Okay, so Christmas doesn’t kidnap me, tie me up with sparkling lights, and lock me in the bathroom (though it could!). However, I do tend to have bad experiences with Christmas, and I don’t expect this one to be any better. I’m not on speaking terms with most of my family, my Dad is living on a tight budget so Christmas these days has no thrills, and I don’t expect anyone else in the world to get me anything. Beyond that, I can’t even get on board with the whole “Christmas should be about love and hope and etc etc, not presents!” thing because I’m not religious and I don’t really have the kind of hopeful, positive influences in my life that would make Christmas worthwhile. I have casual friends who I’m sure will text or tweet me some Christmas wishes, but I don’t really have the kind of deep personal relationships where you expect to bond with people over hot chocolate in front of the fireplace Christmas day.
All I want for Christmas is to finish this draft.
I think I’ve been suffering from #NaNoWriMo Burn Out, coupled with a touch of seasonal depression. Which happens every year. After writing 160,000 words on my NaNo novel, I’ve written . . . five blog posts in two weeks, and revised one chapter of Contamination. That’s not much. And I have no excuse. I just sit home all day anyway. It’s not like there’s a reason I can’t get the work done.
All I want for Christmas is some motivation.
I think that Author Fragile Ego Syndrome is keeping me from working on my novel because I’m afraid that it sucks. That no one is going to read it or buy it or like it. That people who praise my writing are just doing so to be nice. That one day soon I’m going to be back to working at a crappy restaurant for a sexist boss, Master’s Degree from Rowan University notwithstanding.
All I want for Christmas is some self-esteem.
What I said a moment ago, about Christmas not being about presents? It’s true. Christmas isn’t about presents. I don’t want material goods. I just want a Christmas where I can get out of this rut and get some work done. I want to be able to send my revised novel to my CPs as their Christmas present. I want to stop feeling like crap. I want to get through a Christmas without crying.
All I want for Christmas is to be successful with my writing. But that’s a gift no one else can give me. So I’ll have to do it myself.
Manifestation is available in paperback format through:
Look at the picture above, and tell me what you see.
Okay, yes, nine versions of Superman. Look closer.
Okay, they’ve all got variations of the same classic costume, except the one dressed all in black. They’ve all got a tall, muscular build. But look closer.
What do I see? Confidence. Shoulders set back. Chins held high. A few of them even have an almost cocky smirk. And why not? They’re Superman. Generally considered (by an average person, not necessarily a comic book buff) to be the most powerful superhero of all. And not only does he have more powers than you can shake your, err, kryptonite at, he’s also suave, charming, heroic, honest, and basically all around perfect.
And maybe that perfection will go to his head.
There’s a line in the original Christopher Reeve Superman movie, when Superman is talking to his father, Jor-El. Jor-El warns Superman not to succumb to his vanity:
Lastly, do not punish yourself for your feelings of vanity. Simply learn to control them. It is an affliction common to all, even on Krypton…Our destruction could have been avoided but for the vanity of some who considered us indestructible. Were it not for vanity, why, at this very moment… I could embrace you in my arms…my son…
Superman’s vanity, and through it, his overconfidence, are almost his undoing. He thinks he’s indestructible, so he doesn’t bother to take precautions. This is how Lex Luthor is able to trick him and expose him to kryptonite, which nearly kills him. (In turn, Luthor’s own vanity and overconfidence leads to him walking away and not watching Superman die, allowing Miss Teschmacher to save him.) I’ve seen this issue be Superman’s undoing in a number of different versions of the movies and TV shows. He underestimates his foes, he doesn’t consider the consequences of his actions, and he may even sometimes consider himself to be above the law.
One of the reasons I started thinking about the vanity of superheroes is because of a conversation I had with my academic adviser at Rowan University about my own writing projects. We were discussing one of the main characters from my novel, Manifestation, and I was describing some of the powers she has and the scale on which she’s able to affect the world in the later novels in the series (which gets bigger and stronger as the series goes on). After describing one particular scene at the end of the second book, Contamination, my adviser asked, “Would you describe her as godlike?”
Godlike characters can be a problem in a variety of ways. For one, there’s what I’ve called the Superman Dilemma, where a character is so powerful that it’s hard for there to be any suspense. But pride and vanity are definitely another issue. Vanity can be something that can actually add conflict, however, if it proves to be the character’s downfall. Vanity can lead to mistakes, it can make a character easy to manipulate, and it can alienate a character’s friends who think the character has gotten too big for their britches.
No wonder it’s the Devil’s favorite sin.
So if you find that your characters are too powerful, too unstoppable, too perfect, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. As long as their power and perfection becomes a foil for them in the story. One way to address this is to put the character up against something that all their power isn’t enough to defeat. This is something I try to do later in my books. A character who has gotten used to solving every problem by throwing her unstoppable, godlike powers at it full force suddenly finds herself faces with an obstacle that can’t be beaten this way. She has to step back from the situation and consider other angles. She has to think. She has to realize that, just maybe, all of her powers don’t amount to all that much sometimes. It’s a hard lesson to learn. But once she learns she has to think outside the box instead of trying to overpower her foes, she ends up being that much stronger.
And hopefully, not too many cities will get destroyed in the meantime.
Manifestation is available in paperback format through:
I just finished #NaNoWriMo last week. My currently untitled novel is sitting at 160,484 words of magic, mystery, sex, love, telepathy, golems, lesbians, teddy bears, and maybe a giant mutated monster or two. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out, though I know it’ll need plenty of revisions and work just like all the others. That work is for later, however, and now it’s time to turn my mind to other things.
