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Magic: Part II

Willful Writer is back at his keyboard, typing busily on his latest story. This one is about a young, brainy lad raised as a peasant, but really of noble blood. He has just been apprenticed to Yon Wizard, a fearsome enigmatic figure in a long, tattered robe and even longer beard that he tosses casually over one shoulder to keep from dipping it into his cauldron. After some haggling, the terms of apprenticeship are agreed and the lad is left with his new master. Yon begins his lessons promptly, and the lad proves adept at conjuring, summoning, and magical sweeping. Yon’s hut floor has never before been so clean.

One day, while Yon is away on mysterious wizard business, the lad finds a quaking, frightened townsman on the doorstep. The townsman says a giant is attacking the town walls, and Yon must come immediately to drive the giant away before the town is destroyed. When the lad explains that Yon is away on mysterious wizard business, the townsman becomes angry and says that Yon has a contract and must offer wizardly protection or he’ll lose his lease.

The lad, being a helpful type and fond of his master, agrees to fight the giant. Standing atop the ramparts, the lad lifts his arms and summons a mighty storm cloud with lightning that sizzles blue fire-bolts all around the giant, catching his tunic on fire. The lad conjures a fierce wind that blows the giant off his feet and tumbles him back from the gates. The lad closes his eyes and draws more deeply on magic than he ever has before. Then he creates an enormous broom with a giant redwood log for a handle and roof thatching for the straws. And with a mighty heave of effort, he sweeps the giant away.

“Hurrah!” cry the townsfolk. “Huzzah! Hoo-yah! We’re saved.”

They surround the lad, slapping his shoulders and asking him what he wants as his reward.

The lad smiles happily, glad to have been of service. “I’d like a beer please,” he says.

“Now there is some good writing,” Willful declares. Typing THE END, he takes his latest manuscript to his writing coach, Ms. Sagacious. She reads it, muttering to herself as she turns every page.

“Awful!” she shouts. “It’s too easy. I hate it.”

Willful, still enamored of his story, dares protest. “Would you like it better if I included Orville the talking cat?”

“No!” Ms. Sagacious tosses his story into the wastebasket. “You’re missing the point. The magic is free, and that’s wrong. You’ve cheated again. Now go away.”

Poor Willful. He’s brought trouble into his story and eliminated the protagonist’s mentor at the crisis point because wizards always seem to vanish just when they’re most wanted. He’s given his protagonist powerful magic and stuck with the magical rules he created by making sure the lad uses a broom to defeat the giant. Why, why, why is Ms. Sagacious so upset with him this time? What’s wrong with free magic anyway?

Do you know, dearest blog reader? Can you guess?

Willful has not put any price on this story’s magic. It’s easy to learn and do, so easy in fact that it’s effortless. The lad does not struggle to master it, does not encounter any difficulties in using it, and suffers nothing in its application. To Willful’s way of thinking, why shouldn’t his protagonist get a break? This nice, heroic lad surely deserves an “easy button,” right?

Wrong!

When a story problem is solved too simply, suspense as to the outcome drops. If the lad never struggles or doubts, there’s nothing for readers to worry about. The story goes flat because a successful ending is too certain.

And magical powers–be they small or great–offer easy ways to success. Magical powers are natural suspense killers … unless a writer tinkers with them.

We do this by putting a steep price on the magic. If a story is to carry any dramatic oomph, then magic comes at a cost. That subsequently serves to counter-balance the effect and keep suspense high.

In The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, the evil magician is dying by slow degrees every time he uses his powers. He suffers nosebleeds after he works spells and grows weaker page by page. His plan is to create a new body for himself and transfer into it before he dies, and he is working against that deadline.

In Robert Jordan’s fantasy world, the male wizards eventually go insane from using magic.

Harry Potter pays the price of having to put himself into danger and face Voldemort, a villain so feared that no one else in the stories will dare speak his name aloud.

What price does Tolkien extract from his hero for wearing The Ring? Poor little hobbit.

In the Disney animated film, The Little Mermaid, Ariel wants to be human so desperately she gives away her lovely voice in exchange for Ursula’s spell.

Horrible or mild, drastic or simple, magic must come at a cost if it’s to be dramatic, effective, and suspenseful. Avoid becoming so caught by your own enchantment that you break this second, very important rule of writing about the fantastical.

 

 

 

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The Rules of Magic: I

Once upon a time there lived a person named Willful Writer who wanted to create a story world filled with wizards, apparitions, a noble hero, and a talking cat named Orville.

