Sunday, January 15, 2017

Creating Magic Systems

Guest Post by Edward Willett

Edward Willett is the award-winning author of more than 50 books of science fiction, fantasy and nonfiction for readers of all ages.

The Space-Time Continuum: Creating Magic Systems

Most fantasy stories include magic: that’s what makes them fantasy. (In fact, if I had to distinguish between fantasy and science fiction, I’d say, “The fantastical stuff in fantasy is ascribed to magic. The fantastical stuff in science fiction is ascribed to advanced technology.”)

However, different writers take different approaches to the use of magic in stories. In older books of the fantastic (think The Lord of the Rings), magic is (in the words of Brian Niemeier, winner of the inaugural Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel in 2016 for Souldancer) “mysterious, ineffable, and unpredictable,” whereas in most modern fantasy, magic is more likely to work “like a technology that we can systematize.” It’s the latter form of magic that has given rise to the term “magic system”: the rules established by a writer of fantasy to which the magic in his books adhere.

The designing of such systems seem to be a topic of endless fascination for those interested in writing fantasy, which is presumably why Niemeier wrote his essay, “How to Design Magic Systems," from which I just quoted. It’s also why I was on a panel entitled “How to Build a Consistent and Original Magic System” at the 2014 edition of the annual—and highly recommended—Calgary writing conference When Words Collide.

The star attraction of that panel was not, alas, me, but rather Guest of Honour Brandon Sanderson, widely acknowledged as among the best at crafting interesting magic systems for his bestselling novels.

Over the years, Sanderson has formulated his approach into laws, three of which (so far) he has explicated on his website, starting with his First Law: “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.”

Sanderson recounts how, while on a convention panel on magic early in his career, he stated as a given that, “Obviously, magic has to have rules,” and was shocked to be challenged by the other writers. They claimed systematizing magic robbed fantasy of its sense of wonder: that sense of the “mysterious, ineffable, and unpredictable.”

Sanderson calls that kind of magic “soft magic,” and he and Niemeier point out the problem it sets for writers: because it has no rules, it cannot be used to regularly solve story problems without becoming a deus ex machina. Since we don’t know what magic can and can’t do, every time magic is used to solve a problem faced by the characters the reader is left wondering why magic doesn’t solve all the characters’ problems—which of course would destroy the narrative.

Systematized magic, on the other hand, which Sanderson terms “hard magic,” operates in accordance with strict rules. Looking at my own books, in Magebane, magic requires energy in the form of heat, so the palace has giant coal furnaces; in my Masks of Aygrima series, magic is literally mined, and most magic-users must have a store of it handy in order to perform magic; and in my Shards of Excalibur series, my young protagonist can dissolve into water and travel anywhere it goes—but only fresh water, and she can only reappear in water deep enough to submerge her (giving swimming pools and ponds an unusually prominent role in the narrative).

These limitations heighten narrative tension, because magic is not always available to solve problems, and shape the plot, as the characters struggle to find ways to use their magic.

Or, as Sanderson puts it in his Second Law: “Limitations > Powers”; it’s by putting limits on magic that you make it interesting. Superpowers are a form of magic, and as Sanderson points out, how dull a character would Superman be if not for his Achilles’ Heel, Kryptonite? (For that matter, how dull a character would Achilles himself have been if not for his famous heel?)

Sanderson’s Third Law is, “Expand what you have before you add something new.” Or, as he sums it up, “A brilliant magic system for a book is less often one with a thousand different powers and abilities—and is more often a magic system with relatively few powers that the author has considered in depth.” This ties in with the previous laws quite nicely. The more magical powers that are available, the easier it is for someone to solve their problems with magic, which may result in a flabby narrative.

Note, despite Sanderson calling them “laws,” they are of course nothing of the sort—more “suggestions from experience.” After all, wizards in the Harry Potter books certainly have “a thousand different powers and abilities,” and limitations seem few, but the J.K. Rowling did all right.

