Building a Magic System

MagicMy favorite genre to write is fantasy. It’s probably because I’m a world building sucker. I’ve seriously written entire languages that will never be in any book ever. For fun. For fun. So it should come as no surprise that I also enjoy making up magic systems. My first attempts at writing a magic system pretty much consisted of: “And then the characters got trapped in some crazy situation that was absolutely impossible to get out of…. And then MAAAAAGIC! Because… because it’s MAAAAGIC!” And everything was solved. And it was lame.

I try to put a little more thought into it these days. As with any aspect of world building, I, the author, will need to know more than will ever be put into my story. But it’s still important to know. I’ll be better at catching plot holes before they happen, have a more consistent system and world, and know exactly what kind of stickiness my character can get into and out of using magic. I’ll also have a better sense of how it really works and what I can do to make it unique, so I won’t have to automatically fall back on what I read in Harry Potter or Grandma’s dusty grimoire and risk producing a cliche magic system. (Unless you’re working parody or humor. Then cliche away.)

So if you’re thinking about making a new magic system, here are a few things to consider:

Who uses it? Can just anyone use it? Does it require special (or expensive) training? Are only the upper classes allowed to use magic? Can only a few who are born with it work magic? How are they chosen (by god, by biology, by the government, by some kind of prenatal exposure to magicurcury in contaminated fish)? If it’s the sort of thing anyone can do, it’s going to be pretty common throughout all tiers of the characters’ society as well. If it’s much more selective, it would be that much more powerful and/or revered (whether that be the ‘please don’t kill my entire family with your awesomeness’ sort of reverence or the ‘aw, gee, thanks for taking good care of us little people, we adore you’ sort of reverence).

When can it be used? Only by the light of a full moon? When the planets align? When all the right stuff is blended over a fire of yew boughs? After doing the prescribed jazz hands routine or reciting emo poetry in a dead language? When you’ve contacted your proper spirit/demon/senator/whatever? When you’re holding your magical-unicorn-hairy wand? One of the better known magic systems currently is that of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The characters’ use of magic isn’t limited by time itself, but does incorporate lots of different elements. Generally, you have to have a functional wand; you have to say (or think) the proper incantation; you have to get the right stuff in the pot in the right steps.

Where does it come from? God? Aliens? The Force? Ancient technology? The earth herself? Magical artifacts that you can tap into (ahhh, but where did that get the magic from)? Perhaps the source of all magic in the world is actually house cats, who are secretly from a distant star imbued with massive creative power and are the most intelligent creatures currently on earth, but they allow us to think that we are so that we will voluntarily make ourselves their slaves. You have to admit, it makes sense.

What can it do? Can it shift the laws of physics? Can it make something out of nothing? Can it be used to borrow aspects of a neighbor or a tree or a star? Can it make an epic good cheesecake in two minutes flat? Can you fireball the snot out of your rival? Can it heal wounds and raise the dead? Can it do all these things and more? Can it do everything ever, or is it used much more subtly? One of my favorite magic systems right now is that of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books, wherein magical abilities are limited to the swallowing and ‘burning’ of metals which then grant heightened abilities depending on the metals. The system is pretty limited in what it can do, and Sanderson is pretty clear about the rules, but the characters can do incredible things within those parameters.

And finally: What makes it unique? This isn’t necessarily vital to the creation of a system, but it is vital to a good story. Uniqueness will make a functional magic system into an actually interesting one. And you very much want your readers interested in the happenings of your book. Think about your favorite magics. Chances are, they have some singular element that caught your attention. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be memorable, let alone your favorite. Keep this in mind when crafting what will (hopefully) some day be someone else’s favorite magic system.

Even if none of this ever ever comes up in your story, you should at least know it for the sake of internal logic. You have to know the parameters of your magic system, or it’s going to be lame. If your magic system has no limitations, that also is kind of lame. If it makes no sense, lame. The best magic systems are logically crafted, have some limitations, and remain consistent in what they can and cannot do. Know the rules and stick to them. If you really want your magic to do something awesome outside of those rules, be ready to either change the rules from the get-go, and shift the rest of the system to match, or have an explanation about why this exception exists. And it had better be a good one.

