Do you like novel sorcery? Do you like new-fangled wizardry?
Are you a creative fantasy fiction author?
If you enjoy playing with magic and conceptualizing & planning your own magical systems, and you love to give new powers and special abilities to your fictional characters, you’ll want to be part of my nifty list (below) of modizardry (i.e. modern wizardry) and brand new pseudoscientific paranormalogicals!
In other words, here’s some crazy new magic conjured-up by me (along with the proper scientific nomenclature)
It’s not a finalized list — I expect to add to it when new ideas occur to me — and I think you can help too…
Here’s a challenge: if you have your own new magic, send it in and I’ll add it to this alpha list.
Submit your idea, with or without scientific nomenclature, and I will add it to this list and I’ll credit you as the inventor. Tweet me @neilmach
Good luck! : )
Agathodemonic Therianthropy – humans that are turned (or can turn themselves) into animal spirits to do the bidding of others
Alchemical Apotropaism — altering or recovering from base metals fundamental substances (elements such as gold or diamond) to counter or protect against demons, ghosts, or evil sorcerers
Bilocating Suffumigation — sending oneself into other dimensions by becoming smoke or flames (an ability to travel as a wisp of smoke)
Postcogniscent Astrality — travelling back in time astrally by leaving one’s mortal body to perceive past events as if one is actually there, visiting as a spirit
Sciomantic Astrality — to leave a mortal body and enter the otherworld as a free spirit with the intention of communicating with the dead in their own plane
Exorcistic Cacodaemoning – working with or controlling bad spirits so they grow within others to do one’s (your) bidding
Psychokinetic Chaldeanics — changing or improving the weather or climate by mental (psychokinetic) means
Faith-Fate Controlling — providing (or taking away) general “luck” i.e. good (bad) fortune by the miraculous laying of hands
Spellcrafting Genethialogy — predicting the future loves of a new born and then providing him/her/it with the necessary spells/charms to protect against, invite or capture that predicted love/romance in the future
Haemonic Entrapment — to magically entrap or enslave a person using herbcraft
Runic Harusipication — interpreting omens and signs by deciphering runes
Metamorphic Perceptionism — gaining or using supernormal, otherworldly or magical senses by becoming an entity from one’s own dreamscape and then travelling through time and space as that dream-creature
Predestinic Necromanticism — to improve one’s own opportunities (or, conversely, to debilitate another’s opportunities) inside “death” (the otherworld) by altering one’s “death” fortunes whilst still alive
Psychoscopic Teleportation — moving back and forth in time (temporarily) by inhabiting an almost eternal substance i.e. space rock, star dust, a meteorite, etc.
Psychokinetic Materialization / de-materialization — making things appear or disappear using the power of astral thought (i.e. by psychokinetic creation)
Prophetic jinxing and hexing — employing curses or hexes that launch or activate at a foreordained or pre-postulated time in a victim’s future
Got your own? Don’t forget to send them to me and I’ll add them to the list and credit you! Tweet @neilmach
My dad used to complain that my mother had “no sense of time…” And I understood. I was forever waiting for my dinner while my mum “just finished” a sewing project, a painting, or some crafting. My wife is the same.
Craft-orientated people like my old Mum, and my wife, get preoccupied by the creative project they are working on. It seems that they don’t have any “sense of time.”
Does this mean, though, that creative-people cannot “feel” the passage of time? Or does it merely mean that they are absorbed and distracted by their imagination and just want to get on with their project?
And, anyway, sorry Dad, but is chrono-perception (the sense of time passing) a real “sense”? Or is it just a pseudo-sense like humor and fairplay. If it is a sense, what organ does it use? Would an alien from another planet require time perception? If an entity existed outside earthly time & space (for example, a floating spirit or a deity), would it require time perception? If an organism counts eons instead of hours to develop and grow (for example, endoliths that live for thousands of years on the ocean floor or huge inter-connected colonies of fungi) — do they need time perception or, indeed, any “sense of time” at all? And what might all these things have, if they don’t have a sense of time? What other senses do such things possess?
If you’re a fantasy fiction writer, these are exactly the type of questions you are expected to ask. Because these are the kind of questions that spark new stories and facilitate fruitful imaginings!
I spoke about fear on the Myth & Magic Podcast, Episode 73 (aired 17th March 2021) and how you should use the hormonal cascade to impart fear in your story. On that show I mentioned that our animal brains are capable of “slowing down time…” when we face deadly danger. Although this phenomenon (known as “chronostasis” — the immobilization of time) is actually a disconnect between normal visual sensations and perceptions rather than any special new ability or sense, nevertheless, chronostasis is interesting, because it requires us to focus on how we perceive our surroundings, using our most important sensory organs: eye, ear, skin, nose and mouth. But what if there are other receptors? What if we unconsciously use other organs to perceive “other” mysterious things?
Well, it just so happens that we humans (most of us) do possess other receptors, and through these lesser known receptors, we do perceive other mysterious things! For example, most of us, if healthy, have a sense of balance. This is known as equilibrioception and, as in other animals, it prevents us from toppling over. The vestibular system (it’s a labyrinth inside your ear, so you can’t see it) does the work for us. When the sense of balance is disrupted, it causes dizziness, disorientation and nausea, which is why we feel queasy in a rocking boat, woozy after getting off a spinning roundabout, and why astronauts must be trained to deal with the sick feeling of weightlessness in space
We also have a number of other interoceptions (these are sense receptors located within the body, mostly organ-based and, like the vestibular system in the ear, they cannot be seen). For example, most of us can sense when we are “full up” after a big meal, conversely most of us can sense when we’re hungry. Also, most of us sense pain. We also have a vomeronasal organ V.N.O. for short that (weirdly) is also present in snakes and lizards and which we think (though nobody knows for certain) is used to sense chemical cues (pheromones) and might explain some of our curious mating behaviors.
Other animals have “exotic senses” and these are quite exciting: for instance, some snakes can “see” the body-heat of their prey, some bats can sense infrared light, and some birds can sense ultraviolet light. Some shrimp can perceive polarized light and multispectral images (it’s quite possible they see colours we humans wouldn’t recognise!)
Magnetoreception is the ability to use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate and some birds and herding animals possess this sense. While echolocation (used by bats and whales) allows an animal to interpret reflected sounds (in the same way that sonar works in submarines).
Sharks and rays (some whales as well) detect electric fields (electroception) though their skin and, as far as we know, the platypus does this as well. These creatures are likely to use the sense of electroception to hunt in very dark waters. Hygroreception is the ability to detect changes in humidity in the atmosphere and some insects use this sense before constructing shelters.
Your responsibility, as an ingenious fantasy fiction writer, is to mingle, merge or just “think up” new exotic senses for your human-like characters or, even better (in my opinion) dream-up fabled creatures that come equipped with extraordinary & fantastical senses.
To steer you in the right direction, I suggest the following approaches:
1: Think about why your fantasy creature needs such “power” in the first place. Is it going to be used for hunting? Will it be used to escape or camouflage itself? Will it be used to communicate with others of its kind? Is it used for mating rituals? Does it require the exotic sense so it can successfully achieve some other super-normal talent (for example, dragons might require some sense of altimetry (so they can judge how high to fly) and maybe they’ll need some sort of ion-detection sense (like an in-built smoke-alarm) so they will wake-up if they accidentally spit fire in their sleep!
2: Think of how the new sense might be contained within the physical body of the entity (within a highly specialized organ, perhaps, or a part of the brain? ) How will the animal/entity maintain the good health of the sense? Will it require a specialized diet? Will using the sense require practice? (Humans need to learn balance, for example, before using a surf-board or riding a bicycle, don’t they?) Does the sense grow stronger (or weaker) over time? We know, in humans, that sight fails as we age and taste buds are never replaced. Perhaps all exotic senses diminish through a lifetime? But what if some senses develop and grow as an entity ages? What if the animal develops a strange new sense later in life?
