Laying out a Story Seed

The title of this post is a play on words. First I’m going to talk about my programming, and why I’m so keen for layout management, and then share the idea of a story seed, just to whet your appetite or get your writing juices flowing.

Programming: Why do I care so much about layout?

Each time I start my computer for a writing session I follow the same steps:

  1. Open Word on right hand monitor, align to left (50% width).
  2. Open Excel on left monitor, full size.
  3. Open OneNote on left monitor, full size.

When I’m programming I do things a little differently:

  1. Open Eclipse on left monitor, full size.
  2. Open Windows Explorer and navigate to folder structure, left align.
  3. Open SQLiteStudio on right monitor, full size.
  4. Open Firefox, right monitor, right aligned. Load Trac.

At least now Windows 10 remembers on which monitor the application was last on, but that is far from customised in how I prefer to work. For my productivity to be maximized I’d ideally want to tell Windows what I’m going to be working on as I log in. It should know what to load and where to place it.

You can’t do this with Windows yet, but at least in my own application it allows that level of control.

Even while working on writing (generically), depending on which project I’m working on will determine what layout I’ll want. If I’m plotting one, and editing another, chances are a different view will be more beneficial.

My intention is that when you save a project it will save the current layout (project-specific). These layouts are really for quick-use templates.

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The layout functionality is done now (except a few edges I’ll smooth later). Using a layout you can:

  • position and size the application window
  • position, size and name all windows on the screen
  • saves the panels and their names on each of the windows

Writing Seed: Lifetime Magic

I’ve been toying with a fraction of an idea for a while.

Normally magic systems revolve around a select few, who by ancestry or knowledge can wield powers. Often they incur a cost for doing so, and need to recharge their abilities or rest between efforts.

What if the following were true:

  1. The majority of the population has an innate ability to wield magic.
  2. The limits of magic are not well understood, though evidence suggests the environment and objects can be temporarily manipulated. (Objects or persons cannot be imbued with lasting magical effect).
  3. The quantity of magic a person has, is born into them. There is no known way to measure, extend or replenish the spent magic. Once gone, it is believed to be gone for good.

Using these three foundations, what could happen in such a society?

  • the inability to measure magical capacity would mean it isn’t a significant part of a power structure. However those who are known to have used all their magic would be an underclass. The lowest on the social strata would be those few born without magic.
  • people would likely horde their magic, wanting to save it for life-and-death situations and often for selfish purposes.
  • the poor would be forced to use their magic (to survive), thus pushing them further down the social ladder.
  • people would try to bluff or conceal running out of magic.
  • with the cost of experimentation being so high, understanding of magic would be limited. Unscrupulous researchers might go to devious schemes to trick, manipulate or even harm others in an attempt to gain more magic.
  • there would be fads and self-help gurus who posited various means of increasing one’s capacity.
  • magic would run out unexpectedly, causing potential mayhem or embarrassment.

At first I had no story to go along with this, but in the last few days one has begun to unfold in my mind. I may do a short story to explore this idea further in the future.

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When Nightmares Wake

I’ll save my thoughts and analysis for a follow-up post, but here is my promised writing exercise When Nightmares Wake, a full-strength Fantasy piece.

I am moderately pleased by it (but it remains in the shadow of the short story The Captive [slice-of-life genre] or the novelette Escape from Hell [faith-based genre]).

When Nightmares Wake

Great Lord Tarius’ eyelids flickered as awareness trickled back into his mind. Dulled by the stupor of sleep an awareness of danger seeped in, as though it was of no consequence.

Continue reading

Technique: Magic Systems

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episodes 14 and 15. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

Brandon Sanderson acknowledges that these are the rules that he uses. I won’t write too much on them because you can follow the links and read the essays if you want.

Sanderson’s First Law: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

You have to explain the magic to the reader before you can solve problems with it or it feels to the reader like you are cheating.

They mention that in Lord of the Rings Gandalf doesn’t do very much with his magic. When he does use magic to fight the Balrog, it ends up killing him. (Though he does come back, bigger and stronger… so an argument could be made that dying was actually beneficial for him. I don’t remember it being particularly surprising for him either, though it’s years since I read it).

They mention the excellent logic puzzle where the Witch King “who cannot be killed by any man” is killed by a woman. It is a surprising, yet (in hindsight) inevitable plot development.

  • If you have a rule-based magic system, then the heroes can solve problems with magic by being clever. (It’s his cleverness that solves the problem more than his magic ability).
  • You gain reader immersion and understanding.

Sanderson’s Second Law: Limitations > Powers

Limitations enable tension and conflict within the story.

Magic shouldn’t be “free”; there should be some kind of cost/consequence in order to create conflict.

  • Frodo can wear the One Ring, but it instantly starts to weigh him down, and twist him; also drawing Sauron’s attention to him.
  • Don’t make it too quantifiable or it will feel like a video game.
  • Engage the feelings or emotions of the character. That type of cost gives you a lot of latitude.
  • Try and come up with a unique cost.

One (cool) possible limitation they mention is that using magic could age those that you love.

Sanderson’s Third Law: Put more effort into how the magic effects things than what the magic can do (my paraphrasing).

