Here's an idea... just write the story without prejudging it

I was musing aloud (OK, moaning) to my wife about writing within a particular genre. "What if I don't want to write a science fiction novel, or a fantasy novel? I feel as though I've outgrown a lot of the genre stuff. Shouldn't I try to write something more literary? Try to strip out the SciFi or fantasy elements, and make the plots work without the clones, the zombies and the magic talking books? Aren't they just crutches or shortcuts to achieve something that a better writer would do with real people doing real things in the real world?"

"I think you should just write the story, and take it where it wants to go. You certainly shouldn't force in some extra laser blasters or evil wizards to make it fit a particular genre, but if the story feels like it needs clones and zombies, then it would be lacking something without them."

"Wow... that's really good advice."

"Thanks. Now stop worrying so much about how to categorize the story and just focus on telling a good story."

All that wisdom and a really awesome apple pie recipe. I'm a lucky guy.

Why do I even bother?

I heard retrospective interviews with John Updike on the radio, on the occasion of his death.

Where such erudition ran, how the hell can I even pretend that I will ever write anything of substantial quality? My stuff is shlocky crap in comparison to real writing. Formulaic plots, wooden dialogue, one-dimensional characters... the only thing good about my writing is the nice, even margins.

I'm kidding myself.

Novel excerpt: Introduction to magic

"Most people don't really believe there is such a thing as magic."

How am I speaking to you? Use your eyes, foolish boy.

"Of course I believe - how could I not? A talking book is sufficient proof for me. Still, if magic was so common, why did magicians die out?"

Don't be ridiculous. Magic was never common. Only the finest minds could ever begin to comprehend the secrets of the ages. We were rare among the common half-wits of humanity. Even then, mere superior intelligence wasn't enough. Even a burning thirst for knowledge wasn't enough. Without exceptional courage and imagination, without the will to dare the truly unknown, the pathways of magic are too terrifying to even contemplate. Even when I was alive, not half a dozen men in a generation possessed the necessary combination of talents. In these sad and degraded times, fewer still could accomplish what we did.

"Yes, tell me about that. What did you accomplish? The stories about magic describe wooden golems who would work tirelessly at the forge or mill for weeks on end, hammers and axes that swing themselves, musical instruments that play themselves and such like. I always thought they were mere fantasies, marvels that tired working people thought up in a game of "wouldn't it be fine if only". There are only a few tangible examples of anything that hints of the magic of the old days."

Oh? And what are those?

"Knives that never grow dull, for one thing. A merchant tried to sell one to my father several years ago. The blade was beautiful, like a mixture of black and silvery threads frozen together in the metal. I'd never seen anything like it. The handle was some kind of black wood I'd never seen before, either. The blade was certainly very sharp, but father said it looked like it had been recently honed. He said it was an odd shape and size, too. In truth, it was slightly curved, and it was too big to use as a table knife but too small for a short sword. I think he was trying to get the merchant to lower his price."

Trust a farmer to haggle over such an item like it was a pig in the marketplace. And did it work? Did your father then buy it?

"No, he didn't. The merchant wanted far too much for it. He said it was an heirloom of a family of the peerage, very rare and valuable. Father said he wasn't willing to pay that much for a knife that probably wasn't magic anyway. The merchant got rather offended at that point and left. That's the only supposedly magical item I've seen. I've heard of goblets that sing when you stroke them and gems that glow in the dark like a candle flame. I've never actually seen either of those, since they're supposed to be even more rare than the knives. The stories people tell of them sound like the refer to real objects, though, so I think they might actually be real."

Might be real? Of course they're real, you young fool. Magic is as real as you are. I wish I had someone else to talk with. You have no imagination at all, and precious little intelligence.

"Look, I've already said I believe in magic. It's just that these magic items seem rather pointless to me. Why should strange knives and goblets and baubles be the only examples of magic? I always thought that if magic were real and powerful, then the more powerful forms of it would be around. The golems and tools and suchlike, I mean."

You don't mean the objects of true power, do you? You mean the more mundane forms, the kind that are useful to people like you? Farmers and shepherds and such?

"Well, yes. An ax that can chop wood by itself would be a far more impressive demonstration of magic than a sharp knife, no matter how beautiful it is."

And is it a conspiracy by the world's vanished wizards that the golems and tools and music boxes are gone? Tell me, my dull, backward student of magic, why do you suppose all of the mundane marvels made with magic are no more, when the simplest items remain?

"What? How should I know?"

Use your brain instead of merely your eyes. What is it about useless little decorative items that make them persist? What is it about useful, productive things that make them disappear? What is the essential difference between these two types of objects?

