Thursday, April 29, 2010

Storyteller: Rules of Magic

(Because Even Wizards Need Rules, Boundaries and Limitations)

For my first world-building topic I’m starting with magic. If you’re writing fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal or even sci-fi there’s probably magic of some sort in your setting. I’m using a broad definition of magic here—it doesn’t have to be the big, flashy, chanting-in-an-arcane-language sort of variety. It can be as simple as a few psychic impressions (I’ve got a gut feeling that the killer will strike again), an alien race’s innate abilities (Vulcan mind meld, anyone?), or it can be some mystical energy controlling your destiny (Use the Force, Luke!). Whatever flavor of magic you’re using, I’m assuming you’ve put some thought into how it works in your world, because “it works because it’s magic!” isn’t engaging. My goal is to make you overthink how magic works. Gamers overthink it. We expect so many rules that we’ll buy supplemental rule books to learn more about the magic system in a game. And dedicated gamers know those rules backwards and forwards. I’ve sat through countless meals surrounded by gamers trying to figure out how to best manipulate the rules to benefit their characters. These players know the system and how to work it, bend it, break it beyond repair and make it cry for its mommy. Readers can be rather like these players—they’re memorizing your rules, so you’d better stick to them, or at the very least explain your reasoning when you make exceptions.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you build the world’s most complex magic system (I’ll leave that up to Wizards of the Coast). I am suggesting that a well thought out system adds depth to your setting and your characters as well. A writer should consider both the benefits and drawbacks of the magic in their world. Ultimate power comes with ultimate responsibility. If your wizard is hurling around fireballs left and right, he may want to consider the fact that he’s lighting his home/the village/the forest on fire too. If he doesn’t, you the author should, because that’s a fabulous opportunity to make him suffer. And making characters suffer is fun for everyone.

I’ve broken some suggestions for magic down into three different areas:

1.) Mana

In many RPGs, mana is the fuel that powers magic. Casters are given a finite amount of it, usually boosted through enchanted items, special skills and abilities, and through gaining levels. As you gain experience, usually by slaying monsters to complete quests, you become more powerful and gain a bigger mana pool. So why is this important? Because it puts limits on magic; the caster may be able to call down holy hellfire, but he can only handle so many spells at once. If your character can cast spells all day long without breaking a sweat, the game is boring. There’s no worry in that, no risk.

In World of Warcraft, when your character runs out of mana he or she will tell you, in a very calm but annoying voice, that they can’t cast that spell right now. (Thankfully there’s an option that lets you turn that voice off.) Being unable to cast a spell quickly gets on your nerves, especially if you’re surrounded by big angry ogres who are kicking your robe-wearing butt. It’s annoying to watch your health bar shrink until finally you die, and then you’re faced with the run of shame back to your body because you got greedy and picked a fight you couldn’t win.

Now imagine it from a writer’s point of view, in a setting where dying is actually permanent (gasp!) and something more important than loot and experience points are on the line: The hero is alone, surrounded on all sides by his attackers. He’s weak and bloodied, desperate to dredge up just enough power to cast one last spell and save himself from certain death. If he fails his quest, horrible things will happen to the people of his kingdom. All he needs is one… last… spell… Better, right? But in both examples the hero is struggling with the limits of his power, because power should have limits.

Mana can also be useful in deciding what the source of one’s magic is. Do they get it from an internal source, like their blood? Or an external force, like drawing it from nature? Is it from a divine source (think cleric, druid, or paladin)? An item, like an enchanted ring? (My preciousss…) Is it something they’re born with, or something that’s learned? Were midichlorians involved? (I hate you, George Lucas. So much. Flames. On the side of my face…)

Anyway, you get the idea. Onward!

2.) Caster Classes

In most RPGs your character belongs to a class—not a social or economic class, but an adventuring class, like warrior, ranger, thief, wizard, etc. Your class encompasses what sort of skills and abilities your character has, and most games have different sorts of magic users. They each approach magic in a different way. In WoW, mages cast big, direct damage spells to blast things to bits, priests either heal other players or zot things with evil shadow magic, and warlocks rely on the aid of a demon pet to distract the target while the warlock casts spells. In game terms, this allows players to choose a character that’s best suited to their playing style and allows for variety in groups (because sometimes you just don’t want to send a mage to do a warlock’s job). But in creating your own setting, these differences can allow for political plots. Like sneaky, shady magician politics, muahaha! Or plain old outright war magician politics. Do your different types of magic users play nice with each other? Or are they more likely to chase each other with scissors, pull hair, and kick other kids in the shins? Do they have religious differences? Are they allied with different kingdoms? For hire to the highest bidder? Are some nobility, while others are considered lower-class magic users? Are any of them rare, one-born-every-generation types?

