Oct 12

Auckland Allies is out!

AucklandAllies_MRMCover_500x780I'm pleased to announce that the first book in my new urban fantasy series, Auckland Allies, is available from Amazon (other outlets to follow soon).

As bit players in the world of magic, Tara, Sparx, and their clairvoyant acquaintance Steampunk Sally are careful to stay clear of New Zealand's supernatural politics. So after Sally uses her powers to win a little money at blackjack, it's a nasty surprise when hired goons come after them.

Hitting the streets, they try to find out who these Blokes in Black work for, why such a dangerous and powerful figure has his sights set on three magical nobodies--and how to protect themselves.

They discover a plot to use Auckland's volcanoes in a massive demon-summoning ritual, which nobody else is equipped to stop. The question is: are they?

I have six more books at various degrees of "planned" for the series. I've already started on the second book, Auckland Allies: Newtonian Manuscript, in which a magical text by Sir Isaac Newton, a nonmagical ex-girlfriend, and a necromantic threat all interfere with Sparx and Sally's attempt to make a living supplying costumes and props to New Zealand's film industry.

This is going to be more of a "continuing story" series than the Gryphon Clerks' "meanwhile, elsewhere" approach. Each book will build on the previous one, but be complete in itself, with the first chapter or two reminding or informing readers who these people are and why they're all fighting.

Early feedback indicates that this is a solid, fun novel with good potential for a series, and I'm excited to see how it goes. Pick up your copy from Amazon.

Other News

My Short Story Challenge project is going well; so far this year I've made 42 submissions (only two short of 2014's full-year total), and had seven acceptances, which I'm super-happy about. Most of the acceptances have been recent, so the only one published since my last update is  "Lock and Key," in which a clever alchemist in an Arabian-Nights setting solves several murders.

All the details of my short story sales and where they will appear are on the short stories page at the website. Coming very soon is In Memory, a tribute anthology to Sir Terry Pratchett in aid of Alzheimer's research, in which I have a piece.

Next year I hope to write at least two dozen stories, so if you like my short fiction there's plenty more coming. And if novels are more your speed, make sure to pick up Auckland Allies.

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Aug 25

Treble and Bass: A Metaphor

I woke up at two o'clock this morning and started thinking about fiction. (This is normal behaviour for a writer.) In the nonlinear way that brains work at 2am, my brain came up with a metaphor that I'd like to explore here.

Of the several ways in which fiction can be satisfying, here are two:

A. Events have an impact on characters.

B. Characters have an impact on events.

Those aren't at opposite ends of a spectrum. They're like sliders on a mixing board, which can be moved up and down independently. Let's call them treble and bass, respectively.

underwhelmer / Foter / CC BY

Here's a theory. The "sad puppies" (if you don't know who they are, rejoice, and bail out now, because this post won't make a lot of sense to you) are all about that bass, 'bout that bass, no treble. (I'm generalising and exaggerating for the sake of a point; fair warning, I'll be doing a lot of that, so take what I have to say with salt to taste.)

My speculation is that in the brief interval before they decided to engage in a conspiracy to distort the Hugo nomination process in the service of identity politics, and then got hijacked by the king of the haters, the puppies may have thought, "We, and everyone we know whose opinion we respect, like fiction with lots of bass, and don't care much about treble. These Hugo-winning stories have too much treble, and not enough bass. Since no right-thinking person would actually like them, there must be a conspiracy to distort the Hugo nomination process in the service of identity politics! That's so wrong! We should do it too!"

Incidentally, in my view the short stories--not so much the novels--that have won Hugos in recent years do tend to emphasise treble a lot more than bass, reflecting a wider trend in the pro magazines and anthologies. The novels have more of a balance between the two--at least, the ones I've read.

I personally prefer a balance: both treble and bass. I find bass-only stories as unsatisfying as treble-only stories. But let's think about why people might write stories that are strongly one or the other. Wild speculation, OK? I could be completely wrong here.

Let's say you're a member of a historically disadvantaged and disempowered group (for our current purposes, any such group will do). What's your experience going to be? Might it possibly be that you experience being impacted by events more than you experience impacting events? And might your fiction reflect that experience?