In truth, there is only one absolute law of creating magic systems: it has to result in a better story.

Or, as Niemeier sums it up: “In magic as in everything else, make it fun for the reader.”

Edward Willett's website is He also produces a biweekly newsletter which includes excellent advice for writers, such as this post on creating magical systems. You can subscribe for free on his website.

My favorite Willett novel is his space opera, "Lost in Translation": a great fun read, and its anti-racist, anti-war message has never been more timely.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Is Good Grammar Racist, Sexist and Classist?

Here is a thoughtful two minute video from the Guardian newspaper on why Grammar snobs are patronizing, pretentious and just plain wrong", by Mona Chalabi.

Once one gets past the rather mean-spirited depiction of the 'typical' grammar snob, I'm more in agreement with Chalabi than not, though I think what she is missing is the question of audience. If I'm editing a novel and I miss catching that a character says 'less' instead of 'fewer', well, that's not as big a deal as if I miss that in a government paper which represents more formal writing; and if I miss that in an academic journal, I might actually be allowing a significant error through because precision of language is crucial in describing an experiment or scientific concclusion. The example Chalabi uses of how of the dictionary recognizes modern usage more readily than grammar snobs is the word 'literally', but her narration glosses over the fact that we can see in the video that the dictionary entry clearly identifies the updated meaning as 'informal'. So if my daughter uses 'literally' to mean metaphorically as she rants about her roommate, I'm not about to interrupt her with a correction. That would be mean spirited and silencing. But if she uses 'literally' metaphorically in a paper she's handing into her English prof, I'm going to point that out. I try not to interrupt speakers with grammar objections, and I'm okay with informal English in emails and blog posts or whatever; but if one is writing in a formal context, formal English is to be preferred, though clarity trumps all, always.

One reason to have editors is to help people express themselves in formal contexts when they have something significant to say and want to get it right: When speaking to power, it's sometimes helpful to speak Power's dialect.

But I agree with Chalabi that constantly correcting someone's grammar is silencing. The meaning of the phrase "I ain't never" is perfectly clear, even though grammatically incorrect for formal English. Recognizing that it is part of black dialect is important because, for generations, blacks underperformed in schools partly because every time black students spoke in their mother dialect, a white teacher (or assimilated black) would interrupt and tell them that they were wrong. I'm not sure the Ebonics movement is entirely the correct response here, but ignoring the issues of class and race and gender conflict inherent in language is worse. There are more English speakers in India than there are in England, so it's not entirely clear to me why only the Queen's English counts. If I am editing a novel by a Chinese Canadian, and the author's language usage shows vestiges of her Chinese heritage, I'm not sure I want to entirely edit that out. Maybe yes if it's a fantasy novel intended for a general mass (probably American) market; but if it's a novel about life in China, or about the Chinese immigrant experience in Canada, not so much! I want to retain the author's authentic voice, as if she were talking directly to the reader, though enough editing so that doesn't become a barrier to reader's comprehension. For me, clarity is always king. The reader should feel as if the author is speaking directly to her, but not with such a thick accent as to not be understandable. The trick is to find the right balance between reader effort (sometimes the reader should have to work a little to understand!) and reader comfort (but they have to keep reading!). That, in part, depends on the significance of the work (literature or escapism; is the reader trying to experience a culture or solve a whodoneit?) and in part on the intention/wishes of the author on dimensions such as critical acclaim vs sales....

So yes, interesting video expressing an important point. As an editor, I have a responsibility to help the writer fit the grammar to the intended purpose and audience, with the default as 'fix the grammar' because that's why clients seek out editors. But outside of paid editing work, if they don't ask, don't tell.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Writing Tip: How to keep going...

