Category Archives: Olga’s World

Magic = Responsibility

When we hear the word ‘magic’ in our mundane world, we always imagine something pleasing, like a magic show, or our massage therapist’s magic hands, or a fantasy book we have read recently. But in Fantasyland, magic has a different connotation. In fantasy stories, magic is a gift and a responsibility.

AlmostAdep180x270JIn my novel Almost Adept, the protagonist, young magician Eriale often encounters situations where her magic is the best choice to deal with a problem. And she can’t shirk that responsibility, no matter how much she might want to.

Once, en route to visit her relatives, she came upon a burning village. Of course, her first action was to extinguish the fire with her magic. After that, she searched for the source of the fire and found it too—a five-year-old boy, gifted with fire magic but untrained. She didn’t want to play a babysitter to a grubby, sulky urchin, didn’t want to leave the village in a hurry, without rest or food, but she did both. She considered it her responsibility to take care of the fledging mage, to whisk him out of peril’s way. If she didn’t, the angry villages might’ve killed the kid in retaliation, even though his fire that had almost burned the village was unintentional. Eriale was the only one who could help the boy, so she did. She grumbled, of course, but she never hesitated.

Later in the novel, Eriale experienced her first love affair just before she discovered a corrupt mage abusing his magic apprentices. Again, because of her magic, she was the only one who could help them. She knew that confronting the evil and powerful mage was very dangerous but she couldn’t see any other option. Nobody but her could help those kids. She had to try, even though her sweetheart had enemies of his own and he could die without her help. Faced with such a devastating choice—him or the apprentices—she made the only possible decision, even though it tore her heart apart: she left to deal with the monstrous sorcerer and abandoned her beloved. He might find others to help him…or not, but the apprentices had no advocate except her. Her magical abilities dictated her actions.

Unlike Eriale in her imaginary, quasi-medieval world, Darya, the protagonist of my short story collection Squirrel of Magic lives in modern Canada. Darya is a good witch, and like Eriale, she feels it her responsibility to help people in trouble. Some of those she helps are her friends. Others are strangers. It makes no difference. If her magic can help them, she must get involved, no matter her personal cost. Even if that cost includes the good opinion of her boyfriend or a risk of getting arrested.

Neither of my magical heroines can ignore her magic. It rules their lives, brings unique joys and unique sorrows. Like any power, their magic implies responsibilities: to the people around them as well as to themselves.

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Readers’ perception

When a reader opens a book, in many cases he doesn’t see what the author envisioned when she wrote her story. He sees his own interpretation of the book through the lens of his personality. He filters the story through his own life experience. Sometimes the reader’s and writer’s versions are almost the same. Other times, they’re vastly different.

I recently had a review of my novel which really surprised me. It wasn’t a bad review, far from it. It was a nice review, but the reviewer mentioned a fact that made me open my mouth in astonishment. What? Have I written it so badly that she didn’t see the main point of the novel? Did she even read it before writing her review?

Some writers engage in disputes with readers over the unwanted reviews or fling accusations around. I think it’s a pointless practice. But I ask myself: what should I do so the readers see the book the way I see it? Is it even possible?

There is a well-known axiom among writers: you can’t please everyone. I’d take it one step further: you can’t deliver the same version of your book to everyone, even though the words and grammar are exactly the same. People are bound to see it differently, to read different revelations into it. Every man and woman, when they open a book, are on a quest for a mysterious artifact, but no one searches for the same object or the same emotion.

Some try to find absolution. Others strive to prove their own worth. Still others long for a spiritual guidance or just want an escape from life worries. And the more people manage to achieve their goals through my book, the better writer I am, no matter what they perceive in my writing. I wish all my readers luck in their search.

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Love always wins, but which one?

When people hear the L word, most often they associate it with an amorous setting, chocolate, and flowers, especially around Feb 14. But there’re many different kinds of love. Love for your children and your parents. Love for your land. Love for poetry or music or any other artistic endeavor, your own or someone else’s. Love for a pet. Love for a god.

