Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Art is a Kind of Magic, Magic a Kind of Art

Making good art is hard.

That turned out to be a key concept in my new epic fantasy novel about a secret war between Allied and Nazi sorcerers during World War II, but I didn’t know that until after I had started writing it.

When I began working on The Midnight Front, my goal was to tell a secret-history adventure that transplanted Renaissance-era ceremonial magic into a 20th-century setting. For those who are unfamiliar with the precepts of ceremonial magic from the Christian tradition, its central idea is that all true magic (as opposed to stage magic), from the smallest trick to the grandest miracle, is predicated upon the conjuring and control of demons. The terminology of this style of magic is highly technical and antiseptic, and its practitioners treated the exercise of magic like a form of science (possibly because magic during that period was connected closely with the practices of alchemy, the forerunner of modern chemistry).

To make my novels’ system of magic more cinematic (and therefore better suited to a fast-paced action narrative), I grafted onto it the concept of “yoking,” in which a magician binds one or more demons to his or her mind and body and, for as long as he or she is able to maintain control over the spirits, wields the demons’ powers as if they were his or her own.

In the interest of limiting my characters’ ability to wield such powers I imposed certain consequences upon this practice. My characters soon learn that yoking demons is a miserable experience, one that comes with such side effects as headaches, nosebleeds, intestinal distress, obsessive-compulsive habits, self-harm such as cutting and hair-pulling, nightmares, and other such unpleasantness.

Consequently, my characters swiftly take to self-medication to mitigate the side effects that come with yoking demons. Alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, opium—whatever dulls the pain and quiets the voices, my characters make use of it so that they can yoke more spirits, gain more power, and try to win the war. So far it seemed to be shaping up into a well-balanced and narratively workable system of magic.

Then, one night a few years ago, I was describing the magic system to a friend at a party, and I experienced a revelation: the system of magic I had concocted, and the manner in which my characters coped with its deleterious consequences, mirrored my own creative process.

When I stepped back from my story and examined its moving parts, I realized that magic, which my characters sometimes call simply “the Art,” was a metaphor for all types of creative art. The notion of having to perform exhaustive research and preparation, and to master the fundamentals of the process before being able to use magic professionally was no different from the learning curve experienced by any artist. Writers, painters, musicians, actors, sculptors — any artistic discipline that I could think of fit this paradigm.

Then I thought about what demons represented beyond the context of my story, and I saw that they were metaphors for those forces that drive artists to create, to reshape reality. Some of those forces are benign, but others are not. How many artists have spoken of grappling with their “personal demons” during the act of creation? How many of us find the inspirations for our art in the darker corners of our psyches?

Even my characters’ coping mechanisms are hauntingly familiar to anyone who knows people who make their living in the arts. The creative professions sometimes seem almost synonymous with substance abuse. Opiates and music have a long shared history, as do writing and alcohol. I’ve never made any secret of my own proclivity for drinking; I have long practiced the edict “write drunk, edit sober” (a saying often attributed, possibly in error, to Ernest Hemingway).

The most vital parallel between my perception of artistic expression and the depiction of magic in my Dark Arts series lies in my main character’s moral conundrum: How can he do good in the world when his power is derived from a source considered to be the ultimate incarnation of evil?

The answer, both for my character and myself, is that what matters most is not the source from which one derives power, but what one ultimately does with that power. That’s as true for artists as it is for magicians. Even when our inspirations are drawn from the darkest places, what’s important is that we use our gifts to shed new light — and that we do our best to burn brightly.


The Midnight Front: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


This blog post originally ran on the Unbound Worlds blog in January 2018. That site no longer exists, so I have reposted my essay here.

The Iron Codex Spotify Playlist

One year ago I brought you the Spotify playlist guide for my first Dark Arts novel, The Midnight Front. I’ve chosen to reprise that effort by putting together another Spotify playlist for the second book in the series, The Iron Codex.

Music is invaluable to me as a storyteller. It inspires me with new ideas, and when I’m working, movie soundtracks often help me maintain a consistent frame of mind and emotional state that’s suited to whatever I’m working on.

Once again, to give you a look into my brain’s creative relationship with music, and how it connects to the stories that I write, I have assembled this guide to The Iron Codex’s playlist. Not all chapters or scenes have specific tracks associated with them, but those that do, I’ve done my best to annotate accordingly.

