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Category Archives: How To

Should Authors Respond to Reviews of Their Books

Quite randomly, I stumbled onto a web of posts and tweets detailing an incident of an author commenting on a review of one of their books, being taken to task for it, and then spending what I see as way too much time further entangling themselves in the resulting kerfluffle.  I won’t name this author, because I’m not posting clickbait.  I read both sides of the argument, and while I sided mostly with the reviewer whose space was invaded, I do think some of the nuance on both sides that was over-shadowed by this author’s bad behavior offers valuable insight into both review and more general netiquette.

First, I want to establish some premises:

  1. Posting to the internet is a public act.  That’s true if your post is public rather than on a private blog or Twitter account, say.  But it ignores the complexities of human social interaction.  If I’m having a chat with my friends at IHOP (Insert your franchise pseudo-diner of choice), we’re in public.  So it’s a public act.  But not quite!  If some random patron three tables down were to start commenting on our nastily engaging discussion of who should fuck who in the latest, greatest reverse harem anime, we would probably consider that quite rude.  In fact, we have lots of terms for that sort of thing: butting in, nosy, etc.  I think a valid analogy could be made for the internet.  Sure my Tweet stream is public, but as a nobody with no claim to fame or blue checkmark, it’d be quite a shock for the POTUS to retweet some comment of mine about the economy or the failings of the folks in Washington.  The line can be a bit blurrier if I run a popular but niche politics blog, or if I have a regional news show on the local Fox affiliate.  But just because you can read what I wrote doesn’t mean I expect, much less desire, a response from you.
  2. My blog/website is my (semi-)private space.  Yours is yours.  I own the platform, I decide the rules.  You can write whatever you want on your blog.  Your right to write whatever you want on mine is much less clear-cut.
  3. You have institutional authority over your own work.  While most authors may not feel like they have much power in the publishing world, as the “creator”, they have enormous implied power in the world of fandom and discussion of their own specific work, or maybe even someone else’s, if they’re well-known friends of Author X, say.  If I criticize the War in Vietnam or Iraq, and a four-star general comes knocking on my door the next day, you better fucking believe I’m gonna be uncomfortable.  An author may not have a battalion of tanks at their disposal, but they sure as hell have presence, possibly very intimidating presence if they are well-known in the industry or for throwing their weight around in fandom.

Given these basic premises which I hope I have elaborated on specifically enough, I have some conclusions about what I would consider good standard netiquette.  I won’t say “proper” because I have no authority in this area, nor does anyone, really, to back up such a wording.  But a “reasonable standard of” at least I can make logical arguments for.

  1. Say what you want on your own platform.  And you can even respond to what other people have said, especially if you are not an asshole and don’t name names of people who are not egregious offenders of social norms or who haven’t made ad hominem attacks.
  2. Respect people’s bubbles.  We have a concept of how close to stand to someone we’re in a discussion with in real life, for example, that can be a good metaphor for on what platforms we choose to respond.  Especially as regards critique, since responding to negative comments about oneself is something we know from past experience can be fraught with dangerous possibilities.  I would posit that a person’s private blog is reasonably considered part of their personal space.  A column on a widely-read news site might be considered more public,but then  you have to weigh the consideration of news of your bad behavior being far more public and spreading much faster.You should not enter it without a reasonable expectation of a good reception.  If there is a power imbalance between you and the individual whose space you wish to enter, we have rules for that.  real-world analogies.  For example, before you enter someone’s house you knock or ring the doorbell.  A nice email to the specified public contact email address asking if they would mind if you weighed in is a fairly innocuous way to open communications, and can save face on both sides by avoiding exposing one or the other to the possible embarrassment of being refused or the stress of refusing a local celebrity with no clear bad intentions.
  3. Assume permission is required unless otherwise explicitly  stated.  This one gets its own bullet point, because I think it’s the easiest way to avoid the most trouble.  A public pool you might enter without announcing your presence.  Would you walk into a stranger’s house without knocking? One would hope not.
  4. Question your reasons for engaging.  Nobody likes to be  called sexist.  Or racist.  Or shitty at doing their research.  Or bad at writing.  But reactionary  defenses against what could be construed as such an assertion do not in my mind justify an author wading into a fan discussion.  Or a reader discussion, if one considers “fan” as having too much baggage.  An incorrect narrative fact is likely  to be swiftly corrected by other readers or fans.  Libel or slander is probably best dealt with legally.  A reviewer is not your editor.  You should probably not be quizzing them for advice on how to improve your writing, or story-telling, or world-building.  Thanking a reviewer for a nice review might be best undertaken as a link on your own blog.  They’ll see the pingback, and can choose to engage or not.  At best, one might pop in to provide a link to their own blog where they provide answers  to questions raised in the post in question or a general discussion of the book they may wish to share with those who read the review.  But again, such a link would probably be best following a question on whether any engagement by the author might be appreciated.

