Monthly Archives: July 2013
I blame P.C. Haring.
My nemesis (*shakes fist*) was telling me about some upgrades he was planning to make to his studio. Of course, we were Skyping as I sat in a jumble of books, papers, pens, iThings, and headsets. It looked like a bookshop and electronic store had delivered an unholy child on my desk, and then said hybrid had exploded from sheer self-horror.
It was not pretty.
More to the point, I didn’t feel pretty. By which I mean productive, which sometimes feels similar, in a weird sort of way. But books crowded my elbows as I tried to type. Pens eluded me. A tottering pile of books threatened to spill on the floor, and the cords of my various microphones and headsets tangled around my chair.
And in that moment, talking to P.C., I had an epiphany (the last time P.C. inadvertently gave me an epiphany, I ended up podcasting Hapax, so there you go). If I’m a writer and podcaster, that means I spend a lot of time at my desk. Sure, Erik and I invade coffee shops every two weeks or so, but the majority of my work is done in this one small room. If that’s the case, shouldn’t it look like a vaguely-professional space? Or at least, a space in which I can be vaguely professional?
Perhaps I secretly just wanted to procrastinate. Also, it was my off-day from the dayjob. Those never end well.
Whatever the reason, I spent some time this morning cleaning and organizing my room. The desk area was my main focus; I found space for the books, chased down the pens, cleared space for the iThings. Coolest of all, I found some wee hook things, and used them to mount my headsets on the wall (I always think I have too many, until I remember that each one has a discrete purpose).
End result? I feel great. It’s an inviting space, a space that I want to spend hours in. Writers are like opera singers: you ought to be able to practice your art anywhere, in any position (I’m thinking of Tosca and Vissi d’arte here) but some places and positions work better than others.
Also! Excitement! After mulling it for weeks, I took the plunge and got a new microphone. It’s quite different from my trusty headset, but the more I play with it, the more I like it. Having a radio announcer-style mic apparently makes me more hyperactive and talkative.
Sound quality is good (almost too good—it picks up a lot more, which means more night-recording whilst our neighbours renovate) and you can un/mute it by tapping the base, which is cool. Also records differently for voice and music. Most importantly, because it is not a headset, more than one person at a time can use it….
…which may or may not be important, as I return to my spiffy desk to send out some scripts. 😉
When world-building, certain elements grab my interest and focus more than others. Generally speaking, I am not hugely interested in political science or economics. Those who read Hapax may have noticed a distinct lack of court intrigues (though I totally implied that the City is run by councillors—somewhere in chapter 19, I think! It wasn’t hugely important to the story). That’s not to say I have no clue how my characters are feeding themselves, I just tend to spend less time on it than I do on the theological/magical side of things.
And magic is what I wanted to explore today, because I’ve just had to create a new magic system for The Next One. After working so long and so thoroughly with the aither, it’s very strange to say, “Well, actually, now magic works this way.”
But it’s been good to revisit the process of crafting magic systems. Honestly, it seems like most of my process is just asking myself questions and running thought experiments. Here is a by-no-means-exhaustive list of the sorts of questions I ask myself:
- Is there magic?
- Where does the magic come from? Is it a natural process of this world that can be harnessed like fire or electricity? Is it inherent to the magic-user? Was it always there and a goddess woke people up to it in a desperate attempt to save the world?
- To what extent is magic related to this world’s gods? Is it at all?
- Can magic in this world be explained by natural laws, even if these laws aren’t “natural” as we understand them in this world? If so, what are these laws? (Did you, for instance, butcher a corrupted version of string theory?)
- What does magic actually look/smell/feel/taste/sound like? If there was active magic around, who would notice, and how?
- What can magic not do? (And there ought to be something magic can’t do. Otherwise, it ain’t magic: it’s a problematic plot element at best, and a deus ex machina at worst.)
- Does everyone have magic, or just some people?
- If just some people, what percentage of the population, roughly?
- If just some people, how do they learn about/learn to control their magic?
- Closely related: do only humans get magic, or do other species? Does their use of magic differ?
- Come to think of it, how does the use of magic vary among various magic-users?
