Lying is an essential part of writing – it’s the only thing that separates you from a reader. And yes, I hear you protesting that you’d never lie to your audience, but that’s also… a lie.
Welcome to the fifth post in our series on writing Magic Systems. This time, we’re delving into the sophisticated and interesting world of lying. Compared to the other posts in the series, this is less about the Magic System itself (though it will include some) and more about the person writing the Magic System.
Writing is really nothing more than sanctioned lying. Your audience expects you to lie. But, before you go out and spread falsehood, let’s distinguish between a few fundamental types of Lie.
“I am a talented writer”
This is simple – take the healthy dose of crippling anxiety that every writer feels (really, every writer – even Sir Terry Pratchett) and, once you’ve reached the peak, dial it all way, way back and start lying.
Here’s the lie: “I am a talented writer NOW. I am writing so that other people will love my writing as much as I do.”
Here’s the truth: We all feel incredibly out of our depth regularly. That doesn’t mean that you’re a terrible writer, it means you’re constantly improving.
It took JRR Tolkien 12 full years to write The Lord of the Rings and another five years to get it published, and that’s for an author who single-handedly reshaped the face of literature around the world. I absolutely guarantee that Tolkien had moments of crippling doubt in his abilities.
“I have a fully fleshed-out world just sitting in my head”
This is big – something that has plagued many, many new and established authors. It’s tempting to think that when you’re writing a book or a series of books, you need to have your entire world completely fleshed out and ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Here’s the lie: “My world is one hundred percent fleshed out. I could write a companion book to go with it tomorrow.”
Here’s the truth: Almost every writer I’ve talked to has had the broad strokes down for ages before they started writing, but nothing fully realised.
Worlds are complex – if you need convincing of that, consider our own world. How’s the weather where you are today? Do you understand how that weather came about? Why exactly did the temperature rise or fall today? How do storms in the state/country/town nearby influence your weather? What, exactly, is a trade wind inversion?
Nobody expects you to have your entire world mapped out and set up with realistic climate patterns, a rich history, and diverse people. What people DO expect you to have is enough of the details filled in so that your world seems authentic enough for the story to take place.
“I am confident in my world/characters/system”
I’m going to come clean – this isn’t really a major lie by itself, it extends the last one.
Here’s the lie: “Of course I know how this character would react in any situation!”
Here’s the truth: It sounds cliche, but it’s true that characters have their own voices. They will speak to you and they’ll tell you how they’d react to a particular situation or what their particular quirks will be.
Until that point, it’s completely OK to have only a basic understanding of your characters. The secret to bringing the details out is to write about them.
“My Magic System is Unique”
Here’s the lie: “Finally! I’ve come up with a system that is different to everyone else’s!”
Here’s the truth: Your magic system is unique. Just like everyone else’s.
Do you think JK Rowling was the first author to use wands? Do you imagine that Brent Weeks was the first person to use Colour as the basis for a magic system? Actually, it’s possible that The Black Prism really is one of the first books to use colour in this way – if it’s not, let me know!
The point is, your magic system is going to take something from somewhere else. What makes it work, makes it really sing, is the changes you make. The lies you insert into your magic system give it a flavour that is completely your own.
The Final Lie
The last lie is the biggest one, and it’s that you can’t do this. It’s the biggest because it’s the hardest to get rid of, the hardest to fight, and the worst distraction from what you’re wanting to do. It’s also the harshest.
Here’s the lie: “I can’t do this, I’m not good enough and I’ll never finish.”
Here’s the truth: It’s possible that you can’t do this, but you’ll never know unless you try.
We are living in an unprecedented time, and you’ve never had as much power to control your own writing and publishing journey as you do now.
So go out and lie. Lies are powerful.
A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.
Terry Pratchett, The Truth.