Conjuring Up

Is writing a white art?

I’m quite serious about this.

To clarify I mean writing as in fiction writing – telling stories about things that (as far as we know) never happened anywhere. Non fiction, particularly creative non fiction can have a similar process but doesn’t usually.  More specifically I mean writing as I and some of my friends (published, unpublished, confused and never finished a novel) do it.  The “now someone is here and is dictating and will drive me insane if I don’t write it.”  Gateway writing, Kate Paulk calls it.

And by “white art” I don’t mean anything racial – before we get the loonies wanting to stone me or worse the loonies wanting to pat me on the back – I mean in the sense of the arcane, magical arts, the lore of the supernatural where, for instance, a blessing on a new dwelling (unless you do it by burying some unfortunate by the corner stone, of course) is a white art, but raising the dead is a black art.

Now that we clarified that, let me repeat – is writing a white art?

The question used to torment me.  I was afraid I was doing damage to myself, and possibly the world by conjuring up these things that never existed and imposing them on reality.

It is neither such a stupid idea as it sounds, nor is it originally mine.  Various religions proscribe lying, and what is fiction but an elaborate lie.  And stories, particularly novels have been considered (at various times) as dangerous to dabble in as any of the magical stuff.  It was assumed they’d do something to the writer (admittedly it was assumed other arts would too.  And it’s probably right.  The process is very similar.)  And even in these days, we assume a high ratio of madness/art.  “He’s a writer, so he’s nuts” is quite a normal thing to hear.  I suspect most of the time they mean it as a pre-requisite, but I wonder if that’s true.  Eric Flint once said that if you aren’t mad when you start this job, you will be.  He later backpedaled and said that he meant because of all the time we spend alone.  Perhaps that’s what he meant all along, but that was not my feeling when he said it.

Oh, at the time he said it, there was plenty of justification for it.  There was no indie, and we were at the whims of editors, with our career potentially terminated suddenly because we “said the wrong thing” to the wrong person.  THAT will drive you bananas.  Even if you’re not in danger of saying the wrong thing.  It’s rather like living in a totalitarian state, I think.  You watch yourself ALL the time.

BUT – this is important – to me at least the bigger force driving one towards madness is the encouraging of thoughts and impulses most people squash or don’t think about.  The impulse to create out of whole cloth.  The need to create really convincing lies.  Or, in some cases, listening to the voices in your head and trusting them to tell a story.

That is how I work, of course.  I was talking to a friend yesterday and she was asking about my process, and then, with remarkable acuity said “Most of your work is getting out of your own way.”

Which is true, of course.  The thing appears, as it were, in misty and milky form, unexpectedly, and then …  and then it starts “pushing” at me.

I could never answer the question “are you a pantser or a plotter” because I can do both and function as both.  Writing an historical book, of necessity, for instance, requires fairly detailed plotting in advance, so I know what to research and which books I’ll even need to buy.  (Actually it’s two phases, the first being to read about the people, place, event in general and then, as the novel starts to form, plot it out, buy more detailed books.  Then write it and when finding something that I forgot to look at (like what they ate for breakfast because in the outline I didn’t put in that minor scene-filler) make a note on the manuscript and order the relevant book, so it will be ready for the rewrite.)  Even in Space Opera I like to have some idea where I’m going.  Which is why my subconscious shrugs and says “hey, boys, let’s humor her” and – this was required in the old model, anyway – lets me write an outline.  And then…

I have a friend who sold an episode script to star trek.  In the end, they kept the title, and one of her lines.  She had, for years, a cartoon on her cork board, that read “This is where we start departing from the script” – and had someone holding a placard that read “act one scene one.”  Half the time I think my novels (and often the longer shorts) are like that.  “Oh, sure, let the little woman have her outline.  We can just ignore it.”

The thing is, if I tell you which books were written from plot and which let me see one chapter at a time ahead and that was it, you’d be surprised.  You really can’t tell.  In fact the “one chapter ahead” stuff is often more cogent, coherent and saner.  Because in the plot-ahead books, I often have to force it and then I’m unhappy with it, and it often doesn’t make internal sense.

So, we come back to it.  These things of the subconscious, these monsters of the id… Is conjuring them and letting them roam the Earth quite a “clean” activity?  Is allowing them out better because it spares other people creating their own, or perhaps encourages sickish fantasies?  Is what we produce the collective dreaming of the human mind and we few just the receptacles where it pushes through with unstoppable force?  (This would explain how several people at once, who have never had contact with each other, come up with the exact same idea.)

I don’t have much choice one way or the other, mind.  My grandmother once was explaining to me the consequences of refusing gifts of the other kind.  She said there was this young woman who was supposed to be – well, the closest definition is Pratchett’s hags: midwife, healer, with some whoo hoo stuff and some headology thrown in – and she refused it.  And the pressure of the refused power slowly drove her insane, till she was going around with her hair unbound, and unable to function in every day life.  And then she gave in…

I can’t say I’ve ever gone around with my hair unbound (when it’s short I do it all the time.  But it meant something different in the village.  It meant presenting a decent and sane appearance to the world.) but there IS something similar.  If I don’t write it, I start dreaming the story and day dreaming the story and it does become very hard to function in real life.