On the writing front, there’s two main projects on my mind right now. Both of them have something in common: scavengers (did the title of the post give that away?). I’d like to talk a bit about the concept of scavengers first, then discuss how it relates to my upcoming projects.
A scavenger-based society can develop in a variety of ways. In real life, it can happen when some groups of people live in the slums or run-down neighborhoods of otherwise wealthy cities. I read a book earlier this year, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which told the real-life story of people living in such conditions in Mumbai, India. The people in the story live in tin shacks in a muddy, rancid slum, where they deal with crime, pollution from the city, poverty, poor education, and the struggle to survive and feed their families each day. One of the main characters is a boy who collects scrap. Plastic bottles, wire coat hangers, tin foil . . . anything he can haul down to the recycling center to sell in order to earn what he can to help feed his family. Parts of the story follow this boy and others like him as they scrounge in the dumpsters behind hotels, gathering plastic straws and lids to be sold as scrap to the recycling center. Sometimes they have to fight off gangs of larger boys who will beat them up to steal their garbage and sell it themselves. And no one in the city cares, except when it comes to shooing them away so the rich tourists at the hotels don’t have to see the street urchins digging through the trash.
More extreme examples can be seen in some post-apocalyptic stories, where society has collapsed and industry no longer exists. I’m reading a fiction novel right now called The Drowned Cities, set in a post-apocalyptic future where global warming has flooded the coasts, war has torn the country apart, and people struggle to survive amidst ongoing fighting between rival factions that try to claim their own piece of the broken world. People use whatever they can get their hands on, and the author describes things like plastic antifreeze bottles now being used as water bottles, ruined buildings being torn apart for scrap to rebuild elsewhere, and old medicine that is “only a year past its expiration date.” These details do a good job setting the scene and showing the reader just how desperate people are for whatever resources they can get their hands on.
The idea of a society with limited resources will be helpful research for my current and future projects. One of those project, my seventh novel, is currently only in the planning stages. I’ve got about ten pages of notes so far on what I plan to do with it, though I don’t intend to start writing this one until next year, maybe during #JuNoWriMo. Some of these notes are based on ideas I got from books like The Drowned Cities, relating to the idea of where people get the resources they need to survive. Food and other resources can be scarce. People might be having to improvise items to use them for something other than their original purpose. Gabby Palladino, my main character (who is also a poet) may have trouble finding simple things like pens and paper to write her journals and poems. Though I’ve already written things in the past that involve looting old, abandoned stores, so I’m sure she could find an abandoned office supply store with plenty of useful goods.
My more immediate project right now is continuing revisions on my second book, Contamination, which is the sequel to Manifestation. I won’t go into too much detail so as not to spoil some of the events of Manifestation, but suffice to say, some of the characters in Contamination can end up in some difficult situations where food and supplies are scarce. The scene I’m currently revising involves a gang of thugs with magic powers fighting for control over a grocery store, since controlling the store means controlling the food supplies left inside. When you’re desperate and hungry, that’s a higher priority than anything else. There are also other scenes of people doing things like smashing open an old vending machine to steal the stale snack foods inside. People will do what it takes when it comes to staying fed.
I plan to read some more books in war-ravaged post-apocalyptic settings in the near future in order to see how other authors have addressed the scavenger lifestyle. I find it an interesting one, and I think there’s a lot of potential character development to be found in writing a character who has to dig through the rubble to find the things they need to survive.
Manifestation is available in paperback format through:
I write in a fictional world. This is a common trope seen in fantasy writing, where a writer wants to create a fictional history, geography, government, and so on for their world. It allows for a lot more freedom to do things that couldn’t happen in the real world. This is especially true if you want to add some detail to the geography that would otherwise be impossible, like floating continents, the ruins of a super-advanced ancient civilization, or magical physics that show the world functions in a very different way. It can also be used in science fiction with alien civilizations (such as how Star Wars takes place in a galaxy far, far away, as opposed to Star Trek which still has the real Earth, just far in the future).
A few complications arise when writing in an entirely fictional world. Even though Manifestation is set in a modern-day setting that is very similar to the real world, there are some key differences. One key example is holidays. There’s no “America” in the fictional world I created; the people live in a country called the Northern Union, which is loosely modeled after America but very different in some ways. Since there’s no America, there’s no Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, or any other national holiday that is specific to real life. Likewise, there’s no Christmas, because there’s no Christianity. Religion plays a heavy role in the books, and the religion is loosely modeled after Christianity (I make references to the seven deadly sins, for example). But in these books, there was no Jesus Christ, so therefore there’s no Christmas or Easter or anything like that.
Sometimes this makes me stumble in my writing. For example, there’s a scene near the end of Manifestation when I refer to “holiday decorations” on the house. I never say which holiday, since real-life holidays don’t exist in that world. But the scene takes place in winter, around the time of what would have been Christmas in real life, so holiday decorations become part of the setting. Some books I’ve read address such topics by having a “Winter Festival” as the winter holiday celebration. If the holiday were of specific relevance to the plot, I could even develop a fictional set of customs and traditions around it, in order to flesh it out more. But in my case, it’s more of a minor background detail.
Another related thing that pops up from time to time is brand names, and this becomes more complicated. I can’t, for example, have my characters eat Jell-O or Cheetos. Those brands don’t exist in the fictional world, so I have to say gelatin or cheesy puffs. My characters have to use tissues, not Kleenex, and take aspirin, not Tylenol.
