The Writing Life


Today, almost two years since I started looking for full-time work, I found some. I’ll be teaching 8th grade English at a charter school starting Monday morning.

“Two years” is a long time, but it’s not as though I spent 100 weeks constantly pushing out applications. No, the first stage of the job hunt was job-hunt academic style: compiling ridiculous portfolios, forking over money to Interfolio to manage and send the documents, then sitting on my hands for months waiting for any hint of broken silence. (And looking at the job wiki to discover when candidates had been invited to interview and the silence was meaningful rather than negligent.)

I took some time off from job hunting, too, once my spouse and I decided to move the family down to Texas. I was recovering from my decision to leave and taking care of the kids full time. There was no reason (I thought) to begin looking for a job 1200 miles away. I had not even decided what kind of jobs to look for. Soon enough, I was busy with the move.

Once we got to Texas, I started hunting work in earnest. Despite an initially rosy job outlook for my significant other, neither of us had landed steady employment in our first six post-move weeks. My spouse started doing some face-painting gigs, and I started substitute teaching. Reluctantly. We needed the money. My daughter was in pre-K, home at 10:45 in the morning. We could call on relatives to help out watching her (and my son when he got home around 3), but for a long while parental responsibilities kept me from subbing every day, especially once my spouse found a full-time job.

I kept applying for jobs in that stretch. Technical writing. Copywriting. Advertising. Intro-level design jobs. Proofreading. Editorial. One coordinator position that I particularly wanted that was nearly identical to the one I’d had between my master’s and doctorate. I got zilch. As with the academic searches, the “answer” was almost always silence. The few actual rejection notices I got were HR boilerplate. The situation was disheartening (and I commented/complained about it regularly here on Walking Ledges).

In March, I got my first long-term sub assignment. It was at a pretty “easy” school with a reasonable socio-economic mix of students. Some were startlingly wealthy, but the school stopped short of being a suburban island. Getting to teach, to have some control over the lessons and deliver content rather than worksheets…that was good. Combined with the fact that I had finally realized I needed more (or different) qualifications on my resumé, my experiences as a long term sub were enough to push me into an alternative certification program that I had rejected when first looking for work.

At the beginning of the summer, everything looked rosy. We bought a house. I was certain that I’d get a job before the school year started. When that didn’t happen, I started to worry. I was, this week, ready to go back to substitute teaching and stoically get through another year deferring the full-time work I’d been seeking for so long. I was pondering supplemental entrepreneurialism. Then I got an interview invitation. I was invited back to do a teaching demonstration. Twenty minutes after I wrapped up a short lesson on predictions and expository writing, I had a job offer.

A year ago, I would have been skeptical if you’d told me what I’d be doing now. Two years ago, in the final throes of my dissertation and before I’d discovered how chilly the job market is, I wouldn’t have believed you at all. I did not spend most of a decade studying music so I could  teach 13 year olds about expository writing. Here’s the thing, though: that time is already spent.

I could cling to that investment and try to fit life to a Procrustean bed. I tried that for a while…and it only made me miserable and angry. I’ve come as close I’ll ever be to being a professor. I try not to spend too much time on regrets. I got to spend a lot of time with my kids. I completed a doctorate. It’s time for the next thing.

It is exciting and it is daunting and everything that a new opportunity should be. It’s not perfect, but it is in so many respects a first job. Those aren’t perfect. This one is Pretty Good. If there’s anything I’ve learned in getting through and out of grad school, it’s that you take Pretty Good when you can get it. Even if it takes two years.


Full-time employment will mean some changes here at Walking Ledges. The three posts I’ve managed each week for the last month will drop back down to two. Nicking from Novels will run on Mondays. The other post of the week—on writing, postac, teaching, or maybe even music—will come out Wednesday or Thursday. I am not abandoning my writing. I’m doing NaNo this year and should have my first novel drafted by the end of this weekend. This is still the place to come if you want a first crack at my writing. With fewer blog posts, I plan to post short updates via Facebook  and Twitter . Feel free to follow me there if you’re keen on the latest news of me.


Find and Replace

I am working in feverish fits and starts to get the last few thousand words into my first draft of Ghosts of the Old City. It was supposed to be volume one of “The Fairworth Chronicles.” (That is, in fact, what my Scrivener project is called.) A few weeks ago, I read a blog post about names and languages, along with another about a writer having to rename her protagonists to move them away from stereotypes. The combination of those two posts set the niggling worms of doubt to work at the back of my mind. Sometimes—this time—those worms were simply the precursors of an uncomfortable but necessary change. I have to find one of my heroes a replacement surname.

