About Writers, book promotion, inspiration, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op, writing technique

A Chance Encounter With Author Eric Michael Craig

Note: Eric Michael Craig is a successful sci-fi author and publisher. The following is about the man, as a writer.

+++“That’s the science fiction author, Eric Michael Craig,” wait-bot Sally answered me.
+++I’d asked because at 4:AM, he and I were the only two people left in the bar. Outside, the wind howled but that was why they called this planet The Howling. “Think he’d talk to me?”
+++Sally giggled, “He doesn’t mind talking. I mean, about his work.” That suited me. I had a deadline approaching and an author’s interview would keep my publisher happy for… minutes. So, I walked over to his table and unceremoniously plopped into a seat. “Why?” I asked him.
+++In the tavern lighting, Eric has a Hemingway look about him, solid, bald with a standard circle beard, a bit scruffy. He wore a workman’s shirt with the top buttons open and a braided leather necklace.
+++“Why do you write science fiction?”

+++“My Father. He wanted to be a sci fI novelist since well before I was born. In fact he completed two manuscripts but never managed to get either one accepted. He submitted the first one when I was maybe 5 years old and got a form letter rejection because he hadn’t followed the guidelines for submission. After that he kept writing but never again tried to get anything published. He wrote because he was a fan of the genre (back in the heyday of people like Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov).”
+++We both genuflected.
+++“When I was old enough to read the very first books he handed to me were Rocketship Galileo and Between Planets. I was maybe 5 years old when I started into those novels, and from then on nothing else I ever read held my interest like Sci Fi. Dad gently encouraged me to write, but his own rejection made him a bit more cautious in how he pushed me. Then when I was in 7th grade, an English teacher I had, wholeheartedly started shoving me in that direction. Together the two of them tried to keep me writing, but I was a typical teenager and I had the attention span of a flea … so of course I went off in another direction with my life.
+++I started flirting with the idea of writing seriously only after my father passed away and my mom gave me copies of the manuscripts that he’d written. I was about to retire at that point in time (I was 41), but it wasn’t until my mom was diagnosed with cancer and she and I were talking about losing our dreams (and how it had affected my dad when he gave up wanting to be a writer) that I decided to commit myself to it. For him and for me too. My mom lived long enough to read the first draft of the story that became my first two novels.
+++You could say, if you forgive how this sounds like an epic fantasy theme, that this was a destiny I inherited from my father and denied for most of my life, only to discover after the trials I faced that it was indeed my inevitable path.
But I usually tell people, it was me just being too damn dumb to know better.”

+++I smiled. Sally was right. “Marshall McLuhan once commentated that artists and outlaws are on the outside looking in. He also said they see things as they are while the rest of us are looking at the world through a rear-view mirror.
What effects do you hope your books will have on your readers?”

+++“Sleeplessness?
+++Actually I hope my story will leave the reader thinking (and if that thinking keeps them up at night, that isn’t entirely a bad thing). I want my writing to engage their mind, not just entertain them. I think it is far easier to simply tell a story than to inspire a reader to keep thinking about what they read. If I can leave them wondering, “what if it really happened?” … then I have reached my goal.”

+++“What kind of world do you like to create for your characters?”

+++“I guess I am different in how I write because I tend to think of my world and my characters as an integrated single thing. The world is not so far extrapolated from the one we live in, so I tend to leave the world building to the current headlines, and then I just broaden the perspective to paint a complete perspective of the action. I can’t say I liked building this world because I really didn’t build one… Instead I focused some light into the more hidden corners of the world we already know.
+++Stormhaven Rising and Prometheus and the Dragon are very complex stories with multiple character sets interwoven in very broad ranging story lines. I have over 150 characters in the two novels and it takes all of them to tell the story.
+++I didn’t treat the characters as individuals, although they are fully rounded in and of themselves. But it is probably easier to think of them as character groups that work and act together, and in some ways represent segments of a culture that has its own personality (and purpose).
+++I guess I kinda took the question sideways, but world building is not something I have done in my most recent books. You might say it is more of a process of analysis, than creation of a world.”

+++“You like to work deeper themes into your novels. What themes, and why?”

