The Similarities of Playing Magic and Writing Fiction

I’m sure you’ve heard of writing. Question is, have you ever heard of Magic: The Gathering?

Magic is the world’s most popular trading card game (and also its first). Created in 1993 by doctoral student Richard Garfield, the game has millions of players all over the world. Players bring customized decks to the table and battle their cards against one or more opponents.

I like Magic. And I like writing fiction. And the more I do both, the more I realize how similar the two activities truly are. They both feature…

Endless Decision Making

When playing Magic or writing fiction, the player/author makes numerous decisions. In Magic, players start with seven cards in hand, then draw a random one from the top of their deck each turn. As a Magic player, every turn presents new decisions to be made, chiefly which of your cards you should play, and in what order. Your opponent’s decisions will further influence your own.

In writing, your only opponents are time, procrastination, and the occasional cup of coffee spilling on your keyboard. Still, there are plenty of decisions to make, probably even more than when playing Magic. For example: What are your characters going to look and act like? How does the setting influence them? What adjectives should you use to describe your protagonist? What’s your protagonist’s cat’s name (very important)?

Decisions, decisions. In both Magic and writing, they’re everywhere.

Contextual Factors

This is one of the coolest aspects of both Magic and writing: individual components change value based on what’s around them. Let’s start with Magic.

Let’s pretend that Magic cards are game pieces. The power level of pieces in most games are flat and predictable: a pawn advances at most two spaces at a time, and a queen moves as many spaces as she wants in any direction. In no game of chess has a pawn ever been more powerful than a queen.

Magic is a great game (the greatest, in my opinion) because its pieces vary in power level depending on what’s around them. For example, goblins appear frequently in Magic. In some decks, they might be annoying little attackers that don’t contribute very much to the game. However, in decks where they’re surrounded by more goblins, they might suddenly become a lot more powerful.

Everything’s contextual in writing, too! Take genre, for instance. If an author writes a novel about zombies, that author had better be aware of all the other zombie stories that have come before, after, and simultaneously. An author might write the best zombie story ever—yet if it comes out in the same year as ten other really bad zombie stories, it could easily lose value for the audience.

So Many Goddamn Rules

Magic and writing have a heck of a lot of rules. Let’s start with Magic.

In Magic, players strive to bend the rules in ways that are either competitively advantageous or just plain cool. No, this does not mean cheating (though that was certainly an issue in the game’s infancy). It means that players seek ways to combine cards in new ways for amazing results.

For example, consider the cost of cards. Magic is essentially a resource management game: players are allowed to play one land card per turn, and these land cards allow them to play their other cards. The game is designed so that, generally speaking, more powerful cards require more land cards to play. If players can find ways to play expensive cards sooner than usual, they can expect good results.

In writing, there are also tons of rules. Grammar, for instance, dictates how you express your ideas on the page. Then there are the rules of storytelling, which almost always come up when writing fiction.

Of course, as is the case with Magic, the fun part of writing is learning the rules, then breaking them. Fiction usually isn’t that interesting when it follows the template you expect it to follow; it’s often more compelling when the story diverges from established norms.

These are two of my all-time favorite subjects, so I’d better stop myself before I start rambling (if I haven’t already). If you like Magic, you might like writing fiction. If you like writing fiction, you might like Magic. Try ’em both!

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3 Reasons to Join a Writer’s Group

When I say “writer,” what image comes to mind?

You might picture a veteran wordsmith hunched over a desk, scribbling away at the last pages of a swollen manuscript. You might picture a twenty-something at Starbuck’s equipped with coffee and a laptop, earbuds blasting something by Radiohead. Or you might picture a guy with an axe chopping a hole in a bathroom door. Heeeeere’s Johnny!

Anyway, there’s a common thread among all these hypothetical writers: they write alone. (Yes, even Jack Torrance has his trusty typewriter.) And though writing is often an individual activity, being a writer should be collaborative.

One of the best ways to collaborate on your writing is to join a writer’s group. Here are three reasons why you might want to try it.

They Encourage You to Write

For me, the next project is always more exciting than the current one. When I’ve been working on the same characters for three months, sometimes it’s difficult to muster the same enthusiasm I once had.

That’s where writing group members come in. If you’ve got a good group, they’ll encourage you to keep working on your projects. In my group, for example, we always start our critiques with compliments. This often gives me the confidence to proceed with projects I might’ve otherwise tired of.