Sometimes, those loves collide at cross-purposes, and you have to choose one at the cost of another. Those are the most stressful situations in real life and the most interesting in fiction.

My protagonist Eriale from my recent fantasy novel Almost Adept finds herself in such a situation. She meets a man – of course, she does, she is seventeen – and falls in love with him. He occupies her thoughts. She wants to give him anything, shield him from any danger, assist him in any endeavor. She wants to see him smile, hear his voice, share his days. Sadly, she can’t spend the rest of her life with him, no matter how much she wants to, and she knows it.

Eriale is a princess of Varelia. Well, kind of. Her much older half-sister Tamara (they share a father) is Varelian queen by marriage. Like many siblings, the sisters don’t often see eye to eye. Besides, Eriale is a magician, and like any magician, she is strong-willed and independent. She craves freedom to roam the world, to learn new magic, to encounter new mysteries. Rebelling against her sister’s rigid rules, Eriale runs away from home, towards mayhem and adventure, but she could never totally forget her responsibilities. Even if she bickers with Tamara, her sister, she would never endanger Tamara, the queen.

When travels bring Eriale to Grumesh, she falls in love with Kealan, a local courier, but unfortunately, he is not a suitable partner for our wandering princess. Once, he might’ve been, for he was born a high-ranking nobleman. But ten years ago, an aggressive Empire invaded Grumesh, and all the country’s native nobility were disbanded.

Now, Kealan is an outlaw, a leader of the resistance movement, with a price on his head. Even if he stopped fighting the occupants and became a law-abiding citizen, he would still represent a subdued nation. Any alliance between Kealan and the royal house of Varelia would be frowned upon by the Emperor and might cause a diplomatic incident or even armed hostilities between Varelia and the Empire. Eriale would never allow that to happen, would never jeopardize her country’s security for her own pleasure.

Nor would she repudiate her land and family for Kealan’s sake. But she couldn’t deny her love for him either, not to appease the political whimsy of the Emperor. Instead, she chooses a compromise. She would spend as much time with her beloved as she could. She would hear him laugh, savor his touch, relish his kisses. She would bestow the protection of her magic on him, but when the time comes, she would leave him behind. And although she knows her joy is transitory, the knowledge doesn’t diminish her happiness, maybe even makes it more acute.

AlmostAdep180x270J In a similar situation, another girl might’ve followed a different set of priorities and opted to remain with her sweetheart, come what may. Neither love is right or wrong. Eriale’s choice of patriotic love over romantic love is dictated by her personality, but also by the demands of the genre – a high fantasy quest. If my novel was a romance, Eriale’s choice might have been different.

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Genres help each other

Besides writing fiction, I also work as a journalist for a local newspaper and I write book reviews for most books I read. GoodReads has 250 of my reviews by now, and I noticed recently how much writing nonfiction improved my fiction.

Journalism

Writing articles for an old-fashioned print newspaper teaches brevity and influences word choices. In a print newspaper, unlike an online blog, page space is at a premium, and word count is tight, like in a book. I have to squeeze everything I need to say into 800 words, so I learned to formulate my thoughts in the most concise way and to select only the most relevant, truly important points for inclusion in a story. I also learned to use very few adjectives in my writing—no room for flowery prose—and to select the most precise and expressive words to convey ideas. These skills do wonders in fiction.

Book reviews

When I critique a book, figuring out what I like and dislike in a story, I try to use my finds in my own fiction. It’s not as easy with quality, the books I like—these are often highly subjective—but flaws are easy to pinpoint in the other writers’ works. Each one I notice is a lesson to apply to my own writing. A few of the most common flaws—the most important lessons—I list below.

