Sunday, September 9, 2012

Uses for Magic are like Playing Chess

 The second installment of a stumbling series about fantasy writing...

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.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

On Writing a Fantasy Series

Part I of a stumbling series of blogs about the trials of grappling with writing a fantasy series...

Wrap up story in first book:

Here’s my experience… I wrote the first story for SufferStone in the 1990’s without a thought that the “planet story” may grow into a series.  The action of the first book comes to a conclusion and all loose ends are tucked in at the denouement.

I should have thought ahead and allowed a bad guy to escape as George Lucas did in Star Wars when Darth Vadar survived the destruction of the Death Star. This villain returns to trouble the rebel forces in a later story.

The urge to satisfy reader interest in Book I is difficult to resist. Take, for example, Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. Phedre is a servant of Naamah that places a high value on a tattoo along the servant’s back. She is loved and guarded by a Cassiline brother named Joscelin. When the Book I wraps up, she has inherited an estate and can ease into motherhood, except how does that whet the reader’s appetite for Book II? The last chapters actually push Joscelin away so our young heroine is available for new adventures.

By way of comparison, JRR Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a stand-alone novel and embarked on the LOTR series only after the success of the first book.

Wrap up story over three books:

So I got started with Book II titled HeartStone and pushed the story into the next generation, following characters who were children of the main characters in Book I. Favorite locations were revisited; the vocabulary grew with terms that held leitmotifs; and pressures on the residents of Dolvia were similar -- so part of my work as a writer became familiar, like greeting an old friend.
I also had big themes I was pursuing such as how do women solve problems within a segregated community, and how do the tribes bind together to become an emerging nation.

The second book became part of a story arch that, I thought, would be resolved over three books as Brianna Miller is introduced as a teenager and grows into a capable businesswoman and politician for her tribe. Good plan, huh?

What happened to me was that a section of Book III titled StrikeStone blossomed into its own story line with a new narrator who I could not resist, so the plan to “wrap up” the story in three books is abused. I’m so grateful for the series of six or twelve books from other writers so I’m not a pathfinder for returning to Dolvia for a new go-around with familiar characters.
I wonder if you (as a writer) had similar experiences where the characters take you to (delicious) places you had not imagined months earlier?

For example, Robin Hobb wrote the Farseer series, followed by the Liveship series. I could see hints that she would combine the two because the worlds were similar enough to become tangent. The Farseer series mentions stone dragons and memory stones, but real dragons are introduced later as part of the reader learning more about the milieu.

Keep the characters alive for a series without becoming formula:

I enjoyed The Bone Doll’s Twin by Lynn Flewelling, but the mystery of the twins is resolved in Book III before a final battle scene that ties up all story lines, so I cannot imagine why she would begin again with this characters. Maybe she has already moved onto developing a new milieu.

In The Curse of Chalion by Lois MacMasters Bujold, the ingénue Iselle wins her true love and plot points are tucked in nicely after the bad guy dies.  The following book Palladin of Souls follows the adventures of tangent characters so that Iselle who became a ruler of the kingdom, and Caz, the narrator of Book I, are only mentioned in the later stories. Bujold has a tendency to provide character studies within an otherworld with several planets (or castles) and several tangent sets of characters rather than the growth of one hero/heroine during a war or regime change.

So the arch of a series in fantasy is dictated more by character growth and changing action than by a formula the writer has sketched out in advance. My question today concerns controlling elements of the story and what experiments from writers seemed to work, and which ones may have been less effective.

In Magic Study, I think it was, Book III of a series by Maria Snyder, the main characters travel over a mountain pass to speak with a sibyl and meet a new tribe who happen to show miniature dragons as a curio, much like the baby dragons in (which one, Book V??) of Harry Potter that never re-enter the story. Here are fantasy elements that titillates but are left undeveloped.

What are your experiences with writing/reading fantasy series? Which ones lacked the magic? Which ones were overloaded with fantasy elements?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Self-Publishers: Managing Process Frustration

frus_beach.jpgSo I finished a sustained writing effort and felt euphoria from working consistently with characters and scenes. (200 pages! Yeah!) I wanted to share my elation and found my artist friend to explain what I had accomplished. He said, “I’m glad you finished your piece.” And that was it.Later he caught up with me and wanted to expand his response. “It’s just that I have not read the book, and I don’t know what you mean.” I told him my theory about process frustration that all artists feel, but novelists feel in spades.

frustrationSigns of Process Frustration:

1)    Did you ever talk for hours about your characters or themes to complete strangers?
2)    After expressing you ideas about where you are in the project, did you find that you no longer have the creative energy to write?
3)    Did you ever wear out family members describing the fresh scenes so they wonder what’s in your head and why didn’t you make dinner?
4)    Did you become silent and selfish about the project or characters or themes because you believe expressing the ideas dilutes them?
5)    Conversely, did you ever lend chapters to a friend only to get the critique “It needs work?”

How to Manage Process Frustration:

1)    Recognize it for what it is. You are engaged with characters who your friends don’t know. Why mix the two?
2)    Enjoy to euphoria of completion without tying it to the work – try a walk along the beach
3)    Avoid visiting the emotive quotient on friends and family.
I had a good friend once who was a big sports fan. If his team won, we went out for a meal and batting practice. If his team lost, we left him alone in the man-cave rather than try to cheer him up.  During play-offs, Sunday nights could be grim.

As a writer, I have found that this kind of spill-over makes even less sense because your family cannot engage with your characters.
Another choice is to find friends among writers and trade stories and chapters for critique. One recommended source is the fantasy writers group on Reddit.  Some people swear by this process, but I have always found that my critiques are too detailed and poorly received. New writers, especially, are too sensitive for ideas for improvement.
So, what’s the solution? Tolerate the solitude and learn to treasure good reviews on GoodReads and LibraryThing?

I have found that discussing craftsmanship with fellow artists, some from tangent disciplines, helps with articulating method, constraints, signals for poor choices, finding satisfaction, learning from finished products, avoiding bad critiques.  The chats about craft are often conceptual rather than practical, but serve as an area where we can at least admit the pressures and face the long stretches of time spent alone.
Your turn to participate… How do you manage process frustration?