Writing Magic

I think writing and storytelling is a kind of magic.

Maybe literally, if you believe in that sort of thing. Like, okay, when I sit down to craft a story I’m suddenly stringing together letters based on utterances which form words which form sentences which form ideas and then I mash a lot of those ideas together and they begin to create a narrative — a narrative that didn’t exist before, a lightning struck the gassy heavens and lit the skies aflame and now it’s raining Frankensteins and unicorns moment.

It’s profound, powerful, weird-ass stuff.

But I used to also feel that this magic was inviolable. Or worse, fragile. Like, this sense that it’s a nervous horse quick to spook. Or that it’s a little bridge made of glass and if you put too much weight on it you’ll hear the crinkly crackle-snap and tumble into an abyss of dead magic.

It’s sometimes used as one of the reasons that people don’t outline — or worse, the reason they don’t like to edit their work. In fact, it’s used as a reason for a lot of things, this magic: the magic of the muse, the curse of writer’s block, the fickle fates of a day’s writing (sorry, just can’t make the words today, for the magic breath of the gods has not been breathed up my nethers and so my pallid flesh will not be animated to action).

I think when magic fuels you: that’s awesome.

But I think when magic hampers you: that’s really sad.

Because the magic isn’t supposed to hamstring you.

It’s supposed to fuel the work, not fuel your excuses.

If you don’t like to outline or do any kind of plotting or planning — more power to you*. But let that be because that’s how your process works, not because the magic spell is so frangible, so untenable, that to merely gaze upon it will cause it to shatter. If your story is so delicate, you’re probably in deep fucking trouble, friend. It’s not a baby rabbit. You can’t scare it to death.

But I think I have a solution for what feels to me like troublesome thinking, and it involves looking at your story as a different kind of magic altogether:

Look at it like a magic trick.

A magic trick isn’t an impromptu thing: you don’t merely get on stage and let the Muse barf inspiration for the trick into your brain-bucket. You conceive of it in a fit of inspiration, like with anything — but then you practice. You know the trick intimately before it’s ever performed on stage: you’re the magician, goddamnit. Of course you know how the trick is performed.

But that doesn’t remove the fun of the trick.

Because the fun of the trick is seeing the audience react.

The fun is in the awe they feel. Their “wow” is more important than your “wow.”

Just because you know the trick doesn’t mean the magic is dead.

(* More seriously, I again want to make it clear that none of this is a condemnation of your process. Some folks outline. Some don’t. Some scry stories in pigeon guts. Whatever makes your grapefruit squirt. The point is wesometimes  rely on this kind of supernatural thinking as an excuse rather than as an empowerment. Which is no good.)

49 comments

  • Great stuff Chuck, and well said. I don’t believe it’s unicorn’s farting rainbows and honey magic, I think it’s sweat, and blood, and copious amounts of umm…stuff and things. Yeah there are those moments when it feels like magic, because it flows out of the wherever place. But it’s mostly work. Love your posts dude, always amusing and informative.

  • Yes, some days it feels as if the well of inspiration is falling on, and filling with endless flood of words. Other days you drag your muse kicking, screaming, cursing down the hallway hoping the neighbors don’t get nervous.

    The important thing is everyday you make progress.

    • “Other days you drag your muse kicking, screaming, cursing down the hallway hoping the neighbors don’t get nervous.”

      HA! Spot-on, absolutely perfect description of what it feels like some days. Sometimes, I picture myself dragging my muse by the hair, like a cavewoman. Hey, whatever works…

  • You are so right about the magic, Chuck. It’s just so incredible how our brains can put together random threads of ideas, creating the skeletons of stories. And yes, it definitely shouldn’t be treated like some kind of fragile glass flower. You’ve got to get down and use that magic – make it work for you, not you for it. Get your magic industrial strength. Lube those brain gears!
    I’m also glad that I don’t have a muse. I don’t need one. I’m glad I don’t have to rely on the whims of some ephemeral construct. I get my ideas, write them down in a notebook so as not to forget them, and then I outline before every bout of writing. Also, is it weird that I don’t need coffee?

  • This was both exactly what I needed right now, and disappointing. Because for one, this is getting me back into feeling a ‘thrill’ in my story. However on the other hand, I clicked this hoping it would be literally about MAGIC.

    I’m having a problem coming up with a magic scheme for my fantasy story right now, and I can’t very well write the story until I have a decent grasp of how the main character’s magic works. So I clicked on this give me a better idea on well, how to write Magic without making it a deus-ex-machina.

    Time to start Googling ‘How to make Magic’, this time with safe search ON.

  • What if it did?

