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Author Topic: What has come before ...
RyanB
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In many ways I feel like a fish out of water. I haven't read The Lord of the Rings, nor The Chronicles of Narnia. I've started to fill in these deficiencies, but it turns out this is quite hard.

The problem is quite different in film. I think you could be completely uninitiated to horror (for example) and you could get caught up in a month. You could watch a few dozen of key films and then could read the synopsizes and reviews of every horror film ever made (that mattered) on IMDB. A month. To ingest the entire history of one of the main genres in film.

I don't think you could do this for literature in 10 years.

Part of the problem is there are way more books than movies. They're cheaper to produce and distribute. But more importantly you can "ingest" a film in about 5 minutes. You could watch a trailer and pretty well understand the art direction. The plot summary and reviews will explain what makes the film "tick." Five minutes is 95% as good as watching the whole 2 hour film.

This isn't the case with books. At least, I'm not aware of a website that will list all of the Horror literature from 1972 in order of significance and allow you to "ingest" (95% of) the work in 5 minutes. Actually, there are probably resources that get you close to the first part. I'm sure I could find a list of what I need to read to "understand" SFF, but you'd still need to read everything on that list. And that's going to be several years just to get caught up.

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MAP
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I'm thinking others might disagree with me, but I don't think you have to catch up on all the classics of Scifi and Fantasy. Read the ones that appeal to you, and take your time. There is no rush, and no number of books you have to read before writing the genre.

You can read and write at the same time.

Good luck to you.

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legolasgalactica
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I do think LOTR may be required reading if only to see what everyone's talking about.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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You could always try something like Cliff Notes* and if something sounds particularly interesting, get the book and read the whole thing.

*Cliff Notes are intended as study guides, but they include summaries that may be useful for other things.

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extrinsic
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I've studied Cliff Notes and other sources for literary canon context and texture. I've also studied genre canons for their best and most popularly and critically acclaimed works. Part of the process involves conscious, critical thinking in making selections that matter to me. Another part is discerning why a particular work is included in any listing, arbitrarily, unilaterally, or consciously. Another part of my studies involves discerning the consensus conventions of any given genre canon.

Works that I might not include in my preferred listings are on others' for some reason. Why, I ask, and determine to my satisfaction. For example, Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer saga is classic pulp fiction writing, commercial, intended to appeal to base emotions (pathos), not much ethos (credibility) or kleos (reputation), and logos only so far as authentic scenarios are portrayed. Hack writing, in deprecating terms.

Why then did the franchise perform well revenue-wise and rhetorically why did it appeal? The answers aren't pretty but they are meaningful. The villain-nemeses are well-to-do, intelligent, sophisticated, attractive women in positions of authority. Mike Hammer brings them down in more ways than the obvious ones mysteries conventionally portray. G.I.s returning from abroad after World War II came home to find women of those qualities in their workplaces. The Hammer novels helped them cope with the changed workplace. Folklore's function!

In terms of literary analysis, Romanticist, psychoanalytical, Marxist, feminist, and especially historicist interpretations can perceive the Hammer saga as a literary work of greater meaning and significance than casual readers might consider, and for mystery writers a giant in the canon that influenced all mystery writing since.

Pick your poison and delve deeply into context's whos, whens, wheres, and texture's whats, whys, and hows; for example, the horror canon. Psychological, visceral, or combined horror? Determine the conventions of your chosen poison. By the way, Wikipedia is a useful resource, perhaps a beginning step, for topics and trail markers to other resources of canon content and commentary, including listings of popular and critically acclaimed works. Horror Fiction has a link to Horror Fiction Writers in the "See Also" section.

[ September 11, 2013, 02:07 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Robert Nowall
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You're taking a certain risk going by somebody else's list of what's a significant work...I know a lot of my favorites don't make the lists much, as well as seeing a lot of works I don't like all that much.

Start with something that catches your eye, and when you find something you like, see if you can find more by the same guy, then maybe more from the same publisher, all while looking for something more that catches your eye...

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Meredith
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I don't think the "5 minute" method is going to be of much help in writing. It just doesn't give you the chance to ask yourself what worked and what didn't. And that's where the learning comes from.

All right, there may be a few classics in any genre that you just need to be generally familiar with. The Cliff Notes version might work for that.

But the works I've learned the most from are the ones I read at least twice. Once because I'm too involved in the story to ask myself any of those questions and then again--sometimes immediately--while I try to break down what made that such a great opening or why that character is so compelling, etc.

Sometimes those are classics. Sometimes they're not. And sometimes I learn as much from the things that didn't work.

