Archive for February, 2014

February 24, 2014

What magic looks like: Nine imagery questions for fantasy writers

What does magic look like?

What does magic look like?

My little sister and I used to play I Dream of Jeannie. I have fond memories of her lifting her folded arms, nodding her head and blinking and then explaining whatever magic she had just performed.

It was beyond fun. It was a practice in imagination for us both, an exercise in feeling powerful.

Which, I think, is one of the reasons writing fantasy appeals to me. Writing about using magic brings the same powerful feeling that playing magic did when I was a child. I still love to think about what magic looks like.

Writers are faced with a different type of challenge, though. They can’t just tell their playmates about their pretend magic and expect them to accept it. They have to explain it, describe it, use imagery to plant the picture of what magic looks like into their reader’s brains.

Is imagery what convinces readers that the magic is real, at least in the setting of a book? If so, maybe it’s what helps the magic feel real enough to keep fantasy readers turning pages. And buying books.

My advice to myself, and to other fantasy authors: Know what your magic looks like. Know the rules for its use, know how often it’s used and what the consequences for using it are, but most importantly, know how to describe it to your readers.

When I write, I often make lists to follow that help me cover all my bases. Here’s a list of the type of questions I use when I’m trying to create the imagery of a particular piece of magic:

  1. Does the magic have a color? If so, what is it? Bright blue? Mud green? Are there different kinds of colors for different kinds of magic?
  2. How luminescent is it? Does it glow? Or hide in the shadows, barely noticeable to an untrained mind?
  3. How quickly does it move, and what verbs can I use to address that? Does it zing across space, or slither along the edges of a wall, or meander, or cozy up to something?
  4. How loud is it? Is it a breath, a whisper, a choke? A shout, a clash, a thunder? How do the ears of my characters feel when magic is going on around them?
  5. Does magic have a tangible feeling? If a character touched it, would they burn? Or freeze? Would the magic grate against their skin, or slide, or bounce, or caress? And again, are there different feelings for different types of magic?
  6. What types of scents does the magic carry? Something acrid? Smoky or fresh? Bitter or sour or sweet?
  7. As a character detects a scent of magic, do they taste it as well? And if so, what expressions will cross that character’s face?
  8. How does the magic interact with the world around it?
  9. How do characters feel emotionally during a magic episode? And how do they show how they feel? Does the magic cause fear, and if so, do the characters run or fight or try to shield themselves? How fast do their hearts beat?

I’m sure there are a host of other questions fantasy writers can ask themselves as they write magic scenes. These are just a few, and realistically, they apply to all sorts of action sequences.

In my mind, they apply to magic in particular, because who really sees and hears and smells magic in the real world? No matter how many video games we play, or how many television shows we watch, some things still take a little brain power.

Imagining and writing about magic requires a level of creative thinking that can evoke the strong emotions (the kind that sells books).

That’s what really makes writing about magic powerful.

February 15, 2014

We write because we love to write

Happy Valentine's Day!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

There’s an interesting post over at Author’s Promoter about why writers write, including a pie chart showing the writing reasons of a hundred different published authors.

Among the top purposes writers listed for writing was they had to…they felt they couldn’t survive without it (that answer was second only to writing to express themselves), and I wondered how many authors I know feel the same way.

It also gave me cause for reflection. Over the years, the reasons why I write have changed.

  • Twenty years ago, I wrote to entertain myself.
  • Fifteen years ago, I wrote with the hope I would someday entertain others, and someday maybe even make some money off my writing…not a bad dream. 🙂 
  • Ten years ago, I wrote to educate myself, to educate others and to share with others the delight I felt in the world around me. This came mostly in the form of freelance articles rather than book-authoring, though.
  • Five years ago, I wrote because it was my profession. (Freelance journalism, again, but I had found some success.)
  • During the past three years, I’ve written primarily because writing relaxed me and supported me across some rough waters.  Words flocked around me like friends, drawing me out of myself and into the wider world.

The reasons I write  now are kind of a combination of everything. I still write to entertain myself. I still write to educate myself (though not as much as I once did), and I again write to share my joy in daily life. I still write books, and I still occasionally write articles.

I write because the ideas in my head won’t leave me alone until I’ve at least scribbled them down in a notebook somewhere. And I write because my family enjoys me better when I’ve written something.

Interestingly, only three percent of the authors interviewed said they wrote as their profession. Only two percent wrote to entertain, and only two percent wrote for exposure and fame.

Which leads me to believe that most writers are like me.

We write because we love to write.

Is this true? Please let me know why you write.

 

 

 

February 14, 2014

Great fantasy worlds, and what makes them great

A world I grew up loving...Oz!

A world I grew up loving…Oz!

I fell in love with fantasy worlds in fifth grade. That year, one very influential teacher held a reading contest, and I won by immersing myself in Frank L. Baum’s Oz books, the chronicles of Narnia, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, all of the Mary Poppins books, and just about everything else I could get my hands on from the tiny elementary school library.

