July 29, 2011

When Magic Is Matter-of-Fact, part 2

Magic, symbolism and science fiction 

In my previous post, I shared some editorial questions I’ve used with writers of manuscripts that used elements of magic in a “real-world” setting.  (All examples in this post and the previous one have had identifying details changed or are represented as composites to maintain confidentiality and the creative integrity of the authors.) Similar issues can arise in science fiction, and my third example was a harder call for me, both as a reader and as an editor.

Sci-Fi Symbolism
In this sci-fi manuscript, the skillfully-rendered setting was an obvious extension of our 21st century Earth. The primary differences from today’s Earth were social and technological advancements. Living organisms, however (humans, cats, cows) were biologically the same. How to explain, then, a living symbol of love that appeared only to the main character? Other elements of the story were internally consistent and corroborated by secondary characters. But none of the characters corroborated this creature, so it raised several possible—and unresolved—meanings.

Because this was sci-fi, I knew readers would make some allowances for the strange. And because this creature was one of the few issues of world building in the manuscript, I could be persuaded that it was an exception to the rule. Not everything has to make tidy sense.

The litmus test, though, was whether this element was doing what the author wanted it to do. My questions with the author centered around world-building and what this creature was intended to mean about the main character:
  • Are the story world’s “rules” drawn clearly enough to imply exactly what the author wants to about fantastic beings or events?
  • If the fantastic calls into question the world’s rules, is this intentional?
  • How much does the author want to guide the reader’s interpretation of this creature? How much does he want readers themselves to grapple with either its existence or meaning—or both?
  • Do “oddities” imply to the reader the things about the main character that the author wants them to?

After these recent reading experiences, I came away with some other editorial notes:

  • Stories in first-person POV are particularly susceptible to confusion with magical or symbolic elements because the main character is the only narrator. The impartiality another narrator might bring is by definition absent, so any confusion about the magic will imply something about the main character. Does the use of first-person POV back the author into a corner? Are there ways the author can insert an unbiased POV about the magical elements so the reader is not distracted?  (It may seem counterintuitive, but a glimpse of the main character’s own doubt about the symbolic element can maintain clarity in a first-person POV.)

  • Sometimes authors aim for suspense, but settle for obfuscation. If the author can strategically tie up some open-ended questions, she’s more in control of the reader’s experience. Where does she want them to be thoughtful, amazed, or in the dark? Is the magical realism deployed to support that?

  • Leaving multiple dimensions of magic and symbolism open to question (for instance, its boundaries and its meaning) may signal an author who is unsure of her overarching voice or theme. Encourage the author to explore—even for just a scene—what happens when she increases the specificity about one aspect of the unreal while leaving others open to interpretation. Playing with this can clarify for her which emphasis allows her message to resonate best. In the end, no one can control what a reader does with a story, but it’s my opinion that readers appreciate being skillfully guided toward understanding the author’s intent. Whether they like or dislike a story, they come away with a clear sense of what it is they’re responding to, while the author maintains his or her voice.

Some authors will need to know their editor is not anti-magic (or anti-symbolism, anti-sci-fi, etc.). I have found it helpful to reference other books or films to give the author a kind of shorthand for showing that anything can work as long as it meets basic reader expectations. At one end of the spectrum might be The Time Traveler’s Wife, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the movie Big (or more recently, Midnight in Paris) where, improbable as it seems, magic does happen, to normal people in our normal world.

At the other end of the spectrum may be worlds like Narnia or Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or even The Bible, where the fantastic is normal, but the world-building is clear enough that we know what to expect and what not to expect (robots and spaceships in any of these would surprise us).

All of these works work. It’s a matter of bringing enough clarity to enough of the story so that magic doesn’t muddle the story. Instead, magic makes the story.

—Beth Stokes

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