3: Think of synonyms for existing and better known senses. For example, see = distinguish, hear = understand, taste = acquire, smell = inhale, and feel = calibrate. Compile your own set of synonyms for better-known senses because you’ll need them for component 4 of this exercise…
4: Now for the fun part! Add your synonym (the word you came up with in component 3 above) to something that’s weird and either magical or scientific (don’t forget all the other main points though: your imagined creature/entity must require the new sense for a tangible purpose and it must somehow be contained within a body). Here’s my list of ideas:
Neil Mach’s list of exotic senses:
electrostatic distinction : an entity “sees” electrical charges
baryon comprehension : an entity “hears” interactions between atoms
ectoplasmic acquisition : an entity “tastes” spiritual energy
crystallographic inhalation : an entity “smells” crystal structures in solids
hydrothermal gauging : an entity “feels” the onset of hydrothermal activity
Hooray! it’s now time to think up your own exotic senses!
Work out how they might be used in your creature/entity (or your human like character). Consider the positives / negatives of possessing such exotic senses and how your narrative might alter if your protagonist (or antagonist) possessed such an amazing skill! Good luck. Let me know how it goes!
FLUXUS was an important international and interdisciplinary community of artists, composers, designers and poets who participated in experimental artistic performances during the 1960s and 1970s. The key was to emphasize the artistic process over any finished product.
Fluxus artists tended to engage in interdisciplinary artistic activities (they used the term “intermedia” to explain these activities — for instance, a combination of drawing and poetry, or a combination of painting and theater). A great example of an interdisciplinary artistic activity could be the Japanese poems known as Haiga which are typically lines of poetry painted alongside images, with the same brush and ink.
Simple “comic book” stories combine works of art with lines of dialogue in much the same way. If you were (are) a fan of the Illuminae Archives (by authors Jay Kristoff & Amie Kaufman) — the 2015 space opera that used photocopied documents, emails, and interview transcripts (as well as diagrams and other non-textual material) — to tell an otherwise fairly straightforward retro space-adventure in a bold and graphic way for novel, then you’ll understand the remarkable oomph that an interdisciplinary approach can bring to fiction. I don’t expect you to be able to produce a graphic novel or illustrate your next story book, but you might be able to add a piece of contextual art to your next poem or a doodle to your short story, huh?
Fluxus is all about interpretation, explication and visualization:
So, if you can:
Express your thoughts using some ‘other’ (non text-based) artistic language that helps make sense of ideas (or helps clarify ideas for your audience)… you’ll be using the fluxus!
Elaborate your thoughts, making them simple to understand to your audience, with diagrams, maps, spoken word, songs, crafts, or some other non-text-based art form… you’ll be using the fluxus!
Summarize your thoughts in an interpretive way that provides a mental picture to your audience of something that is otherwise invisible or abstract to them … you’ll be using the fluxus!
There are (loose) rules for fluxus:
Fluxus is an attitude (not a style)
Fluxus is about intermedia (seeing how common or everyday objects might intersect with each other to illustrate our work)
Fluxus is simple (the work ought to be short, brief, and just a small digression)
Fluxus is fun — it’s meant to get your imagination bubbling — it should be a lighthearted pursuit and can be as silly as you like
Fluxus works best when it is childlike, so be guileless, be unselfconscious and be playful when you fluxperiment
But how inventive can you be with your fluxperiments?
You don’t have to be totally bonkers or totally avante-garde, or revolutionary or countercultural-transgressive to take on the fluxus. You don’t have to be pretentious or “uppity” to be in this group of free-thinkers either! This isn’t about making arty-farty creations that nobody wants to see or hear (ha ha!). Instead, it’s about blurring boundaries between art forms. And, let’s be clear, we do it every day, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to most of us! This is the key to understanding the fluxus: remembering that all you’re doing is blurring boundaries between art forms.
Have you ever used an emoji at the end of a sentence? Yes? That’s the fluxus. Have you ever scribbled a doodle on a napkin and pinned it to your cork board? Yes? That’s the fluxus. Have you ever chosen a picture postcard for a mood-board that, in a way, “says” everything you want to say about your protagonist? Yes? That’s the fluxus. Have you ever chosen a pop song that encourages the progress of your main character through the quest? Yes? That’s the fluxus. Have you ever admired the thoughts behind a funny meme and thought it summed-up your opinions? Yes? that’s the fluxus. These are all examples of using everyday fluxus because they all blur the boundaries between art forms
Tip 1: Try creating concrete poetry. For example, if you are writing a poem about an egg, the words you use will form an oval shape on the page. If you are writing a poem about your heroine, the words could form a set of angel wings on the page. A poem about a villain could form a set of terrifying bat wings! Try experimenting too… perhaps (when you set out) you don’t know what shape your words will create… so just put your words into a “form” (shape) and turn the paper upside-down once you’re done, to alter your perspective! What does the shape remind you of?
Tip 2: Try creating a coloring calligram. Use a phrase that you’ve written before and that you’re quite proud of, or a piece of text (a paragraph you’ve written, perhaps) and then present those words inside a related thematic image. It will be like “coloring in” but instead of crayons or paints, you’ll be using words. For example, if your antagonist is described as a demonic being with horns and hooves, try presenting those words within the image of a fanged werewolf. You can “make” the outline image yourself by sketching it out before you try “filling it in” with words. But please limit yourself to old words (be strict with yourself, you can only use the words from your excerpt … not any new words… this isn’t about writing something new, it’s about blurring boundaries between sketching & writing.) if you can’t sketch, you can find an outline of the image you want to use (search online or get an adult coloring book) and then “fill in” the chosen image with your carefully chosen words.
Tip 3: Create free-form sound art. Grab your smartphone or gadget for this one. Recall a moment (a scene) from the fiction you’re currently writing and press record. Say (out loud) a batch of single words (not sentences, it’s important that these words don’t ‘join up’ to form sentences… or you’ll not get a “free flow” of ideas.) This is not about cohesiveness, grammar or punctuation, but about sounds. If your words have a connectedness and an interdependence, that’s fine… but if they don’t… that’s fine too! This is also about encouraging free thought. What you’re aiming for here is vitality, aliveness and richness of sounds. Don’t record more than twenty seconds though. In fact, keep it shorter if you possibly can. Have a few goes. Allow your subconscious creativity to do all the work! If you feel like it, you can share your sound-art on your socials and explain to your readers that you’ve been doing a bit of fluxus! I’m sure they’ll be very impressed! Ha ha!
Tip 4: Try finding some publication poetry. I have been doing this once-a-week, every week, since Christmas. I like to use glossy magazines for this fluxus (the brighter and the glossier the better, and I am especially fond of the food & cooking pages.) First, I find a word (or sometimes a phrase) that says something about the work that I am currently doing. You would think it would be impossible to find a word or phrase related to fantasy fiction in a magazine article written about cooking, wouldn’t you? But it’s not… it’s surprisingly easy. Once I have found what I call the “hook” word, maybe the word “angel” from an angel-cake recipe… I pick up a thick pen (a sharpie) or a highlighter (there are two approaches to this) but the general idea is to find the rest of the words that have been “hidden” within the text by the original author (unknown to him or her, of course!) and link them all up to create your own work. So, with your marker-pen you reveal a poem. And it’s a “found poem.” You will either: a) highlight the “correct” words or b) disguise the “incorrect” words or c) a bit of both. But, whichever technique you choose, you will recover a lost poem that has been hidden on the page. (see the illustration below) It is a bit like the archaeology of words. When you do this, I am sure you will discover rewarding and quite extraordinary passages that will magically unfold in front of your very eyes. You will be presented with new thoughts that will help you hone, enable and even facilitate meanings that you had not considered before. Give it a go!