I loved “Fairworth” as a surname. It sounds great. It has interesting connotations for a character who doesn’t always think of himself as worth much, and particularly for a family that has done some pretty unworthy things. It also just works for a pulp hero. Those characteristics were particularly important for Maedoc’s original incarnation, years and years ago, as a character for a short-lived online game. (The game never got off the train it started on.) The concept for that character—“unlucky dilettante who sees ghosts”—didn’t change much for the novel, but the novel has given that thumbnail a chance to develop into a full character.

More importantly, I’ve developed my own world around him. That game had trains and elven cults fighting the erosion of magic (with dynamite!) and a world vaguely defined by a recent war between magicians and technologists. I didn’t really keep any of that, instead building a culturally divided city, partly made of magic letters. There are humans and, in the background, seal-people—no elves or dwarves or (FSM forbid) gnomes. There are trains but not automatons or dirigibles or other steampunk staples.

…and that world has its own languages. More importantly, I’ve worked hard to avoid it becoming some undiscovered part of England. One language is based loosely on Bulgarian and associated with a culture formerly reliant on horses. The other language features a phonemic rune alphabet. Neither has a place for “Fairworth.” The name makes it too easy to think of the faux-Bulgarian Parukhi as British (and thus substituting France or a vaguely-defined Far East for the opposing Shehru rune alphabet culture). It also just doesn’t fit with all the place names I’ve used. I had, at one point, a half-baked theory about the Parukhi aristocracy all having adjective+noun or noun+noun names: Fairworth, Stormcliff, Briarwood, usw. The Parukhi commoners had one-word surnames drawn from common objects: Wood, Needle, whatever. (Gene Wolfe does a lot with those object-names in his Book of the Long Sun, by the by.) In theory, it’s not a bad idea. In practice, there’s absolutely no spot to explain or demonstrate that in the novel. I’d end up with something forced or confusing. Never mind that even with that distinction, squashing together English words for names just doesn’t fit with all of the other things I’ve created.

So I spent Sunday afternoon playing with Google translate and trying out different surnames. I’m testing one of them now, but am not wholly sold on it. It’s hard to take a name I’ve been living with for over a year and replace it. My initial feelings are that it loses some of the sonic “essence” of Maedoc, but deepens the sense of his family history. Given that the name was originally created for a character with minimal background, this isn’t surprising. I think the change will ultimately help anchor poor Maedoc to the world, make him more a part of his family (not necessarily a good thing for him!) and help the world stand better on its own. Like so many things in writing and in life: necessary, but not necessarily fun at the time.

In the meanwhile, there will be much find and replace. So much find and replace.

…So I Built It

So here I am trying to build something. Thanks for coming. I hope I do my job well enough to draw you back.” —The end of my first post

That was 77 posts and most of a year ago. I had sketched out some ideas for a blog in one of my moleskines (I think using a fountain pen, even). I jumped into producing content before I’d really designed the blog, setting it up using a grey and orange color scheme that unintentionally mimicked Steve Brust’s Dream Cafe. I intended that the blog be “something about writing.” A few weeks later, I published Of Dreams, Carrots, and Towers, which was picked up by Minnesota Public Radio’s Higher Ed blog. Suddenly I was a #postac blogger, too.

The last year has been a snake eating its own tail. The kids went off to school today—their first day in the new school. I am at home at my improvised standing desk, unemployed. At this time last year, I was busy hurling my resume at anything writing related. I wasn’t sure I’d get any of the jobs I applied for, but I didn’t despair. (That came later.) This year, I’m coming off three weeks of Not Getting Hired as a teacher. I had a few interviews—some went well, one went so poorly that I withdrew from consideration. There’s still a chance I’ll get a full time position for this school year (enrollment numbers continue to wiggle, and teaching positions with them), but there’s also a chance that I will be stuck as a substitute teacher for the foreseeable future. On the plus side, I don’t owe my program more money until I’m hired. On the minus side, substitute teaching isn’t the most remunerative endeavour.

If the snake has been gnawing its tail, it has also grown: I am happier than I was a year ago. Most days, I’m over my breakup with academia. Many days, I feel like a writer. I have not fallen in love with Texas, but I am learning to tolerate it, to appreciate that I can get decent avocados year round. I get to see one of my nephews and most of my in-laws on a regular basis. I can swap date nights with my sister-in-law. I haven’t managed to play ultimate year-round yet, but I know it’s possible to do without ever having to decide whether cleats or tennis shoes are better for the day’s snow and ice mix. (Next summer I don’t expect to be training for a new career and moving into a new house, which should help get me on the field.)

I would really like for something to go according to plan. The shine has come off the optimism of June. It was baffled optimism even at the time, but as little as two weeks ago I really felt that everything was going to work out and I’d be able to busy myself with day to day troubles and worry less about my personal trajectory. There is a hell of a lot going on in the world that needs to change. It’s hard to work on that when you’re swallowed in a job…but it’s also hard to work on that when you’re busy with the algebra of pay checks and due dates.