Mind you, surrendering to the voices in head and day-dreaming is much easier than writing.  Writing is a craft and a learning, it is taking the monsters of the Id and training them, and letting them shamble out into the world OUT of your head.

The people who never learn to shape the dream or who refuse to, usually end up on medication… or should.

The craft of making them live in other’s minds, involves killing them a little.  You have to tell the character in your head that you really don’t care what he had for breakfast.  What did he do about fighting the bad guys?  It’s removing some of the reality from them, to make them believable on the page.  To make them real for OTHER people.

And it brings me again to “is it a black art?”  Because when the mist comes, formless and without details, but with force and urgency, you have to take that… vitality and shape it.  You have to trust parts of your brain that frankly should be decently covered.

It’s faintly indecent.  And possibly dangerous.  And ultimately you don’t have much choice.  You have to get out of your own way and let the things out.

Bell, book and candle?  Or perhaps mind, keyboard and reference books?

The fact remains that most of the writers I know are SOCMOB (Standing on corner, minding own business*) when two bad dudes or in this case characters come up and make the writer do stuff…

Okay, so the stuff they make us do is not QUITE as bad as eating someone’s face raw.  And, heck, some of us get paid for it.  But what is it?  And what does it do to us and others?

*(Sitting in my front porch reading my Bible is not any better.  I’ve tried.  Now I have Biblical characters tromping around my head demanding I heed them and write them.  They’re not very good about waiting their turn, either.)


108 thoughts on “Conjuring Up

  1. I think it comes down to intent and consequences.
    The Dalai Lama once said that writing fiction merely to entertain was opposed to the Noble Eightfold Path. For him, stories must teach lessons in the manner of the Jataka Tales of the Buddha’s previous incarnations – I don’t know how many of those are considered nonfiction vs fiction. The Dalai Lama might be okay with Aesop’s Fables.
    Neil Gaiman once said about “Neverwhere” that he created London Below in order to avoid creating a cool story about runaways and homeless people in the actual London, for fear that he might inspire someone to choose that life. For him, he recognizes that his words have a power whose consequences must be anticipated.
    This is also the main problem with anti-heroes. Unless you are very careful, you could make the evil nature of the main character admirable and something to be imitated by the reader.
    As for the characters IN the story, they are NOT real (as far as we know) and bad things can happen to them for the sake of the story.
    If you are concerned about the black/white good/evil status of your art, then I think that as long as you consider the possible consequences of your stories and approach them with beneficial intent, you’ll remain on the right side of the line. (I make no such claims for the monetary value of such stories … some people LIKE the nasty crap.)

  2. “BUT – this is important – to me at least the bigger force driving one towards madness is the encouraging of thoughts and impulses most people squash or don’t think about.”

    This is what I tried to explain to a friend when she said she would like to write but she never has ideas. I explained that I had had to learn to recognize an idea when I had it; and that once I did, I had more than I knew what to do with. I think all of us see odd juxtapositions or unusual possibilities all day long, but then we filter them out as not confusing or irrelevant to what we’re doing. All I had done was learn to turn off the filters and record these things for later.

    Once while driving to work, for example, I misread a sign on a passing truck. For a fleeting moment, I was sure it said “battle boars”. And I chuckled, looked again, and saw it had nothing to do with battle or boars. That could’ve been the end of it, a mere second of confusion in my day. Instead I grabbed my phone and recorded a note: “Hardened battle boars.” No, I don’t know how “hardened” got in there, it’s just what I said on the spur of the moment.

    And from there I started asking questions: if boars can weigh as much as a small horse, and if boars can be dangerous enough that the local authorities have placed an unlimited bounty on them, then why NOT hardened battle boars? (I’ve since learned that World of Warcraft has battle boars, so I wasn’t the first with this idea.) I may never write a battle boar story. An idea isn’t a story, it’s just a story seed at best. But it goes into the Idea Pile. Someday I just may find the story that requires hardened battle boars.

    I think most people have ideas all day long. Some of us just take note of them.

    1. Many years ago Harry Harrison, or so I seem to recall, wrote a couple of short stories in Analog about “The Man From P.I.G” the Porcine Interstellar Guard. What I remember dealt a good bit with a pig’s natural intelligence (genetically enhanced of course) and their native resistance to snakebite.
      As Heinlein was known to remark, there are no new stories, merely new and clever ways to tell the old ones better.

  3. I’d love to see you write biblical characters, at least if they were of the, ahem, old fashioned sort.

    I think writing is an art. The color comes from what you write. Human wave is good, so white art. Grey goo is evil, so black. Then again, I’m Jewish. We believe that evil comes from God too, and Satan is just the angel stuck with the yuckky job of tempting people.

  4. Even worse than characters suddenly arriving in your head is an exquisite expression, or even a great title, which demands that you build a story around the concept, creating a story and characters completely from scratch. I actually have a file which contains nothing but disparate titles, opening lines and a bare concept. I’m still nutting on “Shattered Flowers” which I think is going to take place in post-WWI Germany. All I need is a story and a few characters, and the thing will write itself.


      1. Sarah, I guess it’s because as an historian, I see a situation of X, and think, “Wow. What must it have been like for people to deal with X?” and then I just drop characters into the situation and see how they deal with it.

