I encountered another one of those things that made me take a moment to step back and say, “Wait a second. That doesn’t make any sense.”
If you don’t recall, I talked about one such thing in an earlier post.
This one is much shorter, and came from both an old pulp story I was listening to on a podcast and some old movies I’ve seen. This is one of those, “Did people ever really talk like this?” things.
The scene: Two people are talking. One of them (BOB) is a crook or dishonest in some way. The audience either knows or suspects this. The other (ALICE) is an “investigator” or another crook. Alice is trying to convince Bob to go along with something, whether it’s telling the truth (if Alice is an investigator) or another con (if Alice is a crook).
Alice makes her case.
Bob (reluctantly) agrees to go along with whatever scheme Alice has presented, starts to walk away, then turns and says, his voice dripping with suspicion, “Say . . . this isn’t some kind of trick, is it?” (Sometimes, it’s “trap” instead of “trick.”)
Alice responds, “Of course not,” and possibly follows up with, “Would I do that to you?”
Of course, whether Alice is an investigator or a crook, there is a better than even chance that it is some sort of trick. And the audience is fully aware of it because the audience is very smart.
I mean, seriously, what would make Bob ask Alice that? It’s a nonsense question with no chance of any answer other than “no.”1 Whether that “no” is a lie or true depends entirely on Alice’s character.
So why ask it?
I finally thought of a reason for film. In print, the reader is able to get into the mind of the character, but the POV character is almost certainly not going to be Bob, but Alice.
I think maybe having Bob ask that question is a lazy attempt by the writers to give the readers / viewers a peek into Bob’s internal monologue that we couldn’t otherwise see. To let us know that Bob isn’t a total stooge. He knows there’s a chance he’s getting himself into more trouble, but the only way for the lazy writer to let us know this is to have him just come out and ask. For him to willingly go along with whatever scheme it is without question would be to show he’s kind of stupid.
That’s all I can think of, anyway. The other alternative — that he’s asking it because he’s an astute observer of people and can tell when they’re lying and is asking it to force Alice’s inevitable reaction to let him know with certainty what her intentions are — isn’t something I think the pulp writers or screenwriters did, unless Bob was the POV character, in which case he’s asking it for devious reasons.
What do you think?
- Can you imagine the story if Alice stopped, blinked, and then slumped and said, “Yeah, Bob, it was. But you caught me.”
A few years back, I got on a ‘best films of all time’ kick, telling myself that I’d watch the highest-rated films from the silent era up through whatever year it was. I dove into silent films with a vengeance, curious to see Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in their heyday, as well as seminal films such as Nosferatu, Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and The Passion of Joan of Arc. I thoroughly enjoyed them all. (Watch them. Watch them all.)
Because these were DVDs, most of them had commentary tracks. So I’d watch them without the commentary first, then again with commentary. Sometimes multiple times, if there was more than one commentary track. (No, I’m not OCD, why do you ask?)
I forget which silent film I was watching — I only know it was one of the Charlie Chaplin films — when the commentator (Leonard Maltin) remarked on a unique aspect of silent films that had never occurred to me before, and which has forever changed the way I consume them when I do so.
The scene was Chaplin, as the lovable but hapless tramp, waddling down the middle of a railroad track, oblivious to the fact that there is a giant steam locomotive approaching him from behind. The train gets closer . . . and closer . . . and closer . . . and then just as it’s about to hit him, he blithely steps off the tracks, avoiding certain death by mere inches.
He never once reacts to the fact that he has narrowly escaped death. Because he never turned around to see the train. Because . . . it’s a silent film. He couldn’t hear it. Wait. What?
As I watched, I was tense. “There’s a train coming! Get out of the way, you idiot!” And as he stepped off the track, there was a corresponding release of tension. The “Whew!” moment when the hero narrowly escapes whatever peril the world / villain has in store for him. I had bought into the world entirely.
Maltin made me aware of something I had never considered while watching: we, as the audience, accept the fact that these are silent films. Only certain things make noise, even though we don’t hear them, the character does. Dogs barking, someone calling their name, dropped plates shattering on the floor — they “hear” all of this, and react to it.
But the train? He couldn’t hear it, or even feel the vibrations through the tracks. Because in the world of the silent movie, if the character doesn’t react to it, the audience knows that it is truly silent.
Never mind that in the real world, he would have heard the train approaching and leapt to safety long before death was nigh. Steam locomotives were among some of the loudest machines in the environment at the time, and yet he gave no indication that he heard it.