In the meantime, I am trying to take advantage of the quiet house to write. I have fewer than 10,000 words to go to complete my first draft of Ghosts of the Old City. I’d like to write them soon enough that I can make a pass through the draft in September, spend October planning the sequel, and then try to repeat last year’s National Novel Writing Month win. I still have the secret project that was supposed to launch in July and didn’t (because moving). There are many things to write.

As for Walking Ledges? It’s one of those things. I’ll continue to be up front about the challenge and opportunities I encounter as a #postac and as a writer. I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate my reading goals into the blog—more on that later this week. I may occasionally write about music. (I’ve only got a friggin’ PhD in it. No reason to schweigen about it.) I should have some cool announcements in the next six months.

In the meantime…that last line of my first post works well as the last line of this one. Thank you for reading, whether you got here from a #postac-tagged tweet, Freshly Pressed, or through a Google search for “who was the composer who was way too good.” (Really happened!) Thank you to my handful of commenters. Thank you for the clicks on the like button at the bottom of my posts. Thanks for the retweets and shares. I hope I can keep doing my job well enough to draw you back.

Reading for a Different Kind of Job

I finally have a library card again. Among the things I learned in this last move: I have too many books. Even just my fantasy fiction collection (diminished somewhat from the boxes I left at my parents’) fills up a whole wide shelving unit. I don’t regret having those books; the ones I’ve kept are the ones that have some combination of quality, re-readable-ness, and sentimental value. I just no longer feel the need to own the books I read.

And I need to be reading more. Graduate school turns reading into a job. There were semesters in which I was responsible for reading 500+ pages of scholarship every week. Reading stops being fun. I grew up reading for pleasure, and still do occasionally. As a writer, though, it has to be more often than occasionally, and it’s seldom just for pleasure. I’ve written about this before, but it’s something I’m reminding myself of now that my family is settling into the new house and we are shifting gears for the impending start of the school year. Reading good books makes me want to write ones like them. Reading bad books makes me want to get more good books out into the world. Win-win.

I’m pulling some inspiration on this from my former teammate Mike Dariano. Mike is one of those few people whom I feel closer to in the social media age than I did when we were actually going to the same school. This isn’t because we actually share stuff; it’s because we’ve ended up with strangely parallel lives. We’ve both put in time as adjuncts and years of being stay-at-home dads. We both write. We both try and use wiles to keep up with younger legs on the ultimate field. Mike, though, is scads more organized than I am, and works much more consciously toward improving himself and his work. He’s blogged about his projects in reading more, buying less, using Evernote, and half a dozen other things. (I’m particularly enjoying his recent stuff about incorporating Stoic principles into modern life.) Mike also has a new e-book out on building reading into your life.

Which brings me back to the library. I had a library card in Minneapolis. I got it the first week we were back in the Cities from Ohio, largely because I needed a card to use the internet at the library (a necessity until I could get internet at the apartment). When the kids were old enough, we used the library card all the time to check out children’s books. It was rare for me to check out anything for myself. Part of that was the grad school reading=work thing I mention above. Part of it was the fact that getting a toddler and an infant through the library did not leave much leeway for the lone grownup to explore the stacks. These days, my kids are old enough to look contentedly at the books they’ve picked out while dad finds a few to check out for himself. (My seven-year old is a voracious and frighteningly fast reader.)

On Thursday, the three of us went to the library here in Round Rock. The kids got five books each. I got two for myself. The first was Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, which I’ve wanted to read for ages and have never gotten around to. The second is a book I randomly grabbed from the fantasy/sci-fi section. It has a gryphon on the cover and something to do with elemental magic. That’s as much as I can recall without having it in front of me. The grab-bag is sort of the point. Every trip to the library, my plan is to make one careful selection of something generally deemed worthwhile. There are swathes of the fantasy “canon” that I haven’t touched, and some literary fiction I want to get my hands on. The other selection will be something arbitrary. I expect there will be good books and bad book and many that fall into the range my mother calls “airplane books:” good enough to read when you’re stuck in a metal tube hurling through the sky. Mostly, I need to get more novel words (ha!) through my brain to keep my own figurative fields from going fallow.

My vague plan is that posts about these books will gradually replace my writings on #postac. I’ve said before that I’ never intended that Walking Ledges become a #postac blog. I still am one, but I’m not sure I will have new things to say about it every week. I’ll still keep my annotated postac page, and I’ll continue to write about my transition from teaching nominal adults to teaching people who aren’t yet old enough for a driver’s license. For now, you’ll have to excuse me. I’ve got some books to read.

