Searching for inspiration 2: the parameters of magic

In Searching for inspiration 1 – I got some great feedback on the issue of creating great battle scenes in novels. I’ve not yet had time to read the books you all suggested, but I will –  after that and a bit more thinking time I’m going to tackle the re-write of my own battle scenes. The second major issue – which I need to solve before I can tackle my battle scenes, is getting the magical elements of my book just right.

For a fantasy writer the use of magic is a major issue.

I’m currently mid-way through an old fantasy novel written sometime in the 1980’s. Let’s just say it’s probably ‘of its time’. In many ways the book is well written, but the novel’s hero has the ability to summon and command powerful gods. So, whenever he’s in a bit of a tight spot he utters some spell and conjures a god who sorts it out. I’m going to plough through to the end because I hate to leave a book unfinished and am hoping its all grist to the mill, but there’s very little tension for me in seeing him facing any enemy.

If magic can conquer all, then it would, end of story. So, without trying to put fetters on our imaginations, I think fantasy writers need to come up with some ‘rules’.

Now I’ve read some blogs which firmly disagree with this. I can see where they are coming from too – after all, this is fantasy it is supposed to be fantastical.  There are some great books where magic is an unknowable force, even for the most knowledgable characters in the novel; where magic can be conjured but its effects never be accurately predicted. But this is a ‘rule’ in itself – this creates the tension. You don’t know what will happen when someone casts a spell, it could depend on their mood, their ingredients, the words they use etc.

One pitfall (I don’t think I’ve fallen into), is to use magic to get myself out of a writing dead-end. As with the novel I’m reading right now, using magic to solve every problem is just boring after a while. It smacks of lazy writing, even if the manifestations of the magic are amazing and awesome (I hate that word) it’s still a cop out.

Despite knowing what I like and dislike about other fantasy novels, I have found myself needing to take a step back from my own writing to make sure I’m on the right track. I’m not going to go away and draft some intricate magical system, I think it’s a fools errand. I’ve written some random notes about vaguely where I think the magic comes from and how it manifests in my world and what it can and cannot do. My major issue is the use of magic in combat. I want to have a lot of proper medieval style battles – just ‘cos that’s what I like 😛  – so there’s no way I want my magic making such battles irrelevant. I’m still undecided, however as to whether magic should have some place in it.

For me the magic isn’t the key to holding the novel together. It runs through it, helps to create the texture of the world but is only one element weaving through the story.

Once again any recommendations for books with subtle or well-crafted magical elements would be great. Also I’d love to hear about how other fantasy writers tackle this issue.

Planning ahead

Having spent some time lost in a bit of a whirl of confusion, I’ve finally imposed some order on my life.

It’s strange having always been such an ordered person at work it’s taken me this long to get to grips with my novel’s structure. I think, from the beginning, my novel was the place I could escape to, a place that could expand to accommodate my every whim – being fantasy there are less barriers than perhaps in other genres. After the first deluge of words had tumbled out of my mind and onto the page my focus switched to ensuring the writing itself was of good quality; it took many rewrites and culls for me to move closer to achieving this aim. Subsequent rewrites and even more culls have pulled together chapters and narrative themes, but to me they feel like something tacked together, rather than a flowing whole.

I have finally broken through my own strange resistance, (I call it strange because I’ve been aware of it and have observed it almost impassively for some time). I’ve striped my novel down into themes, chapter lists and character outlines and stuck them up on my wall. (Though looking at the picture I still feel a little hint of madness in the number of pieces of paper there!) I am probably still searching for a ‘way’ that works, but I’m hoping as I progress pages will be removed from the wall, as the problems with the novel are resolved.

I’d love to hear your strange, mad or sane methods for structuring your novel.

It’s not writers block…. I’m mulling.

Or at least I hope so.

I’ve been through my manuscript I’ve removed a whole heap of unnecessary words and paragraphs, corrected spellings and grammar. I’ve highlighted areas that ‘tell’ but do not ‘show’ and areas where I’ve scrawled ‘develop’ or ‘re-write’. I have also written a list of major issues to address:

One of these I discussed in a previous blog, is my need to develop a strong female character to replace the one that was cut in the last purge. A writer friend suggested to me to see if any of the existing male characters might be suitable to be altered to be a woman; something I’m now seriously considering.

Another issue was my need to be clear about the parameters of magic within the novel – I thought I had a good handle on this, but the more I consider it the more I tie myself up in knots. Related to this, I was advised to get a good back-story going for the character who has emerged as the (anti)hero of the book. Strangely I have back stories (in my mind) for all other characters but not him. He’s a mysterious character which is partly my excuse for having failed to do this a long time ago.

