Finding Real Magic in Writing


The magic system in my first series — the LonTobyn Chronicle — had three elements:  the mage, his or her familiar (usually a bird of prey), and a crystal or ceryll, as I called it, that focused the power sourced in the psychic connection between bird and mage.  Each person’s crystal, and by extension, each person’s magic, had a different color.  Blue, red, yellow, green, purple, silver, gold, orange; there was a ceremony each year in which all the mages of the land processed through the capital city, and I pictured it as this winding, glowing rainbow of light and birds and people in cloaks.  As I wrote the three books and introduced new characters, I had to assign each one a magic color, and I have to admit that I did this pretty randomly.  “Hmmmm.  I’ve used shades of blue and red a lot.  Better make this one pale violet….”  At the end of the third book, in the midst of the climax of the entire series, I had three key characters working together to defeat the magic of the bad guy.  And as it turned out, one character had blue power, one had magic that was golden yellow.  And the third character, the lynchpin of their alliance, had magic that was emerald green, so that the magic of the first two seemed to blend into the power of this last character.  I couldn’t have planned it better.  But the thing is, I didn’t plan it at all.  I’d assigned those colors ages before without giving them much thought.  When I realized how it had come together, I just sat back in my chair and stared at the screen, too amazed to do anything more.  If I hadn’t chosen those colors, the last scene would have still worked, but it wouldn’t have been that perfect; it wouldn’t have all come together that way.

I had similar things happen with the magic system in my Winds of the Forelands series.  That world had different types of magic — healing, fire, the ability to raise mists and winds, etc.  Most sorcerers had a few different kinds of magics — two, three, maybe four — but only a very few had all of them.  Again, I assigned them randomly.  Okay, I did it with some purpose, mostly in trying to sprinkle a variety of magics through the population of Qirsi sorcerers.  But there was a good deal of blind chance involved as well.  At the end of the series, though, I had two or three scenes that just worked because the distribution of magics matched perfectly with the sorcerers who were in specific places at specific times.  As with the LonTobyn books, I was amazed and surprised at how neatly it all fit together.

It’s easy to say that subconsciously I had planned all of this out, that while I might have assigned those magical colors at random, my plotting of the books incorporated the information at some level and led me to that perfect blending of narrative, magic, and color theory.  And that the same thing happened with the different powers wielded by my Qirsi in the Forelands books.  Maybe so.  Then again, I’m really not convinced I’m that smart….

I prefer to think that when we are deep in the creative process — when we are completely in sync with our characters, our worldbuilding, and our narrative — real magic happens.  Sounds ridiculous, I know.   Magic doesn’t really exist, right?  Wrong.  I’ve watched my brother, who is a professional painter, take a blank, flat canvas, and with a few strokes of his brush, create an image that not only has color and form, but also depth and even movement.  Tell me that isn’t magic.  I’ve watched a friend of mine, a stunningly talented musician, take a familiar song that was originally recorded with several guitars, bass, drums, piano, even horns and strings, and with just his hands and his guitar, turn it into a solo piece that works every bit as well.  Tell me that isn’t magic.  I’ve taken pictures that I thought were okay, only to come home, look at them on my computer screen, and discover that I’d captured colors and contrasts and contours I hadn’t even known were there.  Tell me that isn’t magic.

There’s no formula for this.  There are no instructions I can offer you so that the same things will happen in your books.  At least not beyond this:  Do the work.  Build your worlds, develop your characters, write the stories that are burning inside you.  If you’re true to your creative vision, the magic will happen.

So sure, for all you skeptics out there, it’s possible that those moments at the end of the LonTobyn and Winds of the Forelands books were nothing more than the fortuitous blending of creativity and background work and kismet.  But to me, that sounds like magic.

How about you?  What magical moments have you experienced as you write your books and stories?  Time to share.

David B. Coe


37 comments to Finding Real Magic in Writing

  • I see this kind of magic happening again and again in the process of writing. My subconscious plays these tricks on me that I never see coming until they play out on the page.

    Those are the moments of this crazy writing life that are sheer joy and exhilaration.

