I have passed the halfway point on Magic in Disguise!
This book has been more exhausting than any I’ve ever worked on, published or unpublished. I started it immediately after publishing Magic Most Deadly, which was released September 2013. Since then, the plot has changed about five times, and I took a long break to work on From the Shadows instead, as well as starting Rivers Wide (which is currently in the beta-reading stage), and have discarded many, many drafts.
This one, though … this is the one that’s going to stick. The last draft was close, gave the skeleton of the story, and this one is making sense of it and filling it in. I think I had a couple femurs in place of humeri before and was missing a patella or two, but I’m getting them all sorted now.
How’s THAT for a metaphor of story-writing?
This book takes place in London 1925, when Maia has been apprenticed to Aunt Amelia for a little over three years. The London setting means we won’t see the return of certain characters such as Merry and Ellie or Julia and Dan (though we might get a cameo for one of them …), but never fear, Maia and Len and Becket are all present, as is the indomitable Aunt Amelia (for at least part of it). There will also be some new characters introduced, such as Helen Radcliffe, a young lady magician who has become good friends with Maia and gets caught up with great enthusiasm in their current investigation. The threat this time is more personal, with danger entering Aunt Amelia’s house and attacking Len, but the stakes are no less high for that. This book also delves a little bit deeper into the magic system itself, giving more spells, potions, and other ways of practicing magic while Maia learns how to control her ability and attempts to not blow too many things up in the process. And, of course, we get to see the relationship between Len and Maia grow and develop, but whether or not that includes romance I’m not telling!
It’s fun to write, even while it is exhausting, and I am getting to that point where I am eager to finish it so as to find if others will find it as enjoyable to read as it has been to create. We’ve got a long way to go still, but little by little, slowly but surely, it is coming.
(Note: This is the first part of my presentation at the H-W Library, edited for this blog. The rest of the talk was on From the Shadows specifically, which may or may not make it into another post; we’ll see.)
I believe stories are immensely important—even essential—to us as human beings, because they convey truths we can’t get at in any other way. Which is a tricky point to attempt to elucidate, because as soon as you ask, “what sort of truths, Louise?” I say, “well, I can’t exactly explain them, that’s why we need stories,” and there we are. But I would like to try to delve at least a little bit into what I mean by that.
Truths we can’t get at in any other way: what does that mean, and how does it affect us? What sort of truths, and why do we need them? How can “mere” stories help us live fuller lives? We’d need far more than a blog post (or two) to fully cover this. But I think we can at least touch the edges of the concept.
There’s a moment in Tolkien’s Return of the King, toward the end, when Gandalf and the hobbits are nearing the Shire and realizing that there are problems there needing to be dealt with. Merry comments that they won’t have any difficulties there, because they have Gandalf with them. Gandalf’s reply is this: “I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for.” All their epic adventures—the greater story they got caught up in, as Sam mentions more than once—was preparation for living an everyday life. The great journey, the destruction of the Ring and overthrow of Sauron, the establishing of the true King, as great and important as those things were in and of themselves, they weren’t the end goal. They were giving the hobbits the tools they needed to live more deeply and more completely. They have returned to their own world, but not the same as how they left. “You are grown up now,” Gandalf continues to them. “Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.” And of course he is right. They overcome the trouble in the Shire with wisdom and wit, mixing mercy and justice with a shrewd hand, and restoring to right all the ills that had been done there.
In mulling over this point, I realized I had come up with a catchphrase for my own writing: carrying the epic into the everyday.
Something that is epic is, by its very nature, larger than life. Gods, magic, and heroes, as in The Iliad or Beowulf, which are two of the first stories that come to my mind when I hear the word “epic.” Stories that are meant to inspire, to carry us out of ourselves and into greater realms where a hobbit can be a hero and a schoolboy become a king. But we cannot live in that exalted realm, after all. We are not gods or monsters; we are human, living in a world of school and work, families, paychecks and taxes. We live in the everyday; we need the epic to help us make it a glorious adventure in and of itself.
This is what stories do: they sink into our hearts and give us the tools we need to live more fully, more richly, in the everyday world around us. As the hobbits found their grand adventure—their story—was giving them truths and tools they could then carry back to their world and use to live a fuller life, so we find the wondrous epics of story make us more fit for living in our world. The very best stories do far more than entertain or even enlighten us; they transform us into more than what we are, into the better version of ourselves, so to speak. One comes away from the best stories saying, “Yes, I may not be able to put it into words or even understand it completely, but something about this story makes me see things a little more clearly, love more deeply, speak more truly.” They show us truth about this world, about ourselves, about all possible worlds, in ways we never could have seen on our own. They can raise us up or humble us—sometimes both at the same time—encourage and exhort us.