Deus ex machine – this is a No-No! in every textbook on writing, but many writers still use this literary device. It’s very tempting to drop their characters into an impossible situation and then introduce a powerful sorcerer who can wave his wand—and poof! Problems solved. Heroes saved. Or it could be a boss, or Zeus, or a genius rabbit coming to the rescue. Sergei Lukyanenko in his books Night Watch and Day Watch uses this approach. His hero doesn’t solve problems. To keep his conscience clean, he allows others to do it for him, to dirty their own conscience.
I never resort to this trick. My characters always solve their own problems. And if they can’t, then maybe I, a writer, should fix the situation they find themselves in, so they would have a solution available.

Info dumps – another technique frowned upon by all the writing teachers. Still, many writers do it in the beginning of their books. Mercedes Lackey is especially prone to info dumps in prologues. The readers should know the character backgrounds and the world description before they plunge into the story, right? Wrong! Everything the readers should know they could learn from the story later.
I try hard not to use this comfortable and attractive solution. As a reader, I’m bored by the info dumps. I don’t wish to bore my readers, so I start my stories with action.

Unsympathetic characters – this is a border case. I don’t usually finish books where I don’t like any of the characters, but some readers accept this writing quirk, even derive a contrary satisfaction from reading about doormats or villains. In the last decade, a wave of darkness swept the literature, and many writers consider a good protagonist almost a taboo. They add some artificial faults to their heroes, as if a drug user is automatically more interesting than an honest, hardworking non-smoker. I disagree. For me, it feels like a lazy way out for a writer, but liking and disliking has always been subjective. I try to write about characters that I myself sympathize with. I make my characters strong and able, standing firmly on the ‘side of light’. They still have complex problems to solve, so it’s largely a personal preference, but it’s a lesson all the same.

Too many details or unnecessary details – this flaw isn’t huge but it’s often irritating. Some writers don’t even consider it a flaw, they cram their novels with details, but for me as a reviewer, too many details make a book tedious. Every detail, if used, should tell something about the character or be relevant to the story or convey a mood. If it fails to perform any of these three functions, it’s extraneous. I read a book by Alex Bledsoe lately. In it, his hero goes peeing one morning. Who needs this detail? Why is it there? It doesn’t serve any purpose. In my own writing, I try to follow this maxim: no unnecessary details. Sometimes, I fail, but I make an effort.

What other fiction writing technique did you learn by working in another writing genre? Marketing? Technical writing? Communications?

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Creative Insults

Recently, I found this list floating on the internet. I think if you write fantasy and you wish your heroes to curse creatively, it could be very useful to you.  It’s called Shakespeare Insult Kit but it could be used for any quasi-medieval society cursing.
Combine one word from each column to create a colorful insult
===================================
artless            base-court         apple-john
bawdy             bat-fowling         baggage
beslubbering  beef-witted         barnacle
bootless         beetle-headed    bladder
churlish          boil-brained         boar-pig
cockered       clapper-clawed    bugbear
clouted         clay-brained         bum-bailey
craven         common-kissing    canker-blossom
currish         crook-pated          clack-dish
dunkish        dismal-dreaming   clotpole
dissembling   dizzy-eyed           coxcomb
droning         dog-hearted         codpiece
errant           dread-bolted         death-token
fawning         earth-vexing         dewberry
fobbing         elf-skinned           flap-dragon
forward         fat-kidneyed         flax-wench
frothy            fen-sucked           flirt-gill
gleeking       flap-mouthed         foot-licker
goatish         fly-bitten                fustilarian
gorbellied     folly-fallen             giglet
impertinent    fool-born             gudgeon
infectious      full-gorged           haggard
jarring           guts-griping         harpy
loggerheaded     half-faced      hedge-pig
lumpish         hasty-witted         horn-beast
mammering   hedge-born         hugger-mugger
mangled        hell-hated            joithead
mewling         idle-headed         lewdster
paunchy        ill-breeding           lout
pribbling        ill-nurtured           maggot-pie
puking           knotty-pated        malt-worm
puny              milk-livered          mammet
qualling          motley-minded    measle
rank               onion-eyed          minnow
reeky             plume-plucked    miscreant
roguish          pottle-deep         moldwarp
ruttish            pox-marked         mumble-news
saucy             reeling-ripe         nut-hook
spleeny          rough-hewn        pigeon-egg
spongy          rude-growing       pignut
surly              rump-fed              puttock
tottering        shard-borne         pumpion
unmuzzled     sheep-biting         ratsbane
vain                spur-galled         scut
venomed       swag-bellied         skainsmate
villainous        tardy-gaited        strumpet
warped          tickle-brained       varlot
wayward         toad-spotted        vassal
weedy            unchin-snouted    whey-face
yeasty            weather-bitten      wagtail

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Fantasy heroes – who are they?

