The allure of magic

I love to write about magic. I love to read about it and watch it as well. Not stage magic, but real magic (which doesn’t exist). And it’s worth asking: why? What makes the idea of magic so compelling?

I think part of it is the secret guilt of the toolmaker. We humans obtained our position atop the world through our tools, but sometimes it feels like it’s all about our technology, and there’s no power in ourselves. We stand in awe at the mighty tiger or bear, even though we scrawny humans dominate them.

Magic is a way for the power to be in us, and for it to not be our tools, but us humans that are the key. We can cease feeling like the weak core in a shell of technology, and pretend we’re the strength.

The other half is the dream that knowledge should directly translate into power. Many societies venerate knowledge, but the smart never seem to prosper in their youths, whether it be from old standards like bullies or the lack of immediate positive reinforcement that physical excellence (such as sports) provides.

But when you can study your way to power, and the way is straightforward … it’s actually a fairly intellectually lazy way to acquire power through knowledge, but that straightforward path appeals in the same way the dream of studying hard to get in a good college and get a good job does.

Perhaps those are just my reasons though, or the only ones I recognize enough to spell out. What are yours?

Import, don’t recycle

When I look at the other fantasy novels at Amazon or other bookstores, I’m filled with hope. Not because they’re bad, but because what I’ve written is different.

What I noticed today had to do with tone. So many English-language fantasy novels are so serious, but not mine. Its tone is notably lighter. I like banter, I like adventure, and I like to occasionally laugh while I read a book! So that’s what I wrote. There are serious scenes too, but it’s deeply rooted in the ideas of entertainment, adventure, and fun.

I mentioned this to my alpha reader, and he said “I think you’ve got something unusual, if not unique, within the genre.”

I never thought about it that way, because to me, it’s not unique. I’m used to seeing stories with this kind of tone, just not from English-language fantasy novels. But I see it all the time in anime.

It reminds me of an old piece of advice from Terry Pratchett, which I’ve quoted before:

1) Watch everything, read everything, and especially read outside your subject — you should be importing, not recycling.

Which is what I did. I took all the things I liked from anime, and I tossed the stuff I didn’t—you won’t find any angsty teenagers in my book. Then I took everything I like from English-language fantasy, and from movies and comics and my own life, and I combined them all into the kind of story I wanted to read.

Instead of recycling the same tired fantasy tropes readers have read a hundred times, I imported the tropes from elsewhere and mixed them together. The result is not unique in its component parts—I could tell you where everything came from. I stole them all. But maybe the combination is something unusual.

If you like action or adventure anime, you may like my book. If you like fantasy stories that explore adult themes and feature actual adults, you may like my book. And if you’re tired of novels always being so serious, and like your fantasy mixed with banter and full-throated excitement, then you might enjoy my book as well.

I don’t know about unique. I don’t have the ego to claim that, and I know I’m an impostor who stole it all from someone else. But I’ll take unusual. When I look around the bookstore, I don’t see anything quite like what I’ve written. Hopefully it’s something you’ll enjoy as well.

Storytelling is subjective

I was talking to Kairi and Enzo on twitter about Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso, and how I was enjoying it so much. I was surprised to learn they weren’t so keen on it.

To me, it’s all about art. Kaori—when she’s not acting like a blonde ogre—speaks to my creative soul. Speaks for it … I find myself cheering as she says many of the things I would say myself. I love seeing the stuffed shirts freak out, I love seeing her flout the rules, and I love seeing her play for herself and the audience, not for the prize. It’s not about the music, it’s about the art, and it calls to my artist’s soul even if my art (writing) is different.

But Kairi and Enzo focus more on Arima’s trauma, and when I went back and read their posts, I immediately saw the truth in their points. Where I saw Arima’s trauma as a little too unbelievable—losing the ability to hear one’s own music seemed like something made up for TV, though I admit it’s certainly possible—they saw others bullying Arima into confronting a deep-seated psychological issue that he wasn’t ready to deal with.

I’m not arguing that they’re right, or that I am. We both are, to the extent it matters. What it reminded me of is how subjective the storytelling experience is. Where I see an uplifting story about young artists, they see something deeply troubling, and both are valid.

We all bring our own worldview to every story we experience, and you better believe that includes the stories that are “true” (politics, world events, business, social lives). That’s how someone can despise what you absolutely love. For truth is, to some degree, negotiable.

Flawed genius

I’m always on the lookout for flawed genius. Rather than solid perfection, I prefer the crazy, quirky, and niche every time.

