Writing Real Magic
“If you want to be a good writer, write what you know.”
Most fantasy writers have heard that common piece of advice and gleefully ignore it. They fill their stories with fabulous creatures and mystical artifacts, without any pretension toward being “realistic.” For them, the whole point is to invent a more attractive and colorful universe than the one they and their readers actually inhabit. Many fantasy authors are more skeptical about the paranormal than their fans, emitting loud and contemptuous scoffs when asked if they “really believe” in vampires, witches or whatever. Sometimes these authors add the scathing suggestion to “look up the word ‘fiction’ in the dictionary.”
But a few of us draw the boundary line between the fiction we write and the reality we live at a very different level than our peers do. I do write what I know—but just how much of my fiction is based on my real life experience probably would surprise most people.
I grew up studying and practicing magic—real magic, not stage illusion—along with a lot of other “paranormal” disciplines. I now live my life as a magic-worker. It informs everything I do, from everyday chores to major life goals. I’ve also devoured fantasy fiction of all kinds since I was in grade school, and I’ve never insisted that fantasy magic slavishly conform to the rules of real life magic. I love reading, and writing, pure escapist flights of fancy as much as anyone else.
But I’ve lost friends (both writers and fans) because they objected to the fact that anyone would claim true magic exists. For them, the whole appeal of the fantasy universe is its freedom from real life rules and restrictions. Their fiction is the one place where they can experience and be anything they want without worrying about cold, hard facts, and they fiercely resent anyone who tries, as they see it, to fence in their daydreams. But I never saw any such conflict between the rigors of real magic and the fun of imaginary worlds. I avidly studied biology, for example, and still enjoy stories about dragons, griffins or thestrals.
The biggest difference between standard fantasy magic and real magic is that in our fantasies, magic follows the Arthur C. Clarke dictum. It functions like technology: reliable, instantaneous, logical and usually employed for the same ends machines are in “the real world.” But real magic is subtle. It doesn’t conform to the laws of physics—in fact, like classic folktale paradoxes, real magic works in a counter-intuitive and non-linear way. We don’t control it with our rational minds, but with a part of ourselves that falls outside everyday consciousness, sometimes called our True Will.
Real magic isn’t a free ride. The more significant the objective, the more time and energy we have to spend on manifesting it. We have to invoke the magic and do the grunt work at the same time. You won’t get your dream job, for example, by casting a spell while your résumés sit in your desk drawer. True magic is much harder than the simplistic snake-oil positivism of The Secret. Real magic—just like real writing—takes dedication, study, practice, and work.
When I write about magic (or any other “paranormal” trope, such as vampires or the fae), I blend fantasy conventions and reality. The heart of my forthcoming novel, The Longer the Fall (second in the Vampires of New England Series), is a single magical working that lasts for two years. This is unusual in fantasy, where magic users generally recite a few words or wave a wand and get instant effects. But it’s common in real life magic. I have ongoing magical workings that have continued for years. I adjust them as different things change or manifest, but I keep right on with the same pattern. The Longer the Fall also addresses the pitfalls of unintended consequences and hidden agendas. Those also gum up a lot of magical workings in our world.
But I’ve found that magic and writing merge on more levels than the content of my stories. Writing is magic. The power of words, writing and language to produce change has been recognized and taught in almost every human culture, even so-called non-literate ones, for thousands of years. Writing awakens our power to create new worlds and change reality. I’ve been working on The Longer the Fall for fourteen years, and throughout that time I’ve been haunted by an unending series of creepy coincidences. Things I wrote in the narrative showed up in real life—dozens and dozens of times. That’s happened with other fiction, too—for example, in 2007 I humorously wrote a line in the first novel in my series, Mortal Touch, suggesting that the Krafts, owners of the Patriots football team, funded a biotechnology start-up (they hadn’t, at the time). In 2009, local news reported that the Krafts did just that. One way that I boost a magical goal into manifestation is to write about it and then put the text where others can read it. But the pattern has been so pronounced with The Longer the Fall, I’m actually a little nervous about finally publishing it.
There are no restrictions on fantasy fiction writers apart from the internal integrity of their own work. Authors who want to write about vampires, magic, witchcraft, faeries or anything else can build on existing conventions or create their own rules. (Sparkling vampires? Go for it.) But even the most skeptical writers might want to consider the greater implications of their craft. How can anything we do with such passion, energy, concentration and focus be restrained by the printed page, or the electronic screen? How can we pour our lives, our souls and our essence into a work of art and not create something with a life of its own? Art and magic have this in common: each of them changes their creator. It’s a magical law that whatever changes us, changes the world.
Inanna Arthen (http://inannaarthen.com) is the author of Mortal Touch, the first in The Vampires of New England Series. Book 2, The Longer the Fall, will be released in 2010. She runs the independent press By Light Unseen Media. http://bylightunseenmedia.com
Hi Inanna 🙂
Thank you for the informative post. I found it interesting & helpful. Thank you very much for sharing.
Love & Best Wishes to you & yours,
PS – to commentators after me Inanna is on Twitter! She’s @Vyrdolak
Thanks, RK! I’m glad you found it helpful!
ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT. I have not read such a wonderful, insightful, truthful and any other “full” I’ve missed blog in a very long time.
Although I write urban fantasy/horror and do on occasion use those creepy creatures… I do write what I know. And on that odd occassion I’ll mix studies into one story to make all paths work out together.
Truly Inspiring… then again… so is Innana herself- she has an incredible talent to pick just the “write” guest for her blog! Excellent choice.
Kerry A Morgan
Wow, I’m blushing, Kerry! 🙂 I’m glad you liked the post–this one was easier to write than some things I’ve done. I’ve been thinking a LOT about magic and writing lately, having finally finished *The Longer the Fall,* and I’m gearing up to use NaNoWriMo to start the book that is a direct sequel to it. Plus, I’m publishing several other authors whose fiction deals with magic, as well as vampires. 2009 has been a phenomenal year for me.
Great post, Inanna!
Magic happens everyday.
Miracles happen everyday, as well.
Miracles come from the magic of others.
We can do magic that to others is a miracle.
The universe is filled with wondrous things if we open our eyes and look with our hearts.
Thanks, G.! Lovely sentiments.
Wonderful post, Inanna! I have always loved the Roald Dahl quote that I used to have on my business cards: “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” I know that’s true. Magic is all around us, but many refuse to see it.
Thanks! That’s a great quote from Dahl–you don’t happen to know which of his books that’s from?