enjoyed reading The Bone Doll’s Twin by Lynn Flewelling, especially the first story that sets up the curse – much like Snow White except the agent of the curse is helpful rather than mean. The reversal of the curse came (close to) the middle of the trilogy and included gender questions for girls-with-swords, so I was intrigued.

The final story Hidden Warrior has an inserted holy man from a different culture who happens along the road at an opportune moment to serve the hero, but he wanders off before the final battle. Once the initial curse was alleviated, the presence of magic was not essential, so the inserted holy man was a maneuver (like in chess) where the reader can see the rationale.

Magic as a developed system:

Brandon Sanderson: ‘nuff said.

The only issue I have with the entire story depending on uses of magic by good guys and bad guys, that Sanderson calls “hard magic”, is that the story becomes predictable, even repetitive. The characters are dependent on skills or discipline to save them and have few other interests.

The Fantastic Four fits this category. Even the bad guy has a power, but must use it in certain ways with specific limitations. The plot revolves around how to trip him up on his own special power.

Magic from a master:

I’m currently reading The Blade Itself (Book I of a trilogy), which is long. Joe Abercrombie uses magic to build the plot and keep the reader engaged. His scenes are episodic (irritating), and too involved with the details of torture (revolting), but the reader feels the cold rain and sword cuts (shows good choices).

Magic is used at surprising moments and differently than a rehash for training dragons. A campfire has a spirit that he can tamp under his tongue to light the next campfire: he, he, he. I’m not but 48% through the book (did I mention that it’s long?), but I have hope that this chess match begins a new strategy that has yet to be named.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Thursday, June 19, 2014

That Certain Feeling of Uncertainty


I sat at dinner with my good friend Lisa who writes non-fiction and bragged that I was well into Book Five of a six book series. “How does it turn out?” Lisa asked.


“I don’t know yet?”
“But how does Book Five turn out?”
“I’m not certain yet.”
“Well, surely you have an outline.”
“Um, I have a genealogy to keep the ages of the young characters straight. And I have a map. Well, a partial map,” I said.

“No wonder you’re stuck.”
“I’m not stuck. I just have to be patient and allow events to unfold organically.”
“How do you tolerate the uncertainty?”
“You know that myth about how all writers are alcoholics…”
“That’s not funny.”

How do I tolerate the uncertainty? How can I explain the process to you, dear reader, or to a fellow writer? I have known long periods of no writing and no creative impulses. It’s like being deaf. Some days I’m paralyzed with fear. Some days I want to throw the whole project out the window, except that’s the same a suicide – identity suicide. Some days I’m so racked with feelings of failure that I, well, let’s just say that I cry in my beer.

Will I ever finish? Will my characters ever reach a wider public? I have come to realize that these are the wrong questions.

One time I had several weeks to myself and a section I wanted to write, so I set an outline and a schedule and kept to them. I used the time productively, I felt, and wrote several pages a day. I placed characters who I knew into situations that were plausible and allowed the dialogue to unfold. I counted words at the end of the day and didn’t allow walks on the beach or long periods of daydreaming to “ruin” my writing time.

At the end of that delicious month I threw out the work, about 80 pages worth. It was forced and too linear. The desire to finish; the desire to make the time pay – these rode roughshod over the willingness to allow the characters to grow organically while I – that’s right; me, the writer – watched the story unfold. I am only the agent of the story with two hands and a keyboard. The characters drive the plot.

I have learned to live with that certain feeling of uncertainty, not knowing where the scene is going. During infrequent moments of pure illumination, I realize how the moving parts fit together. During a walk on the beach, whole scenes unfold in my head where characters get into shouting matches. Over the next days or weeks, I often track back into completed scenes for adjustments. It’s a reiterative process.

I can hear Lisa’s voice in my head. “Is it worth it? Is there ever a moment when you’re glad you squandered the time waiting for the characters to talk to you?”

It’s like a siren’s song. The vocabulary calls to me. The characters whisper in my ear. I can taste the air and hear the seabirds crying, like reaching the port of my homeland after a distant adventure. The other world becomes more real than my daily circumstance.

When the plot folds into itself for a scene where characters who were developed separately come into conflict, when the reader knows more about next events than the characters, when outcomes are balanced on the edge of a knife, when dialogue resolves tensions for several characters at once;  aaahh, moments to live for.

Like the moments at the end of Moonlight when the family is gathered at the breakfast table and all plot twists are resolved.