Overall, I think I’ve suggested a good protocol for an author tojoin in fan or reader discussions without causing consternation or full on flame wars, and at a cost barely more than a couple minutes to shoot an email.

 
 

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Machine “Translation” and What Words Mean in Context

One of the biggest commonly known flaws of mahcine translation is a computer’s inability to understand differing meaning in context.  After all, a machine doesn’t know what a “horse” is.  It knows that “caballo” has (roughly) the same meaning in Spanish as “horse” does in English.  But it doesn’t know what that meaning is.

And it certainly doesn’t know what it means when we say that someone has a “horse-face”(/”face like a horse”).

 

But humans can misunderstand meaning in context, too.  For example, if you don’t know how “machine translation” works, you’d think that machines could actually translate or produce translations.  You would be wrong.  What a human does to produce a translation is not the same as what a machine does to produce a “translation”.  That’s why machine and human translators make different mistakes when trying to render the original meaning in the new language.

 

A human brain converts words from the source language into meaning and the meaning back into words in the target language.  A computer converts words from the source language directly to words in the target language, creating a so-called “literal” translation.  A computer would suck at translating a novel, because the figures of speech that make prose (or poetry) what they are are incomprehensible to a machine.  Machine translation programs lack the deeply associated(inter-connected) knowledge base that humans use when producing and interpreting language.

 

A more realistic machine translation(MT) program would require an information web with connections between concepts, rather than words, such that the concept of horse would be related to the concepts of leg, mane, tail, rider, etc, without any intervening linguistic connection.

Imagine a net of concepts represented as data objects.  These are connected to each other in an enormously complex web.  Then, separately, you have a net of linguistic objects, such as words and grammatical patterns, which are overlaid on the concept net, and interconnected.  The objects representing the words for “horse” and “mane” would not have a connection, but the objects representing the concept of meaning underlying these words would have, perhaps, a “has-a” connection, also represented by a connection or “association” object.

In order to translate between languages like a human would, you need your program to have an approximation of human understanding.  A famous study suggested that in the brain of a human who knows about Lindsay Lohan, there’s an actual “Lindsay” neuron, which lights up whenever you think about Lindsay Lohan.  It’s probably lighting up right now as you read this post.  Similarly, in our theoretical machine translation program information “database”, you have a “horse” “neuron” represented by our concept object concept that I described above.  It’s separate from our linguistic object neuron which contains the idea of the word group “Lindsay Lohan”, though probably connected.

Whenever you dig the concept of horse or Lindsay Lohan from your long-term memory, your brain sort of primes the concept by loading it and related concepts into short-term memory, so your “rehab” neuron probably fires pretty soon after your Lindsay neuron.  Similarly, our translation program doesn’t keep it’s whole data-set in RAM constatnly, but loads it from whatever our storage medium is, based on what’s connected to our currently loaded portion of the web.

Current MT programs don’t translate like humans do.  No matter what tricks or algorithms they use, it’s all based on manipulating sequences of letters and basically doing math based on a set of equivalences such as “caballo” = “horse”.  Whether they do statistical analysis on corpuses of previously-translated phrases and sentences like Google Translate to find the most likely translation, or a straight0forward dictionary look-up one word at a time, they don’t understand what the text they are matching means in either language, and that’s why current approaches will never be able to compare to a reasonably competent human translator.