With all this on my mind I’ve now come to a complete halt.

I spent some time last week reading through celtic mythologies and looking at information on ancient world religions. I did this to try to get back ‘in the zone of myth and magic; something that never used to take much effort!

A combination of a lack of solid time-blocks to write in, and continuously switching my attention from one issue to another made this a very frustrating week. I have written a few new chapters, but I don’t think they’ll make the final cut. It occurred to me I might be so keen to get this book finished asap, I’m trying to tackle too much at once. Consequently I’m not thinking very clearly.

My only hope is that out of this chaos some great writing will emerge; I need to accept it won’t be this week, or the next. I’m going to take a break, do some reading (of some of the books you all kindly recommended last week, featuring strong female characters) then revisit my book.

Thank you all for your continued support and in advance for your comments and advice.

Are you developing an unhealthy relationship with your character?

Now here’s me baring a part of my soul; I have never actually talked about it…nope not to anyone. Excellent blog broadcast material then! As a writer (or indeed as an Actor – would love to hear from you too), have you ever developed an unhealthy relationship with your character(s)?

I should probably outline what I mean by this (although feel free to let me know your own interpretation if you have one).  When I began writing my novel (still in progress), I experienced something close to euphoria as scenes and characters began surging into my mind. When this started to happen I wasn’t thinking ‘this’ll be written into a novel’, I was just completely absorbed in shaping and inhabiting the characters; watching as they and their surroundings grew in my mind. I remember taking a three hour drive somewhere, as a passenger. (Something about the landscapes rushing past my window combined with good music always sparks my imagination.) I hardly spoke for those three hours. If asked a question I gave short answers, eager to get back to my daydream. I was, in fact,  a bit of an arse.

Having thought about it since, I wonder if it is something akin to the way an actor feels when he/she gets a great part and begins to live it every day; becomes absorbed in the character, not only because they want to do the best job that they can, but because there is something captivating about living in a different world. Of course if the character is a nasty piece of work, it might prove rather detrimental to their relationships. Just a thought.

This initial flood of ideas and characters has settled down now. I have committed most to paper, which is the only treatment effective for such a disorder of the mind 😉 I am now honing and refining which is far less exciting, but no less fulfilling. It also means I’m a lot more sociable.

Haphazard scribbler or methodical planner?

I always find it fascinating to read or hear about how writers set about creating a novel. Since starting this blog I have begun to get a glimpse, from comments left and tweets I received, into how differently everyone approaches their writing.

Much as I might, every-now-and-again, try to be ordered and methodical about my  approach, I find I invariably start with a crucial scene. The scene will probably have been knocking around in my head for weeks, or possibly months. I’ll have replayed it over and over, tweaked it, explored the characters and probably inhabited each character’s mind to see things from their point of view. (To outsiders this looks like tons and tons of daydreaming). Then I might write it all down. Invariably the scene won’t emerge onto the paper as I imagined it. The paragraph or chapter will get many, many rewrites as it become surrounded by other chapters. One day, having served its purpose as an initial spark of inspiration, it might be discarded altogether. (Sad, but even the most liberal minded writer must act as hard-hearted dictator, massacring hundreds of words in pursuit of their vision.)

This initial chapter (if it survives the sporadic culls), might end up at the beginning, the end or somewhere in the middle. Subsequent chapters, the way I go about things, will probably follow a similar pattern. The second chapter I write may contain completely different characters and take place years before or after the initial one. It really all depends where my imagination takes me.

This describes the initial uprush of creativity which is, for me, the most exciting phase of writing. If I’m really into a project I’ll get almost obsessively consumed by coming up with scenes in my mind. Somewhere in the background of my subconscious, I imagine, my brain starts working on the method by which the central thread of the story will weave through from beginning to end. At some point I will make myself sit down and  write out a timeline, or attempt a synopsis (or something approaching it).

As my piece of works grows I’ll probably return to the timeline, write back stories for my characters, research topics connected with my story, compile lists of continuity errors, missing time and places where elaboration is needed. This requires me to periodically reign in my imagination and force myself to become restrained, objective and methodical. It is not my favourite part of the process but is absolutely essential.

My technique is what I would describe as haphazard. I know I should start by outlining my story, planning my chapters, starting at chapter one and moving on from there. I would love to know if anyone actually does do this?

How do you approach a new piece of writing? How does it differ if you are writing a novel, or script or piece of poetry? Are you methodical or haphazard? As you have evolved and improved as a writer have your techniques and tendencies changed? Don’t be shy, post a comment 🙂