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>Competition Winners Magic v Science

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Ori P. and Kessalemma win the signed copies of Lucy’s Blade.

Please email me on docjohn@fsmail.net with (i) a postal address and (ii) what you would like me to write inside.

John

>Grab Me!

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No, not literally. But those two words are something of a mantra for agents and editors. They want our queries and pages to grab them. Not so hard, right? Wrong. At least for me. Because what the fine print says, and it’s very fine print, is that we have to grab them in 5 pages if it’s a novel or only a couple of paragraphs if it’s a short story. So, no dilly-dallying around. No immediate launch into the detailed backstory of Grandma Sofie who died three years before the main character was born and for whom she’s named. Instead, it’s time to get right to hooking the reader either with characterization, action or both.

Jennifer Jackson, an agent with the Donald Maass Literary Agency, has written a couple of blogs on this topic, as well as on the importance of reading — and following — submission guidelines.

It might not actually feel like five pages are enough to make an assessment. But isn’t that the same thing that happens with readers/consumers? They walk into the bookstore, pick up the book and read the back-cover which has a pitch (like a query has) and then flip it open and read the first couple pages to decide if they want to take it home. (May 22, 2009)

What do I think is the purpose of the first five pages? To get me to want to read page six (and hopefully 7, 8, 9, etc.). They don’t need to be perfect. In fact, watch out for over-editing because that can make them seem stale. They do need to be exceptional. These pages don’t need to have bombs going off or start with a big action scene. Though starting in media res can be helpful — watch out for backstory that can bog down your opening. Someone recently repeated to me this advice: “Start the story as late as you can.” Obviously, the whole story is greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not expecting to know everything about the book in just five pages. That’s not why I’m reading them. I’m looking for a sense of things. The writer’s style or voice, perhaps. A compelling character. A strong plot hook or concept. A taste that makes me want more. All they have to do is get me to turn the page (or hit page-down in my email) and want more when there isn’t any more. (May 29, 2009)

Agent Kristen Nelson blogged about a workshop she conducted a workshop called “2 minutes, 2 pages”. According to her, “[t]he purpose is to pretend we are sitting at home with our feet up reading the slush pile. As the author reads the work, we say “stop” if we wouldn’t have read on and then try to explain why.” What she discovered is that the “openings lacked a sense of urgency that would have propelled the story forward or would have engaged the reader immediately in the story or the characters presented.” This doesn’t mean the scene had to meet the Die Hard test of bombs and bullets in the opening scene. All it means is that there must be something at stake for the character. That something can be a treasured keepsake that your character can’t find, waiting for a phone call that she knows will change her life, or an explosion. But it has to be something to draw the reader in and keep her turning the page and wanting more.

So, what keeps you reading past that first page? What do you put in those first five pages to keep the reader wanting more?

>Bad Guys Rool, OK?

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It’s Saturday, again, and I have nothing intelligent to contribute, again, but I’ll write on anyway.

I want to focus on the appeal of bad-guys or antiheroes. Bad-guys come in all sorts of guises. A favourite is ‘the policeman who doesn’t play by the rules’, a character so clichéd that comedians run skits on them. In real life, Policemen who break the rules tend to be associated with corruption and make defence barristers think all their Christmases have come at once. In fiction, they are the life-blood of the police procedural.

Apparently, almost any low life can be turned into an anti-hero if it’s done right. For example, the A-team were a cuddly bunch of heavily armed mercenaries. How did they become sympathetic characters? Then there is Dexter, your local friendly psychopathic murderer, or how about the Man-With-No-Name, Clint Eastwood’s bounty hunter. While on that subject, why were they called spaghetti Westerns when they were filmed in Spain? Should they not be Paella Westerns? I’m a geek, these things bother me.

So what distinguishes a bad-guy hero? They have one defining feature in common that I have already mentioned. They break the rules. They don’t give a damn for the law or conventions of society. Most of us live in fear and trepidation of ‘them’, the man, our masters. Our cars are insured, taxed, serviced and MOTed. We creep around at the speed limit in case of radar traps, terrified of points on our licence. We swear impotently at scrotes who cut us up, but not too loudly in case they hear.