My prize: a boxed set of Tolkien’s works–The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings–which, I am sure, stamped, sealed and certified my enduring love of fantasy.

Decades later, I still think it’s all about the worlds. Even then, I knew the revitalizing power of escaping. I understood there was a real chance of finding my lost self when I delved into a good book.

Who doesn’t love immersing themselves in someplace new? Taking a break from reality? Isn’t that why people take vacations?

I could contend that reading is even better than a vacation, often allowing readers to work out day-by-day problems in a setting that allows for adventure and excitement, and almost always, a difficult but realized success.

Even then, much of the magic is provided by the world the story takes place in. Good plots take into account the setting. So does good character development. Perhaps that’s why fantasy author David Farland, in his book Million Dollar Outlines, counsels other authors to lock down their settings before they even finish the outlines for their books.

So what is it, exactly, that makes new worlds worth reading?

Description:

I like worlds best when descriptions aren’t just listed, line by line, in a series of paragraphs long before the action starts. Very occasionally, this kind of description can hold my attention, but most often, my imagination catches on descriptions that are integrated into the plot. 

In my mind, the best descriptions wind their way through stories. Good settings wrap themselves around characters, making them take notice and even react to what they see and feel. The best descriptions are ones that characters see, feel, hear and react to. They NOTICE their world, and because they notice it, readers notice it, too.

(Incidentally, it seems I feel the most emotion as a reader when I know a character is feeling something about the environment he or she is in. Emotion sells books. Does it follow that good settings sell books, too?)

Believe-ability:

I always like my worlds to have rules. These are not necessarily the rules our planet and solar system and universe abides by (otherwise, where do fantasy and science fiction stories fit in?), but rules that form a decent framework for the plot and characters. (Mythic Scribes has a great piece on keeping worlds real.)

 

Mostly this relates to my ability to answer questions in my mind as they arise–whether or not something could happen, in that particular universe, and why. When I come across a book where worlds feel unstable, which seem to often using Deus Ex Machina for an easy ending, I become an uncomfortable reader. Usually this means I lose interest and move on to something else. 

As enjoyable as reading great worlds is, writing real worlds is hard work. I’m still studying it. I probably will be for a long, long time. 

Ease:

This relates only to how hard I want to have to work to read or understand a book. I still really love fantasy, and I love science fiction and a host of other genres. Sometimes I like stories that are really far-fetched, and but most often I like ones that hit closer to home. 

These kinds of worlds are strangely comforting as well as refreshing. When I’m looking for a world to escape into, I look for something that has familiar elements that wind through the magic. Then I’m in my happy place. I can put up my feet and disappear into that world for a long time…or at least until the story is finished.

I’m sure there are other things that make worlds great. These are my top three tests for worlds I really love, worlds I mull over in my mind long after I’ve read the book.

What do you think makes a great world? 

 

February 4, 2014

Kindles, blogging and changes

DSC00431

Oh, how I have loved my Kindle. It’s been a companion for me for almost three years now, filling the gaps in my time while I sat in waiting rooms, the car, and, most often, here at home.

Imagine my distress when it didn’t power on last week.

Thankfully, it was just a low battery (I think). I’ve been careful to keep it charged since then, but it did bring to mind the fact that everything changes.

Even this blog.

If I remember right, I started blogging here in the spring of 2011, and I promptly took a really long break while my family moved and settled into our new home. I tried blogging again in late 2012 and followed through with some serious blogging until about April of last year. Then I took another long break, blogging only here and there for the past several months. All this after writing a blog about North Dakota for two years, and then setting that one aside for good…

BottledWorder has an excellent post about this sort of thing. To answer her questions–yes, I have taken several breaks from writing–and yes, I always miss it.  I always come back to it.

It does, however, sometime seem necessary for me to take a step back and re-evaluate what I’m doing, especially whether it’s fitting in with my overall life. I enjoy too many things too much to keep them all on the back shelf while I’m writing. This past year, my writing hiatus led to the idea of a no-deadline kind of lifestyle.

I’m now ready to report on that experiment. Except, I don’t really know what to say.

I don’t miss the stress of deadlines, especially the ones I place on myself.

I do miss the happy-busy-writing feel that blogging gives me. It’s a quick fix when I can’t get to my other works-in-progress.

I don’t miss writing by an editorial calendar (mostly because I tend to pack it too full of things I can never really get to, which means I have to keep revising my plan).

I do miss the surprising twists blog posts sometimes seem to take.

I don’t miss the moments when I’m scrambling for a picture I deem blog-worthy enough to attend my writing.

I do miss regular interaction with all my blogging friends. I’m sorry to say that if I’m not blogging, I’m not online enough to read other blogs, either. I’ve missed it, and it’s made me realize just how important other bloggers are to me.

So I guess the bottom line is this: I want to blog more. Again.

No promises on how much or when, but since I’m a work in progress, I guess this blog has to change with me.

I suppose that’s really part of the fun of it, anyway. 🙂

 

 

 

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