So I have three things I would like to touch on today. Loosely connected and not in any particular order, but three is a nice number to do things in.
First off, it looks like my co-author and I have a release date for our upcoming short story anthology, The Shadow Box. We’re putting it out there on Halloween because we’re a couple of spooky nerds, and that gives us a few weeks to finish polishing it up and send it around to beta readers and reviewers. Since this is the first piece I’m publishing since getting myself a blog, I thought I would open it up a bit – if you run any kind of review site or column or whatnot and you’d like an advance copy of the book, please feel free to leave a comment here or hit my contact form with your site address and preferred format (we can do it in .mobi, .epub, .doc and .pdf off the top of my head and I think there are some other options in the compilation software we’re using).
Frankly, even if you don’t have a review blog, if you promise to leave an honest review up on Amazon when we release it I’m totally cool shooting a copy your way too. Writing is something I would like to do for a living eventually but right now I recognize that it’s in that blurry space between a passion and a hobby, and the more people I have reading my stuff the happier I am even if they’re getting it for free. The only requirement is that I do mean honest reviews, if you think it wasn’t great don’t go out and post anything glowing, I think that writing withers and dies when watered with good intentions instead of critique.
I will write up a more in-depth thing in the near future but it’s twelve stories of varying lengths (I think it averaged out to about 8-10k per last time we measured) and neither me nor Chris is particularly bound by genre conventions so you’ll see everything in there. We’ve got cosmic horror mixed in with viking folklore, grimy 80s style cyberpunk, Judeo-Islamic sword and sorcery, police procedural, sunken cities, language-viruses and everything in between. We will probably be sending advance copies out for review over the next 7-10 days so that people have time to actually read it and do their writeups prior to release. If you contact me I of course promise not to sell your e-mail address to the Illuminati unless they offer significantly above the market price. Wait, come ba-
Phew, okay, that’s the hard part out of the way. It says something about my particular blend of neuroses that the more positive reviews I got from alpha readers/editors about a piece the more twitchy I get about other people actually reading it, so allow me to segue into something I’m way more comfortable writing about: writing.
The last few weeks I’ve spoken about story structure, religion, character depth and a lot of worldbuilding stuff, and I’d like to narrow the scope to something very near and dear to my heart, which is good magic systems. To me, in a good fantasy novel the magic is as much a character as any of the people or places in it. When you look at something really iconic like Harry Potter has become, Hogwarts is absolutely a character and it experiences a narrative arc from book 1 to book 7, and I feel that the magic does as well. The repertoire of each wizard grows from basics to more and more advanced stuff, characters get what I would call signature spells that show up almost like tertiary characters, there’s a real feeling of warmth and happiness when someone busts out the perfect spell at the perfect time and a palpable dread when you know that bad magic is lurking just out of sight like a physical monster.
All that said, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the most interesting thing about a magic system is the limitations you put in place for it.
What can’t each layer of your magic system do and how do characters get around that? How does it shape the world when you can do X but not Y by consuming mana, tapping into an artifact or shaping life force? Why are these limitations in place and how come magic can’t do certain things while violating other laws of physics with abandon? You can think about this almost like you’re fleshing out a character, and for me that’s one of the big draws to both reading and writing fantasy. Even in my shortest short stories, you can be certain that I have a bit of a character sheet drawn up for how I want the magic to act and how I constrain it. The reader doesn’t necessarily need to know the extent of the rules but as a writer you need to have them and you need to adhere to them so you don’t write yourself into a deus ex machina of the worst kind; the sort where you’ve lost control of the magic and it’s driving the plot.
If you need a visual for what this looks like, it’s the literary equivalent of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence from Fantasia. You need characters to be able to move around a large region of the map very rapidly and so you invent teleportation magic but don’t apply any kind of limitations to it, and you find yourself relying on it more and more to bounce between scenes. You don’t see the problem in this at first but before you know it all the tension has drained out of the plot because you know that any conflict in the story can be resolved by someone teleporting out of danger, or teleporting the antagonist into deep space, or something like that. By the time you realize how bland the story has become, the teleportation takes up half the story and every single scene ends with someone ping-ponging back and forth between opposite ends of a continent in the blink of an eye, and to clean up you’re going to have to rewrite everything from five minutes after you put teleportation in, and you kind of want to die, and your beta readers look like the scary-ass wizard at the end of the animation sequence when he pulls Mickey’s ass out of the proverbial flames.