+++“Darker themes? Hmm I don’t know if I would call them darker themes. Sure the idea of facing the potential end of the world is dark in and of itself, and it is bound to bring out the worst in humanity, but it also brings out the best. I think that what I write is based on a fairly accurate extrapolation of the world we live in. If it feels dark, then unfortunately that might be a reflection on the current human condition.”

+++“‘Deeper,’ not darker. But I like your answer.”

+++“Oh you’re right, how Freudian of me. Of course deep down in the ocean it’s pretty dark (even if it is teeming with life). Real depth sometimes can only be found if you’re challenging the dark.
+++I know that as I wrote the first two novels of ‘Atlas and the Winds,’ I tried to keep a balance between both the heavier elements and the lighter and more uplifting side of the story. With only a few exceptions I think I balanced the tragedy with the triumph.
+++In my mind, balancing triumph with tragedy is something that has to happen in life. When that balance is lost in one direction, hope dies a hard and bitter death. When it is tipped in the other direction, the victories become easy and meaningless.
+++In some ways I believe suffering is essential to finding value in those moments when you come out on top. That’s not to say I like to suffer, but when I do finally triumph, it makes the victory infinitely more meaningful.
+++As to the whole concept of balancing highs and lows in my outlook on life, I can say … maybe. Although ultimately it is the darkness that allows us to appreciate the light (however dim it is).
+++However, in writing if you only focus on one side, the story never spins well. If my books only told about how everything pounded the characters mercilessly and relentlessly (or how the characters were all indestructible), then I don’t think there would be much point in reading them. The closer you can keep to the point where the plot could go either way, the more intensely the reader is drawn in and compelled to invest emotionally in the arc of the characters.”

+++Good stuff, I thought as dawn lit the windows. I thanked Eric and left, feeling that I had just met a man worth knowing.

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book promotion, book reviews, book sales, publishing, reading, Uncategorized

Now, here’s something new – a reader!

Writer's Block

Well, the launch is done – phew! I’m a bit surprised at how tense I got – I thought I’d be more laid back. Too early, of course, to give a report, but the first impression is… mixed. Yes, it’s better than the last, but given that all I did then was post on my blog, that’s hardly difficult. This time I had a strategy – build up my mailing list and ask my subscribers to post reviews. I’d sent a free copy of Perfume Island to over a hundred, but so far none has appeared. Early days yet, perhaps – we shall see. But the only reviews so far have been from people I was in touch with before (you guys included – many thanks!).

On the other hand, it has been good to get a couple of messages from complete strangers telling me, ‘I enjoy your books so much.’ And it made me realise that I’ve never before experienced that sort of connection with readers. It gives me a glow inside that’s different from other satisfactions I’ve got from writing. For a couple of reasons, I think. Firstly, as I said, these aren’t people I’ve built an online relationship with – they’re people who’ve come across my books by chance or because they happen to like the mystery genre. And that’s the second thing – they aren’t writers but readers. Crucial as it is to engage with and learn from other writers, we’re not normal readers because we always have one eye on the craft of writing (‘Ah, what a beautiful / overblown / clunky sentence that is!’). So it’s rather strange to think that someone might be reading my book simply because they want to enjoy a good story. You might say it’s a bit late to be discovering only now what it’s like to have a few readers. Well, yes, I fumbled and faltered a lot along the way. But better late than never, you’re never too old to fulfil your dreams, yada, yada…

Will Perfume Island actually sell many copies? Probably not. But a few more than One Green Bottle (again, not difficult). And the prospect of having readers raises another issue: they’re following a series. What do I do with Magali now? Is she a brand? Do I owe it to my readers to keep her going? Well, here’s what Hugh Howie has to say: ‘A big mistake I see from too many aspiring writers is to follow up their first work with a sequel, and turn that into a trilogy, and write a fourth and fifth book while they plan their sixth and seventh. […] Plan on writing many great books about many awesome characters. Plan on writing three different trilogies in three different genres. Sequels aren’t bad; in fact, they can be critical to your success. What’s bad is only giving readers a handful of avenues into your imagination. Give them as many onramps as possible. Write short stories as well as novels. Write in different genres. Experiment and adapt to your sales and any critical feedback.’ (The full article, which covers many other points, is here.)

