Tag Archives: fantasy novels

Don’t explain away the magic

elsasnowball

This is going to be one of those posts predicated on an entirely inexperienced and likely uninformed premise, so feel free to take it or leave it as you choose.  But I’m just gonna throw it out there and see what you guys think.  And that premise is:  there is far too much explaining going on in fiction, especially as regards characters with supernatural abilities.  I skim through people on Twitter glorifying “highly developed, intricate magic systems” in fantasy novels, and have seen, distressingly, a great number of others complain that Elsa’s powers were never explained in Frozen.  I guess the seven-year-old in me is wondering where the magic in magic has gone.  Why does every paranormal situation in fiction have to be scienced up with midichlorians?  What happened to taking magic on faith?

Magic and other supernatural abilities should never be the raison d’etre of a story; they should be an angle by which a dramatic human conflict is examined.  When authors and screenwriters get bogged down in the “why” of magic, the human element is lost.  Stan Lee gave an interview around the time the first X-Men movie came out where he explained the genesis of those characters thus:  having exhausted the idea of superpowers acquired through gamma ray bursts, radioactive spider bites and the like, labeling the new characters “mutants” eliminated the need to craft complex origins for each of the hundreds heroes and villains who would populate his fictional world.  He could just get on with the story.  Likewise, though crippled by a low budget forced upon it by a nervous studio unconvinced of the potential of comic book movies at the time, the first X-Men is by and large better than the dozens of other adaptations that followed simply because it doesn’t waste an hour telling you where everybody came from and how they got their powers.  They’re mutants, they can do things humans can’t, let’s go already.

In the first Star Wars, the entirety of the Force is explained in one line:  “It’s an energy field created by all living things; it surrounds us and penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.”  We didn’t need Obi-Wan going into ten pages of dialogue about the different castes of Force-wielders, the innumerable versions of the specific powers and how Jedi Trance Remix can only be used on Hoth in a Wampa cave by an 18th-level adept wearing green trousers on alternate Thursdays.  If you look at the original drafts of Star Wars, George Lucas had included that extraneous crap, but he wisely cut it to improve the story’s pace.  (As we know to our eternal lament, he put it all back in for the prequels.)  In Frozen, Elsa’s magic also gets one line of explanation, and it’s delivered in a moment of urgency at the beginning of the movie.  (If you missed it, the head troll asks her parents, “born with, or cursed?”  They answer, “born with.”)  What more did the story need?  Nothing – because the story was never about Elsa’s powers.  They were only a catalyst for a human conflict.  The story was about the bond between the sisters, and that’s why it resonated so deeply with audiences everywhere.  Emotions are the key, not technical papers about the chemical processes that make fireworks sparkle and go boom.

The obvious, worst case scenario for the inevitable Frozen 2/Frozen Again/Refrozen is that the writers decide to explain Elsa, by revealing that she was actually rescued/adopted from a family of ice sorcerers/arctic spirits/frost giants/magic penguins who return to claim her, and force her to choose between her birth family and “adopted sister” Anna.  (Wanna take bets as to whether this is the direction they go in?  It’s not one I offer with enthusiasm.)  And once you start explaining, you can’t stop.  The narrative becomes less a story and more a Wikipedia, where each hyperlinked word leads to another page of definitions and explanations.  That’s what wrecked the latter incarnations of the Star Trek series, where crises could be solved over and over with plodding explanations of made-up technology – reconfigured electroplasma conduit taps emitting verteon particles through phased quantum inducers and so on.

Apart from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the latest of which I struggled to get through, I haven’t read any fantasy novels in a long time, mainly because I grew tired of wading through elaborately constructed and meticulously explained worlds in which nothing interesting ever happened.  (I am open to recommendations, author friends, especially if it’s your book.)  I understand that world-building can be a consuming exercise, but constructors should remain mindful that the world will only be as compelling as the characters within it.  It’s a bit like visiting a foreign country – you don’t conduct a thorough review of its civil and criminal code before sprinting out of your hotel room to hit the sights.  Tell us just enough so that we don’t get lost, and not a solitary syllable more.  Let us discover the world on our own, hand in hand with the locals.

