28 August 2011

Impacts of Magic: Shelter

The next topic on the cards for my series of posts on the impacts of magic on worldbuilding is one which follows closely on from food on the basic essentials list: Shelter.

You've filled your belly, and now in your magical world you're looking for a place to rest, to get out of the sun, the wind, the rain, the cold.  To keep the monsters out.

Construction of an adequate shelter will have a large impact on your ability to be not eaten, not sunburned, not frozen.  Literally, to not die of exposure.

 Materials

Where would the classic tale of The Three Little Pigs be with the introduction of magic?  The first little pig is a cautionary warning against taking the easy route, and is summarily eaten for choosing a building material which was in plentiful supply and simple to work with.  It just wasn't any use at keeping the local smooth-tongued wolf out.  Yet a quick spell could have transformed that house of spun straw into close-knitted Kevlar.

Unless transport is cheap and easy, buildings are generally constructed from material which is locally available.  Wood, stone, brick, mud and dung.  A little glass, if you've reached that point, but it's rare that we see any attempt to build with other materials, even in worlds of magic.  Ice occasionally shows up as an option, and the sylvan races like to tailor their trees to include living quarters, but other than the occasional mad wizard building their towers out of solid ruby, it's exceptionally rare to see any non-standard materials used in construction.

If you've awarded your world a truly galumptious amount of magic, what's to prevent you from building your house out of giant rose petals which retain their texture, but have the strength of titanium?  A must-have for the truly ostentatious mage (or faerie queen).

Construction Methods

A more likely use of magic is in the method of construction.  One of the reasons the pyramids are a wonder of the world is the sheer difficulty of transporting stone of that size and weight – even today it would take quite some doing, let alone when your primary transport is wooden rollers and slaves.  Levitation would certainly increase your ability to produce towering monuments.

Beyond assisting standard construction methodology, magic can add a lot of variety to your home building options.  Straightforward conjuration.  Growing your buildings from seeds.  Taking the Mickey Mouse route and having your broom do all the hard work.  Or enchanting giant arachnids to spin tents with the tensile strength of spider web.

Architecture

When you mix magic with both construction methods and building materials, you can produce buildings which would make a structural engineer sweat bullets.  Gravity-defying spires.  Bridges that cross mile-wide expanses without caring for little matters like pylons.  Huts on chicken legs which permit a nomadic lifestyle with all the luxuries of home.

It's relatively rare to see extravagantly soaring buildings in fantasy literature, even when there's an excess of magic.  The one exception is the floating city, which pops up quite regularly – but oddly enough is usually furnished with relatively ordinary buildings.

It's rare that a world is awarded sufficient magic to make magically-constructed buildings common.  But monuments and palaces would certainly benefit from the best which magic could do.  If you've given your mages enough pep to send half a mountain whizzing through the air, or produced an irritable little man to demonstrate the method of transforming straw into gold, then consider turning that magical ingenuity to the mundane but ever-so-important question of something to keep the rain off.

Doctor Who: Let's Kill Hitler (Spoilers)

There are a few ways you could handle a Doctor Who episode called "Let's Kill Hitler".  You could take the Indiana Jones approach and lightly mix derring-do, deadpan seriousness, witty lines and moments which remind you that the backdrop of the story is something awful (see "The Last Crusade" during the book burning scene) to produce a heart-felt adventure.  Or you could use it as an opportunity to deeply examine why the Doctor hasn't killed Hitler, why all the horror and degradation and heartbreak that pathetic little man caused is somehow necessary to Earth's history (a fixed moment in time) which he cannot change.

Or you could make Hitler completely irrelevant to the plot, shove him in a cupboard and get on with having an overwrought melodrama with yet another the-Doctor-is-dying fake-out.

While I don't consider World War II, and the question of Hitler, something you can never do stories about, it just came across as unnecessary.  Completely unnecessary, "let's give the episode a shocking title to gain attention" unnecessary.  Beyond a mildly sniffy comment, we don't even examine the idea of people from the future coming back in time to torture war criminals but not, you know, save anyone.  It says something for how badly this episode was executed that the ONLY person I felt any kind of sympathy for was the Nazi commander who was killed off by the robot in the opening scenes.  Successfully conveying the horror of meeting a duplicate of yourself, then being transported somewhere inexplicable and hunted down - and wasting it on someone we should hate...why?  If they'd made us hate the guy first, then maybe it could have worked and we would have been happy to see his horror and fear.  But we are merely TOLD he is bad and thus the scene has completely the wrong impact.  [One of the best examples of the problems of show v tell I've seen this week.]