Willful Writer began his story with an exciting event designed to kick off episodes of danger and calamity. A magical hurricane blew down the castle, releasing noble hero from his chains where he’d been kept in the dungeon for five-hundred years. Noble hero fled, heading through the ghastly ghost field and the haunted forest and the river of misbegotten souls before he joined forces with Orville. Together, these two intrepid adventurers finally made their way to the wizard’s gate, through which they had to pass in order to reach noble hero’s home.

But at the gate crouched a dangerous sphinx armed with riddles and traps and trickery. While Orville was trying to solve the riddle to keep the sphinx from eating their heads, the wizard arrived to blast them to cinders. But at that moment, noble hero discovered miraculously that he possessed magical powers that he’d never known about before. He was able to toss wizard fire back at the villain, then blast the sphinx to rubble so he and Orville could make it safely home.

Wow! thought Willful Writer while typing, “The End.” That’s the best thing I’ve ever written.

Happily Willful Writer took his manuscript to his writing teacher, Ms. Sagacious. She read it, grimaced, and tossed the pages at Willful’s head.

“Never, ever, do this!” she shouted. “Never cheat with magic!”

Okay, this fable stops here. I’m as exasperated with Willful as Ms. Sagacious. Aren’t you?

Now we can all see that Willful has made numerous writing mistakes with his story, including using every cliche and threadbare trope known to fantasy, but let’s stay focused on what Ms. Sagacious said to him. What did he do wrong with his magic? He cheated. He violated the first of four common rules of writing fantasy magic.

And what, exactly, are those four common rules of writing magic plausibly?

#1–Don’t cheat.

#2–Pay a price.

#3–Limit the magic.

#4–Reap the consequences.

Okay, we’ve established that Willful cheated. We’ve jumped up and down about it. But how did he? What did he do or not do? Why was Ms. Sagacious so upset?

Answer:  Willful did not stick to his own parameters. In other words, when writing a fantasy story you can establish any type of magic system you want, and you can award magical powers to any character or characters you wish. You can make magic an ordinary and mundane fact of life or you can write that magic is special, rare, and hard to possess. It’s up to you and the type of story you’re writing.

But whatever you create in terms of where the magic comes from, or how magic is used, or who possesses magic, or what the magic can do–you must thereafter abide by your rules.

That means you can’t suddenly award special powers to a character that never had them before just to get that character out of a tight spot.

That’s how Willful cheated in the above example. And readers won’t accept it.

If, let’s say, you set up the parameter that using magic requires a blood sacrifice from a firstborn human, then halfway through your story you can’t switch that requirement to any other birth order just because your firstborn protagonist is the last man standing.

If you establish that only human blood will appease the Lizard God Othal, then you can’t have the high priest shrug and capriciously allow his minions to toss a goat on the altar instead.

If your wizard protagonist uses rituals to cast spells, and several times you’ve described a painstaking procedure of gathering the correct herbs by the light of a new moon, boiling the knees of eels for three days, and lighting seven spell candles in proper order while chanting an incantation, you can’t–at the climax–dispense with that procedure simply because the trolls are coming fast up the staircase and there isn’t time to follow the ritual.

These examples are illustrations of what we call writing yourself into a corner.

When and if this happens to you, it means you didn’t plan well when you were outlining your story. Or just possibly you didn’t bother with outlining at all.

Does this mean you’re doomed?

Hardly!

When you can’t figure any way for your hero to escape annihilation except through breaking the magic rules of your story world, the solution is simple. Revise your story! Alter your magic system to allow flexibility in how the magic is used, OR plant for the possibility of hero doing the ritual in a new, very risky way that might possibly succeed although it hasn’t been tried in a thousand years and could result in his dying of spontaneous combustion. Before you choose a solution option, however, think long and hard about how you would react as a reader to each one. Which could you accept, if you were reading this story? Which would annoy you? Then make your changes from that perspective.

I’ll address Rule #2 in my next post.

 

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Happy Treasure

Time and experience have taught me that whenever I stay focused on a desire, eventually it’s fulfilled. The wait can be a long one. Sometimes I have to work long and very hard to achieve it. At other times, the opportunity falls unexpectedly into my lap.

So it was recently, when I walked into an estate sale late in the day, expecting to find nothing left in a small condo except a few crystal goblets and a porcelain soup bowl.

I knew the condo was supposed to have books–fine old collectible sets and a few rare editions. I never fight or elbow my way through such sales. Truly rare editions outmatch my pockets (like a recently seen $43,000 adventure featuring Tarzan). Too often I must turn aside because of foxing, musty odors, or crumbling bindings. I have written several posts–as you know–on my frustrations in having to leave musty books behind. Also, dealers in rare and collectible books can be sometimes ruthless in acquiring tomes to resell. As an only child, I’ve never been a scrapper. And I seldom have the desire or inclination to outgrab another buyer, especially the pigs that stand in front of bookcases in such a way that no one else can browse.