If a passer-by had shouted, “Hey! Look out! There’s a train!” the tramp would have “heard” and reacted. But not a train as it barrels down on him. This is remarkable if you stop to think about it. It’s never explained. You just get it.
Now. What if this were a short story, instead? Or a “talkie” film? It simply wouldn’t work at all, because we wouldn’t buy the premise.
A scene that always bothered me in the first Harry Potter film reminds me of this. There’s a pivotal scene in chapter 10 of the book in which Harry and Ron, already best buds, Seamus, Hermione, and a bunch of other first-years are attending Professor Flitwick’s class, and he is teaching the students the spell for levitation of an object.
“Now, don’t forget that nice wrist movement we’ve been practicing!” squeaked Professor Flitwick, perched on top of his pile of books as usual. “Swish and flick, remember, swish and flick. And saying the magic words properly is very important, too — never forget Wizard Baruffio, who said ‘s’ instead of ‘f’ and found himself on the floor with a buffalo on his chest.”
It was very difficult. Harry and Seamus swished and flicked, but the feather they were supposed to be sending skyward just lay on the desktop. Seamus got so impatient that he prodded it with his wand and set fire to it — Harry had to put it out with his hat.
Ron, at the next table, wasn’t having much more luck.
“Wingardium Leviosa!” he shouted, waving his long arms like a windmill.
“You’re saying it wrong,” Harry heard Hermione snap. “It’s Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, make the ‘gar’ nice and long.”
“You do it, then, if you’re so clever,” Ron snarled.
Hermione rolled up the sleeves of her gown, flicked her wand, and said, “Wingardium Leviosa!”
It all works well on paper, and we, the readers, accept it without much thought. Because we, as readers, can’t actually see the swish and flick of the wand, nor hear Flitwick say the words.1 But then, neither can Ron, Harry, Seamus, or Hermione. We gloss over that fact while reading. It’s just part of the world.
And then the movie came out. And there is Professor Flitwick standing in front of the class, and he clearly says, “Wingaaardium leviooosa!” and equally clearly demonstrates the wand action. We can hear him and see him do so right there, in Technicolor and Dolby Surround.
And yet . . . only Hermione can apparently use her ears and eyes, because none of the other young witches and wizards gets it even close to right. We hear them mangling the pronunciation — Ron manages something like ‘wingardria leviosaaa — and hideously over-exaggerating the subtle swish-flick of the wand.
But we had just seen and heard the correct pronunciation and wand actions as Flitwick demonstrates them moments before on screen. Which Hermione then duplicates in her condescending tone to Ron.
What worked perfectly in the book simply made no sense on the big screen. Something bothered me about it immediately, but I didn’t really close in on what it was until much later when it dawned on me. It’s the same as Chaplin’s silent locomotive.
It would have made more sense if, say, Flitwick had a thick accent of some sort the students weren’t used to hearing, such as Russian.2 But with Flitwick and the students all being some flavor of British, they’d have grown up at least hearing the various accents spoken around them all their lives (on TV, if nothing else), and would get awfully close.3
Which brings up another point. There are languages that have sounds which English does not, and languages without sounds English does have. Would a Japanese witch be simply unable to cast the levitation spell because the ‘w’ doesn’t exist in her language? Would a wizard with an l/w lisp be likewise unable, because he couldn’t properly pronounce “leviosa”? Would he wind up with a wombat on his chest?
But I digress. :)
I find it interesting, is all, how sometimes the medium in which something is presented plays a huge role in whether the thing makes sense to the audience, and how translating it to another medium loses something fundamental.
- More importantly, Flitwick never actually speaks the words ‘wingardium leviosa’ in the book. (I checked.) I guess we’re supposed to either believe that the students read the words in their book — and Flitwick inexplicably never teaches them the proper pronunciation — or he did so off-scene.
- Rowling does, in fact, do this later, in the character of Bulgarian wizard Viktor Krum, who can’t pronounce Hermione’s name, and whose speech Rowling portrays phonetically, for example, in this question he asks Harry: “I vant to know vot there is between you and Hermy-own-ninny.”
- In the same way that, although I was born and raised entirely within the state of Alabama, I heard accents from all over the United States on television all the time, and knew that ‘dawg’ and ‘dwaug’ both meant the same four-legged, barky animal. I had an internal translation table. The same as a British kid would have had for ‘translating’ between a Geordi accent and a Scottish one.