Cook, Love, Write

The other day, my wife asked me why I cook fancy meals even when I’m really busy. I’m not sure that what I cook counts as fancy most of the time, but July certainly counts as busy—moving into a new house, taking subject certification exams, finishing up the alternative certification course proper, and trying to find a job for the next school year. That doesn’t count writing or my (modest) CampNaNoWriMo project for the month. I do cook dinner three or four nights each week, and often “re-condition” leftovers on one or two of the others. (Reconditioning usually involves adding more garlic and either a different leftover or frozen vegetables.)

It takes time. It makes dirty dishes, which take more of my time later. I could totally get away with using the slow cooker of beans I make every week to do most of the meals, supplemented with pots of rice and pasta or another pot of something stewish. My kids would be happy eating only rice, noodles, and fruit. The only person in the household who is really interested in having different things for dinner most nights is…me. So why do I do it?

Mostly, my dad is to blame. He cooked dinner every night he wasn’t busy cooking at the family restaurant. It used to baffle me how he could spend 60 or 80 hours a week cooking and running a restaurant and still want to be in the kitchen when he was home. I understand it better now: my dad really, really liked to cook. He also liked to cook new dishes, things that weren’t on the restaurant menu and never would be. The kitchen was home and laboratory and studio for him.

Cooking was also important to him—and now to me—because it’s an offering to the family. You’ve probably seen articles (and listicles) about “love languages.” Cooking was one of my dad’s. He liked food, but he loved to cook for his family and friends. That’s how he showed he cared, especially when other things were going poorly. Putting something tasty on the table and getting us all to sit down to eat it together was easier for him than hugs and words.

I like words. I love writing. Despite that, I’ve never written very much for the people I love. My wife is awesome, but I’ve only written her a handful of things in the 13 years we’ve been together (unless you count the many, many e-mails that went back and forth while we were living in different states). I’ve spent many more hours cooking for her than writing for her. I might even cook too much for her. There are things she likes to eat that she also likes to cook, and I don’t always give her the chance to cook them.

When I write, I like subtlety, allusion, and implication. That’s part of the reason why it’s not always easy for me to write for (or to) the ones I love. I can’t just come out and say it, you know? Big displays of real emotion are tough. Fictional characters can channel my real emotions without it being so…blatant. The extra layer protects my raw feelings. Even here on the blog, I hide behind quasi-anonymity. Some things are easier to say in front of strangers (even if many of my friends and family do read this blog).

I would love to claim as much control over my cooking as I exercise over my language. I can’t. My “secret techniques” are mostly garlic, fresh ingredients, and knowing how to avoid overcooking things. I know my way around a spice rack and a grocery store (thanks to my dad), but not enough to have precise targets in mind when I cook. As in horseshoes and hand grenades, close usually counts. I cook edible dishes that taste good more often than not. They’re mostly healthy, and when they’re not I make sure they’re especially tasty.

Most of all, though, I cook things for the people I care about. I want us to sit down and eat together. I want us to enjoy each other’s company as much as I want us to enjoy what we’re eating. That’s even more true when we have guests. I might not be able to say “I love you, I am glad you are part of my life and at this table with me.” I might have a hard time writing my wife the poems she deserves (but I haven’t forgotten the sestina I promised you!). But I can fill a table with food, and the kids can set the places, and we can all sit and eat together. That’s why I do it: because there are some things that are easier to say with food than words.

Recycling (Literary, not Literal)

I’ve mentioned Imperial Secrets a few times before—it was a writing “game” I was part of for years and years. It was my first opportunity to spend long periods of time (and lots of words) with the same characters. I also wrote with some fantastic creators, a few of whom are published authors now. We created the world as we wrote our stories. It didn’t always make sense—the geographer in me cringed at some of the terrain juxtapositions, and the historian in me always wanted the background to be more coherent. (Weaving disparate chunks into a coherent history was one of my major projects in support of the game.)

I have almost everything I wrote for Imperial Secrets. The question is figuring out what to do with it. While my main characters are my own, as are many supporting players, there are characters in the stories that belong to others. All of the characters belong to the world. How can I remove them from what made them?

Recycling. That’s how. It’s work, though, distinct from simple re-use. Recycling a character (or a setting or a plot) involves figuring out what lies at its core. You don’t want to melt the character down completely—you might a well start from scratch at that point—you want to get it soft around the edges so you can re-mold it to a new purpose. What makes the character worth keeping? What’s compelling?

One of my unfinished novels involves a recycling of Leor Naechtweard, a character who, in Imperial Secrets, started as a noblewoman’s guard and eventually rose to something between fame and infamy as a bloodthirsty shape-shifting duke. Leor’s exploits (and the stories I dragged other players into) had him defeating demons and using a civil war to seize political power. He was also entangled with a different demoness who started as his co-guard. Leor was over the top, a character who fits a high fantasy framework that I had, by my mid-20s, abandoned. The involvement with other characters—often started because I wanted to write with their authors rather than any organic cause—made him messy to extract from L’Isle (the core setting for Imperial Secrets).