But they are not instruction manuals thinly disguised as entertainment! Perish the thought! If you set out, in writing a story, to point a moral or teach people something, you have failed before you’ve even begun. No, one starts with the story—whether it be the characters, the plot, even the setting, whatever seed it is that each writer’s story grows from—and it shows one its own truths as it grows. That is the only way it can reach the reader. Otherwise there is no joy in it, no life, and no truth. That’s the miracle of the best stories: they start as one simple thing and grow to become more than themselves—which is just exactly what they do for their reader, as well. We can feel, after reading Return of the King, as ready to face the small troubles in our world as the hobbits were for theirs, because we have journeyed right along with them, to Rohan and Gondor and Mount Doom, and have grown up right along with them. Or take Narnia—when the children are told, at the end of various books, that they have gotten too old for Narnia, it is not a punishment or a statement that Fairyland is only for children. The point is that they have gained what they needed from Narnia, and now they must apply that to their real world. Narnia was their training, so to speak, and now the training is complete and they are ready to put it to use. And in The Last Battle we see that even the real world had its ending for them, that they had learned and grown and gleaned all they could from that and were now ready to move to yet deeper and truer adventures. How lucky are we as readers, that we are able to return as often as we need, to remind and refresh ourselves of those lessons and those truths!
I could list so many books to illustrate my point—Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence; Lloyd Alexander’s—well, everything he ever wrote, really, there’s a reason he is my favorite author, but especially his Prydain Chronicles; Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet, Diana Wynne Jones’ books … all of them able to delight and entertain us, as well as strengthen us. They give us a little piece of epic to tuck in our hearts and carry with us to strengthen us for the everyday. Are there other mediums that can do that as well? Yes, of course. Art, music, dance—I am a passionate lover of figure skating, which also has the ability to move and transport its viewers. But a story works more directly, and, I believe, is more universal. But I admit to being biased. After all, I AM an author. In any case, it doesn’t have to be a competition—one can appreciate and respect the nature of story without in the slightest diminishing any other artistic mediums.
You may have noticed, when I rattled off the authors I find inspirational, that they were all writers of speculative fiction—speculative fiction, for any who are not familiar with the term, is the catch-all phrase covering fantasy and science fiction. I mention them specifically not because I don’t think you can convey profound truths through everyday, realistic stories. You can. I love LM Montgomery, Maud Hart Lovelace, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens … and don’t get me started on my love for mysteries, which is a post for another time! I have enormous respect for those who can convey truth and beauty powerfully through realistic fiction. But I think the kind of truths I’m speaking of here, that epic in the everyday, are most easily conveyed through speculative fiction. As Neil Gaiman puts it so succinctly in his paraphrase of GK Chesterton: Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten. Speculative fiction allows us the best kind of symbolism, the kind that stands on its own at the same time it stands for something deeper. One can read Lord of the Rings as a fantastic adventure—because it is! But even reading it on the most surface level leaves one with a sense of satisfaction that evil can be beaten, that good can overcome due to the efforts of the smallest and most humble of all, and that everyone has a vital role to play in life, whether we can see it or not. And that’s only one level down beneath the obvious! One can go deeper, and deeper again—or, as Lewis puts it, “further up and further in.” There are always richer truths to be discovered behind the fantasy. I believe speculative fiction strikes chords within the human heart that other kinds of fiction cannot reach.
Those of you who enjoyed Magic Most Deadly will be happy to know that I am currently hard at work on revisions of the sequel (thus far, the working title of Magic in Disguise seems to be sticking). You might remember me posting here a few months back that I had finished the first draft? Now I’m filling it out, deepening it and padding it, putting events in their proper order, inserting clues (now that I know both the point of the crime and the criminal, two things I was clueless on when I started the first draft), creating a few red herrings, all that fun stuff.
I know some writers who dump everything into their first draft, and then spend subsequent drafts pruning, cutting away words and tightening it all up. That is not how I craft my stories. No, my first drafts are always the barest of bones (as a teen, I used to write my first drafts as scripts – just dialogue and a few terse “stage directions”), which then have to get filled out a little more in each draft. Right now my chapters stand at about 2500-3000 words each – I need to get them to 4000-4500 by the final draft. Whew!