It’s also why current “artificial intelligence” programs will never achieve true human-like general intelligence.  So, even your best current chatbot has to use tricks like pretending to be a Ukranian teenager with bad English skills on AIM to pass the so-called Turing test.  A side-walk artist might draw a picture perfect crevasse that seems to plunge deep into the Earth below your feet.  But no matter how real it looks, your elevation isn’t going to change.  A bird can;t nest in a picture of tree, no matter how realistically depicted.

Calling what Google Translate does, or any machine “translation” program does translation has to be viewed in context, or else it’s quite misleading.  Language functions properly only in the proper context, and that’s something statistical approaches to machine translation will never be able to imitate, no matter how many billions of they spend on hardware or algorithm development.  Could you eventually get them to where they can probably usually mostly communicate the gist of a short newspaper article?  Sure.  Will you be able to engage live in witty reparte with your mutually-language exclusive acquaintance over Skype?  Probably not.  Not with the kind of system we have now.

Those crude, our theoretical program with knowledge web described above might take us a step closer, but even if we could perfect and polish it, we’re still a long way from truly useful translation or AI software.  After all, we don;t even understand how we do these things ourselves.  How could we create an artificial version when the natural one still eludes our grasp?

 

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Magic’s Pawn

One of my favorite styles of magic, though not often see is not a clever way for the protagonist to control the forces of magic, but a system where the forces of magic control the protagonist.  I suppose an ancient prophecy ca work kind of like this or a higher being giving direction, but I’m talking a more concrete and local form of control, yet exercised by a more abstract force.

The forces of magic involved don’t necessarily have to be sentient or intelligent in the way a human is or, even an animal although they could be.  Honestly, I think not being so makes the situation all the more interesting.

Think of the way a bee is involved in an ecosystem: generally as a pollinator.  Now imagine that a human (probably a mage or this world’s equivalent, but not necessarily) has been incorporated into the magical ecosystem of the world in the same way.  Some force of magic has evolved to encourage certain behaviors in human mages that are beneficial to the magic of the world that force of magic is part of.

Perhaps there is a cycle sort of like the water cycle that benefits from humanity in chaos, and so the magic has evolved ways to create that chaos through empowering some mage or person.  The specific actions of the person are irrelevant to the magic, as long as they cause a great upheaval.  The system may not even care if humans would describe this pawn of magic as “evil” or “good”.

Humanoid characters are almost always portrayed as exerting control over the magic of their world, but they are rarely shown to have been integrated into the system–as we are integrated into nature, even despite our control of it–despite what is portrayed in the world’s history as thousands or even millions of years of coexistence.

Where are the magical world equivalents of modern climate change?  There are apocalypses sort of like nuclear bomb analogs.  Mercedes Lackey’s Winds series, for example, with it’s effects on the world of the end of the war depicted in her Gryphon’s series.  But rarely if ever are there subtle build-ups of all the interference caused by humans harnessing magical forces.  Not even on the local level like the magical equivalent of the flooding and ecological damage caused by damning rivers, or the water shortages caused by different political entities failing to cooperate on usage rights of the local river.

I would love to read (or write!) some fantasy exploring a closer relationship between man and magic than simply human master and magical servant/slave.

 

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Reading Outside Your Genre: Blogs

One of the most common pieces of advice that I hear from writers is to read outside of your genre.  In fact, some writers go so far as not reading anything inside their genre while they are writing.  Which I think is taking things a bit far, but…  The point is, it’s very good advice.

Why?  Here’s another piece of advice I hear all the time:  “Even if your story is has almost exactly the same topic/characters/theme/plot as someone else’s, it will still be different.  Put your own spin on it.”  Again, a fantastic piece of advice.  But how do you do it?  One way to get ideas is by following our first piece of advice.  Every genre has its own tropes and conventions, things that are common amongst the majority of stories in that genre.  But some of the best work in any genre involves tropes and conventions that aren’t normally a part of it.  And you won’t know what those are if you only read inside your own genre.

Blogging is a lot like writing.  There are tons of blogs out there, about almost every topic you can think of.  So how do you make your own blog stand out?  Here’s My 5 Step Plan to Writing a Rocking Blog:

1.  Identify the goals of your blog.  Who is your target audience?  What are you trying to tell them?  What methods will you use?  What style will you write in?  What is your blog’s genre?

