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So Your Story Needs a Prophecy - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith
ysabetwordsmith
So Your Story Needs a Prophecy
I'm participating in the July Vacation Reads activity hosted by Seasonal Reading.  Watch the SR website and you'll see the first batch of featured books appear there this weekend.  I'll also be posting about those here.  Below is an "extra" piece I've written about my own book, Composing Magic: Magical Spells, Rituals, Blessings, Chants, and Prayers.

When I wrote Composing Magic, I framed it with a primary purpose and some secondary purposes.  The main use teaches Pagan folks who want to write magical/spiritual material for their own activities.  The others uses include: generalizing from Paganism to any other religion, generalizing from magical/spiritual content to any other type of writing, and shifting from personal to fictional application.  This last topic is today's focus.

Many tales, especially in speculative fiction, include fragments of cultural material from the setting.  Scholars muse over poems.  Wizards cast spells.  Apprentices use chants to memorize their homework, and sailors chant to keep time while working.  Anybody can pray spontaneously, and the gods might hand out formula prayers for specific occasions.  Holy people give blessings.  Priests and Priestesses lead rituals.  Bards tell stories and sing songs.  Any of that material that makes it into a story or novel has to come through the author (if they write things down) or be invented from scratch (if they make things up).
 
Alas, there isn't a writing guide that tells an author how to build those tidbits so as to be compelling pieces of the story.  That's a problem if your plot depends on The Prophecy!  I've seen writer-friends struggle with this challenge, so when I wrote the book, I kept that in mind.  Here's how to adapt Composing Magic for this purpose.

First, at least skim Chapters 1-3 to see if there's anything you don't already know.  These explain the basic processes and tools of writing in very clear language.  (Most of the reviews say these instructions are much better than other writing guidebooks; you can decide that for yourself.)  If you're going to tackle a type of writing that is new to you, the material on techniques and revision may help work through that.

Second, consider what format you want.  Poetry, songs, spells, and chants usually rhyme, but don't have to.  Rhyme is also a good choice for prophecies, a mainstay of fantasy fiction.  The all-purpose forms of poetry include ballad, couplet, and free verse; that's a good place to start.  Prayers, blessings, and rituals usually don't rhyme, although they can.  Stories are prose -- in fiction, these may be summaries or whole recountings of a local tale.  In general, poetry has a tight structure that really hammers its main points; prose has a looser, less formal flavor but can make use of subtle techniques to gain power.  Once you've picked your format, read the chapter(s) focusing on it.  Song and stories are in Chapter 10 under ritual parts.  For prophecies, scan Chapters 4-7 on poetry, spells, and chants.  Others are listed in the Table of Contents.  You may also find it useful to read examples of material that is similar to what you want to write; the book contains many exercises and samples for you to explore, and you can find other inspiration online or in a bookstore.

Next, jot down your core ideas.  List what the main point is (how to destory the Evil Artifact), relevant cultural details (it's an honor to ride a centaur), and any phrases you already have in mind.  To these add your choice of literary techniques.  This is where the piece gets its power: rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, allusion, metaphor, repetition, and so forth.  Poetry can use any or all of those.  Prose uses mainly the last three.  Of course, there are many other techniques you can choose.  They may be subtle or overwhelming, depending on the effect you seek. 

Follow the basic steps of rough draft and revision.  (Details are in the front chapters if you need them.)  For a specifically fictional application: Look at what you've written and compare it to your story's background.  Does it fit the culture?  What things are most important to the character(s) who wrote or performed this piece in your story?  What words or ideas have power in your setting?  What is your story's theme?  A substantial amount of those things should be in what you just wrote.  What things are loathesome or unlucky in this setting?  Those should be absent unless this is a forboding tidbit.  Does your target culture have a specific flavor, or is it a melting pot?  If it's a melting pot, you have a lot of flexibility.  If it's supposed to be unique and distinctive, though, you have to create that, which means thinking about how their culture would reflect itself in creative works.  So for instance, a carefree culture might have no official forms of poetry or prose, while a very structured society might have rigorous forms even for casual prose.  Is this supposed to be something crystal clear, like a teaching chant; or something mysterious, like a prophecy or a fragment of lost history?  Tinker with your piece until it matches the setting/character(s) and expresses the main idea(s) memorably.

Finally, when you run your writing past your first-reader(s), ask for input about these creative tidbits.  Anything that steps outside the prose flow of the narrative calls attention to itself and therefore carries more weight.  It has to be able to hold up under that extra pressure.  If your first-readers stumble over it, then you'll need to do more revision or possibly start over and try something new.  Once you have it working, though, it will cling to the reader's mind like a burr.  I can still recite some of the teaching songs, prophecies, and poems that I read in books years ago.

Some favorite books with cultural tidbits in them include:
The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Magic's Price and Oathbreakers by Mercedes Lackey
The Merro Tree by Katie Waitman
Songsmith by Andre Norton and A.C. Crispin

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valdary From: valdary Date: July 1st, 2010 07:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
The html broke.
ravan From: ravan Date: July 2nd, 2010 04:36 am (UTC) (Link)
So, I actually went and bought Composing Magic. My first skim through tells me that I get to reference it when I finally write my own book, as you've covered stuff that I really didn't want to have to cover. I will probably do a more detailed review in my blogger journal when I read it more thoroughly.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: July 2nd, 2010 04:46 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

>>So, I actually went and bought Composing Magic.<<

I hope you enjoy it and find it useful.

