Looking for a little magic

I’ve been thinking a lot about magic lately.  What is it?  How do we define it?

In times long past, the things we now know as science were often considered magic.  The ability to make an illness go away or a cake rise or a new metal emerge from the combination of two others.  The creation of new life.

Magic has also long been connected to religion.  The pagan ritual, the shamanistic trance, the demons lurking within a summoners circle.  There’s the power of illusion too — glamors, of course, but also the fleeting beauty found in between the lines of musical compositions or under the deft brush strokes of a master painting.

So, the unexplainable, the mystical, and the genius have given rise to the belief in magic in the past, but where do we find magic today?  Is today’s magic the next frontier of the scientific unknown? Teleportation.  Faster than light travel.  Death rays.  The zombie apocalypse.  Is much of what we like to think of as science fiction actually magic?

Maybe magic is nothing more than the belief in the impossible, the act of wishing the unthinkable and unreal into existence.  Maybe novelists are magicians.

What do you think?  How do you think of magic and where do you find it in today’s world?

Writer’s Workspace: 9/21

Good morning!  Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

What I’m working on:  It’s been a tough week writing-wise as I struggle to keep up with developing lectures for the new class I’m teaching this semester.  Still, I’ve managed to squeeze a little bit of outlining and drafting in at odd hours (waiting for the bus, during office hours, during commercial breaks of Dancing with the Stars (priorities, people!), and while I administer exams).  Today, if I can knock out slides and discussion questions on Teotihuacan and write a review sheet for the next exam, I earn writing time.  Maybe even a whole 5 minutes!  Thus, the 2nd draft of ABSENT is inching forward (emphasis on “inching”), as is the first draft of my short story about skull collectors in a Steampunk 1830’s Florida.

Snippet from the screen:  “The dusk crept in and wrapped itself around Elizabeth.  It shrouded the scrub brush of the Seminole swamplands, and with it came a great Charon transport machine, clanking and groaning across the battlefield to collect the dead.”

On the iTunes: nothing but the sound of my own teeth gnashing as I overcaffinate and wallow in stress.  Yay!

Out the window: the Great Deluge of 2011 continues.  Rain, clouds, yuck.

In my mug:  My supply of crack cocaine Numi Chinese Breakfast tea has been replenished (I know you were all worried after last week’s shortage), but our Pur filter isn’t working and the distinctive tang of NYC public water can be detected beneath the tea’s flavor.  Not that this is preventing me from drinking buckets of it…

Keeping me company: His Royal Highness, Mr. Ramses, King of Cats, is launching a full-on cuteness offensive.  Asserting world domination, one nap at a time.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone:  truer words, and all that.  Today I just have one link to share, but it’s a super-special one, I promise!  Check it out: top ten (most hilarious) Amazon reviews of ridiculous (yet real!) products.  Wolf urine, anyone?  I know I’m running low.  Thanks to George for pointing me towards this one 🙂

What’s on your docket today (after you run out and buy your Official Luke Skywalker Ceremonial Jacket with Medal of Yavin, that is)?

Seeing Clearly

It never ceases to amaze me how valuable critique groups can be.  Don’t get me wrong, there are times when they’re not so great — times when you’ve got a backlog of stuff to read and you’re swamped and all you really want to do is make time for your own writing; or times when you’ve got to deliver a negative critique to a good friend; or times when you are on the receiving end of a harsh or thoughtless critique yourself.

But all that is compensated for by those moments when your crit partner stares right into the soul of your story and says, ‘hey, why don’t you have X happen here?”  And X, it turns out, is the very ingredient you were missing, the thing that turns a fallen souffle into a golden-crusted puff of bliss.

I know there are folks out there who don’t fancy getting specific suggestions on how to fix problems — they’d rather just have the feedback on what’s not working and figure out how to fix it on their own.  But frankly, I usually know what’s not working in a particular piece of writing…and If I knew how to fix it, I damn well would have.  Sometimes I need a skillful, outside pair of eyes to point out what is blatantly, obviously, the right and awesome thing to do, but which I just couldn’t see because I’d been staring at the story for so long I’d lost all perspective.