2.  Look at other blogs in the same genre.  How do they approach their readers?  What tips and tricks do they use?  What formatting do they employ?  What are the most common templates for blog posts?  How-tos?  In-depth analysis?  Anecdotes?  What style do they adopt?

3.  Decide how to satsify your target readers.  How can you use what you’ve learned reading other blogs to create a blog that people will want to read?  What have those other blogs done right?  What have they done wrong?  Which of their techniques can you make work for you?

4.  Now read blogs that aren’t in your genre.  What kinds of things don’t your genre’s blogs talk about?  What else do you find interesting besides the standard fare of your genre?  What blogs grabbed your attention?  What techniques did those other bloggers use that made you want to keep reading?  How could these bloggers maintain your interest in topics you had never been interested in before?

5.  Apply what you’ve learned.  What do you see on blogs in other genres that could be adapted to your own blog?  What things in those other blogs could apply to blogs in general?  What topics did you come across that were relevant to your own genre, but rarely addressed?  What did you find that could make your blog stand out?  What will be your twist?

Of course, digging through hundreds and thousands of off-topic blogs is tough.  There has to be a way to narrow down your search.

And you can find it right here on the Chimney.  As a special service just for my readers, I’m going to point you to some of the out-genre blogs that I use to keep my perspective wide.

Tune in every Saturday, when I will write a post featuring a blog outside of my own genre, and why I read it.  I will explore what makes it such a fantastic blog in its own right, and why it is relevant to those of you who may be reading my blog, even if you don’t share a genre with me.

Keep in mind that I am first a spec fic writer and reader, then a fiction reader.  I will be looking at blogs that mostly apply first and foremost to writers, because that’s what I am, and its also my target audience.

So the chances that I will be high-lighting sports blogs; or that if you run a site on how to buy and use a gas grill the blogs I feature will give added value to your site are slim.

But they could!  The whole point of me writing this post was that you never know what could attract readers.

Hopefully, this feature series will kick off Saturday, July 23.  I’ll be plugging it wherever I reasonably can.  Please feel free to mention it to your friends, fellow bloggers, and also your readers.  If you have a blog you think should be featured, or if you like to submit your own blog, don’t hesitate to e-mail me.  You’ll find my contact details on my Contact Me page, in the menu at the top of the page.

I’m also going to put this out on my Twitter, so feel free to Re-Tweet (and follow me if you aren’t already) if the mood strikes you.  There are tons of awesome blogs out there that you should be reading, and I’m going to do my best to introduce as many of them to you as I can.

Because I’m curious about how well people police their identities on the internet, I’m going to wait until six hours before the each post go online to notify the bloggers in question.

(Pro Tip:  Setting up Google Alerts and other services to keep track of how your name is mentioned on the internet is not egotistical.  It is good social net-working practice and it can not only improve your relationship with others by making you aware of their interest in you, it can help nip problems in the bud.)

Now, she doesn’t know it yet, but I’ve already selected Romantic Comedy author Tawna Fenske at Don’t pet me, I’m writing to be the first featured blog.  It was in fact one of her posts that inspired this series, because she is just that awesome.  Don’t wait for the post, go follow her immediately!  And feel free to tell her who sent you. 😉

 
4 Comments

Posted by on July 17, 2011 in Authors, Blogging, How To

 

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The Good, the Bad, and the Timeskip

One of the most versatile tools in ther writerly arsenal is the time-skip.  In fact, it might be the most versatile tool in the story-teller’s arsenal in general.

Let’s look at some examples from television:

There’s an intense moment, perhaps a friend has just been killed, or fallen off a tall tower, or maybe the heroes have just killed the monster, and… BAM! Timeskip.

Because, really, what is left to show after the hero screams “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” for two minutes.  How are you going to show the come-down from that?  For the most part you can’t.  Which is why I hate shows with a lot of long, anguished screams.  You see this in anime all the time, as well.  You see, the timeskip can be a great tool, but it can also blind the writer to other possibilities.

