Category Archives: Tradecraft

Beginning a Story: Wizards in the Military

What is the best way to begin a story? My teachers have always recommended writing several beginnings until you find the right one. One professor claimed he wrote over 30 versions of a story before it felt right (I’m skeptical). The point, however, is valid.

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about this concept:

A. Wizards (and magic in general)

B. The Military

A+B. Wizards used in the military

I don’t know if there is a worthwhile story lurking here, but I want to try. The idea is to render the narrative in a straight-forward, realistic way and let the two conflicting worlds interact. I suppose my inspiration is part Stranger in a Strange Land and part A Modest Proposal; Cultural criticism cloaked in SciFi.

To put it another way, what would happen magic had a practical application in combat? Would dragons replace Bradley APCs? Instead of fighting house by house to clear a neighborhood, why not send in a witch to cast a spell of immobilization and then collect the insurgents, frozen mid-motion, like lawn statues?

A disclaimer: I am a geek, but not a magic-savvy geek. My knowledge extends to the Harry Potter movies and Naruto, which is magic of a sort. I apologize to all military types and all magic types. This is just an exercise.

Here goes.

1. The first documented use of Standardized Governmental Magic (SGM) was in Los Angeles during the 2010 Riots, in which a full 15 percent of the city was lost to fire. In a pilot program with Los Angeles SWAT, five wizards and five mages were deployed to disarm rioters and control fires, particularly in the Watts district of the city.

2. No one knows exactly when the government first started using magic for military purposes. There are photos from the 2010 Riots in Los Angeles that show wizards in camouflage and flack jackets, surrounded by a protective ring of riot police, casting water spells to repel the crowds and extinguish the fires and burned for 16 days; it rained black water and ash for three weeks.

3. I was one of the first. They came for me one night at the barracks of the 351 in Virginia. We had just finished dinner in the mess hall, a long, low cinder block building painted stray dog gray, when two men in suits tapped me on the shoulder.

“Seargent Craig?” The man who spoke was enormous – one of those giants the service finds in a cornfield in Iowa. He had a quiet face and corporal’s stripes and smelled like the generic lemon detergent used by the base’s laundry service. His companion was a civilian, dressed in a charcoal gray suit that was too big for him, and he seemed delicate – ill matched to his mammoth escort.

“Sir?” I said, starting to get up.

“Follow me.”

I followed.

…more to come.

Well! This is the question: how best to convey the important information in a quick, entertaining, and (hopefully) stylistic way? I’m frustrated. The first two are flat and the second perhaps too self-conscious.

More later.

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Genius (Not Required)

For a long time I’ve known you don’t have to be a genius in order to write, but I still get caught in that assumption, like a fox in a set of those nasty steel jaws that trappers use in the North Woods. My ankle snaps and I limp around for a while, disheartened. Unlike a fox, however, my pelt is not sold and I don’t starve to death – a small consolation.

The reality is harsh: I will probably never have David Sedaris’s humor, or the quiet, informed outrage of George Packer. I just won’t. I have to accept that and keep scribbling.

I am comforted, however, by the fact that I’m not incompetant. There are a lot of stupid people out there publishing How-To books about writing. Look in the writing/publishing section of any Barnes & Nobles and you’ll fine dozens of volumes of irredeemable shit that give vague, faulty advice. Who are these master writers? I’ve never heard of Jerry B. Jenkins. Screw Jerry B. Jenkins. 

Then there is the industry that taps into the vanity and insecurity of new writers (or old, talentless writers) by offering publishing services and workshops that will magically, and instantly, bestow authorship and fulfillment. It’s a sham. In the same way that donating to a televangelist won’t get you a VIP ticket to Heaven, there is no shortcut, formula, or service that can make a good writer. The worst thing is, many of these businesses wrap themselves in a cloak of Supportive Feel Good Bullshit. Don’t be fooled, and don’t give them money. There should be a circle of hell reserved for people who make money by exploiting the insecurity of beginning writers.

I don’t remember the moment when I realized genius wasn’t a requisite for writership (writerBeing? Wrizardliness?). A lightbulb moment came a couple of years ago while I was reading the first few chapters of “The Bourne Identity” by Robert Ludlum. The characters were wooden, the plot full of shallow turns, and the description haphazard. I thought, “I can do better than this, and I suck.” It was startling. Here was a bestselling author who wrote bad, cliqued prose – the kind of thing that would get torn to pieces if I submitted it to a college workshop.

Perhaps the lesson I discovered is this: there is a difference between being a Writer, as imagined by media and culture, and being a writer, i.e., someone who writes. Robert Ludlum is a Writer, because media and society says he is. He’s popular. His books get made into movies starring the incomparable Matt Damon. But he’s not a writer in terms of tradecraft, and he’s not a Writer in the historical sense.

As I learned in high school, Earnest Hemingway and Faulkner are Writers. Society has given them a kind of sage status – they are the storytellers around the collective national campfire. Even minor writers who teach undergraduate creative writing courses have their own following. Writers are, in the popular imagination, very special people and this can be seductive for a beginning scribbler.

I remember saying to a writing professor my sophomore year of college, “Writers…just see deeper,” and then adjusting my beret. He replied, “Writers are just people who write.” I felt an inner structure collapse in my brain as I realized he was right – I am not special, and neither is David Sedaris (actually, David Sedaris is special). In his own time, Hemingway wasn’t a mythical genius, but a successful, celebrity writer, much like Salman Rushdie is today. It can be difficult to remember that these people aren’t demigods. With all due respect to their importance (and Hemingway and Rushdie are important) they are simply smart, interesting people who also happened/happen to write. Writers (both kinds) are artists, but also craftsmen, as much cabinetmaker as Picasso.

I wholeheartedly believe that one needs only three things to be a writer: 1. Talent, which seems to be innate, 2. Desire, which arises or doesn’t, and, most importantly, 3. Discipline, which I don’t have. Discipline encompasses: reading excellent books, observing the world closely, and writing. That’s it. If I ever publish a How-To book on writing that includes more than this, please beat me with my own ego.

So! I exhort you – go scribble. And be sure to avoid traps.