One of the harder aspects of writing is how to keep going without getting stuck on a scene or idea. One important trick I learned (the hard way) was to 'stop on the clock', mid-sentence if necessary. For years (literal years working on my dissertation) I made the mistake of finishing for the day when I had successfully finished a section and it seemed a logical place in the writing to break for the day. The problem was, having finished a section the day before, each day I started by facing a new section—a new blank page, with no idea where to start. I spent much of each day trying to get started, and came to dread sitting down to write, or, you know, getting up in the morning. I eventually realized that the only days when I didn't start with hours of fruitless angst and wondering how I was going to start the next section was when my wife had pulled me away from work the previous day before I had finished for the day. Consequently, I was anxious to get back to work to finish what I had been going to say the day before. Instead of dreading starting, I started the day wildly getting down on paper things I already knew I wanted to say...which momentum generally carried me through the day. Having finally recognized the pattern, I learned that (for me at least) stopping at a set time meant that I knew at least the next few sentences I needed to write next morning, and a good way to start the day meant a better day writing generally. (The other benefit of this approach is that it is also easier to respond to other people's needs, since picking up the kids from school at 3:30 was a deadline to stop on the clock, and no longer an interruption until I could finish my thought.)

Stumbled across an NPR broadcast today that made the same point, part of the now defunct How To Do Everything podcast. The Nov 4, 2016 episode "StoryCorn" starts (approximately 1 minute in) with an interview with writer Eric Larson who makes the same point, if somewhat more eloquently. Larson also tempts himself to his writer's desk with permission to eat a double-stuffed Oreo cookie with his coffee when he first sits down to write. Worth a listen!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Actual Self-Publishing Experience

I see a lot of rubbish about self-publishing on the Internet, most of which comes down to some sort of get-rich-quick schemes. There are hundreds of supposedly successful self-published authors offering to sell you their (self-published) secret to their success—which won't actually apply to anyone else because they were either (1) an early adopter who used this or that social media technique (trick), which won't now work for you, the too-late adopter, because consumers are wise to that one now; or (2) they were already well known authors or bloggers or Youtubers or etc with an established readership who simply carried that reputation/readership with them as they cut out the middlemen (i.e., dropped the publisher(s) who invested to made that author's reputations in the first place). Most new writers won't be able to duplicate their success, but nevertheless fork over $$ for books or courses from these self-appointed gurus, and then end up selling maybe 100 copies of their novel, no matter how slaveishly they adhered to the suggested formula.

It is therefore extremely refreshing to come across actual facts about the actual experience of an actual author....for free.

Arthur Slade is a successful Canadian YA author: he has won major awards (e.g., the prestigious TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award and the Governor General's Award for Children's Literature) and sold a lot of books (i.e., makes a living at it). My oldest read a number of his books (e.g., The Hunchback Assignments series and ,Jolted) during the crucial period when she was deciding whether reading was really worth the effort and I credit Arthur for being one of several authors who pushed her over the edge to 'yes'. And I've used his novel about high school cliques ,Tribes, as an assigned reading in my course for student teachers.

Now Arthur is experimenting with self-publishing, and what's of potential interest to readers here, is that he is documenting what he has done, step by step, what it cost, and how the whole process has gone (so far):

  • Why I am Self-Publishing in which Arthur talks about his reasons for self publishing his vampire novel(s); arranging for editing and book design and so on.
  • Part 2 where Arthur discusses how it all went a month after the book's launch (complete with charts!)

It's all pretty useful information, and gives one a real feel for costs and income—though one month is still pretty early and we can assume the book will continue to earn for some time to come.

[Arthur has also previously talked about self-publishing his backlist as ebooks if that could apply to you.]

You will note that even though Arthur is a critically acclaimed writer (see awards above) such that we can assume the quality of the manuscript is high (reader reviews would seem to confirm this); and even though he has an established readership ready and willing to buy his books, and he is pretty savvey about social media and so on, he didn't exactly sell a billion-zillion copies. I'm guessing that he did about as well in terms of sales the first month as if he had gone to a small press (which would have covered the expenses, but then taken half the net income) so those figures look pretty reasonable to me.

The question then becomes, what are the implications for a new writer?