They Provide Deadlines

Deadlines are powerful. And when you join a writer’s group, deadlines come free.

In my group, we always send submissions one week before meeting times. It’s not a hard deadline, per se, but we all respect each other, so we stick to those deadlines.

Though they might seem intimidating, deadlines are actually awesome. They force us to actually finish our work rather than return for the hundredth rewrite.

They Give You Great Book Recommendations

This one might not be obvious, but it’s true. The best writers are great readers. So, odds are your fellow writers will recommend great books you’ve never heard of. They might be fiction, or they might be about writing itself. Whatever the recommendations are, you can be sure you’ll enjoy them.

I’ve found that since everyone in our group shares more or less the same interests and goals in writing, I’ve gotten some great book recommendations from them.

I’m Convinced! Now How Do I Join?

I discovered my writer’s group on Meetup. There are also numerous online groups one might join, such as Codex and WritersCafe. And, of course, Googling “writer’s groups near me” could work.

Join a group today!

Unusual Narrative Styles in Fiction

Writer

Mark Twain once said, “I like a good story well told.”

We’re with you there, Mark. Whether that story comes in the form of a book, a news article, or over a drink with a friend after work, stories are pretty much universal.

It’s the “well told” part of this statement that interests me most, though. What exactly does that mean? Especially in fiction, is there one way to tell a story well?

Linear, cause-and-effect narratives are fine. Third-person omniscient narration is cool. And the Hero’s Journey works. But when you find a story told in a weird, out-there sort of way, it can really make things feel fresh.

What am I talking about here? I’m talking about present tense. I’m talking about all-dialogue. I’m talking about non-linear narratives. Let me give you a few examples.

I just got finished reading The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes. It’s about a woman who survives a brutal attack by a time-traveling serial killer, and then devotes the rest of her life to stopping him. Not one for the kiddies.

It’s not the typical cut and dry, one-scene-into-the-next thriller. First thing: it’s written in the present tense, which is somewhat atypical for genre fiction. Present tense works perfectly with this story, though, because it gives everything a sense of immediacy. It’s as if the events of the novel are unfolding before us in real time, sort of like news story (she was a freelance reporter, by the way).

Furthermore, present tense works best with quick sentences and short chapters, which we see a lot of in The Shining Girls. Beukes writes her chapters in jabs, like hits to the mouth. We zoom in on one character, end on a resounding note, then move on to the next. Certainly an economical approach, here.

Could Beukes achieve the same effect using traditional narrative styles? Maybe, but I don’t think it would’ve been quite as effective. There’s no distance to the events with present tense—it’s happening instead of having already happened.

Another weird narrative comes in David Eggers’s Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? The plot: an unremarkable man kidnaps an astronaut in order to ask said astronaut all sorts of existential questions.

Okay, that probably already sounds pretty weird. But it gets weirder.

Eggers’s book is written entirely as dialogue. It’s sort of like a stage play in that sense, only without even so much as stage direction. Like in The Shining Girls, this makes things move very, very quickly. Though it’s a roughly 200-page book (which isn’t super long to begin with), it reads as though it’s half that length.

The best part about this all-dialogue style is the way it puts the characters’ voices right in your ear. After a while, you can imagine distinct accents and inflections for each of them. Furthermore, the dialogue takes on a special weight, because without description to back it up, every line has to do more to move the story along. In addition, the dialogue also needs to perform such mundane actions as orienting the reader in the space, a function usually performed by description.

The last weird narrative style I’d like to discuss is that of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-FivePerhaps the weirdest of the three, Slaughterhouse centers on the life of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII veteran who’s trying to adjust to postwar life. But that can be tough when you bounce around the moment in your life because you’ve “become unstuck in time” (which has to be one of the coolest lines in literature).

Billy jumps from moment to moment in his life, from the war to troubled times at home to an alien planet, all of them decades apart. The narrative cuts between all of these times and settings in an almost unpredictable pattern—definitely not the style of most books.

But the genius here is that we become disoriented, just like Billy. If the story was told in a normal, linear manner, we’d know exactly when we are in time, i.e. the events on page 100 are happening after those on page 50. As written, though, we’re just as unstuck in time as Billy. It’s an effect that really couldn’t be achieved otherwise.

So what makes a good story well told? Like any good question, there’s no single answer. It might be a classic structure, or it might be something a little more unusual. Whatever the structure, it’s not just what happens that makes a story great—it’s the way in which it happens.