        That’s why I prefer to write historical fiction: the situations are already there; all the writer has to do is make the characters work therein. Sc-fi is FAR too complicated for me: create a whole new situation? NOOOOO far too much work. It’s easier (for me) just to invent characters and let the situations affect them.

        1. I work that way too – a specific event, or a historical time period. How would it have felt and looked like to someone in the thick of it? – Whatever ‘it’ was. I have a kind of mental casting call; who would be a likely, or interesting person to experience it … and then the character develops on that basis.
          Although I do, now and again have fully-developed characters pop into my mind out of nowhere. But not very often.

        2. That is why David Drake steal … uhm, borrows plots from ancient history and then writes Daniel Leary and Adele Mundy into them.

      2. I suppose that’s a blessing, except when you’re supposed to be writing something ELSE and a background character all of a sudden steps up and reveals to you, “I’m a scrounge and sexually adventurous and am in constant trouble with my chain of command, but I’m such a good scrounge that they sort-of tolerate my foibles. Oh, and I’m BFFs with your protagonist.”

        Gee, thanks.

        Yes, that did just happen to me this weekend. Why did you ask?


        1. Wait, you’ve met Sgt. Murvaine? How? Nobody but my first readers have done! It took taking down an ifrit for the guy to get promotion to Staff Sgt. to stick. Marvin’s almost as bad as Skippy in not being allowed to do things.

  5. I cheat, not being much of writer, I found Ben’s Bar, and the diner, and lots of writers. Something gets insistent I just slip it into a conversation with a writer and they wander off to write the story.

          1. BTW, I meant to mention this on yesterday’s post comments: if you want tips on proper Georgian accents, JR lived there for enough years that he should be able to give you a Cook’s Tour of the dialects.

            1. Eh. And if this is to that point when I get to LC, I might pick his brain. Though I suspect there are guides and “dictionaries” too. Among other things, my degree can be interpreted (don’t even go there) as a degree in linguistics, and my colleagues thataway are crazier than writers.

              1. Actors’ Guides to Dialects are possibly essential tools for the writer’s reference library. They are also amusing reading. Look for those with advice on phrasing and idiom with less emphasis on pronunciation. For example, here is a handy reference source:

                For that matter, much of what an author does in “channeling” a character can be aided by studying actors’ methodologies.

                1. Perfect! Thanks, RES. There are also several videos (of varying quality and usefulness) on [Thou]Tube about accents for actors.

  6. Geez– I can see darkly a beginning scene for Shattered Flowers– Kim.
    I don’t know Sarah. Some of us may be closer to the border of stories (I am still not sure that they are characters). I know that in my family I have a “healer” (of the old-fashioned type) and a “dreamer.” My other line has a “water witch.” Maybe stories are our “magic.” I know that if I don’t write, I have nightmares. Stories keep me from depression. I only agree partly with the Dalai Lama about stories. Like the Grimm fairytales, many of the first stories were learning stories.

    However– there are other reasons for stories– escape.

  7. Black. Blackest of the black.

    What is it Swain says? Something like: “Your character has a problem (or just a desire). They act. This makes things worse. People suffer. Rinse and repeat.”

    Stories about good, happy things happening to good, happy people lose their luster around age three or four. After that, it’s all pain. Writers are all sadists. We take characters, turn them into believable, empathetic people, and then we torture them for the entertainment and edification of the masses.

    How do you fix a stuck story? You take a good, long, hard look at one of your characters and ask, “Ok, what’s the worst thing that could happen to them right now? No, that’s bad, but even WORSE than that!”

    (And the best way to do that is to truly and deeply empathize with your characters. Which makes us sadomasochists. Like the turtles, it’s blackness all the way down.)

    And our readers, the darling sick and twisted little deviants that they are, love it. They can’t get enough. They keep coming back for more.

    Because, as the Man-in-black says, “Life is pain, princess.” But it’s poorly plotted pain that lingers overlong, gets stuck, or flashes by too fast. Life rarely gives us a good, clean rising of tension followed by a strong, satisfying catharsis. And so our emotional filters get stopped up with blockage and crap that lingers too long and starts to turn funny colors and smell bad. A good story, well-plotted and cleansingly cathartic, cleans us out. No, it doesn’t make the pain go away (though it can mute it for a while). It just helps us deal with it better.

    I couldn’t cry at my grandfather’s funeral. It was Babylon 5’s “Sleeping in the Light” of all things that unstopped that emotional dam.

  8. And then there’s me, who used to think I was about the least woo-woo person ever. Until I realized that these stories were coming at me as if I was peeking through a gateway (which is where I got the term) and getting orders to write what I saw there. Until weirder shit than that started happening while I was writing.

    And particularly, until I touched the rocks at Devil’s Den in Gettysburg to steady myself and got a flash of the most intense mess of fear, pain, and despair imaginable. I knew what it was like to be in the middle of that damn battle, and to lie waiting for help that never came in the aftermath.

    I do know that if you don’t control the gift, it will control you. That stuff wants out, and it will get out one way or another. Better to write it down and semi-exorcise it than to let it fester. If it’s too poisonous, that writing is never seen by anyone but me.