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RyanB
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
You're taking a certain risk going by somebody else's list of what's a significant work...I know a lot of my favorites don't make the lists much, as well as seeing a lot of works I don't like all that much.

Start with something that catches your eye, and when you find something you like, see if you can find more by the same guy, then maybe more from the same publisher, all while looking for something more that catches your eye...

Just to give everyone an idea of what I'm talking about, here's this query on IMDB.

http://www.imdb.com/search/title?at=0&genres=fantasy&sort=moviemeter,asc&title_type=feature&year=1974

There are 75 Fantasy feature films from 1974 total. You don't need a "best of" or any type of curated list. You can get familiar with the whole thing in 2 hours. There are 130 horror titles from 1974. Change those queries to 2012 you get 347 and 973 for fantasy and horror respectively. I think you can safely cut off the last half of both queries.

Furthermore, if I wanted to learn the differences between The Cabin in the Woods, House at the End of the Street, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, differences as in why do people like each of these films, I could do it 15 minutes.

If I want to know why people like Deathly Hallows vs. The Name of the Wind vs. The Magicians, I'm going to invest dozens of hours.

To be clear, I could read reviews of the books just like the movies. But I can get an extensive understanding of why people like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in 5-10 minutes from the IMDB page. For The Name of the Wind, a reviewer might tell me they like the world discovery, the logical magic system, etc. but I can't really understand how Rothfuss accomplished these things without reading the book itself (or maybe Cliffs Notes, but that's still a significant investment).

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by RyanB:
. . . significant investment

In a nutshell, that's correct. Welcome to the blessed curses of endeavoring to understand audience appeals. Beginnings are hard. The process becomes a joy and an end unto itself.
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aspirit
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quote:
Originally posted by MAP:
I don't think you have to catch up on all the classics of Scifi and Fantasy. Read the ones that appeal to you, and take your time. There is no rush, and no number of books you have to read before writing the genre.

I agree completely with MAP. I started actively reading speculative fiction at maybe twelve years old, but I regularly feel out of the loop. I just finished my first reading of Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and am still perpetually forgetting to read Tolkein's The Hobbit--a book that's been in my personal library for years!

What does act as a temporary shortcut is to ask friends, associates, or any spec fic readers around you to explain things. You'll understand more references, so that when you see a flag-like bumper sticker that says "TANSTAAFL", you won't be trying to identify the language (as what happened to me the day before I started Harsh Mistress). When someone casually refers to characters' reliance on technology in Stoker's Dracula or the glorification of domesticity in Shelley's Frankenstein, you won't be wondering if the speaker is crazy (or at least not for that comment). Ask what stood out for readers. Consider trends in answers. It's okay to say that you haven't gotten around to a book yet.

Eventually, you'll understand what modern spec fic is based on. In the meantime, read what you want to read and write what you want to write.

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RyanB
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I was listening to Sword and Laser yesterday (which is a great resource for profiling SFF) and they mentioned Locus' 2012 recommended reading list.

http://www.locusmag.com/Magazine/2013/02/2012-recommended-reading-list/

Conservatively, I would say there's 20 years of reading (for me) in that list. For one year of SFF. And I'm only behind 100 years of literature, starting out.

Others are right, I could pick a sub-genre to focus on, or I could randomly select pieces I find interesting.

But I'd rather have the birds eye view. So I need shortcuts. The Sword and Laser podcast is a good resource.

I also read one of Jack Woodford's books on writing. Woodford wrote trashy pulp adventures in the 30's, 40's and 50's, but his writing advice received extremely high praise from Bradbury, Heinlein, Pournelle and others.

It was terrible advice (in my humble opinion). But the man was fascinating, his advice elucidating. You can read one of his books and understand a thousand others, at least partially.

That's one form of shortcut. Learn the source and have you a good idea of the type of things that followed.

I would like to find some works that take the opposite approach. Is there a book that summarizes, categorizes and compares the magic systems used throughout SFF? Are there books that track the lineages of styles and themes?

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extrinsic
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The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute and Peter Nicholls, editors, print 672 pp 1979; 1370 pp 1993; 1396 pp 1999; online 2011-2013, is an omnibus detailing the genre's contexts and textures. SFE: The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction online version is free access. Similarly, editors John Clute and John Grant's SFE: The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, 2012, print pp 832 1997, is also free online

[ September 12, 2013, 12:48 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Robert Nowall
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There are a lot of classic SF works I haven't read---and the newer stuff is nearly entirely unknown to me. But I've also gone down some obsure (or now-obscure) paths in search the thrill of reading SF. I've haunted used bookstores, went through a lot of volumes in my high school library looking for books or stories by one writer or another, subscribed to short-lived semi-prozines, bought back issues from collectors...there's an awful lot out there, and there's no substitute for reading.