  • There have been several times when this has happened to me too: I’ve unknowingly built into a story something which becomes useful or crucial or thematically central much later on. It’s like accidentally unearthing something you burried and forgot about years ago, a piece of a puzzle which fits perfectly into what you are now working on. I agree with david that it’s not intentional, even subconsciously, though I wonder if the real magic is in recognizing the rightness of what you’ve unearthed.

  • David this is a beautiful piece. It brought tears to my eyes because you said it so clearly! Magic is all around us and half the time we aren’t aware of it. It takes that strongest magic — the magic of creativity — to make us sit back and see, *really see* that power.

    I remember reading the scene you are talking about and I have to say that I thought you planned the entire books/series around that one scene. I was impressed as hell. Knowing it was all subconscious — part of your own magic — is even more impressive. Love it!

  • I agree, Lisa. These magical moments are the ones that make it all worthwhile, that allow me to deal with all the other crap we put up with in this business.

    AJ, you might well be right, that the magic on our part is that moment of recognition, of knowing how to use this gift we’ve given ourselves through the work. I have to admit, though, that the inability to plan it, the randomness of it, the moment of surprise, is what makes it so wonderful. To this day, that moment when the colors came together for me, remains one of the greatest of my professional life. That said, I wish I COULD plan it; it would be nice to sprinkle those “perfect moments” through all my books.

    Faith, thank you. I’m glad you liked the post. And thank you as well for the kind words about the book, although I’m not sure it’s more impressive that I didn’t plan it. I mean, I lucked into it, in a way. As I say, I’m not smart enough to have come up with something like that consciously. Maybe that’s the magic — things coming together in such a way as to compensate for my intellectual shortcomings. Now that’s powerful magic!

  • David, I think that our minds, when creating, work on a long timeline, putting things together for us, keeping them waiting until we need them, long before we really do need them. It is the only thing that makes sense. Unless you really *do* believe in magic. (grins)

  • PS — isn’t the creative process anti-logic anyway? Painting or writing or sewing or any craft that becomes art brings beauty into the simple things of life. The need for beauty — the need for story — isn’t logical. Is it? It seems too primal for logic, too emotional for upper-brain stuff. Anyway, do we create with the intellect? Or the beast?

  • Actually, there is a part of me that wants desperately to believe in magic. As to whether I actually do…well, I’m not sure I want to say….

    Your second point should be a post. (Or a week’s worth of posts from all of us!) Do we create with the intellect or the beast?! I love the question! Isn’t it both? Isn’t art the perfect blend of intellect and passion? That’s a glib answer to a question that could consume me for hours.

  • Me too. The beast is what I *feel* when I write. I feel wild and cruel and godly. I hold the lives of all I created in my hand. And to me, the beast, the untamed, the unthinking and instinctive, is beautiful.

  • Beatriz


    I’d love to send this post to all of my high school English teachers who ruined stories for me by over-examination. I can just hear them now, discussing how you used color to tie things together at the end.

    Thank you for sharing your accidental brilliance with us. That’s truly the magical part!

  • Let me add — that when the wild fox attacked my beloved dog in July, I never hated her. She was killing because she had young to feed. It was beautiful. It was much like I feel when I write.

  • Thanks, B. Yes, if ever the LonTobyn books were to be read in a lit class, the teacher would assume that I’d planned it all, and then she’d write a paper on color theory and its relation to magic in my books, and she’d say that really the books were a statement on the Enlightenment and the embracing of science in a real world society that both fetishizes and fears magic, and then she’d start wearing black all the time and smoking imported cigarettes and listening to atonal jazz, and before you know it the whole thing would be spiraling out of hand. Isn’t that how it happens? [Looks expectantly at Professor Andrew Hartley…]

    I agree, Faith: The wild is beautiful; its ferocity is incredibly compelling. But the artistic also has to be guided by intellect, and that is beautiful, too. Listen to Beethoven; look at Monet’s works; read Shakespeare. As I said before: the marriage of intellect and passion.