- How do people get magic? Do they always have it? Does it come naturally with other changes at puberty? Do you sacrifice a goat at the Harvest Moon to receive it?
- How do magic-users view themselves?
- Can you make a living with magic? Why or why not?
- If so, how is that organized? Unions, freelancers, guilds, alchemists locked away in ivory towers turning iron into gold?
- Have the magic-users formed their own unique subculture? Alternatively, is magic so ingrained in the culture that the two are impossible to separate?
- Can a magic-user lose their magic, or will they have it forever?
USE OF MAGIC:
- Walk me through the casting of a typical spell. How does it work?
- What materials and/or equipment, if any, do you need to perform magic? Where does one obtain these items?
- Is magic more point-and-shoot (i.e. Harry Potter), or does it require hours of special preparation?
- What is the cost of magic? (HINT: Magic always has a cost. No such thing as a free lunch, especially not in stories.)
- What sorts of spells is a magic-user most likely to perform?
- How does an individual magic-user’s traits (age, gender, intrinsic skill, experience, occupation, place in the religious/magical/social hierarchy) affect the efficacy of their spell-casting?
- Does magic work differently in different locations/at different times, or is it equally accessible at all times and in all places?
- Do magic-users mostly work in groups, solo, or a mix? What determines this?
- What could cause a spell to go wrong? What does “going wrong” look like?
- What happens if a spell goes wrong?
- Has the use of magic changed throughout history? If so, how? Why?
MAGIC IN SOCIETY:
- Does magic require years of study to master, or can any idiot mumble some words out of a book and cause some result? Is it an inborn trait that cannot be taught, only refined?
- Who’s doing the teaching?
- What impact does magic have on the economy? (See? Even I get to economics eventually…)
- What impact does magic have on the government? The military? Are there parallel organizations running alongside the non-magical, are they all heavily integrated with magic, or are magic-users too few/weak to make a difference?
- To what extent has magic replaced science? If you have magic for enough years, will you wind up inventing a magical refrigerator? Transit? Or God help us…magic androids???
- How does society at large view magic and magic-users? Positively? Negatively? Ambivalently? Better to call a magician than a plumber?
- Have these attitudes changed in the past? Why or why not?
- Are there “magic only” institutions? If so, what are they?
- Is there art/literature/music either inspired or actually created by magic?
- If so, do we then get into a debate about who’s the “real artist” – the guy painting with a paintbrush by hand, or the girl making colours appear in the air with her will?
- Are there any industries/areas of life that magic does NOT touch? If so, what? Why?
- Do magic-users abide by different laws? Either their own separate code, or a subset of society’s laws? Are they considered above the law, unfairly persecuted, or neither?
- How do you discipline/penalize someone with magic?
- Are some groups of magic-users seen as “better” than others? Why? By whom?
- Can the laws of magic be broken? If so, when, how, and with what consequence? (HINT: you generally don’t want to be breaking your own rules, unless you have a very, very, VERY good reason for doing so.)
- Are your magic-users unaware of some laws/aspects of magic, and/or have they gotten some things wrong? If so, how and why?
- Does the nature of magic ever change?
- Are there any remaining apparent contradictions in your magic system? If so, what? Also, can you resolve them in such a way as to enrich the story?
Again, a good start, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. If you want exhaustive, check this one out. It may look a bit daunting, but a good rule of thumb? Build what you need, and imply the rest.
I am pretty comfortable in the world of Strix/Hapax. At this point, it’s like being a native Torontonian or Dunedinite or New Yorker: you know how things work. I feel like I’ve carved myself out a nice little niche in this fictional world.
So it’s a bit strange to be exploring a new one. In my slightly confusing and apparently hereditary manner of code-naming projects, The Next Next One has become simply The Next One—the Victorian-feeling dark fantasy which has nothing to do with Hapax, and about which I can’t really say more because it will fly right out of my head.
It’s a bit like baking bread, really. You can’t go around showing it off to people while it’s rising, or it won’t turn out properly.
