Living the Dream: What Does it Mean?

Double Rainbow, rainbow, alaska, landscape, sky, mountains, hills, green hills
By Eric Rolph at English Wikipedia (English Wikipedia)

The other day, I was at a friend’s house, and he asked me if being able to quit my day job was my endgame for writing. I answered in the affirmative; my sort of basic goal is indeed to be able to write for a living.

I also wrote recently about how sometimes for dreams to come true, we need to funnel them into the concrete solidity of goals, break them down into their composite parts, and learn how to build them into the success we want.

But when my friend Matt asked me that question, I realized that there’s a whole other question buried into it. What does success look like? How do we know we’ve achieved it? Will we know? What comes next?

I was listening in passing to one of the Nerdist podcasts (I’m not even sure which one), but I remember Chris Hardwick saying something to that effect. Goals are great, but they are also an odd moment in time when you achieve them. “There, that happened. Now what?” was the gist of what he was saying. So it got me thinking.

Sometimes our goals are so lofty that they take years or decades to reach, if we get there. Reaching them is at once a tremendous boost and a teetering precipice of “what next?”

You can’t define success as a moment in time.

That said, you can pinpoint a moment as when you first felt successful, but if nothing builds upon it, that same success you strove for can become stagnation and dissatisfaction.

Way back in the 90s, there was this early social website called Bolt. (Anybody?) On the personality section of the profile, there was this list of questions, one of which was, “What do you most want to have ten years from now?” It was followed by a dropdown list of answers. One of those was “a passport full of stamps,” and that’s the one I chose. Ten years later, I did indeed have that. I had that moment of success when I realized I had almost no room left in my passport, and it was followed by me asking myself what my next passport will look like. It’s up for renewal this year.

Right there, bottom left, is the first stamp that landed in this passport.
Right there, bottom left, is the first stamp that landed in this passport.

Sometimes when you accomplish a goal, like I did with this passport, the next goal can be much the same. More. For me, that’s it. I haven’t seen all of this world yet, and there are still countless places I want to visit and learn from.

It’s much the same with publishing. Getting published this year, getting that first book deal, all the firsts that come with it — those things are a big accomplishment for me. But they’re not the end of the road. I’ve had a couple people legitimately ask me if I plan to write more books after this one gets published. If getting published were something that was the end all for my writing goals, perhaps I wouldn’t. But because writing is part of my identity and what I plan to try and make into a long career, my road doesn’t stop there, and I’m not about to kick off my boots and salute the past.

So what will signify success to me?

I’m not someone who craves diamond sunbursts or marble halls. Much like Anne Shirley, I want to have a life that reflects who I am. I want to travel, even if it means living modestly when I am in this country. Someday I want to see my books on the NYT/USA Today bestseller lists. I’d like to earn enough from my writing to write full time. I want to pursue acting as a hobby or more. I want to go to conventions and create some fun costumes. If five years from now those things are happening, I’ll feel successful.

What will denote success in your life? How will you know you’ve gotten there? What have you achieved so far?

Raising the Bar While Giving Thanks

UChicago_pole_vaultHello real-life Hermione Granger. Not only do Emma Watson and I look eerily alike (when I have my natural hair color, that is), but I fully admit to being a perfectionist. I always have been. But I’ve noticed lately that it’s causing me to not realize how much I have accomplished. Why? Because I’m constantly setting the bar higher and higher for myself. For example, these are my (much simplified) goals to date:

  1. Write a book
  2. Get an agent
  3. Get a publisher
  4. Write more books.

The who/when of getting a publisher is totally out of my hands, so I have to do the best I can to be patient and just let it be (yeah, um, the reality is I worry myself silly). In the meantime, I’m writing more books because what if the first one doesn’t sell? It happens more often than you would think. So I write more. And because I want so badly to launch my career, I’m pushing myself to write faster and faster, all the while dealing with a full-time job and taking on more reviewing and other responsibilities to try to get exposure.

