Magic on the Edges

February 15th, 2013

by K. V. Johansen

Magic—not spells and hurled fireballs, but that inspiring combination of wonder, awe, and excitement that drives artistic creation—is, for me, born on the edges of things. Edges mean boundaries and borders, tension and change and flow. In the landscapes of fiction the rise of desert into mountain, the uneasy meeting of the cleared and settled with the primeval forest, the hint of island shadow on the horizon of the sea, are the sorts of places that suggest Story. They are zones of transformation where things can or might or should happen, the places where change is found, and change coming for good or ill to a character or to their world is what drives stories.

A lot of my favourite stories, the ones I read when young and which fuelled my desire to tell stories myself, start off with edges. The Shire of The Hobbit (never so named in it, of course) is a domesticated land on the edges of a great unknown, but the unknown forces its way in over the borders, prowling on the fringes of collective hobbit awareness. Wolves came out of the wild in a hard winter; goblins were fought by heroic ancestors; “lads and lasses” used to run off into the blue for adventures, and dwarves now pass through, travelling on their own mysterious business, while in The Lord of the Rings itself strangers begin to cross the southern border and like distant thunder, there are rumours of unease in the wider world, though the sun still shines on the bucolic idyll of Hobbiton. In Sutcliff’s The Lantern-Bearers, Aquila lives in an edge time and an edge place. Rome is withdrawing from Britain, the empire is failing, the barbarian raiders are settling and staying. The frontier of civilization is retreating like the tide, and an era is coming to an end. The kingdom of Damar, in McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, has beyond its frontier an unknown land of strange and dangerous magic, out of which the hero Aerin’s mysterious mother appeared. Taran, in the Chronicles of Prydain, lives with his elderly guardian in a cottage surrounded by forest, where a straying boy can be pursued by a monstrous huntsman out of myth and rescued by a legendary hero only a few miles from the safety of his home. The known and explored universe in Cherryh’s Chanur series is revealed to share a frontier with unknown aliens; that discovery disrupts the balance of power, creating new lines of tension between the several intelligent species of ship-captain Pyanfar’s known world. In Glen Cook’s Black Company series, the political world is on an epochal edge, an empire breaking apart.

The heroes of these stories that played such a role in forming the compost out of which my own stories began to grow are on the edges themselves. Bilbo is not, at first, an edge character, but he becomes one by daring to cross over the boundaries of his illusory safety. Afterwards, he never fits properly into his former place again. “… Bilbo was cracked, and Frodo’s cracking,” says Ted Sandyman: Frodo is already regarded as odd, not quite fitting into his proper place as a moneyed gentleman of the Shire, and he is restless, hearing the call of the road. Aquila, a British-born Roman officer whose family is generations removed from Rome, stands on an edge between places and times and between duty and family. Aerin is born on the edge, child of a suspected foreign witch, never accepted, never her father’s heir. Taran, a foundling ambitious for heroism, stands at the edge of himself, always looking outwards to become something more. Pyanfar finds herself an edge person whose decisions push her out of her place and into a role where she stands between species, negotiating a new balance of power. The mercenary physician Croaker is on the edge, ever observing and recording the history happening about him, standing back from it all, until he falls into the heart of a disintegrating world and pulls the company with him into a long transformation.

In my own writing, it’s the characters who exist on the edges who most fascinate me and fire my imagination. They’re the wanderers who are not wholly of the societies through which they pass, or the outsiders not entirely at home with or accepted by the people amongst whom they must live. Wren, Rookfeather, and Kokako of the Torrie books, Maurey and Nethin from The Warlocks of Talverdin, and Moth, Mikki, Holla-Sayan, and Attalissa of the Blackdog world are all edge people, by choice or by circumstances or both. Of the nine above, only two, Wren and Kokako, are entirely human, and that’s another edge that drives my imagination when I sit down to write. By being outside of humanity, even if only a little, they are immediately set apart, and by being apart, they become the observers, the restless, the ones who will most likely be the first to notice the shadows on the horizon and decide to investigate, or who will be that shadow on the horizon themselves. It’s characters such as these who kindle my urge to find out more about them by telling their stories. In setting out to discover them through their stories, I have to build and explore their worlds, which leads to adventure, history, politics, gods and goddess and demons, battles with enemies and solitary struggles with the self in the dark, but in all my fantasy novels, it starts with that one character on the edge of being something else, and a horizon, a frontier, that must be crossed. That’s where magic lies.