    1. Agreed. Once stress triggered the fiction bug, if I didn’t write, my MC would takeover. No matter if I was supposed to be slogging through histories of US foreign policy and other mildly important things. I’d start reading, or writing a paper, and “boom” my mind was lightyears away watching Rada or Zabet haggling over rugs.

  9. Which shoulder are you standing on? Are you the angel, leading the reader into a better way of thinking, feeling, or viewing the world? Or are you the guy with the horns, whispering of despair and dangling the key to all inhibitions while making suggestions?

    Are you uplifting the soul or stirring the sludge on the bottom? After reading, are your fans all stirred up and ready to defend their lives and sacred honor, or have they thrown honor aside, or fallen into depression?

    It’s all propaganda and advertizements. And probably misinterpreted as often as not. I often wonder if my fantasies have lifestyles I ought not allow to work so well. I used to wonder if I was being too heavy handed in a few things, as in, when my female characters have sex, there’s a good chance they’re going to be complaining about changing diapers nine months later. Now I wonder if it could be read as _supporting_ unwed motherhood. ARG! I got tired of all the abused women, so I abused a bunch of men . . . wait, wait! I am not advocating violence against men! I _like_ men!

    Magic? In many ways it is–in as much as we can get into peoples’ minds and implant ideas. But we can plant seeds of doubt as easily as we can uplift, and because these “spells” are released to the wild, we don’t know the recipients, so we don’t know the results. We can only try. (Shut up, Yoda!)

  10. Is writing a white art? “In the beginning was the word . . . ” My sense is that creativity is one of those divine gifts that attaches to personality at birth. As such our creativity mirrors (in a very small way) the creative potential of our Maker. The difference being that His thoughts actually manifest in time and space, while human thought forms tend to be ephemeral. A good thing, too, because we wouldn’t our thoughts to manifest given our capacity to create monsters. Might make an interesting story, though.

  11. As to sanity and its lack, Chesterton once wrote (I can’t find the reference right now) that writing was sanity, noting that one “mad” poet was only mad when he couldn’t write.

    When my wife was finishing China Harbor, writing about 4,000 words a day for 3 weeks, I did begin to worry about her sanity since she was living more in that world than ours.

    As to opening doors that seemingly sane people would rather leave closed. Well, that’s the hard part. You can be a great writer from a craft standpoint but not a great writer unless you’re willing to do that. Not that you should let that push you to the dark side because that can happen too.

    1. Frank, your Chesterton reference is found in Orthodoxy, within the first few pages, in the chapter titled “The Maniac” good reading. If you will allow me a long quote:

      “The general fact is simple, Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

      I’d say we can safely translate Poet as Artist (writer, etc.) in Chesterton’s context.

      And the one mad poet he referred to was Cowper, who he said was made mad by his Calvinism but sane by his poetry.

      So I’d say trying to be too logical (as opposed to reasonable) about the writing process is the way to insanity.

      1. Thank you kind sir. I even have Orthodoxy on my Kindle since it’s public domain now, but forgot I could have looked it up there. I was contemplating a long search for my paperback. A library in the hand is a great way to live. Of course a library in the head is even better.

        1. Well– unfortunately I have a Terry Pratchett’s library in my head with snapping teeth and feet. They try to walk right out of my head all the time. 😉

        2. For many of us a library in the head is essential for those life stages when you find yourself spending interminable time there waiting to get started or, on other occasions, waiting to finish.

  12. Everyone dreams, everyone to a greater or lesser degree has an imagination. The writer’s skill, or for that matter the teller of spoken tales, is to communicate their vision to an audience and this invoke a resonance. Funny thing is, that resonance often has precious little to do with the author’s original concept, it’s the talent to inspire a response that matters.
    Saddest thing about visual media, and I speak mainly of movies and TV here, is an author’s original vision is filtered through script writers then frozen in time by primarily the director with various inputs. But what the cinematic art adds in richness it more than takes away in lost inspiration for the audience to create their own vision.

  13. “I think it comes down to intent and consequences.”


    If creativity is magic (poetically speaking), and magic is evil, hand me my pointy hat anyway, I never much cared for what other people regarded as evil. 😛

    But it is an interesting metaphor. And it is interesting to note that there *is* a sort of adverse reaction to people using their imaginations. I never ran into it personally – but the suspicion seems to be out there to some extent that creativity is dangerous.

    Take the online art community – they have a site called DeviantArt. As far as I know, most of it isn’t deviant (I’m sure actually deviant stuff is in there, but for the most part it just seems creative and imaginative). Rather it seems the name is from the artists reacting against the subtle attitude that art is a dark pursuit, and adopting it as a badge of pride. (Or perhaps their more pragmatic parents’ attitude that they really needed to go for that chemistry degree instead and stop clowning around 😛 )

    There was the reaction against roleplaying games – the D&D hysteria that I’ve read about. (Again, never personally experienced it.) Nevermind the typical persecution of the D&D player as being too nerdy to live. Apparently at some schools, people were sent to counseling for dangerous and subversive behavior, or satanic cultism, because they played games involving fighting make-believe monsters. It’s fairly ridiculous.