As a quick review of the playlist will reveal, the biggest musical influences this time around were spy-movie soundtracks. Specifically, Kingsman: The Secret Service, by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson; Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace by David Arnold; and Skyfall by Thomas Newman.

Also, a fun bit — at the end are two “bonus tracks.” Neither informed any particular scene, but they were instrumental to me in defining the “headspace” for two characters in particular: Cade, whose heartbroken, soul-shaken state is evoked by John Fullbright’s earnest “Until You Were Gone,” and Briet, whose need to earn some kind of redemption is expressed by Brandi Carlile’s hit “That Wasn’t Me.”

Nota Bene: Not all of the listed tracks are available for playback on Spotify, due to ever-changing licensing permissions, etc. Those of you who collect movie soundtracks might own one or more of these discs already. If you can compile your own local playlist based on this, all the better. (more…)

FREE FICTION: “Hell Rode With Her”

Hell Rode With Her,” an original novelette excised from the manuscript of The Midnight Front, details events that befall Russian-born sorceress (aka “karcist”) Anja Kernova after she deserts from the Red Army in late 1943.

This was in fact the first part of the Dark Arts series that I wrote, and Anja’s confrontation with her countrymen during the Great Patriotic War sets the stage for the series’ second book, The Iron Codex, in which Anja is the chief target of an international magickal arms race in 1954.

The good folks at Tor Dot Com are hosting the publication of this story, which first appeared in the anthology Apollo’s Daughters. Please head over to Tor Dot Com, enjoy the story, and leave a comment so that the good folks at Tor will know people are actually reading it.

The Iron Codex will be published on January 15, 2019, and is available now for pre-order in both trade paperback and eBook formats.

#SFWApro

In Fiction, Love Isn’t Always the Answer

One of The Beatles’ most famous song lyrics tells us, “All you need is love, love is all you need,” but sometimes love is exactly what a story doesn’t need.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not denigrating the concept of romance in fiction. Over the course of penning more than thirty novels, I’ve written more than my share of romantic subplots. Romance is, at its heart, one of the key drivers of stories of all genres. It springs from the nature of human relationships, which are central to most narratives. Romance novels comprise the majority of the best-selling titles of all time.

Romance is a good thing.

 

If Your Characters Resist Romance, Don’t Force It

That being said, not every story is well-suited to incorporating a romantic subplot for its principal characters. I learned this the hard way while writing — or, to be more precise, while rewriting — my new World War II-era fantasy novel, The Midnight Front.

In its original incarnation, as well as through two of its subsequent versions, The Midnight Front contained an awkward romantic subplot linking its male and female lead characters, Cade and Anja. I had intended for there to be a strong vibe between these two characters, almost a dangerous attraction between people who might in other circumstances have been enemies. As I tried to execute that idea in my manuscript, however, it kept hitting obstacles.

 

The Best-Planned Lays of Mice & Men…

My first draft overplayed the attraction between Cade and Anja. I had intended for her to be someone who could intimidate Cade, and I didn’t want her to reciprocate his infatuation too quickly. After all, I thought, characters should have to earn a good romance. I did my best to create a veneer of conflict between them while also planting the seeds of a future romance.

In the middle of the book I had their romantic subplot blossom in the aftermath of a great trauma. However, the needs of my story also dictated that this coupling, and the feelings of vulnerability that would emerge from it, would drive Anja away from her allies and set her on her own path to self-discovery. During her time alone she would experience feelings of regret for having left Cade behind.

In the outline all of that had made perfect sense. Sharing extreme experiences often helps bond people and can lead to heightened feelings of attraction and connection.

Imagine then, my surprise, when it all seemed to backfire at the manuscript stage.

 

No Sex, Please, We Hate Each Other

As I read through the first draft and compiled feedback from my beta readers, agent, and editor, I realized that my romantic subplot for Cade and Anja had done my female lead a massive disservice. I had made too much of her character development contingent upon her relationship with Cade, and making her flee from that connection—and then pine over it after the fact—made her seem weak.

The relationship also had not sparked enough action, reaction, or change in my male lead. The outcome of their romance didn’t feel any more germane to his journey than it did to hers. In short, their romance hadn’t done either of them any good, and it wasn’t helping the story.

During the last major rewrite of the novel, I transformed their relationship from one of attraction to one of bitter rivalry and antagonism. The moment I did that, their dynamic came into focus.