Some brand names become harder to avoid. There’s a lot of fighting in some of my books, so naturally there’s guns. In some action-oriented books I’ve read, people will refer to a specific model of gun, like a Glock or a Luger. I can only say “pistol.” Though I fudge some of these rules when people drive a jeep or wear a kevlar vest, because really, there aren’t a lot of better names to use for that. Kevlar is technically a brand name but it’s in many ways seen as a name for the material itself. A jeep is technically a vehicle produced by Jeep, but it also brings to mind a very specific type of vehicle that the phrase “off-road vehicle” doesn’t quite capture.
This can be difficult, and sometimes it seems like it would be easier to just write in the real world. But on the other hand, I’m sometimes able to create fictional brands and companies that become a part of the personality of the world. For example, on multiple occasions I refer to places like the Donovan Grant Hotel, Donovan Financial Trust, and buildings sponsored by that company like the Donovan Financial Field where the local sports team plays. The Donovan family that owns these businesses remains mostly in the background (though there’s an easter egg in there for people who pay attention), but this remains a personalized detail that is part of the structure of this world.
Maybe in the future books, some new holidays will be formed commemorating the disasters that strike. Perhaps the people will start holding barbecues and/or memorials on Arcana Day. And they could hang decorations and hold services in remembrance of the people who lost their lives when magic was reborn.
Manifestation is available in paperback format through:
As I mentioned, I recently won #NaNoWriMo 2014. It was a long haul. I had quite a few nights where I was up until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. My back is killing me. I spent several days in a daze, barely able to focus on anything else.
The novel is complete. At 160,484 words, it’s both the biggest NaNoWriMo victory I’ve ever had and the longest novel I’ve written in the series. As you can see by the progress meters on the sidebar to the right, it’s 28,000 words more than the previous novel. This was more-or-less what I expected, and the reason why is the first “thing I learned” from NaNoWriMo:
I learned to better estimate word counts
When I first wrote Manifestation, I had no idea how long it would be. I also didn’t know how the story would shift away from any original plans I had. These shifts can lead to longer word counts on some drafts, since the story expands in places I didn’t expect, then shorter word counts in revisions, when I cut scenes that end up not fitting the new direction the story went in. One of the consequences of these unexpected turns is that the structure of the novel can change.
For example, when I first started the series, I already knew where the third volume, Collapse, would end. I had a scene in mind for the climax and what consequences it would bring. I started writing with that goal in mind from early on, always trying to move Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah, the two main characters, in that direction. But at the time that I started writing, I thought that would be the end of volume two, not volume three.
I had originally planned Manifestation to stop in a place that is now somewhere around the middle of the second book, Contamination. I had a story arc planned out for Gabby that would take her through various family dramas, build on her romantic relationship with her main love interest, Callia Gainsborough, and help her grow from the introverted teenage girl we see at the beginning into, well, you’ll have to wait and see what she becomes. But when I was moving past the 100,000 word mark on Manifestation, I realized I needed a lot more time to get Gabby to the point I wanted to take her in. So I devised a new climax for Manifestation, finished the first book, and started the second one.
Then, when I was near the end of Contamination, the same thing happened again. I had a point where Gabby’s relationship with Callia was really just getting off the ground, where Gabby’s understanding of the supernatural changes to the world around her are finally coming together, and where Gabby’s growth as a character was reaching a major turning point. But a turning point isn’t a climax, and I realized I needed another 50,000 words or more to get Gabby the rest of the way down that path. Like with the first book, had I not come up with a different ending, the total length of the book would have been over 170,000 words. Instead, I started the third book, and about halfway through Gabby reached the point of character development I’d originally planned. It was mostly smooth sailing after that to finish the third book, reaching the climax that had originally been planned for book two.
This year, I went into my writing expecting and planning for a length of 150,000. I came up with this number by considering the various story arcs of the previous books, how many main characters had leading roles in each, and how much world building had to be done. When I crossed the 130,000 word mark, I reanalyzed based on the number of scenes left, and adjusted my word count estimate to 160,000. The final total word count was only a few hundred off of that second estimate.
I plan to consider these variables when working on future books as well, so that I’ll have a better idea of how much will “fit” in one book. That way I’ll be able to avoid major restructuring like I went through in the early books.
I learned the difference between a “romance” and a “love story”
As you may have seen by recent blog posts, I’ve been studying romance novels lately. I have a few serious problems with the common romance tropes I’ve seen. Examples include characters who seem to constantly profess their love in the narration without me seeing love in their actions, characters who are too perfect (perfect bodies, perfect hair, flawless morals, etc), characters who fall in love too quickly without enough development of their relationships, and the unrealistic nature of the “happily ever after” ending. I’ve been trying to avoid abusing these tropes in my own writing, by either breaking them entirely, or at least approaching them from different angles in order to avoid being cliche.
However, a new variable was recently brought to my attention. I recently wrote a post about exploring infidelity in romance stories, where I considered the possible roles cheating might play in the development of a story. In particular, I cited novels like The Notebook, where the female lead started off in a relationship then cheated on her fiance with the male lead, who she eventually ended up with. After writing this post, however, one of my romance writer friends directed me to the rules of the Romance Writers of America, and I learned there are some things you can’t do if you want the story to be considered an official “romance.”
According to the RWA, a story is only a “romance” if it has A Central Love Story and An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending. That is, the love story can’t be a subplot, and it can’t have an ending that isn’t in the “happily ever after” category.
A happy ending, according to my friend, means things like no cheating. You can’t do anything to betray the relationship or make the reader stop rooting for the characters to get together. If the reader reaches a point where they wish the characters would break up, it’s not a “romance.”