After the 40th time I’ve seen a scream/timeskip, I’ve gotten really tired of them.  Seriously, writers, find a better way to show this emotion.  The fact that you have to resort to timeskips so often after a major character dies tells me your skills at emotional depiction are rather one-trick pony.  It’s clear you just don’t know any other way to move on from such a scene.  But they exist!  And you should learn to use them.  And the same goes for any other dramatic moment.  Fade-outs aren’t everything.

 

But timeskips can still be good.  Once you’ve finished the scene and sequel, we don’t need to see everything that happens between then and the next major event.  A little “***” can work wonders.

“Quick, shut the door!” she yelled.  I slid the bolt into place just as the first oozing, moaning thing crashed up against the glass.  The sun peaking over the roofs across the street just made the pale, peeling skin more sickening.  I could hear the scritch-scratch of broken nails as they dug into the solid oak grain.  I could see the hunger in life-less bllodshot eyes.  I closed the curtain.  He wasn’t getting fries with this.

***

Eventually the creature wandered off, looking for easier pickings.  I shivered despite the warm sun poking through the thin fabric of the curtain, knowing that if this had been a summer blockbuster instead of the real thing, there’d have been an arm through the door, ready to rip off whatever was at hand.  But without a fully functioning brain, the nerves couldn’t get enough of a charge to do anything to solid wood except claw and moan.

That’s a passage from halfway through a zombie apocalypse book I wrote for god-knows-what reason.  It’s certainly not well-written enough to stand out from the crowd.  But between those two paragraphs was hours of whispers, weeping and shaking.  It would have taken thousands of words and the reader didn’t need to see it.  And that little line of asterisks let me skip all of it, and you never even realized you were missing anything.  You had the build-up and the resolution and none of the junk in between.

 

The same goes for long journeys.  If nothing happens between Parsell and Merrit, your characters can go to sleep in Parsel and be awake and in Merrit by the next paragraph.  There’s no need to drag the reader through the eleventy-hundred bowls of stew and loaves of journey-bread the characters eat on the way.  Which is not to say that you can’t put scenes in between, especially if it’s a long journey.  They just has to be relevant to the story.

 

Which brings up the third use of time skips.  Lots of time actually passing.  If four years happen between one important scene and the next, you’ll never be able to include the in-between, and you shouldn’t need to.

The real secret to doing good timeskips is knowing how to show the time passed.  In our little zombie snippet, it was just a few hours between evening and morning.  Not much happened but the zombie leaving.  But if you’re skipping months or years, things are going to be different.  Characters will have moved around, things will have been accomplished that may not be important for the reader to see, but they will have an effect on the characters and their circumstances.

 

Those are three common uses of time skips: skipping short periods of time between scene and sequels, skipping over time and distance such as ona  journey, and skipping long periods of time, such as in an epic fantasy saga.  There are more, but I can’t address them all in one post.  I wish I had been able to include more specific exmaples showing the difference between a good timeskip and a lack of one, but that would also take up too much space.  If you’ve read any decent amount of books or watched tv shows or movies, you’ll have your own examples to look at.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on July 17, 2011 in How To, Writing

 

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Why I Subscribe to Blogs

I have recently subscribed to a new blog, Invincible Summer from lovely YA writer Hannah Moskowitz.  This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s actually the first new blog I’ve subscribed to in a year.

So why did I subscribe to it?  Did I stumble upon it on Google?  Find a link on a bookmarking site like reddit or delicio.us?  No.  I kept running into links on other sites and blogs.  Took part in some conversations on Absolute Write.  After about the fiftieth link on blogs to which I am already subscribed, I stopped by and read the first ten posts on the blog.  Several of them were exactly the sort of thing Ilook for on a writing blog, and so I copied the url into my googlereader.  Now, I’ve done similar things with other blogs, but I ended up not subscribing.  Here are the five most common reasons I subscribe to a blog, and the five most common reasons why I do not:

Why? (In no particular order:)

1.  Links from blogs I already follow.  The more the better.  They tell me that there is a consistent pattern of valued and valuable content.  These can be posts about the link only, or they can be round-ups.  If I start to recognize your name on a round-up post, I am very likely to give your blog itself a look.

2.  Meeting the blogger in a community setting, such as a forum for writers.  My top forum for finding good blogs?  Absolute Write.

3.  I buy one of the bloggers books and like it.  if I like your book, then I have a reason as a reader to look you up.  If I like your blog, it’s because I enjoy it as a writer, as well.