This happened to me recently on the first draft of my novel, ABSENT.  Feedback on the early chapters indicated that I needed to move up the introduction of the speculative elements, but I was utterly stumped about a good way to do it.  One of my crit partners (thank you, Brent!), pointed out a way that I could alter an existing scene to solve the problem.  The change he suggested would be a matter of a few sentences, no more, but would bring the speculative element (time travel, in this case) roaring to the front of the story and accelerate the stakes 10-fold.  Genius.

In hindsight, it seemed not only brilliant, but also obvious.  Why hadn’t I thought of it?  After all, it’s my story and I’ve been laboring over it for months.  And…I just answered my own question.  I was too close, too deep in the narrative structure I’d already established, and my mind wasn’t able to jump on a new track and reroute the roller coaster in a different, more thrilling direction.

This is one of the great benefits of critique partners.  They aren’t invested in your novel, nor are they enmeshed in its plotting – heck, if they’re reading early chapters for the first time they don’t even know where it’s headed.  Thus, they can see clearly when you cannot.

What do you think?  Have you found critique groups to be valuable in this way?  Are you open to incorporating specific plot or character suggestions into your work?  Or, would you prefer crit partners to confine their remarks only to what isn’t working and why and then come up with your own ideas to resolve problems?

May I briefly mention…

…that one of my short stories, Ark in a Sea of Stars, won Honorable Mention in the 3rd Quarter Writers of the Future contest.  Still looking for a permanent home for this one, though, so back out into the fray it goes.  Nevertheless, I’ll take any positive feedback that comes my way, so the Honorable Mention was quite nice!

Other writer friends who got WotF nods this quarter: Lou Berger (semi-finalist! W00t!), Colton Goodrich (Honorable Mention), and Amy Sundberg (Honorable Mention).  Congrats to all!

Book Review: Deathless

Deathless by Catherynne Valente (Fantasy. 352 pages. 2011)

Deathless tells the tale of Marya Morevna, a young Russian woman who falls in love with Koschei the Deathless and is spirited away to the fantastic kingdom he rules. Once there, she must prove herself worthy to wed Koschei by performing three tasks for the monstrous Baba Yaga.  But these are only the first of Marya’s trials.  Though Koschei has swept her away from the harsh world of Communist Russia, she is soon confronted with the violence of war on the doorstep of his magical kingdom–the relentless onslaught of Koschei’s brother, who seeks to bring all life into the realm of the dead.  Marya must also face the blackness, jealousy, and infidelity lurking inside Koschei’s heart, and within her own.

Deathless is set against a background of war — war in the realms of the mortal and the fantastic, war between lovers, and war with ourselves.  Based on Russian history and folktales, Deathless plunges the reader into worlds sometimes beautiful, often horrific, and always grimly fantastic.  No matter where Marya turns, starvation creeps behind her — and not just the kind of starvation that gnaws at her belly, but the kind that threatens to whither her heart and soul  as well.  In Deathless, Valente explores how we nourish ourselves and struggle to survive in spite of great odds and our own worst instincts.

Valente tends towards lush prose and Deathless is a beautiful read for those who love the written word.  It’s a bittersweet book that provides a rich narrative alongside a probing look at humanity, magic, and our penchant for war to destroy both.

Maybe not a beach read, but definitely a rewarding one.

Writer’s Workspace: 9/7

Good morning!  Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

What I’m working on:  Today I’ve got a full docket – I need to finish my lecture on the Zapotec and I want to start plotting out some revisions to ABSENT (2nd draft, here I come!).  I also have to work my bi-monthly shift at the Park Slope Food Co-op (something I like about as well as scraping poop off the bottom of my shoes).  I’m also working on a new short story set in a steampunk version of 1830’s Florida…

Snippet from the screen: “The dusk crept in and wrapped itself around Elizabeth.  It shrouded the scrub brush of the Seminole swamplands, and with it came a great Charon transport machine, clanking and groaning across the battlefield to collect the dead.”