When a mystery is explained, it loses its ability to compel our interest.  Remember how an X-Wing flying through the Death Star trench looked so much cooler before you knew it was a small model filmed and optically composited against a background plate of another small model, and another layer of black velvet curtain with sequins representing the stars?  So too is the wonder of magic diminished when we’re told it’s caused by a specific ancient Petrifying Spell developed by the archwizard Grumblethorn during the seventh Marcovian Age, requiring equal portions of Skirbian tree lizard earwax and Boltan’s Smoogrifying Powder, gathered beneath a two-thirds waning crescent moon.  I know some readers glom on to that level of detail; I find it tedious.  When I’m describing the use of magic in my book, I try to picture it cinematically, as if I was sitting in a theater watching it unfold before me, and imagining the awe I would experience in that moment.  What difference does it make how it happens?  It’s enough that it does, and that it can be both beautiful and terrifying.  And as always, the emotional impact of the spell on both the user and the witness (and/or victim, as befits the scene) is what’s more dramatically interesting – both to write, and to read.

That’s my take, anyway.  Could be completely off base in terms of what’s grabbing people’s interest these days.  Your thoughts?

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Unfreezing creativity

You can emerge from a great movie in any number of frames of mind:  stirred to action, moved to tears, smiling ear to ear or even enraged beyond words.  And then there are those movies that have a different and in some ways, more profound effect.  They come along at just the right moment, when you’re a bit discouraged by a recent course of events, when the well is drying out and replenishing itself with doubt instead.  Movies that embrace your simmering creativity and stoke your desire to tell stories, because they remind you of the possibilities inherent in the blank canvas by pushing the limits of what can be done with it.  They disarm and enchant the cynic and turn him into a dreamer again, fingers twitching to fill hard drives with a wealth of new words.  Frozen, Disney’s magnificent animated retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, did that for me.

The story of a bond of sisterhood tested by fate, magic, misunderstanding and a heck of a lot of snow and ice, Frozen is visually sumptuous, befitting the pedigree of its studio, and uncommonly emotionally profound.  The two princesses of the vaguely Nordic realm of Arendelle are the playful young Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and her elder sister Elsa (Idina Menzel), who possesses the power to create ice and snow.  They are inseparable until Elsa accidentally injures Anna with her magic, at which point their well-meaning royal parents decide that the two would be better off kept apart, for their own safety, and Anna’s memory altered to remove her awareness of her sister’s abilities.  Years later, after the girls have been orphaned, Elsa is poised to be named Queen of Arendelle until a confrontation with Anna over a rash decision to marry a handsome prince she’s just met results in Elsa’s long-suppressed powers bursting forth and blanketing Arendelle in eternal winter.  Shunned by her people, Elsa flees to the distant mountains, pursued by Anna who has faith that her sister can be convinced to bring summer back to the realm.  I’d prefer not to say more at the risk of being spoilery, but despite some red herrings dropped early on that suggest you’re in for the typical schmaltz about princesses in towers and the conveniently available square-jaws they always fall for, and despite the prominence in advertising of the goofy living snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), the story goes in a much more mature and welcome direction, keeping the relationship between the sisters as the emotional linchpin – while dazzling your eyes with some breathtaking animation work, especially in any scene involving Elsa’s magic.

Given what I’ve discussed at length here before in terms of the onscreen portrayal of women, how refreshing indeed to find a story that both passes the Bechdel test and gives depth and complexity to a female character with supernatural powers!  The clip I’ve linked above is my absolute favorite moment in the movie, because not only is it a terrific song belted out by a sublimely talented Broadway veteran at the top of her game (even calling back a little to her famous interpretation of Wicked‘s “Defying Gravity”), but it’s a scene of a young woman embracing everything about who she truly is and reveling in the wonders of what she can do with her amazing gifts.  A triumphant coming out of a sorceress, if you will, and a scene of unbridled joy.  We don’t get to see that very often, if ever.  Women with powers in movies are usually punished for them – they have to give them up to attain the life they really want, or, they choose to use them for evil and must therefore be destroyed (usually by… sigh, a virtuous man).  While Elsa does cause some inadvertent mayhem that must be undone, the resolution of the story thankfully doesn’t require her to abandon what makes her unique.  She adds to her life instead of taking something away.

As a man writing a novel in first-person from a woman’s point of view (a fantasy about a woman with magical powers, no less), those issues are always top of mind for me.  It’s too easy to venture down the well-trodden, familiar path at the end of which lies the execrable Mary Sue; the collection of cliches guaranteed to please no one, least of all the author.  Experiencing Frozen, though, shows me that it can be done, and done extremely well, and the positive response to the movie by both audiences and critics proves that these kinds of characters can touch hearts.  Magic has always had a lingering visceral appeal, and too often literature and cinema adhere to the conservative religious view that there is something fundamentally wrong about it, forever at odds with how the world is supposed to function.  Yet it’s something that we all still seem to want in our lives – in the first encounter with a new love, in the twinkle in the eye of a child waiting for Santa, in the wish made on the shooting star.  Why can’t the world be magical?  Why can’t we make it that way?