I stole this term from Paul Barnett of Mythic Entertainment, who was discussing his (late) game Warhammer Online, and its rival World of Warcraft:

“I believe WoW is a work of flawed genius. When you dismantle [these works] you can never be sure whether you get genius or flaw.”

I once evoked this in the finale post of Sakurasou na Pet no Kanojo, and though my prose is awfully unpolished, the sentiment stands.

What flawed genius is, to me, is a work with all the quirks left in. There’s a tendency—especially among business types—to sand down all the edges, in the hopes of broadening the story’s appeal and making it accessible to as many people as possible.

That’s the absolute worst thing you can do. There’s a word for something palatable to everyone, and it’s average—and average slides into mediocrity awfully fast. A work of flawed genius is one that dares to push away some so it can delight others. It’s a particular taste, even an acquired taste, but when you’ve got it, it engenders nothing but love. It’s a story all the greater for its flaws, because those are what make it feel real.

Characters are like this too. Flawed characters are more compelling than perfect characters, because we can relate to them. It makes them feel real, to know that they too have their imperfections, just like us. So it is with stories—the flawed ones are all the more compelling, because they echo our own flawed lives.

Technically perfect but artistically void KyoAni quasi-originals. Paint-by-the-numbers gunmetal gray and military brown AAA video games. Blockbuster movies focus-grouped into mediocrity. These have no soul, so even when they’re enjoyable, they dribble out of the mind and melt away. They’re pleasant pastimes at best, but they have trouble being more.

But flawed genius stays with you. They’re usually the work of one passionate individual, who channeled the unique them into a work only they could create. They are the stories that, when they strike a chord, change the way you view the world.

Striving for perfection isn’t a bad instinct. Every artist should try to produce the best work they can. But it should be their best work, not the Frankenstein’s monster of other works they’ve seen sell before.

Artists steal, but they shouldn’t steal something because it’s worked before. They should steal because they love it, because it calls out to them, and because incorporating it into their own work will improve it for the better.

Tell your own story. Leave the eccentricities in. Remember that true geniuses are always flawed. But most of all, don’t sand down all the corners. To some people, those corners will be the most interesting part.

Steal like an artist

Among certain circles, I think there’s too much focus on the unique. It’s nearly a fetish. “I’ve seen it all before” or “This is just like ______” are not the dirty words some imagine them to be. They’re the result of a creative truth you may not be aware of.

Artists steal. Artists steal all the time. Any artist who tells you she doesn’t is lying. There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new combinations of what’s been seen before. And often, what you think is original isn’t; nine times out of ten, you just don’t know the references involved.

If you’re an artist, or would like to be an artist, or would like to understand artists, read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. Check it out at your local library—hopefully it’s there.

Real artists steal. We take ideas from anyone who has ideas worth stealing, and we weave them together into something totally our own. Go watch any Quentin Tarantino movie; you may notice that all the elements he uses have been used before. But what he does is combine them in a way that only Quentin Tarantino can. That’s what makes something unique—it’s not the ideas, but the execution. It’s in the combination that something new is born.

This isn’t an excuse to phone it in. The obvious aping of something successful in order to cash in on what’s worked before is poison to good storytelling. But you don’t have to be utterly unique to tell a good story, nor should you look for it in the works you enjoy. To do so is to reject the wealth of ideas lying around us, and the wonderful stories that can be woven from their cloth.

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.” -T.S. Eliot

Unique is overrated. Look for good instead. Not everyone can make that distinction, but it’s an important one.

Rape fiction

If I were male, I would be real hesitant about including a rape plot in any story I write. It’s an extremely complex and delicate issue, and it should be treated as such. Without understanding it completely, trying to tackle it is probably going to anger a lot of people, because men have trouble understanding how horrible rape truly is.

Since I am a guy, you can consider that my official policy on the issue.

The problem is that men don’t understand rape like women do. I remember when I first stumbled across the article titled Schrödinger’s Rapist, and reading it was a revelation. Any moderately moral man knows that rape is bad, but we don’t understand how much even the possibility of rape warps women’s lives. Learning about it more has only impressed upon me my thorough ignorance on the subject.

Which is not to say that a man can’t write about rape, even from a woman’s perspective, and do it respectfully and well. I’m saying it’s difficult. Extremely difficult. It’s not a challenge I would undertake without doing a lot of research, and given the subject, I don’t want to. It’s not my desire to delve that far into the darkness of the human condition. I’ll stick with beer and explosions, thank you.

