This is not a post about world building, though it is that too. It is mostly a post about life – though I’ll come at it through writing, which might make it easier to understand.
It is a cliche, tired and worn, that one has to remind new writers that magic must have a price. This is because, particularly when you bring in something that doesn’t exist in our world, it is all too easy for young – in age or craft – people to get carried away and think all laws of reality can also be suspended. While these books can be lots of fun to write, (kind of like those Saturday morning cartoons where your character suddenly achieves the ability to draw things and make them come to life), they are tedious to read (even that sort of cartoon throws in an archenemy or someone who’s chasing the kid to get the wondrous crayon.)
This is where life differs from writing – maybe. I think – because acquiring that sort of power in real life would be a blast. Well, okay, maybe it would grow tedious after a while, but frankly that’s the sort of challenge I’d like to have “how can I stop life from growing wearisome while I have everything I want and a magical pony on the side?”
Annoyingly, it is also the sort of challenge no one has. Not in real life. Probably part of the objectionable (or obnoxious) nature of the books where there’s no price for magic is that it’s not nice to taunt us with images of a world we can never live in.
In fact, humans so much wish they could live in a world where there’s no prices, that we often pretend those prices don’t exist, because it makes us feel better.
I don’t mean by this the price of goods and services, though the most amoral among us like to pretend that those have no cost either. This is where the bright idea comes from that one should just take goods and services and give them to other people, in a sort of fairy-godmothery way, because… Because when you’re a morally blind idiot you don’t realize the people who produced or acquired goods or who provide services pay a price for them – in learning or sacrifice or even a narrowing of life options – and therefore you don’t realize what you’re advocating is nothing less than slavery. (All objections of course are removed when people voluntarily share with others things or services for which they’ve paid the price. That’s their choice.)
It goes both ways of course. Businesses engaging in “Hollywood accounting” (including those in Hollywood) are engaging as much in theft of another person’s life as those in the bureaucracy who legislate that type of theft.
It’s very easy to think “oh, he’d write screenplays, anyway. And we paid him. He doesn’t need the extra howevermuch.” But while the screen writer might have written screen plays anyway, trust me, to get to the point you want to make a movie of it, he engaged in learning his craft, he wrote a lot of unusable screenplays, and he sacrificed time and effort without which you wouldn’t have that play. So when taking the extra compensation that accountants make disappear, you are in fact engaging in stealing years or months of his life.
No, I’m not endorsing the Marxist theory that labor equals value. I’m simply saying that nothing of value was produced without labor – or without learning, or without talent, or without…
I’m saying there is a price to magic. There is a price to anything and everything in life. You pays your dust, you takes your chances. And, as I’ve said before, in the end you always get more or less what you want. … unless what you want is the magical crayon that can draw things and make them come to life – because that violates the rules of life in this particular universe.
Do you want to be the best runner ever? Well, you exercise, you practice, you put in your effort and you’ll be a very good runner. You might not be the best ever – or the best in your team – because you have the wrong body type, or because you fall and break your ankle, or… But you’ll still be a million times a better runner than you were when you started out. The same goes for playing an instrument, for writing, for any of the arts, crafts or sports.
Most people understand that price. Most people even understand what we’d call “the price of fame,” where the character becomes ruler-of-the-world or the most famous musician since Elvis left the scene to open a diner in Arizona. That type of price has been shown again and again in movies, and even though it’s a variant of “poor little rich boy/girl” we know it by heart now. You become rich and famous, and spoiled, and you lose the contacts in your small town, and your best boy/girl (or for the more edgy movies, both) sends you a Dear John. You either chuck it all to go back to your origins (happy ending) or you die of an overdose (unhappy ending.)
But Sarah, you say, I never want that kind of fame, so why should I consider that kind of price?
I don’t want that kind of fame, either, and – Praise the Lord, Brothers and Sisters! – I’m very unlikely to ever achieve it.
However, what most people – myself included a few years ago – fail to grasp is that there is a price to more mundane achievements, too. For instance, having children.