Writers have our own magic to offer.  We have these crazy ideas and wild emotions that we are somehow able to transmogrify into a collection of permutations of 26 letters that cast spells upon those who read them, with the very effects I mentioned off the top.  When we’ve suppressed that nature for too long, because day jobs and other obligations have gotten in the way, or we’ve just been too downright lazy to keep doing what we’re supposed to be doing, we risk not a catastrophic explosion like Elsa, but a gradual withering away of our spirit.  We get mopey and find little to be happy about in what should be fulfilling lives.  What we need to do is have a “Let It Go” moment instead and revel in what we love and what we know we’re meant to be.  Sometimes it takes a reminder; a movie like Frozen that assures you that storytellers are capable of some wondrous things.  And then you want to get back to your own fictional universes and start pushing your own limits again, typing until your fingers fall off and you’ve created magical palaces of skyscraping prose.  Hoping somewhere in the back of your mind that one day your story will have the same impact on somebody else – and the cycle of creativity will continue, forever unfrozen.

How James Bond can help you avoid information dumps

skyfallopening
Who is this man? What is he doing? I am intrigued. I must know more.

A disclaimer before we start today:  I know nothing, Jon Snow.  I am offering the following merely as the opinion of a layperson who has not, for the record, published a single book – not as a treatise of indisputable fact.  So it’s entirely possible that the words lying in wait below may be a complete and utter waste of the precious time I’ve requested of you.  But please try to give them some consideration before you sit down to your next draft.  Trust me, I have been there and done that and I want to try to steer you away from the rocky shores I know lie in wait.  Put simply, you need to stop opening your stories with massive information dumps.

Across the Interwebs lies a plethora of sites where authors both experienced and perenially aspiring have posted excerpts of their books – usually the first chapter – for ongoing perusal and feedback.  As a veteran lurker I’ve thumbed through a copious number of them, and as my own interest is in writing fantasy (at least for the time being; I’m not limiting the scope of future projects) those tend to be the ones I zero in on.  And it pains me to point out that a great many fall victim to the curse of the information dump.  The following is my own pastiche, but let me know if any of it rings familiar:

CHAPTER ONE

Prince Xakhar Tazeros, half-dragon Ninth Regent of the Grobulan Confederacy of United Independent Feudal Kingdoms, was seventeenth in line to the throne of Erador.  Erador was one of three countries fighting for dominance of the island of Makteros, the only source of the prized mineral hermulite, which was needed to forge the precious Lion Scimitars that were wielded by the ancient warrior race of Qobari.  The Qobari Order, descended from the first colonists of Zathan, were the finest combatants that had ever walked beneath the twin suns and possessed the secret martial art of sha’Kaj, which allowed them to possess the forms of trees and plants and turn them against their enemies.  One of their most formidable foes was Duchess Zalana, Prince Xakhar’s blood-sister and a sorceress of considerable power, who had long held a grudge against the Qobari and sought to wipe them out.  Zalana drew her magic from the Goddess Ia, matron of darkness and one of the Six Gods of Grobular, along with Gatharsa, Yelene, Mq’mal, Rappan and X’gi.  The Six Gods were worshipped on every continent except the sub-lands of Serkana, whose belief system operated on a belief in the divinity of blades of grass.  Xakhar and Zalana were descendants of the last King of Shocen, who had died in a battle against the Qobari twenty-nine semicycles ago…

Are you still awake?  Hope so, but if you’re not, I’m not surprised.  Granted, this was a bit over the top, but this is the feeling I sometimes get in reading some of these manuscripts-in-progress.  I am in awe – SHEER JAW-DROPPED AWE, I tell you, of the imaginations that can craft these complex worlds that are at once both familiar and alien.  I can’t do it.  I just come up with silly names like Grobular.  But what usually happens is that the writers get so caught up in spilling out these intricate details that they forget to tell a story.  Go back and read that paragraph again and note that nothing happens.  It’s just fact after fact laid out for you with excruciating precision and at no point does the story start moving.  Theoretically, everything I wrote there was important to the telling of the story that is to follow, but rather than introduce this stuff organically, I threw it at you like a bucketload of baseballs.  And there’s nothing there to keep you reading unless you really want to know how the last King of Shocen died (fell off his six-legged zorse into a pit of hungry hoopdehars).