Think you have a great magic system? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below! Let us know how you answered these questions and others in the building of your magic system. Happy writing!

Interview: M Elizabeth Tait

I have something a little different for you today! Last week I had an interview with my writing buddy alpha reader M Elizabeth Tait, just about her writing history and where she’s going. It’s gonna be worth big bucks when she’s mega famous, I’m sure!

In case you’re like me and live in an area with spotty internet (or you just don’t want to watch a video with a pretty girl and some lanky slob with bad hair), the interview has been transcribed below for your reading pleasure.

J: Hi. I’m Jill Marcotte. I am here with M. Elizabeth Tait, my beloved Mary. And we’re here to talk about Mary’s writing career. So, can you give us a brief bio? Just tell us a little about yourself?

M: Well, I moved around a lot as a child, so I won’t go into detail there. But essentially I graduated high school from Minnesota, Maple Grove Senior High, and then I went to BYU Idaho for a little while, got married to my fabulous husband, and he uprooted me and took me here to Alaska.

J: Scoundrel!

M: I know, right? So, since then, we’ve lived here for three years now, and it’s been a joy. Kind of… interesting. It’s- Fairbanks Alaska is a very weird place, but it’s an adventure, to say the least. So.

J: That is a good way to describe Fairbanks. It’s unique.

M: Exactly.

J: So, just curious, what’s the earliest writing experience that you can remember?

M: Oh, this is very weird. So-

J: Good!

M: So when I was little, I- one of the earliest memories I actually have is I was about three or four and I hadn’t been to kindergarten or anything yet, I hadn’t learned any of my letters, and I just remember taking a pen and a little notebook and just scribbling lines in there. Like I really wanted to write and I knew there was a language out there- I just didn’t know what it was. So my mom would catch me and we had pages and pages of just like scribbles on a page. I would follow the lines, just these little scribbles. So, it was really funny.

J: That’s cute. I like that. Okay, so, from there, you’re now here. What point are you at in your writing career?

M: Oo, very, very early on. Um-

J: Not as early as that, though.

M: Well, no, not as early. I know the language now.

J: Good! Literate and all?

M: Yeah. That’s the first step, I guess. So, now, I’m kind of just started. I’ve outlined a trilogy that I want to write. I haven’t fully written it yet. But I have scenes here and there and I know where I want to go with it. I’m just still trying to write, work on the prose and actually how I want it to fit on the page. I have an idea of what in my mind I want, but now it’s getting the reader to follow that idea.

J: ‘Kay. So, my next question: the publishing industry can seem very big and mysterious. So for you, as a writer trying to push forward in your career, for you, what’s the most intimidating thing about the industry, and then what’s the most calming, familiar, not intimidating thing?

M: Well let’s start with the intimidating: getting out there and showcasing my work, I think. From in the past, ever since I started wanting this to go somewhere, I actually want my story published. In the past it was, I want to write for myself. I just wanted to sit in a corner and not do anything. So my writings are very much my baby that I don’t want anyone else to see. I don’t want them to critique because it’s my baby. You know? So that’s kind of the scariest thing for me is to actually put it out there and be willing to get critiqued on it and I know it will help me get better at it. I just don’t want to face the music that it’s not what I thought it was. And then the neatest thing about it, I guess the easiest, most what I aspire to is getting… Okay, it’s kind of the same thing: getting my writing out there, having other people read it, other people wanting to read it, essentially, that they would- I mean, it takes a lot for someone to say, “I want to pay money to read this author.” You know? And so that’s kind of the best, I guess one of the best critiques that I could get is that someone wants to get out there and they Google my name or something like that. That’s where I want to be at.

J: Okay, so you mentioned your trilogy. Can you tell us a little about your first book, what it’s about?

M: Oo, this is a very loaded question.

J: The Elevator Pitch.

M: The Elevator Pitch. So my first book essentially is- I akin it to Alice in Wonderland. I really wanted a girl to be uprooted from everything she knows and thrust into this other world. That she needs to find her own way. Not necessarily that her goal is to get back to her home, but she does have a goal that… in this case, she wants to find her brother’s killer. And so she doesn’t really have a big desire to go back home. So in this one, it’s all about her girl power of going and finding this man that killed her brother and seeking revenge essentially.