My suspicion is that the level of sophistication for a story’s outcome is directly related to the writer’s willingness to be patient with characters and realize them fully for how each responds to new information.

An example from Game of Thrones, since all of America is watching the series and episodes are aired several times a week.  Season Four just wrapped up with a patricide of Tyrion’s father, and the arrival of Stannis Baratheon at the head of an army north of the wall, thus saving the fighters in Castle Black.

The patricide scene is surprising and satisfying with many twists and character resolutions, but linear. Once set into motion, a single character drives the action.

When Stannis confronts the King of the North in the presence of Jon Snow, a conversation ensues that has more potential for driving the remainder of the series. The viewer knows these three main characters more than they know each other. The viewer knows the bodies of the dead must be burned before dark. The viewer is uncertain of the fate of the King of the North, or Jon Snow, or how Stannis will manage the influx of wildings into Westeros. The dialogue of each man comes from his motivations, resolving long-standing tensions and setting the next season into motion. The plot folds in on itself.

If a writer tolerates the uncertainty and exercises patience for bringing the characters into conflict that serves the plot, then on occasion with perseverance, the writer can ‘witness’ such a resolution within a book series. 

That’s worth a lifetime of uncertainty. 


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Uses for Magic and Chess


Friday, May 16, 2014

The Craftsmanship Talk


"Good writing is a function of good living."

A student in my writing class asked about plot and would I show him how to develop plot. Construction is story-specific, I said. Plot grows out of character, I said. Put three characters in this room in this chapter with these motivations, I said, because each will act on new information differently.

He went away wholly dissatisfied, grumbling about why didn’t the instructor just explain the process. The truth is, we learn to construct stories by doing.

Reading counts. To write well, one must read broadly and outside of one’s genre – poetry, how-to manuals, history, biography, philosophy.

Several writers in my genre of speculative fiction write grim-dark stories where the landscape is littered with bodies, and the ability to describe a sword fight defines quality of writing. So many characters die in these stories that the plot unravels with no hero left standing who actually succeeds. Recently, the level of gore, torture, and unusual acts of revenge is so extreme (in competition with other writers) that I must turn away from my first love. I don’t want to read about torture. I’ve never seen torture or dismemberment. I don’t want to write about gruesome ways to die. 


Discipline counts. This quality is not the same as selfishness (contrary to what my friends claim).

My Daddy built houses and lived entirely inside his head. He missed no family obligations and was present at each ball game, prom and graduation for five kids. One day we waited in silence for a bus that would take me back to college. To fill the awkward moment, I asked what he was thinking. Daddy talked about a building design and how he wanted to improve where the eaves met the roof joint.

I thought about all the family gatherings and how Daddy DIDN’T bore us with design questions or business concerns, but only participated in the moment. To me, that’s discipline – completing his work to his standards without asking for constant reinforcement from others.


Observing others counts. To write well, one must observe the full panorama of emotion including the darker urges that we sidestep – hatred, revenge, jealousy, fear, regret, grief.

I had a painter friend who loved visiting the art supply store where she smelled the paper and handled the brushes and got lost in the colored paint section.  We could not share about our specific projects because I don’t care how the paper smells, and she didn’t care that I could alliterate while riding the bus.

My artist friend and I could engage the craftsmanship talk about lessons learned, reiterative renditions of the same artwork, improved skills over a career, the isolation of pure creativity.  How talking at the dinner table about the plot of the current chapter I was developing was boring to everybody else.  And so was my love of Kafka. We had those talks.


Persistence counts. When I look at some early stories I wrote, I have to laugh.  I can see that I imitated Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman, Joyce Carol Oates, even Kafka! I can see that I was reaching for ideas and metaphors that were outside my range.

Without those early stories, however, I could not have written anything worth publishing. We learn by doing. We find ourselves through dissatisfaction with our results. We experience the need for patience and planning because the work is awful and wasteful. All artists are terrible at it. All first drafts suck. Later works sometimes have value for the consumer.


Creativity counts. This most elusive quality can only be acknowledged where present. The art critic Robert Hughes wrote a biography some years ago about Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, the Spanish artist famous for his painting Third of May.

Goya began his long career as the official portrait painter for the royal family. I’m certain that as a young man he painted to please a patron. But as the decades passed, Goya’s only true critic or competition was himself.