I don't think just going through a bunch of summaries and clips will give you the full feel of watching a horror movie straight through. Some things can't be faked.

Go. Read.

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RyanB
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:


I don't think just going through a bunch of summaries and clips will give you the full feel of watching a horror movie straight through. Some things can't be faked.

You're right. It's not the same. But the alternative is not to know the movie at all, or at least the vast majority of movies.

Supposing a 90/10 split. (You can get 90% of the full experience of watching with 10% of the time investment through clips and summaries). I would suggest instead of watching two movies all the way through, watch one movie then discover 90% of ten other movies through clips and summaries.

You'll be better rounded than if you'd watched 2 movies (or if you'd gotten 90% of 20 movies).

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extrinsic
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I've taken film studies courses in high school and college. Years spent studying the assorted canons of film and literature is a "significant investment." Online sources were referenced in more recent coursework. Wikipedia is developing a degree of scholarly prestige it had not enjoyed in its early years. IMDB is also considered a citeable source to a degree.

The opus of textual expression, in film or print, broadcast, cable, online, or physical item, is more exhaustive than any one person can hope to experience. Yet, due to my studies, I can watch a film or read a narrative and glean an enormous quantity of insight that then extends to other items. Within a few words or a few minutes, I have a strong idea of what I'm in for from such expressions.

I'm curious, RyanB, what is your intent? To know a canon of expression? Like horror genre? For what end? Enhancing your writing? Critical analysis? Encapsulating a segment of a segment of expression culture?

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RyanB
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:


I'm curious, RyanB, what is your intent? To know a canon of expression? Like horror genre? For what end? Enhancing your writing? Critical analysis? Encapsulating a segment of a segment of expression culture?

To know what has come before ... I guess. I think that enhances writing, but it has other uses as well. It help you to understand people and the world in general which is all sorts of useful.
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History
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quote:
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
You could always try something like Cliff Notes* and if something sounds particularly interesting, get the book and read the whole thing.

*Cliff Notes are intended as study guides, but they include summaries that may be useful for other things.

Aarghh! [Wink]
I don't believe, despite the ad campaign, one can by a physician because one slept last night in a Holiday Inn.

Similarly, my experience is that to truly appreciate sailing one must go sailing (as an example)...the wind filling the sails and wafting cool upon one's face and carrying the scent of brine or pine (depending if on the ocean or a lake); the tiller pulling and the lines thrumming in one's hands; the prow sluicing through water with hush and splash; the world rocking gently beneath one's feet.

Watching sailing on television is not the same.

Similarly, to fully "grok" Heinlein's A Stranger in a Strange Land, again as an example...read the book.

Cliff notes? Feh.
Read the book!

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob [Smile]

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rcmann
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Honestly, you can't catch up so give up the idea. After more decades than I want to admit to, I am still trying to squeeze in time for a list of must-read books as long as my leg. And the list grows each year. You can't keep up with it. It is humanly impossible. Figure out what you like and go for it, while keeping an open mind for random encounters. Reading fiction should never be approached as a job. It's a joy, not a job.
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Owasm
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Fiction goes in and out of fashion like anything else. There are classics out there, but current tastes do not take the classics into account because many readers haven't read them. There are exceptions, but writing can get stale.

If we are writing to get our books published and read, then we need to be aware of what's happening now rather than what happened 40 or 50 years ago.

Having said that, I've probably read most of the books on the must-read list and have forgotten 80 to 90 percent of what was written.

For me it still gets down to write what you like. Then you adjust your expectations to the size of the market for that particular niche.

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legolasgalactica
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quote:
Originally posted by RyanB:
Is there a book that summarizes, categorizes and compares the magic systems used throughout SFF? Are there books that track the lineages of styles and themes?

That would be interesting to me as well if there is such a book. If not, someone should write it.
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by legolasgalactica:
quote:
Originally posted by RyanB:
Is there a book that summarizes, categorizes and compares the magic systems used throughout SFF? Are there books that track the lineages of styles and themes?

That would be interesting to me as well if there is such a book. If not, someone should write it.
The online encyclopedias I indexed priorly above do that and very much more: motifs and tropes (like the proverbial ansible), literary geneology (precursors and ancestors), literary school of thought (tying mostly to core Romanticism but also how Realism, Modernism, and Postmodernism stand in science fiction and fanatsy), critical school of thought to a degree, and etc.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I agree, Dr. Bob, about reading the book, but I have reached a point in my life where there are too many books and not enough time.