"You mean aside from the fact that some are decorative and some are useful?"

Ah, you great fool, there is no hope for you. You are as blind as a mole. So surrounded by your world of dirt you never lift your head to look at the sky.

"Wait - let me think. Decorative items don't do anything, they're just made to be pretty. You put them on the shelf and look at them. Useful items aren't made to be pretty, they're made to do things. You set them up in the field or forge and make them work. But if they're magic, it shouldn't matter how hard you use them. Unless... you didn't say these were magic items, you only said they were made *with* magic. Is that it?"

Is that what? You haven't told me anything.

"The stories are only half-right. These aren't magic items. They're not magical in and of themselves, they were just made in a magical fashion. As marvelous as they are, they can wear out. The decorative items never see any wear, so they last. The working items wear out and eventually break. Without a magician to fix them, they don't work anymore. If father was right, and that blade had been honed, then it would be like any other blade. Eventually, after enough sharpening, it would be worn away to nothing, and it would be lost, too. Is that it?"

Of course that's it. If I have to lead you by the nose to every insight, I shall go mad again before you're fit to have a conversation with.

"So anything that is useful is used and is eventually used up. Only the useless items persist."

And exactly the same thing happens with men. Those of us who can exert our will and talent to change the world wear ourselves out in the process, while you useless, helpless ornaments inherit all that we have created. Over time, the world becomes full of brightly colored trash and devoid of anything of true value. Skill and vision are replaced by plodding donkeywork.

"But why? Why must it be that way? Why couldn't magicians teach everyone how to make these marvels?"

Ha! Who would we teach? The dullards and fools of the villages? The pompous, self-important peerage? The soldiers? The priests? None of them could grasp a tenth, a thousandth of what a magician knows.

"Every profession has complexities and particular knowledge."

Do you dare to call magic a mere profession? Surely even you can't be that thickheaded! Magic isn't like a trade, you fool. Any idiot can learn to be a baker or tailor. That's why they can start out learning the trade as boys. Without the proper talents and abilities, a man would only kill himself attempting magic. Magicians can't take on young apprentices. Every day spent showing some witless boy how to keep from killing himself is a day that isn't spent exploring the mysteries. Boys rarely live up to their promise, anyway. You can't know who is truly capable and who isn't until they are fully grown. If a magician were to take on a as an apprentice, it would need to be boy of truly shining intelligence, or there'd be no point in even beginning his training.

"If magic is that complex, it's a wonder anyone ever figured out how to do it at all."

The practitioners of magic are the finest minds of this world, never forget that. Even the simplest little magics require an understanding of the universe beyond your imagination. More than that, they require more courage than you could ever hope to have.

"Why? Why must it be so? Is it really that terrifying and difficult? Is making a sharp knife such an ordeal?"

You are truly a fool. Be glad you aren't my apprentice, or I would have slapped you for such a statement. There is more magic in the making of a bloodknife than you could master in all your life.

"A bloodknife? Is that what the black and silver blades are called?"

Yes, and the fact that their true name is no longer known tells me that the secrets of their creation are gone as well.

"What is the secret? Why do they have such a menacing name? Were they used in duels?"

Oh, I'm sure the dagger and sword forms drew plenty of blood, but they got the name from the blood that was spilled in their making, not in their wielding. Those blades are an embodiment of pain, poison and the blackest of blasphemies, forged together in fire and earth, burned and beaten and burned again until the tortured metal screams with hate!


'Ah'? Is that all you have to say, is 'ah'?

"Well, it's just that your description reminds me of a lot of the ghost stories the bards tell in mid-winter. Spooky and scary and kind of sing-song, you know? Like a song or a poem."

Is that so? Well, this is no ghost story! Don't you doubt for a second that making a bloodknife is a horrible process! All of the spells and incantations sound that way because they are meant to imprint themselves on your mind. The bloodknife process is a complex and dangerous task that takes weeks to complete. At the very least, getting a single step wrong or even out of order means wasting all the poison and blood, neither of which is easy to obtain! Get it really wrong and you'll die a flaming death. Stick to the incantation in every single particular or don't attempt the magic. Even for magicians, as brilliant as we are, the rhythmic, chant-like nature of the incantations serve to aid the memory and thereby protect the spellcaster.

"But there weren't any steps or instructions in that part you were saying."

That was just the introduction. Many of the incantations follow a set pattern. They start with a description of what the spell will accomplish when it's completed successfully. After the introduction comes the warnings about the consequences of failure. Then comes the list of material components, followed by the spiritual components. The protective spells and the steps of assembly make up the largest section. The final section usually includes how to use what you've created and how to protect yourself from it as well.

"So the more complicated the spell, the longer the incantation?"