I found that reassuring. Because much as I like Magali, I don’t want to be wedded to her for the rest of my writing life. In fact, other ideas are barging to the front of the queue, demanding to be written. For the moment, though, I’m thrusting them back. A trilogy, at least – I can’t not write a trilogy. So this morning, with great relief, I stopped looking on Amazon every other minute and got back in touch with Magali and Charlotte in Mystery Manor (much darker, more thriller than mystery this time). Because if I don’t do that, I might lose my readers just when I’m starting (let’s be optimistic here) to gain them.

As for the marketing, I see no alternative to persisting with the mailing list. The first time people unsubscribed, I was dismayed. Now I’m pleased – it means I won’t be annoying them. And little by little, there’s a chance that of those that remain, a few will swell the number of that very select group I think of now as ‘my readers’.

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Uncategorized

PERFUME ISLAND RELEASE THIS WEDNESDAY!

Perf3DPeople come out here, they do things they wouldn’t do back home…

All they wanted was a quiet evening together. Then came the phone call. And a chain of events which would take Magali Rousseau into the sinister heart of the tropical island of Mayotte. Where a gloss of beauty hides a tangle of contradictions and fears. Where the scent of perfume covers the stench of poverty. And where Magali goes on a perilous search for the truth.

In 2011, Mayotte became France’s 101st department. Generosity? Or the cynical occupation of a colony? Perfume Island – a mystery story where the setting itself is a mystery. A geopolitical oddity seething with tension. A wonderland waiting to explode.

And everyone is paying the price.

Perfume Island is due for release on 15th November
Pre-order your copy for $0.99 here
Limited time only.

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book promotion, book sales, publishing, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

The proof copy of Perfume Island – at last!

Hi there!

Well, the shivery weather has definitely started to creep into Provence (winters can be unreasonably cold here), but I’ve been getting jittery for a different reason, about to ask Jeff Bezos what he was up to. Because Perfume Island is due for release next week – 15th November – and though I ordered the proof copy ages ago, my letter box remained despairingly empty. What if I was about to publish a book with half the words upside down?

To be honest, I wasn’t that worried. It looked fine in the online proofreader, but still, when it finally arrived this morning, it was quite a relief to actually have it in my hands. And yes, no doubt about it, they’ve done a good job. Not a single word upside down, nor even back to front. So I thought I’d take it into the garden to show you.

CB

There were no such worries for the ebook, of course, which is ready and waiting for release the same day. For a six day period, until 20th November, Perfume Island will be on offer at the reduced price of $0.99, before going up to $3.99. And I’ve almost finished working on the details for the contest to coincide with the launch – more on that later.

Very best wishes,

Curtis

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Uncategorized

Keep the rabbit….I want the mouse!

Hey Y’all,

 

Imagine yourself going to New York City to meet with several of your industry’s biggest movers and shakers. In your briefcase is your latest creations that will herald a new and inventive way of creation. It is the difference between starting a fire with two sticks and using a butane lighter. It is a big deal and you are the driving force behind the project.  Your spouse kisses you on the cheek for good luck and you head towards the elevator.

You walk semi-confidently down the streets of the biggest city in the world. Past the ever-growing lines of workers who are out of work. The bustling city that you first visited five years earlier is different. Today, it is cold. It is distant. It is in despair. No longer is the feeling of hopelessness isolated to the immigrants. Now it is a dread that is felt within the established citizens too. Five years ago, there were lines of bakeries on every street. Now there are lines of people begging for a handful of bread.

Image result for 1928 new york city

New York City, 1928. Photo from yahoo.

You look different from the masses. You have a dark tan from the Californian sun. A clean, pressed suit, a colorful tie, polished shoes, and a pocket full of smokes. A sense of dead churns deep in your stomach but you brush it off as nerves. You have big plans after the contract is signed. You envision this new creation blossoming into motion pictures and ushering in a new age. A golden age of entertainment that will help these unfortunate souls forget their misery, pain, hunger and sicknesses. Your creations will bring joy back to the children. You have been gifted, you see happiness and hope. Now it is your time to give that gift back to humanity.