Therefore, I arrived late with no expectations, but I struck gold just the same. Not in rarity or monetary value, but in reading treasure–a bounty of stories for me to enjoy.

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Eleven Mary Roberts Rinehart tomes grouped into a set with matching Art Nouveau bindings. Is the set complete? I doubt it. Are they first editions? Nope. What’s their condition? Only fair. Acid is rotting the pages and although they are not yet fatally brittle–meaning they won’t crumble to dust at a touch–they are turning an unpleasant orange hue and their days are numbered. No wonder the professional dealers left them. Huzzah! In this case, I don’t care about the acidic paper because they are NOT musty. I could not grab them fast enough. A few I’ve read but the rest are waiting for me to open their covers and dive in.

Next, glowing with my modest acquisition, I looked inside a closet that had been converted into shelving. Rowed up neatly were Detective Book Club editions, three novels to a volume. Normally I ignore most book club offerings, but these are handsomely bound and unabridged. Best of all, when I gave them a second glance, I realized many of them contained Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason and a cracking good mystery writer. Up till now, the majority of Gardner books I’ve come across are extremely musty. As I type this, there are five such books residing in my freezer, waiting for me to make contact with some biology professor with an autoclave. At the sale, I hesitated, unable to believe my luck, but these books also passed the sniff test. Eight DBC tomes containing Gardner mysteries came home with me, plus an extra. Pictured here are the as-yet unread. My first thought was to read only the Gardners from each volume and then sample the other stories later. But already I find myself lingering to meet these unknown-to-me authors. I am thoroughly enjoying myself. Again, they have no value to anyone except a reader.

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Am I gloating? You bet! Because sometimes, life is really good.

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Book Diary 2017

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While I have seldom been able to sustain writing a diary for any considerable length of time, in 2017 I successfully kept my resolution of logging the books I read.

I didn’t invest in a fancy, leather-bound tome, but just picked up a nice small spiral notebook and put in notations of date completed, title and author, any comments I chose to make such as “bland & boring,” or “amazing plot twists,” or a lengthy observation of writing technique, and a one-to-five-star rating. Some titles received a page-long commentary, and several scored nothing more than date and title. I discovered gems. I reread old favorites. And I suffered through a few blah books that made me wish I had my money back.

Still, I kept with it from start to finish. Last night, I counted my entries and the total came to 73 books. Most of them are fiction, with maybe less than a half-dozen tomes falling into the nonfiction camp.

My goal was 100, but as in 2016, I fell short of that objective. Over the summer teaching hiatus, I did not achieve many lazy days where I could just recline on the sofa, sip cold lemonade, and read. That would have boosted my number, of course. And there were the few books that were dull or over-plotted or banal or less interesting than their cover blurb had promised. Those took sometimes as long as a week to drag through, longer than my average zip through a novel every two or three days. And there were a few books started but left unfinished, which I did not record at all.

I try always to find new authors, to sample books in genres I don’t normally read. Such discoveries keep reading fun and lead sometimes to serendipitous new favorites. However, such exploration happened less frequently than I’d hoped for. Given the death of all brick-and-mortar bookstores in my college town except Barnes & Noble, I loiter and browse less these days. I used to find many wonderful discoveries in the Hastings store. Likewise, at Sam’s Club the choice used to be small but excellent. (Lately, not so much.) In 2017, there seemed to be too many days when all I could do was fall into the battered old leather armchair after the dinner hour and reread a familiar author simply for the same sense of comfort as dunking a gooey grilled-cheese sandwich in a mug of hot cream-of-tomato soup.

Still, I found other ways to explore online. For example, I burrowed into a couple of books by Frances Gray Patton, most notably her novel, Good Morning Miss Dove, simply because I like the movie based on that work. During my childhood, I learned to watch a movie’s credits for the title of the book that inspired it. I would race to the public library and hunt in the card catalogue for it. In the days before DVDs or VCRs, and without cable, I found that reading such a book was a way to spend a bit longer with the characters, setting, or story I’d experienced with the film. Sometimes the book wasn’t in the library’s collection, but often it was. I discovered that some books were better than the films made from them, and some movies were a huge improvement over the book. I haven’t chased books this way in a long time, but watching Patton’s Good Morning Miss Dove brought back that desire. Finding a copy online was easy; however, the movie mirrors the book almost exactly word for word. To my disappointment, the novel offered me no additional depth or nuance. Still, I read some of Patton’s other novellas and short stories as well, just to give her a fair chance. Although I found her style to be clear and elegant, her stories carry a dated flavor, her wit is a bit too mid-century, and her topics tend to be too mundane for my taste. Miss Dove is by far her most outstanding character–so brilliantly depicted that I–no doubt along with many other readers over the years–find myself wishing I had had such a teacher in elementary school.