And if, by contrast, you're a member of a historically advantaged and empowered group, won't you tend to experience, and think in terms of, your actions impacting events? And (here the speculation goes completely wild) might there be reasons that you don't want to think too hard about how events impact people? Why you might want to live in a universe where everyone is stoic and unmoved, and nobody's life is defined by things that happen to them without their consent? Particularly if your group's experience of unquestioned power is waning, and is now being constantly challenged, with questions being raised about whether your advantage over others is a good thing, even whether it will continue to exist?

Now, I want to live in a world where everyone can experience both bass and treble. I think that world is coming, but it isn't here yet. During such a transition, fiction becomes a zone of conflict, because fiction is inherently political, because it's a cultural product produced by people, who can't help being political even if they think they aren't.

And that is all I have to say about puppies.

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Jul 30

Genre Considered As a Restaurant

If you’ve spent much time around writers, you’ve probably heard someone complain that “genre” is just a way for publishers and booksellers to impose marketing categories for their own convenience, and it should die in a fire, because we’d all be better off without it.

I’ve said things adjacent to this myself. After all, my first novel is set in a secondary world--like a fantasy, but with no magic--that’s loosely based on Shakespeare’s Italy, and combines the language of a literary novel with the plot of a serial-killer mystery thriller, told in diary entries. Consequently, it’s almost impossible to sell, because what’s the audience for that? What genre does it even fit in?

It’s easy, then, to fall into bemoaning the idea that a book even needs a genre. Recently, though, I’ve started to think about genre with a new metaphor: that of a restaurant.

We’re very fortunate in the 21st century to have access to the cuisine of so many cultures. My father, who grew up in New Zealand in the 1930s, once told me how much things had improved in his lifetime. When he was young, “going out” meant going to the pub for a roast dinner, which probably wasn’t even very tasty. At the time we were talking (the 1980s, I think), you could choose to get a meal from most parts of Europe and Asia, plus Latin America if you looked around a bit. These days, in most major cities worldwide, you can eat food from any inhabited continent.

That gives us a richness of choice which itself creates a new situation. We now have to ask ourselves, when going out to eat, which flavours, which experience, we want to have. What are we in the mood for?

Hence my metaphor of genre as restaurant, or rather, as cuisine. Different cuisines offer different satisfactions. Do we want the blended spices of India? The balance of sweet, hot and sour that Thai offers? The subtle flavours of France? Robust, earthy Mediterranean food? And if we want Mediterranean, is that Italian, Greek, Turkish, Middle Eastern, or North African?

Likewise, different genres offer different satisfactions too. Some of them are emotional: horror offers a thrill of fear, suspense offers a thrill of excitement, romance offers the warmth of intimacy, fantasy offers the imagined experience of having magical powers. Others are mental: mystery offers an experience of a puzzle solved, SF offers the exploration of a what-if. Our brains are wired to find these things satisfying, originally for survival reasons. The most successful genres, and the most successful books, I believe, combine emotional and mental satisfaction, but depending how you blend the flavours and which ones you emphasise, you can satisfy very different palates.

This is also why, although I read primarily fantasy, there are fantasy books (and authors) that leave me cold. Something in the blend is off. I had the experience, while in the US, of eating at a Thai restaurant where all the food primarily tasted sweet--no sour, no hot, just sweet. I love Thai food, but I didn’t love that.

I’m not always in the same mood, either. Just like I don’t always eat the same cuisine, I don’t always read the same genre or subgenre (or write it, either). Sometimes I want my fantasy to also contain mystery, or comedy, or be a thriller.

Just as there are different approaches to cooking, there are different approaches to writing. If you are working in a classic genre--French provincial cuisine, say, or noir detective--you have to get it exactly right. There’s nowhere to hide. You either produce an excellent, textbook example of the genre you’re attempting; you successfully update it into a modern version, without losing the essentials that made it great originally; or you fail, because you’ve created something that doesn’t match up to expectations, that isn’t well executed. And your failure is obvious, because we have well-known examples to compare with. We know what it should taste like.

If you’re being more experimental, or attempting “fusion,” using fancy techniques or ingredients, or combining ingredients that don’t classically go together, your possible failure modes are different. People may give you credit for attempting something new and different, but then go back to the classics for their next meal, because your imagination exceeded your ability to execute (for example, 99.99% of steampunk); or they may enjoy it, think you did it well, but decide that it’s not an experience they want all the time. Or they may become extremely excited if you pull it off, and come back again and again, and rave about it to all their friends--while struggling to express exactly what it is.