    What if knowing how a thing worked made it not work for you?

    You know how washing machines work, great, here’s a washboard, have fun.

    You know how computers work, welcome to doing everything without them.

    You know how cars work, you can’t drive.

    And your quest is to discover how the magic that makes things not work works because then it won’t work for you.

    • Excellent meta-magic.

      The way it works for me is quantum entanglement, which said frees me to use what I will.

      Unfortunately, you either now know how I beat it (in which case you cannot use the method) or it is wrong (in which case you can use it but it will not work).

  • I have always likened it to coding. You string together a bunch symbols, letters, and numbers in a particular way and a computer spits out something miraculous… or not. If you did it right, and there are dozens of ways of doing most things right, you get a magic trick in the eyes of those who don’t understand how you learned to commune with the spirit in the computer. If you did it wrong, you have an Editor-in-the-Machine that reads it and tells you that it just won’t work, try again. Sometimes, that E.i.t.M. tells you what line you screwed up, other times it tells you something earlier on didn’t work and that the core of the code is fine, but change a variable, find the incorrect syntax, or it just flat out doesn’t understand you because you have just spoken a language it doesn’t understand. Once you have everything in the right place, at least according to what it is looking for, it allows the trick to happen. Unlike writing, coding is a much more immediate editing process, but doesn’t mean it’s better. Just means it tells you where you screwed up much quicker. Just my “10” cents worth. Great blog, love reading it!

  • Reminds me of Damon Knight, who referred to his muse, his subconscious, as ‘Fred’.
    When stuck, or in need of inspiration or a path out of the corner he’d written himself into, Knight envisioned just sending a request, ‘down to Fred’ , who was not a supernatural sprite but more of a grumpy workaday guy at a desk in the basement office.

    • WORD. +1.

      From an earlier (actually, the first) 25 things post:

      “Yours is the power of gods: you say, “let there be light,” and Sweet Maggie McGillicutty, here comes some light. Writing is the act of creation. Put words on page. Words to sentences, sentences to paragraphs, paragraphs to 7-book epic fantasy cycles with books so heavy you could choke a hippo. But don’t give writing too much power, either. A wizard controls his magic; it doesn’t control him. Push aside lofty notions and embrace the workmanlike aesthetic. Hammers above magic wands; nails above eye-of-newt. The magic will return when you’re done. The magic is in what you did, not in what you’re doing.”

      http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2011/04/26/25-things-every-writer-should-know/

  • I wonder if it’s more typical that writers feel it’s more fragile and easily-disturbed early in their lives as writers, and as they do it more (i.e., practice, and get better) it becomes something more workmanlike.

  • You point out two very different senses of magic; the experience of magic and the performance; amazement and conjuration. Artists are always conjurers for their audience, if they are any good. The question is, how important is it to some artists to be the audience of their own work? How important is the experience of creativity to us? Do we delight in the discovery? Or is it all plodding execution and performance?

    We can take joy that our work is well received by an audience, but is that the most important thing to us? Is how we feel about our work conditioned by how it struck an audience? Is an audience’s experience of the work more important than our own?

    If we are no longer amazed by the things we do, then it does seem something important may have died. And maybe it is more important that the magic lives on in an audience’s mind, but if its all drudgery for the creator why do we even bother? Just to fascinate others? Isn’t it important to like what we do independent of how it strikes an audience? Isn’t it important that we too find the magic of what we are doing and not just go through the motions of putting on a show?

    Well, maybe not for everyone. But trading out our own experience of the magical for its execution is not an equal exchange. And perhaps its a mistake to simply dismiss how an artist sometimes needs the capacity to experience the magic of their own exploration. Sometimes its still important for us to witness what we do with innocent eyes…..

    As you say, sometimes this is an excuse not to work, but then also sometimes its an empowerment. Sometimes its still the reason why we sit down long hours everyday. We do it for ourselves. We do it because we are charmed by the magic. It has not dulled to a tarnished familiar triviality. We are not yet jaded…..

    • Those are totally valuable and viable questions.

      To be clear, though, I’m not suggesting some life of drudgery — I’m just suggesting that if your experience of the magic is actually hampering your actual storytelling or dinging your writing process by limiting you in some fashion, then it is better to be shut of those illusions rather than being slave to them.

      Writing with or without an outline, or writing with or without the sense your characters are “in control,” will always be a kind of magic. You’ll always be an explorer. There’s always creativity and creation and weirdness and uncertainty on every page. That’s just how it is, no matter how well-drawn your map is, no matter how workman-like your process.

      I think the post hopefully makes clear that if you’re empowered: excellent. If not: well, then, you need to do some real soul-searching if the magic hamstrings you rather than helps you run faster.