Well, the most obvious moral is: don't quit your day job. If someone tells you can write a book and make your fortune, and you buy their book or take their course or etc, expecting that to happen, then I'd like to introduce you to my cousin from Nigeria who has this really interesting proposition for you.

The second, perhaps less obvious moral, is that if you're going to do self-publishing right, then you have to be the publisher, and hire the editor, cover artist, and book designer etc for which the publisher normally pays.

I note that Arthur says he paid an absurdly small amount for editing, but that just means that Arthur's manuscript didn't require much actual editing. (I mentioned that he is an award-winning author, right?) New author's can expect to pay more for editing because their manuscripts are likely to require more work, and perhaps several iterations, to get to publishable standards, which therefore requires more hours of editing.

[Professional editors charge between $40- $60/hour, but one can often find colleagues with whom to swap edits, or qualified friends to do some of the initial editing for free, so that the professional editors are not starting from scratch, as it were. Going to a small press is another way to avoid paying out for expensive editing, since editing and cover art and book design and distribution are what the publisher brings to the table—and distribution of ebooks is probably about as easy for you as for them,'s just really about the editing/art/design. (Oh, and publishers may add a layer of branding, assuming they are a credible publisher (like, say, CZP).]

Realistically—which is to say—statistically, most self-published books only sell 5-200 copies, depending how big one's family and circle of friends is, and how aggressively one is prepared to push the book on neighbours and one's church congregation. I'm considering self-publishing my collected short stories, once I have enough published stories to fill a book. I have a bit of a reputation among fans, and people seem to like my stories, so I can allow my ego to daydream about such a collection eventually making sales into the 50 copy range, but I'm no Arthur Slade, so I do not expect to ever match his self-published sales figures. So...we're talking chapbook, we're talking souvenir, we're talking self-fulfillment, but we're not talking about making a living, let alone making one's fortune. You've seen Arthur's figures... feel free to extrapolate that experience to your own situation.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Staying Out of Bookstores

[This was written in response to Paul Cipywnyk's "Where the Ink Meets the Road: Insights from Working in a Bookstore" posted in The Editor's Weekly the official blog of Editors Canada, Canada's national association of editors, Nov 15, 2016.]

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I used to love going into bookstores; now I mostly find them depressing.

As an acquisition editor, I am depressed knowing that the fabulous books I have acquired and edited are not even in the store, because the Indigo/Chapters/Smith/Coles monopoly chain made the decision not to carry independent publishers anymore, when it switched 50% of shelf space from books to cute stuff, because books weren't selling enough. Thankfully, the micro publisher (60 titles and growing!) I work for saw that coming and therefore survived that change when many other Canadian small presses folded overnight when they suddenly found themselves—not just effectively shut out of brick and mortar stores—but faced with six figure bills as their entire inventory was returned to them in one ruthless weekend.

As a critic and reviewer, I'm depressed when I see rows and rows of books in the SF/Fantasy section devoted to TV and movie series; to series written to a single formula; to the exact same book written by dozens of different authors all trying to catch the current fad by writing the predictable processed cheese designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator among consumers. It often feels like the big five publishers are so focused on predictable sell through that they have given up on taking risks, on caring about quality and innovation and promoting new authors. I know that perception isn't accurate, because I've met some of the editors at those big houses and they are fine upstanding individuals who love books as much as I do, and who are doing their best in a tough business. But I miss the days when presses were small and when the acquisition editor and the developmental editor were the same person and made the final decision based on their own tastes and gut feelings without having to worry about shareholders and the marketing department. When publishers were brands that readers could seek out to know that the editor shared their tastes and the reader could buy an unknown author or a new concept because they could trust the editor. Now the consumer can mostly trust that they won't be challenged by what they choose, won't have to think as they read, and will only feel what they've always felt reading the previus 80 Star Trek (or whatever) novels. As a writing coach, I am depressed because 95% of those who approach me for instruction want to know how they can become best sellers, how they can lose their voice and sound like every other author in the store. They want to know which of the current fads they can write to; or, better yet, can I tell them the secret of what the next fad will be. Or, how can they write like a 'gay person' (sic, I quoting here) or 'write black' or First Nations because so many writers guidelines these days say the publisher is open to/especially looking for LGBTQ/diverse authors, and these clients get upset with me when I raise about cultural appropriation. Or, I have to tell them to stop trying to be Margret Atwood (if they have graduated from university creative writing programs) or Robert Sawyer (if they are trying to write commercial genre fiction) because we already have Marget Atwood and Robert Sawyer and what we really need instead is their unique voice and their unique perspective and insight. And then we both get depressed when they ask me, 'Will I be able to make a living writing as myself' and I have to answer, 'Probably not, no'.