Genre, then, is like a restaurant sign. It tells us approximately what kind of experience we’re about to have. Covers and blurbs elaborate on this, which is why covers are so important, and why you need to have a cover that fits into your genre as well as standing out, and which doesn’t mislead readers about what the book is like. (This is a large part of the reason that I self-publish: because I don’t trust publishers to make good decisions about my covers.) And among the things I look for in a blurb (and in reviews) are the signals that tell me: this book is tragic, this book is funny, this book is action-packed, this book explores character deeply.

A bookstore, then, is a food court. And to market your book, you need to convey to people what they’re going to get when they consume it. One way, the easy way, to do this is to sit within an obvious genre, to, metaphorically speaking, call your food stand The Spicy Wok or A Taste of Turkish. If you’re going outside the well-understood genres, though, you need to think hard about who is going to want those particular flavours, and how you convey to them that that’s what you’re selling.

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Jul 14

Launch Day: The Well-Presented Manuscript (and other news)

WPM002_smallIt's launch day for The Well-Presented Manuscript: Just What You Need to Know to Make Your Fiction Look Professional, my new non-fiction book for my fellow writers. Currently, it's exclusive to Amazon, but if you use other outlets, I'll soon have it available in the B&N, Kobo and Apple stores and via Oyster and Scribd.

I've just finished reading Damon Knight's excellent book Creating Short Fiction. I was pleased to note that his section on "How to Be Publishable" included the point that you need a command of language, including some knowledge of how to assemble words into phrases and sentences, and a good active vocabulary. That's exactly what The Well-Presented Manuscript is about: developing the basic competence with the tools and materials of language that will get your fiction read by editors, reviewers and the general public.

Nowhere is this more important than in your blurb or pitch, which is one of the first things your prospective reader will see. Just this morning, I read a blurb in which "Scottish" was spelled with three consecutive Ts. As it happens, I've read part of the book concerned, and the editing is terrible (which is why I stopped reading). The blurb does tip you off to what the book is going to be like.

So here's the blurb for The Well-Presented Manuscript:

Do you want to be taken seriously by editors, readers or reviewers?
Do you make errors in your fiction writing?
This book is for you.

Mike Reeves-McMillan is a fiction author, reviewer, and former copy editor and technical writer. He's analysed the errors he's found in almost 250 books, both indie and traditionally published, and written a simple, clear guide to avoiding the most common issues.

- Why editors reject 90% of what's submitted to them—and how to increase your chances.
- How to get punctuation right every time.
- The special conventions of dialog.
- The most common word confusions, typos, and research errors—and how to check for and eliminate them.

If that interests you, please go to Amazon and pick up a copy of The Well-Presented Manuscript. (That's an affiliate link--it costs you the same, but pays me more.) I promise you'll learn at least two useful things you didn't know before.

More News

I recently reviewed my short story submission stats for the first half of this year, and compared them with the full-year stats for last year.

I'm submitting at about the same rate (23 for the half-year, versus 44 for the full year last year). My proportion of personal rejections to form rejections has improved slightly (8:9 instead of 14:20). But the big jump is in acceptances: four so far this year, versus one for the whole of last year.

I'll announce the publications as they come out, but I've made two sales to online magazine The Sockdolager (one of them already published); placed a story with In Memory, a charity anthology honouring Terry Pratchett and benefiting Alzheimer's research; and sold another story to The Overcast, a fiction podcast.

I'm continuing to write new stories, and keeping them in circulation. There are over 100 professional and semi-professional science fiction and fantasy publications soliciting stories at the moment, so it's a wonderful time to be writing short fiction.

On the novel side, I have three or four more edit passes to go on Auckland Allies, the first in a new urban fantasy series. It's set in Auckland, New Zealand, where I live. It's a lot of fun, and I hope to bring it out in the next few months.

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Apr 04

Blokes in Black is coming

I don't have a launch date yet - I've just today finished the first draft - but, after appropriate revisions, Blokes in Black will be on its way to you very soon.

This is my new urban fantasy. I hope it'll be the start of a series, especially since I already have some ideas for a second book. Here's the blurb:

As minor practitioners, Tara and Sparx are careful to stay clear of magical politics. So they're not expecting the anonymous goon-o-gram from a more powerful talent, who's apparently miffed with their acquaintance Steampunk Sally, the short-range seer.


Fighting off the attack with a combination of dumb luck and reluctant teamwork, they set about finding out who the Blokes in Black work for, and why they might be targeting three underpowered makers in Auckland, New Zealand.

