On Change

*Taps keyboard*

“Is this thing on?”


Been a while. Eight months, actually. I made the above joke last time, too.

It’s tough to figure out what to say, even to an ambiguous, undefined audience, after an absence of so long. Almost like catching up with distant relatives you haven’t spoken to in eons, whom you barely remember. Where does one start?

I guess to pick up where I left off last. When last we left off, I was looking for a job.

I found one. I start in a few days. I am hopeful that the rigid structure of gainful employment provides me with some opportunity to return to some semblance of a schedule for this blog, and my other writings, which we’ll get to later. I am, however, also terrified of change. Most people are. In fact, if you look at world politics, the very dichotomy of modern political thought is the conflict of conservatism vs progressivism. Those words have literal meanings grounded in the context of being against and for change, respectively. And the very universe itself is an advocate for change; existence tends not to stagnate. But perhaps I’m getting a bit too existentially beyond myself.

The point is, I have long accepted that change and progress is inevitable, that that things change is the only constant about them. In a few days, my life is going to change completely. It’s rather daunting. Soon, at last, I’ll be working the 9-5 and sleeping on a schedule akin to that of ordinary human beings. Vastly different to my current way of life! I have no fear of this inherently. My fear arises from the impact this will have on my ability and time to write. Most of my most creative writing is done in the wee hours of the morning (2-6AM), though it is often rife with grammatical errors. This timeslot is untenable for a life on the job. I daydream constantly, and always have since I was a child; I am ever considering a dozen variations of my stories. But I only find the means to settle on the ones most creatively engaging at hours most inhuman.

This poses a grand problem, and one that I do not yet have a solution for.

Again, in theory a rigid, structural schedule may wind up helping my writing. But the fear arises from the unknown of whether that is true. Fear, as ever, is tantalizingly paralyzing. But we can’t let it get the better of us, lest we get nowhere. Lest we stagnate. Improvement and growth necessitates change, and the author’s tragedy is to grow into a better version of themselves with every word written—to look upon their past works and know that they could write them again, now, better than they are. A job, even one completely unrelated to writing, will undoubtedly have a hand in making me a better author, provided I find the time and mental wherewithal to keep with the hobby.

I find myself changing in other ways, too. I have often been reserved and not particularly talkative, even with close friends, let alone strangers. But today I went for a haircut and did the impossible—initiated and held a conversation of small talk with a hairdresser. I was aware, at the time, that such an action was unlike me. Now, here I sit in retrospective reflection, still bewildered by it. I discussed the existence of my autism in the previous blog entry eight months ago. I still possess some of the behavioral inclinations common to autism, but have found even those beginning to wane as of late. It’s bizarre, and in many regards impressive, how a willing mind is capable of course-correction. I do not think I will ever be ‘cured’ of my autism, but the effects it has had on me are demonstrably lessening with time.

I also find the subject of my writing to be changing. While I have not abandoned Crown of Thorns outright, I have not touched it in over a month. The very sentence I left its next story on lingers in the back of my mind. But at the forefront is a new story entirely, a change in theme, genre, and paradigm.

I have long been a fan of most things Warhammer (not unlike Henry Cavill). Recently, I got my father into scratching the surface of the setting by reading Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn series, which is widely regarded as (one of) the best ways of getting new readers into the universe. But as a dedicated fan of the universe, and as a self-defined author, Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn both does merely scratch that surface of the universe, and also suffers from a bit of narrative issues I am personally not satisfied with (the sort of stuff some weirdo on a train might chat your ear off about for your 40-minute ride and that you would subsequently forget about). I, therefore, decided to write my own Warhammer story for my father, to begin to push a little deeper into the universe without being too overwhelming.

And I wrote it fast. As in, the fastest bit of fiction I have ever written. As in, 78,000 words in a couple weeks—under a month. And it came out well, if I do say so myself—I’ve shared the story with a handful of not-Warhammer friends and all have enjoyed it thus far. I have, however, been hesitant to share it with true Warhammer nerds like myself, as some details may not be perfectly accurate to the setting. (If I could tell you which, I would have fixed them already.)

I have also already begun work on a sequel. While “only” a few chapters in, the outline for the sequel suggests the finished product would be well beyond 78,000 words. Possibly longer than my as-yet published works (which are around 110-120,000 words). And I have reasonable groundwork for another two sequels beyond that.

The problem, however, is that I can’t do anything with these stories. I don’t own the copyright to Warhammer and Games Workshop (GW), the overseas, British company that does own the copyright, is highly unlikely to bother with me much. For the record, GW does hire a variety of authors to write about their universe, with works published from the “Black Library” but the means through which they accept submissions involves them putting authors to a task about a specific subject they want something written, generally as a bit of ‘fluff’ (lore) for an upcoming physical product line. My tales, which are about a very specific thing, aren’t likely to see physical light of day until GW decides they want their subject matter, if ever that happens.

But in the meantime, I’m enjoying writing them all the same, and some around me are enjoying reading them. At some point, though, I do have to change back to writing some more Crown of Thorns.

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On Growth

“Fear is the mind-killer.”

  • Frank Hebert, Dune

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. / Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. / It is our light, not our darkness / That most frightens us.”

  • Marianne Williamson, Our Deepest Fear


*taps mic*

Is this thing on?

When last we left off, I was reviewing my first book in the wake of having published my second, and it seemed as though I was entering a sort of writing renaissance for myself in which blog posts might become more frequent again.

That was October of last year.

So, you might ask, what happened to make me fall off the face of the Earth?

Well, I grew.

I have never written with the motive of doing so therapeutically—I don’t doubt that I have written therapeutically in the past, just without the intent to. However, today I see many of my friends and colleagues doing so, and I gotta say, perhaps that might be wise. So that’s where we are with today’s blog. Gonna get a little personal in here.

I’ve spent much of the last five years unemployed. To my own credit, I haven’t just been sitting on my hands the whole time—a few gigs here and there and a bit of continued education have dotted and beefed up the resume of my life. But I have never known stable, persistent work. There’re many reasons for this, and depending on who you ask in my vicinity, they’ll probably give you different ones. Some will point to my autism, which admittedly is not nearly as severe for me as it can be for others. Some will point to the general anxiety that is cripplingly prevalent on my father’s side of the family. Personally, I think the true cause lies somewhere in the middle, as I believe no one’s life is anything but complicated.

To put it bluntly, I have a crippling fear of commitment to the point of entrapment. It’s ironic, actually, because I think of myself as a very loyal person. But my fear stems from that loyalty itself trapping me into a fate I’d be unwilling to escape from. Could I see myself ever leaving a job I’m unsatisfied with, either merely to quit or to leave for a better one? Frankly, no, I can’t. And so, a fear of the unknown is created, a fear of the hypothetical eventuality of my possible employment that is frustratingly and, at times, overwhelmingly impedimental.

And, yet, I think I’m growing in spite of this fear all the same. It’s strange, and perhaps a little worrisome, as one of the themes in my books is the paralytic nature of fear. That I can be self-conscious of my own growth even in a suppressive environment of fear may unfortunately poke a hole in my books’ plans, or at least require further thought be put into the presentation of their plots.