Right, you get the idea. And once you figure out how your magic users interact with each other, then you can work on how the rest of the world feels about them. (“What else do we burn aside from witches?” “More witches!”)

3.) Critical Fail

We all know what happens when spells work right—fireballs, explosions, Jedi mind tricks—but what happens when they go wrong? When you’re considering the mechanics of how your magic works, you should also consider how it doesn’t work. And then what happens when it fails spectacularly. In some table top games, if you roll a 1 you automatically fail, and then the Game Master can take the opportunity to make your bad situation worse. I loved being evil to my players when they failed, because it opened up opportunities to do mean things to their characters. I’ve often heard authors give the advice that if you’re stuck in a scene, think of the worst thing that could possibly happen, and then write it. Pile on the adversity. It builds character.

In EverQuest, there was the possibility that your spell could fizzle, as in you’d go through the motions of casting it, it’d use up the mana, but nothing would happen. Boy did that suck if you were in a tough fight. So why not do that to your character? What happens if he’s facing down the villain and his spell fizzles? Or worse, what if it backfires? Fireballs sound cool until you’re on fire, with singed robes and no eyebrows. Or, what if the character is desperate and he tries something out of his area of expertise as a last ditch effort to save his life? Sure he casts that fireball, but it careens out of control and hits innocent bystanders too. Maybe he’s pissed and tries an evil spell. In The Courtship of Princess Leia, the witches of the planet Dathomir are Force users who weren’t trained as Jedi, but use the Force through casting spells. During one of the big fight scenes in the book one witch loses her temper as she uses a spell, and her use of the dark side manifests in a mark/bruise on her face. What’s worse is that anyone bearing that mark is expelled from her clan. Thus a moment of weakness results in huge drama for that character. A moment of fail can result in a lifetime’s worth of character angst.

I could talk forever about creating rules for magic, but now I want to hear from you. Are there any examples of “ooh, that was so cool!” that you’ve seen in other books/movies/games? Any questions about things that you’re stuck on in your writing?

Next week, we’ll discuss creating your own Monster Manuals, filled with all the things that go bump in the night, whether they try to kill your hero/heroine or they are your hero/heroine.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Intarweb Tuesday is Linktastic

First, Chandra Ryan's new book Dragonborne is out today from Samhain. You can buy it here from MBaM.

Second, for those of you who were "umm, what is up with the Cheetos and Mt. Dew references?" from last week, I bring you the Summoner Geeks. Direct YouTube link here (because YouTube seems to end up squished when I embed it here, or at least it is on my computer). Now you'll understand when I start talking about magic missiles and attacking the darkness...

And finally, because I've been watching Veronica Mars, I wanted to share this:

funny pictures of dogs with captions
see more dog and puppy pictures

Because you should always bring backup.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Spring Fling: So Much Awesome

This past weekend I attended the Chicago North Spring Fling Writers' Conference, and I had an awesome time. Before I tell the tale, here's the moral of the story (in case some of you are the type who likes to read the last page of the book first just to make sure it ends well): Writing is, for the most part, pretty solitary. It's just you and your computer/legal pad/notebook as you write your story. Groups like the Romance Writers of America are great for networking, but you have to put in the work and join local or online chapters, take workshops, or attend conferences. Otherwise all you're getting is a really expensive magazine once a month. Conferences like the Spring Fling are great opportunities to meet other authors and just hang out, trade stories, and get advice; pitch to an agent or editor; take writing workshops from published authors; and get signed books. (I love signed books.) So, if you have the opportunity, I highly recommend attending one.

Now, on to the story!

For those of you who've been playing along, you've already heard the tale of my first Spring Fling in 2008 in Part 8 is Great. This time around I recruited my BFF Diana to come with me, and we drove up Friday morning. We checked in to the hotel and then to the conference, and then I met Samhain editor Lindsey Faber for lunch. Lindsey isn't my editor, but she is my friend Chandra Ryan's editor, and we had a very nice lunch. She'd just gotten back from breakfast and shopping with Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, which is probably my favorite blog on the entire Intarwebs, prompting my first fangirl moment of the weekend. Normally I'm pretty good about being cool around writers I love, but no, not this time, as I'll discuss later...