As an author, bookstores depress me because as I look around at the thousands of titles on the shelves—even ignoring all the processed cheese clogging the space and only looking at the authors I respect because they are pushing boundaries or allowing their uniquely Canadian voice to guide their writing—even if I just look at the books I love, there are so many more here (just today, not even talking about the turn over month to month—all those pallets of new books arriving each morning that Paul unpacks) l can never hope to read them all. If I cannot possibly buy and read all of their wonderful books, how I can I possibly expect anybody, anywhere, EVER to read my poor effort?

Not that my book is likely to ever end up in an actual brick and mortar store.

Most depressing of all, I can't remember the last time I actually went into a brick and mortar store. (To buy a book, I mean. I remember when I bought my daughter a leather bound notebook, and when I got the wife a coffee mug, and—well, you get the idea.) But I mostly read on my Kindle app or my Kobo, and when I finish a book, up pops a link to the next book by that author; or I take five minutes to search online for another title from CZP (the last great independent publisher in our genre) or from one of the small presses I follow because I know the editors, know the innovative fabulous work they are doing and know I won't find any of their books in the bookstore.

Don't get me wrong: "Where the Ink Hits the Road" is a great piece, and authors and editors should indeed occasionally visit bookstores to check out the real world of publishing. That there are still bookstores and readers at all is a positive thing! Not trying to argue that bookstores are out of date or that big publishers are evil or anything of that ilk. That would be nonsense. (I may be envious, but I'm not delusional, as some commentators on these issues appear to be.) Rather, just saying that we need to be careful when examining where the ink hits the pavement that we don't twist ourselves out of shape trying to figure out how to sell out to get a piece of that action. One should always start from one's own voice (or the client's voice, if you're the editor) and look for the market where that book belongs, and not start from the market and try to fit one's voice to it. The number of writers I've known over the years who've tried to write that Romance or SciFi novel to earn the big bucks, and failed miserably because they didn't even read romance themselves or know SF isn't not called scifi by anyone in the field, far exceeds the number (zero) who made that work for them. The authors I know who became successful all kept to their own voice and only became "overnight successes" after twenty years of nonstop effort to become the best writers they could become, ignoring fads and get quick rich schemes.

And who managed not to get so depressed about bookstores, and the economic realities of modern publishing/distribution, to give up writing completely.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Strangers Among Us Book Launch

The Strangers Among Us: Tales of Underdogs and Outcasts anthology book launch at When Words Collide was the most moving I have ever attended. Instead of doing readings, each author was asked to speak to where the idea for their story had come from. The authors all related personal stories of encounters with mental wellness issues: PTSD; lifelong anxiety; chronic depression; the suicide of a son; the death of friend.... It wasn’t just the authors who struggled to get through this portion of the program without crying.

Vanessa Cardui sings commissioned composition, "Strangers Among Us". (Photo: Bev Geddes)

A specially commissioned song, written and performed by Vanessa Cardui, was included as an intermission between author statements. Achingly beautiful, the song was about coping with ongoing thoughts of suicide. Putting poetry to music does not lessen the impact of saying these things out loud; on the contrary, the song cut right through the brain directly to the emotions. (Vanessa and her friend performed a second painfully wonderful song later in the program depicting the downward spiral of alcoholism.) Then more author stories.

