Fantasy Worldbuilding: A Magic of Convenience

There’s tons of fantasy worldbuilding going on nowadays, with all the manuscripts out there whose main characters have magic powers. This can be fun and interesting, but the more I read of them, the more a strange habit rears its little head. Writing magic systems is difficult work, since magic is, by its very nature, fantastical. But sometimes, characters’ magic powers are a little too, er, convenient. Not only does this affect the integrity of your novel worldbuilding, but the plot, too.

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When you’re writing magic systems, luck, accidents, coincidences and other “Whew! What a nice surprise!” moments feel…cheap to the reader.

An Example of Convenient Fantasy Worldbuilding

Lizzie’s powers were absolutely ineffective against the charm-locked door. Not even her Open Sesame spell could break the lock. Conveniently, any wizard of the Caldecott Bloodline, which Lizzie just happened to be a descendant of, could breeze right through. Luckily I remembered that! Saved me a lot of trouble, Lizzie thought as she jumped through the enchanted doorway.

This is, obviously, an exaggeration. But note a few things here. First, we go from a situation with tension and potential danger (a door locked by magic) to a situation with no tension whatsoever. Instead of making it hard for the character, instead of making the character work, the author (in this case, me) has given the MC an easy way out. Also, every time you catch yourself using words like “conveniently” or “luckily” or “just happened to…” take another look at how you’re writing your magic system. See if you can’t scare up some more danger or tension.

Luck, Accidents, and Coincidences Feel Cheap to Readers

We don’t pick up fiction to read about characters in easy-breezy situations. We don’t read read to see a magical coincidence at work. Sure, there are coincidences and happy accidents in life. And sure, sometimes we’re getting chased by werewolves and realize that our blood is powerful lupine repellent, just as their jaws close around our throats, or whatever, but fiction isn’t life transcribed, it’s life enhanced and structured to bring out tension and high stakes.

When you’re writing magic systems, luck, accidents, coincidences and other “Whew! What a nice surprise!” moments feel…cheap to the reader. Like the writer ran out of ideas and needed to get out of a pinch. That makes the reader think two things: “Wow, all the tension fell out of this scene,” and, possibly, “Why should I bother getting invested in the next high stakes scene? The author might just whip out another magical coincidence.”

Some much wiser writer once said that the crux of good fiction is getting a character in trouble, getting them in deeper trouble, then getting them in the deepest trouble of their life. There are too many manuscripts where the character’s magic helps them out right when they should be getting into trouble instead.

When You’re Writing Magic Systems, Set the Rules Early On

Like I mentioned above, this is a rules and boundaries issue. Every time you have fantasy worldbuilding in a manuscript, you’ve got to set rules and boundaries for how the fantastical elements function. When can a power be used? When can’t it be used?

Sometimes an author will pull a character out of danger in a very contrived way. Other times, the author will land a character in the very lap of danger by convenient means instead of raising stakes realistically. Neither is a good strategy when you’re writing magic systems. An example of the latter:

Our valiant hero, Lizzie, squinted up at the cave opening. She was trapped so far down in this underground hole that she thought she’d never get out. Then she remembered her pole-vaulting superpower! She readied her pole and prepared to vault when her shoulder grazed part of the cave wall. Oh, no! Was this limestone? Her grandmother had repeatedly told her, when she was a child, that only limestone would make her pole-vaulting magic fizzle. Lizzie was stuck again and the leprechauns could be heard drawing ever closer!

Challenge Yourself to Overcome Writerly Laziness or Convenience

Next time you work on fantasy worldbuilding, make sure you’re not doing anything for the sake of writerly laziness or convenience. Outline the rules and set boundaries for the magic throughout the manuscript. Give us, if not the powers in action, a taste of every power that your character will have throughout the story in the first 100 pages. That way, your character, and the reader, will know their strengths and limitations as they head into the rest of the story and, especially, the climax. Ideally, once the character gets in a certain situation, you will have put the work into writing a magic system so the rules of their magic are clear. And I’m talking rules here. Like, the reader should be able to articulate and detail when magic can’t and can come into play in your story.

Introducing a new rule about magic right when the main character can either benefit or suffer from that rule is not usually a very provocative technique. It will be much easier to get your character out of trouble using convenient magic than it will to win your readers back after such a stroke of luck.

If you want to master fantasy worldbuilding, hire me as your developmental editor and we’ll dig deep together.