4.  I see one of your books on Amazon or Wikipedia.  These are the places I go when someone recs a book to me.

5.  Guest posts on blogs I read.  These are fantastic advertisements for your own blog.  They mean someone I trust likes what you have to say, and they are a good sample of what I expect to find on your blog.

Why not?

1.  I go to your blog and I see advertisements.  If I get to the point where I’m reading through your recent posts to see if there’s a pattern of value, I don’t want to see adverts for your books.  I don’t want to see contests, or giveaways.  All of these things are fine.  But they are not what attracts people to a good blog.  A good blog gives something to the reader, it does not only solicit money for the writer.

2.  I go to your blog and all I see is pictures of your cats, covered in bacon or otherwise.  I am not looking for cat blogs.  I am looking for writer and/or writing blogs.  If you want to occasionally post pictures of your cats or of sunsets, or of your cute little kid, that’s fine.  But it’s a grace note, something you can foist off on me as content once I am engaged and interested.  John Scalzi likes to post amateur photos of sunsets, and they are very pretty.  I like them.  But they are not why I read his blog.

3.  If there have not been any posts for over two months.  I don’t think I need to explain.

4.  If the posting schedule is inconsistent.  This is not a big loser.  It’s why people invented blog readers, so I don’t have to check every day to see if a bloggers has dug up and displayed some nugget of wisdom for me.  It’s a small issue, but consistent posting does tell me that this blog is likely to survive long enough to be worth my inital investment.  (I am also a hypocrite for saying this, since I have updated irregularly of late.)

5.  Boring stuff/stuff I have seen before.  This is tougher.  These sort of posts will attract blogging newbies, because they have not seen all the other examples out there.  But the best blogs provide something new, something you can’t get elsewhere easily.  After the thirtieth generic query advice post, they all start to seem the same.  If they are well-written, I will forgive you.

So, here is the conclusion.  I want good content on a consistent basis.  I understand that promotional posts will pick up when a book release is imminent.  I understand tha real life gets in the way.  But if your entire blog morphs into promotion when a book is coming out, or you suddenly veer into all extras about your cats and kids, then I am likely to not subscribe, or else to drop my subscription if I already have one.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on January 5, 2011 in atsiko, Authors, Blogging, How To, Ideas, Rants

 

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The (Real) Cost of Magic Part 1

You may have guessed this quite a while ago, but one of my favorite things in fantasy fiction is the magic.  And I don’t just mean I think magic is cool.  I love to study the way magic is constructed and used in fiction, and I think I’ve learned a lot of useful things by doing so.  One thing that I keep coming back to is the idea of a cost for magic.

Everything has a cost.  You pay in calories to stay alive, you pay money to get things you want, and you pay in fuel to keep a fire going.  The cost of most things is pretty clear.  But the cost of magic is different.  Because magic breaks the laws of the real world by definition, the cost for using it is only limited by the imagination of the writer who creates the system.  I’ve seen almost everything used to pay for magic: blood, energy, sanity, physical objects, sacrifice…  Another common cost is time spent in gaining knowledge and preparing spells.

All of these can be effective or ineffective costs for magic.  And by effective, I mean that readers accept them as reasonable repayment for breaking the rules of our world.  Before I get to my main point, I think it’s a good idea to look at why these various things might be considered effective costs.  For this  post, we’ll stick with the oft-used and well-accepted “magic makes you tired” magic system:

The costs of a great many things in the real world are paid in energy.  Shoot a bow?  It takes energy to draw and hold that bow before release.  By a very simple process of transference, that energy is also what kills the poor creature that you’re aiming at.  Same is true for starting a fire, whether you strike a match or rub sticks together. 

So why wouldn’t this be an effective cost for magic?  Well, it often is.  But reasons why a reader might not find this form of magic attractive are many–we’ll deal with two, for now:

1.  It’s often not at all clear how this energy is used to create the spells effect.  Pulling back the bow string creates tension in the bow, which is resolved when the ends snap back into place upon release.  This pulls the string forward, pushing the arrow away at a good clip.  Makes perfect sense, right?  This use of a tool is what allows us to get a projectile moving at a much greater speed than we could with our bare hands.