While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (we have to have goals, right?), it got me wondering if anything will ever be good enough. Add to that a conversation I had with a Twitter friend about expectations in publishing, and I really wonder where/if it ever ends. She was telling me that once you get published, you’re handed a whole new set of goals:

  1. Sell a certain number of copies (as determined by your publisher)
  2. Make the New York Times and/or USA Today best-seller lists.
  3. Maintain/surpass previous sales.
  4. Hit #1 on the best-seller list.
  5. Maintain/surpass previous sales.
  6. Debut at #1 on the best-seller list.
  7. Etc., etc.

From a business perspective, this totally makes sense. More sales = more money. It makes sense from a career trajectory standpoint, too. Obviously, you want to keep doing better and better, gaining more fans and being able to negotiate better contract terms, not to mention movie deals and foreign rights, plus the personal satisfaction.

But what does it do from a personal perspective? Whether you’re just starting out and striving to get an agent or publisher or trying to climb the ranks on a best-seller list, does constantly focusing on that next milestone make us numb to the good fortune we have right now, in this moment?

I can only speak for myself, but I’m starting to think the answer is yes. (I’m using the book world as my example here, but please keep in mind I’ve been this way since birth. I was the kid that if I got an A, I wanted an A+.) When I was at a Hedgebrook Master Class, one of my fellow writers said something about being in awe of all I’ve accomplished at my age. I have a full-time job, but yet, I’ve written four books and am on the cusp of publication, plus I do all kinds of things in the writing community. Not to mention that I was one of six writers chosen for the that retreat. I’m fortunate to have traveled the world and consulted with experts in my research. To her, this was amazing. To me, it’s just – normal.

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful or stuck up or whatever, but to me those things are just life. They are the natural progression of things. And they aren’t good enough. Why? I’m not published yet, I’m not a known name, etc. Like I said, I’m always pushing myself to be more and do more. But in the process, I think I’m missing the bigger picture and the blessings that have come my way. Am I grateful for all of these things? Hell yes! But can I see them for the accomplishments that they are? No, I don’t think I can – at least not fully.

Maybe it’s just a defect in my personality. Or maybe it’s a symptom of society. I don’t know. But I know it’s something I want to change. I’ll always be reaching for the stars, but I want to learn to recognize all things – big and small – that get me to each of my goals. I’m not quite sure how to so that, but I’m going to try.

Have you ever been in a similar situation or is it just me? Do you have any suggestions for how to be grateful for what you have, while still aiming for more? Please let me know your thoughts.

NBC’s Dracula

Lately it seems like the Spellbound Scribes have been on a bit of a television kick. Shauna’s been documenting her experiences watching all seven seasons of Buffy (here’s a link to her #BuffyWatch Part Four post) and Mandy made a compelling case for watching Arrow in The Awesomeness that is Felicity Smoak. In the interest of finishing out the trilogy, I figured I’d do a post about one of my own television favorites.


NBC’s Dracula.

Hush, you. I can hear your eyes rolling from here.

(I tried not to make this post too spoiler-ish, but there might be one or two things you want to avoid if you plan on watching.) Now, I found a lot to like in the series’ first season, beyond just the handsome young man who played Dracula (ahem, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, ahem). They’ve completely reimagined the story, giving Dracula a new persona as American businessman Alexander Grayson. His overarching goal is to take down the Order of the Dragon, the nefarious group who turned him into a vampire back in the day. The only people who know his true identity are his ally Van Helsing and his man Renfield, and his biggest challenge is subduing his growing emotional attachment to Mina, who appears to be the reincarnation of his former wife.

It’s all very complicated.

There were some pseudo-Steampunk moments in Grayson’s lab, with his new electrical technology designed to make the Order’s oil resources obsolete, and there were some interesting ideas about a woman’s role in the Victorian era, as Mina struggled to be taken seriously as a medical student.  And of course, the costumes and sets were absolutely gorgeous, giving me an hour every Friday night – or more often Sunday afternoon On-Demand – of pretty fabulous visual candy.