Let me know about your fluxperiments and fluxperiences by tweeting me @neilmach
Seeing ghostly images in the mirror is a form of scrying. I’ll get into that shortly…
But let’s begin by agreeing that mirrors are, of course, portals to other dimensions.
Just ponder the rationality of that simple statement for a moment. When you look into a mirror, you don’t see yourself. Not really. You merely see a mirrored version of yourself. The tint, texture, and contour of the glass will slightly modify or manipulate the mirrored version that you observe. Therefore it’s not you. It’s a version of you. Remember this when checking your face in the morning!
What’s more (and this is even more difficult to understand, so take a breath): the person in the mirror is not the same person that everyone else sees. Not only is the person in the mirror not you (because it’s a modified version) but it’s not even the “you” everyone else sees! Others see a presented image of yourself. The mirror provides a reflected image of yourself. In short, if you really want to examine your “true self” ditch the mirror and don’t worry about what people think or say; instead look deep into your inner being. Right, that’s the Snow White “evil queen complex” dealt with — but it’s drifting away from the main point… so let’s get back on track —
It is important to stipulate that I am not suggesting (at this stage) that anything supernatural is going on when we look into mirrors. But on the other hand, I also think we should properly appreciate how genuinely weird a mirrored surface is. We take shiny surfaces for granted, probably because we’re staring at them for much of the day. Shiny surfaces have a magical authority over us… and even an absolute control over our existence in certain cases. If you don’t believe me, try taking someone’s phone away or denying them a television screen.
But back to common-or-garden mirrors, I think it’s because the symmetrical reality of the “mirror world” we experience (I call it the symmetrylity) seems so compelling and perceptive that we don’t recognize the deep and intrinsic flaws in our thinking. We honestly believe that the mirror world is real. However, it is not. It is another dimension. For example, how strange is it that when two people look into a mirror at the same time, they see different images on the same surface! And when a person looks at himself in a mirror, what he really sees is the front and back reversed! You need to be a mathematics teacher if you want to explain the inter-dimensional aspect of mirrors.
Although we might expect a “standard” mirror (perhaps the mirror in the hall) to behave in a rational way, and to always provide an accurate representation of the world around us (albeit in reverse) it’s not true. It won’t! When a glassy surface is not held completely flat then it will behave like a lens and will distort (magnify) what we see. And a mirror that is tilted even moderately (maybe not flat against a wall) will give seemingly realistic results, but it will skew images. While a mirror that curves even insignificantly will, nonetheless, reduce larger images.
If you add these factors to the strange ability that mirrors possess (they allow us to “see behind ourselves” without turning around, which is one of the most useful benefits of reflective surfaces, but it’s also a bit like looking into the past) — when all these attributes are put together you can guess why some folks claim to see visions in mirrored surfaces. And it’s why humankind, since prehistoric times, has used reflective surfaces to attempt to perceive future events or “see” outside the perspective space & time they found themselves somewhat limited by.
Mirrored surfaces, such as the still dark waters of a sacred pool, or the waters glimpsed in a baptismal font, or polished stones & jewels, or very shiny goblets, or glass spheres, have been used since prehistoric times — for clairvoyance (seeing into future), augury (interpreting omens), and divination (the gift of prophecy). When a reflective surface is used for these paranormal activities, it is called scrying.
Concentrating on the medium of exploration (the reflective surface) is said to help scrying practitioners “focus attention” and “free their mind” in much the same way that a guru might meditate or a priest might be prayerful before a religious service. Maybe it’s a kind of self-hypnosis. After this approach, a scryer might report “seeing” images in a reflective surface. Some scryers even report hearing voices. The famous French seer of the 16th century, Nostradamus, practiced scrying before making his famous predictions; he’d stare into a bowl of water or use a “magic mirror” to see the future world while in a trance. Mirrors seem to lift the veil between what we consider our physical realm and a glimpsed spiritual realm. And it is true that ancient civilizations (such as the Mayans) thought mirrors functioned as two-way portals between humanity and gods.
To understand how mirrors might act as portals, we need to recognise that luminescent surfaces are regarded by some as representations of liminal space and can therefore be thresholds between natural and spiritual realms. To learn more about the fascinating topic of liminality, you’ll need to listen to episodes 13, then episode 40, and episode 51 of my Myth & Magic podcast. I also cover the subject of liminality in depth, in my non-fiction writer’s manual “So You Want To Write Fantasy?” But I think it’s interesting to note that people tend to approach mirrors to ask important questions about their existence and future opportunities at liminal moments in their life (at any thresholds they might encounter.) For example, on a wedding night, getting ready for a funeral, before a big presentation at work or in the dark waters of a font at the moment of baptism. (Note: a child younger than 18 months cannot “see” a reflected image, but what do the godparents see?)
In literature (especially in fantasy fiction) there is a tradition of using mirrors to combine thoughts on mythology and cosmology and to describe a method of visiting multiple worlds that are typically outside a character’s limitations. I am sure you can think of a hundred examples. A mirror is a useful device because it allows the protagonist to wander (in mind and spirit) without having to leave a prosaic existence. Sometimes there is even the suggestion of a physical trip to an “otherworld”. Thus, Alice reflects on what it must be like to live on the other side of a mirror’s reflective surface, so she chooses to travel “Through the Looking-Glass” in Lewis Carroll’s much-loved tale. Alice discovers an alternate dimension in which everything is reversed, including logic (so, for example, running takes you nowhere, walking away from something returns you to it). She finds that her mirror world is divided into sections by streams (reflective surfaces too) suggesting there are a myriad more dimensions to choose from. Harry Potter comes across a “mirror of desire” perhaps that he might be tempted to use to turn back time (a mirror of Erised) or that can be used as a scrying tool to see his (dead) parents.
So, returning to the central question, can ghosts be seen in mirrors? Some people, notably those who are prone to such things, are almost certain to “see” puzzling images in reflected surfaces. Some reported sightings might be because of sensory deprivation (the darkness of the pool or the glow of the chalice), or skewed images that might prove unreliable because of a less than perfect surface. We must also take the mental state of the seer into account (is she at a threshold in life? Is it a time of stress and change?) And the health and mindfulness of the seer must be examined, plus their use of recreational, religious / mystical substances, medicines or intoxicants, and the seer’s lack of sleep, and a host of other factors.
There is probably a lot of pareidolia going on too. Pareidolia is the disposition of all observers to see recognizable objects, patterns — and even messages — in totally disconnected presentations. So, for example, we all see faces in everyday objects. How often have you looked at an electrical socket and thought it seemed to be a smiling face looking back? We all see visions in clouds. And we all see spooky humanoids in reflections. Pareidolia is not some kind of psychosis: it is a normal human tendency. And it explains many curious things.
We must also consider the subjective nature of experience: sometimes we too easily forget that we perceive our environments in a completely different way from those around us. The “seen and understood” universe that we experience differs entirely from the “seen and understood” universe that everyone else experiences. This is due to our sensory perceptions being unique to us. They say that each of us has a unique pattern: but we ought to remember that each of us also experiences a uniquely different world — and although our worlds overlap and seem to have many things in common with each other — each world is experienced in a totally different way. So anyone, at any point in their life, might experience what psychologists will call a benign hallucination on a mirrored surface. It is likely to happen to all of us!