I’m charting my daily progress on NaNoWriMo. Since you may or may not care, I’ll kindly hide it. Thanks for taking the time. :)
Rereading and abandoning are opposite ends of the spectrum. A book you reread — especially multiple times — is one that is much like comfort food. Perhaps it reminds you of a state of mind you were in when you first read it, or helps escape from a mood you’re currently in because it did in the past. For whatever reason, there are books we come back to again and again.
I have probably reread The Chronicles of Narnia more than any other books. I first read them at age 13, pretty much all in one weekend. I would — to this day — like to go to Narnia. I would leave right now. Anyone got a magic wardrobe? They are my comfort books. Simple characters in a simple world with simple morality. There is nothing too high concept or ambiguous; the fact that most of the books take place during World War II is glossed over. There is right (Aslan, Narnia) and there is wrong (The White Witch, Tashban, pretty much everywhere else). It’s a nice vacation from the real world. (And that’s all I read it for. I purposefully don’t examine it any closer than that.)
The other book I’ve reread the most after Narnia is an omnibus version of F. M. Busby’s The Demu Trilogy. These are just wonderful reads. I find something different each time I read them. Some new insight into a character, some different angle from which to observe human behavior. It distresses me that the books are out of print. I hope they are reprinted someday. My copy is getting a bit worn. I love how, in the books, humanity is portrayed not as a blight on the galaxy or as some Star Trekian ‘noble savages’ who are, alone among all the races in the galaxy, possessed of that oh-so-indomitable human spirit which . . . I have to stop typing now or I’m going to vomit. Anyway, Busby threads a path between the two, and in the end reveals the true standing of man — and other races — in the nature of things, galactically speaking. If you can find a copy and you like hard science fiction, get it.
But what about the other end of the spectrum? When, exactly, does one abandon a book? Why? What are the criteria for giving up?
There was a time when giving up on a book was simply not an option. Once I had a book, once I started to read it, I had to finish it. I still think that way to a large extent, although I’m getting better.
Here are some I’ve abandoned, and why. Most of them with every intent to pick it back up and finish or reread it. Someday.
The Watchmen by Alan Moore (et al). Some of you are thinking right now, “Oh my ever-loving God, what is wrong with this idiot?” Because this is, like, one of the most beloved graphic novels in ever. It supposedly changed the way graphic novels are written. It revolutionized . . . whatever. I have read this up to the same, exact point four times, and then put the book down . . . and it somehow remains closed. That point is where the comic format is abandoned and I come to the first page of prose in tiny letters that fill the entire page like some manifesto. I get about two sentences into that, my eyes glaze, my mind wanders, and I have thoughts like, “You know, the cat needs waxing. I should do that.” I have every intention of finishing it. Everyone I know who has read it looks at me like I’ve grown a second head (I checked; I have not) when I admit that I can’t get through it.
Infected by Scott Sigler. I’ve enjoyed every other book by Scott that I’ve read or heard (he podcasts them). He’s a good writer, and I thoroughly enjoy his work. And, in fact, I thoroughly enjoy this one. But it’s so unbelievably gross and horrific from a physical standpoint (what the character does to himself to escape infection) that I can only read a few pages at a time before disgust makes me have to stop. I stopped reading altogether when I saw what was coming down the line involving the main character’s testicles, and I just can’t bear to even think about what he’s going to do. Gah! Just typing that hurt. Anyway . . . not sure if I’ll ever finish it. Much less the sequel, which I also own.
A Secret Atlas by Michael A. Stackpole. With all due respect to Mike, whose other books that I’ve read I have loved, this one just bored me to tears. I think I got about 50 pages in. None of the characters resonated with me. Their mission (to map the world) didn’t resonate. I still fully intend to read it, because Mike uses it as an example for his writing podcast, but it’ll be forced. Unless I’m in a different state of mind when I re-read it, of course.
Moonseed by Stephen Baxter. I just discovered that this is, in fact, book 3 of a trilogy. No wonder I couldn’t get into it. At any rate, I stopped because the situation looked so bleak for the characters and for Earth that I couldn’t see any way out for them, and . . . just never picked it back up after the depressing spiral into awful that it was taking at the time I stopped. Perhaps if I read books 1 and 2 . . .
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. I know, I know. I know this book won All The Awards™. I know it’s awesome and other adjectives of a superlative nature. But . . . I just couldn’t get into it. I found no character I liked. I didn’t buy into the culture. I just didn’t like it. Maybe it was because I was reading it for a book club and not for myself, but for whatever reason, it just didn’t resonate. I hope to reread it some day and see what everyone else found so engaging.