The Saint, on the other hand, treated the road network of England as a giant race track laid out for his personal benefit. When a road lout tries to cut up his Silver Hirondel sports car, Simon Templar floors the throttle and puts the swine in the ditch. When said swine catches up with The Saint in a country pub and expresses his displeasure, The Saint puts him to sleep with a straight right to the jaw. That’s the way to do it! All men want to be Simon Templar and all women want him to make love to them.

The Saint is brave, charming, handsome, strong, sexy, intelligent, educated and lethal. He cuts through life like a bullet through a pumpkin. What makes him so appealing is that he protects women and the weak and humbles the arrogant. Crooks are his chosen prey. He is the Robin Hood who robs the wicked rich to give to the poor, less ten percent fee for his trouble. He is everybody’s big brother. The fact that he cocks a snoot at polite society and the pompous, hypocritical establishment makes him all the more appealing. He has high morale standards despite his rebel nature and he is never mean or petty.

Read a Saint novel and you buy a ticket to a dream where you are all those things and beautiful women compete for your company or, if a lady, you are the heroine who wins his heart, at least for a while.

In one story, a fat, ugly rich woman is tormented on the Riviera by the beautiful people who make fun of her. The Saint befriends her with a view to stealing her fabulous necklace but he hears her singing to herself in her bedroom, remembering when she was young and beautiful and a man loved her so much that he bought her the necklace. The Saint moves on the next day without the necklace.

I was very impressed by a scene from Conan that demonstrates the same qualities. A girlfriend has betrayed Conan so that he is imprisoned, awaiting execution. He escapes and goes looking for the girl. Her new boyfriend draws a blade so Conan kills him without compunction. His revenge on the girl is to drop her in a cess pit. As Conan leaves, she is dirty and humiliated but clearly and very vocally unhurt. Conan has his revenge but rejects any idea of hurting a girl, even though she tried to get him killed. To do so would be beneath him.

To me The Saint is the ultimate bad-guy hero to me, but then, one is an Englishman and he is a very English hero.

So, what are your criteria for a bad-guy hero? Do different cultures have different perspectives?

Let’s have your thoughts.

John

>The Elusive Guidebook

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There is a rulebook, its just covered in elbow-grease and slips out of my fingers as soon as I get a grip on it. Every now an then I manage to flip it open at a random page and get a glimpse of something, then its flopping onto the floor again. There are a few writers who have read pages and pages of that thing – even whole sections – but they aren’t telling (You Know Who You Are!!!!).

Perhaps it was the first time I glimpsed that self-same rulebook on the bookshelf – and managed to tease it down like an Indian Snake Charmer – that I got my first character ‘eureka!’ moment.

‘That’s it!’ I thought. Character sympathy! That’s the key to hooking a reader.

I did get excited, because you only get that one chance to draw someone into your story, be it a casual reader or potential editor. Once you get a reader interested in your character, they might forgive you for bumps in the other story elements e.g. plots, world building, PoV, multiple characters, action scenes etc.

So I thought I had it. Build the sympathy!

The trick is – and what I learned the hard way – was that what one reader responds to in a character is often vastly different to another – in fact often diametrically opposed. One reader’s cool detached hero is another’s arrogant, insufferable narcissist.

I used to come home from critique groups often puzzled by contradictory comments that made little sense until the penny finally dropped. If people don’t like your characters, they just will NOT gel with your story. Once you reach that stage the critter will start (often unconsciously) working overtime to find all the things ‘wrong’ with your piece, when the real problem is that it simply has no resonance for them. They will talk vehemently about the punctuation on p3, or how they got mixed up in the dialogue, the logic error in par 5, or yada yada, yada…

Even successful writers don’t seem to have real control over reader’s reactions.

One of David Gemmell readers all time favorite characters is Waylander. David Gemmell himself set out to make this guy a real piece of work – a nasty customer that no one should like; a ruthless assassin that kills without a thought. The surprise was that people loved Waylander, and he went on to be one of Gemmell’s most successful characters, extending over three books and carrying the story well in each one. So why did people respond to Waylander? Was there something unconsciously carried through from Gemmell about that character’s destiny that altered his portrayal? Or do people just love the bad guy – the old Sympathy for the Devil chestnut?