Q: You once said the difference between a love story and a romance is that “love stories must use universal characters and settings.” What did you mean by that?
“Universal” means you feel as if they are real. You feel like you can know them. I don’t write stories about astronauts or CEOs of Fortune 500 companies or millionaires or movie stars. These are stories of everyday people put into extraordinary events that are also very real in ordinary people’s lives: accidents, a past you want to get away from, a husband that got violent.
Now, I don’t necessarily agree with his entire view here, but what he’s basically saying sounds like “romance novels have unrealistic characters but love stories have ordinary people.” I wouldn’t call this a 100% accurate statement, but it touches on what I mentioned above. Most romance novels I read have people who are too perfect. They’re rich, famous, gorgeous, and flawless. Now, I think you can have a traditional romance novel that has believable, down-to-earth characters (just many of the ones I’ve recently read don’t). But if you go by Sparks’s views, romances are fantasies, while love stories are more realistic.
Even if you disagree with how sparks describes this difference, I do think that the distinction is related to the “no cheating” rule I already mentioned. Characters who cheat on each other would spoil the perfect fantasy of the ideal relationship. But characters who have to struggle to heal and forgive after an affair might better represent the kinds of people we see in real life.
I’ll probably follow up with some more things I learned in a future post. It was definitely a long and educational experience.
Manifestation is available in paperback format through:
I was peer pressured encouraged to share an excerpt from my current #NaNoWriMo Project, Arcana Revived Volume Six (currently untitled). The chapter below is an early chapter that introduces Gabby Palladino and her sister, Adrianna.
Be warned, spoilers ahoy. Since this is a sequel, there’s massive spoilers in here for my first novel, Manifestation. Read ahead at your own risk.
Gabby and the Manifested warped into Evesborough, landing at the edge of the city in a flash of light. They staggered a bit in catching their footing and adjusting to the difference in elevation; Evesborough was in the mountains, high above sea level, so it was a stark shift from the coastal city they’d just left. The air was cooler, the sky was clear, and the mountains around them were covered in fresh evergreens that climbed the slopes all around the city.
Gabby rubbed her temple, fighting off a headache. The pressure around her skull from the ever-present weight of her aura was worse than usual. She was sure it was a mix of not only the stress she was going through, but also of the massive mana surges she’d just witnessed Tock wielding in the City of Arcana. Tock’s power had become immense, far greater than it had been last time Gabby had seen her a couple of months before. It was something she wasn’t sure how to handle, or even wrap her head around.
“What happens now?” Mason asked. He stood off to the side with the others, outside of the range of Gabby’s aura. She was having trouble holding the aura in right now and pulses of mana were leaking through it. The Manifested kept their distance in order to remain safe.
“Gather the rest of the Manifested in the city square,” Gabby said. “We’re going to have to make preparations for tomorrow.”
“Preparations for what, exactly?” Vijay asked. “To fight?”
Gabby shook her head no, but she didn’t know what other answer to give. “We’re going to stop the fighting.”
“How?” Mason asked.
Gabby sighed. “Just get everyone together.” She turned to Jaden. “Send out a city-wide summons. Not just our usual crew. I want all willing volunteers with any kind of arcana to come. We’re going to need everything we’ve got.” Evesborough currently held a few hundred thousand citizens, most of them refugees who had fled from other mountain towns in the surrounding area and come here for the protection offered by a more well-defended city. Out of the whole population, somewhere between ten and twenty thousand were Manifested, though they hadn’t been able to perform any kind of census to get an exact count. Plus, many of the Manifested were children who were too young to fight, or people who were unwilling to join the struggle. Gabby could hope for a thousand, maybe two, but that would be it. Not enough to stand against the entire massed force of the Northern Union army, to say nothing of Tock’s mass-produced golem army.
Jaden raised her megaphone and channeled a stream of mana into it. Translucent emerald light flowed from her fingertips into the gemstones that were encrusted around the device, melding arcana and technology together in a design Vijay had developed just for the telepath. When she channeled her thoughts into the megaphone, they were amplified by the arcanatech and channeled across the whole city. All Manifested willing to help us stop the war, please gather in the city square. Commander Palladino requests all Manifested willing to fight . . .
Gabby gave Jaden a grateful smile. “I’ll see you guys there in a few minutes.” She headed off on her own, walking down the street towards the lodge that had been turned into a makeshift command center. She kept her head held high as she walked, giving professional nods to the citizens and Manifested she passed by. The streets were fairly crowded with pedestrian traffic, though there wasn’t a single car in sight. They hadn’t yet had time to develop any arcanatech vehicles, and gas was a resource that had all but run out in the months since the mana storm. She didn’t think there was a single operational car or truck left anywhere in Evesborough, and in the other cities to the south, the military had taken control of all the gas supplies to keep their jeeps and tanks running.
She headed into the lodge, where groups of volunteers were working to coordinate everything from the details of Evesborough’s defense force, to the management of their food supplies, to the manufacturing of arcanatech weapons and devices based on Vijay’s designs. Several people stopped her with questions as soon as she entered and she was stuck for almost ten minutes making decisions about where to mount the newest arcanatech gun turrets, how to handle distributing food supplies to different parts of the city, and how to settle disputes between different teams who each wanted a bigger portion of their limited manufacturing supplies. She didn’t have the first clue what the best answer was to half of the questions, so she just made her best guess, or delegated the task to someone else. She didn’t really know how to lead an army or be responsible for the lives of others. She’d just been roped into the job because of how powerful her arcana was, and how it made the others look to her as their leader.