Goya experienced revolution, counter-revolution, invasion, repression, and finally socialism – and fully exposed the regrets and comforts and fear and beauty and horror that he saw around him. In retrospect (according to Hughes) Goya’s creativity went beyond the social pressures, and he reflected some essential truth about his world.

Robert Hughes writes: "And it is Goya's ability to see that leaves one silent with admiration."

Some qualities of craftsmanship we can develop by observing, trying, analyzing, and trying again. But the creativity thing – um, not so much.

We were meant to ruin our lives in service to art. That’s the price and the privilege.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

No Leads to Yes: Examples for Writers

I saw the Billy Crystal special on cable TV about 700 Sundays where he talks about his youth and how he wanted to be a NY Yankee or a comedian, or a very funny baseball player. I thought about my early ambitions and realized that we come to ourselves through a long series of ‘Nope, not that,’ or even ‘Been there, done that.’

I only wanted to be a writer -- a Great American Novelist. More specifically, I wanted to be F. Scott Fitzgerald. I didn’t want to be Zelda, the wife of a famous writer. The lifestyle was not my focus, but the stories.

I liked how Fitzgerald used anglo words and sneered at the French language that his buddy Hemingway only side-stepped.  I liked that Fitzgerald exposed the pretension of the new money classes and didn’t require a happy ending for a love story.

Later I discovered Lillian Hellman and wanted to be her, except she was so uncomfortable in her skin (when young). She told the stories from the point of view of the women, even though they were victims of the plot rather than driving the plot. Margaret Atwood does something similar, displaying the women as powerless in a stilted marriage or without funds or smarts to make a difference.

But why not a story where the female lead character drives the action?

You will suggest Sylvia Plath, I’m certain. Nope, not that.

There’s Carson McCullers, of course. Southern Gothic was her genre, and I was influenced by The Heart is a Lonely Hunter that I read at an early age. McCullers was sorta chewed up by the NYC writer’s lifestyle, though, as was Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird).

These stories are presented as confessions, a slice of life, illustrations of the era. Plots were outgrowths of situation following that axiom to write what you know.

“Today you are You, that is truer than true.
There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
– Dr. Seuess

But my life was boring – well-raised, bookish, affluent, Midwestern (not from the South where they seem to suffer more deeply). So … Nope, not that.

I liked action adventure stories like The Perils of Pauline or Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. I wanted the woman to drive a real plot. Why was that so much to ask?


So I read more stories by women in the fantasy genre like Louise Erdrich who brings in mythical elements from Native Americans, and Juliet Marillier’s series about a Daughter of the Forest. The girl protagonist was typically young and imbued with unusual powers of seeing. Other genre writers sent 14-year-old girls into battle in full armor and wielding a 24-inch battle sword. This impossible heroine makes the same choices a guy would make, except she’s gender female (often a cross-dresser like Arya in Game of Thrones). Nope, not that.

I read Robin Hobb’s many series (series-es) that start with The Assassin’s Apprentice. Hobb certainly has the chops for the fantasy genre with immediacy and surprise. (Dragon warming stations: still too funny!) I wondered why the primary character was not a girl. The female characters (in the early series) were relegated to stilted roles of a candle-maker and a misunderstood queen who wielded minimal powers through example and patience. The many lady-aunties accomplished small victories behind the scenes while presenting a benign presence at court. Nope, not that.

Is the same true for you, dear writer who is reading this blog? Do you come to goals for what you want to accomplish by what you know you don’t want to reinforce? Here are some of my standards I impose for my own stories:

·      Girl protagonist (past age 18) who drives the story
·      The protagonist isn’t isolated – knows her mother and sisters and cousins and opponents
·      Real problems that real women have to solve (without pretending to be a boy)
·      Believable obstacles such as no voice in public and no funds to achieve goals
·      A plot that has a crescendo at the end, not slice of life
·      Each character grows during the story arch (even the men)

This last goal is a pet peeve of mine that I call the Lee Remick syndrome. She played opposite Jack Lemmon in The Days of Wine and Roses. They were both drunks and he went through all the stages including getting clean but backsliding. She kicked him out so she could raise their daughter in a stable life, but he visited during his many ups-and-downs. Each time she opened the door, Remick looked the same, not a line on her face. She may have worn the same wig for the whole movie that spanned a couple of decades. Nope, not that.






Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Where are the Readers?