The project is only one that you have worked on for several years. It is your child formed from your own DNA. Your fingerprints, thoughts, tears, personality, hopes, fears, and soul are infused into this project. Already a commercial success, you are known as the next big thing but you know differently because the people who form your team are the secret to your success. They did their own part to breathe their life into the project just as much you did. They have earned this meeting as much as you. You can’t wait to return home as the conquering hero with the booty of a brand-new contract as their well-deserved tribute.

Each step towards the meeting of a lifetime brings with it a sense of terror. Every time your shoe hits the concrete, it leaves a small crumb of confidence and picks up a nibble of doubt. What if you fail in the presentation? What if you don’t impress the money men? What if they don’t believe in the project? What will you do? How will you tell your wife that you failed? You console yourself, you go into self-talk mode. You can do this. You are worthy.

You enter the boardroom. Ornate in every manner, the teak walls and mahogany table contrast perfectly. The windows overlook the Hudson River and the ant sized people below. You hang your hat on the hanger and move to your chair. Serious long faced men stand to greet you. The final man to shake your hand is your business partner. He smiles but you know something is wrong. Always a little different, you always dismissed it to him being from New York. But in the boardroom. He isn’t a friend. He is Judas.

Image result for old publishing board room

Photo from yahoo.

Your business partner skips the small talk and gets straight to the topic of the meeting. Your creation, the thing you worked on for so long isn’t really yours. A man to your left, slides you several legal documents. He tells you that the creation that your business partner assured you was a joint project was actually solely owned by him. You never were a part owner because he filed the copywrite claim and never put your name on the paperwork. Furthermore, the partner is threatening to take you to court to sue you for infringement of that copyright because of the newest idea in your briefcase. He tells you that your talented support staff can no longer work with you on this project because you have been removed from the decision-making process.

Just before you start your rebuttal, the man on the right offers you the deal of the century. You can continue to work just as you always have. You can still have creative control over the creation and life will continue just as it has for the last three years. All you have to do is say yea and accept a twenty percent pay cut. Forget the stock options and never a potential for ownership.

You slowly stand, your legs quivering underneath your pressed tan slacks. In disbelief you ask for a moment to review the copyright paperwork. You go into another room and sit in silence. You mind considers the options. Could you work for a thief but keep your dearest friends, a steady income and your stature within your world? Do you dare to start all over again with no safety net? You think of your wife and two daughters. They have a comfortable life in a comfortable city but it is all at risk. Your brother is back home. He entrusted you to make the best decisions possible. All alone, sixty-three stories above the world in a gilded cage, your assassins wait on the other side of the wall.

Your decision is easy, your actions are chosen and your path is sure. You walk into the room with a nightmare but leaving with a dream. Your dream. You open your briefcase and leave your world changing ideas on the table because a piece of paper says it belongs to them. You grab your hat and wish them well and leave quietly.

Three days later you and your wife arrive back home in California. Your tears are dried up. Your fears are gone and your strength is renewed. They can keep their rabbit because you have a mouse.

That is a slightly embellished dramatization of a day in Walt Disney’s life in 1928. The creation in question was a character called Oswald The Lucky Rabbit who was owned by Universal Studios. After Disney left the franchise, Oswald went on to star in one hundred forty-nine cartoons, several comic books and a life overseas in print before being secured by the Disney company in 2006. The mouse Disney created was first called Mortimer, and changed later to Mickey on a suggestion from Disney’s wife.

Image result for mickey mouse original

Mickey in his first successful animated comic strip, Steamboat Willie. It was the third animated movie staring Mickey. photo from yahoo

There are so many lessons from this story.

The first is to never trust the suits. The suits are in it for the money but they have no creative talent. If they did, they would make stuff not steal it.

We are the talent. We actually create stuff and while most of it might not be great, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy. Protect your stuff because without those protections, it can be stolen and as we all have learned from television police shows, possession is 90% of the law.

It is okay to start over from scratch. If Mr. Disney quit or decided to serve as a defeated man, then we would never have Mickey Mouse.

I will leave you with the words of Mr. Disney.

“I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.”

— Walt Disney, Disneyland; October 27, 1954

Image result for Walt Disney 1925

Photo from yahoo.

Until next time, keep on rockin!