A bad magic system does not have perimeters at all, not even those known to the author.
A good magic system has perimeters known to the writer and possibly the reader.
An excellent magic system is defined by those perimeters and character spend more time struggling against them than they do using the magic itself, because this creates ongoing tension even when you aren’t in the middle of an action sequence. And when you are in an action sequence, every word hits right in the gut because the participants cannot rely on magical forces and actually have to work harder. Magic becomes more than just a weapon, it’s a weapon with drawbacks and reasons you might not want to use it. If you’re Gandalf, you don’t want to use the One Ring against Sauron because every time you slip into the realms of invisibility with it your exact location becomes known to the enemy and you are slowly driven mad. Bayaz of The First Law can blow up a room full of assassins but it will leave him damn near comatose and vulnerable for weeks. One of my all-time favorites as a writer is the old magic of the Earthsea series, where the ancient language is so tied into the fabric of reality that speaking a lie in that tongue contorts reality to make that lie true, with all the responsibility and potential for devastation that this entails (and this, being a Le Guin work, is before we even get into the ways that this magic system is used to explore gender imbalance, history being literally rewritten and the wizard/witch dichotomy).
If you’re running a system where a character only has a certain power base or a number of charges of a spell, you don’t need to tell the reader any more than you need to mention the number of bullets left in a revolver after each shot. Give the readers credit and keep it consistent and people will get a feel for roughly how many times a character can use a certain magical thing without the consequences kicking in or ramping up, and that is also something that adds to the narrative tension. For something really absurd say that casting ten spells in a day will make your head explode and the character keeps finding situations where they need to use a spell or die, the average reader will keep track of that in their head and get tenser and tenser as you ratchet it up to 7, 8, 9… so on and so forth.
If your magic is something innate about the character, contrast them to other characters who don’t have it. This is particularly popular and effective with superheroes where they themselves are practically indestructible.
Which leads me into my review today.
Luke Cage is so good, everyone. So good. I’ve been trying not to binge the whole thing in one sitting so I’m only at the halfway point, and I’m going to write a much larger review later this week once I’ve had a chance to finish and properly digest the story, but man I love everything about it. Younge’s soundtrack is evocative of the greatest 70s exploitation flicks, the song choice is top notch, it is peppered with references to everything from Crispus Attucks to Walter Mosley to various voices of the Harlem Renaissance. It also does the invulnerable hero thing perfectly because there’s constant tension that Luke’s friends could be targeted at any time and he can’t be everywhere to protect them, which is pretty much the best drawback to a bulletproof hero and also the way that many of the better Superman stories have been written over the years.
I know a lot of people haven’t finished it yet so I won’t risk any massive spoilers but it’s been really, really awesome watching so much of my twitter feed balloon with variations on “I needed a superhero like me this year” and talk about feeling so empowered watching it. Especially coming after Black Panther ended up playing such a prominent role in Civil War and stole every scene he was in.
I’m someone that is very much into superheroes and comic, and I have been for a young age. I think that superheroes can change the real world if they come at it from the perfect angle and are wielded as a weapon or a shield. In the early 40s the people behind the Superman radio plays decided to destroy the Klan, and after half a decade of Superman exposing KKK codewords, rituals, dogwhistles and structural details people started showing up at Klan rallies just to mock them.
So yeah, it may seem a little on-the-nose to some viewers but I’m totally down with a bulletproof black guy in a hoodie smacking people around with a car door to some classic Wu-Tang Clan in 2016. Doubly so when the rest of the cast is overflowing with PoC and Cage’s equivalent to the Batcave is a barber shop, played completely straight and lovingly so.