In any case, I’ve begun to tackle and strike out at elements of my fear, albeit not the source mentioned above. I’ve long struggled with simple communication elements such as phone calls or emails (something some may attribute to autism) but more recently I’ve made significant strides in acquainting myself with both and, in effect, ‘getting used to them.’ I had always been hugely self-critical of both me as a person and my own accomplishments, thinking little of the things I’ve done—such as writing and publishing a book (or two), for instance—which has inhibited my motivation to submit applications for positions I may or may not be qualified for.

When I stopped adding to this blog last October, I was discussing how I was beginning to look for agented representation in the publishing world. That was a lie. I’ve long been looking for such representation, but as with job applications that I may or may not be fully equipped for, I’ve exhibited extreme reluctance to ever submit a single manuscript for representation to an agent for whom I may or may not be a perfect match. I’ve never once reached out to any agent. I do hope this changes soon.

I think it may.

Today’s world is one of profound horrors and struggles. War in Europe. Hunger in Northern Africa/Southwestern Asia. Environmental collapse and cosmically existential threats. It’s hard not to think about such things, and my rambling here probably doesn’t help. To some extent, these extremes put my own problems into perspective, but succumbing to the fear that surrounds these topics is just as paralytic and inhibitive as any other source of fear, mine included. Optimism and hope are the enemies of fear. Wield them. Grow with them in hand.

I think I’m beginning to, after many long years of not.

Well, that got a little emotional and almost preachy toward the end, huh? Maybe I can try to steer away from all that doom, gloom, and zealotry into something more mundane…like writing! That’s what this blog is for, anyways.

Growth in writing takes many forms. (Duh) Perhaps one’s grammar improves, perhaps their style becomes less monotonous and more enthralling. These improvements do come with time and practice, as most things do. The easiest ways to grow as a writer originate from criticisms of your work, some of which I talked about in my previous blog entry. But not all criticisms are inherently negative critiques; some come in the form of questions and curiosities, questions your readers are asking about your works that you may never have considered. I believe these to be the most valuable, and seeking them out—finding a reader dedicated and thoughtful enough to provide them—a paramount goal of an aspiring author.

“How does humanity even survive in this world?” was a question a close friend of mine asked of my novels, in which monsters and demons (there is a distinction!) prey upon mankind in a dark-fantasy narrative. I didn’t really have an answer at the time, and now that I think I have one, it remains a question I’ve come back to to make sure my answer still applies, even as the stakes and suspense of my world intensifies.

“What are the physics of Hell?” was a question I only recently found an answer for, after many years of pondering it. For clarity, the question asks of my fictitious plane of villainous demons, and not any biblical sort—you’d need a priest to begin to answer that one. But I look forward to finally incorporating my answer for my world in my future works, to further build upon and ground my fictional universe in a reality that seems ever more plausibly like our own. I find this hugely fun.

Sometimes your characters are the ‘friends’ that ask questions of your works (though I’d be cautious about befriending fictional entities) and oftentimes these are the most valuable, as it is your stream of consciousness beginning to find plotholes or areas for expansion within your world. One of my characters, in a scifi adventure I wrote a bit in high school and have since curtailed, once asked another what love was. I gave a bit of a lackluster answer at the time, but—obviously—the question stuck with me. And now, in the Crown of Thorns series, I’m writing a whole collection of novels within which finding a salient acceptance of love is a huge story beat.

Now, on account of writing this blogpost, I find myself questioning the nature and extent of fear, questioning whether my previous understanding of it is still valid. It may not be, and that’d be great to learn from!

There is no such thing as a stupid question, especially when it comes to writing. If ever you’re asked one, give it due to consideration, and I can wholeheartedly promise you that you and your works will grow in turn.  

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On Crown of Thorns

Front Cover of Crown of Thorns, available now on Amazon.com

No fancy quote this time, sadly. Just pure stream-of-consciousness here.


So, with the release of my second book, linked here, I wanted to review and analyze a bit of my first one. How’d I do with my first foray into the publishing world? What’d I learn? How could I aim to improve? These and more were important considerations in writing and editing my second novel, and they will remain important considerations for the remainder of my career, or so I suspect.

First up: Publishing. It’s easier than I had anticipated to self-publish. Big points to Amazon for that. Far easier than hunting down an agent and a formal publisher. However, I reached an impasse with this whole “Expanded Distribution” game. I was presented with the opportunity to publish in 13 nations with a 70% royalty, or somewhere north of 100 nations with a 35% royalty. I went with the 70% option, because every penny was going to count and I didn’t expect many potential sales beyond the 13 nations at that royalty tier. However, I have been in contact with many disappointed prospective customers that were unable to purchase my book, and I was faced with the question of whether me making slightly more money per sale actually justified this heightened selectivity.

Another problem I reached was one of size. My first book is 5.5”x8”. This is non-standard enough to run into other issues with Expanded Distribution meaning if I actually wanted to market to those 100+ nations at 35% royalty, I’d need to invest in resizing my cover and page setup to mold my first novel into something that is a standardized trim size. I kept this in consideration for the second novel, sizing it for 5.25”x8” which is a standard trim size and is therefore eligible out of the gate for Expanded Distribution.

Second topic: Marketing. I barely did any. Amazon does offer a means to run an advertising campaign but I simply never got around to it (partially because of issues connecting my bank account with the campaign systems). Most of my sales came from word-of-mouth. This remains the case. At the time of writing this blog post, I am planning to run an advertising campaign and a sale for the first book in advance of the sequel’s release. We’ll see how that goes.

I established this blog a few months after the release of the first book, and I’ve only recently built a social media existence (it’s a stretch to call it a “presence”) on Twitter. Perhaps these will have some influence on the propagation of my second novel into the hands of prospective readers. I suspect word-of-mouth will do most of the heavy lifting again, though.

Third topic: The contents of the first book itself. Oh boy.

This may come as a bit of a shock and will likely do me no marketing favors, but I don’t actually like my first book. There’s a very high chance that I’m being overly critical of myself, but I feel as though my issues with it are fairly genuine/realistic. For starters, the book feels “automatic” in the sense of the flow of the story. My protagonist’s existence does put some plot elements into motion, but I feel her actions themselves rarely change things. This was, to some extent, part of the design—I wanted to subvert notions of a “chosen one” protagonist, as well as the idea of “royal blood” (which some side characters discount the validity of too)—but I feel as though I may have overdone it. This is all a great irony for someone whose last blog post was all about character agency.

One of the criticisms I got from my first book was that following along with the progression of time felt a little difficult. Which is not to say that my first book is particularly temporally convoluted (because it’s entirely linear) but, rather, the gap in time between chapters was not narratively communicated well. Each of my chapters is led by a date associated with that chapter’s opening, but some readers wanted the narrative itself to relate that date to the period of time in the previous chapter; after all, it had been several pages and/or a different reading session that the prior chapter’s date had been acknowledged. I tried to offer solutions to this in the second book, including phrases like “A few weeks after <some event>” or something else to that effect. We’ll see how it’s received.