Novel Revision Tip: Fooling Yourself

If you’re finished with your first draft and are wondering what to do with the mess on your hands, I have a quick and easy novel revision tip for you.

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Feeling stuck? Here’s an easy novel revision tip: printing your WIP in a different font may help you look at it with fresh eyes.

First Draft Goggles

Writing the first draft was so free, so easy! Discovery at every turn! That process is what I like to call First Draft Goggles. Like beer goggles, that first draft euphoria can sure make everything look great.

Then comes the crushing hangover: revision. You’ve got to look at the thing you enjoyed so much during the first draft. You feel sick. There’s a bile taste creeping up your throat. “Did I really just write that?”

And here it comes, the big question: “Am I really just fooling myself with this writing thing?”

Novel Revision Tip: Look at Your Work with Fresh Eyes

Well, here’s a nifty trick that I learned from David Morrell, a very seasoned writer. He took me under his wing at a conference one time and gave me a very simple, very effective novel revision tip. It truly was a “duh!” moment:

Every time you think you’re done with something, change the font, print it out and read it again.

This is a novel revision tip I like to use when I’m fairly far into my revision process, but I’ve found it helps with anything that’s getting you stuck. When you change the font, you’re more likely to slow down and read it more carefully, since your eyes aren’t as used to how the words look on the page or screen. Glaring errors and things that don’t sound right tend to stand out much more.

Some writers like to read a page bottom to top for much the same effect. That gives me a headache, so I just change the font. I like to go from Times New Roman to Courier New or, if I’m feeling extra frisky, Arial.

Try it and see what you think. This is literally a way to fool yourself into paying more careful attention and not getting complacent with your draft. Sometimes, fooling yourself is actually a good thing!

Feeling stuck on your WIP? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll offer a fresh perspective on your work.

Minimizing Past Perfect Tense in Your Manuscript

From my study of past tense manuscripts, it’s become clear to me that there’s a serious grammatical issue snaking into some otherwise very readable work: overuse of past perfect tense. (Of course, you want more than just “readable” work, but, hey, fix the small stuff and then move on to the big stuff, right?)

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Go back through your WIP and weed out some past perfect tense. You’ll achieve a cleaner and more streamlined manuscript.

In my experience, this is an instance where your Old Schoolmarm Grammar-Stickler is incorrect. Sure, it may make your sixth grade English textbook happy if you pepper your manuscript with the past perfect tense: “had been,” “had thought,” “had said.” But it’s not necessary. In fact, it grates on a reader.

What is Past Perfect Tense?

When writing in the past tense, an author can choose to include a flashback or a memory or even a moment where they need to delve even further into the past. This is what the past perfect tense is for.

To a modern ear though, especially when you’re writing for children and young adults, the past perfect tense sounds stilted. And yes, I’m going to argue that too much past perfect tense — even when you’re writing historical — will clutter your manuscript.

Example of Past Perfect Tense

She remembered him well. Eric had just gone to the pool, so his hair had gotten wet and even cuter. After toweling off, he had settled down under the oak tree with a sandwich…

I’m exaggerating, for sure. But some things I read really do sound like this. Here’s a word of advice in the “had” department: trust your reader to follow you.

When I see a writer relying too much on the past perfect tense, it seems like they’re shouting: “Hey! Hey reader! I’m using past tense but I’m even more in the past, so stay with me while I keep reminding you!”

Minimizing Past Perfect Tense

The solution? Really ground your reader. Make sure they’re really clear that you’re disappearing into a different time. Then, use the past perfect tense once or twice, to satisfy Old Schoolmarm Grammar-Stickler, and off you go. Stick with good old paste tense. You’ll be fine. I promise.

The Revision

Amy thought back to last summer, to the lifeguard. Eric had just come out of the water and his hair was still wet. Fat, slick drops dribbled down his back as he toweled off. Before she could open her mouth and say one word to him, he slumped against the oak tree and tore into his sandwich. He never did find out how she felt.

She chased the memory away now…

Start in the narrative present, locate your reader, dip into the past, return us to where we left off and we’re good to go. There’s no need to keep using the past perfect tense if you frame the memory/flashback in a way that’s easy to follow.

Go back through your WIP and weed out some past perfect tense. I’m going to bet that, unless you’ve worked on this consciously before, there will be some stuff to revise.

Are you struggling with past perfect tense or other grammatical issues? Hire me as your manuscript editor and we’ll work through it together.