As she was moving among the various desks that filled the lodge’s main lobby and central rooms, Gabby spotted her sister seated at a desk in the corner. She arched an eyebrow, curious as to why Adrianna was there. Her doctor, Mahir Pavari, stood by Adrianna’s side. Gabby walked over to the and gave them a small wave. Adrianna looked up from the paperwork she was working on and gave her a tired smile.
“Hey, Sis,” Adrianna said. “How did it go?” Her eyes showed signs of strain and dark circles had formed under them. She was dressed in a hospital gown and slippers, with a fluffy blue robe on top.
“About as well as could be expected,” Gabby said. She decided not to go into detail, not wanting to add to her sister’s stress. “What are you doing here? Should you be out?” She looked to Dr. Pavari.
Adrianna frowned and lowered her head. She pressed her palms down flat on the papers that covered the desk before her. “I’m not an invalid,” she said. “I’m perfectly capable of being out on my own.” She glanced over her shoulder at Dr. Pavari. “I don’t need to be babysat.”
Dr. Pavari pushed his glasses up his nose and said, “We’re giving it a trial run. I think it’s good for her to get out and try to get into some kind of normal routine.”
Adrianna pressed her hands down harder on the desk. “Don’t talk about me like I’m not here.”
“I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that,” Gabby said. “It’s okay.” She paused, chewing on her lip. Then she nodded to the papers. “So, what are you working on?”
Adrianna cast a glare up at Dr. Pavari, the turned back to Gabby. “Food inventory. I used to do this at the restaurant.” She patted the papers before her, then smoothed them out, then patted them again. “I know how to do this. I used to do it all the time.” Adrianna had worked at a small restaurant in the West District suburbs for a few years, back before she got pregnant. She had been planning on going back to work when Dante was old enough. Though his death, and Adrianna’s subsequent breakdown, had prevented that. So had the beginning of the apocalypse.
Gabby opened her mouth to reply, but she was distracted by the way Adrianna continued smoothing out the papers before her. Her movements became rougher and she ended up ripping one of the pages. She held the two halves of the page up and pressed them back together, frowning. “I can fix that,” she said, her voice a bare whisper. “I can fix it. I just need tape.”
“It’s okay,” Gabby said, giving her sister a reassuring smile. “It’s not a big deal.”
“No,” Adrianna said. “No. I can fix it.” She opened one of the desk drawers, her hands shaking. She dug through it, her movements becoming more frantic by the moment. She slammed the drawer shut and reached for another. It stuck and she yanked on it, squealing. “I can fix it!” She yanked the drawer open and knocked it off its tracks. Pens, pencils, and paper clips spilled all over the floor.
“Maybe it’s time we head back,” Dr. Pavari said, touching Adrianna’s shoulder. “It’s been a long day, and it’s time for your pills.”
Adrianna sat stiffly, tilting her head towards him. “I don’t like the pills,” she said. She pressed her hands down on top of the desk again. “I don’t like the way they make me feel.”
Gabby swallowed a lump in her throat, fighting off tears. “Addy, if the doctor says—”
“You’re always taking his side!” Adrianna snapped. She stood up and slammed her hands down on the desk. “Don’t talk to me like I’m a child, Gabby!” She leaned against the desk, shaking.
Gabby held still, not sure what to say. She hated having to treat her sister like this. She’d always looked up to Adrianna when they were growing up; her sister was two years older than Gabby, and she used to teach Gabby about life and love and making friends. But their relationship had broken down during Adrianna’s pregnancy, and fallen apart completely in the aftermath of Dante’s death.
Dr. Pavari touched a hand against Adrianna’s back. “Let’s get back to the hospital. You can get some rest, and we can come back to finish the work later.”
Adrianna turned and glared at him, her fists clenched. Then she turned her glare on Gabby. “Fine,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. Fine.” She swung her hand out and knocked the pencil sharpener off the desk. Flakes of pencil trimmings flew everywhere. Adrianna turned and stalked from the room with Dr. Pavari trailing behind her. He gave Gabby an apologetic look and Gabby responded with the bravest smile she could force onto her face.
When they left, she took a deep, shuddering breath. The rest of the people in the room were staring at her, though most of them were trying to hide it. She held back her tears and pushed down her feelings, then forced herself to get back to work. There were still questions that needed to be answered and concerns that needed to be addressed. She was the one in charge, so she had to keep working.
We all like a good fight, right? Especially when the people involved are wizards. From Dumbledore vs Voldemort to Yoda vs Palpatine to Willow vs Bavmorda, a good magically-powered duel can be exciting, dangerous, and visually stunning. It can also have a lot of differences when compared to more traditional martial arts (i.e. anyone fighting without magic).
I’d like to discuss some of the principles I find helpful in writing a magical fight scene, using examples from my upcoming novel, Contamination, which is currently in revisions (and will be released next year as the sequel to Manifestation). I was inspired to do this after reading some posts on fight styles, written by Kat Loveland. She wrote a blog post about using fight scenes to develop your characters, and another on showing emotions and motivations during a fight. They’re both excellent reads, and I definitely recommend checking them out (and following her blog for more updates, since she has two more posts in this series coming up).
To touch on a couple of points Kat raised in her post, before I move on to the magical stuff, I’d like to quote a couple of lines that do a pretty good job summing up what she was getting at. One is when she discusses different fighting styles, and she cites Jason Bourne as an example:
Jason Bourne is an assassin, plain and simple, his entire existence is get in, kill, get out. As a result there is no hesitation, no flair, no fancy movies just fast, efficient violence.