I love the way the writers remodeled stale characters. Van Helsing becomes a fractious ally after he resurrects Dracula in order to wreak revenge on the Order, and Renfield’s a black lawyer who goes to work for Grayson after no one in America will hire him, and who is the only one his boss even begins to listen to. I also really love the honesty in their take on the vampire myth. Dracula kills. There’s blood. He drains pretty shopgirls who are innocent and good, and he makes a mess when he does it.

And no one can stop him.

He’s fiercely loyal. When some offshoot of the Order kidnaps and tortures Renfield, the gore’s a’flying when Dracula tracks them down. He’s tormented by his need to have revenge on the Order for turning him into a monster, and blackmails a business associate to chip away at the Order’s strength, which results in the man’s death and the suicide of his lover. Oh well. He seduces the Order’s chief hunter and imagines it’s Mina in his bed. He welcomes his long time (as in hundreds of years) right-hand guy, and then set him up to be killed in order to reach his goal.

Not a nice guy.


But SO compelling.

And possibly that’s why the ratings weren’t what NBC had hoped for, and why they still haven’t committed to a second season. I mean, JRM is as pretty as they come, and I love the way he flips between a cultured English accent and a broad American drawl, but this is not your grandmother’s Dracula, and the evil almost but not quite overtakes the sympathy I felt while watching him.

It’s a fascinating study in creating a difficult hero, and for that alone I’d LOVE to see a second season. But I also want more episodes because…

  • OMG what happened to Renfield?!? The finale left him bleeding on the ground. He can’t die! He’s my favorite!!
  • Mina and Grayson finally did the deed, after an entire season of waiting, and while I admit to finding the scene a little anticlimactic, I wonder what a strong-minded young woman like Mina would do with a vampire lover. That’s if she even knows he’s a vampire, which isn’t clear from the finale.
  • Lucy the naughty lesbian – and newly turned vampire – promises to be so much fun to watch.
  • Both Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker are now enemies, and there are plenty of ways Dracula/Grayson could mess with them.
  • MORE STEAMPUNK. Instead of just hinting, bring it out more. Just sayin’…

So now it’s your turn. Did you watch Dracula? Would you like to see a second season? Or would you rather use the time to catch up on last week’s episode of Supernatural?



Choosing Your Teammates

Historically, I am known for being TERRIBLE at asking for help. One of my journalism professors used to lecture me at least weekly on my need to ask my colleagues for tips, connections, or leads. And I never did. It’s not because I’m proud, exactly, or because I didn’t want to share. No, I tend to not ask for help because I think I should be able to do it all on my own. Asking for help feels like a failure, for some reason, like I wasn’t good enough to do whatever it is I need help with on my own.

Sometimes your team helps you climb mountains... literally.
Sometimes your team helps you climb mountains… literally.

That’s not really the point of this post, though, so we can leave that for Dr. Freud to deal with. Because over the years, I’ve come to realize that reporting, writing, and, hell, even life require us to have the support of a dozen other people, friends and family and mentors, business associates, competitors, acquaintances, all the people who help us turn our wishes and dreams into goals and reality.

Last week, I started reading Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance, the newest installment of his Stormlight Archives series (which, if you like epic fantasy and you aren’t reading, you need to pick up RIGHT NOW), and, naturally, I started with the acknowledgements. I like to see who writers rely on, who helps them and supports them and loves them… and for a book like Words of Radiance, a veritable army of teammates supports the writer himself.

It got me thinking about how my own team has expanded in the past few years. When I first started writing more, and taking myself seriously as a writer, I tended to write in the wee hours of the morning, after my husband had gone to sleep. I was still working as a reporter, and often those dark hours were the only times I had to really let go of my reservations about fiction. I hoarded my words, both proud of them and oddly embarrassed by them, and I neither asked for support nor let anyone support me.

I finished that book, but it took years… and I’ve never reread that work.