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Amazon, book promotion, Uncategorized

Amazon bots, clickfarms, and trolls – oh, my!

Over the past couple of weeks, my feeds have been flooded with the same sorry tale: a book or box set has been stripped of its rank on Amazon. As Anne R. Allen notes, authors “who have NOT been doing anything wrong are getting hammered” with the following notice:

We are reaching out to you because we detected purchases or borrows of your book(s) originating from accounts attempting to manipulate sales rank. As a result, the sales rank on the following book(s) will not be visible until we determine this activity has ceased.

Please be aware that you are responsible for ensuring that the strategies used to promote your book(s) comply with our Terms and Conditions. We encourage you to thoroughly review any marketing services employed for promotional purposes.

Any additional activity attempting to manipulate the Kindle services may result in account level [sic] action.

guilty-until-proven-innocentWhen a book’s sales rank spikes, it “apparently triggers punishment” and so far “Amazon is stonewalling anyone who tries to appeal.” Derek Murphy cites the only correct response: “Yes, I promise never to do it again.” There is no way to appeal it. Additionally, this is happening to new and seasoned authors alike, including some NYT bestselling authors.

David Gaughran suspects this issue stems from the following:

  1. Amazon has instituted a new fraud detection system, one which isn’t working very well, and is generating lots of false positives.
  2. Scammers are deliberately targeting innocent authors, pointing clickfarms/bots at their books or using some form of incentivized gifting, which is triggering Amazon’s fraud detection system.

Both theories have their merits – it could even be a combination of the two. Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t seem to be taking him seriously on this matter.

Collateral Damage

scam-alert-1024x788More importantly, and as Derek Murphy rightly points out, “there are definitely scammers out there who continue to successfully hack Amazon’s system to their advantage using black hat tactics, and Amazon needs to fix its system without penalizing legitimate authors.” For authors who have run legimate, ethical promotions to lose both their sales rank and earnings negates the entire purpose of running a promotion. And even after the situation is resolved, the damage has already been done. There is no way to undo the damage unless someone has a time machine.

Amazon is, of course, in a precarious position – they are attempting to eliminate scammers to foster a better customer experience – and accounts that use bots and/or clickfarms to artificially inflate page reads and so on thereby steal earnings from hard-working authors and deter readers from Amazon in one fell swoop.  It’s a difficult situation for everyone involved. Authors, Amazon, and readers are losing time and money because of these scams. For the time being, slow, organic growth is probably a safer bet than large promotions (e.g., BookBubs and other email list promotions). However, I wonder if there are ways that authors and Amazon could work together to improve this situation.

Collaboration

collaboration-definitionThe realtionship between Amazon and authors is problematic – we are neither customers nor employees. However, perhaps we could work together, regardless of the source of the problem. And, no. I’m not a programmer, so I don’t understand the logistics that would go into the system I’m about to propose, but I figured I’d put it into the bloggosphere anyway.

What if Amazon implemented an author ranking system that’s similar to its reviewer ranking system? More specifically, what if Amazon ranked author accounts then extended an optional author reviewer membership to established authors who have a history of ethical conduct – that is, Amazon ranks author accounts over time. I propose this because long-term accounts are unlikely to be scam accounts, and most authors that I know are helpful, generous people – see present company.

Authors who opt to review other accounts could take a spin through newer accounts that were flagged for suspicious activity or possible rank manipulation to ensure that new authors or books aren’t being unfairly stripped of their sales rank and that scammers aren’t screwing people out of their earnings and readers out of their time. I’m sure many of us wouldn’t mind chipping in a couple of hours a month to foster a better environment for ourselves, Amazon, and our readers (Amazon’s customers).

Marketing-for-Increasing-Exposure-Tip-5-Amazon-Author-CentralAdditionally, perhaps Amazon could add a widget inside Author Central so that authors can tell Amazon when they’re going to run a promotion — e.g., a form where the author can tell Amazon what promotion they’re running and for how long. Perhaps as Amazon gathers data about promotions through this widget, they’ll be able to fine-tune their detection methods.

No Solution is Without Its Problems

Sure, this solution is inherently problematic. As David Gaughran notes in “Amazon’s Hall of Spinning Knives”, even when authors manage to get their rank restored, they continue to be “accused of rank manipulation and … [are] on warning … [for] future conduct.” As such, some authors may end up excluded from the program because of false flags on their accounts.