But I digress. After so long thinking about Angels and Seraphs, aither and dimensions, it’s exciting to dive into a new world with new rules (though technically, I’m not done with Strix yet: there are still edits to be done). Crafting magic systems (on which I may do a separate post later) is ridiculously fun. It’s a thought experiment, basically. “If this, then that. And if that, then this other really cool implication too.” And so it goes, asking questions and gradually exploring all the little tucked-away corners of your new world.
Because this one is set in a Victorian-ish milieu, I do have a head start. “Hmm, I wonder what a nineteenth-century country inn would be like… OH HEY, I’M IN ONE ALL DAY, MOST DAYS!!!”
As is probably quite clear, I love my dayjob. Times like this, I really appreciate it.
That being said, there are still specifics that I don’t know yet. I had a decently detailed map of the Ecclesiat and a rough idea of the City’s layout. In this new land, I’m not quite there yet. Oddly for me, I don’t have the theology totally worked out. I’m not sure where things stand in relation to each other.
That’s all world-building, and that involves more research and mulling. In terms of plot, I think of my outlines as roadmaps. I know where I’m starting and ending, and key landmarks along the way so I (hopefully) don’t get completely lost, but there’s still room for side trips. In that way, starting a new novel, especially one set in a wholly new world, is a bit like embarking on an expedition. I have my map (sort of). I will know the terrain. And, very importantly, I know the people with whom I’ll be journeying.
PLUS: NEWS AND SUCH
Speaking of dayjobbery, I’ll be adding “blogger” to my list of job titles and contributing much more frequently to the Black Creek Growler. It is a blog about beer, brewing, and beer history. It makes me happy. You should read it. 😉
In some ways, Strix has ended up being a story about stories (apparently I’m getting all meta in my old age). While I had fun creating parallel mythologies that approached the same events in different ways, I couldn’t help thinking about the implications of story and myth. Marie Bilodeau and I talked about this at Ad Astra. Certain stories stick around. Sometimes, you can trace their movement through conquest and migration (think the spread of Mesopotamian and Greek gods); sometimes, you see very similar tropes emerging independently (there’s a Native American flood story.)
I think certain stories persist because we need them, whether as a society/culture, or as individuals. In different guises, the same messages come through again and again. Love Prevails. Good Beats Evil. One Person Can Make a Difference. Different narratives wax and wane as society changes, too. The closing of the American Frontier in 1890 had profound psychological ramifications precisely because the story of “Young Man Goes West and Finds Success” could no longer work. A new story was needed, so we got the terribly nostalgic “Chasing the Dream,” which is basically The Great Gatsby in a nutshell: striving so hard for something you can’t catch, and which may never have even existed in the first place.
If you want to understand a culture, look at its myths. They both reflect and shape the way we understand the world. When we grow up surrounded by a certain narrative, we (consciously or unconsciously) try to recreate it, whether that’s by getting the white picket fence and 2.4 kids, or by assuming a role we think we ought to have (which is explored far more articulately and profoundly in this essay here).
You can also think about stories affecting things on the individual level. For myself, I’m a sucker for robot stories. More specifically, I’m a sucker for the specific story “Artificial Life Attempts to Reconcile and Cultivate its own Humanity.” I’m drawn to emotional androids/cyborgs— Rommie, Seven of Nine, heck, even Ciris—and they’ve cropped up in my own fiction (River, anyone?).
The converse is also true; the Borg and Cybermen simultaneously terrify and fascinate me. I will take a fleet of Daleks over one Cyberman any day, but I can’t stop watching them, even when I feel physically ill. Yet it wasn’t until recently that I realized their story was the mirror image: rather than artificial life embracing emotions and humanity, the individual is subsumed into the unfeeling collective.
When I consider my own occasional difficulty in accepting and expressing my emotions, this preoccupation with feelings suddenly starts to make a lot of sense.
We’re all the hero of our own life story, but it’s interesting to stop and really think about what that story is. What tropes help us figure things out, what plot points do we already anticipate? Essentially, I guess, stories are a mirror in themselves. How we use them is up to us.
And the story of Hapax and Strix?
As is the nature of fiction, I’m sure everyone sees different things. For me, Hapax has always distilled down to “Hope Beats Fear.” As for Strix…
“Hope Beats Fear, Even When Things Look Really, Really S***”