This is something to consider when it comes to the personality and goals of your character. Kat makes some comparisons that show why one fighter will be quick and efficient, while others might have reason to draw out a fight with fancy moves. These types of details can really tell you a lot about a character’s personality.
Another quote from her second post touches more on the emotions of the characters in a fight scene:
Ideally the reader is drawn into both the life and death drama of the physical violence but the internal drama that the characters present as well. There is no exposition going on yet you feel what the character is feeling, fear, rage or the need to prove that you are worthy and gain respect.
This shows another side of a fight scene, the way it can tell you about what a character is feeling in the moment of the fight, or how they feel when they have to kill someone.
So how does all this relate to magic? Well, just like a character’s physical fighting style (quick and efficient vs showy and elaborate) can tell you things about their personality, the way a character uses their magic can tell you about them as well. And there are a few questions you might want to ask about how your character’s personality dictates their magical strategies. I’d like to explore three aspects in particular, and I’ll share an example for each one.
1. To Fight or Cast Spells?
Not all wizards are strictly limited to using their magic. Harry Potter fought the Basilisk with a sword, a Jedi will alternate between a lightsaber and force powers, and even Gandalf pulled out Glamdring the Foe-Hammer when it was time to face down some foes with brute force. So if you have a character who can use both magical abilities and physical combat skills, which do they prefer?
Sometimes, this decision can be one they make based on necessity. Most genres show that magical abilities tend to be draining, leaving the user exhausted if they overuse their powers. In other cases, a character might find themselves cut off from their powers in some way (such as in The Wheel of Time, when Aes Sedai can shield others from the source of their powers, leaving them helpless). A character who can draw a sword and defend themselves physically will have a backup for when their magic fails. While another character will draw their sword first, and resort to using their magic only as a last resort.
Here’s an example of Jeremiah Pritchard, one of the main protagonists in my novel, fighting with both physical and magical abilities:
The men coughed and gagged on the smoke and fired blindly at him, their shots flying wide over his head. Then one of them rushed through the smoke, half-bent over and coughing. He rushed for the door, seeming not to see Jeremiah through the smoke.
Jeremiah whipped the butt of his rifle in the man’s face and knocked him back. The man fell backwards and slammed into the ground. As soon as the man hit the ground, Jeremiah pulled the stun baton from his belt and slammed the tip into the man’s stomach. The baton crackled and send out sparks as it unleashed its charge into the man. He shook and trembled on the ground, then went limp.
Another spray of gunfire whipped past Jeremiah’s head. A burning sensation built up inside of him. His hands shook and he felt the light building up inside of him. But when the shadowy figure rose through the smoke, Jeremiah didn’t reach for the light. He dropped the stun baton, raised his rifle, and fired a quick, clean shot that caught the man in the neck. He dropped to the ground in a heap.
Another figure appeared at Jeremiah’s right. The man raised a shotgun and fired it right at Jeremiah’s head from point-blank range.
Jeremiah’s arms flung up on reflex, and with them came the light. A silvery-white field of mana erupted before him, crystallizing into a solid barrier. It deflected the shot, though the crystal buckled and cracked under the impact.
Jeremiah let the light dissipate as he rushed at the man. He used his rifle to knock the shotgun aside, then he swung his fist at the man’s head. The man crumpled under the blow, dropping to his knees. Jeremiah rammed the butt of his rifle into the man’s jaw and a loud crack filled the lobby. The man slumped to the floor, blood dripping from his jaw and the shotgun falling from his limp hands.
As you can see, Jeremiah uses his combat skills first, his magic second. That’s because of his greater confidence in his military training, as opposed to his uncertainty about his magical capabilities. He’s the sort of person who only uses magic as a last resort. He doesn’t trust it, and he doesn’t want to rely on it.
Will your character rely on their combat skills first, and save magic for emergencies? Or will they break out the spells right away and go for broke?
Another thing to consider in magical combat is a character’s ability to think on their feet and use what’s around them. Think of this as the magical equivalent of the way Jackie Chan fights in his movies. He tends to grab anything that’s handy and use it as a weapon, even if it means opening a cabinet door and slamming it in someone’s face. He’s not the type to make himself rely on a certain weapon or a certain style.
Magic can be similar. You don’t have to stick with one or two “signature” spells. Harry Potter, for example, tends to use expelliarmus quite often, so much so that his overuse of it becomes a plot point in the last book. But what if you have a character who can think on the fly?
Here’s an example of Tock, my golem-maker, showing how she can adapt to make use of whatever happens to be around her:
Tock screamed in unholy fury and started shooting. Mana channeled into her gun and charged the bullets up with unstoppable force. They flew through the air as blue streaks of energy and pierced the cop’s armored vest with ease. She emptied the clip into him, screaming pure murder the entire time.
The other cops fired back at her, and she threw her empty hand towards them. Their bullets flew with kinetic energy. She was an energy manipulator. If she could change her own bullets with kinetic energy, then she could drain it as well. The air between her and the cops began to glow and she robbed the bullets of their energy. They hung still in the air for a moment, unable to even fall as she robbed them of gravity’s pull. The glow faded and drew back into her hand as a compressed ball of kinetic force.
“Oh shit,” one cop said.
“You ‘urt my baby!” Tock screamed. She reached into her tool belt and pulled out a handful of thick screws. She hurled them with the force of a shotgun firing, the collected energy from the bullets channeled into them and magnified a dozen fold with the extra mana she charged into it. The second cop was pelted with glowing shards of metal that pierced his flesh and punched clean through the other side.