Are the ways of building sympathy for a character as wildly different as the characters people enjoy?

What really draws you into a character? They way they love someone else or show they care? Being the underdog? Strength? Courage? Determination? Their vulnerability? Their sheer undead coolness?

Please let me know – while I keep trying to get a grip on that darn slippery rulebook.

>Flesh on the Bones

>Between Sarah’s discussion of empathy, Rowena’s talk of bent characters, and Dave’s lament on the futility of forcing them to do what you want once they’ve come to life, I’m left without much choice for my first appearance as a new Mad Genius. The character in question is giving me the smirk that says “Next time trust me. I know better than you.”

So without further ado, I shall ramble for a while on the process that finished with Prince Vlad Draculea taking up residence inside my head as a very real person.

For many years before I started writing Impaler, I was fascinated by the historical Prince Draculea (BTW: the spelling is the closest Anglicization of the way he spelled his name. Just another example of character stubborn. He won’t let me spell it any other way). What I had was pretty much what any writer has in the early stages of story generation long before there’s any conscious move to write the thing: a mix of ‘this is a neat idea’ and someone who does or did interesting stuff. Add to that the question, “What if he had survived the assassination attempt?” and I had my story.

What I didn’t have was my character. Instead, I had a huge problem. How does one depict a man whose name is associated with the most appalling atrocities (and let’s face it, they didn’t call him ‘the Impaler’ because he was a nice guy) or the Stoker vampire? He was the central character of the story, but whitewashing his deeds was out of the question. I didn’t consciously wonder how I could show him in a more sympathetic light, but the question gnawed at me for about a year between when I first jotted down the rough plot outline and when I started to write. In the meantime, I wrote a completely different novel, ConVent, which is under consideration at Baen.

And I read everything I could lay hands on about Draculea and his times. Translations of period accounts of the Siege of Constantinople (eye-opening, to say the least), reading and re-reading the various Draculea legends, and gradually building from the bare facts and the legends an idea of what kind of man Draculea might actually have been.

Probably the most useful thing I did was wonder, “Why?”. Asking myself why Draculea would have acted the way he did helped me to understand the era, as well as the man, and led me to some truly mind-boggling bits of 15th century trivia along the way.

I originally intended to write Impaler as mostly Draculea’s point of view, with a few key scenes from other POVs. Instead, somewhere as I reread one of the Florescu and McNally biographies, I got him. Somehow, the constant “well, why would he do that?” had fleshed out the man enough that he was there in my head, dictating the book to me.

From there it was a case of balance: showing Draculea’s human side through his narrative without flinching from the worst of his nature. The end result was good enough to make the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award quarter finals, and is currently on an agent’s desk in its entirety.

I’ll finish with a few paragraphs from the opening so you can judge for yourself how well I fleshed out the man and brought him to life, and whether you can identify with him.

Impaler
Chapter 1

Always before battle begins I am possessed by the need for solitude and prayer. It is a curious thing, for I have never fought as merely another knight. I first ruled men at the tender age of eighteen, when the old Ottoman Sultan Murad and his son Mehmed still thought I could be a Turk puppet.

Those who slander me say I care nothing for the fate of other men. They forget that those who rule by the Lord’s grace are entrusted with the Earthly welfare of their subjects, and to some extent their souls. To take one’s subjects into battle, however righteous the cause, ensures that they will sin. The burden of their souls falls upon me, their Prince.

I do not allow others to see my weakness. Few great lords care for the fate of those in their domains. That I of all men should do so would seem the most grotesque of jests. I, whose name echoes through Europe as a byword for atrocity. And yet, I am driven to pray for those whose lives will end on the battlefield this day, men whose only crime is to obey the commands of their lords.

