Friday, October 17, 2014

Overwhelming Technique

In the last decade or so, the availability of word processors, the ease of research on the internet, and self publication convened into a sort of ideal setting for authors to reach out to the world in a way never before possible.  As a result, now everyone is writing a book - or, at least, nearly everyone.

To take advantage of this trend, businesses and schools have begun to cater to the independent writer, with classes, programs, websites, tips, advice, books, and so on helping people understand how to be a better author.  A lot of this is good, and certainly no author should ignore good advice and sound learning.  Even the finest writers alive are always learning and honing their craft.

Some of these efforts are less valuable than others, and ultimately, it can become a bit overwhelming to the would-be author who tries to learn to be best at their art.  With all the seminars, blogs, websites, videos, #writetips on twitter, facebook sites, local college classes, books, and so on, there's really too much for any one person to realistically take advantage of or learn from.

And if you do take advantage of as much as you can take in, you can learn a lot, but there can be a problem as well.

For example, there's this theory that was first popularized by a man named Joseph Campbell in 1949.  In the book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell proposed that there really is only one heroic story: the Monomyth.  

Campbell proposed that this is how all religious stories work as well.  This Monomyth story takes many forms, but essentially all follows the same basic arc as depicted in this graphic.
Now, its obvious from reading this that its not really all that common a story, and in fact it doesn't really describe all religions either, but it is an interesting tool for an epic tale of a hero's growth and difficulties.  And in fact it does describe many old tales such as the Knights of King Arthur's Court.

These kind of tools - and they are legion - are useful for writers, but they can begin to bog one down.  What with the "rules of writing" and "tips for successful editing" and websites that break down your book and tell you what you're overusing, and so on, it can easily overwhelm an author.

If you find yourself fretting over your book's word count, or whether it has the proper 3-part story arc, or if you've skillfully executed the Monomyth, or if it has passed the "Bechdel Test," etc, etc, then you're losing your way as a writer.  These hints and tips are to help shape your creative ability, not replace it.

These days its too easy to be focused on the technique and tools of writing and lose track of the art.  Classes on creative writing can actually be a hindrance to good writing by piling so many devices and techniques on the back of an author they can't spread their literary wings and be free.  Its true that every starting author needs training wheels and maybe some fences around to channel their gift.  But they aren't meant to stay there, and they aren't meant to overpower you.

Officer Bob loved this corner, he could hit his ticket quota in an hour
The "rules" are there to help avoid common mistakes, not compel your style.  And its too easy these days for writers to become overwhelmed with all of this and lose their way.  So many times I've read of writers worried about their word count, or how long a chapter is, or whether they've built a strong enough female character.  Blog post after blog post on Inscribed has been about these topics because they keep coming up.  I feel bad for these people who are laboring under such a burden.

Writing fiction is first and foremost an art.  It is to be creative and free flowing.  Yes, you have to learn to do it properly, and to do that, you need to learn the rules.  Spelling, grammar, sentence structure, proper writing and so on all help you do this.  But these rules are not to produce a perfect novel.  No amount of technique or device, no 3 part Monomyth following the pattern exactly enough will produce quality.  That takes talent and skill.

The rules and fences of writing are there to produce work that communicates your ideas and story properly.  If we had no rules of spelling, then no one could read anyone else's work.  If we had no rules of grammar, then the book would be scrambled and nearly incomprehensible even to the author.  These rules are about reaching your reader effectively.  You have to write what you know because if you write about things you're ignorant of - things that others are familiar with - you'll come across as, well, ignorant and laughable.  But that doesn't mean you can't invent or be creative with new things.

But when it comes to storytelling, that's creative and artistic.  You can use those classes and technique to learn your craft to the point of being able to tell a solid tale, but that's as far as they should take you.  Sooner or later you have to climb out of that nest and test your wings.

I don't mean you should go all E.E. Cummings and blow off punctuation and capitalization in some infantile gesture of rebellion or faux freedom.  I mean you should set yourself free from the structures and ordered methods of writing you are taught.  Use them as a reminder in the back of your mind, learn them to the point it becomes instinctive, then forget about them.

Writers such as Patrick O'Brian ripped the usual rules of sentence structure and description to pieces.  Elmore Leonard rewrote the rules on dialog, leaving out words where people didn't use them.  His narration is brilliant, if a bit odd to read at first, because it reads the way most people talk.