Chunk Writing, and Why It Might Work For You

I’m sure you’ve heard the proverb “there are many ways to skin a cat.” I myself find this phrase distasteful, if not downright alarming. However, the general idea is still relevant, especially to writing.

Let’s rephrase it. There are many ways to write a book. (Be nice to cats.)

Part of writing long-form narratives is discovering what works best for us. Learn how others write, but don’t feel the need to copy them.

I’ve found a process that works for me. I didn’t invent it, but so far as I know, I did invent the name for it. I call it chunk writing (patent pending).

No, chunk writing is not treating yourself to chunks of food while writing (though it could be, if that works for you). Chunk writing—or at least the version of it I’d like to describe today—is exactly what it sounds like: writing a story in chunks. They need not be, and often aren’t, in chronological order. Rather, you come up with individual scenes you’re excited about, write them, then string them together.

For Starters

I begin chunk writing with a character. Imagine, for example, a story about a cat named Mittens who’s searching for his favorite litter box. (The main character is a cat because I like cats. Also, we’re still making amends to the cat community for that comment at the beginning.)

It’s often best to start with a character you love. Character should almost always drive plot, so be sure you’re invested in this person (or feline). You could also start with a setting, or a scene, or a line of dialogue. Again, writing is all about what works best for you.

Once you’ve found your starting point, write it down on an index card. Or a word document, a piece of paper, a stone tablet—whatever you dig most. Ask yourself some questions: Who is this character? What is this character searching for? Familiarize yourself with your character.

Next Steps

Most stories are about a journey; characters start somewhere, then end up somewhere else. With that thought in mind, write an index card for the beginning of your story and another for the end. The challenge is getting from one point to the other.

For this part, I tend to focus on the scenes I’m most excited to write. This keeps me invested in the story I’m telling.

Let’s jump back to the story of Mittens the crusading cat. One scene I’m hyped to write is the one where Mittens confronts his nemesis, the vacuum cleaner. Therefore, this should be one of the first notecards I create. You can fill in the less important (and sometimes less interesting) transitional chapters later.

Elmore Leonard said that you shouldn’t bother writing the parts your readers will skip. While you might want to write them anyway and cut them from the final product, the index card method gives you a preliminary feel for your chapters. If the index card itself feels boring or unimportant, you might not commit time to fleshing it out.

Pulling It All Together

Once I’ve got some index cards I’m excited about, I start writing! At this stage, I don’t worry about revisions. I might go back and switch out an index card or make some mental notes for later. The most important thing is just to get the words down.

While chunk writing might sound like a lot of work upfront, I’ve found that it creates a better final product. For me, it gives direction without the rigidity of an outline.

Everyone’s writing process is different. I hope these tips prove useful, but I doubt the exact same methods will work for you. Just keep writing, and keep discovering. And be nice to cats.

When Writing Dialogue, Don’t Forget Who’s Talking

A burly henchman wearing an eyepatch and a prickly sneer leans against a castle parapet. He stands not three paces away from a knight in glittering armor. The latter of the pair is not happy.

“I’ll ask again,” growls the knight. “Did you or did you not witness the incident in question?”

The henchman thinks on this for a moment. He wads a ball of phlegm in his throat and spits, not far from the knight’s shiny boots.

The henchman says, “For whom do you work, sir?”

And the reader thinks, Wait a second. What?


Dialogue is one of the trickiest components of writing fiction. We authors spend years learning the numerous rules of grammar and punctuation, only to discover they should, almost always, be ignored when writing dialogue. After all, people rarely talk like they write.

Consider the above example. It’s grammatically correct for the henchman to use “whom” in this statement, since it’s a pronoun in the objective sense. Furthermore, avoiding the construction “Whom do you work for?” precludes a hanging preposition at the end of the sentence.

Yes, this line demonstrates good grammar. But it’s still bad dialogue.

That’s because when we write dialogue, we must always remember who’s talking. Dialogue is about character, authenticity, and occasionally plot—it’s almost never about adhering to syntax or grammar.

The henchman’s line feels wrong because everything else he’s done suggests he wouldn’t talk like that. He’s a henchman, he sneers, he spits near people’s nice boots. There’s no way this guy would know the difference between who and whom.

Ideally, dialogue sounds unique to the character speaking it. I find it helps to ask myself, Would this character say that? Or, Is this how this character would say it? Or, Would this character use that word, or another?