I have something like 600 single-spaced pages of Leor’s posts. To get anything out of them, I had to start stripping away external things. The first obvious thing to go was the demon sword. I’d had fun with it, but it did not fit the character’s arc at all. The political stuff could all go, too, because its origins were in Imperial Secrets promotion system. The love interest went by the wayside because I couldn’t possibly imagine replacing her author (who had all sorts of technical issues but was a fantastic storyteller).

What was left? Leor had a few key characteristics. He was ruthless but not vindictive (if I were hanging a D&D alignment on him, he’d be lawful evil). That ruthlessness went hand in hand with a nearly feral outlook. Imperial Secrets Leor was closely connected to wolves, both physically and mystically. Recycled Leor would have to develop some similar kind of connection. There were a few bits of the mystical backstory that were entirely mine and did not depend on the Imperial Secrets world—the most prominent were the Three Daughters of the Moon, a triple oracle that would appear to Leor in visions.

I eventually spun the outline for a novel out of those characteristics. I built up a shell of a world around them and wrote about three chapters before grad school ate my capacity to sustain nonacademic projects. The character translated beautifully to a low-fantasy setting of isolated wilderness villages and dangerous spirit-pacts. I might go back there some day.

I’m undergoing the same process with one of my other characters right now for the project I was supposed to launch three weeks ago. It’s an interesting process. There’s nothing like going through ten-year old work to make you grimace at your tastes and linguistic stumbles. There were some good moments, too, even if the character often behaved like an abstraction rather than a person. Trying to figure out what to “keep” has become more like trying to figure out what to “take.” Like Leor, this character (Hallas) had intimate ties to the Imperial Secrets setting. The character was concocted at an early moment in the game’s history when we had an overwhelming majority of evil characters and we felt we needed a white knight. So…I created a white knight who would, in fact, literally lead an order called the White Knights. (Those were another player’s creation, but the founding character had become a vampire. It’s complicated.) The stuff I’m working on now is high fantasy, but it’s much more nuanced than Imperial Secrets was at that age. I’m trying to keep only the best stuff.

Next question: is this even worth it? Why create new versions of old characters rather than concocting ones who will wholly fit a new project? It’s a valid concern. For Leor, but more particularly for Hallas, I feel like their stories weren’t done. There’s more to tell. Hallas, canonically, is dead. I martyred him to help end some metaplot stuff as Imperial Secrets was on its last legs. He was just getting interesting, though. I spent a lot of Imperial Secrets using him as a paladin who, while not lawful stupid, was nearly saintly in his piety and purity. On his penultimate story arc, he ran into some things that had the potential to complicate him. That’s what I want to explore going forward. What does a somewhat more realistic version of Hallas look like? How does he react to moral grey areas?

There’s another concern—is this “original?” Creatives tend to fetishize originality and, more often, raw novelty. We want to make something new. Recycled characters aren’t new. But we re-use ideas all the time. Composers do it constantly. (I did it occasionally as a composer; the tone row I used loosely in my master’s thesis was one that I’d first made for part of my undergraduate honors project.) Visual artists revisit the same subjects over and over again. I don’t feel bad about recycling old ideas…as long as I’m actually breaking them down and building them into something that fits.

Recycling literal waste takes energy. Artistic recycling—like any art-making—does, too.

Request to Join

I have a “secret” project in the works—perhaps foolishly, given all the other irons I have in the fire. Said project has numerous bits and pieces, but the one I’ve been struggling with is populating it with the right characters. I’m doing okay hammering out setting details (in part because some of them are recycled) and dealing with large-scale plot stuff. I have plans for some of the project’s general architecture. I’ve even spoken to an artist about doing some work on it.

Characters though…seriously. This is a rare problem for me. Ghosts of the Old City nearly populated itself. There have been consistency issues here and there, and I had to spend some time working out motivations at certain spots…but those problems had as much to do with structure and plot as with characterization. I can’t recall the last time I had writer’s block over characters.

Part of this is that I play role-playing games. Over the years, I have put together many, many characters. When I do them for games, the process is generally fast. In the midst of my struggles with Secret Project, I cranked out a fully-fleshed out character in the course of an afternoon…an afternoon in which I also played games with my kids and caught up on the dishes.  With the right motivation and a specific prompt, I’m fast.