Naturally. That's part of why magic is so difficult, because of how much there is to learn before you can even attempt one of the simpler spells. Understanding what the incantations mean, to begin with. Then finding the components, and assembling them properly. Even for an experienced magician, getting a spell right takes many attempts.

"Did you make any bloodknives?"

I made several attempts. It's a more difficult form of magic than the rather mundane result might suggest. Eventually, I turned my attention to other forms of magic.

"So you were never successful."

As I said, I turned my attention to more important magical matters.

"Do you remember the whole spell?"

Of course I know it. I've been trapped in these pages for more than a hundred years with nothing else to do but go over my notes.

"Can you tell me about the steps involved in making a bloodknife?"

The spell was one of the most commonly known among magicians. However, old as it was, it was very difficult to cast successfully due to its arcane nature. I'll show it to you, even though you don't have the grounding of magical knowledge to understand it. Make of it what you will.

Jacob read on, and saw new words appear in a dense, formal script:

Powdered iron and powdered tin,
Powdered wasps with deadroot in.
Through the glass to watch it burn,
Cooled in ash with every turn.
Draw the silver from the steel,
To make the blade for woe or weal.

Jacob read the spell over and over again. He leaned close to the book and said, "I don't understand."

Ha! I told you magic was complex beyond your ken!

"No," he said, "I mean, I don't understand why you had to use such flowery and arcane language. I've seen blacksmiths at work. There's a lot that assumed here, but why be unnecessarily complicated to describe what looks like a straightforward process. Were all magicians as pompous and deliberately obscure in their writing as you are?"

POMPOUS?! How dare you! You, the half-witted son of a farmer! I deign to show you a glimpse, the merest fraction of a tiny little glimpse at the incredible power and mystery of magic, and you insult me beyond any man's ability to endure! Worse yet, you pretend to understand the bloodknife spell on first reading, as though you had any inkling of what this spell means or how to implement it! How dare you, you arrogant little fool! You liar! You simpleton liar! You understand nothing! You can't possibly know anything at all about it! Oh, God in heaven, if only I had hands to strangle you with! Or a voice to curse you with! It would be fire and lightning and I'd take your head right off your shoulders, you insolent little frog!

"Erikkan, please, I didn't mean it that way! I misspoke, its just that I was confused by the spell and how it was written! I didn't intend to insult you, I was just surprised, that's all. Please, don't be offended. I apologize for
... for my poor choice of words."

Ha! Go apologize to the hat rack and see if he'll forgive you!

"Please, Erikkan, you are absolutely right, the spell is obviously very complex, and I must clearly be wrong in thinking that I understood it. It's an amazing spell, really, and there's no way that I could possibly understand it unless you explain it to me."

The first intelligent thing you've said! Very perceptive of you, you liar! I'll not waste my time explaining something to someone who lies about what he does and does not understand.

"Please don't call me a liar, Erikkan, please? I was... overenthusiastic at seeing my first spell. I just thought I understood it. It must be obvious that this is really far over my head, that I'm beyond hope of making any headway in comprehending such a spell on my own."

Obvious is the right word!

"To a magician such as yourself, this must be like reading the menu board at a tavern, but to someone like me, not blessed with anything like the wisdom, the cleverness, the pure and shining intelligence of a magician... why, I'm amazed that I was able to even read it at all. Surely there must be a way for someone as intelligent as you to explain it to a simpleton like me? Can you not think of a way to make it simple enough for me to grasp?"

If only you knew what you ask, boy! A blind man can't see a sunrise, no matter how complete the explanation of it.

"Oh, that is a terrible disappointment to me. Oh, if only I were even marginally smarter, I'd have a chance to gain some small measure of insight. Ah, it seems that I must put you away until such time as I grow in wisdom, and then perhaps..."

Wait a minute, what do you mean, 'put me away'?

"Well, I'm clearly just annoying you with my stupidity. Maybe if I close the book and hide it away in the barn for a few months, I'll gain some perspective and enough wisdom and maturity to understand some of what you're telling me."

Hide me away for a few months! No, don't do that!

"Hmm, maybe you're right. A few months is hardly enough time for such a dullard as I am. I'd better make it a full year, and just hope for the best."

Wait! Perhaps I was ... hasty in saying that you are completely without any capacity for understanding.

"No, you were right. I'd better not even bother to continue discussing it. After I complete my education, or maybe a few years from now, when I inherit. Then maybe I'll be smart enough to dig you out and try to learn from you."