I tell the story through three first-person narrators (Tara, Sparx and Sally), because I couldn't just leave the formula alone and write an urban fantasy like all the others. However, it's still very much in the mould of the urban fantasies I love - Carrie Vaughn, Jim Butcher and Patricia Briggs. My Gryphon Clerks novels have been criticised for sometimes lacking conflict, tension and emotional engagement, and I've listened to those criticisms. I don't think you'll find those problems here.

It's set in Auckland, New Zealand, where I've lived basically all my life, so it's an opportunity for me to write about places and things that I know and (in most cases) love. The title is a tribute to my late father, who co-wrote a very successful nonfiction book about New Zealand rugby called Men in Black, and the language and setting are unashamedly Kiwi.

As a teaser, here's one of my planning artefacts, which hints at the Blokes in Black's dastardly plan:

I'm having huge fun with this book, and I hope you will too. Make sure you join my (low-volume) mailing list if you want to be informed when Blokes in Black comes out.

UPDATE: It's out (now called Auckland Allies), and so is Book 2 in the series, Ghost Bridge.

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Mar 14

Spec Fic and Comedy

Like millions of other fans, I'm saddened to hear of the death of Sir Terry Pratchett, one of my favourite authors. It seems like a good occasion to reflect on humour in SFF (science fiction and fantasy), a topic I've been thinking about lately in any case.

I recently read, or at least started to read, a single-author collection of supposedly humourous SFF. The humour didn't work for me, as sometimes happens, and what that revealed, like mudflats at low tide, was that the stories weren't particularly good stories, and the SFF consisted mainly of cliches (while the humour consisted mainly of silly names). I didn't make it past halfway through the second story, a limp Lord of the Rings parody, neither funny, nor well-written, nor interesting.

I see this a lot in would-be comedic writing. I have to admit, as a reviewer I do often grant an author a pass for a dubious bit of worldbuilding, plotting, characterisation or what-have-you if the writing makes me laugh. The risk you run when you rely on this, though, is that if the writing doesn't make the reader laugh, there's nothing left to fall back on.

I maintain that a big part of the reason that Pratchett was the preeminent comic novelist since P.G. Wodehouse, responsible at one time for almost 4% of the entire British publishing industry's sales, was that he wrote books that worked as stories. His characters in the early books may have been cliches and stereotypes, but by his long and productive middle period he was writing characters with depth, complexity, growth and development.

There's a subtle, but detectable, gradient from cliche to stereotype to parody to character trapped in an unfortunate pattern of behaviour by habit and social expectation, and Pratchett showed us the full spectrum in the course of his career. He was an insightful observer of humanity, as all the best comedians are, but he was also a compassionate one - not just holding people up to mockery but reminding us that, whatever their failings, however small-minded and ridiculous they might be, they deserved consideration as human beings. (Even when they weren't, strictly speaking, human beings, but dwarves, trolls, golems, vampires, Igors or goblins.)

He's often compared to other writers, most frequently Douglas Adams and P.G. Wodehouse, but his stories have more depth than either. In Adams, there are cosmic stakes, but they're minimised by the absurdity. In Wodehouse, the stakes are seldom higher than social embarrassment. In Pratchett, the stakes are high, and we care about them, and yet we're laughing.

Sir Terry PratchettRaeAllen / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

I'll make a comparison myself. There's a fairly obscure American humourist called Damon Runyon. Most people who've heard of him know him through the musical Guys and Dolls, or perhaps the Shirley Temple movie Little Miss Marker, both of which were based on his work, but he wrote a great many short stories in the 1930s set in the more dubious parts of contemporary New York. They're stories of revenge, lost love, family tragedy, violence and, occasionally, good triumphant with the help of rough, hard-bitten characters who have a sentimental side. Yet, mainly through the voice of the unnamed narrator (who observes much more than he participates; he's never unambiguously the protagonist), they're funny, both because of their wry, ironic observations and because of the distinctive language. They are, at the same time, slangy and poetic, and characterised by a total avoidance of the past tense.

My parents had an omnibus of the Runyon stories, and I read them a couple of times growing up. A while ago, frustrated by another would-be comic fantasy that I didn't find funny or otherwise enjoyable, I set out to write my own version of the same premise, and for reasons connected with that premise I picked the Runyonese dialect to tell it in. To make sure I was getting the voice right, I re-read some of the Runyon tales, and I was struck by the fact that there's often a dark, or at least heartwrenching, story going on behind all the humour. So I strove to make that, too, a part of the story I wrote, which I sold to the Hysterical Realms anthology.