With a specific prompt. Over on RPOL, new games have a “request to join” feature. The person running the game usually asks a set of questions that help give him or her a feel for both the character and the person playing it. Sometimes these RtJ prompts are detailed, sometimes they’re vague. Many game-runners request a writing sample; some require that it feature the applying character. My Secret Project isn’t a game I’m running, but…a prompt seemed like a good solution. Here’s the one I developed. These are questions that help me get a fix on my characters, tweaked for this particular project. I include a brief explanation of what the question does for me.

Names are important. I hardly ever do them first, though. Usually, they come in the middle of the process, late enough to pick a name that fits what I’ve got and early enough to help anchor the rest.

Something short, seldom even a complete sentence. Maedoc’s, for example, would be something like “bad-luck gentleman medium.” Zahra’s would be “adventurous fiddler-thief.”

What does the character do on a daily basis?
Usually, this amounts to a job description co-mingled with an overview of the character’s day. It gets me thinking about family and professional relationships. Those are important even for adventurous fantasy types. I don’t write characters without “day jobs”—even if the character’s a mercenary or professional spy, their days are not always worth being “on camera.” This question helps me think about what they’re doing during that time…and how plot conflicts can disrupt it in interesting ways.

How does the character prefer to solve problems?
Again, this helps me think about conflicts in future stories. Sometimes, the character will be able to do things the way she wants. Other times, her preferred method of conflict resolution won’t work, and I’ll get to see how she deals with backup plans or improvising.

Who does the character rely on?
Adventuring heroes too often exist in a vacuum. Sometimes it’s appropriate for a character to be a self-reliant loner. Usually, though, I like to have them tied into their social and physical environment. This question can help set the stakes for conflict. It also helps me fill in the world around the character—particularly important when I’m starting a new project.

History: Describe three incidents that set the character on his or her current course.
Fully-fleshed out life stories are overkill. They can also be constricting if you get into too much detail too early in the story process. Picking a handful of important moments is suggestive of the rest of the character’s history. Those moments also help reinforce some of the ideas deployed in answering the other questions. Again, the idea is to solidify the character enough to start writing the story proper. 

Physical descriptions are important. They don’t have to be photographic in their level of detail, but they do need to include the character’s prominent features. I particularly like to think about the character’s voice and way of moving. Those details help me pin down the character’s style. I find that more important than finding exactly the right word for “green” to describe a character’s eyes.

For a game, this is where I’d actually think about numbers. For Secret Project, this is just a short list of the special things the character can do. It’s a particularly flexible section, too, because I have no qualms tweaking characters’ skills to make the plot work. Once the plot gets going, I can worry about making these consistent.

Taken together, these questions are helping me through this round of writer’s block…which is good, because drafting material for the project is my assignment for the July edition of #CampNaNoWriMo.

Where Does Magic Live?

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
—Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future

Well and good. As a fantasy writer, though, I usually have to approach the question from the other direction: what (if anything) makes magic distinguishable from technology? Is it just a different kind of science, a matter of formulae and experimentation? Is it part of the fabric of the universe (or worse, midichlorians)? Is it an element of special souls? Of words? Of music? Is it woven into objects and made permanent, or is it ephemeral? If it’s any or all of those things, how magical is it? How does it defy expectations, and when should it fulfill them?

Over Memorial Day weekend, I reread large swathes of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels. I have lots of reasons to love those books. One is that LeGuin’s writing of magic—especially prominent with a wizard as her protagonist—is probably the best I know. LeGuin integrates magic seamlessly into the world, but also into her characters and stories. Magic is never just a prop or a trick. (More on this below.)

Well-written magic makes fantasy stories shine. Poorly-written or poorly-conceived magic can keep stories dull. Magic is an easy place to go astray. It’s too easy to slip towards a gaming conception of magic: wizards (and maybe priests) casts spells that mostly do big, obvious things—quantifiable things. There’s a spell for healing. A spell for fireballs. A spell for turning an orc into a newt. There’s not much magical about that, especially if you steal D&D’s Vancian fire-and-forget approach.

Broadly speaking, magic’s qualities depend on where you put it—the mind, the soul, the world, divinity, or in things.

Dungeons & Dragons: I cast magic missile at the darkness.

The early Dungeons & Dragons took its inspiration for magic from the works of Jack Vance. Vancian wizards basically wrote spells in their brain in some metaphysical equivalent to temporary tattoos. Casting a spell took it out of their minds. (Zelazny’s second Amber series uses a similar approach to “hanging” spells.) There was little fuss in D&D about where the magic came from. It was just sort of out there…unless you’re playing a cleric, in which case it behaves with identical rules but the power source is your deity of choice. It isn’t until you get into the higher levels of magic that the rules begin to bend away from a patchwork of the quasi-mundane.