      — c.

  • Stephen King says in On Writing that his sense is that writing has more in common with sweeping the floor than accepting magical inspiration from the Aether.

    It is magic, but it’s everyday magic, the sort of magic that is also work. It’s a good thing to remember when you get a bit pretentious with yourself. It’s also a good thing to remember when the words come hard and you;re certain you;re talking out of your arse.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  • So true. I find that when I’m struggling to be inspired or “find the magic”, if I just start writing, the words come. If I get scared off because I don’t feel inspired, I’m no further forward or helping myself but frightening myself off before I get started.

  • June 26, 2013 at 9:03 AM // Reply

    That’s really cool. And it made me feel good about my writing, which is always the main purpose in reading about writing. Thank you.

  • Being a production artist with a deadline shook me out of any reliance on “the muse.” When the most scathing thing an art director can say is “Yeah, he said he wasn’t working today because he ‘just wasn’t feeling it'” (cue sardonic laughter) you learn to get over it damn quick if you like to eat.

    Some days I’m on, and I’m on fire, and I can’t put a word or a brush wrong.

    Most days I’m not—but the work STILL has to get done.

  • So far, I have been one who doesn’t do outlines. But only because that’s how the process works for me. I’m considering writing a nonfiction book. That, I would outline. I love the “magic” of writing. Yesterday, I wrote a great song, the first in a long time. Listen at http://www.danerickson.net It felt magical, but it was also hard work and an intentional process.

  • “If it is magic, then the writer needs to be in control of the magic, not subject to it. Be the mage.”

    This. And not just this; if fantasy has taught me anything, magic isn’t fragile, but mages often are. So be a confident mage.

  • I hate magic-writing metaphors with a passion. Magic is bullshit. Straight up, no joke, huge steaming turds of it.

    Only artists do this crap. When a marathon runner wins a race, he never turns around and says “Well I guess today some arbitrary cosmic being decided to fill me with fast juice.” It’s shameful really, an attempt to put a big glittery fig leaf over a simple truth.

    Creative writing is weird in that a good number of people can competently hammer out nouns and verbs into sentences, so what gives you the right to build your own fantastic imaginary world? Well, you see, I was blessed by an invisible fae creature to make me better than you. No, it has nothing to do with taking a common skill, refining it through years of sweat and toil, and then having the bravery to put my work out there as an extension of myself. Fae favors all the way bro.

    The glory of it all isn’t receiving some divine transmission from the God-radio. It’s taking something common and making it seem exceptional. It’s the drudge work of hitting those daily word counts, then scrapping through 100,000 words to make them 80,000 words, to compress that lump of coal into a diamond that shines.

    Hard work beats inspiration ever day of the goddamn week. Not because inspiration is useless, but because it’s a shitty place to start. It’s when you’re in that moment, when you are lifting that barbell or hitting that 800 meter stride or crafting that third page of the day when you get a jolt of inspiration in the moment, that heady realization that you are doing something that matters. That’s how it gets done.

    • I like the passion and certainty in this comment. Gives me something to argue against 🙂

      It’s not true, actually, that only artists believe that their inspiration and/or success is magical. It’s funny that you chose runners as an example, because runners can be incredibly superstitious. As a massage therapist who works with runners – and as a runner myself – I can tell you that many runners know that they have good races and bad races, and although they track EVERYTHING, from food intake to dew point to temperature to wind strength and direction, they can’t always identify WHY. It’s not hard to make a leap from there into magical thinking. And plenty of runners are highly religious, so that does bring the higher cosmic power back into play. Scoff at that if you will, but there are a lot of people in this world who believe very deeply that there is a God, and that that God is helping them.

      I’m not saying all runners are like this. You, yourself, could be a runner who isn’t like this, for all I know. But the point is, it’s not just artists who start thinking their success is due to some kind of magic. Good lord, just watch a baseball player batting at the plate – have you ever seen such a clear display of superstitiousness??? This is a very, very human trait, this belief in strange magic (or luck or faith or God or the muse or whatever you want to call it), and dismissing that outright is dismissing a part of what makes us all weirdly, stupidly, wonderfully human.

      You’re absolutely right that hard work is what gets us there in the end, and that it matters much, much more than inspiration. But I just think your dismissal of magic misses a few important things.

      I could go on and on, but you get the idea 🙂

      • The kind of magic you’re talking about is Dumbo’s magic feather. Believing something doesn’t make it true. Have a ritual that puts you in the zone? Yeah, sure, go for it. But thinking that the stars need to align or some magic pixie dust needs to be sprinkled on you to succeed is bunk.