About the Guest Author

K. V. Johansen


K. V. Johansen

K. V. Johansen was born in Kingston, Ontario, and is the author of numerous works for children, teens, and adults. She predominantly writes secondary-world fantasy but is also the author of some science fiction, picture books, and two books on the history of children’s fantasy literature. Johansen has an MA from the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. Her lifelong interest in ancient and medieval history and the history of languages has had a great influence on her writing and world-building. Aside from travelling to the Republic of Macedonia in 2010 to receive the first-ever “International Ana Frank Award for Children’s Literature [in Macedonian]”, меѓународната награда „Ана Франк“ за најдобра книга, for the Macedonian translation of Torrie and the Snake-Prince, Тори и принцот-змија, she has not done anything terribly interesting or adventurous in her life; she’s been too busy writing. Her most recent book is Blackdog, an epic fantasy for adults published by Pyr. She lives in New Brunswick, Canada, with a wicked white dog who, thus far, has not evinced any sign of being a shapeshifter, though if slipper-stealing constitutes evidence of a demoniacal nature, he might quality.

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Cross-Pollination

February 7th, 2013

by Richard Lee Byers

For me, there are two different kinds of inspiration or perhaps levels of inspiration. We can ask what moves a writer to write at all. We can also ask where he finds the seeds for particular stories.

My desire to write came from an early love of stories and a belief that I could spin tales of my own. I knew I had an active imagination and a knack for language, so why shouldn’t I follow in the hallowed footsteps of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. G. Wells, the first two writers (aside from Dr. Seuss) I remember reading?

Later, I found out there was some tough slogging to be had by treading in those footsteps. A writing career was hard work and demoralizing, too, when rejection slips and bad reviews flew my way and a new release failed to find an audience.

But I also learned that on those days when it’s going well, writing is satisfying and sometimes even fun. And, I heard from readers who liked my stuff. Together, those two things, combined with pure stubbornness, kept me going through the bad moments and keep me banging away at the computer still.

The inspirations for particular stories can come from many places and be specific or otherwise. I like learning about science, particularly astronomy and astrophysics. Given that most of my work is fantasy of one sort or another, you’d assume that little of that information turns up in it, and you’d be right. But I think the pure wonder involved in contemplating the collisions of galaxies, M theory, and stuff like that expands my mind and imagination.

I enjoy learning about pretty much anything, really, history in particular, and that’s information that sometimes does inspire a specific story idea or plot development. The results can be far more interesting and original than relying on genre tropes alone.

Fiction sometimes inspires me in a more specific way than the simple love of stories I alluded to before. My novel Pathfinder Tales: Called to Darkness pays tribute to my first literary hero Edgar Rice Burroughs. I analyzed how a Burroughs novel works and tried to hit similar beats and achieve a similar tone in a story all my own.

Similarly, I might not have come up with my “Brotherhood of the Griffon” Forgotten Realms series if I didn’t admire the historical adventure novels of Bernard Cornwell. His books help get me excited about the possibilities of a mercenary company fighting in Faerûn.

And when I read the urban fantasy of Simon R. Green and Jim Butcher, I realized, hey, I like this genre, and I bet I could write it. I cross-pollenated the conventions of the form with my love of poker and came up with Blind God’s Bluff.

Speaking of cross-pollination, if a writer has an understanding of multiple genres, he can sometimes come up with something good by combining them. I’ve read a lot of mysteries, and that’s no doubt why I used a whodunit as one of the major plot threads in The Rite. The Black Bouquet is both a sword-and-sorcery story and a caper novel, while Queen of the Depths is simultaneously heroic fantasy and a spy story.

So, okay. I guess that covers what inspires me. Well, except that I left out making the rent.

About the Guest Author

Richard Lee Byers


Jason Sizemore

Richard Lee Byers is the author of forty fantasy and horror novels including Called to Darkness, his first Pathfinder novel, Blind God’s Bluff, the start of a new urban fantasy series, and Prophet of the Dead, the latest in a series of books set in the Forgotten Realms universe. He is also the creator of The Impostor, a post-apocalyptic superhero series, has published dozens of short stories, writes a monthly feature for the SF news site Airlock Alpha, and contributes to the Night Bazaar, the Night Shade Books authors’ blog.