Another criticism I got was under-describing details/people. I do and I don’t agree with this criticism. I think there’s always room to squeeze in more descriptive details if one tries; however, I somewhat detest an overabundance of information. The latter is antithetical to my writing style—any details I include are there because they’re important to the story or characters. I intend to leave a reader’s imagination to fill in the rest, that they may form a better familiarity and bond with the story. When considering the opposite, I can’t help but reminisce about childhood English classes having their students debate the significance of the color of the curtains in a given scene. Sometimes, red curtains are just red curtains. With hopes of sparing unfortunate students who may for some reason be reviewing my works one day, I sought to only include that for which there was something worth discussing. I’m very minimalist in this sense, I suppose, but some readers are not so welcoming of this style. This is not to say that my first novel is devoid of any scene-building information at all, but some readers wanted more concreteness to the world and its inhabitants than I offered. I tried sneaking in some more superficial details about my world and its characters in the second novel while still generally maintaining my minimalist approach to writing. We’ll see if it tracks.

I loathe the ending of Chapter 5/the beginning of Chapter 6 in my first novel. At the time of writing these chapters, I had felt like this transition was a good way to inform the reader that this story was narratively ‘written’ in retrospect by the narrator and served as a means to thrust the subject matter into the main plot thread. But it’s a truly jarring, out-of-place experience. Were I to republish my first book, I’d scrap this idea entirely/rewrite the transition into something of greater substance.

All of these are somewhat small details to the big thing that annoys me with the first book, though: it’s overloaded on what it has to do. Not only is it the first book I’ve ever written, but it is also the first book in its own series. So that means it needs to establish an ongoing plot in a growing world while simultaneously also beginning and ending a tale of its own, all within the confines of its 457 (paperback) pages. It is a tall order and I have always felt (or feared) that it may be too condensed. Furthermore, I have found the “origin story” as a plot thread to be a bit overdone. Maybe it’s fine as a new story as was the case with my novel, but there’s a reason new renditions of Spider Man or Batman are skipping the uncle’s/parents’ (respectively) demise over and over—it’s been done too much. Audiences know, they (we) get it.

Finally, there’s a worry of mine that is much less for the first book as it is for later novels in the series—magic. Or, rather, where I’ve chosen to lean on it. There is some Vancian-style magic system somewhere in my world, but it’s very much in the background. It…may seem rather close to the foreground in the first book, though. An ongoing plot thread is the difference between raw magic and the system of willpower my books introduce; the second novel leans far heavier into the latter system while leaving the former a bit in the dust. I worry, at times, that it may come across as my simply having forgotten about the former system entirely. This isn’t the case—alas, the plot demands a different focus!

All that aside, though, readers generally seemed to quite enjoy my first novel. Not only has my first novel consistently sat at a cozy 5-star rating on Amazon for the past year (and not for lack of incoming reviews, though more are always welcome!) I’ve repeatedly been told in person (or digitally) that readers really liked what I wrote and wanted more. So, today, I’m happy to give them more. I’m also overwhelmingly enthused to move on to writing the next volume, too! But more on the what and why of that in another post.

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On Agency

To be a person is to be constantly engaged in making yourself into that person.

  • Christine M. Korsgaard, Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity

Agency may be the most important word for an aspiring professional author. It is the means through which we make our characters real, and real characters are the most relatable by far. Agency is also the means through which authors find representation for themselves in the professional sphere. Yes, this is my attempt at a bad pun.

We’ll get to my pursuit of the latter soon enough, but for now, I wish to nerd out a bit and discuss the agency, or lack thereof, in other media. Before we get to that, though, I have the need to clarify a key difference in media/entertainment formats. I suggest, for your judgment, that there are two forms of media: interactive media and experienced media. In the former, the audience (and I choose that word with care, for the purposes of “know your audience”) interacts with the media to bring a narrative to its close. In the latter, an audience ‘experiences’ the narrative without possessing the means to drive the plot along themselves.

Examples to fulfill these definitions should be obvious: Books and Movies are experienced media, games (of all sorts) are interactive (even for edge cases, such as Visual Novels or “art games” like Dear Esther).

The agency of the characters within experienced media is, to some extent, superfluous. It exists, and must be done well, solely for the purposes of making an audience like those characters or the story as a whole. However, the agency of characters within interactive media matters tremendously more, for it is the audience that is involved with the story—their decisions drive the story onward, and thus an absence of player (audience) agency shatters the inherent compulsion to be involved with the story. Put another way, if players (an audience) are not shown that the repercussions of their choices or actions exists, they may be less inclined to choose or act. And as action is the driving force behind interactive media, inaction makes the whole story crumble to obscurity, perhaps never being finished.

I intend to cite three examples of player agency being dashed; one a few years old now, one very recent, and one persistent throughout time and space. All are, as required by the above description of interactive media, games of a sort. So, the nerding out follows below:

In Borderlands 3 (which is, as I recall, the fifth installment of the Borderlands series) players slay bad guys that do bad things. However, whenever those bad things are being done, the player characters (a colloquial term which has an implied possessiveness) are nowhere to be found. Likewise, the player characters are absent whenever a resolution or correction is made for the problems the bad guys caused. Instead, it is the non-player characters (not possessive, computer controlled) that actually make the hard decisions and advance the plot of the game. It is their lives that get threatened by the antagonists, and only ever in the player characters’ absence. It is they that make fictionally ultimate sacrifices.

This, for me, ruins much of the story of Borderlands 3 because the story does not have an impact on the lives of the player characters, the avatars of player involvement in the game, and thus players themselves needn’t feel too involved in what’s going on. The player characters may change over the course of the story—my favorite example being of my favorite character, Moze, slowly becoming more “bandit-like” toward the end of the game—but those changes are not incurred by the story itself; rather, they seem to happen just by the flow of time and the existence of those characters within their surroundings.

Contrast this with Borderlands 3’s predecessor, Borderlands 2. In Borderlands 2, the game opens with a failed assassination attempt against the player characters by the game’s antagonist, Handsome Jack (who has been often called one of the best [if not the best] written villains of all time). Jack continually derides the player characters and antagonizes them verbally, directly, throughout the course of the game. Jack makes the players hate him (and love him, for how awful and absurd he is) which is something never quite accomplished by Borderlands 3’s villains. And when Jack does something bad, the player characters—and thusly the players themselves—are always front-and-center to witness it, if often times restrained so as to prevent their input.

Borderlands 3 omits this agency entirely, and the story is far worse for it, widely criticized in games journalism and by its audience. Disappointment was always going to happen when trying to follow in the footsteps of a villain like Handsome Jack, but Borderlands 3 did itself no favors in eviscerating player involvement in its story. I’ll note that this analysis applies only to the base game of Borderlands 3, for I have not played much of its expansion content; I was so uninvested in Borderlands 3’s narrative that I just couldn’t be bothered to continue with it further.