The story is primarily the second part of River Song's origin story, and gives us a transition for Melody Pond from kidnapped baby to brainwashed 'bespoke' assassin (one who wedges herself into her parents' timeline as a childhood friend) to the birth of the identity known as River Song.  The bones of this story is good.  The execution is terrible.  The moments of poignancy and loss involved in the terrible life this child has led, her strange and warped relationship with her parents, are completely deflated and ignored.

The Doctor apparently has been unable to track down Melody-the-baby, and there's a strong implication at the end of this episode that we're no longer hunting for the baby, and that River must grow as an identity on her own.  Can the Doctor (let alone Amy and Rory) really be okay with the result of this story?  Are we really supposed to believe that the guy with the time machine can't get to that baby?

Other problematic issues with the episode:

- Retconning a childhood friend in for Amy and Rory.  This above all else suggests that none of this story was planned.  Because, hell, we met River before Amy.  If she grew up as Amy's childhood best friend PUT HER IN THEN NOT NOW.  "Mels", who is black, steals cars and is in and out of jail but I guess we can shrug that off because after all that's "just River".  [I was actually thinking during her scenes - why are they adding another obnoxious character who behaves just like River?]

- Ouch, the slippery slope of sexism.  The Doctor actually suggests that River is being so insane and contradictory "because she's a woman".  And while River is certainly a woman who is proudly appreciative of herself, and might be expected to enjoy looking and feeling good, her preoccupation during and after regeneration on: (1) her waist size, (2) her weight and (3) finding some sexy clothing, was just...gob-smacking.

I just cannot get over how bad this season has been.  Only a single stand-alone episode has captured the magic of Doctor Who at all.  Fortunately the preview suggests that next week's episode might be viewable.

27 August 2011

Status Report

Finally through the near-last edit of Voice!  That means (unless some great logical inconsistency is uncovered) it's likely to be out mid-September.  I'm currently working on the (rather spoilery!) map, and will be including a glossary (and adding one into Silence), since the titles and countries can be a bit difficult to remember.

Voice is very short!  The shortest thing I'm ever likely to release (though still novel length, closer to the average length for a mystery than a fantasy novel).  I debated adding a whole series of extra adventures, but this is the correct length, I think, for this part of the story.  It's practically a reversal of the traditional fantasy novel (which often build up to a huge battle), and is remarkably emotional at several points (tearing up at my own writing, tch).  I suspect, when the readers get to the last couple of chapters, they will be screaming at me, and sharpening the knives, heh.

Then it's on to finalising Caszandra.  This volume is 150,000 words long, so it's hard to predict how long this will take me to fine-edit.  I'm aiming for early December.

I also plan to 'relax' with writing more of Pyramids in there, but I've forbidden myself from working on that until I've finished all the tasks for Voice.

Sales were fairly bad this month (yet still actual pocket money).  August is apparently the absolute worst month for selling books, so I'm blaming it on that at the moment.  I did a giveaway at LibraryThing, and the general response has been good.  Diary format is still the main thing people dislike about Touchstone, though it bothers fewer people than I expected.

There's a few readers who seem to have gone through every book I've written and liked them all and that means a great deal to me.  :)

21 August 2011

How Long

Say, here's a topic for discussion - what's your rate of production? Not just wordcount, but the whole process. How long does it take for you to get from typing 'Chapter 1' to hitting the send button on the Smashwords/Amazon/whatever page? And what stages take the shortest and longest with you? -- Dave
This is a little like asking how long is a piece of string.  (I swear, I could answer every question put to me with "it depends".)

The main "depends" in writing is what else I'm doing.  I have a full-time job.  I like to play computer games.  Very occasionally gardens, and movies and so forth interfere (Cowboys and Aliens isn't bad, but isn't brilliant either - though there is one thing, one tiny nuanced thing, which was remarkably effective).  It also depends on how determined I am to get things done - when I'm writing at home, if I'm serious I'll turn the TV off and listen to music because it's less distracting.

The quickest I ever wrote a first draft was in about three months.  [Or, I guess you could count the Touchstone trilogy, which I wrote in a single year - 350,000 words.  The editing of that took almost as long again.]  I do a whole bunch of end to end editing runs after I'm finished, but first draft is almost always the longest part, especially since I edit as I go along.  I also try to put the book away after the first draft is done and completely forget it for a few months, because you need the distance to look at it with any measure of perspective.

When I'm writing, or thinking about some cool thing to write, I will get up and pace back and forth - very silly.

I don't expect to have The Pyramids of London finished in first draft until late next year (and that only if I exercise some level of discipline with it) because I have so many other things I'm editing.  I've written about 2000 words this weekend and am pressing on for a bit because I really want to write the scene with the hand.  [When the book is done and you're reading it, you will remember me mentioning the scene with the hand.  And then you will say, OMG, the scene with the hand!  My version of vampires is amusing me immensely - and Egyptian mythology seems just made for vampiric lore.]  The speed with which I write depends on what's being written.  Action is fairly easy and quick for me (and hopefully there'll be a lot of action in TPoL!), while what I consider "transitive passages" - the less fun stuff involving polite conversation - can take much longer because I sit there figuring out how to say it just so.