Re-blogged from my site.

My contemplations concern both male and female characters, but for the clarity of writing, I’m using only male nouns and pronouns.

In high fantasy, heroes are habitually princes (long-lost or deposed or otherwise beset by woes) or magicians or soldiers. Almost as often they are poor orphans or criminals: thieves and assassins. I don’t know any respectable shoemakers or tavern keepers who are heroes of high fantasy, unless their shop or farm is no more.

SeamstressConversely, in urban fantasy, which takes place in the alternative version of here and now, heroes most frequently belong to the middle class: bartenders and librarians, computer programmers and dressmakers. There are not many modern fantasy novels where a hero is a ‘prince’, e.g. a movie star or a corporate mogul. Not many poor orphans either, although some pop up occasionally, just like some criminals make their appearance in urban fantasy, but in latter case, they usually work for the government. A CIA assassin – how glamorous!

Why such a disparity in the heroes’ social standings? Fantasy writers have a rationale for their protagonists, just as fantasy tropes are tropes for a reason. Let’s first look at high fantasy, which usually happens in a quasi-medieval society.

Princes – they have education and money, before some villain causes them to flee for their lives, rally their scattered forces, and strike back at their enemy. Princes don’t have ties to the community; nobody depends on them for their livelihood. Pretty useless creatures, princes, at liberty to go anywhere, anytime. Nobody would miss them.

Magicians – they have power of their own, their magic. They can employ it in any city or society; they have no ties to the community or locality either. Quite the opposite, they are often recluses or under vows of chastity or some such. They’re free to roam at will. Magician1

Soldiers – they also have skills they can ply anywhere. They don’t have families or links to the community that depends on them. The same applies to thieves. What is common to all those types – they are independent in their income source and nobody needs them to survive.

Orphans don’t have an independent source of income, but their ties to a place or a community have been severed by irresistible forces. As a result, they’re rootless, blown by the winds of their misfortunes to look for a good life elsewhere.

What about middle class – a shopkeeper or a peasant? Unless his shop or homestead is destroyed and his loved ones killed, he is not free. He has family to support, children to feed, village to appease. Many people rely on him – he has roots and can’t just up and leave for a heroic adventure. It would be considered irresponsible. He must work hard from dawn to dusk, fix the roof after a church service, and pay the guild fee by Friday. He doesn’t have a choice. No food for a fantasy writer there.

Now let’s take a look at urban fantasy – at our society. Here the roles are reversed. Who has the widest choices? Our shop owners and farmers and middle-level employees. Millions of choices. They can switch careers, travel, attend university, go to movies every week, meet new people in bars, gyms, interest clubs, Internet, and so on. The possibilities for fantasy adventures are countless.

How about our soldiers? They’re so boxed in by army regulations that there is almost no room to maneuver for a fantasy writer.

What about our princes and magicians – the super-rich folks and pop icons? If they don’t want to lose their money, they work hard and then drink and do drugs to unwind. At least that is what the gossip pages tell us. Paparazzi follow them, so they’re not free to go anywhere. Can they switch career? Of course, in theory, but it happens so seldom, we never hear of it. Can they become members of a knitting club in a local community center? Yes, but they don’t. Have you heard of even one example? They’re extremely restricted by their names, money, and fame. That’s why they’re almost never heroes of modern fantasy.

Did I simplify in my musing? Yes. Are there exceptions to my conclusions? Definitely. Do you know novels that contradict my findings? Argue with me.

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