Lately, though, my team has expanded. My husband, of course, is my partner and my “alpha” reader, the only person to see rough drafts and the primary person who holds my hand and tells me I don’t suck. Then there’s my bosom friend Emmie Mears, my critique partner, who also tells me I don’t suck and gives me valuable feedback on my books. These two are also indispensable for moral support. I also rely on Team Awesome and the ladies of Spellbound Scribes, who keep me going, encourage me, and generally help me to be better than I would be on my lazy lonesome.

It’s mostly public knowledge by now, too, that I’ve recently changed representation. I’ve learned in the last year just how important it is to have an agent who is as enthusiastic about your work as you are, who is willing to dig in and get her hands dirty helping you make your work as good as it possibly can be. And I’ve found that with the amazing and dedicated Jes Negròn.

I’m a pretty lucky writer, it turns out. And that’s just counting the folks whose friendship bleeds into my working life. I’m also blessed with amazing friends who occasionally drag me out into the sunlight and remind me that there are real people out in the world, as well as imaginary. I have friends who let me cry to them, but then take me out and get me drunk and make me laugh so hard I squeak. I have friends who know when to listen and when to turn on Doctor Who. I have family who believe in me no matter what.

Sometimes your team helps you see the funny when the caterer drops your wedding cake on the floor.

Opening yourself up to that kind of support can be tough, though, because you have to admit that you’re vulnerable before anyone can even attempt to help you. You have to loosen your grip on those precious words or dreams or wishes, and let someone else breathe a little life into them. While some writers (J.D. Salinger, anyone?) can live without teammates who don’t mind that you leave tea bags and saucers in the bedroom or that you occasionally don’t call for weeks, most of us need people who can put up with those little quirks and, more importantly, support the dreams those quirks represent.

So what makes a good teammate?

For me, a good teammate not only holds my hand and tells me it’ll all work out eventually, but he or she also challenges me to be BETTER. She encourages me to do another sprint or to write another new opening chapter. She never accepts that I’ve done my best until I can say, definitively, “YES, I have met my goals and lived up to my own potential!” And the greatest part of all? She trusts me when I say that. And she takes me out to celebrate when I do. And when I can’t quite get there, she pours me a glass of wine and tells me that I will, and that it’s okay if I can’t right now. Because she never stops believing that I’ll get there.

Sounds like a perfect person, yes? The nice thing about these folks is that they do these things for me because they expect no less. And I do the same for them. In these relationships, the love and support, the encouragement and uncompromising belief in me, are simply as natural as breathing. It’s what we do.

So who is on your team? How did they get there? How do they help you?

#BuffyWatch Part Four

(I know you were expecting a Saint Patrick’s Day themed post, but I’m sorry, no lucky charms here!)

Whoa. It’s been awhile since I last posted about the great #BuffyWatch! My bad!

If you’d like to read the last installment, you can check it here. If you’re new to the #buffywatch saga, basically Brian O’Conor and I have a bet to see who can finish BtVS or Supernatural first (I’m watching BtVS, Brian is watching SPN). Whoever wins gets to decide which series we use as a one-off game for our #MageTech troupe RPG first.

So I finished Season 5 last night and that was a fantastic ending. If you’ve read my YA series, then you know I’m a big fan of killing MCs and bringing them back – if you can do it believably. I know, I know, Buffy died once already, but she died in a very mortal way and was brought back with CPR, which is something a lot of people can do. I’m talkin’ catastrophic martyrdom.

I’m glad they waited to do this until the end of Season 5 because, if they do it right, when she comes back in Season 6, I’ll buy it. Buffy has grown enough as a character and “superhero” to accomplish this and my suspension of disbelief is strong enough, that I’ll go along with it. Since my last posting, I’ve watched two seasons, that’s a bit much for one post, so I’ll just do a recap of the larger plot elements. When I last wrote, Riley was a new character and I thought a good romantic match for Buffy.