Let’s try this again.

CHAPTER ONE (revised)

Xakhar removed his blood-soaked Lion Scimitar from the face of the dead Makterosian soldier, thinking that while his headache of this morning had not eased, it was certainly preferable to that which his opponent had just suffered.  Xakhar slid the blade back into his scabbard and cast his gaze upward to the angry, swirling clouds which blotted most of the light from the twin suns, the storm the result of the spell cast by his blood-sister.  When they were small they fought over toys or the last slice of dessert; it bemused Xakhar to note that while the scale of their battles had escalated considerably to include thousands of innocent casualties, the stakes had more or less remain unchanged.  Zalana still wanted his toys – the kingdom-shaped ones, naturally – and she was not above using her magic to wipe out anyone who stood between her and the prize she sought.  As he looked skyward, he could see her evil smile in the curve of the clouds, hear her mocking laughter in the thunder, and feel the might of her anger in each crash of lightning.  “Going to be one of those days,” Xakhar said to himself.  He glanced down at the soldier’s bisected face.  “You got off easy.”

Okay, while this is still not the most magnificent prose ever crafted, at least we have some sense of Xakhar as a character, the world he occupies, and the conflict that is likely to form the spine of the story.  We’ve hacked out most of the unnecessary exposition and placed a character in the middle of a tense situation.  And while the setting is still alien, the situation is more understandable on a human level.  Troubled dude with a jealous, possibly insane sister who won’t leave him alone.  This has potential.  It still needs to go through the rewrite oven a few times, but we can work with this.

If you’re writing a detective novel, you can usually get away with the most minimal of introductions to your world.  “It was raining in San Francisco that Thursday afternoon.”  Everyone grasps the setting almost immediately.  Unfortunately, a fantasy or SF author has no such privilege.  The world and the rules must be established early to provide a point of reference that the reader can latch onto.  How do you do that?  Well, less is more.  And this is where 007 can be of assistance.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone on the planet who hasn’t seen at least one James Bond movie.  So I’m guessing that most of you reading this are familiar with the basic Bond structure and the pre-titles teaser sequence, which is usually a huge action setpiece that may or may not relate to the main story.  You can even argue that it takes its inspiration from William Shakespeare, who almost always begins his plays with a scene involving minor characters before getting on with business.  This stylistic invention was, like many things, a creation born of practical necessity – audiences in Elizabethan England would take forever to settle down and pay attention to the stage, so Shakespeare put a bit of fluff at the start to give the rowdy masses a chance to cool it without really missing anything important.  The Bond teaser is meant to grab the audience by the metaphorical balls and reintroduce them to their favorite hero in smashing, not drawn-out, polysyllabic style, and much in the same way as the Bard, doesn’t start laying out the important plot until after the main titles.  So it’s okay if you’re still distracted a bit when things first start up.  After the explosions and the power ballad is when the real story will begin.

My modest suggestion, then, is to “steal from the best” and open with a scene that will introduce a strong character – preferably your protagonist – in a situation where they are forced to do something active instead of idling and recounting the tales of twenty-eight generations of their ancestry.  (Think about it – how realistic is this?  Do we go to work each morning thinking in exacting detail about the sheer scope of our family bloodline?)  The other thing too is that the more of this stuff you hold back in the beginning, the more mystery there will be around your character, the more tantalizing secrets to reveal.  When I was first drafting my novel, I fell into this trap.  I had the heroine tell you in the first chapter exactly who she was, where she came from and why she could do the things that she could.  When I realized as noted above that no one goes around thinking these things about themselves on an average day, I started hacking those parts out, and finding that my leading lady was consequently a lot more interesting – because now you wanted to read on to find the answers.

When you’re world-building, don’t throw it all at us at once, in a blizzard of arcane references and unpronounceable names.  Focus on movement, wants, and action, and sprinkle in details where they are relevant.  Or, to use a cooking metaphor, use them like spices and not the main ingredient.  Come into the story in medias res (in the middle of things, for the non-Latin speakers/non-English majors among us).  And if you can open with a Bond-esque, rip-roaring cracker of a scene, with peril and tension and stuff blowing up, more power to you.  The aim is to hook us, not give us a history lecture.

Verdict, ladies and gentlemen?  Am I on to something here or merely blowing smoke?

Do authors dream of electric typewriters?

A dime a dozen.
A dime a dozen.