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The Great Awakening

December 6th, 2012

by Jason Sizemore

You could say I had my great “awakening” in the summer of 2004. That it coincided with an early mid-life crisis isn’t just a nice bit of dressing to the story, it is an integral lump of dirty coal burning in my cast iron stove.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

A good awakening doesn’t happen without a pit of fuel to drive inspiration. Whatever it is that strikes the flint nestled in your brain matter at an influential moment in your life will spark the fuel that motivates you creatively for many years. For me, it was The Exorcist, the Rapture, and the combined works of H.G. Wells and Jack London.

I was born the son of a coal miner deep in the hills of southeast Kentucky. I have many memories of my father coming home, covered head to toe in coal soot, holding his black aluminum lunch pail in one hand and his battered orange safety helmet in the other. Often he worked 14 hour shifts in the deep mines, and often these occurred on Friday night (movie night!). Friday evenings, Mom would take me to the local video store and we would choose a rental. My mom was a big horror fan back then (this was the early 80s, a great time for horror). Some selections I remember include The Howling, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Night of the Demons, The Thing, Dawn of the Dead, Alien, Aliens, and Teen Wolf (ugh).

Looking back, I’m glad she had the good sense to say no to movies like Cannibal Holocaust and Salo. Who knows how messed up I would be otherwise?

Those Friday nights hold some of my fondest memories. They also hold some of my most terrified memories. Night of the Demons was a particularly rough one. But by far, the hardest movie to deal with as an eight-year-old kid was The Exorcist. This segues nicely to . . .

. . . being an eight-year-old kid who attended service three times a week with his grandmother at the local fire and brimstone Southern Baptist church. Three times a week for every year of my life until I left for college, I sat in frightened silence as a screaming, angry preacher convinced me I was going to hell, that I must accept the Lord into my heart, because it was all going down soon, brother, the Lord was coming back in the great Rapture to send the sinners to the lake of fire.

While not watching the living horror at church or the acted horror on the television screen, I sought solace in a small library of books my parents, inexplicably, kept in a junk drawer in their living room. There was a treasure trove of classics. Several H.G. Wells novels. Jules Verne. Jack London. As you might imagine, I was a sheltered child, and Mr. Wells, Mr. Verne, and Mr. London were my connection to the outside world.

Now we can return to 2004. That’s the year I turned 30. I’m now 38, and I’m still traumatized by the event. I hit 30 and an early mid-life crisis hit back. (Other factors were in play, such as working a dead end job and the rapid loss of my lovely red locks). I remember sitting at my desk, holding a pen over a yellow legal pad, trying to think of ways I had made a positive difference in the lives of anybody (discounting immediate family and spouse). That pad stayed empty, and this bothered me greatly.

My creative inspiration comes from those Friday nights with my mom, reading H.G. Wells with a flashlight under the covers, and parceling out the good parts of the preachers’ sermons. You can take a quick look at the Apex Publications catalog and see all three in play with books such as Dark Faith: Invocations, Machine, and An Occupation of Angels.

I am inspired to publish, edit, and write by an overwhelming need to see that blank yellow legal pad filled with pages and pages of notes. I’ll be the first to confess that I’m no saint; I absolutely want to make money, lots of it, while filling those pages. But I’m the type of person that draws comfort knowing that life has meaning, a purpose, a quantifiable goal beyond that which requires faith in an omnipotent god (all hail Lord Cthulhu!). The last eight years, running Apex Publications has given me this.

And until I run out of pages or the ink in the metaphorical pen goes dry, I hope to continue.

About the Guest Author

Jason Sizemore


Jason Sizemore

Born the son of an unemployed coal miner in a tiny Kentucky Appalachian villa named Big Creek (population 400), Jason fought his way out of the hills to the big city of Lexington. He attended Transylvania University (real school with its own vampire) and received a degree in computer science. Since 2004, he has owned and operated Apex Publications. He is the editor of five anthologies, a Stoker and Hugo Award loser, an occasional writer, and usually can be found wondering the halls of hotel conventions seeking friends and free food. He currently has edited three titles for Apex: The Book of Apex: Volume 1 of Apex Magazine, The Book of Apex: Volume 2 of Apex Magazine, and The Zombie Feed Volume 1.