All the formatting and such for publication doesn't take more than a few days.

17 August 2011

The Fun Bits

People are always going on about how much work writing is.  Oh the agony, oh the slog, blah de blah.

And, yeah, it's rare that you can avoid the slog.

But, dammit, writing is fun!  I write because I love it.  There are far more highs than there are lows. 

My favourite parts are:

- Accidental coolness - when re-reading that paragraph you tossed off in a hurry makes you stop and blink and double-check that you can claim credit for it.

- Plans coming together - all those plot threads dovetailing so neatly you'd think it was deliberate!

- THAT scene - finally reaching the one scene you've been wanting to write for THREE MONTHS now.

- Unreeling the world - by far my favourite part, when you've got one page written and you're galloping through plot and possibility and why and wherefore and you're walking around with a huge grin because wouldn't it be cool to do that!  And what if, and EW!, and that could work and then, but, and if, and oh, damn, I love this story!

By which you might guess that I've had a first page 'musesploding' all over the place.  Wednesday (which will probably end up being called The Pyramids of London) is occupying every spare thought because I've been having way too much fun working out a world which I'm calling my "Didn't Fall" world.  Where the Egyptian Empire didn't fall because its God-Kings were weather-controlling vampires.  And the Roman Empire didn't fall because the technical difficulties of fighting weather-controlling vampires led to them harnessing lightning.  And Britain is just a bit different after being successively invaded by the Romans, the Vikings, the Egyptians, and something which vaguely resembles the Normans, but is now proudly independent with an airship force to be reckoned with, and coronations are held in the Great Grove dedicated to the Tri-Fold Goddess.

So, uh, yeah.  So much to write, so little time...

[I am faithfully working on Voice every morning, though, and making good progress now that I made it past a tricky bit.]

10 August 2011

Novel Inclinations

Voice continues apace.  A very slow pace.  I'm attempting a tonal shift in a few critical chapters, and that's _hard_.  But progress is being made, despite self-sabotaging attempts to drag myself off course.

One of the suggested ways to get your name out as a writer (published or self-published) is to write short stories so people can get a taste for your writing, so I thought over possible short stories I could write this week, and came up with two new novels to add to my list of things I would really like to be writing at the moment.

I'm just a novel writer; it's my natural length.

When I'm seriously distracted by new story ideas, I usually write the first page or two, which gets it enough out of my head that I can go back to whatever I'm trying to _finish_, and gives me enough to pick up the threads if and when I come back to it.

You can see from this opening scene that I was pondering popular sub-genres and wondering what would make them interesting to me. ;)
The windows of the vampire's house were a sneer, a proclamation.  "Come, Sun!" they mocked.  "Find me.  Make me ash."
The sun was not slow to take up the invitation, flooding through countless squares of glass to burnish mellow wood and caress rows of leather-bound books.  But the vampire was in the basement discussing weather control with the Prime Minister, and the sun did not even reach the young man resting his head on one arm at the near end of the library's central table.  The broad sweep of light stopped just short of his other hand as he held it, thumb canted to form a partial frame, toward the window and the scene of controlled near-chaos outside.
A rope had snapped.  The Prime Minister's airship was canted to one side, and then bounced, the black and red ballonet threatening to smash the gondala against Sheerside Manor's sweeping back lawn.  The very problem Lady Buckmeer had come to discuss was likely to strand her in Heliotropus' bedeviled south.
That story, if I ever get around to writing more than an opening for it, will be called Wednesday.  But Voice first.  So many projects, so little time.

03 August 2011

Impacts of Magic: Food

The next topic on the cards for my series of posts on the impacts of magic on worldbuilding is one which is a central concern of any living creature: Food


Without food we die.  Food, the Harvest, is THE driving force of most cultures.  And there is no more obvious use of magic than to make sure the Harvest is bountiful.

Land's Health

Countless harvest-related magical rituals are found in our non-magical world - many of which are discussed in detail in Frazer's The Golden Bough.  Whether "country-wide" or covering a single valley, magic has long been called on to balance an ecosystem.  Water, when and where needed, in the right amounts.  Sunshine, not too harsh.  Insects of the right sort - bees - and not those which scour and devour - locusts.

The timely sacrifice of an animal - or person - to ensure the harvest is no longer common practice.  Nor do we attempt to bind the health of a country up in the body of an individual ruler (to be cosseted or killed as custom dictates).  Since we already had societies built up around the belief that these rituals worked, would it be a tangibly different world if the rituals had a true impact?

