Thursday, August 9, 2012

Guest Post: Stuart Jaffe...

Thanks, Mel, for inviting me onto your blog. It's a pleasure.

Now, one of the old warhorses of advice given to new writers is Write What You Know. Even if you're not a writer, you've probably heard this one. For me, a lover of science fiction from an early age, I had one question: How? How do I write about aliens and time travel and dragons and magic when I don't know -- when I can't truly know -- about those things?

Nobody had a good answer for me.

Thankfully, I figured it out for myself, and today, I offer my solution to you. It's this: you already do know about these things.

Take my series The Malja Chronicles which begins with The Way of the Black Beast. In this post-apocalyptic, parallel world magic is derived from manipulating energy around the user much like an electric eel manipulates the tiny bits of voltage surrounding it in the water. Magicians are born with this ability, and as they learn to utilize it for a specific spell, a tattoo grows on their body. They use these tattoos to focus their minds in order to conjure. However, another group of people, The Bluesmen, have learned to use the sympathetic vibrations caused by their blues music to manipulate the energy in the air nearby and achieve a similar goal -- although they require more manpower and have less powerful results. The final aspect of this magic system is that using it takes a toll on the magicians mind. The more magic (especially the more powerful magic) one uses, the higher the risk of going insane.
So, what did I actually know in order to create this magic system? Well, I had learned (really re-learned) about electric eels at the Baltimore Aquarium several years back and thought that would be a cool bit of knowledge to hold onto for some day. Regarding tattoos -- I have a few, so I know about them firsthand. When it came to the Bluesmen, I had learned about sympathetic vibrations long ago in a high school music theory class, and as you might imagine, I love blues music. In fact, I've been playing blues guitar for about twenty-five years. I really love the stuff.

In other words, I took all these little bits of things I had knowledge of or a love for and smashed them together. It's part of the fun when creating things like magic. After all, no matter what the writing teachers say, the truth is that there are no real rules to any of this. In fact, it took me a long time to learn this, but as far as I can tell, the only true rule in writing is quite simple: If it works, it works.

Too often, writers get scared by the complexity of a magic system. Relax. It doesn't have to be that complicated. It can, if you like, be rather simplistic. Look at the magic in Greek mythology or Arthurian legends. There's barely any consistency to be had. Magic does what the author needs it for and that's all. Things like logic and reason show no part in the execution of magic in these tales. The key: they made it work.

We've all read stories where the magic doesn't work, where the use of it seems like cheating or makes us start to question things. But good writing can make magic work in the most unlikely situations. J. K. Rowling made a pretty good career out of making it all up as she went along. It's evident in the Harry Potter books that her magic system was fleshed out with greater abilities and depth as the series progressed. But we eat it up anyway.

Conversely, Brandon Sanderson appears to have had the complex and intriguing magic system found in the Mistborn novels completely worked out from book one. It's a fascinating system and he delves into all sorts of unique ways to use magic within the constraints he gave. And it works, too.

Those are the big secrets. Utilize what you know and what you're passionate about to make your magic come alive. Then, use your skills as a writer to make the reader believe it. If you want to create a magic system that requires the caster to dance ballet and sing show tunes which then bestows unlimited power, I say to go for it. If you can make it work, the readers will love it. The proof is right there in my own book. The only complaint I've ever received regarding the magic in Malja's story is that readers want even more of it.

That's when you know it's really working.

Stuart Jaffe is the author of Southern Bound, The Malja Chronicles, After The Crash, as well as the short story collection, 10 Bits of My Brain. Numerous other short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies. He is the co-host of The Eclectic Review -- a podcast about science, art, and well, everything. For those who keep count, the latest animal listing is as follows: five cats, one albino corn snake, one Brazilian black tarantula, three aquatic turtles, assorted fish, two lop-eared rabbits, five chickens, and a horse. Thankfully, the chickens and the horse do not live inside the house.

The Way of the Black Beast can be found here:
Stuart's website:


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Taking little bits works. I used a lot of what I'd found in other science fiction books and movies and added my knowledge of real fighter jets to help create the galaxy in my books.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I think you hit on a key term that kind of changes the whole "write what you know" mantra. I've always disagreed with that. But you say "write what you are passionate about," and I'm totally on board. In other words, just like you've illustrated here, passion about a topic is a big key to the success of what you're writing. It will infuse every portion of your story.

Stuart Jaffe said...

Alex - Very cool. Really knowing a subject like fighter jets opens up whole realms of coolness that most authors can't come up with because we lack that specific knowledge.

Michael - Passion is the key to most things in life. Without it, we're just going through the motions. And when it comes to art, the audience can almost always tell.

Mel Chesley said...

Absolutely write what you are passionate about. I am writing what I know simply because I have a pretty vivid imagination!

Thanks, Stuart, for dropping by and sharing with us!

Unknown said...

That's a really good method. I like the idea of blues music as a magic system too.

If I can incorporate drinking my own bodyweight in coffee into a magic system I'll be set - it's more or less all that I know :)

Stuart Jaffe said...

Mel -- Once more, thanks for having me. It's been fun.

Jamie -- I can see it. In order to cast a spell, the body needs an extreme jitter-level that only massive amounts of caffeine can produce. Perhaps the different coffee beans are needed for certain spells. Oh, there's a lot of possibility here!