There are several more books on my list. And by ‘my list,’ I really do mean that there is a list. I have a shelf on Goodreads called ‘currently reading but paused’ to store those books. And there are others that are not on that list because I haven’t put them on Goodreads, yet. Dozens. And I intend to finish each and every one of them, if it takes me twenty years.1
What books do you like to reread? Why? What books have you given up on? Why?
- It did actually take me twenty years — or more! — to finish Fire Time by Poul Anderson. I just kept losing interest because it was, for the most part, political, and that bores me to tears. But it was a book, I bought it, and therefore I had to read it.
If I were ten years old and in the fifth grade, I would no doubt stand in front of the class, stiff and nervous, as I recited my paper. “What I did on my summer vacation, by Gary Henderson, age 10.” And then I would launch into an over-vivid description (lot of juicy adverbs and adjectives) of my family’s epic road trip from rural Alabama to the bustling metropolis of Cucamonga, California, where my uncle and aunt lived. How our dog vomited every time we went under an overpass or she saw a headlight. How we stopped at every possible roadside attraction along the entire 4300-mile-long round trip.
But I’m not ten, I’m 38-teen. And although that would no doubt make a very good story (minus all the adverbs and adjectives and dog vomit), this post is about what I did on my recent summer vacation. I drove myself. I did not stop at every cheesy roadside attraction on the way. And there was no dog vomit.
For which, I can assure you, I am eternally grateful. I mean, have you ever ridden in the back of a car with a dog who threw up every time she saw an overhead pass or a headlight for 4300 miles? Have you? Have you? It. Is. Not. Pretty. I’m pretty sure I still have PTSD. If I had a therapist, his or her bill would be —
But I digress.
Some time back in the spring, some writer friends and I decided we would go to LibertyCon in beautiful, downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee. At, in fact, the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Last year was the con’s 25th anniversary, and they had quite a line-up of big names in the science fiction community there to commemorate the occasion. This year, it was much more modest. A couple of known names and a bunch of people I didn’t know from Adam’s housecat (as the saying goes)1.
Check-in was uneventful, but I was somewhat surprised by the . . . lack of . . . size. I guess what I mean to say is this: I’m used to Dragon*Con in Atlanta, where there are 50,000 or so people crammed into five hotels for four days of fannish geekdom on 31+ programming tracks. Or TAM in Las Vegas, where there are typically 1200 to 1500 skeptics crammed into a large convention center for four days of fannish geekdom (just of very different things, and with gambling, James Randi, and Penn & Teller).
LibertyCon is about 500 people. Five programming tracks (five rooms). And my own, personal observation is that most of the con-goers were . . . of a certain age. Now, don’t get me wrong: we older geeks like our all-night, wild parties, too. We just need Maalox, more sleep, and a little help getting out of bed the next afternoon.
To digress for a moment more, check-in may have been uneventful, but I had to go into the hotel and ask because I had no clue where I was supposed to be. So I asked the nice lady at the desk, “I’m here for LibertyCon, and I have no idea where I’m supposed to go. Can you point me in the right direction?”
She says, “Which specific panel are you here for, sir?”
Nonplussed, I said, “Huh?” (I’m a master of repartee.)
“There are a lot of events at the same time. If you’ll tell me which specific one you’re looking for . . .”
She handed me a schedule for the con, where each of the scheduled panels was listed by day, time, and location. I pointed randomly at one of them that started at 3:00pm, which was about four minutes hence. She then pointed me toward a low building nestled between the parking deck where I had parked, and something else.
I walked over . . . and discovered that the entire con was that tiny annex. All the rooms on the schedule? Yeah, they were adjacent. All five of them. Registration was in the hallway that all the rooms opened off of.
I’m going to pause, here, for a moment, just to let that fully sink in. And contemplate the question asked by the lady at the desk.
[Jeopardy theme plays]
[The Syncopated Clock by Percy Faith plays]
So, long story short, I met up with my friends who were already there, we went to a couple of panels, and then we were hungry, so we went for food. And then we went back for a few more panels, and then we were tired, so we drove to the place we were staying. Which was an apartment in a town about 30 miles west of Chattanooga called South Pittsburg, which is in the Central Time Zone. Chattanooga is in the Eastern Time Zone. It’s a very scenic drive, and one I recommend to anyone who wants to enjoy the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains. We had dinner and then talked until way too late, then slept.
Next day, we did it all over again, attending panels and at one point taking some time out to critique one of my friends’ novel, which we had all read a draft of.