Where do you get your ideas?  That’s a question that everyone who fancies him or herself a writer is asked by someone at some point, with either a look of wonder or disgust on the questioner’s face (hopefully, it’ll always be the former).  The Muse can be an elusive mistress; Lynda, my writing teacher, once advised that waiting around for her was an exercise in futility as she was more likely to dance just out of reach, laughing at you, and that you had to force her to the table by sitting down and starting without her.  In that respect, schedules and deadlines certainly help a great deal, as we all know that the easiest thing to do in the world is not write.

Finding a subject for a blog post is not terribly difficult, even if the writing of said post is.  There’s always lots going on in the world that we can comment on.  I’m of the “more flies with honey” and “current or future employers might read this” mentality, so I’ll usually stop myself from venting about whatever is pissing me off lately and try to either write something positive or find an optimistic take on a particularly frustrating news item.  (On a side note, my wife and I are watching the political drama House of Cards these past few nights and I’m finding it difficult to glom onto completely, for the singular reason that it is an utterly cynical program wallowing happily in the most selfish aspects of government service, and I’m much more drawn to the hopeful take offered by The West Wing.  But Kevin Spacey is still awesome.)  The blog, essentially, is a snapshot of how you’re feeling on any given day.  A novel, by contrast, is a long term exercise in exploring an idea to its every possible limit.  But which ideas are more deserving of the in depth treatment as opposed to the casual chat?  How do you know which is which?

The summer after my mother died, I chained myself to my computer and started writing screenplays.  That was what I was into at the time; for more on what led to this check out this previous post.  Like many, my first ventures into serious writing were fan fiction, and in my case, Star Trek fan fiction.  Although, I never managed to finish any of it – there’s an old hard drive rusting in a landfill somewhere full of the first chapters of stories about the crew of the Enterprise doing… well, not very much, actually.  I couldn’t plot worth a damn at the time; I always figured I’d get to that part later on.  What was more of a passion in the teenage years was drawing comic books, even though my artistic skill was minimal.  And those were always James Bond stories, because they were easier to plot out.  Bad guy doing bad thing, Bond must stop him, there’s a girl, a car chase, a gadget or two.  For a high school creative project I wrote and drew a 007-Star Trek:  The Next Generation crossover, where Bond is beamed aboard the Enterprise-D to help solve a Romulan conspiracy that involves his old adversaries SPECTRE, and along the way he manages to fall in love with Dr. Beverly Crusher (although in a downbeat ending, they have to go their separate ways).  My English teacher loved it, her only criticism that it was a shame that I wasn’t using my own original characters.  My rationale (read: excuse) was that using established characters freed you from having to introduce and develop your own, and enabled you to get right into the story instead.  I didn’t understand at the time that the key to solving my inability to plot was to instead let the story flow out of the characters themselves.

But back to that summer.  By that point I was using original characters, even if the dialogue they were speaking was almost entirely borrowed.  That was about the time Pulp Fiction had come out and, as a film student at UWO, you could not take two steps into your classroom without hearing someone invoke the mighty Tarantino.  I’d like to think that I wasn’t as obviously pretentious as some of the goatee-stroking, beret-wearing pomposities I sat in lectures with, but my work was just as derivative.  My first full screenplay was about a group of kids in film school, with exhaustive, profanity-laden monologues about the hidden sexual themes in Star Wars (which, if you’ve seen Clerks, sort of puts the lie to the idea that these were in any way original characters.)  I was still convinced that someday, someone would make this movie and I’d be accepting my Best Original (heh) Screenplay Oscar for it (then again, I was 20, recently orphaned and extremely naïve).  Once that one was done, I started another, and then another.  But they weren’t anything of note or even interest.  I began to realize that they had no lasting value – because they weren’t about anything; there was no there there.  And they certainly weren’t in my own voice.