I don't have time to read the recent books by authors I know and love, much less look for new books to experience.

If something like Cliff Notes, or Goodreads, or other reviews/summaries/discussions, can help me select which books to spend my time on, I will avail myself of what they offer.

It all depends on what you are reading for.

If it is the experience of the prose, then, yes, read the whole book.

If it is the ideas and/or the arguments/persuasions, the whole book may not be as necessary.

If it is to find out whether this or that "has been done before," reviews and summaries may be enough.

I know some writers who absolutely refuse to read anything in their genre because they don't want to be influenced (or corrupted) by what others are doing.

Everyone has different reasons and needs.

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RyanB
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
quote:
Originally posted by legolasgalactica:
quote:
Originally posted by RyanB:
Is there a book that summarizes, categorizes and compares the magic systems used throughout SFF? Are there books that track the lineages of styles and themes?

That would be interesting to me as well if there is such a book. If not, someone should write it.
The online encyclopedias I indexed priorly above do that and very much more: motifs and tropes (like the proverbial ansible), literary geneology (precursors and ancestors), literary school of thought (tying mostly to core Romanticism but also how Realism, Modernism, and Postmodernism stand in science fiction and fanatsy), critical school of thought to a degree, and etc.
Sort of.

Take, for instance, the article on magic. It's quite broad ... and shallow. It must reference over 50 books. The writing is obtuse. Which is fine for an encyclopedia. The purpose is mainly to point you to those 50+ articles.

What I had in mind is mostly narrative. Here's the last of a series of articles on magic.

http://fantasy-faction.com/2011/alternative-magic-systems

It's pretty good, but it covers relatively few works. If someone would write something like that, but cover a good cross-section everything then we'd have something.

Here's a like to a table on io9:

http://io9.com/5866306/the-rules-of-magic-according-to-the-greatest-fantasy-sagas-of-all-time

It's decent as far as putting a lot of information in a small space, but it's only useful for comparing works in the very broadest, most shallow sense.

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aspirit
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So, you want someone to do a huge amount of compilation and analysis, expressed creatively and in depth, to give you an understanding of written fiction--without your having to read all that fiction for yourself? Only a computer program would do that. A person would realize that they can't profit enough from their labor. Do you understand how much work that would be?

Worse, the more effort this person put into the work, the less value it would have as a reference. Their analysis would be quickly outdated as authors come up with new ideas, would inevitably contain opinions that can be argued against, and would require a large commitment of time to read in its entirety.

You said, "In many ways I feel like a fish out of water." Really want to understand the fiction other fish have read? Do what they do: read the fiction! Film isn't the same as books. That's why people still read books.

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aspirit
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Wait, I'd forgotten about something. Have you seen tvtropes.org? It covers more than TV shows.
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shimiqua
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Read whatever book interests you. If you've heard from several people about a specific book, that means that that book was powerful enough to affect a bunch of people. That means it's powerful. Why wouldn't you want to read a powerful book?

I think you can be an author in a field that you haven't read everything ever written in. But if you feel yourself drawn to write in a genre, yet have no desire to read anything in that genre, then I suggest you go back and look at your motivation for writing in that genre. If you don't love to read it, then it's not the genre you want to write in.

I think you need to change your mindset from "I need to read all these books or else I can't be a writer," to... "Hey look. A great book I haven't read yet!"

It's not hard to read Lord of the Rings. If it is, and you write fantasy, then maybe you're trying to write in the wrong genre.

What books do it for you? What books do you find yourself drawn to, or do you reread over and over? Those are the kind of books you should be writing.

I'm not saying you shouldn't study. I'm saying that the books worth studying are a joy to read.

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RyanB
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quote:
Originally posted by shimiqua:

It's not hard to read Lord of the Rings. If it is, and you write fantasy, then maybe you're trying to write in the wrong genre.

What books do it for you? What books do you find yourself drawn to, or do you reread over and over? Those are the kind of books you should be writing.

I think you misunderstood me. I want to read LOTR. It's not a burden. The problem is there are literally thousands of books I *want* to read, not that there are dozens of books I *don't* want to read.

Thus I'm looking for meta-analysis of those thousands.

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History
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What is the purpose of your proposed "meta-analysis"?
We can contrast and compare a variety of books within one or many genres but by what criteria?
Popularity, sales figures, length of time in print, etc.

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Jeff Ambrose
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The one and only question you have to ask yourself, Ryan, is this one:

"How will any of this really help my writing?"