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Art as Play

November 29th, 2012

by Odera Igbokwe

I am a 90s baby (1990 to be exact). When I think back to my childhood, I have flashbacks of waking up at 6 am to watch episodes of Sailor Moon, X-Men: The Animated Series, and The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Growing up, I would go through tons of videogames, anime, and other “nerdy” forms of entertainment. I was one of those kids you would find on message boards creating poorly drawn Final Fantasy fanart or sheepishly clogging the manga and comic book aisle of Barnes & Noble.

Yeyo: The Mother

Yeyo: The Mother

My sister (who is now a writer/performer/producer/BAMF) and I would ingest these stories to inspire our own narratives. We created dozens of games. Our favorite was “Alex & Samantha,” which paralleled our own lives, but in this world colors were a bit more vivid, magic was a bit more tangible. We even had our own doorbell that would melodically coo out our names. Alex and Samantha did everything from competing in Olympic Marathons, to preparing concert setlists, to experimenting with alchemy for our spells (that meant mixing our father’s cologne with flour, water, and cheap jewelry) .

I would tell “Samantha” that we had to save the world and harness our special abilities, and she would respond, “Yes, okay! But we can only save the world after going to class and practicing our dance routines.” Alex and Samantha were students, performers, magicians, and warriors. Any role was possible as long as we had our imagination. I didn’t realize it back then, but these were my earliest lessons in honing my craft as an artist. We were creative children to say the least, and our ability to play has kept our sense of wonder alive to this very day.

Erykah Badu

Erykah Badu

In recent years, I find myself exploring the same characters I used to worship as a child, and asking why I was so drawn to them. These characters were usually strong women, mystical children, or those who were underrepresented and oppressed. They were all different faces of the same story—of the same hero (or let’s be real here: of the same diva) .

Lately, my childhood “diva worship” has evolved into a full-blown exploration of contemporary mythmaking. With my illustrations, I love exploring classic archetypal characters and ancient mythologies. However, I am most excited when I start to unearth my own personal mythology by finding new faces within old archetypes.

I Was Here - World Humanitarian Day 2012

I Was Here – World Humanitarian Day 2012

These new faces allow me to define and reclaim different pieces of my identity. It is as though I am meeting myself at the gates of the spirit realm to unravel my mythopoeic self. In this realm there are tons of characters living in a vast nebula of creativity and wonder. They are simply waiting to appear in this reality. So the physical process of creating new work is the crafting, stirring, and molding of this nebula to form new stars, constellations, and galaxies.

When it comes to the actual physical process of creating new illustrations, I have a very systematic approach to sort out the chaos. Typically I start by collecting reference images and doing stream-of-conscious sketches. These sketches are very loose, and are mostly about motion and raw visceral energy. It is akin to freestyle dancing or authentic movement where I allow myself to just move and live on the page free of judgment. Then I create thumbnails based on those nebulous scribbles. When I find a thumbnail that works well, I create a more refined sketch. From there I work on the value structure, and then move onto color. As the image becomes more refined, I allow myself to play with parts of the image through detailing, noodling, and really dancing throughout the picture plane. So essentially the process is a journey that allows me to go full circle.

All of the wonder and curiosity from my childhood is the root of my inspiration. Many years have passed since those days of running around the house shirtless while yelling different incantations and spells. But I still find myself playing, and allowing my wonder to steer me into imaginative worlds.

About the Guest Author

Odera Igbokwe


Odera Igbokwe

Odera is a recent alumnus of Rhode Island School of Design (Class of 2012). As an illustrator and performance artist, Odera explores storytelling through color, mythology, African dance, and of course, divas. With his degree and diverse skillset he hopes to create interdisciplinary work that addresses the sacred and assists in unlocking the mythopoeic self. When Odera is not exploring the spirit realm, he is busy saving the world as a contemporary Sailor Scout or furthering his knowledge in Beyoncé Studies.

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Gardens in the Blueprints

November 15th, 2012

by Dave Gross

At conventions, you might hear discussions of whether a writer outlines a novel or prefers to write “by the seat of her pants.” Much as I love hearing the word “pantsers” uttered thirty times in an hour, I prefer George R.R. Martin’s description of writers as “architects” or “gardeners.”

The great thing about being an architect is that you have a blueprint from the start. You know where things are meant to go. Outlining makes it easier to lay pipe for character development and plot or dialogue callbacks. Outlining makes it less likely that you’ll write yourself into a dead end or need to discard whole chapters in revision.

The horrible thing about being an architect is that you lose some of the pleasure of discovery, which gardeners face with virtually every scene. To a pure gardener, an outline can be a cage. Where’s the fun once you already know what’s going to happen?

