I reused a file folder that had previously been labeled “Bitter Machines Flash Fiction.” Since the new label didn’t entirely cover the old one, it now says “Health Insurance Flash Fiction,” which is the worst, most boring, and also most soul-chilling and existentially dreadful type of flash fiction there is.
I’ve found I have two methods for developing my magic systems in Stars Fall Out, and I’ve used each one exclusively for a single type of magic.
First there’s the Painstaking Research method, which I’ve used for shadowmancy. It involves poring over lists of root words, drawing diagrams, and researching real-life machines and devices that I can modify into crazy magic stuff. Coming up with secondary world terminology and items is the kind of worldbuilding task that can lead to heavy procrastination, so I try to avoid it as long as possible, and engage in it only as needed.
For my second magic system, oneiromancy, I’ve engaged in almost none of it at all. I’ve never sat down and said, “Today I am going to create magical jargon.”
What happens with oneiromancy–and I’ve only just realized this–is that a character says something, and it becomes part of the magic system. And when I say “a character,” I mean the same character every time.
When my character popped into my head blithely explaining that the magic vial works on “a double manifest with stabilized water as an anchor,” I finally had an idea of how the book’s main magic item works within the magic rules of my world, but didn’t necessarily expect to use that information in a scene. However, part of the book’s climax involves a hearing in which the Nirsuathu University council tries to determine the circumstances behind the theft of the magic vial, and also what the hell it actually is.
That seemed like as good a use as any for the jargon I had lying around. I decided that, prior to the “lying and setting enormous fires” portion of the hearing, I’d have my oneiromancer explain how the item works. After months of living as a human test strip for a dubious magic test, he finally gets to show that he is quite intelligent and competent, and in doing so, pisses off some of the other characters. Win win.
Piroszehlt didn’t so much as flinch at Zanhrori’s use of his oneiromancer’s name, but took a deep breath and straightened his papers once more. “First, for those of you who were unaware, or who had heard but not believed, the magic vial does in fact allow transport from place to place when used to consume water from a natural body. In oneiromantic terms, it’s a double manifest with stabilized water as an anchor.”
Ghordaa snorted, under his breath yet meant to be heard. Vilari looked at Piro as though she were about to spit in the soup of the Great Pon.
Ghordaa unfurled his hand like a spring fern. “I would only like to caution against the intellectual laxity of using borrowed terminology to describe what I have created.”
“Noted. Would you like to give the council a lesson on the proper terms at this time? I understand you’re supposed to be a teacher.”
“And is this to be a classroom now? I’m not certain how receptive or capable my students would be.”
“You’d have to test them, wouldn’t you?”
Next to me, Tirsan gave a close-mouthed chuckle. “What? I enjoy watching them snipe at each other like that.” He spoke so low that no one else heard him.
After a pause in which Piroszehlt and Ghordaa both seemed to be deciding if other insults were necessary, Piro spoke first. “I shall continue using my borrowed terms. Unless you intend to train all here in the practice of your new discipline, I think they will suffice for the sake of understanding.” He rolled his paperweight in his hand. “Now, to go back to the question from before the interruption. Sunivar?”
And then he gave them all coronavirus.
The other day I reread some of my recent scenes in Stars Fall Out, for reasons of both continuity and procrastination. Given the current, pandemic-type situation we’re in now and all the emphasis on hygiene, I saw the scenes in a new, corona-tinged light. A theory popped into my head, the type of theory one tends to develop after watching something like The Lord of the Rings dozens of times. In my case, it’s not a movie I’ve watched dozens of times, but a book that I’ve been working on diligently for about a year-and-a-half now. Either way, it’s a story I’ve had a great deal of exposure to. Unlike the coronavirus, at least as far as I know. The theory, of course, is that I gave my secondary-world character coronavirus. As it happens, I have plenty of shifty, circumstantial evidence to support this theory.
Exhibit A: Face-touching
“Can you confiscate things?” I turned back to Piroszehlt, and the question burst from me so suddenly that he startled, and his arm dropped off my shoulders. “You might have been right,” I said, though I didn’t have the time for this, “about being the same person. I know you.” I scrambled to my feet, and offered him a hand. “But you don’t know me, not as well as you probably think. Can you confiscate things?”
“What?” He too stood. “Tyatavar, what is this about? What things?”
“Magic things. Ghordaa’s things. Zanhrori got him kicked out of his lab, and he’s investigating. You’re involved, right?”