I might never have thought of attempting that, though, if it hadn't been for the example of Terry Pratchett. Death (the phenomenon) isn't funny. Death (the character, who makes at least a cameo appearance in every Discworld book and is a main character in several), while usually serious himself, is a cause of comedy in other people.

Let's reflect on that for a moment. At least one person dies in every Discworld novel. Often, it's a minor character, but usually it's someone with a name, though sometimes we don't learn the name until Death says it in all caps. And these are primarily thought of as comic novels.

That, too, was part of Pratchett's genius. Nothing in life, not even death, was outside his warm, human, comedic insightfulness. Now that he has made the transition himself, it's up to us who are left to try to carry on his legacy, not only of funny fantasy, but of kindness, good storytelling, and reflection on the human condition.

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Mar 08

Wearing the Hat

SockdolagerMy short story "Wearing the Hat" appears this month, in the first issue of online adventure fiction magazine The Sockdolager. You can read the whole story, and in fact the whole issue, online, but if you enjoy it I urge you to buy it (using the links from the issue's main page) and support this new venture.

I had an excellent experience submitting the story. The editors got back to me within 24 hours of my submission, they loved it, they sent me a contract the same day, the contract was clear and straightforward and fair, and they paid me - earlier than the contract said they had to - in advance of publication. All of these (apart, perhaps, from loving my story) are things that you'd think would be standard industry practice, but they're very much not.

The story itself is typical of my short pieces. It takes place in the Gryphon Clerks setting, but a long way away from the big events of the novels. It isn't about movers and shakers, but about the people who are moved and shaken, and deal with it as best they can. The hero isn't young, isn't a warrior, isn't changing the world; she's a middle-aged shopkeeper placed in an invidious position, who does what she has to do.

In keeping with The Sockdolager's premise ("short genre stories in which Things Happen"), though, it's more action-oriented than most of my stories. At the same time - and this, I think, is why they bought it - the action isn't in isolation, or there for its own sake; it arises naturally out of the situation, and means something to the participants. At heart, it's a Western.

If you enjoy it, there are another dozen like it in my solo collection Good Neighbours and Other Stories from HDWP Books. And don't forget the current Kickstarter for the Hysterical Realms anthology, in which I also have a piece.

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Mar 04

Now Kickstarting: Hysterical Realms

Hysterical RealmsI have a story in this anthology, now on Kickstarter. It's the third anthology in the Alternate Hilarities series, and you can get all three at the $10 backer level, or just this one for $5.

As I write, it's about halfway to its goal with 11 days to go, so pile in and add your contribution if funny fantasy is of interest to you. I haven't read the other stories, but some of them sound like they have a lot of potential.

My story ("Axe Stone, Svart Detective") is a mashup of Fritz Leiber-style sword-and-sorcery, the narrative style of Damon Runyon, and classic detective noir. I think I've combined those three elements effectively, into a story that would work even if it wasn't funny (but it is). Go ahead and back the Kickstarter, and you can see if you agree with me.

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Jan 16

Worldbuilding for Urban Fantasy

I've been writing the Gryphon Clerks series, which is secondary-world fantasy, for a while now. I did a lot of worldbuilding for it upfront (originally, I planned it as a game setting, but it kept generating stories, and games are hard). It's very much a distinct world, with a lot of specific differences from our world that I have to keep in mind when I write. For example, there are no pigs, and no New World plants or animals. The calendar is completely different. The counting system is different. The way society is structured, the names for common things (even marriage)... I have to keep constantly alert to avoid breaking my own canon by writing sentences like "She got married last month".

Now, I'm not saying that a secondary-world setting doesn't have advantages. It opens up possibilities that are closed off if you set a story in our world, just because our world has things that are true of it that you can't ignore. In a secondary world, I can outright make things up if it suits me, and I don't have to do much research (I do a little research occasionally to give me an idea of whether things are basically credible or reasonable, but I'm not bound by the results.)

At the same time, setting a story in a version of the real world means a lot of work is already done. I don't have to invent all the technology from scratch, all the history from scratch, all the sociology from scratch. I may need to research it a bit, but that isn't especially hard, thanks to Google. And I don't have to invent cultural references; I can make pop culture jokes, which is something I can only do indirectly in secondary-world fantasy. (My current WIP has a Bechdel Test joke embedded in it, but it would be easy to miss.)