Yes, ghosts are seen in mirrors. And that’s perhaps the least disconcerting aspect of reflective surfaces!
Agree? Disagree? Ideas or comments? Tweet me @neilmach
Before this global emergency I regularly attended author’s conferences, seminars and workshops aimed at creative writers and author-entrepreneurs.
These events were great places to mingle with like-minded people, to learn “tricks of the trade” and to get oneself rejuvenated and revitalized. I always returned home “from conference” feeling recommitted, re-engaged and reawakened.
At many of these events, they set up a table (in a lobby) where budding authors might place a new book along with promotional materials such as bookmarks, pens, and business cards. After taking out my book, and placing it tidily on the table, I would usually find a seat nearby where I could observe what happened. The idea would be that someone might pick-up my book, make promising facial expressions, perhaps smile & nod at a humorous page, at which point I would walk over to the table, tell them I am the author and say, “If you like that book, you can take it. Here, take a bookmark as well.”
Of course, 99.9% of people — who payed any heed to the author table — would never pick up my book. They wouldn’t even glance at the cover as they scanned the table with fevered eyes. So I’d nod sagely to those people who sat to my left and right… and then the penny would drop! The people sitting nearbywere all the other author-entrepreneurs at the event — they were the other business creatives who, like me — watched the table too. They wanted to see if anyone picked up their book!
Such reasoning therefore meant that the people at the table (the few who intently ignored my book) must have been scanning for some “other” kind of material. I guess they searched for books that might have had the same distinctive qualities as their own (theoretical) project. Or these people (bless them) were “at conference” for their first ever time, or they had strayed into a wild & mysterious world by mistake, or they were looking to collect free pens and bookmarks, or they were hucksters looking for Nest-Egg Seniors (read on to find out more).
At one of the last major independent author conferences that I attended in 2019, the illustrious keynote speaker began an inspirational speech with four words: “What do you want?”
She gazed at the seated delegates with an inquiring and (I thought) slightly judgmental eye, and then she asked:
Do you want to be famous for your work?
Do you want your book to be on a bestseller list?
Do you want to be an award-winning author?
Do you want your book to make you rich?
Do you want a publishing contract?
Do you want to see your book on shelves in high street bookstores?
Do you want writing to be an enjoyable and fascinating hobby?
Do you want to write reminiscences or fairy stories for your grandchildren?
Do you want to tell people you are an author?
But then she delivered the bad news: these expectations are not compatible with each other. She implied that if you attend these events thinking the expert moderators & speakers will put you on a path to all these accomplishments, you’re gonna be deeply disappointed.
Just choose one. That’s what she said. Choose one from that list. She stressed that if you choose one path and one deliverable expectation, you will (probably) be successful.
I have been attending these events for ten years. Three or four a year. During that time I have figured-out what kind of person attends such things. Here are the characters I have observed:
Strugglers. These are people like me (author-entrepreneurs & business-creatives) who come to events seeking advice, new angles, fresh opportunities, and ways to engage with like-minded souls. I call us the “strugglers” because, clearly, if we were triple-crown, blockbuster-spewing, author-achievers, we wouldn’t still be galumphing around the land booking ourselves into workshops, lecture-sessions, seminars and assorted symposia!
Newbies. You have to start somewhere. Everyone has to attend their first conference. All authors have to write their first book
Dabblers. These tend to go to every conference but never really properly & seriously start upon their much-promised writing project (more importantly, they never actually finish it) — they just dabble. When you interact with these characters, they will always tell you they have a great idea for a book! But it’s a great idea that rarely comes to fruition.
Wizards. These are the astonishingly skilled wonder workers who are a) presenting at the conference b) invited by one of the illustrious speakers or, c) reconnoitering before a speaking engagement they’ve been booked for
Disorientated. I don’t mean to be rude, but why did these guys come? They look constantly confused & vague; and of course they are totally baffled by the buzzwords and jargon
Nest-Egg Seniors. These are the kindly gentlefolk who merely want to write memories/fairy stories for their grandchildren. I have heard lines such as: “All I want to do is write a book of fairy poems for my grand-daughter” a hundred times. These characters usually yell this sort of thing during a lecture on search engine optimization or international ISBN registration. Of course, there will be clever hucksters in the audience watching & waiting for these guys. Because Nest-Egg Seniors are the preferred victims of the various vanity presses and “full service” publishing houses whose representatives are forever circling these events like rapacious buzzards, waiting for their next meal. To be perfectly honest — getting these guys connected is an irrefutable relief for everyone. Those people from the vanity presses will take a stained manuscript from a Nest-Egg Senior and they’ll give it a makeover, and then print a dozen-or-so copies and deliver them to the pleased and appreciative customer. The “customer” in this case is the author, of course, (not readership) — and she or he might think they’ve gotten away lightly if they only gave up a mere few thousand pounds (or dollars) for the service. But be sure of this: everyone is happy. The “customer” can say with pride that she/he published a book. The grand-child can put said book on a shelf (and never read it) and the vanity publisher will be able to pay another month’s mortgage. Furthermore, it’s the last time we will see that face “at conference.”
From the beginning of my author journey I decided (perhaps foolishly) that with regards to “pro–authoring” I would do “everything” myself. This admirable D-I-Y ethic is fine. But it takes time (a lot of time) and gargantuan amounts of effort to master the several dozen skills you need to get into author-entrepreneurship and have “skin in the game.” You need a barrow-load of sanctimonious pugnacity too!
I guess right now (after ten years… and yes, I admit I am a slow-learner) I am at that stage the psychologists call “conscious incompetence” on a four step path to complete competence. (In other words I’m at stage two.) After ten years! I guess it’s why the keynote speaker asked the attendees: “What do you want?” She was right to ask this, because I know (now) that you can’t have everything. Most of my last ten years have been misspent! I admit it.
Thinking deeply about her words, I realize my earliest aspirations i.e. to be rich and successful were almost as pie in the sky as my general inclination to make writing an enjoyable hobby. You can’t have both. You can’t have it all! Writing can’t be an enjoyable hobby if you want to make money from it. Contrariwise, you can’t “treat” author-entrepreneurship like a part-time hobby. It’s all or nothing. Neither can you get onto bestseller lists and also get awards. Same with getting your book into bookshops: Many of my author friends make six-figure incomes selling their books, but you won’t find their novels on the shelves of major stores!
Only one in a million will tick-off the entire authoring wish-list. In England, right now, there is a game show host (I won’t tell you his name, he’s a nice guy and to be frank I don’t want to give him any more publicity than he already gets) — but I want to explain that he wrote a book during the down-time that the 2020 lock-down afforded him. Then he published it. The public service broadcasting corporation that employs him (a strictly non-commercial broadcaster, by the way) will never miss any opportunity to advertise & promote this guy’s book. He is a frequent guest on various news and entertainment shows, where he (of course) plugs his book. And when he’s off-screen (which rarely happens, because he’s on three times a night) his TV celeb-pals plug his book for him. Unsurprisingly, his book got onto the best-seller list and now he’s revered and applauded as a credible author as well as being a TV quiz show host. And all that happened in one year. Yes, you might be able to spot sour grapes, but I’m just trying to be rational: if you want to check-off all the expectations on the authoring wish list (above) you’ll need to be on television three times a day, every day. And you’ll need a truck-load of television professionals to help you.
What are your author expectations? Lets go through them one-at-a-time:
Want to be famous for your work?
Write three-book (or 5-book) serials. Write for market. Write a lot. Aim to write three books a year (minimum) — you’ll probably need to write five a year to be sure of success. Write fast. Write speculative fiction. Focus on building fan bases. Have a huge (really huge) presence on social media to spread your word.