    1. Hmm, continuing this line of thought…

      Apparently Islam has some injunction against depicting the human form – as a result all art and imagery is considered evil by the more fundamentalist groups, excepting certain abstract mandalas – the one outlet remaining for their backed up visual creativity. (Also, dogs are unclean, and the female form is shameful – so … yeah …)

      The Puritans apparently had a rather dim view of anything frivolous or pleasant, going so far as to ban maypole and *Christmas* celebrations. Fiction and drama were considered sinful. There was a certain insistence on confining the imagination strictly to the here-and-now – anything else, any attempt at escapism or levity (or happiness, or cheer), was a rebellious act of unfaithfulness.

      (Just so this isn’t taken to be digging at the religious (the fanatical, sure) – CS Lewis once said that those who were violently opposed to escapism are in other contexts known as jailers)

      In totalitarian countries, all art that isn’t in service of the glorious state is treason. Everything is about the state, all the time. All effort and attention, both physical and mental, belongs to the collective, to the cause, – and attempting to leave Utopia, even if only in daydreams, is criminal.

      1. Puritans may or may not have been anti-fun (shockingly, scholarly views differ), but their disapproval of maypole and Christmas celebrations were not due to anti-funnitude – They disapproved because those were among the rituals hijacked and transplanted whole directly from the pagan practices of pre-Christian Europe. They were not “pure” Christianity with justification and background in the bible, and thus not OK for the “Pure”-itans.

    2. “DeviantArt started as a site connected with people who took computer applications and modified them to their own tastes, or who “deviated” the applications from the originals designs. As the site grew, members in general became known as “deviants” and submissions as “deviations”.[8] DeviantArt was originally launched on August 7, 2000 by Scott Jarkoff, Matt Stephens, Angelo Sotira and others, as part of a larger network of music-related websites called the Dmusic Network. The site flourished largely because of its unique offering and the contributions of its core member base and a team of volunteers after its launch,[9] but was officially incorporated in 2001 about eight months after launch.[10]”

      Well, I guess my guess about the naming of the art site was wrong.

    3. Hmm, continuing the line of thought even further:

      Amateur programmers, or hackers, while disdainful of the computer criminals, also heavily use the terminology of magic in describing their creative art. Wizard, voodoo chicken programming, heavy wizardry, deep magic, etc.

      Perhaps it’s something about creativity in general that people associate with magic, and if the word is to be attached to anything that actually exists, why not that?

      On yet further branches of this line of thought … – take Tolkien’s world – while there exists in his fantasy setting a certain amount of magic, it seems mostly bound up in various types of craftmanship or creativity.

    4. “Is writing a white art?

      I’m quite serious about this.”

      Sorry about the endless tangent. Going back to the original question –

      1. Do people willingly buy your books? Or are they forced to read them while tied down in a windowless classroom by sadistic English teachers? (Eyelids peeled back, bright light over the pages, mad cackling in the background) If they *want* to read your stuff, then presumably they enjoy it, and you are doing them a service.

      2. Are you harming your readers by your own standards? (If you were harming them by their own standards, I’m pretty sure they’d only be reading your stuff in the latter of the cases described above). Does your stuff appeal to their base emotions? Does it provoke despair or make their lives a greyer, less hopeful place? Or does it lift their spirits? (Pam was better at expressing this)

      If no to 1 and 2, I don’t see how it could be a dark art. IMO, where there is no harm, there is no evil. (Well, evil in the real sense, not evil as in freaking out the puritans). As far as I can tell, creativity through whatever medium is the business of life. What else were you going to do with your downtime?

      1. A minor quibble with your second point. I would like to bring up that it is entirely possible to harm someone in the long run with their wholehearted cooperation. For example: telling them that to allow their urges to be played out with no filter to keep hurtful behaviors from being performed on others is perfectly acceptable (If I hear, “I do what I want” one more time in response to my telling #2 son to stop doing something, it might just get ugly).

    5. Magic being evil- pardon the digression, I’m going to ramble a little, but I want to TRY to get this across and know it won’t survive until I’m recovering from this bug I’ve got.
      It’s a matter of trying to pervert reality away from the will of God, trying to destroy that-which-should-be. Kind of like how rape is a perversion of the act of making love, or a mother taking her child’s life is the inversion of what should be.
      It’s like forcing reality to be a lie.

      If “magic” doesn’t involve that, then it’s not necessarily evil. It wouldn’t be “magic” like they were talking about, either– IIRC, traditionally, Solomon bound genies, which is something we’d consider “magic” these days. (yay, language drift; see also, “thou shalt not ‘kill'” instead of something closer to ‘murder’)
      The word for “witch” in the Bible would be better translated as “poisoner,” and the example we’re shown of magic is an attempt by humans to get around the division between the living and the dead, to get power that isn’t theirs to have, and it opens up routes for Bad Things. (One of the things that annoyed the heck out of me with the first Anita Blake book– if she has the power to “raise the dead” as a natural ability, and all the details offered, then it wouldn’t be just a fiat against it being done with nothing else offered. The way it’s set up just doesn’t function with actual theology. Either do the research or shut up about it, you’ll just drive off folks who do have some background in the topic if you try to fake high detail.)

      1. Once upon a time magic was doing stuff that had an unknown causality, such as drinking willow bark tea for a headache. Then Science sorted out much Magic into Superstition or Science. And if the stuff in the Superstition bin works — it’s by trafficking with spirits.