Robert and I were talking yesterday about some woman about my age who said she had to find herself. Although I despite that trite phrase, when Robert said “How do you EVEN lose yourself?” I had to point out you do. You can’t help it. When they’re little you’re not you, you’re mommy. H*ll, even when they are teens, you still are giving up a major portion of your life to being mommy – to being the adult. Someone has to do both of those.
I remember the first time I went to the grocery store without the kids, because they were old enough to be left at home alone. It felt weird. It was like I didn’t know how to be in the store alone, by myself, anymore. My habits of shopping from when I was childless were quite gone. Ditto, the first time I took a walk alone. The first time I sat down and read a book because I wanted to (and the kids were both at school.)
It’s not just time or habit, either. During those intensive child rearing years, my thoughts were different. I wasn’t me. I was Robert-and-Marshall’s mother.
As the child-rearing pressures ease (do they ever go away completely?) I’m starting to re-find myself; to see the outlines of the person there, who is Sarah Hoyt, not Robert-and-Marshall’s mother (though she is that too.) This is not the same as the Sarah Hoyt many years ago. For one, she doesn’t look nearly as good anymore. For another… She’s changed through the years and the experiences.
There’s a price.
When I chose to really try to write and publish, I started devoting vast chunks of time to it. This means I lost some of the kids’ childhood. There were days I wanted to just take them to the park and watch them play, but I was on deadline. There were times I wanted to sit around and enjoy them, but I had writing to do.
Now, a lot of what I paid to have a writing career was dictated by the boundaries of the old model. However, Indie will have its own boundaries too. Sure, you can write and put things up there, but if you want to sell significant number, you’d best learn the craft. (And if you haven’t read Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, why NOT?) And that will take time. More than that, it will take effort. You’ll emerge on the other side, not just as a selling writer, but changed. Years will have passed that you weren’t even aware of, and you’ll be a different person.
This is true even if what you choose to pursue is a more normal career, like, say, cab driver or server. You will have to train, and then you’ll have to practice and your rewards are likely to be commensurate with your effort.
The same is true for every hobby, at every level from casual to serious.
Achievement – magic – has a price. It always has a price. Mostly what you pay is your ability, your vitality, your time, your life. But you also pay all the things you could have been doing instead. For instance, when I chose to be a writer, I chose not to be a translator anymore. Now if I tried to be a translator, I couldn’t. The ability is gone. To get it back would take almost as long as to learn it in the first place.
Ah, you say – but I won’t pay. – I’ll just sit here and do nothing.
But then you pay the price of doing nothing. You won’t learn, you won’t do, you won’t BE. In the end, doing nothing, choosing nothing, deciding nothing has the highest price of all. You find yourself pushed aside from the world. You find you have in fact paid your life, your time, your talent… for years and years of doing nothing and being nothing.
So, when you’re considering doing something, learning something, trying something; when you’re considering what you wish to concentrate on; when you think one path has no cost and the other is expensive; when you shy back from doing things and take the path of least resistence, remember – everything has a price.
Yes, sure, magic has a price. It might take years of the magician’s life. BUT if he doesn’t use the magic, he might instead lose his home, his friends, his kingdom. He might have to live out his life in vile slavery.
Everything has a price. Action and the lack of action have different prices, but nothing is free. TANSTAAFL.
You pays your dollar. You takes your bet.
What will it be?
All the things I wanted . . . and had to choose among.
It’s interesting that what I chose upset a lot of my family, and yet are the things I account as the best decisions in my life. Listening to other’s input is good, substituting their choices for yours is the road to disaster.
The few regrets I had at the time, for instance wanting to be an astronaut . . . But turning deliberately away from it . . . felt, at the time, as if I were cheating myself. But now I can look back and see that I would never have walked on the Moon or explored Mars, as I had envisioned as a teenager watching the Apollo Lunar landings. I’ve got several big decisions in my past, that looking back, have me saying “Wow, right path!”
Interesting, to think of costs in terms of paths not taken.