DontFeedTheTrolls2Likewise, and as Anne R. Allen discusses in her article, trolls could be a potential problem – while trolls are discussed in the context of Amazon book reviews in Anne’s article, I think the same priniciple would apply to this system. There may be people who deliberately sabotage other authors because they’re jealous of their performance, bored, or whatever – I’d really like to believe that most of us are not like that, but it is conceivable that a couple trolls might squeak through. Those of us who have been here at the Writers Co-op likely remember our repeated encounter with a troll. As with most things, we tend to police ourselves, so perhaps there ought to be several reviews of an account to ensure that trolls don’t run wild.

What do you think?

Sources and Further Reading

Allen, Anne R. “Amazon’s Latest Crackdowns: Do They Include Amazon Review Trolls?” Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris. AnneRAllen.com, 22 Oct. 2017. http://annerallen.com/2017/10/amazon-crackdowns-amazon-review-trolls/ 28 Oct. 2017.

Baum, Cate. “What Book Promotions Are OK and Not OK on Amazon Now.” Self-Publishing Review. 6 Oct. 2017. http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/2017/10/what-book-promotions-are-ok-and-not-ok-on-amazon-now/ Accessed: 28 Oct. 2017.

Gaughran, David. “Amazon’s Hall of Spinning Knives.” Let’s Get Digital. WordPress.com, 20 Oct. 2017. https://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2017/10/20/amazons-hall-of-spinning-knives/ Accessed: 28 Oct. 2017.

Murphy, Derek. “The Death of Book Promotion.” Creative Indie. Creativindie.com, 27 Oct. 2017. http://www.creativindie.com/the-death-of-book-promotion/ Accessed: 28 Oct. 2017.

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About Writers, Magic and Science, reading, Uncategorized

The Magic of Science of Magic

Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” thereby wedging open the door between two things that are often viewed as being diametrically opposed: magic and science.

Trying to define science in the modern sense of the word would probably provoke a lot of hair-splitting arguments, but any reasonable definition would have to involve a description of the scientific method, which Websters defines as “principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.” Magic, on the other hand, is defined as “the use of means believed to have supernatural power over natural forces.” In reductive terms, science attempts to understand the natural world while magic operates outside of it—even above it, as the prefix super- suggests.

My interest here isn’t really in semantics or even the scientific method, so much as the way the two are presented in two genres of speculative fiction: science fiction and fantasy.

Superficially, the two genres seem to be at odds. The former traffics in spaceships and rayguns, the latter in dragons and magic wands. But even on a deeper level, there is a fundamental difference: while both present events and processes that might seem impossible or unexplainable, sci fi works from the premise that such things will be possible and explainable in the future, while fantasy tends to ignore the whole question by labeling the extraordinary as supernatural: magic.

I know, this is simplistic, so lets dive in a little deeper by looking at some examples:

One)  The Enterprise is about to blow up. Never mind how or why or which Enterprise. Maybe it’s a subspace inversion or an innerspace subversion or a race of telepathic protozoa, but either way, they need a fix and fast.  Cue the Science Officer or Engineer: “Captain, if we depolarize the ophion emitter and detonate a platonic charge in the region of 25 thousand gigahertz, it might create a plasma shock. The resulting discontinuity would only a last a few seconds, but it might give us time to warp the hell out of here. It’s so crazy, it just might work.” (Spoiler alert: It works.)

Two)  Harry, Ron and Hermione are in transfiguration class. “Bloody hell!” Ron exclaims, slashing the air in an ungainly fashion. “This stupid spell doesn’t work. Portipot Vertigo! Portipot Vertigo!” A column of blue smoke rises from the thoroughly untransfigured toad, which croaks dismally. “Ron, you insufferable pillock,” Hermione huffs. “First off, it’s Proteo Fortissimo. And don’t swing your wand so. You aren’t beating a rug.”