>I CAN feel your pain

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*As usual I write five times as much as I planned to. Feel free to throw rotten fruit or something*

In this Frankenstein Business we’ve been dealing with – or if you prefer, this divinity business – of bringing our dead creations to life, a good point has been made for how this is accomplished. Matapam says it’s all empathy – and she might be right. As I’ve said before I do 99% of this subconsciously, so it’s hard to say what I did before they came to life.

Unlike Dave I don’t usually write lists of what the characters do or what they like. His practice strikes me as imminently sensible, I just never had to do it. I did once, long ago, interview a character, but that was because the rat fink wouldn’t let me hear his voice. In fact, I think I do what he does, but in the back of my brain, until the voice emerges fully formed. I’m almost sure I do, because of the sudden, brilliant insights. “God it. Her dad was a succubus. No wonder her mom is messed up.” These come to me at the oddest times, when I’m not even aware of thinking about the book, usually after I’ve laid down the note pad (my last tool in attempting to force the character to talk to me) and start doing housework to tire myself out enough that I can rest. (When trying to force a character/novel into the open, I have the cleanest house in the world.) Some of my best ideas have come while ironing or waxing floors.

(And wouldn’t that make a great T-shirt? Writing is Just Playing Frankenstein With Words.)

So let’s assume Matapam is right — how do we build that empathy? Well, one thing I know you can’t do and that is take the easiest route. You can’t have the character come over and tell us everything everyone has done him wrong. Why not? Well… because people tend to react the same way as if a stranger had rung their doorbell and started crying all over them. “My boyfriend left me! I burned the roast! My boss fired me!” They slam the door – or the book – shut, run inside the house and ignore the character forever.

This said what CAN we do? Isn’t feeling sorry for the character a way to build Empathy. Yeah, it is, but… if I may say so, it is one of the weakest ones. Forming a bond with a character is like forming a bond with a friend. Are your best friends people you feel sorry for? Or do you, after a few days/months/years of being the adult in the relationship start hoping that your friend would grow up already. You catch yourself saying “She’s a good girl/guy, but…”

So, who are your friends? People who are interesting. People who do/know things you don’t. People whose reactions you can’t anticipate, but make perfect sense when they happen. People who live lives you love to hear about. People you have a great time with. People who are there for you when you fall and for whom you’re there when they fall. People you’d like to have at your back in a pinch.

The last one is difficult. If you try leaning on a character when you’re in distress, you’re likely to end up with a badly bent book. On the other hand, the character might provide you with a model for facing a horrible situation.

To my mind there are two great ways of imprinting a character forever in a reader’s mind. One I use rarely because it’s very easy to botch and also because it’s the weaker bond than the other.

This less desirable way is to make Writing is a game of first impressions. If your character comes across as a complete monster on page one, you might realize he’s a saint by page 100, but sometimes the reader doesn’t come along with you. (I once lost a reader – in a contest, so I knew from her confused notes – on page three because I described my hero as “he had hands like shovels.” She kept writing on the side of the chapters every time he appeared “but I thought he was the bad guy” from then on.) I call this the “don’t show him drowning puppies first thing off” rule. If you’re trying to write this, you need to think big canvas and bright colors. If the character is drowning puppies in the first chapter, you’d better find out in chapter two that he did it to save ALL the children in world and at great personal pain, because his religion says those who drown puppies are damned.

So, why is this the weaker bond? Because it’s based on guilt. You want to read more about the character and spend more time with him to atone for having misjudged him.

The more desirable way is to make you admire the character. To see him doing something that is universally considered good, at some cost to himself. Then you will find yourself wanting to know this person better. After that care must be taken. A hero without pores, a hero who doesn’t sweat, attaches nobody.

I have found personally my most memorable characters – my own characters, not those I read – tend to be people who are larger than life, but also, to post on a theme in the blog before, functionally insane. I.e. insane, knowing their own insanity and harnessing it.

Athena in Darkship Thieves is one of them, but you never really have a “dime drop” moment, mostly because she doesn’t stop long enough for you to get it. There’s the little tells, when she talks of juvie halls and madhouses as places she’s intimately acquainted with at a young age, and you start wondering what kind of family she has.

