Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Writing and MAGIC

Do you believe in magic?

I was once on a panel at CONvergence with Neil Gaiman about... actually I can't remember what it was about exactly because I was awfully busy being awed by being in the presence of Neil, but I do remember that we touched on the fact that sometimes writers access synchronicity with a skill that's akin to magic. For example, you start thinking about a certain subject, say, alchemy and you decide -- totally randomly -- to make your vampire an alchemist from Vienna, Austria, then later, say, like yesterday, you're at Border's and you see a "Idiot's Guide to Alchemy" and you think, "Damn, you know, I know almost nothing about alchemy really, I should buy that so I can do some research and make Sebastian's alchemy more 'real.'"

So you open the book up to the introduction this morning over your bowl of Corn Flakes, and read this:

"Four hundred years earlier, Vienna and nearby Prague were the heart of European alchemy, and hundreds of alchemists flocked to the area to study."

Hairs rise on the back of your neck, and you say, "Holy coincidence, Batman. That's freaky."

I can't remember entirely the story that Neil told about his magical moment of research other than it had to do with his book American Gods, which at the time he hadn't quite finished. I just know that it's absolutely true. This isn't the first time something like this has happened to me, but it's still always so startling.

Has it ever happened to you? You can admit it. I promise not to tell anyone. Besides, if Neil Gaiman can admit to it, you can too.


Kelly McCullough said...

Not to be a wet blanket or anything, but perhaps the reason you made your vampire an alchemist from Vienna was that you had read that information somewhere before and it sat in the back of your head until you came up with the idea of an alchemist, at which point it spat out Vienna. Which would make it not so much synchronicity as the logical output of the eclectic mind of a writer.

Tim Susman said...

I was writing a fictional Civil War piece that took place at the real battle of Marye's Heights in Fredricksburg, a massacre in which the Confederates held the high ground and the Union sent fifteen waves of soldiers up in the span of a day, unsuccessfully trying to take the hill. In the course of the story, I'd imagined a Confederate soldier overcome with pity for the wounded soldiers, who jumped over the fortifications to help my protagonist (there to try to rescue one of the wounded).

I found out when I was already halfway through the story that that person actually existed. They called him "the Angel of Marye's Heights," a nineteen-year-old named Richard Kirkland.

I think in cases like these, what we as writers are doing is imagining what an extraordinary person (as a character in a novel often is) would do in these circumstances. And extraordinary people are all around us. Whatever we could imagine having done, someone might have imagined doing, and carried out that thought. And perhaps if we think, knowing what we do about medieval Europe, that Vienna would be a great place for alchemists to gather, it might turn out that other people had that same thought, hundreds of years ago.

Jonathan said...

Well, for my little story about writing magic… very, very early on in the book I had a possible plot thread that I was kind of unsure about what its ultimate end was going to be or if it was even going to be used at all, but I figured that I’d iron out the specifics in a later draft and inserted it anyway, hopefully subtly enough so I could pull it out if I didn't use it. At the same time, I also knew that at some point way down the line, the main character and the main bad guy were not going to get along very well, mostly because that’s what good guys and bad guys do... not get along very well… So anyway, the problem was that I had no idea why they weren't going to get along, except for the general reason that they're both kind of jerks and THEN, like a bolt from the blue, mere days before I reached the point where I would be forced to write SOMETHING, the subtle plot thread reared up as the perfect spark to set off the whole she-bang and it all came together neat as you please. Now maybe it was all me planning subconsciously or maybe it was all some kind of magic, but I prefer to blame a future version of myself sent back in time to correct the past and therefore save the future...

Off topic… I have a nebulous/weird question that may not have an answer, but I’m throwing it out there to see what I can net…

So, I got my synopsis down to five and a half pages and I feel like it tells the story really well, (as in: hits the main points and characters) but I can’t help but also feel that some of the heart is missing, but by heart, I mean the vagaries of characters and their relationships and blah, blah, blah that it took the entire book to really illustrate, so my question is, in general:

What is the main function of the synopsis?

I mean, besides synopsizing the story, of course. I mean, is it more intended to hit the plot points in a “this and then this and then this happens” kind of manner in order to prove that you actually have a whole tale or is it more important to convey the smaller points? I mean, if the love story is admittedly a secondary story, plot wise, but is pretty relatable in the book for readers, should that be played up more in the synopsis, or is the synopsis generally more business minded, more formal and less flowery? Yes, I know I want it to read in an entertaining manner, but I guess what I’m asking is more content wise, is the synopsis by default LESS entertaining by its nature and intention or what? This is a very vague question, I apologize, and really probably has no more answer than “you want both and do your best” and I’m probably just blogging a little to get my head straight as I hone in a tighter version, but I was wondering if anyone had some vague thoughts for me to add to the mix? I’d appreciate the input.

Kelly McCullough said...

Really, the main purpose of the synopsis is to demonstrate to the agent or editor that the story doesn't go to hell in the chapter after the last one you sent in. It's more about not screwing up than anything.

Anonymous said...

The original question - all the time. Endlessly amazing. I have stories I started ten years ago that turned out to finally be politically relevant the year I'm finishing them, etc. The unconscious is a wonderful drug, er, thing.


tate hallaway said...

Kelly, you're a total wet blanket. It's sometimes hard to believe you write FANTASY with any kind of credibility. :-)

It's nice to read about other people's magic, however.

Shawn E said...

bizare. i came here looking for advice to give jon on synopsis and stumbled across this thread completely by accident. it was the 'magic' in the title that did it - i'm such a junkie.

anyway, Kelly, am i dreaming this or when i had you for class at the Loft last fall did you say that the synopsis had to demonstrate 1) that you can string a story together and 2) it needed to convey the tone/heart of the story. for example, it wouldn't be enough to just regurgitate the plot.

Kelly McCullough said...

You're not dreaming, Shawn. Note, I said "main purpose" above. I can go into layers of what a synopsis is and does, and have actually:

What a synopsis should do.

And pitching and synopses
part 1
part 2
part 3.

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