  • Okay — but that analogy can go only so far. My intellect will eat up my passion and kill my beast if I let it. My beast has no respect for the intellect at all. Marriage is so…formal and civilized. Creativity feel more like a battle than marriage.

  • Wait… Okay, there is supposed to be a difference in there somewhere.

  • My favorite height challenged philosopher Yoda said it best, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” I do believe in what would be considered magic. The human mind is capable of things we’re still just scratching the surface of, precog, healing, and transferring that energy that makes us up to others.

    Spirit, Qi, Prana, Chakti, Cosmic Energy, whatever you wanna call it, can be felt by those more attuned to it and used to do things that could be considered magic to some. The subconscious mind can be a powerful thing. It could very well be that the subconscious was “locked in” more than your conscious mind was to the ebb and flow of the energy used to create the story, to weave the tapestry, and was seeing things that the conscious was only just beginning to formulate.

    However it happens, it’s always awesome when something like that just seems to fall into place. One could say, magical. 😉

  • As to the teacher scenario, since we academic types aren’t interested in authorial intentionality as we were 40 years ago, I’d say your color choice would be read as you merely manifesting something from the currounding culture which would turn out to be about gender, race or class, and would probably reveal deeply retograde conservatism 🙂

  • Hmmm. Okay, maybe marriage doesn’t work. I’ll have to rethink the analogy. But still, for me at least, my beast needs to be reined in by my intellect. And at the same time, my intellect needs to be loosened by my more wild impulses. They temper each other. At least they do for me. As I say, we could discuss this stuff for hours and it would be fascinating!

    Daniel, I actually agree with you — on some level that goes far beyond consciousness I probably did know what I was doing (at least I’d like to believe that). But it was so basal that I really had no idea. And yeah, that’s pretty magical.

    AJ wrote “….and would probably reveal deeply retograde conservatism.” Aaaaiiiieeee!!!! I think I prefer my scenario…. Is author intentionality really out? It was still in when I was in college in the mid 80s, but even then I thought it was pretty ridiculous. I remember reading Poe and Hawthorne and just wanting to savor the stories. But my English Professors (and most of them were pretty old school) wanted to talk about intent and motif and all the rest. That was one of the reasons I moved away from English to history.

  • Sarah

    Thanks AJ – when I was working out my dissertation focus my advisor all but begged me with tears in his eyes not to do gender and violence because he was so sick of it. And yes David, intent is right out. The author is dead and all that. But since most of the older high school English teachers were trained on it, my students are still coming to class talking about what Shakespeare meant. (And how he was a recusant Catholic, but that’s a different issue.)

    Something I’ve been trying to teach my literature students, that I learned from my own writing, is what you’re talking about in your post, namely that there is a significant difference between product and process. How they arrive at their thesis forward, neatly organized, properly cited paper can be messy, exploratory and involve huge amounts of happy accident, providence, etc. I think really great art, the magic, takes the rational, conscious mind working with the irrational, dark parts of our mind. Perhaps they pass notes while we sleep or pay the bills or do other things.

  • These things happen from time to time in film as well. A film will get made that everyone starts dissecting to find the deep and meaningful underlying messages cleverly placed within it by the writer/director. Sometimes I’m sure it’s intentional, but other times? And I’m sure those unintentional times the director just goes with it and says, yeah…yeah, that was my intention all along!

    Me, I just write the story or film script. If people find deep meaning in it that’s cool, I’m just spinning a yarn.

    Honestly, I just watch a movie or read a story for the enjoyment of it, not to dissect it.

  • Yes, authorial intent has been dead a while. Not sure how you were still running into it in eighties! Funnily enough, what dominates English studies now is a cultural-studeis inflected historicism which has really only just been adopted in history depts! And the latest take on Shakespeare’s religion, by the way, has moved away from claims to his recusant Catholicism, partly because the latest evidence for his job as a Lancashire schoolmaster in the “lost years” has been largely discredited. More than you wanted to know, sorry… 🙂

  • I’m glad you examined this piece of the creative process and laid things out in magical wordage. Instead of attributing my few moments of sparkle to luck or accidental brilliance, I’ll now feel more mysterious. Sweet!

