Fire Sale at the Magical Junkshop

It’s difficult to plot a fantasy novel without resorting to magical props to aid the hero. I’m not sure if this is a failure of imagination on my part, or just a reaction to the hundreds of fantasies I’ve read which require the hero/villain to find, lose, destroy, or give up the magical sword, ring, amulet, crown, locket, mirror, cup, diadem, or other miraculous tchotchke the author has built the story around. Sometimes I feel as if we’re all playing ‘button, button’.

About two-thirds of the way into The Bone Road I realized I’d fallen into this trap. I was so annoyed with myself I immediately had the hero toss the Miraculous Object off a cliff into the ocean. Then I spent several months figuring out how to end the story when there was no object to find anymore. I was pretty chuffed when I did, and I do think it’s a better story this way.

Of course I am not the first person to notice this. If you haven’t already, please visit TV Tropes and check out the pages on Chekhov’s Guns, MacGuffins, and other plot devices. Don’t plan on doing much else that day; it’s a very funny site and you can learn a lot.

If you don’t build your plot around magical bric-a-brac, you can build it around previously unknown inbred or acquired powers. (See Amplifier Artifact) I did this with Matcher Rules and it’s a lot more satisfying. For one thing, the hero doesn’t have to have extra large pockets for all the magical junk; it’s in his or her head. When I first read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I howled with glee about Rowling’s solution to the junkshop problem: Hermione’s beaded bag, not to mention Harry’s neck pouch. With an inbuilt ability, the hero needs to be breathing, period, although the world-building has to make the ability credible.This is a lot easier to talk about than to do successfully.

In both Dave Duncan’s Dodec series (Children of Chaos, Mother of Lies) and Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion, the magical powers are bestowed by the gods for their own ends and the heros have to learn to use them and then figure out how to fulfill the god’s plan. Both plots are intricate beyond belief, and both come to satisfying conclusions. Go read these books! If you’re a writer, learn from the best. If you’re a reader, enjoy!


Teeny Tiny Genres

If you call yourself a writer, the first  question everyone asks is What Do You Write? I started answering this by saying ‘Genre Fiction’, meaning I was writing science fiction or fantasy or mysteries, not books about gardening or how I found love in a villa in Italy.

It’s a pity this answer isn’t acceptable. People want to know which genre, because most only read in one or perhaps two categories. (“Oh, I only read mysteries.” Why? Are you afraid you might find a non-mystery you like?)

Genre fiction is now divided into small categories, which are subdivided again and again, so it is possible to send an agent a story defined as ‘mid-range urban fantasy romance’ or ‘steampunk space opera with zombies’ and not have the recipient blink. These divisions persist all the way to the bookstore’s display tables and to amazon’s website, so I wonder how many readers there are who ONLY read steampunk and absolutely nothing else. Surely, they sneak in a cozy or two when no one is looking?

I read (and purchase in hardback, ha!) science fiction from space opera to sociological, fantasy of all sorts, mystery stories both hard-boiled to cozy, thrillers, autobiographies, gardening, critical essays, poetry, and a book on how to play competitive Scrabble. That’s a selection from the closest bookshelf and only what I can see without craning my neck.

So it seems a shame to categorize what I write, because that’s the last thing that happens. I have an idea, I see a character dealing with a problem, I build a world around the idea and the character, and then I write the story. The only criteria for me is I must be interested enough in the story to stick around to tell it. With a novel, that’s a minimum of a year, and a maximum of who knows? So when I’m finally done, that’s when I say, oh, this one is a fantasy. And that’s what I try to sell it as. But to me, it’s a story, not a genre.