Want your book to be on a best-seller list?
One of my books got into “a” best-seller list for a couple of weeks. That novel sold only 700 copies to make the list I’m talking about. It was later off the list. But what I want to emphasize here is that there are several lists. There are sub-groups of lists. And the sub-groups of those lists have their own lists. Some sub-lists even have their own divisions. Not all lists are the same. Your book can be in a popular coffee-house list, but not in the Times newspaper list. It can be chosen by one chat-show host for their list, but ignored by another chat-show host. The trick is to write “to niche.” Specialize. Go deep. This is the complete opposite of wanting to be famous for your work. Here, the aim is to go for the opposite of mainstreaming. Your novel doesn’t have to be avant-garde, but it must appeal to a narrow audience. A very narrow audience. I know it sounds counter-intuitive but what you’re aiming for here is limited appeal. Then you’ll get onto the lists. And you’ll stay at the top.
Want to be a prizewinner?
Write a great book, get it edited professionally, and spend money on a great cover. (You should probably do this forall the author expectations, actually, but hey-ho.) Now here’s the big difference between you and everyone else; don’t worry about niches or the main stream. Spend all of your time submitting your work to writing & literature competitions (there are several hundred, so it will take as long as you have.) Eventually, eventually, you’ll win something. Trust in yourself.
Want books to make you wealthy?
There are several schemes and ‘formulas’ that will help you achieve this goal. Many books and courses will guide you through the process (some are snake oil, so get advice before you shell out wads of money). But understand that you will have to put in lots of time and you will need to get-to-grips with the ins-and-outs of Amazon ads. You’ll also need capital to play with. It’s a bit like stocks & shares. Don’t gamble time and money unless you can afford to lose it! I know indie authors who spend a thousand dollars a month on advertising. But they are achieving book sales worth in excess of six figures! Of course, you will never find these authors on the shelves of your local bookstore. And you don’t see their names on best-seller lists. They don’t win prizes. You won’t know them. But they are prosperous and they live elegant lifestyles. You can be like them if you choose this path.
Want a publishing deal?
Write a great book and get it edited properly & professionally. Get the Writers & Artists Yearbook (or similar) and compile a list of literary agents who will accept submissions from people like you with books like yours. Now begin the laborious route into published authorship. Send off your cover letters. It will take time, commitment, and these days you’ll have to show an agent that you have a proven & ready-made audience (so you will require a thriving and popular presence on social media). Beware: publishing services are not the same! These are just vanity publishers by another name… you’ll know them because they’ll come to you (rather than you jumping through hoops to get their attention.) If anyone comes to you with an offer to publish your book, they are probably phony. Just saying it how it is.
Want to see your book on shelves in the high-street?
This can be done, but while you’re attempting to do this you’ll not make money from sales, nor will you be a prizewinner or get onto best seller lists. I haven’t time to go into the complexities & semantics right now (but please recognize you’ll be putting a lot of effort into reaching this goal with few results). I am fairly certain you’ll need to get yourself published via Ingram Spark (or a similar aggregator or publishing company that sells books to retail stores). Ingram Spark have excellent guides that will help guide you through this convoluted processes. But why? Why do you want to do this? Are you sure it’s not just toilet table love?
Want writing to be a pleasant and fascinating pastime?
Erm? If so, don’t get into the rat race that competitive authorship becomes. Instead, join a local creative writing group, spend time at great writing weekends with your new friends once restrictions have eased (some writers retreats are really nice). Meet pleasant people. Enjoy writing as a recreational pursuit. Who knows, you might even get a short-story or poem printed in a little anthology or a privately-produced collection. It will be very nice. I am envious. But if you decide to follow one of the other results-oriented categories I’ve already mentioned, your nice little hobby will become a frenzied & uncontrollable burden. Please don’t step into the combative world of free enterprise authorship and all the focus, strain, and fatigue it brings. Don’t be tempted!
Want to write reminiscences for grandchildren?
If so, find yourself a really good full service self-publishing company. Someone who you’d like to work with for a year or more. Someone who offers excellent authoring services. Your manuscript will be taken from you and turned into a book that you can put on your shelf. And they will print some more books for your friends and your family. Of course, this will cost you a few thousand. But if this is all you need, it is probably the smartest route to take and it will be the least painful (in the long run). But if you go down this route (and why shouldn’t you?) please remember you won’t become a best-seller, nor will you easily be able to take your book into a high street bookstore, or become rich from it (sorry).
Want to tell people you are an author?
When I tell people I am an author, they almost always ask a question: “Have you written anything I’ve heard of?”
Approximately 675 million printed books are sold in the US each year and 190.9 million printed books are sold in the UK. That’s not even e-books. E-books and audiobooks generate billions more in global revenue. For example, Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (e-books) paid out more than quarter of a billion dollars to indie authors in 2019 (figures from selfpublishingadvice.org.) So how can anyone have heard of you? You are a grain of sand on a very shingly beach!
I remember my first ever book. It was exciting. I waited a few weeks for a publisher to pick it up, or to be selected for a Booker Prize, or to be offered a deal for a feature film. But then I understood the truth. My book had disappeared into the nebulous cosmos of book space. Yes, you can see it… if you use a long-range telescope… you can make out a faint glimmer at the far ends of the antholoxia (the literary universe) — but my book is hardly what you’d call a bright star in the bookish firmament.
Sometimes people ask “Can I get your book in the high street?” And of course the answer is “Yes” — because, yes, you can. But they didn’t really mean it like that, did they? When they compiled the question in their mind, they didn’t actually mean: “If I go into a shop with your ISBN number, would I be able to order your book?” What they really wanted to say was “Can I see your book on display in the Barnes & Noble (or Waterstones) window?” If that’s what drives you (who am I to disagree?) then you need to go down the Ingram Spark route, as I’ve already suggested. But, be clear, if you want to tell people you are an author, anticipate disappointment. Meanwhile, while you’re worrying about this angle, all the other authors will be busy selling their books in batches, working their way to award-winning glory, sending inquiry letters to agents, working on ad campaigns, and preparing their books to maximize sales or just get their stories read by friends and family.
What are your author expectations? Choose one path. Stick to it.
A few days ago, citizens here in England were getting heated and angered by a group of young people who were simply playing in the snow.
Well, I say group, but it was several hundred of them, and they outnumbered the police persons who were sent to grab them, about twenty to one.
What had these kids done wrong — apart from defying the Covid rules? Actually, I can’t imagine they were “meeting” outdoors (banned) because (let’s be honest) I don’t think that’s the point of sledding, snow-boarding, or snowball fighting. After all, they were getting outdoor exercise weren’t they? Isn’t that allowed? They thought that it was. Nevertheless, people got very upset with these kids who, as reported in most newspapers, behaved “irresponsibly”. (There’s an argument that they might have been injured in the snow so could require medical attention at a time when ambulance services and emergency rooms were on the edge of collapse.)
I was surprised by the general lack of clemency & tolerance afforded by the most belligerent observers. Lots of folk seemed to object strongly to those kids going out to enjoy a snow-day. What had these youths done so wrong (I pondered) that required such shouty front-page ire?
Here’s my thought: the group on the snowy hill transformed from a bunch nice, easy-going kids into a mob.
And mobs spell the beginnings of dystopia!
There is a fine line between meeting friends to have a laugh and behaving antisocially. Sometimes you can’t see the line. For example, near me (I live by the river bank) there is a pleasant green with a small sandy beach… on sunny days during lockdown last Spring, a large number of young people descended on this green. Each and every one of these teens (I’m sure) are lovely, personable, pleasant, and agreeable young persons. They weren’t there to cause mischief or disturbance. But here’s the truth: they caused a lot of commotion: they brought loud music with them, they played boisterous games, they slapped each other, they screamed and laughed, and they participated in a little partying. They also brought a large amount of snacks & drinks and (like lots of folks) they were inclined to leave their litter behind for someone else to clear up.