It’s fun, though. And it’s fun to challenge myself by seeing if I can include enough background details in each scene to keep my beta readers from saying “more details! We need more details!” (I’ve never yet managed it, but it’s a goal). Today, for example, I spent some time figuring out the layout and general decor of Len’s London flat. While the readers of Magic in Disguise won’t necessarily need to know that the flat has two bedrooms, and the exact location of the cloakroom, or what the color scheme is of the dining room, having all that information at my fingertips will make it easier to sneak in subtle details to fill out the story and make it more vivid.
More vivid! That’s what I hope for with all my stories – that they live. I have a hard time re-reading Magic Most Deadly these days – my fingers itch to start editing, to fix all the flaws I see in it now, to make all these improvements. But one thing that does still satisfy me with it is how alive it is. Flawed though it might be (hey, it’s a debut novel), creaky though it may be in places, it does live, and that gives me great joy.
I hope that Magic in Disguise, when it is finished, not only is an improved book craft-wise from MMD, but is even more alive than its predecessor. A joyous, laughing, living book (as much as a murder mystery can ever be those things!), which brings as much delight to its readers as it did/does to its writer.
And now I’d best stop talking about writing it, and get back to actually writing the thing …
Today as part of school, I’m having the kids draw fantasy maps. I want them to include five things: a sea, mountains, a forest, a river, and roads. Other than that, it’s completely up to them. I showed them some examples and left them to it, only stipulating that they sit at their desks so they can’t see each other and and be influenced by what the other is doing.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about making up stories to go along with their fantasy maps. Putting people there, dragons, mermaids, anything they want, and then figuring out how they all get along and how the world functions together.
Economics, cartography, geography, art, writing, social … and they’re having a blast with it.
Thanks to Camp NaNoWriMo, I managed to get the entire first draft of Magic Most Deadly’s sequel written in a month. One month! I started at the end of June, and finished right before the end of July. That’s … mind-boggling, really.
Now granted, it’s just the bare bones of the story. It needs about 20,000 more words, not to mention more clues, more suspects, more red herrings, more everything that makes it a mystery. But the skeleton is there, and fleshing it out will be the fun part (is that a gross metaphor? Sorry).
This sequel … I’ve been working on it ever since I published MMD, so … since fall 2013. That’s almost two full years, and it’s taken me this long to get the first draft written. So you can see why I’m pleased.
I like the direction it’s taking Len and Maia – some of the plot twists surprised even me, leaving me scrambling to catch up. I like the character developments, getting to know these people a little more, digging a little deeper into who they are than I did in the first book. And I like the plot, messy as it is right now! I think it’ll be a lot of fun once it gets cleaned up, and I hope will leave readers guessing until the final reveal.
One of the fun things about this book is that I was inspired to break out of my preconceived notions of 1920s England. I did some research, and as a result I get to introduce some new and diverse characters in it. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Julia and Dan and Sgt. Andrews and all the rest from MMD, but it was really exciting for me to broaden my scope and take the notion that magic breaks down class and gender roles, and realize that means that it would also break down racial walls, and then explore what that looks like.
I’ll be doing more posts about the world of MMD and the characters in the upcoming months, as I work on the next draft, so let me know if there are any questions you have or topics you’d like to see me tackle!
For now, I’m taking a little break to let the story settle, and working more on From the Shadows, which I hope to be able to publish late fall or early winter. And I haven’t forgotten about Rivers Wide, either! That’s due to begin serialization also this winter. It’s going to be a busy season, but a fun one!
We took a little break after finishing Voyage of the Dawn Treader, to read some picture books, some Christmas books, and Children of the Noisy Village, but now the holidays are over and we have finished traveling, and we have picked the Chronicles of Narnia back up with The Silver Chair.
Even as I type, sitting in my comfy grey recliner (“This is my silver chair,” I said smugly), Carl and the girls are curled up on the couch across from me, the girls utterly engrossed as Carl reads aloud. They are on the chapter where Caspian sails away and Eustace and Jill miss their chance to greet him. This is one of my favorite chapters, what with Glimfeather and Trumpkin and “If he’s useless, we don’t want him here!” (paraphrase) which is a favorite line in my family, and used often.