These authors learned the rules first, but when they had them down, they went their own way, expertly, with genius and a gift that leaves readers breathless.  Learn, then set yourself free.  Not too free - they still wrote in a manner they could be understood - but free.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Crafting Magic

OK give me a minute, and I'll tell you if you are a toad.
Recently I wrote about how fantasy has to have magic in order to be justly and properly defined as fantasy.  But that magic can take a lot of forms; it doesn't have to be wizards casting spells, it can be magic in the nature of the world; Xanth has magic in the form of individual talents each person has and the environment for example.

However, most fantasy settings will have magic in the form of spells and spell-casters; wizards, witches, and sorcerers.  And to write about this, these days its all about the system.  With book series such as the Dresden Files and books by Patrick Rothfuss, the magic system was so fascinating and central that fantasy authors and readers have begun to strongly identify with the system as a critical part of having magic at all.

A magic system is how and why magic works; what it can and cannot do, what its limitations are and how the magic is used.  For example, in Dresden's world you have to store up power and can channel it either in explosive sudden effects or with time and equipment more powerful, subtle effects.  In the Harry Potter books magic requires (unless the plot demands otherwise) a wand, and cannot create objects.

This systemization of magic has become the standard for fantasy writing, and in some ways it is quite interesting.  The system its self can become a sort of character for the story, creating complications and challenges the mage has to overcome.

And for the author, remembering how everything works and keeping it under control is a very valuable tool.  If your mage cannot do something one book then can later, readers are going to notice and complain.  As Brandon Sanderson wrote famously, its the limitations and what magic cannot do that makes it most interesting and useful for an author.

However, there's a problem with this trend that writers should keep in mind.  There is a temptation to turn magic system building (like world building) into a fixation, where this ends up being the primary focus and interest for the writer rather than storytelling, characterization, plotting, description, and character development.  Ultimately, fantasy writing is just writing, and it should be the story that matters most, not your perfect system.

Overthinking your system is a serious temptation, as you work out how exactly every minute aspect of magic works and why, what can and cannot be done, and how, and every possible permutation of that system.  In fact, I've seen burgeoning new writers trying to write a story starting with the magic system.  "I have this cool magic system, I want to write a book about it!"  Well nobody wants to read a textbook about a fictitious magical system.  They want to read a story.

With this simple test we can show how far Lucas has jumped the shark!
Another concern is that people tend to think almost scientifically about magic, breaking everything down into physics and scientific terms and categories.  This energy can only produce this much force, and the chemistry of this can only produce that effect, and so on.  Instead of being magic, it ends up a science fiction story with guys in robes.  Remember when in The Phantom Menace Qui Jon whips out the blood testing kit and starts going on about Midichlorians?  The whole audience groaned and said "what the ($@)*???" in the theater when I was watching.

Lucas took something mystical and fascinating and tried to reduce it to science, almost an infection.  Now instead of it being magical and spiritual, the force was some scientific process and the wonder was lost.  If you do that with your magic, the same thing will happen with readers.  Now it doesn't feel magical any longer.

There's a real tendency of modern westerners to define all of reality in terms of science, and that doesn't mix well with fantasy because by definition fantasy transcends science.  That's why Arthur C Clarke famously said that sufficiently advanced tech is indistinguishable from magic.  Not because they are equivalent like Thor quips in the film, but because at a certain point, technology becomes inscrutable and incomprehensible, it stops being something you can explain and understand, and becomes mystical and unknowable.

Clark's point wasn't that magic is simply advanced tech, but that tech eventually seems magical because it is so amazing and advanced beyond our comprehension.  And if you lose that and magic becomes so systematized and scientific and measurable, you lose that sense of wonder and amazement.  It stops being magical.

Magic should, ultimately, be mysterious.  Even its greatest practitioners shouldn't be totally sure and confident in how it works.  Magic should at some point just be too magical to know, too mystical to pin down.  At some point you as the designer should either say "it just does" or make sure the characters and readers are unclear on it, not out of confusion but out of a sense of wonder and mysticism.

The thing is, you'll never know enough details to have it all perfectly defined and wrapped up.  Whatever you come up with may be comprehensive enough, but until hundreds of people over scores of years have tinkered with it, tried to break it, and kept pushing the limits, you will not even have half of it understood.  So stop trying to get it exactly perfect anyway.

The best thing a writer can do with a magic system is, unless the story or characters immediately call for it, to keep it in the background.  It should be demonstrated through activity, but not explained or called out.  Nobody really wants to read the perfect magic system as explained by Joe the Sorcerer.  They enjoy seeing it played out through the story.

So go ahead and work on that ultimate magic system, just don't obsess over it, keep it magical, and remember that your book is about a story, not a system.