Monday, August 25, 2014

Back to School - Two Perspectives

Tomorrow is the first day of school for students. I'm going to look at Back to School as a teacher, and then what Back to School feels like as an author.


I laugh when people tell me teachers get the summers off. No, as 10-month employees, every teacher I know, myself included, works a separate job during the summer. I teach younger kids theatre during the summer, and return to teaching high school during the school year. However, it is true that I work much fewer hours during the summer. Back to School means back to long days, back to stress, and back to the hustle of the school year.

However, this is also an exciting time.  Back to School is like New Year's. It's a time when everything starts again. You know the content and lessons you'll teach, but you don't yet know the most important part of the puzzle, the students you'll be working with. It's a blank slate time of year. The paper is before you, and the words are sitting in a pile, but the order is still a mystery...


While it can be an exciting time for a teacher, this is the absolute worst time to be both a teacher and a writer. During the summer I had some time to market, and even more importantly to work on my second novel. I finished the early drafts of Sword of Deaths, and am currently editing it. Yet, even now I feel the time I have to work on writing is slipping away...

How does one write at the most stressful and busy time of the school year? How does one concentrate? For me, the fall semester is the time of new students, as well as our fall musical, and the busiest time for theatre. We have auditions for Hairspray in two weeks. When will I find time to write, edit, or market?  The answer is to make a small amount of time every week. You might not get the time you have at other parts of the year, and you might have to put some things off until your schedule opens up more, but hopefully you find a way to keep writing.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Magic: Part Two

Last week I looked at the cost and limits involved when an author uses magic in their story. There are some other questions to consider.

As I mentioned last week, magic makes anything possible, and there is no right and wrong to incorporate magic, it's just good to be aware of what choices you're making.

1. The Role of Magic

I have never encountered a story about magic. There might be one, but it's likely written as a nonfiction-style book, describing how magic works. Fiction stories incorporate magic to varying degrees, but it's the stories and characters that make the world interesting. The amount of magic used in your world is like deciding what seasoning to use in a recipe. Too much spice might not be the flavor your going for, or perhaps that's exactly what you want.

In some stories, magic is everywhere. In JK Rowling's Harry Potter books, it's impossible to read more than a couple pages without encountering magic. The world is magic, the characters are magicians, and magic is the primary flavor in her world.

However, even at Hogwarts, there's a lot more going on besides magic. The series is ultimately about revenge. Orphan with murdered parents grows up and kills his his parents' murderer in cold blood - sounds grisly, but that's the basic storyline of the Potter series. It a classic revenge tale, mixed with a traditional coming-of-age scenario. It's these familiar elements we latch on to, and neither has anything to do with magic!  

It's important to know how much magic you plan to use in your world. George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones begins with a hint of magic, when the zombie-like White Walkers attack a group of Rangers. No mention of magic then occurs until nearly the end of the novel. He's added a bit of color to remind us it's a magical world, but magic plays a minor role in Westeros. The magic is often pivotal, but chapters can come and go with no mention of magic at all.

In some stories, there might be no usable magic at all, but a magical creature such as a dragon or phoenix might still give your story a sense of magic or wonder. Perhaps only a setting is magical, such in the Miyazaki film Castle in the Sky, which features a castle able to hover above the earth because of a magic stone. Again, there's no right or wrong way, but as a reader, I tend to enjoy stories where the role of magic is consistent. If there's no magic for an entire book, and then at the end a magic spell suddenly solves everyone problems, it feels contrived. 

2. Visibility

Tying directly into the role of magic in your story is the visibility of magic. At Hogwarts, we see magic everywhere.  Because it's such a large element in the environment we expect in on every page. However, this also diminishes our surprise at what magic can do. For example, if Harry walks into a room, pulls out his wand and causes a piece of paper to float around, we don't even blink. But in a different story, where the protagonist is given magical gifts that develop slowly, and only in the climax can perform an act of telekinesis (such as in Roald Dahl's Matilda), the act of levitation can take on an entirely different and stunning meaning. 

One of my personal favorite wizards is Gandalf, pictured above in the film adaptation of Fellowship of the Ring. I think of him as an extremely powerful wizard, yet what magic does he actually perform? In Lord of the Rings his biggest magical moment is breaking a bridge with a glowing staff. It sounds like beginner's magic by Harry Potter standards, but in Tolkien's world, magic is hidden. We know magic exists in Middle Earth. The Ring is a symbol of unused magical potential. Other than making people vanish (and we somehow know that's not what the Ring really does) the Ring is never used, but is brought across page after page. By hiding the magic in the subtext, it makes instances of magic much more potent and memorable.  

It's also interesting to note characters' reactions to magic. Is magic dark and forbidden, or is it wonderful and desired. In a world that's entirely fantasy, such as Paolini's Alagaesia, the characters know about and recognize magic. In Pratchett's Discworld, it's how the entire world is run, but is also distrusted. In the Star Wars universe, where technology and planets fill everyone's mind, the magic of the Jedi is strange and hard to understand. Hans Solo claims he'll never believe in any type of Force, or anything other than his blaster. Like Middle Earth, Star Wars is a world where magic is present but hidden. When it's used, such as in fight scenes, it then becomes even more memorable. 

What type of magic will you use in you stories, or do you like to encounter in fiction?  Leave a comment below and share!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Magic: Part One

Nearly every fantasy author wrestles at some point with the issue of magic. This will be a 2-part entry, discussing magic in fiction.

Loosely defined, magic is anything which isn't possible in the universe we know. It often involves special powers and the ability to bend the laws of physics. In Fantasy literature magic is extremely common, and even alluring. Many readers turn to certain books, movies, or television programs because they enjoy pushing the limits of what is and isn't possible. 