“Yes,” he said slowly, “I am.”
“Then,” I said, pointing down the hill at the university, to where Ghordaa and my sister navigated the walkways and crowds of students searching for something, someone, and most likely me, “can you confiscate his things, if you need to?”
“Yes,” Piroszehlt said with more confidence, if not understanding, “I can confiscate things.”
“Good,” I said, reaching up to touch his cheek with three fingers. “Because I do like this face of yours, and I’d rather not see it get hit again.”
On rereading, it does also come across kind of clunky. Too many saids. But I’m not editing it for the sake of this blog post because a) I don’t fiddle around with stuff like that before revision and b) it involves the love triangle, which might mean it’s too cheesy to exist anyway.
Exhibit B: Further face-touching
Leaning back in his chair, he touched three fingers to his cheek, stared up at the ceiling, and let that sting.
They were as painfully well-matched as a gritty patch of ice and the raw palm you caught yourself on.
Exhibit C: Reference to being out-of-breath
“Do you want to keep it?” he’d asked as we blinked in the sunlight, waiting for our eyes to adjust. He held out the glass anchor wrapped in ratty old fabric.
“The dress? You should probably burn it.”
“You’d be better suited to the task,” he’d said, and shook his head. “Oneiromantic fire. Can you stop doing amazing things for a couple days and let me catch my breath?”
When I wrote it, I assumed that last line was figurative. But I don’t know, maybe he has a virus-related respiratory problem?
Although I’m definitely not taking my story this direction, it’s interesting to think what the consequences would be if this character did actually have coronavirus. Less than a week after the last snippet, he has to give a statement at a hearing with at least two dozen people in attendance.
That might not go so great.
Running up all the stairs in an enormous tower would probably also not go well. Nor would the day-long walk to reach the airship.
On the other hand, I’ve written in the draft that the city of Nirsuathu is a pain to enter and leave. Perhaps the virus wouldn’t spread throughout the Northern Provinces.
Yeah. The other Northern Provinces are sounding pretty good right now. Or any secondary world, for that matter.
When you Google “goat injuries” for book reasons because you need to get a guy out of an animal pasture so his wife can talk to her would-be-lover about some perjury they’re going to commit…
…and then a week later you still have six browser tabs dedicated to goat injuries, even though you decided not to go all plot devicey like that.
That’s writer life.
Back in November, I set myself the goal of either finishing Stars Fall Out or writing 25 scenes. I did my 25 scenes, but my planned ending has taken many more words than I anticipated. Now, at the beginning of March, I think I’m at a point where I can say I have a month of work left. This time, I’m basing that on the rate at which I’ve been finishing scenes since November, and that I can much more accurately count how many I have left. Here’s a recent excerpt:
“Can’t you make another one?’
“Do you have any idea of the intricacies of creating that particular item?”
In fact, I did not. For all the reading I’d done, for all the notes I’d found scattered in his various places of work, I still had found nothing that explained how his vials worked.
What I had found instead was his attempt at a book of aphorisms—his answer to the widespread popularity he was certain his magic would enjoy. Everyone would look to him not only as the creator of a new magical discipline, but as a fount of wisdom in all areas. It combined abstractions about shadowmantic theory—long paragraphs as winding and impenetrable as a hedge maze—with advice on sleep, diet, and the raising of children. Rise with the sun. Meat only on Athuday. He’d even written rules of etiquette for how to treat oneiromancers once his own magic supplanted theirs: treat them with the bemused kindness one would show an elder, but the distant wariness one would show a strange dog.
“You’ve yet to teach me how the vials work,” I said at last.
I’ve aimed to structure Stars Fall Out as a slow-burning story where everything explodes at the end. I’m still on the first draft, so it’s hard to say whether or not I’ve succeeded on the slow burn. But I’ve definitely reached the exploding part: in the past week alone I’ve written an arrest, an interrogation, a confrontation between two points of a love triangle, and finally, a jail break.
I caught him by the wrist a little over halfway up to the planetarium. High enough up the tower that we had cleared the buildings around us, and we stood before windows bursting with sky and lazy sunlight.
“We’re alone now,” I said. “Can you tell me what this is? Why did you break me out?”
“Break you out? That was an elegant feat of clerical sleight-of-hand.”
“Noted. Why did you do it?”
“Because you had a smart idea some weeks ago, but no way to execute it properly.” He must have noted absolute incomprehension in my expression because he continued on, “The magic test, Tyatavar. Why did you retake it?”