So that was some time ago. What sort of agency violations are we running into now?


More accurately, Destiny 2’s Season of the Splicer…and, at that, its Epilogue, which at the time of this writing just unfolded a few days ago.

Ignoring a few criticisms about the “bad guys” having Stormtrooper-like inaccuracy with their weaponry, this Epilogue commits the same cardinal sin that Borderlands 3 did throughout its narrative, in omitting player character involvement from changing the tangible story. There are a few other occasions and nuances throughout Destiny’s narrative that likewise omit the existence of the player character, or the effect that that existence has (or should have) on the franchise’s universe. Instead, it is the brainchildren (literally) of the franchise that effect change upon the Epilogue’s narrative. Player characters, and players behind them, do not save the day in Season of the Splicer’s Epilogue. That credit instead falls to the likes of Ikora, Saint-14, Mithrax, and other spawn of the author’s (Bungie’s) designs.

The term that I’ve seen tossed around for this is “cape writing”, in derisive evaluation of the writing behind superhero movies. Iconic characters that an audience can recognize, albeit not those that an audience creates themselves, being used to drive a plot forward. It is these icons that save the day in Destiny’s Epilogue. And it is players left scratching their heads wondering whether their involvement really changed anything. Does the player character save the world, and if not, what do they accomplish?

This has happened before in the Destiny universe, and it’s likely to happen again. The Eliksni in Season of the Splicer fear “The Saint” (Saint-14) for his ruthlessness and apparent unstoppability (not a word). However, arguably it is the player character that is most responsible for crushing Eliksni forces throughout Destiny’s seven years of storytelling so far, yet the Eliksni wield no legends or fears about them. It would be wrong of me to argue that Destiny is without agency entirely, but this recent negligence—or intentional omittance—is nevertheless worrisome for the future of its narrative.

Finally, I wish to bring up an issue of agency that is far more perpetual in scope: Dungeons and Dragons. This is not the first I’ve discussed D&D in this blog, nor will it be the last. And unlike the above two agency issues, D&D itself commits to no such faults. Instead, as D&D is a tabletop game of intimate interactivity between all of its players—including those that run the game, called “Game Masters” or “Dungeon Masters” or GMs/DMs—I believe the omittance of agency stems from those directly involved in the game itself. More specifically, I believe GMs (such as me myself) often fail to provide a world or story that the player characters should be invested in on a personal level. This can vary from character to character and is definitely not universally true of all GMs. Sometimes this division between world and character is on the fault of the players, e.g., in the creation of characters that do not fit the setting laid out by the GM. (For instance, roleplaying a swashbuckling pirate in Curse of Strahd…I’m sure you can make it work, but it wouldn’t be easy.) However in most “home-made” (the ‘technical’ term is homebrew) campaigns, I’d argue the fault of the aforementioned division falls on the GMs designing that campaign.

Many D&D campaigns I’ve played in have ignored the backstory and aspirations of my player character, as well as those of others involved. The more recent campaigns I’ve run I have done the same to my players, which has led me here, blogging and reflecting about this failing of mine. Is this a problem or is it just unnecessary rambling? Likely the latter, but I’d argue it doesn’t feel good to waste time on a character’s backstory only to never once have it be relevant. I’ve received that complaint, personally, and I’ve felt as such myself likewise. So what’s the solution? Make cardboard-cutout characters instead so as to burn no time on the endeavor? Seems like the lazy approach.

Instead, I propose the following concept for campaign design prior to selling it to prospective players: don’t. Situationally. If your players have a propensity to make involved character backstories, sell them on your world and setting (if you can), and then wait for them to provide you with tales of the goings’-on of your world’s denizens; that is, their player characters. Then build the campaign in lieu of those characters’ backgrounds. It’s probably better to recommend this in the form of something supplementary, so as not to fall into the pitfall of devoting more time (in-game or in-real-life) to one character over others, which will allow you to still have a broader conflict (narratively speaking) for the characters to band together to address. But I am beginning to believe there is a good reason to build a narrative reactively, around the characters therein, so as to better acquaint those characters with your world and story and to make them feel as though they have some agency in the world around them. Shoehorningly (not a word) stuffing characters into a preexisting narrative is banal and will only sporadically generate emotional investment from one’s players.

Phew. That was a lot of words. But we’re not done yet! As is ever the case with these posts, I seek a double-meaning for my subject matter, and I hinted at the second thereof in my opening paragraph: Agency as it concerns professional representation, particularly with writers such as myself.

I don’t have an agent. I wasted several months, maybe a year, looking for one, only to be confronted by a myriad of problems in my search. Perhaps this is a little naïve or unprofessional, but I started entering the writing world shortly after graduating from college, and the collegiate and post-grad pursuit of education enables students, such as myself at the time, to pursue any number of potential schools in their application process. I believe I applied to sixteen from High School, being accepted to seven or eight. I intuitively assumed such a process may translate to other aspects of life.

I was wrong.

I was swiftly informed that it is considered fairly unprofessional to submit multiple applications (queries is the term) to different literary agents at once. And being as acceptance or denial usually takes 4-12(!) weeks, there is an inherent slowness to the professional pursuit of agented authorship. In today’s world of (nearly) instantaneous communication, I found this entirely unwelcoming. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why a response can take 4-12(!) weeks (reading and judging whether one wants to represent the submitted query as opposed to other alternatives), and the theoretical reasoning for why it’s uncouth for a prospective author to query more than one agent at a time (applying to X agents and only agreeing to work with one results in wasting time of X-1 people in the world) but I cannot help but feel as though there ought to be something more efficient for everyone involved. Something like…a Linkedin™ for authors. I’ve searched and have not found such a thing. (Prospective business idea? Filling a void in the needs of others has proven to be an effective means of generating a bit of cash…)

What I have found, however, is the ManuscriptWishlist (MSWL) website. MSWL doesn’t really address the inherent problems described above, but it does allow a prospective author to better look for agents that may theoretically be willing to represent them. However, MSWL presented me with an additional problem: Too Much Choice. With so many options to choose from, choosing one is particularly paralytic, especially when one cannot renege on their choice for 4-12(!) weeks. This ultimately led me to pursue a path of self-publishing, skipping agenting altogether.

But hey, if you’re an agent who has somehow stumbled upon this blog and you think you like what you see here, feel free to reach out (pro@morallygreymatters.com).

In furtherance of the side-post known as On Pause, I’m very near to arriving at a self-imposed deadline for the publication of my next work. One might even say the “Crunch Time” is beginning (although it doesn’t really feel like a Crunch yet, knock on wood). As a result, I don’t expect to contribute another post to this blog for a hot minute. However, I am planning a critical and reflective self-review of my first work a short time after the second is published, shared here like any other blog post. I think it’s healthy to iterate upon one’s own writings and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses I put forth in my hopefully-numerous forays into the writing world.

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On Kings

Dennis the Peasant: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

[King] Arthur: Be quiet!

Dennis the Peasant: You can’t expect to wield supreme power just `cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!