J: Alright! Sounds adventurous. So if you had- Your main character, her name is…

M: Kalia.

J: And your antagonist?

M: Frosis.

J: Okay, so if you had to, and you do, describe Kalia as an animal, what animal would she be and why?

M: You have some very interesting questions. ‘Kay, I… This is gonna be weird. I would kind of… some kind of… cat. Okay, so she-

J: I was thinking that, like a- a tiger or something.

M: Yeah! Exactly. So, kind of some cat, where you see your prey and… In the beginning, she’s not patient. At all. She would just kind of go and, this was just her character, to run and be like, “Okay! I’m just gonna chase you.” You know? But then as the story progresses, she becomes that cat that sits in the bushes and is all tense and suddenly she’ll just spring on her prey, which is the antagonist. And so she’s just very much this cat that wants it so badly she will be patient for it.

J: So your antagonist, Frosis: what is your favorite thing about writing him?

M: Oh, my favorite thing. I think all of us kind of have this joy in writing an evil character.

J: Wheee!

M: Exactly. It’s very fun. For him, I love writing about his confidence. Because he can go into a room and know no one and suddenly everyone adores him and loves him. Just his charm. To have people follow him, which is a very big tool and very scary for Kalia because she can’t do that. She has a hard time talking to people and so for him to have so many people on his side because of his confidence and his way of talking and bringing you around to his side, is very scary for her.

J: So when you go to write, how do you get into the zone? Do you like stimulating beverages, do you listen to music?

M: I listen to music. I know a lot of authors kind from steer clear of that, because music does change your mood so much, but I have this very specific, calming music that I listen to. And-

J: You don’t, like, turn up the volume for fight scenes or anything? Play techno?

M: Oh, sometimes I do. I do. Sometimes I’ll listen to a little Rise Against or, I don’t know, just some hardcore music when I am writing a fight scene. But normally it’s very moody, like Cerebrellis, Ingrid Michealson, type that, you know, just happy-go-lucky and I can kind of- I have to have some kind of distraction. I need to be able to tune something out to focus, I guess. So kind of it’s a weird strategy, but it works for me.

J: Okay. So, you told us a little about your story. What’s your favorite genre to write, just in general?

M: Oh, definitely fantasy. The one that I’m writing right now is kind of like sci-fi fantasy type, but I do love just straight fantasy. Throw me into a world with magic and girls wearing long dresses, and I’m all there.

J: So is that your favorite to read as well?

M: Yes. Yeah, definitely. I like read what I write. What I enjoy reading is what I write. Kind of what brought me into writing in the first place was I read this quote- I can’t remember who it was, maybe it was Stephen King, but it was something about how when you have read all of the books that you like and you can’t find anymore, that’s the time that you should start writing them. And so that’s kind of what- it was kind of this wake up call. Like I had kind of dabbled in writing before, like a few scenes here and there, imagining this world, but I didn’t actually start focusing on it until I read that quote and I was like, “Oh. That’s why I like writing so much. It’s ’cause I can’t find a story that I truly love. I want to write my own.” So.

J: That’s very cool. Well. I think we’ve had a lovely interview with Miss Mary Tait. Thank you for being with us.

M: Thanks. It was a pleasure.

What’s In A Name? (And Other World Building Concerns)

Somebody Googled ‘celedria name meaning’ or something like that. It made me squee. And now I am here to set the record straight. Nahldria/Celedria’s name means ‘Star Daughter’. ‘Cele’ was the word I originally had pegged to mean ‘star’, but it was changed to ‘nahl’ for a vaguely embarrassing reason. (Nahldria’s parents’ names were, at the time, Galandorn and Celedrail. Which, if you mix around a little bit, become more or less Galadriel and Celeborn. Look familiar? Yeah, that had to change.)

But how much does it really matter? As a writer, at what point am I officially wasting my time in making background information that will never ever make it into any books ever? Personally, I would argue… never.