Brust: Twists of Mind

In Brust’s work, magic is a series of tricks of the mind. You can manipulate energy directly (pre-Empire sorcery), through something called the Imperial Orb (sorcery), or through symbols (witchcraft). The energy is out there to be manipulated. Some characters have genetic predisposition to certain kinds of magic (particularly pre-Empire sorcery), but most can be learned by people with the resources to get training. Mostly, magic does what the plot needs it to do; hardly anything is codified. The interesting thing about the Dragaera books is that magic is pervasive. Brust has incorporated many of the little things you’d expect magicians to be doing that are often left out of other settings (keeping track of time, warming up coffee). Magic is not mysterious until the gods get involved (and Brust’s gods roughly approximate entities that are just really, really good at magic).

Tolkien: Things (and People) of Power

Tolkien’s an interesting case. Instances of D&D-esque spellcasting are few and far between—Gandalf throwing lightning in the goblin caves, spells of opening and closing in Moria. Magic in Middle Earth instead comes in two broad forms: that which inheres in artifacts, and that which moves men’s wills. Artifacts, from the Rings of Power to Sting, are the products of knowledge. It’s secret knowledge, too, often described as “cunning” in usage that echoes the Norse and Germanic myths that inspired Professor Tolkien. Those cunning elves (and much more rarely men or dwarves) discover secrets.

Tolkien’s relation of magic to divinity and influence on men’s wills is more idiosyncratic. I don’t recall anything quite like it. Yes, the Witch-King of Angmar knows spells. He’s deadly, though, because his will works on his enemies. The Nazgul are terrifying beyond reason. Saruman’s voice eats away at his listeners’ resistance. Gandalf and Aragorn are pillars of strength that prop up everybody around them. It’s metaphysical rather than psychological, some quality that seems to belong to certain great souls. I feel perfectly reasonable calling it magic.

LeGuin: Names and Words

The Earthsea books feature my favorite writing of magic. Wizards use magic mostly to do the things people would want it to do in a low-technology setting: mend pots, cure goats’ infected udders, conjure wind for ships. Unlike Brust’s stories, though, this is the main function of wizards. (LeGuin isn’t dealing with Dragaera’s hierarchies, mind.) The magic itself relies on true names, the language of the making of the world. In one sense, it’s not far removed from the cunning of Tolkien’s artificers—there are secrets that a prepared mind can use to influence reality. The power of those secrets, though, manifests in words, especially spoken words. Magic is a dialogue with creation. That’s what makes it so convincing to read.

Putting it Together

Many writers combine these concepts. Some concoct new systems. David Farland’s Runelords books, for example, have elemental wizards but also a system whereby a man can transfer his “attributes” to another via runes—“the strength of ten men” becomes literal through magical brands. Whatever rules (or “rules”) you create for magic, the trick is making it seem magical. The more  quantifiable magic is – the more it resembles technology – the less special it feels. (That’s a generalization and an opinion. Some authors have created fanatically-detailed systems of magic, bending fantasy toward hard sci-fi with swords.)

For Ghosts of the Old City, my model of magic is probably closest to Brust’s. Maedoc does magic (a bit)—it’s a manipulation of finite energies that he couples with a family talent for seeing dead people. I muck things up by including alchemy on the side. Alchemy’s my “speed of plot” bit of magic, one that I use sparingly and mostly for patching up my busted protagonists. Importantly, alchemy is necessary for making permanent changes. If the fabric of reality is a bedsheet, magic can put wrinkles in it. The greatest wizards with access to the right sources of energy might be able to fold it. It takes alchemy, though, to make any stitches. Eventually, even the greatest magic-forged wrinkles and folds will lapse back towards flatness. That combination lets me have magic do flashy things when I need it to without worrying about the complications of people running around with magic flamethrowers. Hopefully, it keeps the magic suitably magical…you know, distinguishable from technology.

Repeating Ourselves

My son has autism spectrum disorder. My daughter has some congenital hearing deficit. This means I spend even more time than most parents of young children repeating myself. Then I go to work and repeat myself some more. It gets tedious—especially as a habitually impatient person who (usually) understands things on the first try.

Life is built of repetitions. Most of us do nearly the same thing every working day. My days start with the same beeping alarm, proceed through breakfast and waking myself up…then the tug-of-war to get the kids out of bed, make their at-school meals, and generally try to herd everybody out the door. Waking, working, meals, sleep…the necessities of life are repeated. If we’re inclined, we can sketch broader patterns of repetition: weeks to seasons to years to “history” repeating itself.

We sometimes allow ourselves comfort in repetition, but I think that most of us find it tiresome. We complain about cookie-cutter sitcoms or action movies or rom-coms, about derivative pop songs and comic books and fashion. Part of acquiring “culture” is learning to praise originality and novelty. Even popular consumer culture constantly reinvents its surface features. Why, then, is repetition such a powerful tool in art?