  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975

As with some of my other posts, such as On Magic, this post focuses on a dual-usage of the phrase “King.” The first is on the over-saturation of ‘Kings’ in media, particularly media of a fictional or agented (tabletop games, video games, etc.) manner. Since first noticing this over-saturation, I’ve found myself increasingly irked by finding new additions to the cast of offenders. I’ve also found myself guilty of contributing toward a count of ‘Kings’ in fiction as well.

I recall playing games on the Nintendo 64 with my father when I was young. The two that are most memorable are Super Mario 64 and Donkey Kong 64. In these games, players take on the digital avatar of a hero of simple means (a mushroom-addict of a plumber or a gorilla) to take the fight to the nefarious King Bowser and King K. Rool (a reverse-portmanteau of ‘cruel’), respectively. The term used for the ‘violent’ encounters with these kings is that of a ‘boss fight/battle,’ and I am compelled to note, also, the oddity that is the term ‘boss’ therein. When I, a young child, brought up the term ‘boss fight’ with my father, he remarked about wondering why bosses were so antagonized in video games—he didn’t want to pick a fight with his boss, after all. That aside, these two ‘kings’ are likely the first I encountered that brandished such a title, and to their credit they are at least a little bit more kingly than many others we’ll get to soon—King Bowser lords over the Koopa Kingdom, home of the turtle-like (ahem, Kappa-like) Koopas, and King K. Rool is king of…something. I don’t actually recall what, but he does possess some crocodile-subjects of his own. Obviously I need to brush up on the deep lore of Donkey Kong.

In no particular order, consider Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King (The Nightmare Before Christmas); King Grayskull (He-Man and the Masters of the Universe); Oberon, King of the Fairies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream); any one of a seemingly-endless supply of Baratheons (Game of Thrones) and, likewise, The Night King; Mufasa/Simba/Scar (The Lion King); The Crimson King (The Dark Tower); or even The Burger King, who has been canonized into The Simpsons universe and has made a few appearances in video games. Were I to enumerate a full list of kings in fiction, I anticipate that this blog entry would dwarf the combined size of all my previous entries. And Queens, don’t think you’re not over-saturated too.

And I have it on good authority that this list is missing a couple hundred entries.

Royalty, it seems, is a cheap way to catch an eye of importance in fiction. Oh, a king of something has appeared, the plot must be about to progress!


And it isn’t just our western literature that has grown infatuated with the notion of kings and queens. In recent years I’ve fallen victim to imbibing Japanese manga and anime which, I have found, is rife with tales of royal bloodlines. Thankfully, within such fester is a tale of immense subversion of various tropes, and the supposed-importance of ‘kings’ did not escape the story’s wit—One Punch Man, written by ONE (a manga artist whose name is not public knowledge), is a satirical genre-bending of the typical superhero trope. One Punch Man features a number of villainous monsters, many of which possess a title of ‘king’ to their names or aliases, especially in the earlier chapters of the series. With rare exception, all of these ‘kings’ are—spoilers—obliterated on a whim by one of the series’ handful of overpowered and bored characters. As far as I am aware, a few kings in name remain in the series, though if I were a betting man I’d wager they are not long for the world within their universe (save for a supporting character who goes by the alias of King, which is itself further evidence of the over-saturation of the title). Virtually all of these kings are kings in title, recognized by a small few subjects but commanding no great significance to the story’s plot.

I mentioned earlier that I, too, had sinned in contributing to a hypothetical list of fictitious kings, and in hindsight it is an error I deeply regret. I intend to discuss my books themselves individually at a later date, but for the point of conversation here, I devised of an antagonist by the name of Arxe Nightsoul, the Lich King. Arxe is loosely inspired by two other kings—Oryx, the Taken King (Destiny) and Arthas, the (also) Lich King (World of Warcraft). (One may see that Arxe’s name itself is a combination of his inspirators.) I confess to no small worry that I risk a lawsuit with an intersection of nomenclature with the latter, but my fears are assuaged by this: Arthas, frankly, wasn’t very kingly (though to his credit he was raised as a prince). In practice, Arthas felt more like a military commander, such as a general. Furthermore, what does it mean to be a Lich King? Is that a King that is a Lich? Or a King of the Liches? I admit much Warcraft lore is lost on me, but to my knowledge there are Liches that are technically sworn to their King, but I recall many don’t much care to follow anyone but themselves. Cutting many corners in this description, I think Arthas, as a Lich King, is a Lich that was a King of the Undead of his universe. A bit convoluted, but leaves the opportunity open to also be called ‘The Undead King’—albeit with less of a ring to it. Arxe, of my design, meanwhile, is a King of multiple Liches. So I struggle to think of a better title for him.

Arxe takes from Oryx, the Taken King, an intended feeling of regality and dominance. Arthas tries a hand at this on occasion but never possesses a consistent air of superiority as Oryx does. (Author’s note: Both Arthas and Oryx are deceased within the stories, and I am conflicted on whether to describe them in the past or present as your experiences with them are not necessarily stuck in time.) Consider the opening motif of grandeur for Oryx:

Grandiose horns, empowering drums, and a solemn choir, all of which are followed by tense strings. I could gush over this track all day, suffice to say that for me, this piece creates an image of a creature of abnormal importance. Rarely is that conveyed for any other king mentioned at all above; rather, we are led to assume importance based on rank or title. I believe the latter to be weak storytelling, and give kudos to Michael Salvatori, composer of the above track, for telling a far more compelling tale with wordless music. Show, don’t tell—and Oryx, the Taken King, demonstrated his place in his universe quite a bit with the ‘Taking’ of countless worlds. (Taking being the sundering of a soul from a corporeal form and enslaving it to one’s will; Oryx was hardly a nice guy. And by the end of things, Oryx ‘Took’ himself too. Go figure that one out.)

The Visage of Oryx. That's a spooky big bad if I've ever seen one.

So Oryx may be a King of sorts (possessing command and control over the Taken), but an assumption of his importance based merely on his title alone is a great disservice to his character. And I think that is damn good writing. In my works ahead, I intend to try to emulate that depiction of import, and in so doing aspire to make a king worthy of their title…though I still regret contributing to an ever-growing list of those that bear it.

In summary, kings and other royalty have rather polluted modern fiction, in my opinion. Their presence should not inherently command any great attention in literature, and yet here we are, plagued with their overuse. The importance of a character should be judged by their relevance and weight within a story, and not by any titles they possess going into it. (Daenerys Targaryen, Queen of the Andals, Breaker of Chains, the Unburnt, the Mother of Dragons…meets Jon Snow.)

Now, about the second usage of the word ‘King’…

Those that know me or my writing particularly well may also know that I have a great adoration for Stephen King, author of a great many works (particularly of psychological horror). While he is far from the first author I’ve ever read, and while I had written a little bit before finally delving into his works, it is Stephen King that inspired me to set upon this path more seriously. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is the first book of his I ever read. It wasn’t necessarily the most amazing novel, but it was sufficient at getting me to substitute a forested walk of my real, childhood life for the treacherous journey of Trisha, the book’s protagonist. And that immersive substitution was unlike any I had yet encountered so far in my fledgling involvement with the world of fiction. From there I set out upon a journey of my own through King’s The Dark Tower series, leading with The Gunslinger. And oh boy. What a journey.