The final screenplay was about a group of four 20-somethings who lived in the same apartment building (cough… Friends… cough).  I know, it sounds dreadful, but I really enjoyed spending time with these particular people.  As bad as some of those other screenplays were, they were an opportunity to hone my skill; to develop dialogue and subtext, to cut the profanity, to shed the influence of His Holiness Pope Quentin.  When I typed FADE TO CREDITS, I realized I hadn’t been able to develop the characters in the way I’d wanted – the screenplay was about 170 pages (most genuine ones top out at 120, maximum) and I hadn’t said everything I needed to with these people.  I decided to abandon it at first draft and instead turn it into a novel.  And for the next two years I labored on this thing on and off.  A great deal of my days were spent thinking about the lives of these people:  Bryson Reid, aspiring writer and perpetual smartass, Krista Piper, alcoholic figure skater, Scott Shipley, advertising executive on the rise, and Lauren Devaney, Irish barista homesick for her native land.  Part of Bryson’s story involved him meeting an entrancing and successful fantasy author named Serena Lane.  And interspersed between the chapters about Bryson, Krista, Scott and Lauren were meant to be “excerpts” of Serena’s bestselling novel.  The whole enterprise was designed to lead to a “shocking” metaphysical twist (not in the earlier screenplay version) whereby Serena was the same person depicted in the fantasy portions, who had somehow managed to cross into the real world (and it was the Irish barista, Lauren, who had authored the book in the first place, only to have it stolen by a manipulative publisher who was herself the villainess from the fantasy story and had also escaped from page into reality.  “Serena Lane” would turn out to be the name of the street on which Lauren grew up in Dublin.)  Anyway, it got up to 350,000 words with no end in sight.  As I was writing it, I found I was enjoying the fantasy portions significantly more than the real world stuff.  Bryson, in particular, although ostensibly the hero, was fundamentally unlikable and there were times I just wanted to smack him upside the virtual head.  But I still felt the need to finish it.

Then one summer, I signed up for a local adult education course called “Crafting a Novel.”  Naturally I knew how to write a novel, this was just a chance to meet some people (i.e. attractive, single women) with a similar passion.  The first night of that class was a smack to the head much larger than the one I had wanted to give my fictional hero – I knew nothing.  And I was crestfallen when Lynda told us that even if we had a book we had been working on for years, we were to set it aside and start a new one.  To borrow a phrase from William Goldman, this was the ensuing sound inside my head:

AAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH

Surely she wasn’t serious?  My epic of Proustian magnificence deserved nothing less than endless streams of voluminous praise followed by a seven-figure publishing deal and movie rights!  How could anyone dare me to set it aside?

In retrospect, thank frickin’ Buddha, but we’ll get to that.

After picking my jaw up from the floor that night, I decided to think about things a little more rationally.  I’d slowly developed this fantasy world and enjoyed playing around in it.  Couldn’t I set another story in the same place?  And since prequels were all the rage, why not one that took place fifty years prior – something that might serve as a setup to the brilliance that was to follow?  That took care of the setting, but I still needed characters and a worthwhile story to tell.

A few days later, I’m in a video game store perusing the PlayStation titles, and I wander over to the PC rack.  There’s a game there, probably a precursor to World of Warcraft or something similar, and on it is a bunch of sketches of the characters.  One of them strikes me.  It’s a beautiful woman holding a mystical staff.  It’s nothing terribly original; do a Google Images search for “sorceress” and you’ll see thousands of variations on the theme – some gorgeous, half-dressed knockout hurling lightning from manicured fingers.  But something about it strikes me.  And I ask myself, what must it be like to be her?  Truthfully, the magical babe is a pretty boring staple of fantasy stories, either as a love interest, a physically unattainable spirit guide, or a cackling villainess bent on total domination of both the world and the hero’s crotch.  In anything I’d ever read or seen up until that point, she was always treated merely as an other to be conquered or otherwise overcome.  (Remember the witch in the first Conan the Barbarian movie?  Beautiful and exotic, as befits magical babes, but doesn’t get a name and is in the story for all of four minutes, three of which are spent rolling around on the floor with our favorite muscled Cimmerian.)  But if what would go through your head if you actually were a creature like that – would you go around thinking to yourself, “I am so willowy and ethereal and mysterious”?  Or would your head be occupied by the same mundane thoughts the rest of us have – what to wear tomorrow, whether you left the iron on, did you feed the cat?  After appearing and disappearing at will and turning men into pigs for a few hundred years, would you eventually grow bored with your powers?  What could the immortal sorceress who has everything possibly want?  Anything at all?  Or would she be subject to the same emotional needs and longings as the rest of us mere human beings?

And there was the seed of my new story.

Coming up in future posts – more on creating characters, developing the plot, struggling with description, crafting dialogue, the necessary pain of killing your darlings and how Aaron Sorkin helped me find my voice without even knowing I exist.

What’s the story, Graham?

Who is that guy?
And while we’re at it, who is that guy?