We know Riley. What I didn’t get was the sudden gusting hate for that character from my friends. People who had been relatively quiet about mine and Brian’s bet suddenly burst on to Twitter with mega Riley-hate.

So I was waiting for it. Now the whole Initiative thing was just bleh for me. I really think that’s why I didn’t write a post when I finished Season 4. I think that season matches up with the Leviathan season Brian is in store for. Basically a few good episodes in the season but a major story arc you wish would just die.

Welp, needless to say I found out why the Riley-hate was so strong. GODDAMN WHAT A JERKFACE! Listen, at the end of S4 I still was not a Buffy fan (character, not show), but that whole Riley blaming her for his deceptions and, yes, I’ll say it, CHEATING, I was fucking livid for Buffy. I was yelling at the screen for her, screaming at Riley hating his face.

GAH. And I was so angry when Xander stuck up for him, saying Buffy was treating him like a rebound because, I’m sorry, but no, that’s not true. I really think Buffy was actually being normal for this guy and really into him. He was a douche. I was so angry when she went running to catch him at the end. If she had caught him in time, I would’ve forfeit the bet. I’m glad she didn’t make it in time. Fuck Riley.

And of course we have to talk about “Hush.” Arguably one of the best episodes of the whole show. Those monsters were so creepy! And their methodology… FREAKY. Funny enough, I watched this episode not long before the Thinman: GHOSTFACERS! episode of Supernatural.


Yeah, this charicature is really creepy and I totally get why there is a strong argument that, as a whole, we’ve created this tulpa.

Season 5. I kinda knew Joyce was going to die. My hubs is watching with me and he really thought the tumor was going to get her, but I said, “No, I don’t think so.” And I was right but then I got the sinking suspicion that it was just a red herring and she was going to die anyway. That they were making Buffy feel a false sense of relief and then were going to shatter her. I was right. Now, I’m not saying that because it was obvious or that it wasn’t well done. I think it was. I am still not a SMG fan, but after finding Joyce on the couch and the episodes after, I really liked what she did with the character. It was some of the most believable acting I’ve seen from her. 

Dawn. Meh. I do not like this plot device. I get it, fine. But I hated how we were just supposed to buy her showing up in that first episode. It was so jarring that I Googled it to make sure Netflix hadn’t screwed up and skipped something. To know that Wedon specifically put her in to give Buffy a “strong emotional relationship that wasn’t romantic” is crap to me. She has strong emotional relationships with her mother, Willow, Xander, and Giles. So I don’t buy that. I think she was a replacement for Joyce or Faith or both. I’m so glad this wasn’t my first introduction to Michelle Trachtenberg because I would’ve hated her otherwise. I do not like Dawn or the way she’s written. And I’m glad I’m not alone in that.

Glory. I really dug her as a villain.

And I’m glad we found out why no one noticed why Ben was always showing up in her clothes. Very Doctor Who the Silence!

I was sad that they killed the character of Sunday right off in S4, but I think Glory is very close to what she would have been had she lived.

Spike. Oh, poor Spike. I’ve always been a Spike fan and to know his backstory makes me like him even more. The Buffy-bot was a little more than creepy, but I think we can get past it. Sorta. I like that he’s a good-bad-guy now. I wonder if they ever deactivate the chip, will he stay the same? I hope so.

This got me in the feels:

Willow. I don’t know how I feel about the Willow-Tara storyline. I think I’m still trying to like Tara. The stuttering and the doe-eyes and the insecurities get on my nerves because I think it’s too much at times. And I don’t like how often Willow gets all snotty and snippy. And I really wasn’t a fan of the line, “Hello! Gay now!” That made me cringe. I like the more assertive Willow, and her new amazeballs powers, but I don’t think she needs to act bitchy as often as they make her.

I’ve been promised “evil Willow” soon and that I should dig it. I did like “Vampire Willow”…

…so I imagine I’ll like the next. I really am a fan of Alyson Hannigan – watching this and the last season of HIMYM really highlights what an awesome actress she really is.