    The magic lies dormant in us all, and is awakened by the creative strokes of keys or brushes. The feeling of “oh my, that works wonderfully” I wish I’d planned that. Can now be explained.

    “Build your worlds, develop your characters, write the stories that are burning inside you. If you’re true to your creative vision, the magic will happen.” –reminded me of Bill Murray’s character Frank Cross at the end of Scrooged when he’s telling the people watching that the magic can happen to them. lol

  • Thanks for the comment and the info, Sarah. Call it what you will — magic, manifestations of the subconscious, dumb luck. The fact is, the process is everything, and when it works, the product is the perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The creative process is an exercise in alchemy, of turning words and ideas into something that comes alive on the page, introducing the reader to new people, transporting them to new places, and catching them up in narrative flow.

    Daniel, I’m afraid to admit that I’ve been guilty of that in discussing movies. I think that we are reflections of our time, and that the historicism AJ mentions below can allow us to see things in movies of which directors and screenwriters were but dimly aware. But yeah, when it comes right down to it, story and character are what matter.

    AJ, I must have straddled two literary eras, because I remember discussions of intent, but I was also steeped in the historicism of which you speak (if I’m understanding it correctly) and in fact, when I taught history I used to love using movies and novels as source material for getting at cultural manifestations of social and political mindset. I was actually thinking about this just the other day when my girls were watching Close Encounters. What a different approach to alien first contact compared with what we see today, in our post-9/11 paranoid, xenophobic frame of mind.

    Now, Dave, I’m doing magic. I don’t know what you’re doing…. 😉 Not sure how I feel about the Bill Murray comparison, but yeah, if you want to explain your “Wow, look what I did!” moments by saying it was magic, I’ll support you. I’ve got your back, man. 🙂

  • Your Close Encounters example is a great one and is exactly the kind of thing I meant about historicist literary criticism. Timelessness is out, and most scholars assume that you can only understand a work of literature in the context of the cultural moment which produced it.

  • Emily

    AJ> I’d love to hear more about Shakespeare…I’m teaching the Tempest tomorrow… and comments? *grins*

    David> Such a great post and great discussion! I’ve had/seen stuff come together in my writing, and gone back and read stuff and thought “wow, I didn’t notice I’d done that when I did it…” and then felt a combination of clever for having done it, and a little dumb for not having figured out I was going to do it!

    I do believe in intent, and I think it is somewhat knowable. We aren’t automatons who automatically do what our culture tells us to do–or what it tells us not to do if we’re non-conformists. Getting at what that intent is… that’s something a bit different, right?

    But what do we do when a work has more than one cultural moment? I mean, when I studied Shakespeare a semester in England, they showed us a version of Othello performed on the stage in South Africa during apartheid. That certainly must have resonated in ways very different than, say, “O” with Julia Stiles and Makahi Pfifer (spelling butchered… sorry) did in the late 1990’s early 2000’s.

  • AJ. For a work of lit to survive beyond its time-zone, it must be something that *can’t* be understood only by its cultural moment. It has to transcend its own culture, yes? It’s that very transcendence that makes it survive, that makes it work outside its era. Timelessness gets my vote.

  • AJ, that raises interesting questions about those who write to be purposefully anachronistic. Then of course, their work becomes a reaction to and rejection of the cultural context, but in a sense I think a strict historicism can become as confining a lens through which to view art or literature as intent once was. Do you see what I mean?

    Emily, thanks for the comment. I’ve enjoyed this discussion, too. And yes, I’ve felt that way, too. “Look how clever I am! But why wasn’t I smart enough to know it sooner….?” I agree with you about intent. As I say in the comment to AJ just above, I think that any single explanation of art is doomed by its own limitations. Cultural context has to count for something. So does “intent”, whether conscious or simply born of an author’s past. Art is wondrously complex; explanations of its origins shouldn’t be oversimplified.