The first workshop we went to was Laurie Brown's "Deep POV", and it was very interesting. Sadly I'd left my notebook upstairs, but Diana took great notes which I will cheat off of later. Next was the Q&A with Cherry Adair and Julia Quinn, the headliners of the conference. Now, I must admit, I haven't read them (yet). But I hadn't read the headliners of the last conference either until after attending it. I think Cherry Adair has made a new fan for life, because OH MY GOD was that woman awesome. (Julia Quinn is also awesome, but of a different flavor.) The audience was very entertained by them both.

Next was dinner, and the food was good, blah blah blah. What was really important IMHO about dinner was that it was BFF Diana's first glimpse of the social awesome of attending a writers' conference. We sat down and our table filled up with strangers, but we all introduced ourselves and started discussing our writing, other writers' groups, things we'd learned about writing, everything. It was like having a mini chapter meeting over pasta and salad. Everyone at the Spring Fling is so friendly and engaging, it's just amazing. And supportive. Every time I mentioned my book I got a big smile and a congrats.

After dinner we went to the Agent/Editor Q&A. They shared a few "don't do this" stories about weird queries they'd received. I think the author who called and read his manuscript to the editor's voicemail was my favorite. Finally we arrived at everyone's favorite part of the conference--the chocolate reception. Dude. Dude. Chocolate as far as the eye could see... It was a thing of beauty. And it was here that we met the group that became our conference buddies, some very cool women who'd met through the Romance Divas site. (aside: I tried to sign up for the forums yesterday and my confirmation email never arrived. Sadness. I'm not a spammer, I swear!) Names will be withheld to protect the innocent, but they were a really, really fun group. And Lindsey came by and gave me some Samhain swag, including my absolute favorite thing, a Samhain devil duckie. Samhain duckie will be featured in my Storyteller series, fighting an army of evil marshmallow peeps, so stay tuned.

After breakfast the next morning I attended Sarah Wendell's workshop on online marketing. It was very informative, and as a result I now have my own Facebook "like" page (because of course FB must change with the seasons and it's no longer a fan page). Now, as I mentioned earlier, I'm a big SBTB fan. Huge. Perhaps even crazed. Like a stalker I'd been trying to spot her since I arrived at Spring Fling, partially because as I said, crazy fangirl, and because a few weeks ago when the DABWAHA ended I won a set of signed Larissa Ione books and a Demonica series coffee mug and tote bag (woot!). When I emailed SB Sarah my address, I mentioned that I was looking forward to her workshop at the SF, and she replied with "I'm now happy to have someone to look forward to meeting!". At which point, something popped in my brain because omg SB Sarah said she's looking forward to meeting me, squee! Yeah. So of course after the workshop I walked up and mentioned that I'm the one who won, and we chatted briefly about how the series is awesome ('cause it is). And BFF Diana, who missed the first part of the workshop because she was pitching to Lindsey, handed Sarah a hall pass signed by Lindsey excusing Diana from missing part of class, which cracked Sarah up because hey, that's funny. ;)

Then we went to...sigh, helpful kitty is now napping on my schedule, one moment. Aha! Carrie Lofy's "Beyond Research/POV" workshop, which was not only very cool but also included short writing exercises, one of which I got to read aloud and received props for. Then was lunch, with Julia Quinn as the speaker. She had several "top 4" lists of things related to writing, and I really wish I'd written some of them down, because they were good. One of them that I remember is to make a "to do" list, because it'll give you a feeling of accomplishment, even if it's only accomplishing buying light bulbs. After lunch BFF Diana went to Julia Quinn's workshop on dialogue (more notes I can copy later), but I went to the Samhain spotlight instead, so I could represent. (I'm a Samhain author, ask me how!) I helped carry the box o' Samhain luggage tags, so clearly I was useful. ;)