Alright, there you have it folks. I am liking the show a lot more! I think I like the show best when Buffy isn’t in a romantic relationship. I’m actually looking forward to S6 – so long as there are no more Rileys and Crusaders (c’mon, that was stupid. Fine, an ancient order on a hunt for a relic, okay, but they can’t still be in chain mail and on horseback in the 2000’s. I understand this season has “Once More With Feeling” and everyone is very excited for me to see it. Though I am not a huge musical fan, so I’ll just keep my fingers crossed on that one.

The Awesomeness that is Felicity Smoak

My girlfriends and I love the CW show Arrow.

There are a lot of reasons why my coterie might be predisposed to like this show. We have a fondness for superheroes. We all appreciate Stephen Amell’s abs. But every time I talk to my female friends about this show, there is one thing that comes up time and time again: how much we love Felicity Smoak.

She really should.

Felicity was introduced on the show as an employee at Queen Consolidated, working in IT. Oliver came to her with odd tasks accompanied with ridiculous cover stories. (Seriously, Oliver Queen is even worse than Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins when it comes to thinking of cover stories for why he needs things.) Felicity was characterized by her competence and adorkableness—a stark contrast to Ollie’s awful cover as a bumbling playboy. Felicity’s competence also brought her the attention and confidence of her employer, Walter Steele.

In a genre where the people surrounding superheroes are usually ridiculously ignorant of the superhero’s true identity and purpose, Felicity is a breath of fresh air. When Walter is abducted, she suspects it’s because of the information he had her dig up. She then goes to Ollie—since she’s not an idiot and realized he was the bow-and-arrow vigilante who had been plaguing their city. Now Felicity is a regular member of Team Arrow. She may not be able to fight her way out of a situation, but her technical skills and different outlook on the world bring a much needed balance to a team that’s mostly dominated by fighters.

Basically she’s an awesome character, so it’s no surprise that people would like her. However, the fervency of my friends’ love for her goes beyond mere like. The more I talk to my friends, the more I realize it’s because we all identify with her on a deep level.

You tell him Felicity *z snap*

The majority of my female friends are engineers and scientists. We work hard at what we do. We’re not flashy, particularly socially competent, or popular. We all know what it’s like to be hardcore friend-zoned by guys like Ollie. But we don’t let that bother us. We don’t wallow in angst or cause ridiculous drama filled love triangles (looking at you, Lance sisters). We do our jobs, we pursue our careers, because we love what we do.

Just like Felicity Smoak.

Felicity is us. We are her. And it’s rare that in a genre dominated by fighters and femme fatales we see a character that represents the techy portion of the female population.

She self identifies as a geek ❤

I can’t hypothesize whether we’d watch the show or not if Felicity wasn’t a character in it—the show would be vastly different without her—but I do believe my friends would not be nearly as fervent in their love for the show without her.

We see ourselves in her, and we need to see ourselves reflected in the stories we consume. We need to be able to imagine that we could be Oliver Queen’s Girl Friday. Or that we could fight crime and be superheroes. Girls and minorities need to be able to believe that they can do anything.

And yes we can identify with characters that are not like us. I am after all an engineer because I was inspired by Geordi LaForge—and the only traits we share are our species and a love of space. Loki and I don’t even share a species, and it’s scary how well I identify with him. But there is something particularly special and inspiring about seeing a character and thinking, “She is me.”

This is me. Every day.

This is why representation is so important in fiction.

That doesn’t mean you need to stop writing straight white males, or that there are no interesting stories that can happen to them. But it does mean that as creators we need to think before we solidify our characters in our head. Think about who might identify with this character, who you might inspire.

Because Felix Smoak would have been a fun character, but the tech guy is a character that exists often in fiction, whereas the competent tech girl is much rarer. So thank you, Arrow, for giving us Felicity.

Thank you for showing us that we can be heroes too.