Magic makes anything possible.   

The first question an author needs to address if using magic in their world is what are the limits and costs of magic? Does the magic in your world have restrictions?  A character who can perform limitless magic, with no cost, is usually called a god. These characters have been popular in literature since Ancient times.  Homer wrote about the gods, just as teens go to the movies to watch Thor. In other fantasy novels, some characters have different limits or different costs than other characters.

1. Limits

Limits are boundaries as to what magic can or cannot do. Since magic essentially replaces the laws of physics, the question that arises is are there other laws or rules which govern how magic works in your universe? Let's look at a few concrete examples of what magic can/cannot do in some examples of popular fiction.

The X-Men, pictured above, probably aren't the first group of fictional magicians who spring to mind, but as characters able to completely bend or alter the rules of physics, these figures all practice their own form of magic. They're also uniquely limited. Each mutant has one power, that only they can do. Wolverine cannot read minds, and Magneto doesn't control lightning. Stan Lee devised a world where the magic is limited by dividing it equally among characters. Everyone has one gift, and nothing else. This works well in confrontational situations, where powers clash. This is the basis for many superhero stories. Other authors who divide their magic to create limits include Piers Anthony's Xanth books, where each character has a single "Talent" and is unable to do any other type of magic. Michael DiMartino's Avatar the Last Airbender series is an example where entire nations possess a similar magical ability, and the different nations clash. A fire-bender controls fire, whereas a water-bender controls water and so on.

Another option, if limiting magic, is to choose things that magic simply cannot do. In Disney's version of Aladdin, the genie pops out of the lamp, filled with magical potential, and immediately tells Aladdin there are "rules". There are things he cannot do for Aladdin, which in that case include bringing back the dead, making people fall in love, or granting unlimited wishes. It's one of the clearest and most concise examples of a magician spelling out the limits of magic in his world. It's important to make sure your rules coincide with your plot. If Aladdin wishes for unlimited wishes, he becomes a god. If he makes Jasmine fall in love with him, the entire point of the movie ends. And of course, if he brings the dead to life, Disney probably won't make the movie. An alternate take on putting strict limits on what magic can do, is to put an internal limit, as to what the magician is willing to do. In Christopher Paolini's Eragon series, for example, the magician Ergaon has the ability to draw energy (which he needs for magic) from living things around him. He is unwilling to kill those things, which adds depth to the character, while also adding a slightly fluid barrier to the limit of his magic.

It is, as was mentioned, a viable option to have limitless magic. If an author goes this route they often put limits somewhere else. The most popular books about magic ever published introduces a world with nearly limitless magic. 

The scene pictured above, from the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is one of the scenes where JK Rowling discusses the three "forbidden" curses in the Harry Potter world, namely the powers to torture, control against one's will, and murder. These three curses are limits, yet it's important to note that all three are used by characters in her books. In other words, the ability to use this type of magic not only exists, but is necessary. In Harry Potter, there is only one specific limit given to magic, which is that magic cannot bring the dead back to life. All other magic is possible, so Rowling employs laws which restrict the uses of magic. She's added limits to the characters, since the world is nearly limitless. 

If an author creates a world where magic is limitless or nearly limitless, they often create limits elsewhere. One such mechanism is to increase the cost of magic.

2. Costs

Prince Allan stares at his four remaining fingers, trembling. He remembers the terrible pain, but he has no choice. He closes his eyes... 

In the above example, which I just made up, a character is born with the ability to use magic whenever he wants. His magic is limitless, yet the cost is specific. Each time he casts a spell, he loses a finger. He can therefore only use magic ten times. Hopefully he uses his powers well.

In your world, it's important to know the cost of using magic. Often there is a penalty. To return to the Eragon example, in Alagaesia (Eragon's world), the cost is life energy. If Eragon casts a powerful spell that never ends, he will die. If he's weak he has to either draw energy from somewhere else, or wait until he's healed to cast the spell. In George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire the cost of potent magic is royal blood. This helps propel several plotlines, especially around the figure of Stannis. The magic used is literally blood magic, coming at a dire cost. In video games and anime, many worlds incorporate an actual monetary cost. If you have enough money, you buy a spell. The more money you have, the greater your power will be.

The cost of magic doesn't have to be external. In Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Frodo offers Gandalf the One Ring very early in the story. Gandalf refuses, as do later characters, saying that if they used the Ring's power to overcome the villain Sauron, they would be turned to evil. The cost of using the Ring is to lose oneself. Similarly, in the Star Wars universe, Jedi have the ability to use the Dark Side of the Force. Yet doing so turns them evil, as is the case when Annekin becomes Darth Vader after using the Dark Side. 

If magic doesn't come with a cost, can anyone use it? To return to Hogwarts and the Potter world, there is no cost to magic in Rowling's world. A student can spend all day at school, and if they know all the words, they can cast a thousand spells with no repercussions. To compensate for what would otherwise be a series about a god going to school to train with other gods, Rowling tells us that only certain people can use magic, people born as wizards. They must also use magical extensions, such as wands in order to facilitate their power. In other series, Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson, who is himself an actual demigod, is limited by his human emotions. At the end, when he is offered godhood, Jackson declines, in favor of a mortal love.

As a fantasy author, there's no right or wrong way to do magic. Magic can be limitless, or be so controlled that its nearly impossible to use. Magic can have no cost, or have a cost so high, you fear using it. What if the cost of magic was the life of your child? Would you use it? What if magic could do anything at all, except the one thing your protagonist needs?

Fantasy opens all of these possibilities and more.

The discussion of magic will continue next week...

Friday, August 1, 2014

99 Cent Weekend

School of Deaths is on sale this weekend only for 99 cents!  Sale applies to Muse It Up (all ebook formats) and Amazon.