As you can see here, Tock breaks out the magic right away, something very different from the way Jeremiah fights. But she also doesn’t limit herself to the things you’d expect. She also smoothly switches from channeling her mana into a gun to channeling it into a handful of screws, using them as magically-propelled shrapnel. And that’s just a small example of how much she’ll think outside the box with her abilities. The more creative your character’s personality is, the more they can break from the norm when it comes to magical combat.
Will your character fight with a few key spells? Or will they adapt on the fly and never use the same spell twice?
3. Direct Combat or Ambushes?
Is your character the type to rush at their foes, hurling fireballs and lightning bolts from their hands? Or will they take on a more subtle approach?
Sometimes there can be merit to using magical abilities with stealth, like a ninja. A magic ninja. You might be faced with foes who are stronger than you are and have more experience using their magic. Or you might be outnumbered. Or you might have to worry about how long you can keep using your powers before your energy is drained and you can’t use them anymore. In any case, there’s always times when it can be a good idea to avoid a direct fight.
Consider this scene with my main protagonist, Gabby Palladino:
Gabby ran behind a bush and crouched down. With how dark it was, she hoped they wouldn’t see her. The heavy footsteps and sounds of breaking branches got closer, then the two soldiers emerged from the bushes. All Gabby could make out was vague shadows, barely illuminated by the moon.
“What’s that?” one of the men asked. They both stepped closer to where Gabby had been a moment before.
“Yeah, I feel it too,” the second man said. He leaned over and pointed to the ground right where Gabby had been crouching a moment before. He waved his hand over the area. “Something . . . some kind of energy. Like what we sense in each other.”
Gabby silently cursed herself. The mana pool was like a beacon in her senses, and no doubt in the senses of the soldiers as well.
The first man looked up in her direction and pointed. “There’s something else,” he said, “there.”
They moved forward, and Gabby froze in indecision. She could fight, or she could flee. I’m tired of running, she thought. She stood up and drew back the arrow she still held in the bow. She aimed low, letting her mana sense guide her as she targeted the invisible pool of energy on the ground. She didn’t want to kill these men; they were Northern Union soldiers. They were the good guys. She may not want to let them arrest her, but that didn’t mean she wanted them dead. She’d seen enough death.
She released the mana-charged arrow and let it fly. It shot through the air and landed in the ground, piercing right into the heart of the mana pool there. When the two opposing charges of mana—the one in the ground and the one in the arrow—collided, the energy erupted in a flash of light. Mana exploded and an eruption of dirt blew out from the ground. The two soldiers were thrown back, screaming. One smacked into a tree then fell to the ground, the other landed in a thick bush. Gabby could still sense the mana flows inside each man, so she knew they were still alive. She turned and ran to the side before they recovered from being tossed about by the explosion.
As you can see here, Gabby isn’t really a fighter. She doesn’t even go for the kill. She hides in the shadows, then strikes before her opponents know what hit them. Then she runs deeper into the woods before any other enemies approach. These are the tactics of a hunter or sniper, not a warrior.
Will your wizard kill from the shadows? Or weave illusions to deceive their foes? Or maybe even muddle their enemies’ minds and make them fight each other, ending the battle without the wizard having to set foot on the battlefield?
There’s many possibilities. And these possibilities say a lot about the personalities of any individual character. I develop each character’s style based on their personality, background, and experience.
So what about you? How will your wizard fight with magic?
One of the most common questions I get asked (and I think most writers get this) is “Where do you get your ideas from?”
I’m on the record as saying that I get most of my ideas in the shower. But I don’t think that’s really the answer people are looking for (even if it IS a good answer!). Nor do they want to hear that my stories are taking place somewhere in an alternate reality somewhere and I’m simply watching them and seeing what happens (even though I believe this to be true).
Instead, I think what people really want to know is, “How can another writer use your own idea-generation techniques for themselves to create a good book?” Which is something a bit more substantial, and something I can actually go into detail about.
The first thing, in my opinion, is to start creating some fascinating characters.
I mentioned before that I’ve created some characters based on roleplaying games. This can be a good place to start. A game, whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons, Storium, or an online roleplaying forum, can be a good way to delve into a character’s personality, goals, mysteries, and nuances. The more time you spend with a certain character, the more you’re going to get to know them, and the more depth they’re going to have. If a character already has a lot of depth and development before you start writing page one of your novel, you’re going to have a lot more to work with.
This is what I did with both Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah, my two primary main characters. Before I ever wrote the first line of Manifestation, the first volume of the Arcana Revived series, I had written a lot of short stories and roleplaying scenes with both characters. I actually wrote over a million words on each character, most of which is now buried on some old forums deep in the web.
You can actually read a couple of the stories I was developing here on the blog. One of them, “A Hard Life in the Big Easy,” is actually the very first piece of writing I ever wrote about Gabby. It’s a short action/adventure piece showing her in a fight for her life. Of course, there are many differences between what you’ll read in that story versus what you’ll see in Manifestation (such as how that story takes place near New Orleans, whereas Manifestation is on a completely fictional world). But the heart of the character is still the same. (It also contains possible spoilers about Gabby’s role in the novel, just a warning.)
There were other characters I wrote about during those roleplaying years, but they didn’t all make the cut. For example, I had a lot of fun writing the crime lord Aamon Dukushu (especially when dancing ballet), but in the long run, his storyline didn’t feel like one I could reboot and expand upon in a new series. I also had another character who didn’t fit because she was an alien, one who didn’t work because he was designed more for a romance plot than an urban fantasy adventure, and another who didn’t fit because she was a lycanthrope and I didn’t want to include vampires or werecreatures in this series. All in all, I had over a dozen good characters with strong backgrounds and interesting plots. But I had to pick out the two gems of that batch who had the most potential for growth, the most passion, and the most ability to generate conflict.