We all decided that after this one panel that evening, we would leave for dinner. The panel was on YA writing, and one of the authors on that panel, Stuart Jaffe. was having a lively conversation with one of my friends, and we found out it was Stuart’s birthday. We asked him to join us for dinner and continue the conversation. We walked down to the same restaurant we’d had lunch at the day before, and discovered that the woman who had just entered before us — and for whom we held the door! — had a party of 20, and that killed that plan. We tried one other place . . . and then realized it was Saturday night in downtown Chattanooga. So . . . we decided to have dinner and play Cards Against Humanity back in South Pittsburg.
As I said, about a half-hour away.
Stuart was game and got in the car with seven strangers. (Well, technically two strangers; we had three cars. But the point stands.)
We had a nice Italian dinner at Stevarino’s Italian Eatery, then played Cards Against Humanity until 2 AM, at which point we were out of cards, so Stuart was taken back to Chattanooga Choo-Choo, and we got a good night’s sleep. And if, by some weird chance, one of Stuart’s upcoming novels features an author being kidnapped by seven strangers at a con . . . well, we won’t be overly surprised. :)
The next day, we only went to the con to get some of Stuart’s books, signed — with bawdy Cards Against Humanity references! — and then all separately made our way back south to Atlanta.
It was an enjoyable trip, even if the con was a lot smaller than I expected. We made a new friend, got some books to read, and had a lot of fun. All pluses.
I’m also now listening to Stuart’s podcast The Eclectic Review, which is fun, and will be reading his books as soon as I’m done reading some of the ones I’m currently reading.
. . . and that’s how I spent my summer vacation. [Bows theatrically, accompanied by light, sporadic applause; sits back at desk to listen to the next classmate.]
Today’s post is inspired by GBE2 (Group Blogging Experience)’s Week 112 prompt: Vacation.
- On the Internet, no one knows you’re Adam’s housecat. Unless you don’t have a navel. Or something.
It dawned on me earlier tonight what I’m basically doing with this NaNoWriMo project. For each of these magical powers that I write about, I’m creating scenarios, characters, conflicts, mysteries to be solved, and an investigative method that cracked the cases.
These are ideas for short stories set in my universe, The PCIU Case Files. Each story is a self-contained little glimpse into some aspect of my world, usually revolving around an interesting use of a power to solve or commit a crime (or both). Once this thing is done, I’ll have to expand some of them out to see where they go.
Also, this morning in the shower I got hit broad-side by an idea that’s been sneaking up on me for some time. The bad guy from novel 3 (formerly novel 1) is going to have a bit part in novel 1 (formerly novel 2) and novel 2 (formerly novel 3).
Novel 4 is starting to take shape in my head, and I have the first glimmerings of ideas for novel 5. It would really help if my brain would stop that. :)
Each of my characters now has a multi-book arc and there is an arc tying together novels 1 through 3.
Geesh. I hope I can keep all this in my head and juggle it. Otherwise, I’m going to end up with an unwieldy mess on my hands.
Sometimes I run across what I consider to be ‘writing lessons’ in the weirdest places.
Today, I was listening to podcasts whilst working. In one (Scopes Monkey Choir), the hosts mentioned a music instrument I had never heard of: the Northumbrian Smallpipes.
On YouTube, I discovered that it’s kind of a northern-England version of a bagpipe or uilleann pipes, driven by a bellows that requires the player to pump with his or her arm while playing. It sounds . . . a bit like the bagpipes or uilleann pipes. But with a greater range. And less drone-y.
So anyway, as I’m wandering from video to video to get an idea how these things sound, I ran across this video. As she described her friend for whom the song is written, I thought to myself, “I want to use this amazing description for a character in a story.”
And then at 3:15 in, she says, “It’s not the tune I intended to write . . . but tunes sometimes have a habit of having their own mind about where they want to go and what they want to be.”
Sound familiar? Anyone? :)
Here’s the video. (I apologize for the gigantic size. I don’t know why it’s doing that. My YouTube-embedding fu is weak.)
[youtube_embed width=480 height=360]Zig7QP0LkmU[/youtube_embed]
When I was accepted to Viable Paradise, one of the many pieces of information available to us was a list of suggested reading recommended by the instructors. Unsurprisingly, the instructors’ own works featured prominently on this list.1 Now, I knew who all of them are, but I had only ever read anything by Elizabeth Bear and Steven Gould before.