Questions like these make writing dialogue both difficult and enjoyable. It’s a challenge, and like any challenge, improvement comes with practice. There are many ways to develop the right voice for characters, but I think the best way is to just write. And write. And write.

Most importantly, let’s not forget who’s talking. It’s the number one influence on every line of dialogue.

Developing Good Characters in Fiction

Good characters aren’t stick figures. They demand more detail than lines, circles, and basic expressions.

As writers, if we want our characters to go from good to great, we’ve got to do more. It’s our job to fill in the lines, to add shading, texture, subtlety, and nuance.

It’s difficult, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it. Here are a few good places to focus:

Voice

Giving characters distinct voices helps make them feel real. Easier said than done.

One of the best ways to find a character’s voice is writing that character constantly. You probably won’t find a character’s distinct tone the first time you write them. More likely, you’ll write them, revise them, and refine their voice over time.

A great example is George R.R. Martin’s Patchface, a weird jester who speaks in poems and riddles. For example: “Under the sea, smoke rises in bubbles, and flames burn green and blue and black. I know, I know, oh, oh, oh.” He’s mysterious, nutty, and a little creepy, with a tone all his own.

Mannerisms

Mannerisms are key to good characters. Sherlock Holmes, for example, wouldn’t be the enduring character he is without this famous line: “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

Like good dialogue, effective mannerisms suggest details about your characters. The above mannerism works because it indicates who Sherlock Holmes is: an intelligent, sophisticated, slightly patronizing fellow.

A mannerism to avoid is something like a character pushing their glasses up all the time. Though it’s a repeatable quirk, it doesn’t suggest anything about our character (other than poor vision).

Backstory

Past experiences shape us all. Characters are no different.

Try to imagine what a character’s life was like before the book begins. Take Jack Torrance, the main character of Stephen King’s classic, The Shining. A huge part of that novel is his past violence toward his son, Danny. Jack constantly tries to atone for it throughout the novel, which shapes his actions, and therefore, him.

One important detail: all this backstory need not appear in your work. Sometimes it’s best to leave it out, since heavy backstory can impede the flow of an otherwise good yarn. Still, as the writer of the story, it’s good information to have in your back pocket, since it might help inform later behaviors.

There’s tons more that goes into building great characters, but these are three of the essentials. Use them to fill in those stick figures.

Lessons From Cats

Let’s talk about cats.

Cats are great. I didn’t fully understand this fact until my fiancee and I got cats of our own (pictured above), but it’s true. They’re fun, sometimes strange little animals, but we can learn a lot from them.

Let’s discuss the greatness and majesty of our feline friends.

Cats Are Forgiving

Our cats love to play, though animal playing is more like wrestling, or sometimes fisticuffs. They beat each other up, they take naps, and when they wake up, they’re friends again.

Takeaway: If you’ve got a problem with someone, let them know, and then get over it. No cat-style wrestling necessary. The nap is optional, but comes highly recommended.

Cats Are Friendly (Sometimes)

I used to think that cats didn’t like people, though that’s not really true. Sure, some cats are like that. But most of the time they’re selective; they have people that they establish a rapport with over time, and then you’re buddies for life. You also get bonus points toward cat friendship if you happen to be the one supplying them with food every morning.

Takeaway: We don’t need to be selective, necessarily, but we should surround ourselves with people that make us happy. And if those people give us food, that’s pretty cool, too.

Cats Find Joy in the Little Things

Our cats’ favorite toy is a stick with a fuzzy bee on the end of it. That’s it. They don’t have laptop computers and they don’t really care about TV. Aside from that app designed for cats, they don’t give a fig about iPhones.

We humans can take note. Sometimes it feels like we need big flashy things in order to be happy, but we really don’t. There are simple things in life, and we should enjoy them, too.

Takeaway: Find your stick with a fuzzy bee on the end of it, and enjoy.

Cats Are Funny

One of my cats likes to climb on my shoulders and purr in my ear. The other enjoys walking up to me, meowing once, and then walking away. I’m not sure if they mean to be funny, but they are.

For humans, the lesson is clear: Let’s not forget the importance of laughter! There’s no better link between people (and animals) than a good loud laugh.

Takeaway: laughter is universal, no matter what language you speak.

Cats Have Their Own International Holiday

Yes, there is such a thing as International Cat Day. Clearly, this day was established not by humans, but by cats themselves. There’s no International Human Day, which makes me think felines are a step ahead.

Takeaway: if you want to be more like a cat, establish your own international holiday. It can’t be that hard, right?