But then there is Athos, in my Musketeer Mysteries. Athos is an unstably wrapped little cookie. We of course know it’s because of his wife and what he had to do. I’m not stupid, I brought that up in first book. But there is still this feeling of “something not right” and a sense he was screwed up long before he was old enough to be married. This sense that he’s on the side of angels, but if he ever lets go, there will be bodies stacked like corded wood.

And I had NO idea why. That was just how he came across in my mind and on the page, but he wouldn’t tell me the reason – which, if you think about it, he wouldn’t.

Then on the fifth book – FIFTH and likely the last for a while at least – *Dying By The Sword* he delivers himself of a gem which, I think (not sure if it’s true but it is for me) immediately raised empathy. We know him as admirable and self contained. We also know he can’t unbend without some primal rage emerging. And then this came out. What do you think? Am I right that it builds empathy or at least gives us insight?

* – in that moment he reminded Athos of his father.

Athos’ father had been one of those people never very at ease near children. An only child, who in turn had sired Athos late in life, Monsieur Gaetan Comte de La Fere had treated Athos as an object of intense scrutiny – at a distance – until Athos had been breached at six or so. And then, suddenly, Athos’ father had decided that Athos was no a man, or at least a youth. It was as though nothing existed, in the late Comte’s mind between the mewling infant and the striding man. And so, he’d expected Athos to be proficient at horseback riding, competent enough with a sword for the honor challenges that might be befit any noble, and cultured too, so that his speech wouldn’t lead his inferiors to sneer at him.

Athos, a dutiful son, had learned the riding and the sword fighting from the masters’ provided and, though struggling, always managed to exceed the prowess of those ten times his seniors. Even the Latin and the Greek impinged upon him by yet another set of masters, the poetry, the diction – even that he learned and effortlessly.

Of the rituals and demands his father enforced on him far too young, there was only one that Athos had resented, but that one he had resented absolutely and with a raging hatred. Because every night, from the age of seven or so, he’d been brought into his father’s study and sat, across from his father, at a table that had been designed as a chessboard, and upon which elaborate, expensive China pieces were set.

Athos didn’t resent that his father expected him to play chess. He didn’t even resent that the late Comte gloried in winning games over his small son. What he resented – the memory that still made his bile rise at the back of his throat – was that the rules of the game had never been explained to him. Night after night, he’d sat there, and learned all the moves by trying them the wrong way first. Night after night, day after day, he’d brooded on the losses. And every night his father smiled at him, with the exact same smile that the Cardinal was now giving him.

Something to the movement of the Cardinal’s eyes made Athos realize he’d been inching his hand towards his sword, and he pulled it back by an effort of will. The day after his father had died, in a ritual composed part of grief and part of relief, he had taken the beautiful entaglio chess table, and all the chess pieces. He’d smashed the chess pieces in the depths of the garden, before setting fire to the table.

Now his fingers itched for the fire to set beneath the Cardinal’s feet, *

>Characters, bent is better.

>Characters — I prefer characters that are slightly skewed, odd ball people who don’t quite fit in.

I’m a Buffy fan, not Buffy so much but as her supporting characters. I’ve just started watching TrueBlood, the Sookie Stackhouse series. I’m up to episode 6 and enjoying it. I couldn’t help compare the characterisation. I’m thinking aloud here …

Sookie is a sincere southern waitress, who just happens to be able to hear people’s thoughts. She’s a little but acerbic, which is nice.

Buffy’s answer to everything is ‘tell me how and I’ll kill it’.

Even though we are only just into the first series, I prefer Sookie’s characterisation.

Bill the vampire’s back story is very straight. He was a poor but honest Confederate soldier, who was turned into a vampire and had to walk away from the family he loved.

Compare this to Spike the vampire’s back story. He was a bumbling clerk who wrote bad poetry because his romantic soul outreached his ability.

The Spike character had the advantage of quite a few series to develop his character before his back story was invented and revealed, but I prefer the Spike backstory because he would risk all for love, while Bill would give up everything for love.

For me it is the odd ball person who sees the world in a slightly different way, who is the most interesting.

