Category Archives: reposts

Writing and Music

From September 2010:

I remember, years ago, reading a quote from Louis L’Amour, my favorite writer all through high school.

”I could sit in the middle of Sunset Boulevard and write with my typewriter on my knees.  Temperamental I am not.”

At the time, in high school, I agreed wholeheartedly.  Surroundings–comfort, noise, distractions–what did they matter?  I could focus entirely on my typewriter, my pen, or later, my computer, and it really didn’t matter what went on around me.  Back then, I wrote with all kinds of music playing; it just didn’t bother me.

Enter marriage, kids, the internet, and aging–in my late twenties I found if I wanted to write, surroundings suddenly mattered.  TV and music, both had to be off for me to be productive.  My brain became too easily distracted, and if I tried to write one thing while hearing another, what actually tended to come out was a mangled-up mish-mash of the two.

So now, my regular routine is writing in silence, with a fan to cover up the noise of the rest of the house.  Until the other night, when I had to write a difficult scene, and I was having a hard time of it.  It was a scene where something bad happens to my main character, at the hands of someone who is supposed to be a friend.  It had to be compelling, I had to get in that scene.  And I didn’t want to.

And that’s when I discovered the value of writing with music, again, as though I had never realized it before.  My iPod, which was shuffling through a classical playlist, hit a movie soundtrack (why are they in my classical playlist?  Don’t ask 🙂   )  I don’t even remember specifically which soundtrack it was, it may have been Lord of the Rings, or it may have been Spiderman (LOVE Danny Elfman’s work), but either way it was a dark dramatic track where scary things were clearly happening onscreen.

And I found I could write my scene.  I was pushed to write my scene, and the tempo of the escalating music pushed me to write even faster, with more urgency.  My scene fed off the music.

So–moral of the story, I’ve rediscovered a tool I had discarded years ago.  I can decide the mood of the scene I’m working on, put on some non-distracting music that matches, and everything goes easier.

Non-distracting is the key.  I tend to work with classical music for just that reason; but there are certain pieces I know to keep off the playlist, even so.  The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, for instance–I can’t hear it without getting instantly sucked in and forgetting whatever I was working on.

So why am I bringing this post from the old blog now?  Because I just had a reminder last night, again, how important this little trick can be.  Another tricky couple of scenes–another couple of appropriate movie soundtrack and classical concerto titles picked–another couple of difficult scenes down 🙂

It sounds simple, and it is, but it’s really useful, too.

Rules of Magic

Today I’d like to share with you a post I first wrote back in June of 2005.  Somewhere I have a full-fledged article I wrote that goes into this, if I can find that and it isn’t too repetitive with what’s already here, that may be worth posting too.

My first novel was a thriller/suspense.  Kind of strange, really, because I do most of my writing in the fantasy genre.  There are a few small paranormal elements in Concerto, but it isn’t fantasy the way Crystal Cave is, for sure.  Even Enemy in the Mirror, which is marketed as sci-fi, has a definite fantasy slant to it.  After the years working on The Music Mage, and now Redeemer of the Realm, I have spent a lot of time in fantasy.

So I’ve done a lot of thinking about magic, and it’s place in my works.  My views on magic are heavily influenced by Holly Lisle and Orson Scott Card, and by the mess I saw in my own writing before I defined certain things.  I have specific resources I can point to for anyone who’d like a more in-depth discussion of magic–that will be a post for another day.

For now, from June 2005:

We’ve talked before about the extra work that goes along with writing fantasy; the world-building and such that is in addition to the regular plotwork and so forth that any writer has to do to write in any genre.  One of those things that a fantasy writer must deal with is the rules of magic.

Almost all fantasy novels include magic of some type.  Whether it’s wizards wielding fireballs or commoners wielding enchanted weapons, fantasy worlds are rife with magic.  It’s part of the appeal of fantasy.  For many fantasy writers, it’s also part of their downfall, at first.

Because the fantasy writer gets to make all the rules, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to start out with no rules.  Especially with magic.  Why should I have to make rules about magic?  It’s MAGIC, it’s supposed to be able to do ANYTHING.  That’s why it’s MAGICAL.

I disagree.  The magic in your fantasy world should always have limits and costs.  Often, for every magic you create you will want to create a counter, whether it is well-known to your characters or not.  But at the very least, limits and cost.

Why?  Well, think about it this way.  If your magic is all-powerful, capable of anything, and costs nothing to use, the first person to invoke it wins.  End of story.

“And Galdad the Great snapped his fingers and Hured the Evil, menace to all the free peoples of the worlds, was reduced to a small pile of smoldering ash.  Everyone cheered and they all lived happily every after.”