Okay. I admit I’ve just made fun of two venerable franchises that I’ve always enjoyed (it was done with love, people!). But let’s examine each. In the first, we have what seems to be a science-based solution to a science-based problem. Scientific investigation gives us the parameters of the problem, and our advanced technology provides the means for solving it. But it isn’t real. I mean, some of the words might be real, and maybe the tech has at least SOME connection to real technology  (or at least the concept behind it)  but it’s only the trappings of science. The context—spaceship, computers, beams and rays, big numbers—gives the impression that this is science in action, but the mechanism itself is every bit as opaque as a magic spell. It works because it works. It might as well be magic.

In the second, we have the same thing in reverse. The spell they’re trying to learn involves saying particular words and making particular gestures. If you do it right, it works. Presumably, if you do it the same way each time, the results will be consistent and repeatable, which sounds suspiciously like science. The mechanism for how it works remains unknown, but as long as you know the recipe, you can make the dish.

Now before anyone thinks I’m bashing Harry Potter, I am not. I admire Rowling’s series a lot, and though I have occasional issues with her writing, the story is fantastic. I use it here only because it is surely the best known series of its type, and because it does typify some of the challenges faced by the average writer of magical fantasy.

Rowling does play with the notion that there are deeper, more arcane magics in the world. The protection that Harry experiences in the Dursley’s house, for example, is less the result of a spell and more the product of Lily’s self-sacrifice. (These deeper magics, it should be noted—the magic of family, of love, of loyalty—could be just as applicable in a story that didn’t involve any fantasy magic at all.)

But for the most part, these are not the kind of day-today magics that occupy the story. Mostly we see very specific spells with specific names and formulas for operation and we rarely get into theory. In fact, the actual learning of magic looks pretty rote most of the time. In the Deathly Hallows Harry casts the imperious curse without any difficulty at all, even though we know he has never performed it before. We’re told it’s a high level spell (as well as an illegal one) yet use seems to be as simple as pointing your wand and saying imperio. There are similar issues with the patronus charm, which, we are told, is very advanced, yet Harry has no trouble teaching the callow kids in Dumbledore’s Army to use it. Again, it seems pretty simple. Get in the right mind set, then say the words. No problem.

I don’t want to dump on Harry Potter too much. It really is a great story, and the ambiguity about magic that JK Rowling (eventually) develops and sustains for its duration is both intriguing and enjoyable. But I think it highlights a problem that writers of science fiction and writers of fantasy must face (in different ways). Sci fi can’t explain the science because—even if it is genuine—most readers would find it incomprehensible or boring. Fantasy can’t explain the magic because there is no explanation. That’s why we often end up with science that might as well be magic, and magic that is as mundane as science.

It’s interesting to consider how some of Rowling’s predecessors tried to account for the mechanism of magic. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings features surprisingly little magic, at least in the sense of spells and incantations. Certain objects have magical properties, obvously, but the powers are often vague. The one ring allows domination of all of the other rings, but aside from invisibility, it conveys no other definable powers. Neither does Gandalf wield much in the way of curses or conjuring. He stands off the balrog by literally standing in the way and forbidding it passage. He starts a magical fire at one point, but even there, he mostly seems to be calling fire forth by force of will and knowledge of the elvish language. It is not, in the way we normally think of them, and incantation.

Possibly, Tolkien’s use of magic is closer to Ursula Leguin’s in A Wizard of Earthsea. Earthsea wizards attend an academy (of sorts) and learn spells, but underlying all of the magic is the knowledge of the names of things. Knowing the true name of anything gives you power over it.

My own relationship with and presentation of magic has varied from book to book. In Flight of the Wren, the magic was in the magic carpets themselves. and a rider’s proficiency with various related spells mostly depended on how well they connected with their nearly sentient carpets. In Whisper Blue, the manifestation of Wysteria is given a plausible science fiction style explanation, but that is as much a quirk of the character of Miles Faber as anything else. Miles needs an explanation for the unsettling events of the story, but there’s no textual reason to assume that he actually got it right (or wrong, for that matter.) In Spark, the nature of the eponymous fleck of light remains conjectural right up until the end (though I plump for the shard-of-divine-entity explanation.) Does it matter? Only, I suppose, to the rare reader who cares to read beyond the surface events of the story. Hopefully the mystery is at least a little intriguing, a small source of wonderment. I’m not sure we can, or should, hope for more than that.

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