“In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. 
Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.” 
― Oscar Wilde

My son moved to California in his twenties, and we talk through email and Twitter. He visits in the summer when we gather at my mother’s table in Indiana with uncles and married siblings and nieces and nephews. At one event I remember, he was telling me about an article he had read about the Gulf Wars. I asked if he meant a Time Magazine article because I had read it too. I felt an odd sensation that we received news from the same physical source.

News anchor Walter Cronkite in the 1960’s was well known for his departing catchphrase "And that's the way it is," followed by the program’s date. No longer does one personality define the daily news and establish a narrative for anticipating the future.

The promise of the internet was connecting people without a mediator dictating the news, democratizing information so a user can gain several perspectives. The reality of the internet, however, may be that society is fractured.

People live in information silos now with cellphone conversations that trump talk with dinner guests, and success counted by volume of online visitors more than service to the local community.

I can gain information anywhere, so I seek those outlets where the viewpoints agree with my tastes – painted china rather than decals on motorcycle tanks.  I can ignore or discard the white noise of competing ideas and cling to bloggers who share personal experiences similar to my own.

My ideas are never tested in competition or debate. I live in the bubble.

My friend published her book and completed a blog tour and grew her Twitter following to 2000.  She did giveaways on her blog and in Goodreads, and solicited reviews everywhere. But the book had no sales. She complained bitterly that she lived in a “Kuiper belt” with other writers touting their books and no readers.

My book on Goodreads has 375 people who have marked it “to read”, and seven reviews. Maybe the others friends are waiting for a fresh giveaway. An odd concept, though, that devalues the work of the writer. Goodreads friends only commit to reading a book that’s free.

In fact, so much reading is necessary to get to the content that we have energy only for skimming. I can return to a blog, or do a fresh search, if I “need” the information.

I recently participated in a Twitter frenzy where friends broadcast their blogs on the same day with a specific hashtag. Except we retweet and follow new people and count the increase in volume as success. None of us read the blogs. We only note the titles for kudo replies.

Everybody’s a writer. Where have all the readers gone? 




Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Blogging Replaces the Art of Letter-writing

"The word that is heard perishes, 
but the letter that is written remains." - Anon.
(and on the internet, remains forever!)

The world today has so few standards, I was surprised to find a new set.  Structured standards for blogs have replaced letter writing and may push that diurnal activity into a discipline worth revisiting. My book promoter even recommends a collection of blog entries offered as an ebook for appeal to a different kind of reader.

Letter writing has a long tradition, of course. Famous letter writers:
  • Marcus Aurelius to his son: more useful for today's reader than to the boy, perhaps
  • Paul of Tarsus to the churches he established
  • Lord Nelson to his mistress Lady Hamilton
  • Eleanor Roosevelt to a journalist friend who critics want to call her lesbian lover
  • W.E.B DeBois to his daughter - journey of an educated ex-slave in America
  • Anne Morrow Lindbergh's (simpy) love letters

Ben Franklin was a pamphlet writer and publisher. He even printed colonial money. His writings would fit well into the discipline of blogs with memorable taglines -- A stitch in time saves nine. Franklin published the Poor Richard's Almanac, useful because it listed the daily times the tide went out in Boston Harbor so sailors could manage their shore leave.

Franklin's best advice was 
"Let all men know thee, but no man know thee thoroughly."

For us regular people, blogs are quickly supplanting the need/use for letters.  Advice from which writers before the age of blogging could easily transpose to the blog format?

Susan Sontag: On Photography
Stephen King: On Writing
Neil Gaiman: 8 Rules of Writing

Many of these musings were archived on Brain Pickings.  My favorite is Ray Bradbury's "How List Making can Boost Your Creativity."

Standards for quality blogs are dictated by the software known as Wordpress.  I have wanted many features added to my blog site that Wordpress doesn't allow. Plus, I must cooperate with actions that Wordpress rewards. For example, titles should be a certain size, along with section headings at a certain 'level' for the gobots to easily catalogue ideas for search engines

Once a blogger gets comfortable with the limitations of the software, the best (by today's standards of most visited) blogs have these features:

·       from a person with experience in the field
·       to a specific audience who are trying to break into that field
·       with a how-to lesson (optimum 7 steps)
·       presented as a list with examples offered as links
·       includes decorative images (statistics as charts only)
·       exclude the personal journey; lessons learned only
·       brief and terse -- let me repeat -- nobody wants to see how many words you know

What did I neglect in this post?  Some advice for me?