And here’s a thought: If you were an elderly woman, perhaps using a walking frame, and you thought you’d trudge slowly around the block, because it was a good day to get some air, I wonder if this group of loud kids would have put you off your walk? I guess you might think you’d walked into a “mob”. It’s true that they could accidentally knock you down, they might accidentally throw a ball into your face, or yell-out a curse word, and the music they played would be loud and offensive, and their scant clothing might be unacceptable. You’d probably decide their antics were disturbing. So, if you were that old woman, you’d choose another route, or you might even turn around altogether, and go home. And here’s the predicament: that wasn’t a mob! No, those kids didn’t congregate on the green for the purpose of mischief! They just wanted a freedom. They just wanted to be with friends and have some fun. They wanted to enjoy liberty. But their exercise of liberty caused another citizen to curtail theirs. Do you see? The imposition of one freedom endangers another. Is dystopia just an imbalance of freedoms?
We had a good example of the imbalance of freedoms on our screens when we witnessed the insurrection at the Capitol building. Without getting into politics, I’m pretty sure the events of January 6 began with disobedience: Those dissident revolutionary and civil libertarian “demonstrators” shouldn’t have gathered in a large group during a deadly pandemic … but they did anyway. Why? Probably because they wanted to assert their free and liberal “right” to do whatever they wanted. Most in the media think these rioters are “far-right” and “neo-fascist” types — but I’d call them liberalistic! Because, like the kids on the snowy hill, I guess all they wanted to do (many of them, anyway) was come together as a group of like-minded, freedom-loving people, to challenge what they thought was an unfairness. So they did. Perhaps, individually, they are all pleasant & agreeable persons… but they became a mob. On this occasion, they became a deadly mob.
So, thinking about these things, it occurred to me that mobs are a feature of dystopia. Dystopia does not require stylized surreal zombies rampaging through streets, nor does it require legions of undead or lethal, cyborg-automata. It just requires ordinary folk, people like you and me, who want to meet-up to assert their freedom.
I guess what I’m saying here is that the first sign of dystopia is the widespread collapse of all those petty little rules and silly systems (no snowball fighting, no picnicking) that we put into place to protect the vulnerable (like the old woman walking by with her frame). Society builds guidelines to keep things from falling apart. But what is happening right now, is those simple little rules are being broken down symbolically, systematically and (almost) submissively. And low-level anarchy will bring frustration, apathy, mistrust and (on the 6th Jan) it brought deadly hatred too.
The rebellious mob on the snow-covered hill is one aspect of the dystopic signs that the rules are unraveling: and it’s why the newspapers got so annoyed after the widely reported snow-fight: it looked as if one part of society had been allowed to live as it wanted, at the expense of another part of society.
If you’re writing a piece of dystopian fiction, don’t bother creating an alternate history, or imagining a Panem-style setting, or inventing fantastic technological advances, or setting your tale after a post-thermonuclear apocalypse. No, put your story here. Set it now. Because we are currently living in dystopia!
If that’s the case (I hear you holler) what are the essential elements of dystopia? Below is a useful list. See how many you can flag-up (advance warning: I think checked them all. Yikes!)
Citizens cannot live beyond a precarious existence
Centuries-old religious views collapse, while fallacious views are overemphasized
A “big” government starts to remove civil liberties while remaining “above & beyond” the remit of the regulations they impose on their subjects
Technocratic corporations begin to control every facet of daily life
Big pharma is a major player in events. Citizens can’t survive without a “dose”
Elites enjoy evermore lavish lifestyles while ‘plebs’ have less
Vital technology is operated & owned by the wealthiest
Less economic competition means that only a few global corporations provide “everything” needed for survival
More promiscuity — proper relationships become damaged by perversions
Art is valued for sensual pleasure rather than aesthetic enjoyment
Uncontrollable and wealthy oligarchs wield political power
The “big brother” state begins continuous monitoring of citizenry
Citizens can’t survive without a “dose”
The natural world is systematically destroyed, leading to: — an increase in natural disasters — an increase in global epidemics
Centuries-old judicial systems become dysfunctional
The once reliable political classes become dysfunctional
There’s a loss or decline of individual distinctiveness: the mob rules
There’s a change from humanness, to docile, compliant, and easily influenced “sheeple”
Elites use hunger, poverty and disease to hold onto or gain power
The value of life is reduced: older persons are deemed “expendable”
Education is deemed “insignificant” or “unproductive” thus it is undermined & devalued
The elites never work because work is completed by plebs
Everyone tries to manipulate and exploit everyone else
Sustainable living and protecting the environment are secondary to maximizing short-term profits
Elites blame citizens for catastrophes, recessions, conflicts and panics
New products are created to maximize profits, not to provide any real value to consumers
Patriotism and nationalism is considered more important than basic education
Mistrust between religious & ethnic groups is accommodated because it allows elites to accumulate more power
Views? Agree or disagree? Where, when and how will you set your dystopia?
Three jaded words that should upset any fantasy author worth her salt…
It implies that the writer is fixing the events of a story in an imperfect & illusory moment in history. A time that is indefinable but, in some unspecified way, oddly familiar to us. If you were a gambler, it’s worth betting that the “when” of a story that starts with “Once Upon a Time” takes place in an abstract and (probably) spurious, eurocentric, medieval village. Yawn!
This lurch towards medievalism is presumably driven by a conscious desire by some writers to emulate their distinguished predecessors, notably Tolkien, CS Lewis, and George R R Martin, but might also stem from an unconscious desire to duplicate the fairy tale, make-believe, world of medieval Europe that was typified by Walt Disney. (Such a special & magical place that we became enchanted by the notion of it while we were still children.)
I’m not saying you shouldn’t set your fantasy story in medieval times… if that’s what you want to do, I won’t stop you. In fact, that’s why I discussed some “true” medieval insights in my non-fiction manual: “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” I even explored a range of tangible characters that you might want to use: the true knight, the minstrel, the castellan, the peasant: to provide you with (what I believe) is beneficial information about such roles, hoping to suggest some interesting opportunities for you while at the same time trying to thwart common misconceptions and stereotypes that some writers fall too quickly into: for example, peasants weren’t downtrodden morons, kings weren’t all-powerful, and women weren’t ineffective or helpless.
But back to the key point… In what period should you set your fantasy? The straightforward answer is: the period you know best.
I’m lucky, because I’ve been here a long time. Tolkein, C. S. Lewis, and George R. R. Martin were also older men who, like me, had seen a bit of life: I can set my adventure in the 1960s, seventies, eighties, or later. The three authors I mention could take their own experiences and rediscover and recreate the adventures in their novels. I am the same. I know “my times” and so they are easy for me to replicate and depict: I have a “feel” for my times. You do too. You know your time. They knew theirs. You will be passionate about your time in the same way they were passionate about theirs.
“It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life...”
― J.R.R Tolkien
But if I ever tried to place my fiction within an unexplored time zone, a period in which I did not feel altogether comfortable and familiar with, then it would present me with additional problems over-and-above the standard task of simply writing a narrative — it would become an investigation project. That’s the problem with writing “costume dramas” (because that’s what they are): the author will have to use due diligence to recreate an authentic picture of a world they have never seen and never been a part of. And that requires mental work. It takes time. And if you don’t do justice to it, it will be gibberish. And you’ll be criticized. And it’s a rigmarole too. I am not suggesting that it’s not entertaining and even quite fun to undertake historical research… but does it not take an author away from the principal task: writing a wonderful story? I think historical research is a diversion.