        Do not traffic with spirits. The ones that will do it are exactly the ones you should rather die than deal with.

        1. I would question whether the sorting is final. Things currently considered to be superstition may very well not be.

          1. Yes. Heinlein thought a lot of them weren’t. I have OTOH bought a few books that indicate a few of them a) exist b) might be forever out of bounds. It’s in the service of a book that wants me to write it, but I’m not sure I can.

  14. I really love these posts. I can relate sooo much. I’ve got 3 or 4 “Book 1s” that will one day probly be multi book series. I have a flagship series that I need to write Book4 in, but you articulate exactly why I haven’t done it yet. I’ve had to shrug into the harness and pull the plow for these petty, petty tyrants.

  15. Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” talked about two concepts that I relate to this article.

    First was the Cauldron of Stories. The story teller takes from the Cauldron elements that he/she uses to create a “new” story. Sarah’s image of “conjuring up” sounds to me as similar to Tolkien’s “dipping into the Cauldron”.

    Second was the “sub-creator” or “secondary creator”. IMO it’s related to the Cauldron as the story teller often uses elements found elsewhere to create his/her “secondary story world”.

    IMO both are Magic. What makes it Black Magic or White Magic is what the story teller wants the story to do.

    1. Second was the “sub-creator” or “secondary creator”.

      Drak, Tolkien went even further than that in On Fairy Stories, claiming that Man’s desire for SubCreation was a direct result of our being created in the image of God, and because we are, we have the same drive to create.

      Of course, if you subscribe to the “Many Worlds” theory, you may in fact be creating, or perhaps chronicling the history of, an actual separate universe.

      As for whether it is a “white” or “black” art, like anything God included in the Creation, it really is neither; it is the use you choose to make of it that determines that.

      1. Yep, he said a lot of things in that article. I just didn’t want to post everything he said here. [Wink]

  16. For anyone wondering about SOCMOB, it originated somewhere on the “things i learned from my patients” thread at I don’t have a link to where it was coined because Google couldn’t find me one and with >3k posts trying to do so manually would likely result in a surprise appearance of the Daystar.

  17. One of the other wonderful takes I’ve seen on this is an essay by Nancy Willard in her Angel in the Parlor, which is a collection of essays on writing, along with her stories. One is the story of how she stopped playing a wonderful game of the imagination with her sister. Another is her well of stories – you can’t put the bucket back without taking a drink, and you never know what will be in the water, and what will come forth once you’ve drunk of the water. And it’s not original to Nancy Willard, either. “Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.” It’s not just learning that was in the Pierian spring, but
    This concern about where stories come from, and what stories should be out to dance about in the world is neither shallow, nor new. In this case, it’s not “Bless me – it’s all in Plato!” It’s all much further back than that.

  18. I see it as white art, which can be turned black. I’m surprised to find that writing for me is a moral act. I feel a responsibility to the fictional characters. If they suffer, it must be for their growth and eventual betterment, at some level. If someone good has to die, it had better be for a good reason and felt as a tragedy. I don’t know if I can do random death of a real character, just for the sake of realism.

    Larry McMurtry in one of the Lonesome Dove books (I forget which one) created a nifty minor character, a young tomboy with spunk and energy. He made her vivid and invested some real writing in her, and then he killed her arbitrarily just to show how mean one of his villains was. I lost about 90% of my liking for the author. Her death had no impact on the other characters, most of whom didn’t know her. It was entirely instrumental. I felt like I had suddenly come across a capricious and vindictive god who squashed a sparrow just because he could. Ugh. Black art for him.

    I know these are fictitious characters, but I can definitely feel the taboo of mistreating them. My fictional sacrifices are, pardon the term, reverent (and me an atheist). Weird.

    1. I’ve killed off a handful of my characters – and one of them was a very major hero, and another a very appealing minor heroine, but in both cases, I had planned their end from the very first time I worked out the plot. It was very difficult to write those chapters which dealt with their deaths, though but neccessary, because a whole lot of the subsequent plot depended on it!
      In another book, I was coming up to having to write the final death scene of another one of those characters (who had always been doomed!) and out of the clear blue, I had an idea to move his death offstage, and for a reason which gave a whole new twist to the plot, an additional motivation for the main character – and somewhere down the line, a whole ‘nother character and plot!
      Oh, and I’ve despaired of ever liking Larry McMurtry, as well. He tends to play hob with historical events and real people for the purposes of his plot, and I do not care for that at all.

        1. Don’t know about anybody else, but I see a big difference between treating the characters like things and the characters dying because that is what happened…..

          1. I’ve killed a few characters, but usually just because something bad happened that didn’t touch the main characters personally, unless someone they cared about was killed.

              1. It was one of those “One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic” thing. Someone who mattered to the main character _had_ to be in jeopardy.

                1. Sounds important to me.

                  I can’t phrase it very well, but what bugs me about the death-as-scenery/character death pr0n stuff is how little it values life.
                  It “feels” like pulling the wings off of flies.

                  1. It was a “craft of writing” thing. If the character didn’t care if the rest of the world was destroyed, so long as he saved _his_ town (it wasn’t _quite_ that bad), the reader would be less emotionally engaged in the story as well. But with his daughter missing, and him having to raise the protective shields without knowing if she was inside or out . . . suddenly it matters how bad the disaster is going to be, how helpless they are to prevent it, how small the area they can protect actually is . . .