        Not being able to pinpoint “why” you succeed becomes a problem when people confuse correlation with causation. You never finish well in a race you don’t run, and you rarely finish well in a race you don’t train for. It’s not very mystical to talk about creating art the same way, but it turns out that aside from a few genius-inspired flukes it’s made the same way as everything else in this world: with a shitload of hard work.

  • “The fun is in the awe they feel. Their ‘wow’ is more important than your ‘wow.'” I’m not totally sold on this. I think if we don’t feel the wow, the audience won’t either. I do believe that hard work has more to do with it than what you call “magic”, but I think everyone who does their job well and works to improve it every day should be able to feel that wow. Because hard work, pride and dedication make magic, whether you’re a marathon runner, an automobile mechanic, a magician or a writer.

    • Well, the point is, their “wow” will never be your “wow.”

      First, you know it before you write it (even without outlining one assumes you have a sense of what you’ll be writing in the next five minutes). Second, editing kind of kills the buzz in a lot of ways.

      Your “wow” is a deeper, protracted appreciation — again, at least for me, my magic is anticipating the magic my audience will see.

      YMMV, of course.

      — c.

      • Thanks for the reply. I guess it is a different kind of wow, but it’s definitely just as important, at least to my writing. I write romances and recently read a blog post asking if romance writers had to fall in love with their heroes. Well, no. Not exactly. I reserve falling in love for real life. But we have to write heroes we COULD fall in love with or my reader won’t be able to fall in love with him. And who cares about a romance if you don’t care about the characters?

        The same thing actually applies to magicians, I’ve found. Several magicians I Tweet with talk about reserving some of the wonder for themselves. Yes, they know how their tricks work, but if they aren’t able to see the possibility of wonder in the world around them, they won’t be able to convey that to their audience. Same thing goes for writing, IMO.

        BTW, I loved the rest of the post, and I definitely used to be guilty of a lot of what you warn against. I should have mentioned that earlier. It was just that one part about the wow that gave me pause.

    • It’s a different kind of wow. For those with a tabletop roleplaying background, it’s the difference between playing a game and running a game. You already know the traps and tricks and the bad guy’s secret weakness. Your entertainment has to be in seeing other people enjoy your creation. If you can’t find joy in that, you’ll burn yourself out sooner or later.

      • Hi, D.W. I never played roleplaying games, but I can see your point. Yes, it’s a different wow (see above), but it’s just as important. I guess my wow comes after I’ve written something and I re-read and think, holy crap, did little ol’ me just write THAT? That’s pretty damn good. And then I think, I’d really like other people to read that. So yeah, it’s about the audience, but it’s not, you know? Because if I don’t get a charge out of what I write, my reader’s not going to be able to get into it, and then the point is moot.

  • It’s not a trick, Chuck. It’s an illusion.

    (Great post. Especially like the point that the audience’s “wow” is, in some ways, more important than your own.”

  • Magic, indeed. And you’re so right about the audience reaction making it all worth it. When someone loves my novel, I don’t say “OH BUT YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND I HAD TO SACRIFICE UNICORNS TO MAKE IT HAPPEN…” I say “Thank you very much” and hide my desire to truly tell that person how much I love them right then (mostly because that usually results in a restraining order….NOT THAT I WOULD KNOW *Stuffs papers into pocket*).

    Reading books is magical to me. Writing books is too. I love this post. It reminds me why I do what I do.

  • You know what gets me through the editing process, is thinking about my husband’s magic tricks. (No, not that kind. Jesus, wash out that mind.) He used to work as a magician for a magic store in Vegas. Magicians don’t show a trick to an audience until it can be performed without a flaw. He used to work and work on tricks until he could do them straight from muscle memory. Then they were ready.

    And now the internet knows why I chug along outside of my love for writing. Don’t tell my husband I said nice things about him.

  • Love this post! You can have reasons or excuses but you can’t have both. I can’t think of many things in life that couldn’t be used both ways depending entirely on the individual and how they view their situation. The hard part is when something you thought was a reason that motivated you to get shit done turns into your excuse not to when your back was turned, and then you have to fight through your nostalgia or sentimental ties or whatever you want to call it, in order to find a newer better magic.

  • Great post. I can understand how this line of thought works. I am big fan of outlining, but I hate editing. I’m not sure if that part has anything to do with magic. But when I write, it’s like I don’t even have to think. Almost as if I’m channeling a story that already exists and I’m just a conduit. Three thousand words can just flow out of me in just a couple hours. I can sit and write until my hands hurt without thought of pausing. That’s where the magic is for me.

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