And of course, 2017 brought the obligatory annual books from authors I collect:  Ann B. Ross, Alexander McCall Smith, Sue Grafton, Charles Todd, and John Sandford … to name a few. I decided to stop following Felix Francis, and so did not purchase his 2017 title. Ross’s Miss Julia series has had some stumbles and weak offerings in recent years, but 2017 brought a comeback in a stronger plot that made me glad I’ve stuck with her. I have long enjoyed Smith’s stories set in Botswana, but their thin story lines seem to become progressively wispier as the story action is increasingly overshadowed by his philosophical musings, and I am wondering how much longer I’ll race to pick up the next novel about Precious Ramotswe. Sue Grafton, alas, has recently passed away, and her children have decided not to attempt to complete the final book in her mystery series. Although she’d begun “Z,” work on the manuscript was interrupted too much by Grafton’s illness to have progressed far, and I applaud her heirs for not putting out an incomplete manuscript or clumsily patching one together that would be beneath Grafton’s usual standard. Charles Todd remains excellent. John Sandford continues to deliver exciting action and amazing plot twists, and his 2017 thriller was well worth the money.

I also dived into a few books from authors popular in past decades whose names have faded now: Mary Roberts Rinehart, Emilie Loring, Victoria Holt, Alistair Maclean, Frances Parkinson Keyes, and Phyllis Whitney. It is interesting to occasionally wander among these former bestselling writers and see who I still find engrossing, who I’ve outgrown, and who is too dated now to enjoy.

During the recent holidays, I decided that I’m no longer going to care if I read a mysteries series out of order. Never mind all the series that I’ve enjoyed and tried to keep up with, only to fall behind. Just seeing a stack of unread books by the same author growing here and there has begun to feel oppressive, a silent rebuke to me for not keeping up. So I decided to throw off oppression and rebel. No longer am I going to put off such books for the day when I have the leisure–or determination–to read them in strict order. If a volume can’t stand alone without its predecessors to prop it up and force the plot to make sense, then too bad. I am going to just read them as and where I happen to pick them up.

Accordingly, I chose a book from Anne Perry’s William Monk series, one that surfaced while I was rearranging the living room to put up my Christmas tree. Although I stopped reading the series some years ago, back before Hester had married Monk, I caught up easily and found that despite Hester and Monk now being a married couple, it made little difference. Thanks to Perry’s deft descriptions or occasional lines of explanation, I was neither lost nor left floundering for understanding. With Jennie Bentley’s charming home-renovation mysteries, I’ve found reading them out of order only means that sometimes the characters are married and sometimes the protagonist is still planning the wedding. Not a problem. And with Carolyn Hart’s ghost, Bailey Ruth, I met that character for the first time in Merrily, Merrily Ghost, and didn’t mind not having begun with whatever story comes before. What a relief to get past such a silly little stumbling block.

As for what 2018 holds, I’ve already scribbled several entries in my book diary, and I plan to continue this habit of recording my reading. I have read two authors never tried before–Mickey Spillane and Susan Gloss–and enjoyed both enough to seek more titles. And I came across an early John D. MacDonald I hadn’t read. Hurray!

I hope you all are making resolutions to read more. And if not, why not? Even the pleasures of Instagram and Pinterest should not supersede books!

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Plotting Workbook

Thanks for being patient! I’m delighted to announce that FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING PRACTICE, the companion workbook to FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING, should be live on Amazon.com in the next few hours. It will be available in both print and Kindle versions.

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Those of you who have been requesting drills and exercises will find this book filled with them, and there’s plenty of “homework” to keep you busy for quite a while.

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From My Bookshelf: Mary Roberts Rinehart

I have long been a fan of Rineharts’ mysteries. When I see her name on a ratty, much-worn, or faded binding, I usually pounce. Far too frequently, the book proves to be so musty I pass it up, but sometimes I grab it anyway, determined to find a way to read it even if it must be shelved in the garage.

When you start looking, she’s not impossible to find. A few of her best-known works can be found in paperback editions or e-books. A few.

Trouble is, I want them all.

Have you heard of her? Have you ever read her?