I picked out Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah because they both fascinate me, and because they could not be more different from each other. Gabby is a poet, a gentle soul, and a girl who would never hurt anyone if she had a choice in the matter. She bears a lot of great burdens on her shoulders and she rises up to take on responsibilities that no one should have to bear. She can also get a bit sassy with a very punny sense of humor (something she uses as a coping mechanism when dealing with difficult situations).
Tock on the other hand, is a lewd, rude, crude mechanic who likes to get dirty, build things, fix things, and follow her urges. She also never takes shit from anyone and she won’t hesitate to tell you exactly what she thinks about you. Messing with Tock is generally a bad idea, though she usually won’t go out of her way to start trouble with others.
Once I picked out my two gems: the gentle poet and the shit-talking mechanic, it was a matter of putting them in a situation together and letting the sparks fly. But to get the most sparks, I had to make sure they were tied together.
I wrote a while back about the crucible, a technique for building tension by putting opposing characters in a situation where they’re stuck together. They’re either forced to deal with each other as family, as coworkers, or as people trapped in the same place and unable to escape each other’s company. This can mean either physically jailed or tied up and forced to stay together, or it can simply mean they’re stranded together, such as on a desert island. Or, in my case, in a city going through an unexplained supernatural disaster.
After that, I basically let the characters write the story for me. I had these two fascinating characters, the poet and the mechanic, trapped in a city filled with danger, magic, mystery, a touch of romance, and a dash of attitude. I could have thrown any two characters into that setting when the magical dangers started to appear, but having two characters who were both strong willed but had vastly different viewpoints made for a much better story.
It was also interesting to see how they each reacted to the dangers around them. After all, how do you think you would react if you found yourself surrounded by dangerous people with uncontrolled magical abilities, in a city held in the grip of fear and chaos? Gabby, the gentle soul, and Tock, the short-tempered mechanic, each react to those situations differently, and I feel like that adds a lot of depth to the story.
They’re my two gems, and I love them. That’s probably why I’m about to start work on the sixth novel with these same two characters, still going strong, and still completely different from each other.
So things have been pretty crazy around here lately. As you might have heard, I published my first novel last month. I also started my second year of grad school, plus a new tutoring job in the Rowan University Writing Center. Because of all this (okay, and a lot of time watching Star Trek), I didn’t get much writing done last month, as evidenced by my handy dandy writer’s calendar for September:
But notice that sudden surge of stickers near the end of the month? That’s when I shifted gears from #LazyWriterIsLazy to #WriteALLTheWords. I’ve been going nonstop since October started:
This is a good thing, since I’ve got some MAJOR projects coming up.
First, you’ll notice the progress meter over there on the side of the blog ——–>
The one for Contamination, the second novel in the Arcana Revived series is about to start making some major progress. I’m planning to finish Draft Two before the end of October. Is that doable? Yes. Is it crazy to try to finish the draft in one month? What do I look like, a psychiatrist?
Second, I’m prepping for #NaNoWriMo. I’m about to start writing the first draft of the sixth volume of Arcana Revived. It has no title yet, but I know what the basic plot will be. Things will be happening. Things that involve people.
Okay, that’s vague, I know. SPOILERS! But, Here’s a few things I can promise:
and Mechanical Men Playing Football
Yes, I’m dead serious about all of those things, especially the last one.
I’ll be posting updates as they come, and perhaps a few sample scenes from both the revisions of Contamination and the new progress on Book Six. Stay tuned for further insanity.
Gabby Palladino is a teenage girl from the city of San Lorien, a metropolis in the fictional world I developed for the Arcana Revived series. She’s sometimes called “Boost” (for reasons that will become clear during the course of the novel), and she gains a number of other nicknames and titles as the series go on, but those will be revealed in the future when the sequels are released.
The story is set in the world of the Arcana Revived series, a modern-day world where magic and supernatural abilities are returning for the first time in centuries. Most of the people in this world don’t believe that magic exists, and that any stories about it are nothing more than ancient myths and fairy tales. They’re therefore completely unprepared for the consequences when magic starts to return and nobody knows how to control it or how to stop it.
There are a few important details about Gabby that are a key part of who she is. She’s the youngest of four children. She’s a high school senior. She’s very religious. She’s a lesbian. And she most definitely believes in magic. This belief is a big part of what sets her apart from others when the supernatural changes start coming to her home.
The central conflict of Gabby’s story is her attempts to survive when chaos erupts as supernatural powers begin manifesting all around her. She’s lost, alone, scared, and confused, and she seems to be the only one who realizes that there’s more going on than meets the eye. But how does a teenage girl do anything about the rebirth of supernatural forces that are beyond comprehension, especially when those same forces are bringing death and destruction all around her?
Her first goal is survival. But more than that, Gabby seeks understanding. She’s driven to figure out what is going on around her, and to understand why she is somehow caught in the middle of it.
If you’re interested in reading more about Gabby Palladino and the strange events that start cropping up all around her, you can read the first six sample chapters of Manifestation here on my blog, starting with Chapter 1: Magic. You can then follow the links below if you want to read the rest of the book and find out what Gabby’s ultimate fate will be.
And lastly, a big thanks to A.K. Anderson for tagging me and giving me the chance to share Gabby with you.