I quickly bought one of each instructors’ works for my Kindle. Or two in a couple of cases. I tried to pick first books in series or standalone novels when possible. I mean, I don’t know about you, but if I walked into, for instance, Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy shoots the sword master with his gun, in no way could I make sense of the movie. I feel the same way about book series. Don’t ask me to start reading at book 5 and try to make sense of what’s going on. I need context.
You probably already know what happened based on the title of this post. There isn’t one dud in the lot. I have thoroughly enjoyed every single thing I’ve read, including the book of essays. Most of these are books I wouldn’t have given a second look at in the book store. Not because the cover art isn’t eye-catching or the authors not well-known enough or the blurb ineffective.
Because I simply have so many books on my to-read shelf that it groans audibly when I come into my library (read: my third guest bedroom) with new, unread books. I have three seven-foot sets of book shelves on one side of the room, piled floor to ceiling with books. The middle shelves of all three are loaded with the books on my "to-read" list. Those are also stuffed. Across the room, I have another tall shelf also stuffed with books (mostly hardback), many of them also unread. In my bedroom is another, small (only three feet tall) metal shelf stacked high with all unread books. In the office where I sit typing this post is another shelf, this one stacked with unread professional books (books on programming and the like; not all that fun to read).
And then there’s Kindle. I could write a whole post on that subject by itself.
With all those unread books calling out to me, I find it hard to convince myself to pick up books by unknown (to me) authors. But in this case, I was motivated by something else.
And now, I have to continue reading these new(-to-me) series, as well, because I have to know what happens.
Yep. I’m gonna need a bigger shelf. Or two. Or maybe three . . .
- This is not a conceit. If we’re going to receive instruction on how to make our own writing better from a group of professional writers and editors, it makes sense to have sampled their work so we know if we even like that instructor’s style. Maybe someone finds out that they can’t stand an instructor’s style, and they know to weigh what that instructor says differently than the advice of someone whose style they do like.
(Disclaimer: I cannot be held responsible if you now have the song When You Wish Upon a Star stuck in your head. Preferably the Linda Ronstadt version. Well, OK, now I can, having purposefully—dare I say “maliciously”?—brought it to your attention, and gone so far as to prompt you with a voice. You’re welcome. It’s a great song, isn’t it? But I digress.)
Last year around this time, I had already had many, many ideas for NaNoWriMo. I hit upon the idea of writing 26 short stories, which I won’t go into again, here. Suffice it to say, it was a raging success. One of those stories got me into Viable Paradise.
But this year? What with all the preparations for Viable Paradise, I haven’t really had time to stop and think about what to write for NaNoWriMo. I’ve been re-working ideas for my urban fantasy series, but it’s been like beating my head against a wall. I want to do something that will help me with that instead of something entirely new and different.
One of the major problems I’ve had with my urban fantasy is the magic. It’s set in modern-day Atlanta, but magic works. And I am specifically staying away from sexy vampires and werewolves. My main characters are agents in the Paranormal Crimes Investigation Unit of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. They are also mages. Two other characters are normal (non-magical) cops. Another is a TV reporter. And so on.
But how does magic work? I’ve written a ton of words, but I haven’t been able to just nail down that one little point: how does magic work? What are its limits? How can it be used? How prevalent is it? Does the public in general know about it? Etc!
And I need to know these things.
And that’s when I said to myself: "Self, what you need is a magic book for dummies."
KaZOT! (This is the theoretical sound of a bolt out of the blue. Fate steps in and sees you through . . .)
I guess I know what I’m writing for NaNoWriMo, now. A "For Dummies" book-type thing, but all about magic in my universe.
I can literally use it as a reference if I get stuck. Or I can modify if it I need to. :) And having that hard deadline of November 30th by which it must be finished should help me get past this snag I’ve been stuck in for a while.
Of course, I found a way to generate a nifty cover for it. Because, really, why not? On the Internet, if you build it, they will come.
Earlier this year, I learned about something called StoryForge. The easiest way to think of it is as what it essentially is: tarot cards for writers.
I wanted them badly because I had some problems I thought maybe they would help me work through.
Unfortunately, StoryForge Cards were, at that time, merely a dream in the mind of the creator. He had a KickStarter campaign to raise enough money to do a run of cards. Without hesitation, I pledged $25. At the end of his allotted KickStarter time, if he had enough pledges to make up the entire amount of money he was asking for, I would be billed along with all his other supporters. And a short time after that, I would receive a deck of StoryForge Cards in the mail.