Joy especially is enthralled with Narnia. She wants to read other books like them (alas, there are few of those indeed, darling daughter!); she informed her grandmother that if she had a magic wand her first wish would be that Narnia was real; and when Carl read the description of Aslan’s Country in the first chapter of this book she had the most incredibly dreamy expression on her face, picturing it in her head. It’s the most delightful thing in the world, seeing her imagination so completely captured.
Gracie incorporates Narnia into all her play. Her stuffed moose become a reindeer, her rag doll made of white cloth becomes the White Witch, a doll stroller turned on its back becomes a sledge, and voila, all she needs is a dwarf driver (usually portrayed by one of her baby dolls). This is also a delight to observe. I have to be careful not to chortle too loudly, or she gets self-conscious and quits playing.
They loved Anne of Green Gables when I read it to Joy for school, and that was wonderful. Seeing them love Narnia so much, though … that goes beyond joy. Narnia was – is – such an integral part of my life, of my very identity. The Narnia books were some of Carl’s sole interest in reading as a child. For both of us, they helped to shape how we view the world, our ideas of heroes and sacrifice and love and friendship and adventure. It is wondrous to see our own children take fire with these very same stories.
I wonder if CS Lewis had any idea, when he wrote these books, of how deeply they would affect children of every generation ever since. I am so, so thankful for them, and for him.
I always wondered what it would take for me to finally break down and write that “There is no problem of Susan” post. Today, I found out.
There’s a meme going around Tumblr about “Susan Pevensie walks into a coffee shop and …” finish as your preference lies, either she is treated horribly by the baristas because she is feminine or she won’t order coffee because she doesn’t like it any more. Here’s the thing: I think both are missing the point. I respect other people’s opinions on the matter, even the ones with which I disagree, but I have my own opinion on this as well, and so I offer it here.
To run with the coffee shop analogy:
Susan Pevensie walks into a coffee shop and wants imitation coffee. When told that they only offer real coffee at this shop, but here, have a comfortable chair and a pastry while you wait for us to lovingly prepare it for you, and oh by the way, there’s no charge for any of this, she walks out without anything, and from then on mocks the rest of her family for still going to that coffee shop.
CS Lewis was very, very big on Truth over Falsehood, Depth over Shallows, Beauty over Ashes. That theme is woven throughout the Chronicles of Narnia – sometimes obviously, as in The Silver Chair, when the children, the prince, and Puddleglum must fight to believe in a true sky, a true sun, a true Lion, over the Witch’s imitations of such things in the Underworld. Or the difference between the true Aslan and the Ass clothed in a lionskin in The Last Battle. Oftentimes it’s more subtle: Lucy’s genuine beauty springing from her love for Aslan as opposed to the false beauty the spell would have given her in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, for example.
Susan has not been banned from Narnia because she has become a true woman. In fact, none of them were banned from Narnia. When people graduate from school, do we consider them unjustly treated? Are they often sad to leave school, especially if it was a wonderful experience? Yes, Narnia was a wonderful place for the children to learn about Truth, about Beauty, and about Aslan. But eventually, they grew to the point where Narnia had given them all it could offer, and they needed to go forward and apply that knowledge to their everyday lives. Just as, with school, eventually you have to leave and take what you learned there and use it in your adult life.
But there are some people who, upon leaving school, never really want to move forward. They are glad to be leaving school behind, and to think of themselves as grown-up, but they aren’t actually ready to accept the responsibilities of adulthood. They prefer to remain in perpetual adolescence, a life of frivolity, never going beyond the shallows of life to taste the true joy and awe of the deeps.
That’s Susan’s issue. As Polly says, “Grown-up indeed! I wish she would grow up.” The problem isn’t that she is an adult woman instead of a child. The problem isn’t that she’s embraced femininity. It’s good to grow up, and to wholly embrace who you are. It’s not “lipstick, nylons, and invitations” that’s the problem. It’s considering those things the most important – artificial prettiness and popularity over true Beauty, Friendship, and Love. Or to use Lewis’ own words:
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (The Weight of Glory)
It’s not that any of those things are bad. But for Lewis, they were not enough. They could not be the end goal of life. To continue to borrow his metaphor, Susan was one who had seen glimpses of the sea, and deliberately forgotten it so as to better enjoy her mud pies. That is her tragedy. And that is her relatability, for who among us has not done the same?
But there is hope for Susan – “Once a Queen of Narnia, always a Queen of Narnia,” you know. And we miss that hope when we miss the point of her journey.