Od Magic by Patricia McKillip, originally published in 2005 by Ace Books (Penguin).
A literary fantasy set in a magical kingdom resembling Renaissance Europe focusing on the viewpoints of five central characters. A gardener, a professor of magic, a princess, a guard, and the magician’s daughter find themselves entangled in the laws governing all magics regardless of size.
What I Liked
The language, the language, the language. Always the language. I try to be more aware of technical details on other levels, and I appreciate well-laid plants and interesting character arcs, but reading McKillip is just wonderfully indulgence in metaphorical language. Given that Od Magic focuses on the magic, on one thing appearing to be something else, metaphors reflect and carry that image throughout the book.
What I Noticed
This book, both as print and audiobook is particularly well packaged, in that Kinuko Y. Craft’s cover illustration, which includes both front and back captures the essence of the book precisely. Further, only after finishing the book can we the readers understand the importance of some elements in the image. When I was a kid, my parents got me classics–LIttle Women, Swiss Family Robinson, Heidi–with several plates of illustration in them. I wish they did that with books like this: adults appreciate illustration as well!
The Re-View: Od Magic by Patricia McKillip
Or maybe I just want to keep seeing Craft’s vision of McKillip’s worlds… The audiobook is read by Gabrielle Cuir, who is as much a master of her art as McKillip and Craft. The richness and flexibility of her voice match McKillip’s literary style, making the experience of listening to the story much more immersive than reading the book.
What I Learned
While I was re-reading this book, I was also reading Talent Is Underrated by Geoff Colvin (Potrfolio/Penguin, 2008), in which he argues that research shows that the achievements of high performers comes about not due to a genetic advantage or a gift from the gods, but from deliberate practice. He defines deliberate practice (in contrast to undirected, random , time-filling practice–like what a lot of us did as kids when we “practiced the piano for thirty minutes”) as
1) designed specifically to improve performance,
2) can be repeated a lot,
3) feedback on results is continuously available,
4) mentally demanding,
5) not much fun.
We acknowledge that sports and music, and even painting and drawing, require practice, but literature is expected to spring from the authors head as fully formed as Athena. Writers are born not made. Except, Colvin argues, we aren’t. He gives Benjamin Franklin as an example of someone who set about to follow an intensive regime of deliberate practice which resulted in dramatic improvement in his abilities. Once you realize that writing is a skill, like any other, comprised of discrete components each of which is amenable to improvement through deliberate practice, things get interesting.
Stephen King suggests that writers exist in four planes, bad, mediocre, good, and great, and while a writer can move between mediocre and good, it is impossible to go from bad to mediocre, or from good to great. I think Colvin would argue instead that it is possible to move from mediocre to good through random practice, natural improvements that come from unconscious learning. Taking one’s skills from good to great would require deliberate practice, which takes time. 10,000 hours, which means ten years of practicing twenty hours a week.
It is simply difficult for writers to put in that much time, especially if you realize that perhaps the most important skill is creating the first draft. Editing and re-writing is not drafting, even though they are important skills to have.
In view of this, Dean Wesley Smith’s relentless hammering on the importance of drafting, and of making each writing session a practice session for one particular skill, makes very, very good sense. It is the foundational habit for improvement–crucial, if you can even believe it is possible.
I grew up reading, and making up stories in my head. I didn’t compulsively write stories–in large part because it would have taken time away from reading. For a long time, I didn’t think I was allowed to be a writer, because I hadn’t done it as a child. That writing papers for school came very easily to me simply didn’t count, nor did the fact that I did write poetry compulsively. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I realized this was a choice I could make for myself, without waiting for a divine permission slip.
And so back to Od Magic and Patricia McKillip. It is tempting to close the book with a sigh and say, “that’s such a great book. So beautiful. I could never write like that,” and let that be the end of it. I am trying to learn not to do that. I am trying to find something I can focus on, one aspect that I can practice.
Metaphor, language, letting one thing stand for another in order to evoke emotion, to paint pictures. It’s what poetry is, in large part. I read somewhere–I can’t remember who wrote it–that it is good to get in the habit of assigning words to things. How are you feeling? Give it words. What does the tree look like? Give it words. Taken a step further, I can (and have) made it a deliberate exercise: think of a topic, write down all the words you can think of, without censoring, without worrying about whether it makes sense. And read poetry; see how others use metaphor, briefly or extended. Inject them all into my blood so when I write, I bleed images.
The Re-View appears the first Monday of the month, featuring a book first published at least ten years ago. I only choose books I really like: if it appears, it means it gets four or five stars.