Then came the book signing, and my friend Karrin joined us. She's not an author, but is an avid reader and may also be one of my best PR people, because she's demanding that her friends buy my book. ;) The signing is also where the ZOMG DID THAT JUST HAPPEN???!!! portion of my story begins. Diana and I had brought our copies of Beyond Heaving Bosoms with us for Sarah to sign, and we spotted her pretty much immediately when we walked through the door and were all "Here! Sign our bosoms!" (if we'd brought a Sharpie, she might've signed our actual bosoms too). And I, like a drooling fangirl, mentioned that I'd learned about Mr. Sam Hain through the SBTB site (true), and now I'm a Samhain author. She seemed pretty happy about that, because how cool is it to hear that you were the matchmaker who introduced an author to their publisher. Then BFF Diana elbowed me and reminded me to show Sarah my rack card with my book info on it, because during the workshop Sarah'd mentioned that she loves book covers and my book cover is gorgeous. She was suitably impressed, and asked me to email her a reminder when my book comes out. (Score!) So we walked away to get more books signed, and while I was standing in the Julia Quinn line I heard someone yell "Robyn!" and I turned and it was Sarah (omg she said my name!) and she asked what my Twitter handle was. Because she was tweeting about me. Me! At which point, the portion of my brain preventing me from completely geeking out just failed, like a bluescreen in Windows. I walked around a pillar so I was out of her line of sight and did a happy dance with Diana. We got more signed books--a lot more, Diana and Karrin had to cut me off--and then we went up to the room. Now, we hadn't gotten Intarwebs access from the hotel because it was stupid expensive ($10 for one day? who do you think you are? Comcast?), but my husband has web access with his phone so I was pretty much yelling "check it! check it now! omg!" at him. And he didn't have a Twitter app, so we had to download it first, while my brain is becoming more and more damage and I'm all grinning like an idiot and bouncing around the hotel room like Tigger on Red Bull. Finally I was able to read it, and then I pretty much spent the entire time between the signing and dinner grinning.

Dinner! Was delicious, though no one at our table could figure out the mystery flavor of the sorbet for dessert. Apparently it was the flavor of enchantment, and enchantment must taste something like cake mix powder. Cherry Adair spoke during the dinner and continued to be completely made of awesome and hysterical. Two words: camel sex. Done! After the dinner portion was done our conference buddies wanted to go to the bar, and I was all in favor of that because the beer selection at the dinner itself was, well, sucktastic. But Diana paused, and suggested that we go thank SB Sarah for the tweet, even though she was talking to author Courtney Milan and we didn't want to interrupt. But, as I said, I was brain damaged at that point and so I said "Yes, let's go!" So we did. And Diana led off with "I wanted to thank you for mentioning Robyn because she's been grinning all day now," to which she replied "Oh I mentioned you on the site too. I linked to your site, because the coming soon Samhain links break when your book comes out, is that okay?"


I'm sure I said "yes." I have vague memory of it. Everything past the words "I mentioned you on the site" is hazy in my brain. Because OMG MY NAME IS IN A SBTB POST! (It's below the cut, fyi.) I literally almost fell over when she said it. After that, I have other vague memories of gushing about how I've been a fan of the site for years (about 3 I figured out later) and I read it every day and I think she's so awesome. And I know at some point she introduced us to Courtney Milan--who was very nice but I haven't read her (yet)--and for some reason I thought it was a good idea to give her a rack card too, possibly because Sarah mentioned that my gorgeous cover is gorgeous but I'd pretty much turned into a wriggling Golden Retriever puppy at that point so who knows. I also know at some point after that Diana and I stepped away for some reason, probably looking for Lindsey so I could squee at her and say goodbye. But I couldn't find Lindsey so we went to the bar so I could drink heavily. And I did.

So that's pretty much my Spring Fling story. It is made of WIN! My parents met us for breakfast the next morning, and when I met them in the lobby I turned around and spotted Sarah sitting in a chair, on the phone, but this time I managed to resist the urge to point her out to my parents and be all "that's her! she's awesome! she said my name!" and instead calmly walked past her.

Thursday I'll be discussing rules of magic as my Storyteller post, so be there or be square.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Storyteller: Introduction

The lonely road stretched before the band of adventurers. Impenetrable forest lined either side of the road, dark and ominous. Before them the bulk of an airship blotted out the sun, unmoving, a ladder dangling down from it in silent invitation for the adventurers to climb aboard.

“I want to go through the forest.”

“Wait, what?”

“We’re not getting on that thing. We’re going through the forest.”

“Dude, no. I just said the forest is impenetrable. Get on the airship already!”

Is this a conversation between an author and the characters in her head? Nope. It’s a conversation between a Dungeon Master and the players in his campaign. (And yes, we did get on the airship. After more arguing, and perhaps some Cheetos and Mountain Dew.) I’m proud to be a gamer, it’s a geek badge that I wear with honor. I started writing my first novel in 8th grade, and it was inspired by a story I’d posted online as part of a role playing group. Many of the stories I’ve written were for role playing games (RPGs). Some described my character’s background, telling the tale of where she’d come from and how she became a bard/rogue/weremoose/vampire. Others were meant as adventures or campaigns, plotted out for others to experience one game at a time. I learned a lot from my gaming days, and that’s the inspiration for this series. Whether you’re writing for a handful of people gathered around your kitchen table armed with dice and character sheets or for the fans who’ll read your book, the goal is the same: to tell an entertaining story.