They mention Dune as an exemplar: the magic system is tied into everything in the world: religion, economy, military, politics. It is fantastic in some novels where the full implications aren’t seen until subsequent books. The actions and events in Dune influence the very culture in the following novels.

  • The world around your magic system must continue to make sense. e.g. if you there is common telekinesis then there would be no manual labor jobs.

Final thought:

Work out how to break/exploit the world using magic to find the problems in your design.

 

Good Reading

I’m currently reading a couple of books, and enjoying them both for completely different reasons.

The Archivist’s Story

First there is the older The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland.

It is a slow-moving story, but deep, emotional and rich in content, language and character. The story follows Pavel Ivanovich an ex-lecturer in literature who under Stalin’s socialism is forced into service at the KGB headquarters. As a lover of fine literature he detests his job which consists of cataloging and then destroying literature deemed dangerous to the State.

You can sense the tension in the book as Pavel suppresses his own thoughts, because they put him at odds with the socialism. Though the danger is immense, you feel his integrity is starting to reassert itself against the lies that he must continually repeat to stay safe in socialist Russia.

Pavel’s relatively young mother (early 50’s) also has ailing health, which Pavel is struggling to deal with. The following excerpt is where they are in the waiting room of a neurologist in an attempt to diagnose his mother’s ‘black outs’.

“In the waiting room a little boy weakly flails away on his mother’s lap, paddling the air with his hands, as if struggling to wake from some dream of falling. The boy’s eyes, beautifully blue, follow Pavel as he passes; the frank despair in them chills his heart. Is this what awaits him and his mother? Private miseries played out in public, as in the pages of a novel. Like that old woman who couldn’t remember her own daughter. Only these people aren’t characters conjured from the imagination, their stories do not end when the reader closes the book and shuts off the lamp. He is unable to prevent himself from imagining a morning years from now when his mother will no longer remember him, when she will turn to him and ask, Do I know you?

And Pavel will tell her, I am your son. (page 60)

Excellently written and highly poignant. Though I haven’t had to go through the experience of seeing a parent in such circumstances, I can imagine how difficult it must be. It is something that I have certainly thought about before, which led me to write two short stories The Captive and the follow-up Alone.

Pavel is also grieving the loss of his wife who died in a train de-railment (while he remained at home). Though he misses her terribly there is also a hint of attraction for him toward his younger neighbour.

“I sometimes wonder ,” says Pavel, surprising himself, “whether it would be better if I just put her pictures away.”

Natalya glances at him, and Pavel sees at once the question in her eyes. What is he telling her? That it is so painful to go on looking at Elena’s pictures day after day, knowing he will never see her again? That would be the simple answer, the expected answer. How then to reconcile this with the sense of uneasiness that has grown up in him since his wife’s death? Uneasiness, because Elena has slipped, ever so gradually, into abstraction. She has become these pictures. A handful of memories. Worse, she has become the imagined last moments of her life, which Pavel will never likely be able to let go. (page 101)

Though I failed to bookmark any particular quotes the description of depression, both on the economy and on people’s psyche is also excellent. It describes people going through the motions of survival; lacking joy or optimism.

The Alloy of Law

The other completely different book is Brandon Sanderson’s The Alloy of Law. As one of the author’s in the Writing Excuses podcasts I thought it was about time I read some of his work. Sadly, my local library seems entirely lacking with this being the only Sanderson book they had.

It is a light-hearted adventure/crime fantasy. It’s not the first in the series, so I did feel a little under-prepared in respect to an understanding of the magic systems, but I still found it enjoyable. I noted several things about the book, worthy of a mention:

Sanderson does a good job of designing a plot where the pieces fit together well at the end. I’m talking specifically about the final fight scene where they defeat the almost-invincible enemy. I wasn’t sure how they were going to do it, so I was impressed with the resolution.

I like the way he does dialog. There is an incredible amount of dialog in the book. In my writing, I don’t think I have as much dialog, and rely more heavily on the characters doing something, rather than what they are saying. (Which I’m not sure if it’s just different or not as good). Also I noticed that his dialog is often flourished with movement, which I think works really well. For example, this is all of the dialog on page 176 (italics added):

“Well?” she asked.

“Two Tripwires,” Waxillium said, “rigged with explosives. Nothing else dangerous we could find. Other than Wayne’s body odor.”

“That’s the smell of incredibleness,” Wayne called from inside.

“Come on,” Waxillium said, holding the door open for her.

She stepped in, then hesitated in the doorway. “It’s empty.”

“Sleeping quarters up there,” Waxillium said, pointing at the other side of the foundry. “The main chamber here is double height for half the building, but the other side has a second story. Looked like they could house some fifty men in there, men who could act like foundry workers during the day to maintain the front.”

“Aha!” Wayne said from the darkness on the left side of the chamber.

“How easily did that open?” Waxillium asked, trotting over.

From this I take two pointers – not to be used always, but frequently:

  • Where is the character when they say the dialog?
  • What is the character doing when they say the dialog?

As can be seen from the example above, the story is well-peppered with comedy. The two main characters play off each other in a very humorous way. There’s a joke or smart comment every few pages at least. The character Wayne is funny too – he’s something of a kleptomaniac who doesn’t steal, but trades without consent. For example he might take someone’s gun, but leave in its place a picture that he drew.