I tried to do what you are trying to do, and the end result of hating what I was reading and quitting writing for a time. I'm not sure you could find one long-term professional writer who has the kind of knowledge you want. And I think Joyce Carol Oates said it best: Read as much as you can without any sort of plan. Just read. Let your creative voice guide you. Follow your inclinations. Learn what you can. And write. Because in the end, what makes a book great isn't how original it is vis-a-vis the canon of literature; what makes a book great is what YOU do with it. And I'm not sure any writer can learn how to put himself into his work without reading the books ands stories they love.

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RyanB
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I read enough magic systems to get an idea of how one would cover it. One vector is who can/cannot cast magic. In Harry Potter's universe you're born with it or you're not, but it's not strictly hereditary. In the Kingkiller chronicles anyone can learn but it's hard. In other universes magic comes from objects or gods.

One the main consequence of each of these systems is how much access there is to power, and what is the difference in power in the magical and non-magical.

Another vector is the cost of magic.

The most interesting vector to me is how well the reader can predict what is possible. In LOTR we have no idea what Gandalf can do or how he does it. This makes magic wondrous and mysterious, but it also means that whatever situation we find Gandalf in, we figure he's got some sort of answer.

In the Kingkiller chronicles we have a highly logical system. When Devi asks for a drop of Kvothe's blood your mind goes to spinning with all of the possibilities. The surprises come from the clever ways the rules are combined and exploited.

Harry Potter has a mixed system. You figure Dumbledore and Voldemort can do pretty much anything, though you don't know how. But several spells/potions/artefacts are known quantities and readers get enjoyment out of thinking, "they should do this or that."

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kmsf
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There are videos of Brandon Sanderson's lecture on magic systems. It is a good primer. Search the usual place for vids.

As for what to read, keep reading what inspires you to write.

+1 on agreeing with what MAP said.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by aspirit:
Wait, I'd forgotten about something. Have you seen tvtropes.org? It covers more than TV shows.

Thanks for this, aspirit. It's pretty cool.
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RyanB
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quote:
Originally posted by kmsf:
There are videos of Brandon Sanderson's lecture on magic systems. It is a good primer. Search the usual place for vids.

As for what to read, keep reading what inspires you to write.

+1 on agreeing with what MAP said.

Thanks for the tip. I've listened to Sanderson and cohorts' Writing Excuses podcast and they are quite good. I'll have to look up Sanderson's lectures.

Also, I should note that I agree with MAP too. I don't think one *needs* to do an expansive meta-analysis of SFF before they start writing. It's not even the best place to start.

I just want to do it.

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Robert Nowall
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Also...writing helps one's insights into reading, too...in the posthumous Tolkien works, Tolkien's son Christopher expresses puzzlement that the last part of The Lord of the Rings seemed to have been written in one long burst of writing...but to me, it made sense, 'cause every novel I've actually finished did end in one long burst of writing, fifty or sixty pages in the course of less than a week. (You just want to get done with it, whatever "it" happens to be.)
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MAP
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Hey Ryan, you could start a discussion here on magic or any other aspect of SFF that you specifically want to do a meta-analysis on. Taken all together, we are a very well-read bunch and might be able to help you with a thorough analysis.

Or you could just spend a few months on TVtropes. That place is pretty awesome. Although be careful not to get lost. [Smile]

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extrinsic
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I consider magic motifs for their dramatic influences. One consideration is how a motif's mythology develops, how it is prepositioned, its impact in dramatic moments, and overall its meanings, whether they are tangible, intangible, concrete, or symbolic.

The understandings readers have about a motif may drive tension most, though also causation and antagonism. The principle that what a reader knows beforehand influences tension development in dramatic moments most is sublime and profound and worth noting.

Magic also tends to enhance readers' emotional responses on an awe and wonder axis, and in an artful use of writer surrogacy's self-efficacy may give readers a feeling of empowerment. The magic the Potter trio Harry, Hermione, and Ron use for intended effect, for example, gives the audience a sense of empowerment. This is a function of young adult literature and folklore.

[ September 18, 2013, 01:34 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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I don't see anything wrong with reading summaries of landmarks books such as you might find in a wikipedia entry, so long as you have the common sense to realize secondary sources are not a replacement for reading the actual book. Of course you knew that.

I expect you can get *different* things from reading secondary sources, not the least of which might be a list of stories you might want to check out for yourself. You can't read *everything* that's been published in the last 80 years, but you can read a cross section, and that personal experience with primary sources can work together with those secondary sources to guide your further exploration.

If you've been following the Writer's Book Reports I've been posting here you'll know that I myself have been on bit of a quest to read landmark works, or in some cases debut works by key authors. The secondary sources are quite helpful in deciding what to tackle next. I've been hoping other people here would step up with their own WBRs.

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