  • Faith, ‘fraid not 🙂 There are lots of reasons great literature survives but I really don’t believe in timelessness. I agree that a work can continue to have real meaning; just not the same meanings it originally had. That’s not a problem, but it’s an important distinction. What we get from Shakespeare today is not what his original audience got. And yes, I agree with David that a strict historicism can be reductive: that’s why I’m a theatre person. Because performance rejects historical context and insists that the script makes meaning in the present moment. Again, it makes meaning differently than it once did, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less powerful. Theatre is supremely time sensitive. You have to be there to experience it. It can’t be captured or archived as an experience so it is the most ephemeral of art forms. Shakespeare (and Emily) knew this, as Prospero says, the actors, towers, all the insubstantial pageant and the great globe itself dissolve and leave not a rack behind. Sorry for all the Shakespeare today: I spent the morning interviewing great Irish Shakespearean Sinead Cusack.

  • Yes, authorial intent has been dead a while. Not sure how you were still running into it in eighties!

    I’ll never forget the knock-down-drag-out I had with my freshman English professor over the meaning of Randall Jarrell’s ‘Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’. I’m still surprised I passed that course.

  • Faith that’s an interesting point about timelessness, and a work needing to have meaning beyond it’s cultural context. Not sure we were having a vote, but it’s a terrific point.

  • Sorry. Posted before I saw AJ and Misty’s reply. AJ, I’m not sure that you and Faith aren’t saying the same thing. If Shakespeare isn’t timeless I don’t know what is. Yes, the cultural context of any of his work is long since gone. We don’t get from him what 16th and 17th century audiences did. But that’s exactly what makes his work timeless. There is something in his work that speaks to the human condition in any time period. His work is NEVER dated. There is plenty of other work that doesn’t hold up nearly as well.

    One of my all-time favorite poems, Misty. Just an arresting piece.

  • I don’t believe in “the human condition” either 🙂

  • I have been experiencing the magic from the writing myself from time to time, although it was random and came back together nicely at the end.

  • David, one of the things that I’ve always found amusingly sad are the number of people who comment here asking for real magic words. Most of the time I don’t let those comments through, since they’re clearly asking for the secret sentence that, when spoken aloud, will cause cash and jewels to rain from the sky. Frankly, if there was a sentence like that and I knew it, I’d be home saying it over and over and not telling anybody about it.

    The thing is, if they would read what we post here, they’d know the secret just as we do – that all words have the potential to create magic, and learning to wield it begins with picking up a pen. 😀

  • [Fixing Professor Hartley with an icy glare.] Okay, AJ, I can see hating the phrase “the human condition” which has been overused so much as to render it utterly banal and totally meaningless. I apologize for using it. But how can you not believe in the concept. If you don’t believe in timelessness, and you don’t believe in the universality of certain elements of human emotion and experience, how can you possibly explain the continued relevance and popularity of Shakespeare? And don’t tell me it’s simply the beauty of the writing, because that wouldn’t be enough to sustain it.

    Harry, the magic of writing can be totally random in my experience. But as you say, that doesn’t make it any less real. Thanks for the comment.

    Misty, you wouldn’t even tell Faith and Catie and me?! Hmmmmm….. Yes, your point is spot on, and beautifully worded. They already have access to the magic. They just don’t know it, or, more likely, are too fixated on finding the shortcut to do the work.

  • Well, I’m a Scorpio, and we don’t share much. But I suppose I might tell y’all….. *grin*

  • I absolutely loved this post. I truly believe that great work is driven by the muse (or the subconscious or whatever one wants to call it). I know that in my artwork, some of the best pieces I’ve ever created have been “accidents.” That surreal moment when I sit back and just stare at what I’ve created like it never came from my own hand is the moment that I strive for everytime I begin an image. If I can tell you every single step that I took to create something, it’s probably not one of my better works.

    Being an instrument of the creative force is my fondest wish.

  • Thanks, PJ. Glad you enjoyed the post. The creative accidents are the little gems that keep me going when the rest of writing becomes too much. It doesn’t even have to be something huge, like the end-of-book examples in the post. Sometimes it’s just a tidbit of character background or worldbuilding that fits in perfectly, like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes it’s a turn of phrase that comes out better even than I had imagined. “Being an instrument of the creative force.” Yes, that’s it exactly.