Failure to Kill

When sacrifice is not a matter of belief but a necessary component of harvest, then failure to sacrifice will result in an obviously linked failure of harvest.

How hungry is the land?  Does it require the sacrifice of animals, of maidens, of kings?  How would you feel as this year/month/week's designated sacrifice, knowing that if you run, if you escape, the harvest will fail?  The rivers will dry?  The rains will not come?

And if you're the executioner?  The person with the grim, horrible duty to take life in order to preserve it?  Are you the one who chooses who dies?  Do you choose people with family, who will perhaps be more willing to die to ensure others eat?  Or do you opt for the unwanted, in hopes that you're less hated by the living?

The important thing to remember is that these are not optional acts.  There will have been occasions in the past when the chosen sacrifice has not been delivered, and the consequences have been catastrophic.  What kind of society will be built up around the necessity of death?  Will it be one of fear and distrust, dominated by who chooses?  Will it be random choice?  Could it be considered an honour?  Could people actually compete to be the one who dies so others live?

Worse still, will there be pressure to sacrifice more, hoping to bring about a better harvest?  Where lives are being spent not to prevent hunger, but to gain wealth?  The social dynamic of a world tied to a sacrifice harvest are never likely to be pretty.

Failure to Protect

The inversion of the sacrifice model is the investment of the health of the land in the body of an individual/ruler.  Although these are sometimes also killed (particularly when they age and health begins to break down), the impetus here is to ensure absolute protection.

This, of course, can lead to protecting the invested person from life.  High walls, seclusion, strictures on what can be touched, what can be eaten, what can be done.

In a world where the virtue of the land is invested in an individual, you could starve a kingdom with a single assassination.  But, though this is one of my favourite tropes and I use it in a serious way, I often think of the story which could be written if it was used comedically.

Instead of killing the invested individual, how much more entertaining to mess with their diet?  An invested Queen with a love of super-spicy curry could lead to extra-tasty cheese.  But what about too many prunes?  An excess of stodge?  What would happen to the harvest if the focus of all the land's virtues had chicken pox?  Acne?  Gas?

Assisted Husbandry

Instead of the large amount of magic and risk involved with bonding lives with the land's health, a more practical use for magic is to simply refine agriculture.  Divinations could give understanding of the intricacies of crop rotation, or track down the best way to combat pests.  Special forges could produce high-quality ploughs.  Jobbing magicians would provide wards against wolves or charm goats to eat only the weeds while leaving the crops.  And then there's Shaping.

Shaping is an invention of mine, changing the nature of something "beyond the blood" - in other words, genetic manipulation in a fantasy setting, which is the basis of the Fair in the world of Champion of the Rose.  The Fair trade their genetically modified plants, and gave as a gift a modified form of a grain-crop which was so productive and resistant to diseases and pests that it dramatically increased general quality of life world-wide.

The advantage of Shaping is that the need for magic, for the involvement of mages, is only at the creation.  After that you have a plant or animal which can be spread and reproduced without further input from the mage.

Of course, in the grand tradition of almost every story about genetic manipulation, Shaping has a tendency to Go Wrong.

Preservation

In addition to producing food, one of the largest challenges of the pre-industrial world was preserving that food.  Salt, honey and cloves were valuable not only for their taste benefits, but for their ability to extend the Use By date of the harvest.

An obvious use for magic is refrigeration (and gives me some grand images of icicle-encrusted cargo ships floating down steamy tropical rivers) and just as the village baker's oven was once put to the use of entire villages, it's easy to picture a communal enchanted icehouse where food is preserved.

Preservation leads to a more stable food supply, rather than feast and famine cycles, and portable refrigeration allows for a greater variety of food.  If, that is, your world didn't already have a system of portals making world-wide trade quicker and easier than anything science can currently provide.  Your pleasure-loving ruler might regularly dine on a Meal of the Seasons, starting with Spring Lamb from the valley hidden between the three tallest mountains on the far side of the world.

Fantastical Food

And the Meal of the Seasons leads nicely into Fantastical Food, by which I mean food production or food which is magical.  Apple Pie Trees.  Gingerbread Men that try to escape.  Sweets which are an entire meal in a single all-day sucker.  Cornucopias are a traditional example of FF (with variants such as tablecloths which can be spread once a day for a full meal, or a handkerchief which will always give you lunch).   Fountains of Youth or Love or Genderbending also fall into this area.

I'm occasionally tempted to see sneak these into my seriousmagicworlds to see whether I can maintain the tone of the Deep Moral Issues after discovering the (Lashings of) Ginger Beer Fountain.

How you use magic can completely change the tone of the world you build, and if you've included a generous dash of magic, take the time to consider how this will impact the kind of food your characters will eat, and why it doesn't always have to be Stew.