One of my projects this year is an urban fantasy. I've written the first chapter and done some planning of things I'd like to include - one of them is an action set-piece that takes place along the route I walk to work, which will be great fun. But, while it seems like urban fantasy would require a minimum of worldbuilding, there are actually a number of questions that I have to ask myself about the world, and that any urban fantasy writer has to answer, even if only by implication.

I thought I'd work through them in a blog post, so that other people could see my process. I'll use some of my favourite (and one or two of my non-favourite) urban fantasy series as examples, and I'll make my decisions based, in part, on what opportunities it offers me for setting up conflicts and developing a series over time.

1. Out, or Masquerade?


The term "masquerade" (in this context) comes from the game Vampire: the Masquerade, in which it means the conspiracy by which the vampires conceal their existence from the world at large. One of the key questions of urban fantasy is whether people in general know that magic, the supernatural, and/or the various races (vampires, fae, werewolves) exist. In Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, so far at least, they don't know (though it's largely through natural human rationalisation, rather than any particular conspiracy, that they remain ignorant). In Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville books, they do know, as of early in the series, and Kitty was involved in the outing process (not by her choice). In Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series, we have a middle ground: werewolves are out, fae are out, but vampires remain unrevealed to the populace at large, and everyone wants to keep it that way to avoid a panic.

One of the consequences of this question is that if the existence of the supernatural isn't common knowledge in the world, preserving the secret - or, alternatively, the secret coming out - may become a plot driver. A series can even be partly driven by successive outings, as the Mercy Thompson series is.

If the supernatural is out, on the other hand, that's a difference from our world, and we need to think about the consequences. In the Kitty Norville books, for example, there are people (often religious) who see the supernaturals as inherently evil and to be destroyed. There will generally be a government response (this can exist even where the secret is hidden from the population at large, of course), and government agents from an agency that deals with the supernatural are likely to show up and do what government agents do. The main character may even be a part of such an agency.

Since scientists tend to write hard SF rather than urban fantasy, the scientific study of the supernatural tends not to be a huge emphasis, though in my opinion it would be a big consequence of open, undeniable supernatural phenomena. There are sometimes sinister labs which want to vivisect the characters, but there isn't a lot of in-depth "this is what it's like to be a scientist in a world where there's magic", probably because that's complicated to work through and risks the fragile suspension of disbelief that you're working hard to create in the audience. I'm noting that as a potential avenue for future exploration. I can imagine a scientist in a world where the supernatural exists, but isn't public knowledge, coming across unambiguous supernatural phenomena and being torn between wanting to study and understand this fascinating new thing, and the knowledge that attempting to publish any findings will probably end his or her career.

Because that seems like a cool idea, and because starting with the supernatural hidden gives more scope (after all, I can always have it come out later, whereas I can't start with it out and then later have it be hidden), I'm choosing to make my world one in which magic exists, but isn't generally known or acknowledged.

New, or Always There?

If magic, the supernatural, or whatever exists, has this always been the case? Or is it a recent emergence (or re-emergence)? And if it's always been there, why isn't it generally known?

In some series, like Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels, magic has started up relatively recently, as part of a more-or-less apocalyptic event. In most, though, magic has always been there. Kim Harrison has a dollar each way, and has her apocalypse kill off a lot of normals so that the magicals are now a substantial enough majority that they feel safe coming out (though they were there all along).

To me, if magic has always been around, you need to give at least some thought to a secret history of the world in which magic featured significantly in historical events, and also to historical practitioners of magic. Most urban fantasy magic is more or less made up wholesale, or based on modern "witchcraft" or New Age practices (but I repeat myself). There's a long and fascinating history of real-world attempts at magical practice, though, and it seems a pity to throw it all away (particularly since I know enough about it to fake my way through it in a manner that should convince most non-experts, which is as much expertise as I care to develop).

Here's my decision, then: magic has always been around, always been a human potential, but the ways in which it was done historically were flawed or simplistic in similar ways to how, say, chemistry was done in the same periods. People were able to achieve useful effects, but without really understanding why things worked, and sometimes they put things into the process that really made no difference, because of that lack of understanding. As of relatively recently, people started getting good at magic (ironically, because of a more scientific mindset, in which they set out to understand why things worked through an experimental process). However, there's still not a comprehensive theory. It's more like magic's early 19th century than its 21st, and it's more engineering than science.