Are you into odd ball characters?

>"I MADE you!"

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(“no you didn’t. Did it of my own volition”)

This ties into a recurring unkillable theme in sf and indeed fantasy – the creation that goes out of control. Not only does it reflect in stories but it also comes full circle on authors and bites them in the behind-regions, because their characters become self-willed and recalcitrant (I have for sale a lovely new line in character whips, crops, martingales and, for the ones that really won’t listen, the electric cattle prod. Forget the naughty step. It doesn’t work on fictional characters, and besides, it’s cruel and unnatural. Available today, if you call now, at our special promotional prices… but wait, there is more…).
Sadly, this is the natural way of things with well-developed characters. They become self-willed, get a+ for their Turing tests, and blunder through your carefully crafted plot like a drunken sow through a ladies tea-picnic, gobbling delicate crustless cucumber sandwiches by the trayful, stepping on china, ignoring screeches, and then decide that Great Aunt Agatha really is the sexiest boar they have ever met — which just proves that rampaging characters too can be right.
You actually can’t restrain them. While this may ruin my newest get-rich-quick-scheme (more inspired than galvanic buggy whips or the pornographic rabbit trap) nothing actually works. If you try, you’ll ruin the book. You have to give them their head (and not necessarily on a platter) and vaguely try and herd them toward the less breakable parts of the plot furniture. And the worst of it is that not only do they take over your head, (which can be extremely dangerous. Do not, I repeat, NOT associate with me while I think I’m Benito Valdosta) you have READERS starting to mutter “I am the finest swordsman outside of France!” puzzling their nearest and dearest quite a lot.
These are the characters that you remember. Not always your favorites, but the ineradicable – sometimes not with best brain-bleach. They keep coming back on you. And, it appears readers come back to them. (It’s difficult when the author gets demands for yet another book with Miles, or Ariel or Biggles in it. But not as difficult as not being paid.)
These characters are born out of primordial soup… well, the brains of writers, which is much the same thing. And the one thing that provides that final galvanic spark… isn’t known. But modern science, with tireless research or at least an infinite numbers of monkeys have established that you need LOTS of bits. Now, we seem chock full of authors here. When you ‘build’ a character on your sla… uh in your mind – what do you put in?
Give! Maybe we can identify that crucial element.
Mine of course is attitude. And hair. I have never had a character come to life without knowing about the hair. Even those without it.
Well. I showed you mine. Show me yours?

>Magic, Religion, Technology and Science

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Magic, Religion, Technology and Science

If there is one thing that distinguishes a science fiction or fantasy novel from other fiction is that the story hangs in someway on the supernatural, some novel scientific idea or a fantastic technological device.

With this in mind, I have been giving some thought recently to how you define and distinguish magic, religion, science and technology. My background incidentally is that I read industrial biology and biochemistry at Brunel University of Technology, an engineering university. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was arguably the greatest engineer since Imhotep suggested to Pharaoh Djoser that a four-sided, pointed tomb might look impressive. I switched eventually to pure science, or strategic science, taking a PhD at the British Museum (Natural History) in ecology and biodiversity.

Let’s start with magic and religion. They both deal with the supernatural, so is there any difference between them? When does a religion rise above mere superstition, for example, and is superstition identical with magic? Most modern people would assert that the two are not identical and would probably assert that religion is about worship of a deity and an attempt to live by a moral code, while magic is about the manipulation of supernatural forces to achieve some result in the natural world. Unfortunately, this dichotomy does not entirely survive examination of modern religions, or magic.

Our ideas on magic and religion are traceable directly back to the Fertile Crescent, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Many of our ideas about wizardry are Egyptian, including magic wooden wands, spoken and written spells, magic potions and so on. We know a great deal about Egyptian religion and magic because of a dodgy British Museum Curator called Budge, who was a Cornishmen like me. He ‘acquired’ an excellent version of the Book of the Dead, more properly called something like Spells For Going Out in Daytime.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead is a magic manual of spells to help the supernatural part of a human being enter heaven and live forever and many other things. It includes explanations about the Gods and appropriate prayers to them. It also includes the forty two negative confessions that deal with morality that serve the same purpose as the Ten Commandments. However, the crafty Egyptians had a Plan B ready for those who had breached the negative confessions. You could use magic spells to cheat.