Wait, don't! I've been closed and alone in these pages for more than a century. I've gone mad from the boredom and recovered my wits three times over. I'll talk to anyone at this point, even someone like... that is, I find that I ... enjoy talking to you, Jacob. I don't, or rather didn't discuss magic with anyone when I was alive. I'm not used to having to explain things, or to tolerate... that is, to debate the mysteries.

"Are you sure, Erikkan? I don't want to annoy you with foolish questions."

No, no, Jacob, I'm sure. I... want to continue our discussion. I think that by approaching magic from the ... fresh perspective of a raw beginner, I may even gain new insights, myself.

"I appreciate you're willingness to show these things to me. I know that I can never be a true student of magic as you were, but perhaps, if I work at it very hard, I may be able to show you that I am able to comprehend at least some small shard. So, we can talk about the spell?"

Yes, the bloodknife spell. Let us return to the spell.

Say something funny

An organization recently asked me for a bio. I gave them a paragraph about what I do, my positions on various issues relevant to this organization, what I think is important. This was a vetting process, and I was subsequently asked to take on a leadership role. I agreed.

In the announcement of my coming on board, only the barest facts of what I gave them was stated. The bulk of the bio they printed was taken up with describing how funny I am, how witty and creative. It made specific reference to a talk I gave 5 years ago (!) that still sticks in people's minds for its use of a Spider-Man gag to make a serious point about taking personal responsibility.

I'm a little uncomfortable at the thought that the primacy of my reputation is wrapped up in being funny. I'm a very serious and thoughtful person. I'd like to be known for the clarity of my insight and depth of my understanding.

Having said that, did you hear the one about the ballerina who walked into a barre?

What to write

In terms of big writing projects, I have one moderately science fiction-ish action/adventure novel written to the first draft stage. This is going to need a big rewrite to fill in the gaps, trim off the warts and clean it up. Further revision and polishing will come after that. I'm guessing all of that will take it from its current 50,000 words to up around 90,000.

I have a fantasy novel fully outlined and begun, probably ~10,000 words done.

I have another science fiction novel that I just dove into without any clear sense of where it was going. That's ~10,000 all told, scattered among various scenes and vignettes without a coherent plot.

I think I'm going to try to clear out the SciFi elements of the most complete work, make it more fully grounded as an action/adventure piece. I'll make one flat statement right at the outset that places the book firmly into an alternate history. The present day, with a fundamental twist. That should make it much more recognizable, believable, yet still different enough that I can do all the stuff I want to with the people and events.


Outshine is a new microzine for Twitfic (Twitter fiction), in the same genre as Thaumatrope. If Twitfic is a new term, then consider it coined. I almost called it "Twitter fiction literary magazine", but that would have been Twitficlitmag, a word which has an odd meaning depending on where you put the syllabic break.

Anyway, the point is that Outshine accepted a submission of mine, which will appear on January 24. I'm very pleased to be a part of the bleeding edge new wave of professional microfiction. Understanding how to consider and/or regard Twitfic is going to take some thought, however. For example, paid Twitfic is eligible for Hugo award nomination in the short story category. Kind of astounding, no?

Tweet, tweet!

Learn to be patient

I've got to learn to be patient. I have no idea what the turnaround time is for some stuff I've got out, so I keep checking my e.mail just in case.

Well, I need to get some stuff done, and I can't do that if I'm always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Fire and forget. When it gets rejected or accepted, I'll pay attention again. Until then, get back to work.


Wil Wheaton recently had an insight about writing:

"I made two huge mistakes with that," I said. "First, I didn't realize until I was almost ten thousand words into it that it can't be a first person narrative, because it's way too limiting for what the story needs. Second, I didn't outline it before hand, I just had a basic idea for where I wanted it to go, and tried to write it by the seat of my pants. It was really stupid to do it that way, but I learned a valuable lesson from the experience: I need to work from an outline, because when I do, I'm connecting the dots instead of assembling a jigsaw puzzle."

I work from an outline, so this seems really obvious to me. Put together the general structure, spot any obvious dead ends, then skip around writing scenes to fill in the gaps. I know other people just start at page 1 and go where the story takes them, but unless I have some kind of sense of the destination, I would find that very difficult. Sometimes I have a formal outline with chapter headings, other times just a couple of pages to tell the bare bones of the story.

After writing it, I go back and try to see what worked and (despite best intentions) what didn't. Changing some major facet after having written 10K or 50K (the POV, the setting, the fundamental relationships) would be work, and lots more work afterwards to make the work work, so to speak. Like converting a gasoline engine to propane. First, you work like hell to make it run at all. Then, you keep working to get it to run well. Daunting, but not impossible.

Blog posts can be seat-of-the-pants, because they are rarely more than a couple of thousand words, and rarely express more than one or two major themes. There's no story arc in a blog post.