                  2. I swear, some publishers started requireing writers to “kill someone at the end.” British mysteries were, if not the worst, bad enough that I noticed it in them as a group.

                    What is the plot necessity for killing a character? If there isn’t a reason for it, don’t do it. My general feelings on the matter, both as a reader and a writer.

        1. The movies were so bad I never tried the books, and yes they played hob with history, which always annoys me.

          1. His characters annoyed me– esp. I read one where a dance-hall girl starts her trip from LV. His Nevada was so different from the reality. UGH His characters are so self-indulgent.

    2. That’s my thought on the author of a super-volcano novel. One minor side point involving an animal made me so furious that I gave up on the book and returned it to the library. If he was trying to make a point about the character involved, there were better ways to do it. Still makes me queasy thinking about the poor animal.

  19. It is neither such a stupid idea as it sounds, nor is it originally mine. Various religions proscribe lying, and what is fiction but an elaborate lie.

    It’s no more a lie than every word ever said is a lie. After all, lies are words, and the truth are words, so they’re the same, yes? /silly accent

    Fiction is story-telling; it can be intended to mislead, or to convey something real. For example, Jesus used parables to teach very important things that just couldn’t be gotten across if stated plainly. Unknown dozens of stories have been written to slander a thinly veiled caricature of someone’s opponents. (Got Galileo in trouble, for example; one doesn’t caricature the Pope and name him “idiot,” even if he is an old friend.)

    Stories can be as bad as lies if they’re built with the same intent to damage the truth. Stories that do damage the truth are the same as unknown falsehoods– in all their flavors of willful ignorance or entirely honest belief.

    I’d say your “transcribing what They tell me” type is just trying to tell a story, which is a way to make folks’ lives better. Like painting the walls a pretty color, or mathematical murals.

  20. I don’t have much choice one way or the other, mind. My grandmother once was explaining to me the consequences of refusing gifts of the other kind. She said there was this young woman who was supposed to be – well, the closest definition is Pratchett’s hags: midwife, healer, with some whoo hoo stuff and some headology thrown in – and she refused it. And the pressure of the refused power slowly drove her insane, till she was going around with her hair unbound, and unable to function in every day life. And then she gave in…

    It can be done.

    My grandmother could read tea leaves– took it up when that sort of stuff was popular, as a sort of silly party game; she stopped when they started being too accurate.

    Thing is, she didn’t say “oh, this is just a bit far, I’ll stop here”– she walled it off, built up defenses. No fairy-tales, even avoided having fantasy books around. (That’s all anybody would say, so I know it was scary; if it had just been eerie, it would’ve been polished and passed around.)

    Looking at it now, I think it’s kind of like correcting for alcoholism, or any other deep seated inclination: you either give your life over, or you defend against it with your entire fiber. Choose wisely, or it’ll eat you.

    1. Wow. These days that would be “Violent video games are evil and shouldn’t be allowed.” or similar such diatribes. Proof indeed that nothing is new 🙂

  21. Hmm,

    Speaking of writing as conjuring – I have a setting that is sort of like that. (Again, like many of my writing endeavors, it only goes to chapter 3, and I’m sure a professional could find much to criticize).

    The main idea is of a group of friends who take up writing as a hobby, each a fan of a different genre of fiction, and in writing find themselves entering and experiencing the worlds that they are creating. (And having to eventually deal with the consequences and implications of the worlds they create.) I suppose at the top level it’s roughly urban fantasy, though I’m going to work high fantasy, sci-fi, and cyberpunk in there as well.

    (PS – more than 3 links will probably get me moderated. If you have rules against sharing this sort of stuff (self-promotion, etc), let me know.)

  22. IIRC, Stephen King pulled “Rage” one of his first “Bachman books” off the market after the Columbine shootings or another school-related event that made him all taste for the book – I’m guessing there was some fear of liability – real or imagined, to go along with it.

    1. That notion — that an inanimate object, whether a story, a film, or a gun — can force you to perform some evil act against your will is so much of a ducking of responsibility that I cannot express my disgust adequately.

      No one and nothing else can make you do anything if you choose not to. “You cannot enslave a free man; the most you can do is kill him.”

        1. Certain portions of our American polity are severely prone to magical thinking. When we deny the existence of personal responsibility it does not negate that responsibility, it displaces it into totemic objects, i.e., guns. Thus it isn’t the punk / nutjob bringing the weapon to the venue and shooting it that is responsible, it is the gun that is responsible, and only be ritually ejecting the totem from our society that the reposnsibility for evil can be expunged.

          Utter twaddle, of course, doomed to fail and in failing redouble the fervor with which the magical thinkers pursue the stratagem.