I guess the hardest part of the writing process is the transformational ability to convince the reader that he/she is reading about a genuine person, something real, an actual place, or an authentic situation. This is what I believe to be the transpersonal element of fiction, and I suppose it will be more profound if we derive the representations or illustrations we pen from our own (author) experiences or consciousness.
So Tolkein never fought the hordes of Sauron in Mordor, but he fought in the murderous chaos of the trenches of the Somme, during World War I.
Similarly, CS Lewis never became an adult in just a few weeks after having travelled through a wardrobe and into a magical world, but he experienced trench warfare (also on the Somme) and the experience felt as if it lasted much longer than it literally did and he suggested it felt like an “absence from Earth”.
George R R Martin never experienced The Long Night, but he was a product of the Great Depression and knew great hardship. And though he was never a sworn brother sent to patrol the Wall, he was eligible for conscription in the Vietnam War (he got conscientious objector status) and did alternative service work as a VISTA volunteer for two years. He “patrolled” his wall.
You often hear them say “write what you know” but to be honest, I think that is utter nonsense. I prefer the affirmation: write what you feel passionate about. I think Tolkein, Lewis and Martin had close scrapes with destruction. They looked barbarism in the eye and witnessed atrocity and inhuman cruelty for themselves: and this inspired them: it is what makes their writing unshakable, moving and intense.
But let’s get back to discussing in what period you should set your fantasy: have you ever wondered why authors don’t set their fantasy tales during the First World War? Or the Second World War? Or Vietnam? Or during the armed invasion of Iraq? I guess it’s the impression that there is already “too much going on” in times of conflict and that the people involved in the comings and goings of wartime have little time for the whimsical or the fantastic.
But that’s not absolutely true: a supernatural entity protected the British Army from defeat at the Battle of Mons in Belgium in August 1914 (supernatural archers and an angel witnessed by several hundred military personnel) and there were frequent reports of angelic interventions, ghostly visions, “White Cavalry” (in Bethune), many prayer-provoked supernatural events, angels seen during air raids on the front lines and at home, visions of crosses in the sky, and many miracles involving chance mists that came out of nowhere to hide (and protect ) allied armies. Imagination and fantasy were alive and very real, even during war.
So, in short, be credible, try to use your own experiences (which will make your writing more exciting), avoid unnecessary research by setting your fantasy in a time period which you are familiar with; or try to establish your story at a critical moment in real-world history. Be resourceful. Be brave. Above all, be inventive.
Let me know where your “when” is… tweet me @neilmach
I heartily recommend the book shown below. It’s a sensible shape and size, written by someone who’s not at all famous and it’s relatively unhaunted: “Moondog and the Reed Leopard” is available for purchase now:
Apropos something else entirely my wife yesterday suddenly exclaimed: “I didn’t think Mary Poppins was a fantasy adventure…”
I looked at her and grinned, then I made a sarcastic observation along the lines of: “No, I reckon it was a documentary film…” but I later added, “What do you think the story of Mary Poppins is, if not fantasy?” As you can imagine, there was no answer to that question (probably just a slap!) However, the exchange got me thinking: what ingredients are required before you can say that something is a fantasy?
For example, using the Mary Poppins source to extend the argument: is one criteria of fantasy that it must reproduce an imaginary universe? Do not all works of fiction, be they speculative fiction, magazines, art, movies, etc. don’t they all fabricate imaginary worlds? Are not even daytime theaters, prime-time soap operas, and even the most daring kitchen sink dramas, regardless of the creator’s impressive attempts to depict reality & literal truth, are they not imaginary universes? So why don’t we call them fantasy?
The Poppins Paradox is that the story is based on a (in the film version, clumsy and hackneyed, I agree) “real world” setting, in this case London, at a point in “real world” history (a Disneyfied Edwardian England, I suppose) and it incorporates a cast of what seem to be, anyhow on the face of it, ordinary “real world” people. Actually, the British-Australian writer P. L. Travers always knew (and she always intended) that her books would be classed as fantasy adventures… and that’s because they featured a magical English nanny. So is it the addition of a “magical” element that makes a story a fantasy — rather than any attempt to create an imaginary universe?
As fantasy writers, I think we can get bogged down (and easily convinced) into thinking we need to create imaginary universes. From L.Frank Baum’s Oz World (above), via Tolkein’s Middle Earth and across DC Comics’ multiverse and into James Cameron’s ecosystem, dropping by the continents of Westeros and Essos on the way through — we have so much enjoyed reading about & creating our own detailed imagery for invented worlds that we get lost within them. (By the way, these are paracosms, and I discuss them in my non-fiction manual “So You Want to Write Fantasy” — and I also explain why you and I might be drawn into paracosmic worlds) — I’m not saying this is a bad thing — I’m just saying it’s not essential for fantasy…
But that brings us back to my original thought: what is the essential ingredient of fantasy (if it isn’t an imaginary universe?)
As I have said before, in much more detail, the supernatural and the fantastic have always been an essential part of any fiction project (not just fantasy fiction.) In fact, ancient civilizations couldn’t separate storytelling from fantasy… and maybe neither can we!
Imagine if I gave you a true-life account of one hour of my life from yesterday… a bit like a witness might give his accurate testimony in court… I think it would bore you to tears, and you would probably unplug or fall asleep before I’m done. Not only would my minute-by-minute and step-by-step story be tremendously tedious… it would also be long (endlessly long, you might think) because it would have to take-up more than an hour to narrate, because every component or aspect would have to be fully explained. Most undesirable of all, though,there wouldn’t be any point to it. There’d be no benefit. So you would ask: what was the point of all that? Why did I waste a good part of my life listening to it? What did I get out of it? In short, a real life account of an hour of my life would be an absurd and unproductive waste of time. Knowing this to be true, ancient storytellers sensationalized, romanticized, and glamorized their stories: they made them fantastic, even if those same stories were based on true events or real-world history. In other words, they hyperbolized the cojones out of their accounts! And the public loved it. So the storytellers knew they were onto something. And that’s how real life and the fantastic got mixed up.
Along came a Bulgarian-French historian named Tzvetan Todorov (1939-2017) who famously claimed that the “fantastic” is a liminal space within the architecture of life. This is why I bang-on about liminality so much!
I previously covered liminality in greater detail in my Myth & Magic podcasts (you’ll need to listen to Episodes 13, then Episode 40, and Episode 51 please find the link below) but basically (very basically) it’s the idea that there are moments in our lives when continuities and situations dissolve or become uncertain or outcomes that are previously certain will be thrown into doubt… these are liminal periods (or thresholds) in our life; we meet them rarely (but occasionally) and we all experience them.
We will find (all of us) that during liminal moments(most often experienced in rites of passage) our understanding of time becomes fluid and malleable. And when time is amorphous like this, everything we think is true can be doubted.
I propose that conjuring liminality, the positioning of ourselves or our readers on an impermanent (almost evanescent) threshold — is the only essential criterion of fantasy. This is why portals are so important in fantasy stories: you leave from a “real place” and enter the magic world of Narnia through a wardrobe, you board the Hogwarts Express and enter an imaginary world from King’s Cross station in London through Platform Nine and Three Quarters. Bilbo Baggins and, after him, Frodo leave the Shire to enter into their magical adventures at a liminal moment in their real lives (their joint birthdays.)