I had read other series in the past. A 90s kid, I grew up on Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson, Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein, and James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series. (One of those is not like the others, particularly for the intended age group…) I had not, however, encountered a series of such a volume as The Dark Tower before, and the sheer size and number of involved works indicated to me that Stephen King was on to something a little different from his peers. That, and the fact that he joined his various works together at a focal point with his Dark Tower.

Could I do that?

I hope so. I suppose we’ll see, won’t we? Personally, success in this vein is measured merely by answering the above question, not necessarily by the monetary returns of such a pursuit. I never really cared about being the next Stephen King. I’ve only ever aspired to be the first me. That’ll suit me fine.

Having said that, I should admit that I share a bizarre few similarities with Stephen King. We’re both Red Sox fans. If/when I can, I intend to venture into—and eventually vanish within—the woods of northern Maine, as he has. We both write of the human psyche, though our genres may differ. And while not a point of similarity, when I envision the image of an author (just as Gary Larson, cartoonist of The Far Side, envisions God as a man with a long white beard and a long, flowing mane of white hair) that which comes to mind to me is a partially-farcical depiction of Stephen King in a blue corduroy shirt. (I do not know whether Stephen King possesses a blue corduroy shirt.)

Is there a point to all of this? Not really. But I couldn’t title this post “On Kings” and miss an opportunity to mention my own inspiration for joining this whole author gig.

That and Stephen King has earned the title of ‘King of Horror’ from some, adding further credence to the overuse of the term. He’s on the list!

P.S. “The importance of a character should be judged by their relevance and weight within a story,” -me, above. Depending on the setting and story as a whole, it’s not impossible that a king’s mere presence—or, perhaps, dearth thereof; kingslayers are nearly as common as kings are—carries with it a great deal of weight. In such a circumstance, I don’t really have much of a complaint, other than a desire to read more of the lives of common folk as opposed to valiant princes slaying dragons. Although that may be the plot of my first novel…as I said, guilty!

P.P.S. Oryx is such a character. I can definitely go on and on about the brilliance of their design, but it’s worth mentioning that they were not always a King. In fact, they were born Aurash, daughter of the Osmium King. After making a pact with mighty Worm Gods, Aurash became Auryx, King of their kind; later, upon slaying one of those Worm Gods, Auryx became Oryx and ‘took’ the power of ‘Taking’ from the deceased Akka, Worm God of Secrets. This is the Sparknotes version for sure, but Destiny lore is something else. And Oryx’s stories are a cut above the rest. Truth be told, I’m not aware of any comparable LGBTQIA+ villains that command such weight and presence as Oryx had. Rarely do our fictional kings possess such gravitas, and rarer still are they born a princess.

Oryx, then Auryx, faces off against the Worm God Akka to save his people.

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On (Dis)Comfort

CW – Terms may be used that all may not find comforting to think about. However, I will not discuss these terms in any detail unto themselves.

The purpose of art actually is, in many cases, to make you feel quite uncomfortable. Or at least to go to that place that’s already of discomfort inside of you and tap into that.

  • Michael Moore

The cabin-passenger wrote in his diary a parody of Descartes: ‘I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive.’

  • Graham Greene, A Burnt-Out Case

I write to make people feel uncomfortable.

Wait, that sounds cruel. Let me have a go at that again.

I write to make people feel alive. And it is my belief that self-aware liveliness is born of our emotions. It’d be trivially simple to construct a basic narrative that follows traditional plot structures and is all well and good from the perspective of a high school English class’s lesson. But a beginning, middle, and end to a story do not matter to a reader if they are not engaged with the subject matter. And I believe, from personal experience, that engagement is invested in a story as much by negative emotions as by positive ones.

I speak of storytelling here, but I assume the same can be said of other forms of art, such as photography, painting, or music. A painting of a Happy Little Tree is as captivating as wartime photos are stunning.

In this era of aggressive scrolling and glancing from subject to subject, holding an audience’s attention is a tall order, but an important one. And today, personally, it seems like laughs are cheap. But sorrow? That makes headlines. But how does one market discomfort? How do you make a buck on displeasure?

Quick aside here: I don’t write for the money, though it isn’t an unwelcome dream.

I have a vivid memory from my college years of playing the video game Wolfenstein: The New Order on my own. The game was critically acclaimed and very, very positively received nearly-worldwide, so I was happy to give it a go. Plus, I enjoy the genre it’s in, generally. Anyways, this memory comes not from a moment of pleasure, but from one of disgust. Amidst the already-violent “shooter game”—a term overused by my parents at the time—that comprises the entire Wolfenstein franchise, The New Order featured a sequence of such intensity that I needed to put it down and step away from the screen a bit, choosing to get some fresh air and try to put what I had just witnessed out of my head.

For a bored college student in the digital era, that’s a little unusual and a big deal.

Wolfenstein: In an alternate reality in which they’ve found ancient super-technology, the Axis powers achieve victory in WWII. Resistance against them continues, and there’s your story. At least, I think that’s the plot. The worldbuilding of most “shooters” isn’t their main focus.

And it was this moment of revulsion that compelled me, later, to finish what I had started and continue with the game. It is this moment of revulsion that I remember most. And it is this that gave me greater insight into narratives and storytelling. There is probably some further insight that can be made on human psychology pertaining to our capacity to remember “the bad” in our lives, but I am not nearly qualified enough to begin writing on that beyond mere speculation.

Some say we, as a society, are growing desensitized to violence. I think this is partially true. Usually, this comment is used in such a way that implies total desensitization to the point of being unable to see anything ‘wrong’ with violence, which I do not believe is very accurate. Instead, I believe we’re beginning to stomach basic demonstrations of violence better, but it still strikes us as discomforting and immoral, and extreme depictions can still turn stomachs. All in all, I think this is a good thing. How else would we ever begin to address something ‘wrong’ in our world if we cannot even look it in its face?

Bonus quote time! —

Death…destruction…disease…horror…that’s what war is all about, Anan. That’s what makes it a thing to be avoided. You’ve made it neat, painless. So neat and painless, you’ve had no reason to stop it.

  • James T. Kirk, Star Trek: The Original Series (A Taste of Armageddon)—story by Robert Hammer

That ‘kids these days’ are playing violent video games and seeing violence in media—news, movies, television shows, etc.—is not a failing of our society to keep them from becoming violent themselves, rather, it is a success to better prepare them for the human nature that troubles seven billion—at the time of this writing—people across the whole world. (Note that I am in no way advocating for the exposure of marketed violence to young children. I mean to use ‘kids’ as loosely as one may disparagingly utilize the ‘kids these days’ phrase.) A child may not understand the complexities of morality, but they can understand the application of its values and formulate, for themselves, an understanding of the evasion of those values. A child may not know why a good guy is a good guy or a bad guy is a bad guy, but they can bear a discontentedness for a bad guy’s schemes and actions. Extrapolating this forward, to we of greater age and—in theory—maturity, we do not need to enjoy something to understand it, nor do we need to shy away from it if we are disgusted by its presence.