 

There’s Nothing Wrong With the Friend Zone

Cade and Anja had never been meant for love at first sight. Cade and Anja were destined to be competitors for the attention and approval of their shared master in the art of magic, like two adopted children both vying to be the parent’s favorite.

Instead of using hostility to mask affection, Anja  now owns her feelings. She treats Cade with hostility because that’s how she really feels. She resents him, his advantages, his privilege, his arrogance, and most of all his bond with the man she has come to see as a surrogate father. When she breaks away from her allies it is not a reaction to vulnerability but because she has reached a breaking point in what she considers an emotional betrayal on Cade’s behalf.

After my revisions were done, I saw a new path for Cade and Anja. Their journey in book one is about learning first how to be allies, and then how to be friends. That’s a foundation on which a future romance can be built in books two and beyond.

Making lovers out of bitter rivals is hard, but as a Rodgers & Hart lyric once said, “the world discovers / as my book ends / how to make two lovers / of friends.”

 


Buy The Midnight Front: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the book. Follow David Mack on Facebook and Twitter.

Words I Can’t Say: Pronunciation Guides for Audiobook Recordings

What do you do when the  producer of the audiobook version of your novel asks you to provide a pronunciation guide for words you have no idea how to say?

Many folks who grew up as voracious readers have probably experienced the embarrassment of knowing the meaning of a word before learning its pronunciation. This phenomenon tends to rear its ugly head at the most inopportune times—most often when one is trying to sound erudite in front of new acquaintances. In the company of learned peers, such a faux pas can feel mortifying.

After I graduated from college I had thought this particular nightmare was behind me. By that point my spoken vocabulary had mostly achieved parity with my reading level. Encouraged by the prospect of a future in which I would put words on pages and let others puzzle over them, I let myself get comfortable. Then I got lazy. And I got cocky.

 

What Do You Say, Writer-man?

In early December of 2017 I received an e-mail from the producer of the audiobook version of my original novel The Midnight Front, a story whose premise involves ceremonial black magic being practiced as part of a behind-the-scenes conflict during the Second World War. The producer asked me to do something I had done before for audiobooks of my previous novels: provide a pronunciation guide for specified proper nouns and exotic words in my manuscript, as a reference for the actor who would record the audiobook. But this request was different.

As I skimmed through the list of words, I realized I had dug myself into an inescapable pit. Having reproduced verbatim in my novel the content of Renaissance-era black-magic rituals, it had never occurred to me that I would at some point have to tell someone how to pronounce these words. The rituals included obscure phrases in bastardized Latin, consonant-heavy names of demons, and other archaisms for which no easy reference exists.

Off the top of my head, I had no idea how to say “Vindicta! Morietur, et draconi,” “Occidere monstrum,” “Iustitia et libertas,” or “Adiuro animae meaeanima tua potestate mea sit potestate, in condicionibus foederis.” And I found myself at a loss to think of anyone I knew who could.

 

Nice Place to Visit, But I Can’t Tell You Its Name

The producer also asked me to offer pronunciation guidance for the names of foreign cities. Some were Polish, some Scottish, but all were baffling to me. Loch Duich, Dębniki, Podgórze, Płaszów—try reciting that list five times fast. I can’t pronounce it even once.

The further down the list I went, the more befuddled I became. My producer wanted me to offer spoken examples of “Ut fulgur gladium meum,” “Audite vocem meam, et dolore esse parcendum,” and, perhaps most tongue-twisting of all, “venité, venité, submirillitor.” And don’t even get me started on Novgorodskaya Oblast.

Over the course of forty years I’ve gone from reading words that I don’t know how to use in conversation to writing books that contain words I can’t be trusted to speak without embarrassing myself. In the long run, I suppose, this might count as progress. If only I’d known what to tell my audiobook producer.

If you pick up a copy of my exciting new contemporary fantasy The Midnight Front in audiobook format and all the Latin phrases and foreign cities’ names are mispronounced, please don’t send angry mail to my producers. I assure you that the blame will rest with me alone.

Tuckerizing: How Much Is Too Much?

Most writers have done it at some point in their careers. Fan-fic writers do it quite often. Most authors will even admit to doing it if asked and pressed for an honest answer. I’m talking, of course, about Tuckerization, the practice of naming characters in fictional works after real-life persons. The practice is named for early American science-fiction author, fan, and fanzine editor Wilson Tucker, who earned a reputation for basing minor characters in his stories and novels on his friends and colleagues in the literary community.