Even the act of picking up a book and immersing oneself inside the world it describes (or luxuriating in a fantasy adventure on screen) is a temporary journey into a metaphysicaldimension. Yes, reading and viewing is a transitional moment (a temporary interruption) in how we experience the mechanical passage of time. How often do we suddenly blurt: “Good grief, is that the time?” after reading in bed for too long. How often do we leave a cinema and enter the pale sunlight (blinking) and think “gosh, the real world seems so weird...”
And Mary Poppins? She is caught up in the lives of the Banks’ children, Jane and Michael, and twins John and Barbara, by the east wind. Why then? Because it was a time of liminality: a fluid, malleable and impermanent time when new rules could be established for the young family, and a new “normality” could begin. Poppins always promised she’d “pop out” of their existence once the wind changed… and she did. Poppins’ period was transitional and she, the bearer of change, was merely a temporary evanescent visitor.
So to sum up: fantasy has many desirable ingredients: magic, supernaturalness, fantabulous plot elements, highly imaginative themes & settings, magical creatures, and detailed imaginary universes… but it has only one essential criterion: a sense of disorientation at a transitional moment: liminality.
I wrote a fairly detailed chapter on creating your own monsters for your novel in my non-fiction manual: “So You Want To Write Fantasy?” and I don’t want to go over old ground — but I have been asked how crazy our quirks and extravagances can be when we are creating scary and grotesque creatures … and I guess the simple answer is that you should allow your sleeping brain (your dream mind) to do the creative thinking for you when it comes to Writing Monsters. Surrealism, with its emphasis on spontaneous, automatic, or subconscious creation, has always been the best place to find the most terrifying yet believable monsters.
The power of creative imagination is limited by the prosiacs of science, convention, and acceptability (perhaps even permissibility, in certain cases) but brain activity is not limited by social conventions or self-imposed impediments while sleeping, so the manifestations you experience in your dream state is said to be driven by your deepest desires (obsessions) or by your greatest anxieties. So the monsters of dream visions become:
Wild and untamed
Motivated by obsession
Spurred by desire
Unbound and unlimited
The 16th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch created around 25 works of art (which we know of) but the best known is a triptych altarpiece called: “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (shown below)
There are three parts to this creation, on the sides (these are painted in wings, which fold inward) it represented the Garden of Eden and the Last Judgment. In the center, it depicted an image of an unholy existence that begins (as you look at it) to be a familiar scene, perhaps, a theme park or a holiday camp, but when you examine the ideas more closely, you see that it contains an a bunch of surreal monsters.
For example, there are giant unicorn cats, men who make love to owls, children with plums for their heads, and camels with human bums instead of humps. It is certainly driven by the artist’s subconscious cue: his dream mind. This is the first “surreal” art that became world famous, but there have been many others since. The right hand panel (the hell panel) contains images like a giant bird eating humans, which are excreted like eggs, only to fall into a vat of vomit that has been seasoned with pieces of silver released from another man’s butt.
A squashed albino flying fox holds another guy against a table and stabs him in the shins with wooden spoons. A pig wears a nun’s habit, while dogs in armor and thumbtack helmets bite into a man’s windpipe. I don’t know what Hieronymus Bosch had been doing, having such bad dreams, but I guess he would have kept the famous dream interpreter Sigmund Freud in work for a few years!
Be like Bosch. Try these techniques to create surreal monsters for your fantasy fiction:
1: Découpé aka chaos magic
This is where you allow your unconscious brain to decide the shape of your monster for you (from a set of inputs). It is often a matter of writing a few words on separate sheets of paper and shuffling and rearranging just two (maybe three) into a new “concept”. The trade-off, of course, is that your final creation has been limited by your previous original choices. Would your dream brain have done the same? Yes, maybe. Perhaps a brain that is asleep can only use images it has “cut out” of your day-time waking experiences (thus, découpé) and so derives from your conscious brain. In other words, you cannot come up with something completely new, but a variant of something you are already familiar with. The advantage is that if you’re thinking a thing up from a set of inputs given by society, then others too (your readers) will identify and appreciate the horror of what you imagine. That’s why “The Garden of Earthly Delights” is so horrifically monstrous, it’s because we recognize the demon within.
2: Razor blade chaos
This is more or less exactly the same as decoupé, to some extent, but the inputs do not come from your own brain but, instead, from the brains of others. So, using this technique, you find and cut out nouns from printed matter (hence the razor blade) and this is normally done from a newspaper or magazine and you mix them up and come up with new two-word creations. Apparently, the poet T. S. Eliot used this technique for some of his ideas in the 1922 poem, The Waste Land. And pop artists David Bowie and Thom Yorke used razor-blade chaos techniques to create surreal ideas for their lyrics. If you look for “monster nouns” in printed mater then employ the razorblade technique you might come up with truly innovative ideas.
3: Startle response
Regardless of what comes to mind, make sure your monster startles the reader — that is, your concept will be so totally unexpected that it will make them jump! You will know how much I dislike worn, hackneyed or overused themes in fantasy: spooky sheets, headless horsemen, flashy vampires, naive goblins, callous trolls, exalted dragons and so on. I call all of these monsters “scooby doo constructs” not only because you can find them in any kid’s cartoon mystery, but because the writer clearly does “not have a clue…” If you use shop-worn monsters, ask yourself this: where is the surprise? Where is the horror? Where is the alarm? A monster in your dreams will be so horrible it will literally knock you out of bed. It’s so scary it gives you ajolt. A real bad monster will flabbergast and awaken you. It will jab you into consciousness. Surprise represents the difference between expectation and reality.
4: Unexpected awakening
The appearance of your monster must be totally unforeseen and unprecedented. I don’t just mean that your monster shouldn’t resemble anything else in creation (it might) but its manifestation should be unforeseen. To bear witness to this, remember that millions and millions of people will have seen “The Garden of Earthly Delights” and yet the albino flying fox (to take just one example) is totally remarkable and the concept stuns the viewer. It’s adventitious — and that means it seems to be there by chance or whim rather than by plan (that’s the genius of Bosch) and is therefore not an integral part of our expectations. That’s what makes it so scary, so creepy. That’s what makes it surreal.
So the environment influences the nature of any interaction with your monster (in other words, the thing isn’t just weird, but it’s in the “wrong” place at the “wrong” time.) To capture this thought and represent such ideas in your work, focus on describing touch, body movement, how time “moves” when the monster is nearby, and the pitch, volume, and intonation of any sounds your creature makes; (remember that sounds don’t just come from the creature’s voice box either… they come from the bones, guts, butt, muscles, hair, skin, teeth, etc.) The monster will also violate acceptable social behaviors or act in a way that most readers wouldn’t anticipate (a good example of this type of monster is “The Joker” in the Batman franchise.)
Dreams overlap and play with duality and counterpoint in a way that can cause night terror. So you should use juxtaposition to create monster visions: with this technique you move two different or contrasting items closer to or next to each other to make a comparison. The obvious example of juxtaposition is Beauty and the Beast. Less obvious, but still explicit, is Jekyll and Hyde (it must have been a spectacular idea when it was first published.)
Bosch used juxtaposition when he painted those pretty songbirds eating humans. The best of juxtapositions places two elements side by side to allow the reader to form their own opinions. Don’t forget that both “sides” can be represented within the same body, so Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same. And a monster can be wise and greedy. Or crafty but forgetful. Or blood-thirsty but gracious. Nevertheless, there should be an easily comprehensible contrast between the two elements.
And once you’ve created your monster, don’t forget to double-check with the surreal checklist. Is your monster?
Wild and untamed
Motivated by obsession
Spurred by desire
Unbound and unlimited
If it’s not one or more of the above (the more the better) go back to the drawing board and try again.
Good luck with your #monstercreation. Tell me how you get on and share tips, ideas or experiences on twitter @neilmach