Authors listening intently (Photo: Bev Geddes)

I presume they placed me last to speak because they knew my story in the anthology is about toasters not trauma, and had decided that having me go last might provide a bit of buffer between the emotionality of the event and returning to the convention outside. That might have worked better if I were not myself having a bit of difficulty holding it together, though in my role as listener rather than as speaker.

It wasn't all doom and gloom. (Photo: Bev Geddes)

Door prizes were distributed, announcements made, thanks said, and everybody went home.

Of course, the major takeaway is that in any group of 10 people, 9 of them will have some deep connection with mental health issues. (10 out of 10 if you count ‘denial’ as an issue. See “The Missing Elephant” in Playground of Lost Toys for my shortcomings...) I should say that the anthology itself is actually surprisingly optimistic. I don’t want to leave the impression that this is a cover-to-cover tear-jerker. Far from it. Just as the immediacy of the launch event was something else entirely. So honoured to be included in the anthology, and so glad to have been able to make this very memorable and touching launch.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

My Schedule at When Words Collide Festival, Calgary, August 11-14, 2016

As mentioned previously, I am one of the Guests of Honour at When Words Collide Festival this year. In contrast to my limited participation at Limestone Genre Convention in Kingston (see previous post) I'm pretty booked at WWC, so thought I'd post my schedule in case any of the topics are of interest, and also to show typical workday of a GoH at writers' conventions.

Note that the Friday AM Masterclass is a 3 hour workshop that requires prior registration and a small fee in addition to membership in the WWC convention; the Five Rivers pitch sessions are free to convention members but require signup for a time slot on first come, first served basis; Festival Guest readings, Book Launches, the autograph session (8-10 Saturday), and the merchant's room are open to the public; all other events are restricted to registered WWC attendees.

  1. Thursday Aug 11 Guest Dinner [Private Function for Convention Committee]
  2. Thursday 7-9 PM Fish Creek Public Library GoH Readings - Open to Public (2 hours)
  3. Friday 9-Noon  How to Work with an Editor (3 hours) [Master Class workshop - requires prior registration & small fee]
  4. Friday 1-3 PM Festival Guest Readings (2 Hours) Open to the Public
  5. Friday 4 PM   Five Rivers Pitch Session (requires signup)
  6. Friday 5 PM    Common Manuscript Problems (panel)
  7. Friday 7-9 PM Festival  Guest of Honour Keynotes (2 hours)
  8. Saturday 10 AM How to Write a Good Pitch & Query (panel)
  9. Saturday 11 AM Five Rivers Pitch Session (requires signup)
  10. Saturday 12 PM Live Action Slush - Science Fiction (panel) 
  11. Saturday 2 PM  Five Rivers Publishing Presents (Double Book Launch; open to the public)
  12. Saturday 3 PM  An Hour with Robert Runté (presentation)
  13. Saturday 5 -6:30 PM  Steampunk Banquet (90 minutes)
  14. Saturday 6:30-7:30 evening Aurora Awards Ceremony (
  15. Saturday 8-10 PM  Private meeting with Essential Edits client (2 hours) [not part of WWC, just part of personal schedule!]
  16. Sunday 11 AM   What Makes for Good Non-Fiction (panel)
  17. Sunday 12 PM   Five Rivers Pitch Session (requires signup)
  18. Sunday 1 PM   Publisher's Panel: Novels (panel)
  19. Sunday 2 PM   Live Action Slush - High Fantasy (panel) 
  20. Sunday 3 PM   Five Rivers Pitch Session(requires signup)
  21. Sunday 4-5 PM  Laksa Media Book Launch (open to the public)

So I make that out to be 21 scheduled events for 28 hours over three and a half days. So toss in putting in an appearance at the after hours parties and the usual convention socializing, and that's pretty much full on for the whole convention. Which is as it should be, and pretty much what I would be doing anyway if I were not a GoH, because I love all this stuff.