I’ve never been good at self-promotion.  Perhaps you can chalk it up to formative years surrounded by people telling me keep quiet, don’t boast and give someone else a turn.  Like most people, I enjoy attention, but excessive notice tends to turn my stomach inside out.  It’s why I had to stop reading the comments on the stuff I submit to Huffington (that and the occasional threat from a pissed off Tea Partier).  The problem is that these aren’t qualities that serve one well if one is attempting to establish a writing career.  Publishing firms are tightening their belts and seem to expect their authors to do most of the legwork in marketing themselves.  You see the results often on Twitter – writers following other writers in hopes of a follow-back, and relentlessly pushing their tomes through tweet after tweet.  Seems to work for some; I follow a few who haven’t published a thing yet have managed to build up their own expectant and admiring fanbases.  My attitude has always been that quality will find its own audience, but, after blogging for almost two years to a relatively stable but small (yet tremendously awesome) group of supportive readers, it’s clear that my modest approach isn’t working.  I need to give you more.

If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while you’ll know I’ve made some periodic and cryptic references to a finished novel that has been sitting on my hard drive for far too long.  A few years back I sent out some queries for it, received polite rejections all around, and then set it aside for a while.  (I had a nice one from a literary agent who represents a very famous series of books, who said that her decision to pass was not a statement on the quality of the writing, which, though it may have been a form letter, was still encouraging to a fragile ego.)  About two years ago I went back and rewrote large portions of it while painfully hacking out almost 60,000 words to get it to a publishable length.  Perhaps a dozen family & friends have read it from cover to cover; dozens more have seen excerpts and offered suggestions, some of which have been incorporated, while others have been welcomed but disregarded (you have to use your judgement after all).  Long and the short of it is that at this point it’s in the best shape I can possibly get it into, at least from my perspective.  And I have started sending queries out again.  So why have I not shared more about it here?

Well, in a strange way, I have.  There is a lot here about the book.  And no, you haven’t missed it.  Let me explain a little.

We live in a spoiler-addicted culture.  Everybody wants their appetite sated immediately; we all want to flip to the last page to see who did it.  I went through that phase myself – because I am fascinated by the process of film production (an interest that probably stems from wishing in idle moments that it’s what I did for a living) I devour news about scriptwriting, casting, principal photography, and yes, spoilers.  I had to give myself an intervention of sorts this past summer when I ruined The Dark Knight Rises for myself by reading the Wikipedia plot summary before seeing the movie.  I realized I’d become what I despised – I’d often railed about being able to figure out the ending of rom-coms simply by looking at the two stars featured on the poster.  For Skyfall, I purposely kept myself spoiler-free, and as a result I enjoyed that movie a lot more than I would have had I known how it was going to end.  Trekkers have been driven up the wall over the last several by J.J. Abrams’ refusal to offer specifics on the identity of the villain “John Harrison” played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness.  Is it Khan?  Gary Mitchell?  Robert April?  Harry Mudd?  Ernst Stavro Blofeld?  In promoting his projects, Abrams has always embraced the idea of the “mystery box,” never showing his hand until the night of the premiere.  And controlling the conversation by keeping it where he wants it, in the realm of speculation, is, if managed properly, a great way to keep interest high.  It’s a dance though – give away too much and you spoil it, but say nothing, or remain stubbornly evasive, and people grow bored and move on to the next thing.  My more introspective nature simply lends itself better to Abrams’ way of thinking.

I’ll crack open the mystery box a little:  My novel is a fantasy.  It’s the first part of what will hopefully be a trilogy.  The main character is a woman with magical abilities.  She encounters a mortal man.  An adventure ensues.

Whoa, you’re saying.  Back up a sec.  This is basically Beautiful Creatures, right?

Argh.  As writers we need to support each other and rejoice in each other’s successes, so I’m very happy for Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.  We all dream of seeing our epics translated to the big screen and I’m sure they’re bursting with joy at their enviable accomplishment, as would I.  But privately I’m suffering a few gutfuls of agita.  You can’t help feeling like the guy who was late to the patent office when Alexander Graham Bell released the first telephone, even though our stories are completely different.  Theirs takes place in the modern day; mine is set in the past in a fictional world.  Their lead characters are teenagers discovering themselves; mine are world-weary adults.  And of course the supporting characters and indeed the plot bear no resemblance to one another.  But to the casual observer, they’re treading similar boards, and even though I could have written a story about a lawyer or a doctor or cop without garnering so much as a whisper of comparison, I have no doubt that someone will now accuse me of trying to cash in on a trend, particularly if Beautiful Creatures does become “the next Twilight” and thousands of lesser imitators flood literary agents’ inboxes (I’m fortunate I didn’t choose to write about vampires.  Luckily, I find them tiresome.)  Indeed, witches are all the rage in pop culture at the moment – we had Hawkeye and Strawberry Fields hacking their heads off a few weeks ago and we’ve got Mrs. James Bond, Meg Griffin and Marilyn Monroe bandying their magical wiles with James Franco coming up in March.

