Writing a Magic SchoolI want to write a novel that takes place in a magic school, without being derivative of those other famous books in a magic school. How do I do that?
I love this question, because you can write any novel that takes place within the same general setting or type of world as a famous novel and still produce something completely fresh and new. This answer talks about magic schools in fiction, but the same ideas work for any other kind of setting.
If you’re not sure what story you want to tell, you’re not really wanting to write a story. You want to have written a story, but there’s no story within you bursting to get out.
The idea of “a magic school” is incredibly broad. There are endless stories you can tell in a magic school, and most of them look nothing like a certain school for mages popularized in a certain set of novels set in a magic school whose name begins with H and ends in “ogwarts.”
What if magic is quantified and studied and taught the way we teach electrical engineering today, so your magic school looks like MIT? What if magic is outlawed by a despotic, brutal regime, so potential mages are taught in tiny underground classrooms and conducted out of the country along a secretive Underground Railroad? What if magic is known and available to only a few, channeled via sexual energy or rage, and a secretive society has been teaching sex magic since the mid-1500s?
That last one is the decidedly R-rated idea Eunice and I ran with. What does that magic school look like? Well…
May arrived at her Introductory Visualisation class several minutes late, under the accusatory eyes of the other students. She took her place at the only available mat, at the front of the class next to February, who frowned at her. “Now that we’re all here,” Sophia said with a pointed look at May, “today we talk about visualisation. The most important skill I can teach you is how to hold an image in your mind regardless of what your body is doing, or what is being done to it. Focus is central to unlocking your potential. Close your eyes. Take in your breath. As you hold it, let an image form in your mind of a blank white sheet of paper. Hold yourself still as you imagine it.”Point is, there’s no end to the potential plots you can write involving a magical school…but if you don’t already know the story you want to tell, you can’t get there by asking strangers on the Internet. Part of the whole point of being a storyteller is, well, telling stories.
May closed her eyes. A thousand small things tugged at her attention: the tightness of the new clothes against her skin, February’s breathing, the distant rush of the ventilation system. She pushed it all aside to make room for a sheet of paper.
“I don’t understand the point of this,” February complained. “I know what paper looks like. How is this supposed to create a whole new sexual me? I’m pretty sure your brochure promised a whole new sexual me.”
“The sheet of paper?” Sophia said. “It isn’t.”
“Then why are we doing it?”
“Because if you are to gain the skills you’re here to learn, you must first learn focus, and that starts with being able to keep a simple image in your mind. You probably imagine that releasing your inner power or…” She chuckled. “Your inner Valkyrie is about learning sexual technique. It’s not. It’s about ferocious, unstoppable application of will. To build that, you must first build focus.” Her voice sharpened. “If you want to learn what I have to teach you, I will ask you to do the exercises, even if they don’t make sense to you.”
“Fine. Piece of paper. Got it.”
“Breathe. Clear your mind. Let your body fade away. Let your breath out slowly. As you do, imagine yourself picking up a calligraphy brush. Imagine every detail: the colour of the handle, the softness of the head, the golden ferrule that holds the bristles. Deep breath, and hold it. Now, dip your brush into a pot of ink and, in one smooth motion, draw a circle on the paper as you let your breath out.”
May, feeling slightly silly, knelt on the thin rubber mat in the conference room and pictured a brushwork circle on a sheet of paper. Sophia’s voice floated through her awareness: “Let out your breath slowly. Pause. Now visualise yourself adding new strokes to your circle, whatever way you like. Hold the thought in your mind. This will become your centre, your root symbol, the base from which you build everything else. Do not share it with anyone. Engrave it into your mind. It will become the anchor of your focus from here on. Now stand. Hold this symbol in your mind, and stretch your arms over your head…”
May held the imaginary brushwork symbol in her head, a quick circle, thick at the top and tapering as it curved, not quite closed, with a crude “A” in the centre, while Sophia drove them through exercises. She held a plank until her arms quivered and her stomach burned. She bent over, fingertips touching her toes, until her hamstrings screamed in protest. Sweat dripped from her forehead. By the time the class ended, May ached in places she didn’t know could ache.
When at last Sophia freed them from the torture, Chloe, Harriet, and Julia staggered out into the afternoon sun. February watched them go. “I didn’t see you leave yesterday,” she said to May.
“That’s because I didn’t.”
“Oh? Staying in the hotel?”
“Apparently I live here now.”
“Is that so?” February’s eyes scanned May from head to foot. “I didn’t have you figured for the type.”
“What type is—you know what? Never mind. I don’t want to know what you mean by that. If you’ll excuse me.” She turned on her heel and stalked across the expensive lobby with its expensive marble, then stood in front of the brass lift door tapping her foot impatiently while a gold-tinted reflection of February stared back at her.
“How’d it go?” Iris said when at last the lift finally opened to whisk her down to the old car park and cluttered workshop. Iris had changed since breakfast, and now wore jean shorts and a scruffy T-shirt reading eU dU/dx takes the place of normal sex. She bustled about adjusting the bits of electronic arcana around the bed. “What are you waiting for? Get naked!”
“Do you even realise how odd this is?” May said as she undressed. “I mean, you haven’t completely lost your sense of what’s normal, have you?”
“Oh, the things I’ve seen, the stories I can tell. Did she have you do your first visualisation? The thing with the sheet of paper and the circle?”
“Yep.” May stretched out nude on the bed. “How’s this?”
Iris affixed the cuff to her arm. “Move a bit to your right. No, wait, sorry, my right. Yes, there, perfect. This might sound silly, but that visualisation will be really important later. I mean it. Well?”
“Are you going to wank? I’m ready.”
May slid her hands over her aching body. “I don’t understand what’s happened to my life. Were you serious about the lab coat and stethoscope?”
“Sure! If it’ll help you out.”
“Wear it tomorrow.” May closed her eyes, summoned her favourite fantasy—the one about the firefighter twins rescuing her from the burning building—and, with time and a little effort, brought herself to a screaming, shuddering climax.
“Got it!” Iris said when she’d finished. “How does this work for you? Are you a one-and-done, or can you keep going?”
May propped herself up on one elbow. Sweat beaded on her skin. “Why, that wasn’t good enough?”
“No, it was fine. I just want to try an experiment. Can you do that again, but do that visualisation exercise while you do it?”
“I have no idea how I am going to explain my new job to my parents.” May let out a sigh, rolled onto her back, closed her eyes, and did her duty for the advancement of science once again. This time, it took longer for her to get there, partly because every square centimetre of her body demanded her attention with an intrusive litany of aches, but mostly because the image of a brushwork A-for-anarchy didn’t mesh well with the firefighter twins. Eventually, she pictured them both wearing it on their jackets—the yellow ones with silver reflective tape—and eventually jilled herself off once again.
When it was over, she rolled over, face buried in the pillow. “If that wasn’t enough for you,” she panted, “just shoot me now, because I’m finished.”
“That was lovely.” Iris closed her laptop.
“I still don’t know what I’m doing here, or how any of this works.”
“You will. Lunch? After, I want to show you around our IT infrastructure. Eventually you’ll be doing magical intrusion countermeasures, but might as well get you on the more ordinary sort while we’re at it.”
“Shower first, I think.”
“Yeah, you are a fierce mess.”
A lot of folks like the idea of Being A Writer™ — that is, they want to be able to say they’ve written something. I’ve found in my own experience that if you’re not someone who has a burning need to tell stories, it’s likely going to be really hard for you to do the grueling work of sitting down staring at a blinking cursor until you bleed (and yes, writing is work).