On the iTunes: Sharp Dressed Man by ZZ Top (cause, you know, HELL YEAH!)

Out the window: Rain, and more rain…and still more rain.  It’s worse than the supposed “hurricane” last week.  Le Sigh.

In my mug: I have (gasp!) run out of my favorite tea (Numi Chinese Breakfast) and have resorted to a combination of Assam leaves and Irish Breakfast blend to achieve sufficient taste and “wake the hell up, Suri!” zing.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone (especially on such a rainy day): For those you working on synopses or queries, check out Chuck Windig’s 25 Things series on the self-same topic.  Or, over at Practical Free Spirit, you can read along as Amy Sundberg considers whether or not outer space has become an outdated topic for SciFi. Finally, I’ve recently started following K.C. Woolf’s blog.  She writes about travel, writing, and health with both passion and compassion.  Check it out.

Alright.  I’m off to do a little work.  Wish me luck, and share your goals for the day in the comments.  Pretty please?

Starting from scratch

I’m getting ready to begin outlining a new novel, so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where ideas come from and how we develop them into something rich and compelling.

Everyone has a different process, and everyone’s process changes as they learn and mature as writers.  I know when I first began writing, I’d get hit with an idea (“oooh, shiny!”) and immediately start writing with absolutely no thought to plot, conflict, change, character arcs, or really anything else.  I’d just roll with it.

For some authors (so-called “pantsers” who write by the seat of their pants without an outline), this process works great (Stephen King is reportedly a pantser).  But as I learned more about writing, I began to feel paralyzed by all the things I now knew I needed to make happen in any given story.  To shake free of this deer-in-the-headlights feeling, I had to start doing more planning and now I’ve become something of a plotter (outlining in advance).  Maybe when I gain greater confidence, I’ll shift back towards pantsing again.  Who knows?  Developing and writing a novel is a pretty fluid thing, and whether we’re pantsers or plotters, our ideas and writing typically evolve and morph as we go.

None of this really answers the question, though, of where we start.  You’ve got an idea.  Maybe it’s a particularly vivid image, or a character’s voice yammering in your head, or some thoughts about a great adventure, or a setting you’re just aching to flesh into a whole world.  Whatever it is, you have to take that idea and blow it up like a big balloon, filling it with air and making it buoyant and whole.

Where does that first big breath come from?

Do you start with your protagonist, developing them from a few scratched ideas on a bar napkin into an ambulatory, reach-out-and-touch you creation, or do you start with plot, with the events that will sweep that character up and change their life forever?

So far, in my writing, no matter what my kernel of an idea is, I tend to start with character, then world, then plot.  It’s hard for me, at least at this point in my career, to devise a twisty, compelling plot if I don’t have a handle on the person it’ll most effect and the setting in which it’ll take place.  So I spend a lot of time working on that character.  What’s his/her backstory, how did they get where they are and what advantages and handicaps has that given them?  What about their family, their friends, their lovers?  How have they supported, undermined, or betrayed them?  What does the character look like and how do they think?  What are their quirks and tics?

Often the answers to at least some of these questions are tied pretty intimately to setting.  The world we live in and the culture we’re a part of have a huge impact on how we think and act.  Maybe it’s the anthropologist in me, but I pretty much can’t create real-seeming characters if I don’t have at least a partial handle on the world they inhabit.

All that work, and still I’m only poised at the gate, fingers hanging above the keyboard, waiting to type sentence one.  Like a champagne bottle corked and ready to blow, I’ve got this whole character (and usually a grip on several secondary characters) and world-building just bursting to get out of my head and swan dive into an adventure.  Only then do I plunge into the plot.  Or maybe I just start writing and use a “pantser” method to find the plot.

Maybe, though, I’ve got it totally backwards.  Maybe my process is leaving me hamstrung and playing catch up, putting my characters through their paces in a story that’s limp and unstructured.

I’d love to hear from all of you.  Where do you start?  When you sit down to write that first sentence, how much planning have you done and what kind of planning have you done?  Do you start with characters, with world, or with plot?  And how does that choice effect the way the rest of your process (and your novel) unfolds?