Write Who You Know

In the majority of instances of Tuckerization, the namesake is someone the author either knows personally or with whom he or she is at least acquainted. This is what differentiates Tuckerization from simple homage. For instance, in the 1968 novel Black Easter by James Blish, the author named his story’s sorcerer Theron Ware as an homage to the titular character of Harold Frederic’s novel The Damnation of Theron Ware, which was published in 1896. Because of the thematic overlap of the two stories, this is a classic example of homage.

By contrast, the second and subsequent seasons of the CW television series iZombie feature an FBI missing-persons investigator named Dale Bozzio. Not only is this a Tuckerization, because Dale Bozzio is a real person, it’s also a wonderful in-joke for fans of early 1980s pop music: the real Dale Bozzio was the lead singer of new-wave band Missing Persons.

Now and then, I name and model a character after someone I know simply to save time: it’s easier to work from memory than to concoct a whole new person from scratch for what might amount to no more than a single appearance.

Honor vs. Revenge

There are as many reasons for Tuckerizations as there are authors who have committed them. I do it sometimes merely as a nod to my friends or peers. At other times it might be an act of subtle revenge, depending upon how the namesake character is defined in the story.

I’ve Tuckerized someone I know in nearly every work of prose fiction I’ve ever written. The one for which I take the most flak was my decision to include the name of my wife (at that time, my girlfriend) on a list of casualties in my first Star Trek novel, Wildfire. Her character was dead before anyone had a chance to meet her. I’ve since protested in my defense that if I had known for certain at the time that I was going to marry her, I might not have killed her off.

I once named an incompetent twit of a character after a work supervisor I despised (with some adjustments to give myself plausible deniability) and I delivered that character to a gruesome, pointless demise. I’ve christened a space station with a name derived from a friend’s nickname, split another friend’s surname into two pieces as a name for an alien, and committed my share of anagrammatical Tuckerization (e.g., veteran Star Trek writer-producer Ronald D. Moore became, in my Star Trek Destiny trilogy, the Caeliar leader Ordemo Nordal).

In my more than two dozen published Star Trek novels, one would find the names of many of the New York publishing community’s more prominent editors, authors, art directors, publishers, and agents. For the most part I do it as a token of affection or respect for my peers, because I’ve noticed that many of them get a kick out of seeing themselves cast into unexpected roles in the Star Trek universe. Who wouldn’t want to wake up to the surprise that he or she is a starship captain? Or a member of Kirk’s crew?

The Dark Side of the Name-Drop

Not everybody likes Tuckerization, though. Some industry professionals think it debases a work by sullying it with an in-joke. Others have voiced the valid concern that many readers have come to recognize the names of industry professionals thanks to interactions on social media, and that seeing those names in a fictional context might serve to jolt them out of a story by confronting them with evidence of its artifice. These are valid concerns, to be certain.

In my new World War II epic fantasy novel The Midnight Front, I tried to strike a balance between outright Tuckerization and semi-Tuckerizing, which is a practice that comes closer to homage. I named a few characters explicitly after people I know, but I limited most of my hat-tips to friends and peers in this book to surnames only. Sharp-eyed readers might wonder about the science-fiction and fantasy pedigrees of such characters as Sergeant Sykes, Corporal Brett, Colonel Abraham Corey, Warrant Officer Gallo, and Sergeant Ward.

The thing to remember about this kind of homage is that the subtler it is, the better. Tuckerization is a strong flavor to mix into your narrative stew. A little goes a long way, so sprinkle in those names that are famous or familiar with care.

 


The Midnight Front is now on sale: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

Read an excerpt from The Midnight Front. Follow David Mack on Facebook and Twitter.

See what I learned over at Chuck Wendig’s blog Terrible Minds

I’m spewing words today on the blog at Terrible Minds, the site of author extraordinaire Chuck Wendig. He has a regular guest feature called “5 Things,” in which he invites authors to share five things they learned while writing their most recently published book.

Chuck very graciously allowed me to post on his virtual real estate about the lessons I gleaned from the creation of The Midnight Front, the first book in my new Dark Arts modern-fantasy series from Tor Books.

I hope you’ll check out my post. And before you go, let me extend my sincerest gratitude to Chuck for the way that he lends his platform to other authors. Generosity like Chuck’s (and also John Scalzi‘s and Mary Robinette Kowal‘s) is one of the things that makes working in this industry really feel like a pleasure.

S’all for now. Go. Read.