>>My first skim through tells me that I get to reference it when I finally write my own book, as you've covered stuff that I really didn't want to have to cover.<<

Woohoo! I like the idea of chaining books along, which allows for more advanced material. If you look in the beginning of mine, you'll see that it's not recommended as a first Pagan or writing book, but for people who have at least glimpsed the basics and want to do something more specific now. So if you take a further step in some direction, indeed, it can save you time/space in your book.

What is your idea for your book? I'm intrigued.

>>I will probably do a more detailed review in my blogger journal when I read it more thoroughly.<<

I would love to hear about it when you do.
ravan From: ravan Date: July 3rd, 2010 08:39 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thank you!

My idea is, essentially, an advanced book on ritual (and spell) design and theory - what items/symbols/practices are used for, why, and how they work and work together. It would not be a as much a "how to" but a "why and how". "Composing" obviates the need to delve into the mechanics and rationales of writing poems, chants, et al, leaving me to delve more into how they work with other elements. The idea being that if you understand why and how the parts of a working work, you can more effectively design your own, or analyze others'. It's still in the very rough outline stage currently, and could be a very dry read.

I really need to stick my nose back into reading and writing, not moping over being unemployed.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: July 3rd, 2010 10:55 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thank you!

>>My idea is, essentially, an advanced book on ritual (and spell) design and theory - what items/symbols/practices are used for, why, and how they work and work together. It would not be a as much a "how to" but a "why and how".<<

That sounds promising. I've seen a handful of ritual reference books that list symbols, spell components, stones, candle shapes, colors, etc. -- but they rarely go into the reasoning behind those.

>>"Composing" obviates the need to delve into the mechanics and rationales of writing poems, chants, et al, leaving me to delve more into how they work with other elements.<<

Yes, that would work fine. Thanks for thinking of me!

>>The idea being that if you understand why and how the parts of a working work, you can more effectively design your own, or analyze others'. It's still in the very rough outline stage currently, and could be a very dry read.<<

It doesn't have to be dry, unless you just want it to be. I've got magical/Pagan theory books that are, but others are quite interesting to read. I tried to make mine fun as well as fact-full. Isaac Bonewits is good at writing engaging stuff with solid scholarly background.

>>I really need to stick my nose back into reading and writing, not moping over being unemployed.<<

Yes, you do! *nudge nudge* Unemployment really sucks, but there's no point just wasting the time. You're not devoting all your time to doing somebody else's work, so use it for writing.
ravan From: ravan Date: July 4th, 2010 04:36 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thank you!

That sounds promising. I've seen a handful of ritual reference books that list symbols, spell components, stones, candle shapes, colors, etc. -- but they rarely go into the reasoning behind those.

Yes, and those books tick me off horribly - they are just bare lists, they do not even draw the type of element/symbol together into a cohesive "these are XXXX type elements, because AAAA, and they are used in the YYY or ZZZ aspects of a ritual because BBBBB." They do not even touch on why physical items have slightly different purposes in solitary vs group vs public workings....


It doesn't have to be dry, unless you just want it to be. I've got magical/Pagan theory books that are, but others are quite interesting to read. I tried to make mine fun as well as fact-full. Isaac Bonewits is good at writing engaging stuff with solid scholarly background.


Yeah, the problem is if I try to make it too chatty, it could lose focus. I may have to get the meat down, then make it readable.

Yes, you do! *nudge nudge* Unemployment really sucks, but there's no point just wasting the time. You're not devoting all your time to doing somebody else's work, so use it for writing.

Meeble. Will you act as second eyes when I have enough to let others read? You actually understand the subject matter. I won't post it on LJ, though. LJ is more for lighter stuff.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: July 4th, 2010 06:42 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thank you!

>>they do not even draw the type of element/symbol together into a cohesive "these are XXXX type elements, because AAAA, and they are used in the YYY or ZZZ aspects of a ritual because BBBBB." <<

Largely true, and that's the stuff that most interests me. I have seen a few herbal references that say something like: "These are Fire herbs. Plants which have thorns, needles, or hot flavors; bright red or orange colors; and/or grow in deserts or other hot dry climates tend to correspond with Fire."

>>Yeah, the problem is if I try to make it too chatty, it could lose focus. I may have to get the meat down, then make it readable.<<

Starting with an outline helps, followed by framing your core concepts, before you start with the rough draft. Some things that I've found useful for leavening:
* Quotes at the beginning of a chapter.
* Anecdotes or other stories featuring people's experiences with the topic.
* Cartoon illustrations that are both informative and amusing
* One funny item or phrase tucked into a list of practicalities
* Anything that gives the reader something to do with the material, such as exercises, experiments, or comparisons

>> Will you act as second eyes when I have enough to let others read? You actually understand the subject matter. <<

I can do a section of it for free, yes. Whole books are usually freelance editing territory for me these days.
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