Well, it is what it is and no sense sulking about it now.

I’m going to sidestep into politics for a moment.  My beloved federal Liberals are conducting a leadership race right now, and candidate and former astronaut Marc Garneau has recently fired a shot across presumptive favorite Justin Trudeau’s bow by accusing him of failing to offer up concrete plans.  But Garneau (and those who are praising this as a brilliant strategic move) should understand that people don’t respond to plans, they respond to ideas – the why, not the what.  Our current PM came to power not because he had a thoroughly researched and scored eighteen-point economic agenda, but because his campaign message was that the previous government was corrupt and he wasn’t.  It worked.  His two subsequent election wins have been based on similar themes – I’m reliable, the other guys are scary unknowns.  I go back to Simon Sinek’s brilliant observation that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.  It was the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.  The trick, when it comes to trying to pitch a book through a query letter, is that you’re required to try and hook the agent through what is more or less a 250-word encapsulation of the basic plot.  But the plot isn’t why I wrote the book and it’s not why I want people to read it.

For argument’s sake, and I’m certainly not trying to make a comparison here, but let’s quickly summarize the life of Jesus Christ:  A baby is born to a virgin mother and grows up to become a carpenter, lead a vast group of followers and spread a message of love to his fellow men.  This offends the ruling powers who condemn him to torture and death, after which he is miraculously resurrected.  If you had no knowledge of Christianity or the substance of Jesus’ message, you would never believe based on what you just read that these events would inspire a worldwide religious movement that would endure over two thousand years and counting.  The plot doesn’t make you want to read the book.  You get no sense of the why.

After an enormous detour, we now come back to my novel and its why.  The why is here, all around you, in the archives of this site.  It’s in my values, the things that matter to me and that I ponder as I type, post and share.  My opinions on politics, conservatism, the Tea Party, faith, spirituality, organized religion, charity, economics, ecology, literature, women, love, the loss of our parents, the shifting nature of good and evil, even James Bond, the Beatles and the writing of Aaron Sorkin as a part of the entire human experience – they are all represented in some form or another in my novel.  Gene Roddenberry taught me that a great story can’t just be a journey from A to B to C, it has to be about something more.  So mine is an adventure story that is as much an exploration of my personal philosophy and observations on the human condition as it is sorcery, chases, narrow escapes, explosions and witty repartee.

It is written in first person, from the point of view of the sorceress.  Why did I choose to write as a woman?  Part of it was for the challenge, I suppose, to see if I could do it without falling into chick-lit clichés about designer shoes, the appeal of sculpted abs and struggles with mothers-in-law and PMS.  But more to the point, if the story is to connect with an audience, its themes must be universal, as must its emotions.  Men and women both know what it is like to feel alone, to be consumed by a longing for something or someone you cannot have, and to make any kind of connection, no matter how meagre.  We can both crave intimacy so deeply that we don’t care who we receive it from – even if we know we are asking for it from a person who is absolutely wrong for us.  My fictional leading lady has tremendous powers, yet she remains vulnerable to the stirrings of a long-closed-off heart and the desire to be accepted, even by a man who despises everything she represents – a married man, to complicate matters further.  The evolution of their relationship is the absolute center of the plot, their interactions the driver of all the events that follow.  I avoid a lot of the external mechanisms common to fantasy like endless prophecies, quests, magical objects, creatures, specific rules about the casting of spells and complicated mythologies.  Sorry, no Diagon Alley or Avada Kedavra or Quidditch or even white walkers, folks.  The progression of my story hinges on emotions, personal choices and consequences, not getting the Whatsit of Whatever to the Mountain of Something Else before the next full moon.  The people are what matter and everything else to me is background noise.

Does it sound like something you’d like to read?  I hope so.  I hope if you’ve come with me this far you’ll want to come a little further, and maybe invite a few friends along.  Over the next few months I’ll post periodic updates on how we’re doing submission-wise, and maybe a few more details like character names, excerpts of scenes, even (gasp!) the title.  We’ll see if we can get a couple more folks interested to the point where we reach critical mass and something truly amazing happens.  It’s a story I’ve put a lot of heart into and really want to share in its completed form.  But as I said, if you’ve been following this site and listening to what I have to say, you already know much of what you’re in for.  Think of it as a buffet table of themed appetizers leading to a sumptuous main course – one that I promise won’t leave you with indigestion.

As they used to say on the late night talk shows, More to Come…