Now, I allow, it will probably never come up that Nahldria’s favorite food is eggs, which really bothers her sister-in-law Ulanis, who had a bad egg experience as a small child and hates them. And it will probably never come up that a bazillion years ago, there were all kinds of evil mother in law jokes being made because ‘drail’, the word for mother, sounds a lot like ‘drae’, the word for an angry, haunting spirit which hasn’t been taken to dwell happily in the Sea of the Dead with all the other dead people because it was naughty and the God of Death wants it to go to time-out and think about what it’s done. It little matters what happened in the past, or what’s coming down the pipes (excluding, of course, the possibility of sequels and prequels). But I still think those things have value.

Pretty much every study ever has shown that the best way to learn a language is by immersion. (Yes, I made that up.) I believe the same holds true in the crafting of a story. In any tale ever told, there is more than is being said. The very details that can bog a story down are also those that make a world real. I find I am my best writer when I have immersed myself in the worlds I am writing, when I am just swimming in details. It’s neat to know who knew whom when they were growing up, and the goofy little spats they got into. And who knows when that may come up again? If I don’t know it happened, I can’t work with that. I don’t think it wasted effort to figure out the writing system that will never be in the books to go with the language that is little more than hinted at. Because, first off, it’s way fun. (Yes, I geek out about stuff like that. Yes, I read grammar books for fun. DON’T JUDGE ME.)

But more importantly, getting into the gritty details of the world my characters live in increases the clarity and uniqueness with which I can write about that world. It tweaks the way my characters interact, the way they speak, what they hold sacred and what they hold contemptible. If I know that my characters think that prime numbers are unlucky, it’s going to change the way they cluster in groups, the way they number their calendars, the way they draw up their floor plans for chapels. But if I don’t know that, at least in my own head, those little quirks of their cultures and their personalities, then I’m just going to end up chewing up and regurgitating what culture I do know: middle-class English-speaking American of European descent living in the northwest. And that’s boring.

There is a big difference between what the author knows and what the narrator says. If I added all the background information into City of the Dead that I have stored away on my computer, the book would be three times as long. Easy. But that would be boring, too. Just because I think it’s interesting to draw up descendency charts for the royal Houses, to pound out the histories of every noble House in the Homelands, to make a writing system based on simulated centuries of warping of ancient pictographs, to map out the social-political-theological-magical strings and knots in a world that doesn’t even exist, does not mean these elements add up to make a good story. There is a whole lot more that goes into a good story than tons of information. But having a well-thought-out setting sure helps.

It goes back to writing what we know. As writers, we’re told this over and over. Trying to write a historical fiction about the first and only female emperor of China is a little ridiculous if you know absolutely nothing about the Tang dynasty and its Imperial structure. If you are writing within a fictitious world, I think it’s well worth your time to get your facts straight, just as you would research any story set in the real world. If you don’t know your world, you can’t write it.

So does it matter that Nahldria’s older brother broke his arm once as a kid? No. And yes.

Writing an Utterly Unsexy New Adult

Plenty is being said about Abbi Glines’s Uncut version of The Vincent Boys, so I’ll just briefly hop on the bandwagon here and add this: If all you did to this Young Adult genre book was slap in some juicy sex scenes, does that really make it New Adult? I mean, the characters don’t suddenly graduate, move out, get a job and pay their own bills, too, right? Isn’t that kind of what makes you an adult?

But let me back up. I am writing an epic fantasy novel. I am told that I also need to attach a few more letters for a subgenre: MG, YA, NA, or whatever. No problem, I think. The main characters are basically early-to-mid-twenties. So… New Adult. Obviously. Well, apparently not.

“What?” I cry. “That can’t be possible!” Nearly all the characters are adults, navigating an adult world. They’ve all been adults for some time. The main character starts a new job and has her first serious relationship, even getting engaged to the guy. None of this is sounding very Young Adult.

HOWEVER. The main character does move back in with her Dad for a good portion of the book (extenuating circumstances, I might add). She spends a lot of time pining and whining. But most important of all? No sex. That’s right, none. Except for some crazy dragon violence and whatnot, the whole thing is pretty PG. So. Where does that leave me?

I’ve been trawling the internet all morning on what started as a very simple quest. How long should this book be to be marketable? If it were YA, I’d have some idea, but NA is still pretty new and there’s not much out there by way of guidelines. But what started out as a hunt for an approximate word count quickly morphed into something else. What in blazes does New Adult even mean? Is my book NA at all?