Rape is horrifying, but if you haven’t lived your entire life actively guarding against it, you don’t understand how horrifying it really is. I know I don’t. So I will leave it alone when I go to write my little stories. There’s enough to write about without pissing everybody off with a tone-deaf controversy I don’t fully understand.

What comes first: world, narrative, or characters?

Sparked by a comment over at RandomC (thanks Pancakes), this is a question I’ve thought about for a long time. When writing fiction, is it better to create the world, the narrative, or the characters first?

Some would say the world has to come first, to properly flesh it out rather than leave it as an afterthought. Many would say the narrative, because everything must serve that. Others would say the characters are most important, because it’s them who we’ll remember forever.

If I had to pick one, I would pick the narrative, from experience if nothing else. Everything must serve the story, this is true. But I think, to a large degree, the three must be developed in parallel. They need to work together—the setting must be its own beast, so that it feels like it would exist without the story or characters. But it must serve them as well, as the characters must serve the story and the story must mesh with the characters. You have to develop them all at once, equally, to get a balanced tale.

For example, for my upcoming book I created the characters and the world first, with an idea of where the story would go, but not a firm one. I then spent years (literally) trying to make the narrative work. I eventually arrived at a solution, but had I developed the three elements in parallel, I would have saved a lot of time.

Not that it always works out like that. If you get the bug, an idea for a story that just won’t let you go, sometimes you have to follow it through even if it gives you no end to trouble. We ought to be aware of the potential imbalance from doing one before the others at least, and try to redress it.

Just plain fun

I finally saw Guardians of the Galaxy this past weekend. When we were going into the movie, my friend, who had already seen it, said it had supplanted A New Hope in his mind. I see where he’s coming from, but I don’t agree. The original Star Wars did something Guardians of the Galaxy did not, and that was something different.

Granted, if I were much younger and saw Guardians of the Galaxy before A New Hope, I’d probably say it was a better movie. It was really fun! But Star Wars introduced a kind of space opera that was never seen before, and it’s ruled so long in people’s imaginations because of it.

Guardians of the Galaxy, no matter how good it is, is derivative. Part of this is because I’m older now, and I can see the movements as they’re happening—the dancing, the outstretched hand, the selfless sacrifice, etc. I anticipated them all. But it’s mostly because the type of story Guardians was trying to tell is archetypal in the same way the original Star Wars trilogy’s story was, without presenting a setting that had never been seen before.

Here’s the thing, though—I don’t care. I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy a lot! It may be derivative, but it was really enjoyable, and it remained heartfelt throughout. Marvel movies could easily feel like shallow cash grabs, but they usually don’t, and this one was no exception.

My stated goal in writing fiction, from my About page, is this:

I want to tell stories that make people’s lives just a little bit happier for having read them.

Guardians of the Galaxy did that. It was enjoyable, well acted, well directed, and all in all well done. Only the comparison to a movie that reshaped cinema is unfair. Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t have that kind of genius, but it was worth the time I spent watching it, and I look forward to the sequel.

For that, it has my respect.

Fast, easy, guaranteed

“…pick none.

That’s the work that’s worth doing.” –Seth Godin

What this tells me is that I’m doing work that’s worth doing right now. Writing this book has been neither fast, nor easy, nor is it guaranteed to succeed.

What else this tells me is that as soon as my writing is any of those things, I need to reach further. Especially easy. If it gets too easy, I’m not pushing myself hard enough to tell even better stories than I have before.

Slow, difficult, uncertain. That’s more like it.

Starting off with a bang, & why you shouldn’t

The first episode of Tokyo ESP started off in medias res, and with a bang. It was all light and noise, and little (almost nothing) in the way of character development. I understand why they did this, but I don’t think it was a good idea.

Speaking as a storyteller, there’s a desire to front load as much of the fun stuff as possible. You want to grab the reader’s attention. That’s understandable. Without an audience, you don’t get to keep telling stories.

It’s tricky though. You often need to start off slow in order to establish the story properly, but if it’s too slow, people may stop reading, and then where will you be? So some stories front load the action, at the expense of the story. That’s often a mistake.

I think the best idea is to not worry about people dropping your story. Tell the best story you can–even if that means starting slower than you’d like–and if some people wander off, so be it. You can’t win them all, but you can lose them all trying.

I understand the worry though. When you know there’s so many great things coming, if only they would hold on just a little longer…

I understand. I truly do.

Addendum: I know it’s presumptuous to use Tokyo ESP as an example when only one episode has aired, but I fully expect to look silly if I’m wrong. The point stands, even if one example manages to dodge the bullet.