I’ve spoken of violence thus far, but there are other things that ferment discomfort. There is a curious parallel in that most discomforts—that I can think of, at least—possess a reducibility to one of the Seven Deadly Sins. There’s been an elaboration on Wrath, above. From my point of view, the United States in particular is oddly disturbed by Lust, at least when compared with other parts of the world; that is to say, “sex on TV” is as negatively stigmatized—or moreso—as violence is. Europe, meanwhile, is far harsher on violence in media yet is—or, was—more lenient on libidinous tropes. There is an argument to be made that this boils down to variances in education systems, though frankly I am not well-versed enough to discuss that to any significant end.

Other instances of distaste for the aforementioned ‘sins’ are very numerous in modern media. The Gamestop debacle, which close friends of mine may know I am a part of, and Occupy Wall Street before it, are examples of rebellion against Greed. (Note: one may argue that the Gamestop situation is a “get rich quick” scheme for some, and while there is undoubtedly profit (and loss) to be had in the ordeal, many are only involved to “stick it to the man.”) While perhaps “discomfort” is a mild way to phrase the ideological motivation of Class Conflict, it is—and nearly always has been—a pivotal part of societal unrest.

But enough about our sins. The parenthesis around “dis” in “discomfort” as much make this post about comfort as otherwise. And for the sake of self-promotion of my own works, I am compelled to note that my stories are not all doom and gloom. The connection between my works and my readers which I seek to cultivate is of a cyclical nature. Were I to describe it in a formulaic scheme, the general process would be as such:

  • (Comfort) Invite readers in with likable characters/fantastical worlds.
  • (Discomfort) Impose a tragedy upon those characters/the world that upends the sense of ‘safety’ felt in the story beforehand.
  • (Comfort) Establish some sense of ‘hope’ that the previous discomfort can be thwarted.
  • Rinse and repeat.

Those who have studied creative writing may note that this is not too much unlike the general usage of a three- or five-act structure story:

  • (Exposition) The beginning of a story that sets the time/place of the world, introduces characters, etc.
  • (Rising Action) Complications arise in a story that motivates a protagonist toward a change in their life.
  • (Climax) Suspense is maximized as said-protagonist does what needs to be done to realize the aforementioned change.
  • (Falling Action) The implications of the Climax settle upon the protagonist, their supporting cast, and their world as a whole.
  • (Dénouement) (aka Resolution, though I was taught Dénouement in school and that’s the one I’m accustomed to) The final outcome of a narrative. If there is a lesson to be learned from a story, it’s usually overtly described here, especially in Shakespearean works (which loved the five-act structure).

The first “Discomfort” I described in the first list, above, takes place over two acts in the five-act structure—Rising Action and Climax. An initial discomfort is introduced that provides a motivation for a protagonist to do away with it, and the actualization of that motivation is addressed in the Climax of their story—this bleeds into the second “Comfort” I described. However, typical Dénouements in stories from the Greeks or the works of Shakespeare often feature a secondary “Discomfort” as a means to teach an audience the intended lesson of their narrative.

A summary of Sophocles’s Antigone. Antigone is the third of the three Theban plays, the first of which, Oedipus Rex, is probably more widely-known. But this was the best visual depiction of the Greeks’ ‘Catastrophe’ implementation of a Dénouement that I could find. Credit to "RebeccaRay" of StoryboardThat; click image for its source. There's plenty more reading over there!

As an author of serial fiction, I am compelled to theorize most of my doings in the context of a five-act structure’s application. However, it is worth mentioning that contrary to what standalone plays may have you believe, a five-act ‘story’ needn’t be merely one “book” in its entirety. In fact, I see and write my characters and their tales with greater nuance; a character may see their development realized over a small handful of chapters in a story, each chapter containing one or more of each of the five acts described above, only to then later re-engage with such development a second time later on in the same narrative. Furthermore, some ‘acts’ are simply too great in scope to describe them and their four partners within the confines of a single book, which is to say some story beats may last from one novel into another, a conclusion being realized only after several volumes of reading.

I feel this is all important because I think it better captures what makes us who we are. Our stories, as human beings, are not an isolatable unit, but rather the sum total of our traumas and pleasures. Were I to tell a tale of my life on this Earth today, the quarter-century which I could describe now would be as relevant unto itself presently as it would were I to tell my life’s story three decades later. My life so far is overwhelmingly influential on my future days. Why, then, should my fiction be any different? My characters, and their relationships, and their worlds, will rarely fully recover from their discomforts. But, likewise, the pinnacle points of their lives will equally change them forever after.

And I believe giving my readers an opportunity to experience that in fiction is my duty as an entertainer, that they, in turn, may reflect upon the futures of their own lives.

This post is long-overdue, and there are a few reasons for that. One is a flurry of unforeseen interrupts offered by life. But the biggest reason is that I found it notably difficult to write, and not for lack of trying. I returned to this entry on a near-daily basis and just couldn’t think of how to formulate my thoughts into readable text. Strange, isn’t it, to have something to say but to not know how? And even now, having ‘finished’ this entry, I am not certain I’ve conveyed its points in a fashion that does not come off as mere rambling; that is for you to be the judge of.

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On Magic

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

  • Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry Into the Limits of the Possible

That is probably the most cliché quote I’ll contribute to the overuse of here in this blog.

There is a lot to discuss about magic, given its varied definitions. Merriam-Webster gives nine different definitions between uses of the word as a noun, adjective, and verb. Thankfully, some of these are archaic or otherwise not commonly used, such as the verb form ‘magicked.’ (I intuitively write this as ‘magic’d’ for reasons unknown.) Of these nine, I first want to focus on one of magic’s adjective forms, as given by Merriam-Webster:

Following the rabbit hole of definitions, enchantment can be cited as the quality or state of being enchanted, and likewise enchanted provides us with made to feel delightfully pleased or charmed. (In addition to two other definitions that loop back to ‘magic’) “That experience was magical,” says one enchanted individual. And it is this very usage that compels me to write this article.

You see, most people—painting in broad strokes here—like a certain degree of ‘magic’ in their lives. The first time you read a book, or see a movie, or play a game is going to possess a certain quality that subsequent read-throughs or viewings or play sessions will not (unless it’s a terrible book/movie/game). This ‘magic’ creates a nostalgia that in turn provokes us to return to things we so greatly enjoyed the first time. But the follow-up experiences are rarely so magical, are they? Nostalgic experiences can give us a comforting homeliness, but—from my experience with such experiences—that rarely makes up for the void left behind by the loss of the ‘new magic.’