She was born in 1876 and died in 1958. She is best known for her mysteries–and she wrote over 60 of them. But she also penned plays that were performed on Broadway, plus short stories and articles for the Saturday Evening Post. She was a travel writer and a war correspondent for that publication during World War I. In the latter capacity, she interviewed Winston Churchill and Queen Mary. In addition to her prolific writing, she trained as a nurse, married a doctor, helped him with his practice, and raised three sons.

She is held responsible for coining the phrase, “The butler did it.” Her first book was published fourteen years before Agatha Christie came along, yet Rinehart today is known as the “American Agatha Christie.”

The other day, as I was reading an elderly, non-musty edition of her novel, K, I found myself asking why did Christie surpass her? Why is a sizable amount of Christie still in print and still selling while Rinehart molders away, largely forgotten?

Christie is probably better at crafting puzzlers. Rinehart is very much of the American school of mystery’s Golden Age. Her novel, The Yellow Room, dating from the 1940s, is as convoluted as any Chandler or Hammett work. No, I couldn’t solve it ahead of her sleuth, but the solution was so complicated that I’m still confused about some of it. And while I was willing to push my way through Hammett’s The Glass Key by watching the film innumerable times then reading the novel in an effort to understand it (and ditto for Chandler’s The Big Sleep), I’m not convinced that struggling so hard through this so-called American approach is worth the trouble.

Christie, after all, is easy to read. She doesn’t require huge effort, yet neither does she write down or patronize her audience. And while I think it’s important to read the difficult as well as the easy, the fact remains that Christie’s prose is clear and approachable. And there’s an advantage to that.

Rineharts writes beautifully. Her sentences are lyrical, lovely, almost poetic. Her style is rich, and she conveys a view of America in that period of pre-WWI through the 1920s that I love to visit. She doesn’t shy away from crime, relationships, ethical dilemmas, or moral struggles in her fiction, yet there’s nothing tawdry or coarse either. I think perhaps she fell out of favor because her style is too distinctive, too noticeable. We’ve moved away from the issues of that era. Very few of us now remember or realize a time in America when income tax didn’t exist. When people struggled to maintain a standard of living that was slowly going extinct before the Great Depression of the 1930s dealt it a death blow. Her characters, contending with recalcitrant servants, dwindling incomes, the desperate need to keep up appearances after losing all their money, etc., seem to belong to that elusive world of old black-and-white movies, evening gowns, and chauffeur-driven automobiles. Her books open a window and let us peer with curiosity into that long-ago place, but it’s hard for us to relate now.

By contrast, Christie doesn’t seem to date. Her characters lack the layers displayed by Rinehart. They are names. They move about and speak, but they are barely developed. Christie’s focus remains on the puzzle to be solved. Strangely enough–despite our modern fascination with the psychotic–we are less drawn to Rinehart’s tormented and complex people than Christie’s placeholders.

Now, my theory that her ornate style drove Rinehart out of favor may be bunk or it may be valid. All I know is that I love pouncing when I find her in vintage shops, forgotten corners, and occasional Amazon offers. She’s a treasure.

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SPACEHAWKS #5

After a l-o-n-g delay, Destination Mutiny, the next installment of my SPACEHAWKS military sf series (published back in the previous century by Ace Books) is now available in Kindle format. Originally published in September 1991, the book is back after several years out of print and still listed under my pen name, Sean Dalton.

The Spacehawks are a special ops team that mutinies after being forced to leave a teammate behind in their previous mission. They set out against orders to rescue Operative 41.

Although #5 is a close sequel to #4 The Rostma Lure, I’ve left this project dangling for far too long. I have plenty of reasons for that, but no excuses. To the handful of people that have read the series to this point, my apologies for the wait.

The topic of mutiny has long been of interest to me. What incites someone to rebel despite heavy penalties? What drives people to violate sworn oaths of loyalty, duty, training, and possibly conscience to break orders and strike out on their own? Consider classic films such as Mutiny on the Bounty and The Caine Mutiny, where naval crews are driven to desperate measures by cruel ship captains. But is mutiny always incited by cruelty or sadism? Are there other possible causes? I believe there are, and I remain fascinated by how such situations tear people apart. But despite the variations, they usually boil down to injustice and how long someone is willing to endure it. Why will one individual stick and obey–no matter what orders are given–and why will another break free?

Don’t expect much soul-searching in Destination Mutiny, however. When I wrote the book, I was under a strict deadline to produce three novels in a year, and under editorial orders to avoid letting my characters sit down to think. Instead, it’s simply action-packed adventure.

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