Most musical structures, for example, are about repetition and return. Whether it’s a song’s verse-chorus form, orchestral movements shaped by the sonata principle, or even the simple ternary form, we constantly hear repetition. In electronic dance music (and most dance music, really), the repeated units are even shorter, their repetition more frequent. (There’s also minimalism—if you’re interested in how minimalism, disco, advertising, and “sewing machine” classical tracks used similar structures and principles, check out Robert Fink’s book Repeating Ourselves. Yes, that’s where I got this post’s title.) When we hear something, we want to hear it again. Sometimes we won’t recognize it when it returns. Other times we will. Think about the way themes work in film scores to reinforce characterization and narrative shape. One of my few thrills in the Star Wars prequels came during Episode II, where the Imperial March began to weave into Anakin and Padme’s love scene. The power was in recognition; to recognize, we have to have encountered something previously. Without repetition, recognition is impossible.

In writing, similar principles apply. Essays conclude with amplified versions of the ideas at their openings. The Hero’s Journey classically ends with a return home. Repeating imagery in a poem heightens the image and helps unite the whole. (The same can be done in novels.) We introduce parallel scenes to demonstrate how characters have changed…or how they contrast with their counterparts. On the small scale, repetition creates mood. Assonance accelerates action scenes…or lugubriously oozes through confusion. Alliteration can secure us in Scandinavian scenes or highlight the hurting in our hearts. (The sonic tricks are fun but obviously best used sparingly.)

Repetition creates shape. It creates pattern. It’s possible to develop structures that don’t rely on repetition, but they’re harder to perceive. When we repeat ourselves in writing, we must do so mindfully. Repeated elements gain significance. Too much repetition destroys meaning. (In an early Conan book, for example, the hero was described as “panther-like” in consecutive paragraphs. Rather undercut the effect.) It’s one of the things beta readers and editors can help with tremendously: we’re often blind to the habits that lead us to repeat ourselves.

Repetition is one of our most powerful tools in telling stories and in making words dance. We just have to make sure it’s more like sunrises and coffee than alarm clocks and commutes.

Droughts and Drafts

Central Texas is dry. Right now, it’s spectacularly dry, in the grip of a years-long drought that has climatologists talking earnestly about a repeat of the Dust Bowl. We had a storm dump four inches of rain about a week ago; the ground soaked it all up. The reservoirs are 27 feet below full—instead of having nearly four years’ worth of water in them, they have about a year and a half. It won’t be long before the landscape reverts to its sere summer brown.

My own drought isn’t as severe or as far-reaching. I’ve been working and busy with chores and working on behind-the-scenes grownup stuff. I’ve managed to keep my blog updated. What I haven’t managed since April is much work on Ghosts of the Old City. My reservoirs are running low. When I go to work on it, I enjoy what I see. I can wring out a few paragraphs at a time. Then the well is dry and I have to wait until opportunity and desire again intersect.

Two things have been missing: reading and sleep. Sleep is probably the one with the most import, simply because it colors so much of my days and my mood. Lack of it makes it easier to sink into wasting my waking hours and suffering mood swings. It’s also contributed to the resurgence of my cold, which hasn’t helped.

I’m missing reading more, though. I’ve read plenty, but most of my reading these last few weeks has been internet stuff: newspaper articles, blog posts, usw. As metaphorical rain, they’re barely enough to keep the grass from dying. Replenishing the reservoirs takes sustained reading, away from a screen, away from habitual clicking over to a game or social media every few minutes. It takes the energy to focus on something once the kids are in bed.

Writers constantly tell their aspiring counterparts to read. There’s a practical level to that: the more you read, the more tricks you learn to spot and pull off yourself. The more you read, the better sense you develop for the subtleties of language. You find stuff to steal and build into your own style. Those are all good reasons. None of them are enough to make the absence of reading a drought.

It’s not the how that needs renewal. It’s the why. Lack of reading dries us out because reading makes us feel. It makes us think. When we read to replenish our stores as writers, we’re replenishing our love for words and stories. We’re remembering what it means to be transported, for doors to open and stars to align. That’s the stuff that feeds us at the root.

The skies are grey this morning. The clouds aren’t dark enough to hold much threat of rain. The trees don’t stir. The forecast for the long weekend is much more amenable to sunscreen and swimming pools than drought relief. Schools—both my kids’ and the one where I teach—are descending into the whirlwind of end-of-year events. There’s a birthday party to go to on Saturday. There will be laundry and dishes and another attempt to deal with some broken blinds.

But there will also be sleeping in and reading and breakfasts that don’t come as a prelude to prying my kids out of bed. By Monday, maybe I’ll be ready to grow my writing roots again and get back to my draft of Ghosts of the Old City.