V. E. Schwab: February 2016 Archives

People often ask me if I like writing fantasy for the freedom.

"What freedom?" I ask.

"The freedom," they say, "to do whatever you want."

At this point I either laugh or cry or pour myself a drink, because the presence of magic is not a carte blanche, a sudden permission to throw everything and the kitchen sink into a book. People who take it as such usually write sloppy stories. They might have a vivid imagination, but writing fantasy requires the mind of a technician as much as an artist.

That's because good fantasy, like all frameworks, requires RULES.

Everywhere you look, there are rules.

Everywhere you don't look, there are more.

Sometimes those rules are simple, and sometimes they are complex (and sometimes, imho, they are needless convoluted), but they are almost always there, and I'd wager, in most good books, they might not be on the page, but they're buried, in the foundation, creating a degree of cohesion you might not see, but will certainly feel. Worse though, is when you DON'T feel it. When the elements on the page feel random, or the appearance of a rule turns out to be nothing but that, an appearance, something set up only to be disrupted at the first issue of convenience (this is by far my largest pet peeve as a reader, when the rules become porous, dissolving and reforming as needed to suit the writer's whims).

My Shades of Magic series includes not one, but four parallel worlds, each with a different relationship to magic.

In Grey London, magic was forgotten.
In Red, it thrives.
In White, it's abused.
In Black, it killed.

In Red London, the relationship between man and magic is one of reverence, respect. They worship magic as a god, mind the checks and balances, do not take without giving back. They are stewards.

In White London, a fear of magic dominating man has led to the inverse, a situation in which man endeavors to dominate magic (and consequently precipitates his own destruction).

Breaking the systems down past context into base fibers, magic in my worlds is two parts nature, one part god. It abides the rules of the natural world, but is the common element in everything.

Rooting the nature of magic in, well, NATURE, means creating a fantastical system that in most ways adheres to a realistic one. Cycles of life, growth, power, action and consequence, energy neither created nor destroyed, the aspects of magic mirror those of the natural world at its most basic.

The goal is to make the rules flush with the surface of the world, and in so doing, to make it intuitive, believable. Every step we take away from reality requires a leap of faith on the part of the reader, and the fewer steps necessary, the less likely that one will trip, stumble, fall. Or worse, begin to disbelieve.

And that is the great risk of going off-book, of indulging in a system of whimsy, a place where anything is possible without reason or repercussion--the more you ask the reader to believe, the less they often will.

The converse tendency is to prove oneself and the sturdiness of one's world by putting it ALL on the page, in maddening detail, which can be just as problematic--sure, you've made a cohesive world, but if your rules distract from the actual story, few people are going to give a damn about the thoroughness of your systems.

When in doubt, I find it best to remember that the fundamental laws that govern a world are at their core simple, intuitive, and elegant. By applying those traits to any world, no matter how superficially fanciful, you ensure that most readers recognize the terms, and are game for the ride.


Hi there, I'm Victoria "V.E." Schwab, and Charlie has been gracious enough to let me join the party.

I'm the author of numerous books for children (Scholastic), teens (Hyperion, Harper/Greenwillow), and adults (Tor), and my most recent series, A Darker Shade of Magic, just sold TV rights. The strange bit there is that I'm attached to write the pilot script (and have been working steadily on that for the last six months. As well as a comic series. And a couple stories for anthologies.

The second book in the Shades of Magic series, A GATHERING OF SHADOWS, hits shelves in 8 days (not that I'm counting).

I often get asked about why I write in multiple genres, or how I write in multiple worlds. Do I sleep? Did I, at some point, sell my soul?

I can't comment on the last one, but I did make the conscious decision several years ago to diversify, not in order to snag more minions, or for my own creative edification, but because my career was in trouble. I'd only just started in YA, and already hit a major stumbling block when my editor left, and my profitable series was summarily dropped. When this happens (a friend told me once that if you stay in this business long enough, every thing--good and bad--will happen), you can really only do one thing, which is to focus on writing. But at the time, I wasn't ready--physically or emotionally--to sell another YA, so I turned my attention to an adult project called VICIOUS, something I'd been playing with for two years because it made me happy. It was totally unsellable, and I knew it, but I wrote it any way, and then it sold (publishing is a finicky little shit sometimes).

At the same time, I was tapped by Scholastic to audition for a small Book Clubs and Fairs package, a trilogy of books. The pay was almost nill, but I felt like exposure and experience were important, so I signed on, and the strange little series went and sold half a million copies.

I felt like a hydra. Or Hercules Mulligan, if you've seen/heard the Hamilton show.
With the sudden influx of flexibility came the new challenge of sustaining that momentum, which is arguably something I'm still trying to do.

Publishing is great at stoking fears not only of inferiority, but of irrelevance, and so over the last several years, I've done my best to keep the candle burning not only at both ends, but in the middle.

The simple answers to how I get things done come off as irreverent: I don't sleep; I work my ass off; I just do it.

But the thing I'm constantly reminding readers and writers of online is that these books, whether slight or massive, don't happen in single fell swoops, but day by day by day by day, over weeks, months, years. And whether you're writing one book or four, the process is the same. You make the time. You do the work. You accept that it's flawed. You demand better. You go on.

And sometimes you procrastinate by offering to blog about it instead of actually doing the work.

I'll be back shortly to talk about world-building in fantasy (my Shades of Magic series involves not one but four separate versions of London, each with their own relationship to magic), but for now, hello, and cheers.



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