In my heart, I sometimes wish I were a gardener. But because I often write for shared-world settings, it’s better that I’m an architect. My editors need to know where I’ll take the characters and how they’ll interact with the established systems of the world: magic, culture, politics, and more. The editors must also play traffic cop to ensure that we various writers don’t contradict each other. To a shared-world editor, an outline isn’t just helpful, it’s mandatory.

Fortunately, outlining and “pantsing” aren’t mutually exclusive pursuits. While I prepare massive outlines, I still find plenty of fertile spots to do a little gardening both before and during composition.

Planting Characters
Even before the outline, the architect’s first opportunity for a bit of gardening starts with the characters. Almost all of the characters in my Forgotten Realms or Pathfinder novels are ones I created. While much of the pleasure of discovery comes from sketching them out at the start, there’s plenty to come during composition. Every time they speak, I enjoy the discovery of both their inner lives and their relationships to others.

Sometimes I also include prominent figures from the setting or ask permission to include another author’s character. In those cases I’m not seeking discovery so much as trying to represent the characters as faithfully as possible—I suppose it’s a bit like writing Spider-Man or Raylan Givens on Justified. These characters usually enjoy immunity from permanent change, but with some novels you never can tell: Sometimes I have permission—or orders—to whack one.

Going Rogue
While I stick to the map most of the time, I don’t hesitate to take a detour if I realize it’ll make the journey more exciting. If a chapter I outlined to open with a fight feels abrupt, during composition I might reverse it to build suspense before all hell breaks loose. If I feel the manuscript is coming up with way too much exposition, I might shift from the outline to create a dialogue or action scene instead. In either case, that revision gives me a sense of discovery even though I know I’m still headed for the same final destination.

My most common deviation from an outline is to combine or delete chapters. To some degree I do that because the manuscript is running long, but sometimes it’s also to diminish redundant or repetitive scenes. I’m finding the shortcuts that I couldn’t see from the map.

And of course sometimes I just come up with a better idea than I had while outlining. If it isn’t radically different, I simply go with it. Only once (so far) has the editor disliked the new route, but removing it was a matter of deleting paragraphs, not whole chapters.

Little Things
My favorite discoveries are often the tiny details. Lately those have included gestures and phrases in my Pathfinder Tales novels. For instance, a woman concerned about her pregnancy draws the spiral of Pharasma over her swelling belly to ward off death. Low-born characters from Cheliax “shoot the tines” as a rude gesture. Those who worship Lady Luck might grumble, “Desna weeps,” when thing don’t go their way, or they might draw her wings over their hearts when facing danger—like when cheating at cards.

In my latest Pathfinder Tales novel, Queen of Thorns, I enjoyed extrapolating certain cultural and magical aspects of the elves and gnomes of the setting. Elves are no more all the same than humans are, and while the common folk celebrate the Ritual of Stardust, the aristocrats host a Midsummer Masquerade complete with “trees” that produce wine served in goblets formed by the tears of ensorcelled trolls.

More discovery came while exploring the details of how worshipers of Calistria celebrate her three “stings”: lust, guile, and revenge. When Radovan first meets the inquisitor Kemeili, he enjoys a taste of two of those right away. My “discovery” came not in the form of invention but in application: finding ways not only to show off the established setting but also to connect them to characters and their hidden motivations.

All too often I hear self-professed “pantsers” complain of having trouble getting started or of getting stuck halfway through a great story. And I know there are times when a dedicated outliner faces a scene that seemed great in outline but later feels absolutely worthless. No matter whether you think of yourself as an architect or a gardener, consider mixing those philosophies to enjoy the best of both worlds.

About the Guest Author

Dave Gross


Dave Gross

Dave Gross is the author of several recent Pathfinder Tales novels, including Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, and Queen of Thorns. His Forgotten Realms novels include Black Wolf and Lord of Stormweather, among others. His stories have appeared in anthologies ranging from Realms of Dragons to Tales of the Far West, and more recently in Shotguns v. Cthulhu and The Lion and the Aardvark. He has edited magazines including Dragon, Star Wars Insider, and Amazing Stories. While he continues to write novels and short fiction, he is also the lead writer at Overhaul games, developers of Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition.

Check out “Killing Time,” a free Pathfinder Tale, as well as a sample chapter from Dave’s latest novel, Queen of Thorns.

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