Elizabeth Burns over at School Library Journal tried to tackle this question in an awesome listing of many other people trying to tackle this question. She dredged up answers varying as widely as “a sub-genre of Young Adult, with ‘slightly older’ characters and sexytimes” and “post-adolescent life” between ages 14-35. Hm.

Leslie Kaufman of The New York Times wrote about this, too, in “Beyond Wizards and Vampires, to Sex“. Sadly, she seems to equate coming of age with sex, which I don’t necessarily agree with. (Note: If you really need to have sex to feel like a grown-up… you’ve probably got a little more growing up to do. Your sexuality shouldn’t define you.) But she did have something to say about the subgenre’s definition that resonated with me:

“While publishers like the concept of creating a new-adult category, its hybrid nature has been problematic. The books fall into an undefined territory between adult and children’s literature… But while publishers hesitated, a crop of young authors began forcing the issue: they began self-publishing novels on the Internet about 19-to-25-year-olds who are leaving home for the first time for jobs or college or a first real relationship.”

This is what I want my book labeled with: that ambiguous time when you’re legally adult, but you certainly don’t have all your duckies in a row just yet. But not necessarily sex. Kaufman also mentions that industry pundits will admit to it being little more than letting people know to expect a bit more spice than Hunger Games. So maybe New Adult isn’t really a genre so much as a warning label: “Hey Grandma, maybe you don’t want to get this for little Jenny- head back over to YA where the steamy never quite comes to a boil!” Do I really want that label affixed on my book?

But I so want NA to mean more than that. As a new adult, I find this incredibly narrow definition to be a touch irritating. Even if I shelve my own problem as a writer, it’s still problematic as a reader. I don’t want to read about some 17 year old’s sextivities, I want to read about growing up. As a 20something myself, I’d like a story involving people my age, dealing with being an adult. I don’t want to get beat over the head with someone else’ sex life.

“Ms. Cabot [author of the Princess Diaries, now moving on to write NA] said that while she changed the settings and added some sex for good measure, the genre’s core was still about fantasy (Kaufman).” What? “[A]dded some sex for good measure”? Is it just me, or does that make it sound completely unnecessary?

I mean, am I the only one that gets REALLY TIRED of high schoolers breathing all over each other’s necks à la Twilight? I mean, I like a good YA story, but I can honestly do without reading up on teenagers hooking up every other chapter. I enjoyed the Harry Potter stories, but my least favorite part was reading about Harry and Ginny snogging in the halls and in the rec room and between classes and in the grass around the lake and everywhere else possible. Honestly. Maybe I’m being immature here, but come on. And they weren’t even really doing anything! You’re trying to tell me there will be more of that in NA? I’d probably have a cerebral aneurism.

It’s funny, but I gained the most hope from an article on Dear Author: A Romance Review Blog for Readers by Jane Little. “New Adult, however, is not just sexed up YA, but an exploration of a time period in a character’s life.  The post high school / pre responsible time period.  Easy; Slammed; Point of Retreat; Sea of Tranquility are books with suggestive hints of intimacy but involve largely fade to black love scenes.” Ah. Thank you. That’s what I want.

“In New Adult books, readers aren’t responding to teens having sex… New Adult is a time period and a feel — a newly emancipated person on the cusp of discovering themselves, where they fit into life, what allowances they will make, and how they relate to others (Little).” Yes! I’d argue that they shouldn’t be teens at all, but still.

“What I would not like to see is the requirement of explicitness in all books.  In other words, if Abbi Glines wants to write explicit sex scenes in her books, great; but publishers shouldn’t force other writers like to do so if that isn’t what they want to include in their stories. In other words, I want New Adult books to focus on the characters and their emotional connections, not the physical ones (Little).” Thank you! Geez, I just want to paste the whole article over. There’s hope!

So… I think I’m going to keep labeling this as NA. I might be completely wrong, but it feels better there, despite some of its more voyeuristic neighbors. But I still haven’t solved my original question: how big is this thing supposed to be? Well, at any rate, probably not as big as it is. Ah, well, back to the chopping block.

But what’s your opinion? Is NA all about the spicey? What am I thinking writing a celibate book? What makes NA what it is, and is it actually a viable market now? Let me know!