One of the things that enables is that magic use itself, not just the characters' ability to use magic, can grow and develop in the course of a series. They can come up with new ways of doing things that nobody has ever thought of before (and that the author didn't think of earlier on, even if they would have been handy - in fact, the earlier problem that could have been solved by a particular bit of magic can be the stimulus to develop that solution). Most urban fantasy series have a static magic system, already as good as it's getting, so to introduce a new thing involves introducing a new (usually) antagonist who's a different kind of fae or whatever.

And speaking of fae:

What Supernaturals Exist?

Jim Butcher's Dresden Files spends the first few books setting up the many different supernatural beings in his world. Wizards, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, fae, the undead, and the Knights of the Cross/Order of the Blackened Denarius each get a book, and for a while they rotated, so we'd get a book in which the werewolves featured (but not the fae or the knights), and then one in which the knights featured (but not the werewolves), and so on. These days, he's mixing them up more.

This makes for a rich world, but it's a lot to manage. Some series just have a bunch of diverse fae. Others are all vampire, all the time. It's unusual to have werewolves (or other shifters) without vampires, but I'm sure it's been done.

Alternatively, you can have just one supernatural, like the djinn in Rachel Caine's Weather Warden series (arguably, the Wardens are a second kind of supernatural, in that they're humans who can work with the djinn).

My inclination at the moment is to go with just the magic, not the creatures. I'm tired of vampires and shifters, and they're pretty hard to justify if I'm going to have any science in the story, which I do plan to. (I have some university-level training in life sciences; high school chemistry; and as much physics as the average nerd picks up from reading a lot of SF and some nonfiction. That is, if anything, more than enough for writing urban fantasy, and I expect it to hinder more than it helps, to be honest with you.)

At the same time, I do have an idea (which probably won't go in the first book) about what the demons/angels are that medieval and renaissance European magicians were summoning and talking to. At least, I have an idea for a theory that a character has, a theory which may well turn out to be mistaken. And I don't guarantee that there won't be lycanthropy spells (that don't cause physical transformations, only mental ones), or entities that feed off others that are hosted by humans, give them superhuman abilities, and are transferred by feeding, but are totally not vampires. As for the fae, I tend to think of them as extradimensional aliens anyway, and while at the moment that's not an idea that I'm excited about for this setting, I'm not ruling it out.

Initially, though, it's just human magic-users. Which leads to the question:

Training or Genetics?

Can anyone, more or less, learn to do magic? Or is it something you're born with or without?

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is one in which the inherited ability to do magic is a significant plot driver, because it's a basis for discrimination. There are "muggles", who have no magic, can't see it, can't do it. There are wizards and witches, who have magic and can do it. But there are "muggle-borns", whose parents aren't magical, but they are; and there are "squibs", vice versa. I'm sure someone has worked out the genetics somewhere. (Yep, sure enough.) In Mendelian genetics, an offspring either does, or does not, have a simple heritable trait (there is no try), but most significant human abilities, like intelligence, involve multiple genes. Even eye colour does.

Most fantasy (urban or secondary-world) that involves magic, in fact, assumes that there are magical haves and have-nots, and vaguely indicates that this is somehow based on genetics. I like to use the parallel of musical ability. Some people have none at all (though they don't always know it, as American Idol auditions prove every year); some have enough to sing in tune in a choir; some are musical geniuses. It's heritable (nearly 50%, which is very high, according to this article), improves with certain kinds of training, and so forth. Because it's so heritable, it's presumably getting more common in the population over time, as well - any geneticists want to correct me on that one?

This excellent post on statistical patterns by Yonatan Zunger suggests that a biologically-based ability will usually form a power law: there will be a few people with a lot of it and a lot of people with a little of it, and a fairly steep drop-off between the two. Right there, you have a have/have-not situation, with a few powerful people and a lot of lesser talents, and this is a great setup for conflict (and you can use it as a political metaphor, which I happen to think is cool). And as part of the trope-aversion part of my project, I'm not choosing, as my main character, one of the super-powerful, exceptional people, but someone further down the slope of the curve, who has to work damned hard and apply a lot of intelligence to survive in a world where there are people a lot more powerful than she is.

So, How Does Magic Work?

There are several parts to the "how does magic work?" question. There's the sciency part, which at the moment for me is a vague and handwavey "human consciousness meshes with the quantum mumble mumble and look, over there, a squirrel!". This should be sufficient to get an urban fantasy going; most urban fantasy series never even address the question.