It is not so different today. Mad Max, sorry Mad Mel, has opinioned that, although his wife was a much better person than him, she was going to hell while he went to heaven because she was Church of England while Mel was a Roman Catholic. Apparently, leading a morale life is less important than having the right mojo come the awful day of judgement. Many years ago while, doing the middle of an all night drive to London, I picked up an American evangelical preacher on my car radio. The preacher had apparently desired to own something called a Winnebago, which I believe is some sort of motor caravan. How did acquire same, by working hard and saving? No he said the right prayers in the right way with the right body motions and he got his prize. God was a supernatural machine for dispensing consumer items.

Magic lends itself naturally to the way human minds work. Our brains are pattern recognition machines that link cause and effect. The grass moving against the wind causes a leopard attack. So run when you see the grass move. This is a very good survival adaptation. If the grass moves without a leopard appearing then all you lose is a little energy if you run but suppose a leopard appears and you have not run? A magic spell that that fails does not disprove the magic. It just means that the magician overlooked something. Obviously extra complexity is required in some way. Maybe the spell can only be performed at daybreak, or on a Thursday, or facing east – whatever. But if a spell works just once, i.e. the desired result happens, then it shows that the magic works.

Magic has neither logic nor consistency. The Egyptian Book of the Dead includes spells based on (i) a solar heaven in the company of the sun god, (ii) an astral heaven among the circumpolar stars and (iii) a heaven in the Field of Reeds under the Lordship of Osirus. There is endless, back-breaking agricultural work required in the Field of Reeds but fear not. There are spells to animate shabti figurines that will do the work for you.

I once wrote a short story set in the Bronze Age where I went to great trouble to get the details right, including magic spells. Guess what? A critic wrote that he hated irrational magic ‘systems’ that lacked logical consistency. I just love critics.

Technology is quite different from magic because it is empirical. Engineers traditionally used a suck it and see experimental approach. They tend to stop employing a building method if the resulting structure fell down before they had been paid. On the other hand, engineers have traditionally been happy if a technique works consistently without worrying too much about why it works.

Science is a relatively modern concept. The word ‘science’ derives from the Latin for knowledge, scientia. The word came into common use in the mid nineteenth century when the modern scientific method was developed. Mathematics, sometimes called ‘formal’ science, is the language of modern science but is as old as civilisation and was used in the Fertile Crescent for construction and for astronomical prediction for agriculture. Scientists create knowledge. They invent nothing, make nothing, construct nothing.

My main educational function was to supervise PhD students. I taught them the scientific method. This is not easy because scientific thinking goes against the natural inclinations of the human mind. It dismisses cause and effect patterns and demands destructive empirical testing. Science is quite different to religion, which starts with an assumption that there is a ‘truth’. Science assumes no discernable truth. There is nothing but models used to describe natural processes. Such models are subject to constant destructive testing until they fail, whereupon a more accurate model is devised. In science, the natural world is broken down into single ‘processes’ that can be tested. This is very different to magic, which involves increasing complexity until success is achieved.

Increasingly, science and engineering are converging into ‘science & technology’. Engineers are discouraged from trial and error methods because error can be disastrous in the modern world so they turn to scientific knowledge when planning novel technology.

To summarise:
1) Magic is the manipulation of the natural world by supernatural methods.
2) Religion is belief in the supernatural with an implication of universal truth and moral standards.
3) Technology is making things, partly by empirical experimentation and partly by application of scientific knowledge.
4) Science is a technique for investigating the natural world.
5) Magic involves complexification but science uses reductionism.
6) Religion is about truth, science is about useful, temporary models.
7) Magic lacks logical consistency.
8) Magic involves gathering evidence to ‘prove’ something. Science works by destructive testing.
9) Religion and magic require belief, science and technology don’t.
10) That’s it folks!

Well those are my thoughts but philosophers have argued over this for, well, for ever.