          1. Pretty much I agree with everything said in response to my original post. I should have included this – namely, that I always thought King’s decision was pointless posturing – he’s guilty of allowing that sort of popular magical thinking affect his career, for the sake probably, of convincing himself that he’s “doing something” in the wake of a horrible event. That’s just as much magical thinking as any of the examples we’ve cited. Now, from a “tactical” standpoint it might have been a smart move – it probably kept the media off his back, it might have kept social critics on both the left and the right from attacking him, but it was still pretty cowardly. It’s also a shame, because I read Rage, and personally, I thought it offered some good insights into why and HOW school shootings happen, I thought it could be a useful contribution, and instead he decided to take his toys, go home, and lecture the rest of us (King is pretty good for that these days, it seems the older he gets, the more he loses his inside voice). On a related note though, isn’t King’s entire Dark Tower (and thus his entire written corpus) a manifestation of the idea Sarah’s discussing? It’s a form of Heinlein’s solipsism in a way isn’t it?

  23. (Duplicate post, previous one was moderated due to links, I think)


    Speaking of writing as conjuring – I have a setting that is sort of like that. (Again, like many of my writing endeavors, it only goes to chapter 3, and I’m sure a professional could find much to criticize).

    The main idea is of a group of friends who take up writing as a hobby, each a fan of a different genre of fiction, and in writing find themselves entering and experiencing the worlds that they are creating. (And having to eventually deal with the consequences and implications of the worlds they create.) I suppose at the top level it’s roughly urban fantasy, though I’m going to work high fantasy, sci-fi, and cyberpunk in there as well.

  24. Speaking of the Cauldron . . . between this post and a link from the Passive Guy’s blog, the basis for the sequel to a novel floated up out of the depths this evening. I’ve been searching for that for several months now, so thank you.

  25. My grandfather’s oldest sister was a spinster (b. 1883, died 1939). I learned, listening to the “grown-ups” at a few family reunions, that she was also a “faith-healer” of sorts, but that she also had all sorts of potions and such she would provide to sick people. She apparently did far more good than harm, and was “accepted”.

    This is how I see writing. Writing should be to teach, to inform, or to entertain. If it does more good than harm, it’s like my great-aunt’s potions — accepted (approved?), and “good”. If it does harm, it should be considered bad. Evil, however, is how the recipient THINKS about what’s written. Marx’s writings weren’t evil, just stupid; the way Lenin and Stalin applied them was pure evil.

    We who express ourselves in writings of other realities, other worlds, and other times can only put down the ideas in our heads. We have no control over how others interpret them.

  26. This seems to be part of a wider question. No one has adequately explained consciousness. Is consciousness part of a hitherto unseen property or is it entirely a function of the brain?. What exactly are we tapping when we feel or think or create a story. You can of course say it is a soul but even atheists can fall out on different sides of the divide. You could go to the gulag under Stalin if you were seen as dualist rather than having the proper materialist viewpoint of a good communist.

              1. Funny you should mention it – one of the neighborhood cats appears to have decided the back door to our garage is the Door into Summer and comes around demanding to be allowed in.

              2. Spoilsport!

                Think what Number of the Beast followed by Glory Road would do to someone with a tendency to be suggestible…

      1. Give anyone a few shots and the consciousness-self awareness divide gets awful interesting.

  27. “To the second, therefore, that they should be the principal liars, I answer paradoxically, but truly, I think truly, that of all writers under the sun the poet is the least liar; and though he would, as a poet can scarcely be a liar. The astronomer, with his cousin the geometrician, can hardly escape when they take upon them to measure the height of the stars. How often, think you, do the physicians lie, when they aver things good for sicknesses, which afterwards send Charon a great number of souls drowned in a potion before they come to his ferry? And no less of the rest which take upon them to affirm. Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false; so as the other artists, and especially the historian, affirming many things, can, in the cloudy knowledge of mankind, hardly escape from many lies. But the poet, as I said before, never affirmeth. The poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writeth.” Sir Phillip Sidney

    1. To be sure if you follow the Aristolean principle that poetry (imaginative writing) is more philosophical than history because it writes about types not people — and if you think that’s odd, consider every uproar about how a given character of a given group has been portrayed, because it always turns on that character being taken for the whole race — it is possible to lie by not generalizing truthfully. (Dogs have four legs is true even though there are dogs out there with three. Dogs have five legs is false, even if you call its tail a leg.)

  28. I read a pulp horror novel I grabbed off a rack in the grocery store and it made me sick. I was reading the book, trying to get a handle on how it made the journey into a traditional publishing house, when I started to read a passage aloud to my roommate. A scene where a woman gets raped by a CAR.

    My roommate shouted, “STOP! I won’t be able to UN-SEE that!” He glared at me. “Seriously. I don’t want that image in my head. What was that writer thinking, bringing stuff like that into reality? What were you thinking, reading it out loud to me?”

    I was so embarrassed. I thought I was simply sharing a particularly shameful piece of writing and he behaved as though I had assaulted him. And I had, in a way. His reaction changed the way I looked at writing.

    Writing does have serious mojo. I write science fiction, urban fantasy, and paranormal erotica. There is sex and violence in my books. However, now I write with the intention of redemption. I like walking that line. If I come up with a particularly shocking, juicy, tantalizing scene, I am tasked to present the matter in a way that will balance the dark with the light. I might not always succeed but I do try.

    I write as though I am creating a world that will truly exist because that world will exist, in my mind and in the minds of my readers, and we will have to live with it, forever, good or bad. We can’t unread what we’ve read.

    That is serious magic. Black and white and fifty shades of grey in between. Blargh.

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