So what, then, is an author—such as yours truly—or filmmaker or game developer to do to offer their customers longstanding magic? (One can ask why this is important or why such creators should even bother. After all, so long as they’ve made a sale, their job is done, right? But an author’s lasting legacy is also their ability to make subsequent sales, be they for one work or for many.)

Personally, I believe in liberal use of Chekhov’s gun, a foreshadowing technique named after Anton Chekhov, with several red-herrings sprinkled throughout a narrative. In the context of the above forms of media, this belief as much refers to foreshadowing within a single entry of media as much as it suggests alluding to eventual plot points in later works. A combination of these three techniques [intra-narrative foreshadowing (a term I made up just now), inter-narrative foreshadowing (likewise) and red-herrings] provide plenty of opportunities for lasting ‘magic’ to a dedicated audience:

  • Intra-Narrative Foreshadowing, or foreshadowing of events that occur later within the same media entity, provide an audience with an “aha!” moment when such clues come together to reveal something. For instance, a detective using evidence sprinkled throughout a story to deduce who committed a crime at the end of a book or movie. (From my perspective, most detective shows do this poorly, as often that evidence is obfuscated from a viewer’s eyes and thus they are unlikely to arrive at the same deduction for the same reasons. I posit that these shows instead bank on their viewers simply enjoying the characters doing the legwork for them.)
  • Inter-Narrative Foreshadowing, or foreshadowing of events that occur later within a different media entity related to the initial one, provide an audience with anticipation of future events. Cliffhangers and other such unsolved mysteries, for example, are inter-narrative foreshadowing. (One definition of cliffhanger seems to apply the notion to my above definition of intra-narrative foreshadowing. However, I can’t recall ever actually seeing this definition used in practice.) These give a dedicated audience a reason to come back for more. Moreover, when such an audience then goes back to earlier works, they can find once-overlooked details that hint at later events, granting them a renewed sense of ‘magic’ and wonder for other things they may have missed. Used well, this leads to…
  • Red-herrings, which I hopefully shouldn’t need to define, are an author/filmmaker/developer’s ‘out’ in distracting an audience. Not everything needs to result in something of any significance. Sometimes some details are just for show or greater immersion to help an audience better visualize or empathize with a scene or character. But coupled with actual hints or clues as described above, red-herrings can give a rabid reader or voracious viewer something extra to chew on over time, plunging them into a sea of unknown pathways and obscure dead-ends.

I do, however, feel compelled to note that cliffhangers are not very magical, at least not after the first encounter with them. By their very definition, they allude to something that must occur at a later date, and when that something eventually does occur, any magic once instilled is lost after a brief period of enjoyment for the elucidation. There is no mystery or guesswork about a cliffhanger—save for the effects the eventual event may have on the narrative/characters of a story; they are very much so “one time use” in regards to their ‘magic.’ After all, once you know how a trick is done…

And that brings me to the next point: the ‘magic’ of magic as a noun.

I firmly believe that Teller of Penn & Teller (not to be confused with Pain & Terror) gets this better than anyone. For those dodging the last thirty-four years of stage magic, Penn & Teller have been a duo of comedic magic performances operating primarily with illusions, sleight of hand, or other forms of deceit. There is a twist here: Penn does all the talking, and Teller…doesn’t. Teller’s insights as to why he refrains from speaking are as follows, from an interview with NPR. It seemed a disservice to not include everything he had to say on the matter, so do pardon the large copy/paste below:

The rest of the interview is absolutely worth a read/listen; click the image above for a direct link to it, but be forewarned: fans of Penn & Teller may lose a little magic in doing so…more on that below!

To see Penn & Teller perform (something I have regrettably managed only with recordings and reruns) is quite the spectacle indeed. How are their tricks done? Could it have involved X? Did they slide a card in when Y? The art of their performance sparks mystery and intrigue, and so, too, does the lack of Teller’s vocal presence. What does he sound like? For years, that was an unknown to me, and it was joyous.

And then, by pure happenstance, I stumbled upon and mistakenly viewed an interview with Teller in which he spoke. (Not the interview linked to above, not that it matters.) And so the magic therein was lost—I had my answer to the magic of Teller’s previously-nonexistent voice. And made-for-radio though Teller’s voice is, no sound was—or is—capable of replacing that silence.

And that’s the magic of it.

Stage magic invites guesses about solutions. But those that come to learn ‘how things work’ in magic performances often resent their own understanding. For when the magic is gone, what is left, save for an appreciation of once being fooled? Can that be enough?

It seems, in most cases, not. And so we arrive at the obvious: Magicians being unwilling to reveal the secrets of their trickery is a mercy in spite of our worst judgment. (It is also an economically-motivated decision—trade secrets, and all that.)

It is in this regard, then, that I want to speak of the final chunk of definitions for magic, that of actual supernatural ‘magic,’ as in the noun-form definitions 1.a, b) and 2.a, b) far above.

I have written of magic in my own fantasy works quite a bit. Within the first of my works, a fairly-knowledgeable being describes magic as “a confluence of mathematical engineering and willpower, bound by balance and limited by the instruments of the caster.” So often within the works of fantastical fiction does magic have some backbone of physics and fundamental techniques describing the what and how of its function.

But, in hindsight, I think this is folly and I have grown critical of such an approach. In Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying game, for instance, magic is very well-defined down to a fine level of physicality. ‘Spells’—as they are known—feature finely described verbal, somatic, or material components for casting them. The process of utilizing such magic is much less the harnessing of some wild, mysterious force and much more a science by another name. (Nerdy author’s note: D&D’s “Wild Magic” background for Sorcerers counters this point to a tee, though it is the only ‘primal’ caster in an ocean of better-established Wizards and Warlocks.) And I think, ultimately, there is something very wrong with that.

When we know the ‘how’ of how to cast a magic spell, is it really magic anymore?

Fun point of fact: When writing this post, I initially misquoted the Arthur C. Clarke quote as being

Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

And I think, actually, that rings true, too. The more we try to ground magic in reality, the less magical it really is. And I’d argue that’s a shame.

Modern ‘magic’ in Dungeons & Dragons or otherwise is very heavily inspired by the works of Jack Vance, in particular his Dying Earth series. As a result of this, the ‘technical’ term for fantastical magical casting such as described above is ‘Vancian Magic.’ The Evil GM, a seemingly-now-defunct blog about D&D, in 2012 wrote a fairly descriptive breakdown of Vancian Magic and its problems—from a gameplay perspective and on its issues with agency—and from one blogger to another, I must encourage my readers give it a gander. Having read that post many moons ago as an impressionable teenager, I now find myself unable to subscribe to Vancian Magic in good faith. To speak bluntly, it feels like a cop-out.

Now, the opposite may look like a cop-out too; simply doing nothing or very little to tether magic in reality may seem to strike a chord of laziness, and I cannot fault one for thinking that. But that a reader, viewer, or player may not fully grasp the fundamentals of casting magics within a given fantastical universe should be—in my opinion—by design. We, as creators, can bear the burden of understanding how our magic works; we need not deprive our audience of that wonder.

For to wonder is magical indeed.

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