There's the "what can you do with it?" part, and here I'm thinking that you can affect:

  • movement of matter - so telekinesis, etc.
  • movement of energy - heating, cooling, slow or sudden
  • electromagnetic fields and patterns (this will be a big one - one of the characters I have in mind is an electromancer)
  • human minds - think pulp hypnosis, which is different from real hypnosis
  • biological systems - up to and including healing, but you can do various kinds of enhancement and, of course, harm

As it happens, those (plus time and space, which I haven't really played with yet) are more or less the categories of things that magic can affect in my Gryphon Clerks novels, so I'm clearly going to have to re-skin it. Which leads to the last version of "how does it work?": "what does it look like?"

Remember, we're at a kind of early-19th-century-science level of understanding and use of magic. There's a history and a tradition. And magic works by the human mind interacting with the structure of the universe, so magic tends to work best when you use your own system of symbology, whatever that may be. Some people use a very precise, structured, traditional set of symbols, though most magic users realise that the traditional methods are full of unnecessary flounces. Some draw only on one symbol set; others are more pick-and-mix. Essentially, magic consists of ordering your will and mental effort in such a way that it will produce the desired effect (and only that effect) in the world, by whatever means works for you. Some people's magic is sloppy, and has unintended side effects; that's also likely to happen if you cast on the fly and in a hurry. Some can produce a wide range of effects, while others can only do a couple of reliable spells. Some people make up their own spells (they're like cooks who create their own recipes), others can only work from an existing spell, or with a pattern that's been laid out for them in some object - I suppose that last one is like making a meal from a packet.

My Setup

So, what's the story going to look like? What characters fall out of that setting?

Tara is an artist who creates magic items for other people to use, working with Celtic design elements. Sometimes, the way that they use the items causes problems for her. This is the situation in Chapter 1: some more-powerful magic user is about to send her a goon-o-gram about how annoyed he is with one of her customers.

Tara's friend/sidekick/cotagonist/definitely-not-love-interest, Sparx the electromancer, does something similar to her in a completely different way. He has very little raw power, even less than she does, but has learned to use it precisely to create complex effects. Warned by one of his clients about the hit on Tara, he warns her in turn, and helps her to deal with the attacks.

The third in the trio, Steampunk Sally, has a minor talent for seeing a few seconds into the future (magic sometimes throws up these oddities) - and a reckless nature which tends to get them all in trouble, because, despite her ability, medium-term consequences tend to elude her in her decision-making process. She's the client who has caused the issues for Tara.

My current draft of Chapter 1 is here.

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(Update: the series is called Auckland Allies, and it has its own section of the site now.)

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Nov 14

Sir Julius Vogel Awards 2015

It's SJV Awards nomination time again, and I have several eligible works. However, I'd like to focus on one work in particular, my short story "Gnome Day".

That link takes you to the full text of the story here on my website. The story is included in my collection Good Neighbours and Other Stories from HDWP Books, but the publisher has given permission for me to make it publicly available.

Update: Thanks to several people who nominated "Gnome Day". However, it didn't make the final ballot for this year, and an SJV nomination remains on my bucket list.

If you enjoy it and think it's good enough for an award, please nominate it by sending an email, with the information laid out as below, to sjv_awards@sffanz.org.nz. Make sure you include your contact details at the appropriate place.

Although this is a New Zealand award, anyone anywhere in the world can make a nomination. The more nominations a work gets, the more likely it is to end up on the final ballot, which is voted on by members of SFFANZ (Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand). Full details here if you need them.

Name / Title of work: Gnome Day
Name of Producer / Author / Creator: Mike Reeves-McMillan
What the work is: Short Story
Year of First Release: 2014
What category you think the nomination belongs to i.e. Fan awards, Professional awards: Professional awards
GENRE: fantasy
Contact details of the person making the nomination e.g. email or/and phone number
Publisher / Production company name: HDWP Books
How to contact the producer / author: mike@csidemedia.com (author email), books@hdwpbooks.com (publisher email)
Where to get a copy of the work: http://www.hdwpbooks.com/books/shop/product/good-neighbors-stories/ or http://csidemedia.com/gryphonclerks/gnome-day/
Any other comments you wish to add

I'd really appreciate it if you'd send in a nomination - assuming, of course, you think the story is award-worthy. Thanks in advance!

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