But what about with magic?  How do we convert the energy in our muscles into a giant fireball?  In reality, we can’t.  But let’s say that we decide it takes as much energy to create a fireball as it does to shoot an arrow.  That’s quite a few fireballs, and since fireballs are generally portrayed as stronger than arrows, we’re getting quite a bit more bang for our calorie.  Which is fine; mages are often considered to be more powerful than your average person, so more efficient use of their energy is not a big leap.

But what about for bigger spells?  Mages are often shown to have the power to level cities with a single word.  No matter how efficient our fictitious conversion of energy, it’s rather much to say destroying a city of 10,000 should be as easy for a mage as killing one man is for an archer.  And, it’s not even possible for one man to hit 10,000 targets with 10,000 arrows in the time it takes our mage hero to level a city (or a region).  So now we’re in a bit of trouble.  Our energy example doesn’t have a simple explanation for our city-busting protagonist.

Unless perhaps we decide that a mage can kill 100 men with his magic as easily as an archer kills one with his arrow(whichitself  is not as easy as it would seem).  Or, maybe magic is a much more efficient tool than a bow.  Combine that with it’s utility in the great many areas in which it is usually shown to be useful, we’ve got a fairly ridiculous tool on our hands.  A bow is made for one thing, to hurl arrows at targets as fast as possible.  Yes, it’s much better at it than a human arm, but that arm can do a great many more things than just hurl an arrow.  Jack of all trades and whatnot.  So why should magic be so priviliged?  Casting fireballs, healing wounds, calling lightning, bringing rain, telling the future…  The list goes on forever.

At this point, we might add one of the other common hobbles on magic, a limit.  Perhaps magic only has a few areas in which it can function: scrying, weather magic, calling fire.  But right now we’re talking about cost.  There are magic systems that allow a mage to do all the things I’ve listed and more, so there should be a way to use costs to make such a system reasonable.  Clearly, paying with physical energy cannot handle this task on its own.  At least, not without a lot of contortions and outside limitations.

2.  Now, there are still other reasons why physical energy is not always an effective cost for magic.  One can do great things, and even if they become exhausted, why, all they need is a bite of food and a bit of rest, and they’re ready to do it again.  All it takes to level a city is an apple?  I find it hard to countenence.  What was the creator of this system thinking?

If we were making a trading card game or an rpg, that could be fine.  Once the game–or even just the battle– is done, everything can be reset, both the energy paid and also the damage done with it.  But every action in a story has consequences that last until the story is finished–or at least they should.  Reseting after one battle destroys the point of that scene; the hero is no further along in the story.  The consequence of a magical battle doesn’t have to result from magic, but if it does, being tired for a day and nothing else doesn’t cut it.  Even suffering great pain means nothing if it goes away and never bothers the mage again.  If the result of a scene is benefit to the characters, they need to have paid a fair price for it, and if the result is that they are hurt, it must be a hurt that can continue to affect their progress as the story moves forward.  Every scene needs to have that effect (or those effects), and in a fantasy, magic has a very good chance of being the cause.  So, it’s important to consider how your magic system might be able to incorporate that purpose.

None of that is to say that a form of magic which is paid for in physical energy cannot generate the long-lasting effects a good story requires.  If your character is bone-tired from hurling magical acid the day before, they may miss the signs of their pursuers, or not have the energy to save the peasant girl in the next village when she is captured by slavers. 

But there is a difference between a direct cost that hits hard now, and an indirect cost that hits hard later.  Depending on the story and its themes, it’s possible to lean more toward one than the other.  Perhaps that is the risk of using magic: you can do more now, but you don’t know if that will be worth the suffering you will undergo later, because you are no longer capable of doing anything.  You might gain twice as much money in the short term, but in the long run, you will end up with less than if you had been satisfied the first time.  But in general you will need a combination of short-term and long-term costs.

Most mages who pay for their magic with physical energy are seem to be able to achieve a great deal before the cost becomes even close to endangering their overall position in the plot.  Personally, I feel this is a bug rather than a feature.  Does anyone have some ways in which magic based around physical energy could still be effective in the eyes of a reader?

 

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