Ick.  If there are no limits and no cost, there is also no story.  Story is about conflict and struggle, and if your magic can do everything for you and there’s no reason not to use it, then there is not conflict, and no struggle.  No story.

So.  Limits.  Limits define your magic.  What can it do?  Perhaps more importantly, what can it NOT do?  If you want your characters to be able to summon spirits but not raise the dead, limit them.  If characters should be able to see the future but not scry what is happening right now somewhere else, you need a limit.  Maybe your characters really do have all-powerful magic, but they have to be touching their target.  Ach.  Limits allow your struggle to exist, by making sure your characters can’t just cast a spell and make everything wonderful again.

Cost.  A well-defined system of magic should have a price that is extracted for using that magic.  Unless you really do want your characters to be able to use magic all the time.  Sometimes, if your limits are strictly defined you can get away without a cost.  If a magician must use a wand or a staff to cast magic, then cost becomes perhaps less of an issue–if you don’t want him using magic you can separate him from his implements.

Usually, though, you will have a cost associated with magic.  Maybe it saps the user’s strength, maybe it takes hours, days, or even years off of a person’s life, depending on the magnitude of the spell.  Maybe sacrifices must be made.  Perhaps difficult to locate, expensive ingredients must be combined into a potion that is used when the magic is cast.  Cost allows your basic conflict to exist, by ensuring your characters don’t use magic to solve every problem they encounter.

There are many, many other things you must consider when designing complex, believable magic systems, but the two primary things are limits and cost.  Start with those and you will be well-equipped to pursue the others.

To Plot or Not To Plot

Lately in the conversations on my writing lists it seems there are two types of writers.  Those who like to sit down at the page and just start writing words till something happens, and those who plot and do background, then write.

Are both valid methods of writing?  Well, sure.  There is nothing to say that the book one of those writers turns out won’t be just as good as the other’s.  I do believe, however, that there will be a difference in the amount of time those books take.

There is a minimum amount of plotwork that has to be done on any story if it’s going to hang together, and have a point, and a logical series of events.  You can do that plotwork before you start, or while you’re going.  The trouble with doing it while you’re going is that you have to stop moving the story forward while you do it, and sometimes the things you find out while you’re doing your plot and backstory work will require changes, and sometimes flat-out removal, of things that were already written.

I’ve written both ways.  The Music Mage actually started that way, just writing scenes with only a vague story concept.  The characters I figured out as I introduced them, the magic surprised me as much as anyone else.  But then as I kept working, and the story kept evolving, and the plot became more complex, I had to stop and do my background work.  I had to figure out what exactly the rules of this magic were, what exactly the cost was to use it, what exactly the limitations were.  Some things that happened way before the story itself were becoming important, and I needed to know more about exactly what they were.  And when I finished, some of the stuff I found had to be worked in to the material that was already written.

It wasn’t all bad, of course.  A lot of things just fell into place like puzzle pieces, even though I hadn’t consciously planned them that way.  It is exciting to watch the plot develop and unfold.

Redeemer of the Realm has been totally different.  After doing the last half of the first book with everything plotted out and the background done, I couldn’t see starting the new book any other way.  So I did the outlining, the plot synopsis, and everything else I could think of before I started.  And the book is moving faster, a lot faster.

But even doing your homework first doesn’t mean you won’t occasionally have to stop and do more.  Maybe you didn’t figure out everything you needed to know, maybe there are new scenes that have occured to you that you want to work in.  For whatever reason, you may still find yourself stopping at times to go back to your notes, and make new ones.

So I guess the moral is that you can’t avoid doing your homework.  You can put it off, but in the end, if the book is going to make it, you’re going to have to get the dirty work done.

And so goes another lunch break…



Here’s the thing: Endings.  Endings are the thing.  Endings are Every Thing.

At least when you are writing.  Or reading.

Ending is not the cherry on top.  Ending is so integral to your plot, you can’t separate them.  At least, not if you want to write anything anybody wants to read.

The Ending is what you’ve been selling the whole time you planned, plotted, backstoried, character developed, and wrote your Great American Novel.  A good ending won’t save a wretched story.  But a bad ending will unfailingly kill a good story.  The ending is why the reader just invested their valuable time reading your story, and if it stinks, then they’ve wasted that time.  Your ending has to be good, or your story is doomed.

So what do I mean by a Good Ending?  Does every story have to end with Happily Ever After?

No.  Of course not.  Good does not necessarily mean happy.  But it should be satisfying.  It should resolve the conflict, and tie up the main storyline and any secondary storylines you had.  The ending should grow organically out of the plot and the action of the story, not come screaming out of left field at the reader, who can find no other justification for it than the whim of the author.

Want to find out more about Endings?  Check out the new article on my website at