Let me pause here to give you a wee bit of history and a painfully brief explanation of tarot.
Tarot cards have an ancient history dating back hundreds of years. Originally used as any other kind of card deck, for playing games. Later, people started to use it for "mystical" reasons. The structure of the Tarot deck was four suits of Minor Arcana: swords, wands, coins, and cups. Later, it became swords, staves, pentacles, and cups.
Either way, there were 14 of each suit, ranging from the one (ace) to the ten, plus four ‘face’ cards: jack/page, knight, queen, and king. So far, it basically sounds like a normal deck of cards with an extra face card (the knight).
But in addition to these 56 cards there were the Major Arcana, another 22 cards that were added to the deck specifically for their mystical symbolism. They had no suits and names like The Magician, The Empress, Death, The Hanged Man, and The Fool.
It was believed that by shuffling the deck while concentrating on a question, the cards could be flipped face-up in a certain pattern and the cards that occupied each space in the pattern determined your fate. Of course, it was all open to a lot of speculation. All the cards had two "interpretations" – one for when they were dealt upright and one for when they were dealt inverted (upside-down). Generally, people get out of it what they want to get out of it, which to me is the entire point.
I never believed in any of the mystical symbolism or the occult nature of the cards. But they’re a great way to work through what might be bothering you. You lay out the cards in the pattern and as you try to find symbolic meaning in what the Seven of Wands or The Heirophant means when it "crosses you," you can gain insight into what might be bugging you by what your mind seizes on as a likely match. "The Seven of Wands represents being under siege . . . and yesterday at work, Frank told me he thought my plan for the budget for FY 2013 was naïve! How do the cards know!"
So that brings us to the StoryForge Deck. He got his funding and then some. After a few problems with the printer, I finally received my cards a few weeks ago.
It, too, has suits. Five of them. There are 14 each in the four suits of Wealth, Will, Emotion, and Identity, and then 22 more in the suit of Destiny. So in a real sense, you could equate Wealth with Pentacles/Coins, Will with Swords, Emotion with Cups, and Identity with Wands/Staves. (I just randomly assigned the other three. Maybe you could tell.) And that leaves Destiny to fill in the role of the Major Arcana.
Each card contains two concepts, one positive and one negative. If the card is upright, the positive meaning is taken. If it’s inverted, the negative meaning is taken. A short description of each is provided on the card.
As with tarot, there are layouts, such as "Character Background," "Film Noir," "Love Story," and "Train Wreck." Each of them contains a number of cards selected for each element of the layout.
Right out of the box, I decided to give it a try by fleshing out the background of one of my minor characters in a novel I’m working on in an urban fantasy set in Atlanta, but magic works. The character’s name is Yvonne Hanson, and she’s a psychologist who is also a profiler for the FBI. She doesn’t know it, yet, but she’s destined to have a fling with my main character. But all I knew about her was what you see above. I couldn’t get a feel for who she is.
So I sorted the cards until I was satisfied they were randomized both in order and orientation.
For the Mother position, I cast Health. Okay, that’s general enough. For the Father position, I cast The Dilemma. Again, that could go pretty much anywhere. I kept going.
The Strength of Their Relationship: Wealth – Well, that seems like a bad idea, but maybe I’ll be able to fit it in . . .
Problems Between Them: Defeat – Clearly, something goes horribly awry. But what?
Circumstances of Yvonne’s Birth: Marriage – Hmm. It’s a cliché probably as old as time itself, but it does still happen.
So far, nothing was coalescing. But there are a lot more cards to cast.
Complications of Yvonne’s Birth: Aversion – And this is where I got the glimmer. I had imagined Dr. Hanson as a normal character—one who does not possess any magical ability. But if that’s the case, why send her out on assignments to profile criminals using magic? It makes more sense if she is also magical. So . . .
Her dad is one of those people who, for whatever reason, can’t stand people with magic. (Like some can’t stand people of other races or sexual orientations.) And the thought that his own flesh and blood could be one of them . . .
At first they didn’t notice anything. Little Yvonne (named after her paternal grandmother) was a happy, normal child, but at around age 5 or so, she started knowing things she couldn’t possibly know. They took her in for testing, and she came up positive. She’s a psion, fairly weak, but able to sense emotions and strong surface thoughts.
Well, Dad couldn’t handle it. And little Yvonne could sense that he was more than just uncomfortable around her, and she would cry whenever he was around.
So he left. And that ties in to Defeat being the problem between them: he wanted normal children, he got a freak of nature.
