Some shots from my notebooks and adventures this week. This weekend was Carnival–just in time for me to end up, once again, in project limbo. Ah well…
So, this week, after a flurry of activity trying to get my current projects—both freelance and writing—DONE, I find myself suddenly in project limbo. And, since I am absolutely dismal at passing time with that thing that people do called “relaxing,” I decided this weekend was as good a time as any to commit to churning out 10,000 words over the course of two days on one of the first drafts that’s been wallowing in my drawer over the past few months. There’s already been some devastating betrayals and a couple actiony bits, but sitting down to write this morning, I actually stumbled upon a scene between my protagonist and one of the major antagonists of this new story. It was a short scene—maybe three or four pages, but what struck me in this scene was the dialogue, which I won’t, for your own sanity, subject you to at this point. Suffice to say, it made me realize the tropes I wanted to write about this week:
Children, especially pretty, nicely brought-up young ladies, ought never to talk to strangers; if they are foolish enough to do so, they should not be surprised if some greedy wolf consumes them, elegant red riding hoods and all.
—Angela Carter’s Bluebeard
There are far too many stories where the moral of the story is painfully, sometimes anviliciously presented, the most famous of which are Aesop’s Fables (hence, the tvTrope term for overt story morals: the Aesop). And while there is nothing particularly wrong with a story having a message, a story whose message is the only important thing about it can hardly be called a story at all. Because stories are not just pretty vehicles for messages which might be better communicated through the post: the best stories are living, breathing entities, with a logic and a morality and a reality all their own. They don’t give simple messages, because simple messages exist only in simple worlds: and the best stories, no matter where they’re set, say something about our world, which is anything but simple.
Themes, on the other hand, are very useful both in making sense of the stories we read, as well as clarifying the heart of the stories we write—because Themes, unlike Aesops, do not pare down reality or feeling to some pithy declaration of UNIVERSAL SIGNIFICANCE. Themes, instead, pose a question. Where Aesops are declarative, Themes are interrogative, and it is this open-endedness, this invitation for readers to engage with the story, that makes themes so important. Not only that, a theme helps focus your writing without oversimplifying it—because if you know the aspects of life that you want to explore, it makes it that much easier to know what situations and conflicts and characters will best illuminate those aspects: it can guide your plotting, your dialogue, your everything, without constraining you to a single foregone conclusion: the villain doesn’t always receive their just punishment; the hero doesn’t always win. And while such endings might be enough to break an Aesop, they may also manage to say something very important about a more general theme.
Do not believe everything your English teacher tells you: more than likely, they are making something up.
This also applies to things you read on the internet.
Do not trust this blog.
This week has been a mess of editing, catching a stomach bug, getting insomnia, and scrambling madly to finish work for my contracts on time. But in terms of my writing, I’ve been working on fine tuning my world’s magic—with special focus on editing the scenes in which it’s involved.
Trope of the Week: Functional Magic
“As for what experimental theology was, Lyra had no more idea than the urchins. She had formed the notion that it was concerned with magic, with the movements of the stars and planets, with tiny particles of matter, but that was guesswork, really.”
–Philip Pullman: The Golden Compass
It’s a pretty safe assumption to say that, if you have magic in your fantasy novel, it’s probably going to actually be effective at doing something. However, the something can differ GREATLY between worlds.
(Actually, those two are pretty similar: a spell that wards away dark, evil, scary things.)
In any case, I’m not going to talk a lot about how the magic in my world works (when the book ever actually comes out, you can read all about it!), but suffice to say that, though the magic in my novel is effective at doing a good many things, most of those things aren’t entirely flashy.
So, my focus this week was on making the magic in my world feel more… well… magically functional, without betraying its base conceits (which are really very simple, in comparison to the system that ends up being built on top of them).
Much of this work has taken the form of rethinking my descriptions of magic to make them stronger—and no, I don’t mean making flashy lights prettier or explosions bigger or lighting bolts clearer, because none of those apply. Rather, I’ve been focusing on how magic feels.
This may be something of a weakness in the functional magic trope—by focusing solely on the function of magic within the story world and the plot, the things that make magic, well, magical, can suffer. Now that I’ve found a couple touchstones to refer back to and ground my magic in the experience of my protagonist—to describe how it affects her, both physically and emotionally—it helps make the instances when spells are used both work in terms of the plot and the action, as well as create the emotional impact that I think is at the core of writing about magic in any world.
I spent the past week or so waiting for a response to my current draft, and it pretty much drove me over the deep end, which made it very uncomfortable for the people who had to be subjected to my presence (family, friends, writing buddies, strangers sitting at the table next to us). So, yeah, slowly suffering a Heroic BSOD over the course of a week is one of those things I wish I could avoid doing ever again.
Or, you know, less than twice a month.
But that’s not going to happen.
Still, it did make ultimately receiving the response that much better! I might’ve actually ended up on the floor, unable to breathe for the hugs, laughter, and relief. And if you think there’s any possibility that “might’ve” means “might’ve not” you are very very wrong.
(The maniacal relief laughter lasted approximately a quarter of an hour.)
So, maybe we’re not destroying evil or stopping the end of the world, but having friends to spend time with, even if we don’t always see eye-to-eye, is pretty much the only thing keeping any of us afloat.
And it’s an odd thing, how I see these tropes emerging, not only in my life, but also, ultimately, in my writing. At the same time that I’m thinking about what it actually means to be a friend—whether it’s more necessary to be nice or honest, how to show support even when you can’t agree—I see my characters playing out my struggles and realizations on the page.
In the end, I think, is the question of who you can rely on. Eventually my protagonist realizes that she can trust the friend she’s been fighting with throughout most of the manuscript—that they will be there when needed (even if, afterward, they have to lecture her on why she’s hopeless for putting herself into these situations in the first place).
I’m pretty sure there are worse characters who can show up in your manuscript (unannounced and unexpected) than the Faux Affably Evil secondary antagonist.
I just lied to you. I’m so sorry.
Anyway, spent the week working on a character who, yes, showed up in one of my newer manuscripts unannounced and unexpected. And yes, he did a lot of smiling and charming and being very affable, and really, I should’ve known all along that he was silently plotting the demise of pretty much everyone.
So that was fun.
Anyway, that’s been my week in tropes. Maybe you’ll get a second episode next week! Tune in to find out: same bat time, same bat channel. Maybe a completely different format. Who knows?