So a month (or so) ago I wrote a post on the joys of a brand new shiny idea. Well…today I’m talking about #Mushbrain. A hashtag I just invented because it’s the best I could come up with.

What is #mushbrain you ask? It’s the moment between finishing a draft of one project, edits of another, life, and everything else going on around. It feels like everything is one big pile of mush.

You can’t remember anything…kind of like this

As soon as you stand up from whatever you’re working on everything blurs and you feel a little like this

There is no cure for #mushbrain that I have found. Over time it goes away. As you check off another item from your to-do list. But until then…Good luck!!

I’m off to try and figure out what it was I was supposed to do today.

If you’ve experience #mushbrain and have suggestions for a cure or how to manage, please share!

Magical Realism or Fantasy?

I read a lot. And although these days I often stick to the genre that I myself write in (i.e. YA fantasy) I do try to read widely and deeply in a variety of genres. What this usually means in practice is that in between books I actively seek out, I pick up random books at used bookstores or I take a stab at whatever the husband has just finished reading.

Neil Gaiman's latest novel.
Neil Gaiman’s latest novel.

This month, I read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart back to back. While these two books come from very different places topically and thematically, they do share one distinction; they have both been assigned the rather particular designation of magical realism. And as I pondered the metaphysical oceans, metaphorical cats, and mirrored worlds that appear in both of these books under different guises, I couldn’t help but think to myself: What exactly is the difference between magical realism and straight up fantasy?

Many authors and readers don’t see a big difference. Terry Pratchett once quipped that magical realism “is like a polite way of saying you write fantasy.” Gene Wolfe humorously said that “magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish” (referring, of course, to seminal works of magical realism by authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Luis Borges). On the other hand, some critics and readers see a massive difference in terms of literary “quality;” magical realist authors like Murakami, Kafka, and García Márquez have been accepted by critics into the pantheon of literary writers, while major fantasy authors like J. K. Rowling and even Neil Gaiman are solidly considered “genre literature.”

Fantasy or magical realism? You be the judge!
Fantasy or magical realism?
You be the judge!

In my mind, I think the difference between the genres comes down to rules. In traditional fantasy, the author presents a whole new universe to the reader, complete with a system of logic, physical laws, and metaphysical laws that must be followed. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind  is a great example of a systematic fantasy; the magic his characters employ is bounded by a comprehensive system of checks and balances that rivals real-world physics in complexity.

In magical realism, however, magical elements blend with reality to create an atmosphere that is at once familiar and nonsensical, in an effort to access a deeper understanding of reality. These magical elements are presented in a straightforward manner with no effort made to explain how they could be occurring in the “real” world. In García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, bizarre things like ghosts, heavenly ascensions, insomnia plagues, telekinesis, prophecies and family members returning from the dead are mentioned without consequence or special significance.

In short, fantasy relies on verisimilitude, or the extent to which a narrative appears likely or plausible. Fantasy presents its readers with a strange world that, by merit of its laws, could be real. Magical realism, on the other hand, challenges our knowledge of what is “real” by introducing unlikely or implausible elements to a seemingly normal universe. The world we thought we knew is gone, replaced by a simulacrum, a fake world that, by virtue of its allegorical existence, leads us closer to truth.

Magical realism is often more surreal than fantasy
Magical realism is often more surreal than fantasy

There is a continuum, of course. Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind falls on one end of the spectrum, a pure systemic fantasy. Nearly every fantastical element–magic, prophecy, myth–is explained and categorized. Something like Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle exists close to the other end of the spectrum. The author makes almost no effort to explain the fantastical elements; empty wells and missing wives and real dreams exist as perfect allegories, existing insofar as the reader deems them meaningful.

And books like Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife? Those books exist somewhere in the middle, treading the uncanny valley between reality and fantasy.

But let’s be honest; whether it’s pure magical realism, pure fantasy, or somewhere in between, I’ll still read it.

Where do you think the line between fantasy and magical realism is drawn? Do you have any favorite magical realism books or authors? Share your comments below!