There are many kinds of RPGs, and I’ve played most of them. Traditional pen-and-paper RPGs, also called tabletop (TT) games, like Dungeons and Dragons involve a small group of players, each in charge of their own character, who are guided through adventures by a Game Master (GM) or Dungeon Master (DM). Actions are decided by rolling dice—you roll dice to unlock a treasure chest, attack a monster, or spot a clue. Roll high and you succeed, roll low and you fail. Live action role playing (LARP) games involves a larger group of people playing their characters in an improv theater-like setting. They dress and act the part of their character, but actions like staking a vampire or looking for clues to solve a mystery are still decided by rolling dice or a similar system (the LARP I played used rock-paper-scissors). There are also many RPG video games. Many console or PC games involve you making a character and running him/her through the storyline. Dragon Age is a recent popular example of this. Massive multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft connect millions of players throughout the world.

By now you’re probably thinking, “Wow, you’re a huge nerd, Robyn. Is that the point you’re trying to prove?” Yes, I’m a dork, but my point is that there are RPGs everywhere, allowing people to create and experience stories in ways that are different from the static world of a novel. As a writer I’ve taken the lessons learned from playing and running these games to improve my writing. Thinking like a gamer allows you to look at your own writing from a different angle. In the next few weeks I’ll be covering world building, character creation, and plotting. I hope that these articles will be helpful, but if nothing else I hope you’ll be entertained by my dorkdom. ;)

So, have any of you played RPGs? If so, what game? Did you enjoy it?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Intarweb Tuesday: Sharing the Lurve

Instead of another YouTube video, this week I give you a review of Ink in the Blood by the lovely and talented Chandra Ryan:

I loved Ink in the Blood. :)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Can has NaNoWriMo lurve

Who's on the NaNo home page? Me, me, me!

Full story here.

Now I will commence the happy dancing. :)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Storyteller: Coming Soon!

Starting next week I'll be featuring a series of craft articles every Thursday about world building, character creation and plotting, based on my experiences as a writer and a gamer. It's new! It's exciting! It has ninjas!

I'm considering trying to develop it into a workshop, and I'm hoping for feedback from all y'all out there in the ether, so please comment. (Anyone else addicted to RWA online workshops? I know I am.)

So stay tuned. ;)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Intarweb Tuesday: Ninjas!

Please to enjoy the Scribbling Ninjas.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Intarweb Tuesday: Muppet Ghost Hunters

In other news, my book cover is up at Under Cover Selections.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Part 13: And then what happened?

I've been slacking on the blogging lately, because I've been crazy busy with other assorted stuff. Technically I shouldn't be blogging now, but I'm visiting my family and no writing is getting done. Anyway...

So, I've heard lots of stories about what happens when authors get "the call", and almost none of what happens next. First you sign a contract, and then...yeah, no one seems to know. Poof, a book appears! It's like magic! ...or not so much. Thankfully my day job as a production editor gave me an idea of what I could expect, even though the textbook process is different than a fiction book. As a production editor I'd oversee copy editing, have the author review edits, send the manuscript to the typesetters, and then oversee proofreading and the author's corrections. I'd dealt with a lot of authors, both high and low maintenance, and the idea that I'd have an editor still kinda boggles my mind. (You mean someone's going to harass me for corrections now? Madness!) But I was used to the idea of editing, so I was pretty laid back about the editing process. At least I like to think so, my editor may have a different opinion. The difference between style rules for academic and fiction did make me a sad panda when I learned all of my semicolons and serial commas had to go. I shed a tear for the comma that vanished from my title.

One of the first and most difficult things I did in the production process what my blurb worksheet. Now, you've all heard me bitch and moan about how I am oppressed by the evil of synopses and queries, so the fact that I suck at blurb writing shouldn't be a surprise. Essentially I had to write the back cover copy, and you can't put "dude, omg, plz 2 buy mah book or I will b teh homeless." (No matter how true that may be.) My first attempt was not so great actually, and the awesome people at Samhain came up with something much better. (Which you can read here.) I think I did better at the cover worksheet, and my cover is made of awesome. I want to hug it. My mother framed it. I may frame it too, it makes me do a happy dance.

So now we're caught up to where I am at the moment. I learned a ton about my writing during the editing process. I wrote the next book in the series as my 2009 NaNo, and I'm polishing it up now to send to my editor. (Cross your fingers.) I'm learning about book promotion. I'll be attending the Spring Fling conference again this year--this month in fact--and I'm really looking forward to that.

Coming soonish on the blog, I'm planning a series on writing like a gamer, so stay tuned for that. ;)