Some things just need to be planned. Even if you’re the happy-go-lucky, reckless redneck who always wants to dash ahead and face your problems, planning ahead is mandatory in some cases. We plan for birthday parties, plane trips, dates, deadlines, schedules, and a multitude of other things.
For pantsers (or gardeners, same term), planning is something to be avoided. Speaking for myself, the idea of an outline is hampering. If I plan everything out, I feel like I have an obligation to “stick to the outline”. I’m not able to have the creative liberty that I want, and even worse, I’ll feel like the book’s already written. This might cause a bit of burnout when I attempt to write the same thing all over again.
Now, for your outliners, I’m not trying to terrify you. This is just something that works for some people and doesn’t for others. It doesn’t work for me, but it probably does for you. Like I’ve said, there’s no “right” way to write. Some people dictate their books on hikes using recording software (like Kevin J. Anderson).
However, I’m about to give a piece of advice that is applicable to both pantsers and outliners. The reason why I say all of this first is to illustrate why pantsers might take this advice with a harder ear. To my pantsers: (yikes that sounded wrong) please give what I’m suggesting a try. If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, being able to have a definable system of magic or technology is incredibly important.
First off, I’d like to quote Sanderson’s First Law:
“Your ability to solve problems with magic in a satisfying way is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.”– Brandon Sanderson
Once, at a convention panel talking about systems of magic in fictional literature, Sanderson made a comment that any good system of magic has to have rules. To his surprise, it turned out that the other speakers on the panel were mortified at his suggestion: but of course magic couldn’t have rules!
Just think about it for a second. Think about a system of magic that truly has no rules. Why don’t you lasso the moon and bring it down on the villain’s head? Why don’t you wave your hand and turn the band of cutthroats pursuing you into bunnies? Can’t you just one-shot instakill the bad guys from fifty miles away? Why not?
A system of magic without rules quickly becomes a Deus ex Machina equation. Magic ends up being able to do anything, because it has no limitations. That’s why people put reasonable bound on how magic works: you need mana to cast it, you need to not be in pain so you can focus, you need training, you need to memorize the spell first, you need to have physical and mental strength, and so on.
Put simply: magic with no limitations is no magic at all. Trust me, it’s far better for the reader to know what your magic can or can’t do than to keep guessing that the heroes are going to help themselves out of another impossible instance with the help of their magic powers.
However, in order to set limitations on your magic, you have to first define what it is. It’s really hard to limit something that you haven’t defined: otherwise, you end up “creating” conflict by saying “oh, the magic’s broken” and their all-powerful abilities can no longer help them.
Recently, I realized that the magic in my books could easily be construed to be a form of Deus ex Machina. Granted, I was pretty consistent in how I handled the outcomes of conflicts and I was sure not to make it really overpowered, but I had yet to define my magic nor put any meaningful boundaries on it. However, as the sequel to my Praetors of Lost Magic series reaches its final draft, I outlined (yes, you heard me correctly) a system of magic and properly defined it.
First off: what is magic?
Magic is, scientifically speaking, force of will. Magic is will made manifest: some humans have an inexplicable ability to be able to alter reality according to their will. A bit of legend: the word in the old tongue for reality proper is L’ajah, and the word for what could be is L’atrah. There’s an old legend that when things die, they glimpse L’atrah in the form of a fantastic, magical world. There lie all souls that have yet to be born, and there’s a section there that houses those that perished without fulfilling their purpose (usually magic-users, and plays a key role in the third novel). The theory is that some souls are imbued with power to help make our world more like L’atrah, which is how they’re able to influence magic and bend reality to their will. However, this is purely speculative, but the fact remains that some are still able to influence the mysterious force known as “magic”.
Four Branches of magic: Arcane, White, Black, and Fell.
Arcane: One of the branches of magic that requires more skill to master, Arcane magic is the branch of magic that deals with the deep mysteries of the universe. Its practical application is minimal for most, but some few were able to utilize the mysteries of the universe as a weapon. The Praetor spell is one such powerful spell, but most applications of Arcane magic are lost to time. However, ambitious students may study Arcane magic as a means to learn more about Black and White magic.
White: White magic not only includes things having to do with healing, but also according to nonviolent resistance: mind influence, conjure objects, create illusion. These spells require the least amount of stamina, strength of will, and focus, but has many powerful aspects nonetheless. Traditionally, all Eldari initiates start their training with White magic and don’t move to Black magic until they’ve fully matured.
Black: A shady but necessary part of any mage’s training, Black magic has to do with using magic with intent to harm life. Black magic is impossible to channel without a clear living target, which is why mages resort to the White magic spell Conjure Weapon so often. (sword fighting is also a necessary part of their training at the academy). Due to its nature, it’s strictly forbidden to train with Black magic in sparring sessions, as it requires real intent to harm. Skilled instructors create illusions of criminals and thugs to help the student recognize a state of mind in which they are prepared to end life, but true Black magic is not practiced until initiates leave the academy.
Fell: This is the only spell that is actually forbidden to study by any mage, as these are the teachings of Kul’nah and her followers that they created after their alleged encounter with the Dark God. Strictly speaking, it’s not magic: it works similar to magics that we know, but utilizes an entirely new way of thought and draws on a different power. Where traditional magic is dependent on making a bridge between what is and what might be, (essentially “creation”) Fell magic requires destruction or death or mental discord in order to channel. If the user is not in some kind of pain or disarray, then it is impossible to channel effectively.
Now that I’ve got my system of magic defined, I can put the common-or-garden limitations on it: wielding magic requires talent, mental fortitude, and intent to harm (in some cases). You also need to be strong-willed, determined, and focused. (to say nothing of the fact that you must be trained in all of this)
Once I’ve got all of that in the works, I think that I have effectively saved my system of magic from becoming merely a way to solve impossible problems. Outlining has been a huge help in this respect, as I needed a way to put everything I knew on paper, ready to be edited into the final draft of my second novel (which centers a lot around a magical academy and so would be a good way to put it in). I suggest you try it out if nothing else.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!
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