How do you feel about magic and science?

Do you want logical magic systems? Isn’t that just wierd science and technology and not magic at all?

For God’s sake someone comment, please. Pretty please.

I know – Try Bribery!

I will send a signed copy of my only novel to the most insightful comment.

>Smut is a Fungus or Don’t Call Your Mama’s Romance Novels Smut

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As I booted up my computer yesterday morning, a shudder ran through me. You know the sort I mean. That chill your mother or grandmother told you meant someone had just walked across your grave. As my e-mail account opened, I knew I had reason to worry. Sarah had had a brainstorm and my name was associated with it. Me. The one who likes to hide in the shadows, the darkness relieved only by the glow from my computer monitor. Alas, that is what brought about her brainstorm. She knows I am constantly trawling that vast information highway known as the Internet in an attempt to find that one pearl of wisdom, or the golden ticket, that will finally make those query letters easy to write and irresistable to agents and editors. And, since I hadn’t yet had enough coffee — is there such a thing as ever having enough coffee? — I agreed to do this post.

The wonderful thing about the Internet is that you can find just about anything if you look hard enough. That’s especially true when it comes to writing. Everyone has a blog these days. Or they tweet. Or they post on Facebook. Or all of the above. It’s a wonderful way to promote yourself and your work, network with others in the profession and find out what agents and editors are looking for. It is also a time sink of monumental proportions if you allow it to become one.

That said, for the writer, the Internet can be an invaluable tool. Miss Snark still lurks in archive heaven to swill her gin and regale us with tales from the world of publishing while admiring her newest pair of Manolos. We can learn all about the latest “Preditors and Editors” and hopefully not fall victim to their scams. We can connect with other writers of all levels of proficiency. Welcome to the digital world of writers on the Internet.

This week, Dave, Sarah and Rowena have been discussing characterization. A comment I made in response to one of Dave’s posts led me to think about genre fiction and how we tend to characterize it and, therefore, its characters. In particular, I started thinking about Romance. You know, those bodice-rippers with the long-haired, bare-chested men on the covers. The books no “real man” would be caught reading in public. The books that have been denigrated and made fun of from day one because they aren’t “real literature”.

One of the blogs I follow is “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books“, a fun and informative blog focusing on romance novels. Today’s entry is about an interview “about Bosoms, feminism, and defending our love of romance novels.” When following the link to Flavorwire.com where the entire interview is posted, I knew this was NOT going to be your normal soft soap interview. I assume the writer thought she was being funny when she wrote, “After years of sifting through smut books in order to find the ones that are worth the $4.99 you’ll pay for it, these two ladies have created a humorous guidebook for the discerning smut reader.” However, any romance reader worth her salt will be quick to tell you that Romance Novels are not, and never have been, smut. And, while the reader might enjoy a good bit of smut from time to time, you won’t get that from a good romance novel. The line between romance and smut might be thinner than it used to be, but the sex in a Romance Novel is an essential part of the plot and not there just to satisfy the prurient interest of the reader — or the writer who, of course, had to do lots of research before writing those particular scenes.

What Kate’s Reading, picking up on the “smut” references in the interview, had the following to say: “Now, really, if you’re posting an interview that’s all about misconceptions in the genre and why feminists should read romance, should you make a point of referring to said genre not once but twice as smut? Or is this some sort of post-feminist way of reclaiming and becoming empowered by negative words – much as the magazine is called Bitch? Whichever, it just seemed counterproductive to try to talk intelligent and progressive about the genre when you’re also calling it names.”

Now, to pull this back around to characterization, What Kate’s Reading ended the post with the following comment: “…it is a little annoying that you tried hard and had a really good interview, but you lost me in disgust at your first paragraph. One step forward, one step back.” As writers, we can make the same mistake. We can try hard and have a really good story in mind but, if we fail to have a voice that appeals to our readers and we fail to have a hook that makes them want to read on, we will lose them.

Take a few minutes and look around Smart Bitches. Even if you aren’t a romance reader, you’ll find something there that will make you think and then something that will make you laugh.