The Universe’s Influence on Yvonne: Confession – Well, that plays right in! She’s an empath. Nothing is a secret from such a child, at least on some level. Imagine being asked by your darling 6-year-old girl if Santa is coming on Christmas, and having her feel the lie if you try to hide the truth. So they never hid anything from her.
Early Strengths: The Captive – Now, here we have what to me is one of the strengths of using the deck. We have here a strength or a positive attribute of the character, but what came up was a negative or inverted card. So how can I turn this negative into a positive?1 By forcing me to think along a path I would not otherwise have gone down, I get something surprising.
As a child, she was only ever around people who accepted her difference and loved her unquestioningly. She was sheltered and protected from the negative influences in the world. After her Dad left, that is. She never had to experience hatred and fear while she was untrained and unable to block out other people. She had a private tutor and was home schooled until she was able to erect strong mental wards.
Early Weaknesses: The Counselor – And here’s the flip-side of the coin: a negative attribute indicated by a positive card. Again, not a direction I would have gone had I come up with all this without any prompting.
Because of her ability, she knows people’s traumas intimately. She becomes too emotionally involved in other people’s problems, wanting to fix them from an early age "so the hurt will stop."
Education: The Mentor – Well, I mentioned earlier that she was homeschooled and had a private tutor. But let’s take this a step further. Say when she eventually goes to college—to study psychology, of course—she encounters a psychology professor who is, herself, psionic. She develops a fast friendship with this professor, and becomes her mentee. (Yes, it’s a real word; look it up.) Yvonne’s abilities are fairly weak, but this professor/mentor helps her maximize what she has.
Belief Foundation: The Black Sheep – Well, that couldn’t have been more tailor-made if I’d selected it out of the deck on purpose. Since Yvonne is literally held in suspicion, even by her own father, and actively shunned by people at all levels of society, this is a large "Duh."
Life Experience: Order – Hm. Okay, Yvonne’s neat and orderly in her life because . . . all around her is the chaos of other people’s feelings and problems. The only thing she has any control over is her space, so it’s meticulously clean to the point of OCD. A useful little quirk I can play with from time to time. Nick’s a slob. :)
Recent Shaping Experience: Delusion – Because of some early successes in her career in the FBI, she develops too much confidence in her own abilities. It’s caused her to believe that she’s infallible. And we all know what happens when someone believes in their own self-delusion, don’t we?
Scarring Experience: Infamy – Ruby Ridge. Waco. These are place names that any self-respecting FBI agent would cringe upon hearing. Unfortunately, when Yvonne failed, she failed big and some people died because her profile was way off and her own team bought into her "infallible" delusion. He wasn’t caught when he could have been, and as a result, several more people died. The press, of course, picked this up and absolutely vilified her.
And finally, State of the Character at the Beginning of the Story: The Mirror – Everything above leads inexorably to this point: she’s unsure of herself, now, having discovered that she’s not a superwoman. Her world-view is upended. She’s no longer sure of her own abilities. Top this off with the fact that her mentor has just died, so she has no one to turn to that she trusts. She’s having to examine her own motivations and abilities for the first time in a long while. And along comes Nick . . .
At this point, the first few things don’t matter, but if I need them, I can fill them in. Perhaps the mother was very ill and her father was either a friend who supported her and it turned into romance . . . or he was her doctor that saved her life. Perhaps the dilemma was whether he chooses to stay with his current family? Leaving his practice to move with her? And the wealth could be one or the other of them getting lucrative work or an inheritance that helps to seal the deal. But I’m not married to any of that, and I can leave it open, or just ignore it. Perhaps Yvonne’s mother is still around and will come into the book series at some point. Then I can flesh her out.
Anyway, I just thought it would be interesting to go through a layout from start to finish and see how I made it all work and tie in together. Not all of it was in that order. Some of it happened all at once after I cast the cards and saw a pattern among them.
And now I have a much deeper understanding of who Yvonne Hanson is, what makes her tick, and how she might react to various events within the story. All thanks to 15 cards and some "forced" creativity. (It wasn’t forced; I was merely coaxed to think outside the box.)
And hey, maybe Dad had more kids and she has half-brothers and sisters out there. Or maybe Mom remarried and she has some on that side. The possibilities are open and ready to be solidified if I need them. This entire profile will get expanded upon as I go, and some stuff will probably fall by the wayside, and some other stuff will fill in the cracks.
- I could literally have just flipped the card upside-down and gone with "The Stranded" instead, but that was too easy. :)