Storms & Magic: controlling the forces of…fiction – Maria V. Snyder at Ultimo Library

Storms & Magic: controlling the forces of…fiction – Maria V. Snyder at Ultimo Library
Maria V Snyder at Ultimo Library -- 17/8/2011Photo: Kat

Last night, as part of National Science Week, Ultimo Library hosted a talk by fantasy author Maria V. Snyder on ‘Storms & magic: controlling the forces of.. fiction’.

Around twenty people ducked out of work early and braved the rain to attend, with library patrons stopping by once in a while to catch snippets of the talk. Although Snyder’s presentation—which she had previously given at the Library of Congress—focused on writing craft, her personal anecdotes made it an interesting albeit rather nerdy hour.

Environmental meteorology and fantasy fiction

I missed the first fifteen minutes, but I’m assuming Snyder went through her background as an environmental meteorologist. She also has a masters degree in writing fiction.

Snyder got into a writing as a result of trying to look busy during a lull at work. Her first novel, Poison Study, took around three years to write and develop, but nowadays it only takes around six months from the beginning of the first draft to final edits.

The laws of fiction

There are no laws in fiction, but Snyder repeatedly emphasised the importance of creating your own laws and being consistent. She talked about finding clever ways of reinventing magic—you don’t want to use the same magical laws as everyone else.

Snyder said she reads other fantasy books. For research, of course. She doesn’t want to repeat what others have already written.

Scientific concepts in Snyder’s work

Snyder talked a lot about how she applied her background in environmental meteorology into her Glass series. The idea of bottling storm energy came from the devastating hurricanes that hit the US. She wondered what would happen if we could tap a hurricane.

Snyder rattled off some calculations on how much kinetic energy is produced by hurricanes, and how much power a single hurricane can provide the world. (A lot, as it turns out.)

Snyder writes with a calculator beside her—and I’m not surprised given the ease with which she rattled off statistics and calculations during her talk—and she wants to make sure her calculations are accurate because she’s convinced there will be some engineer somewhere who will notice.

For Inside Out,  which is set in an enclosed world, she calculated things like the levels of carbon dioxide and other factors that would affect sustainability.

Conflict and consequences

Snyder emphasised the importance of consequences and conflict in keeping the readers’ interest—if everything is too easy for the characters, readers get bored. Magicians can’t be omnipotent—they need limitations and consequences when they use magic.

In the Glass series, changing the balance in the atmosphere can disrupt weather patterns. If the air pressure is too high, there won’t be any rain; if the pressure is too low, then it can cause flooding from too much rain.

Snyder mentioned another writer who had an idea where the female protagonist was a librarian who could lay her hand on a book and find any information that’s in the book. However, every time she uses her power, she gains a pound! Therefore, she can’t just use it any time she wants to. (Does anyone know if this has been published???)

In Snyder’s books, the magicians get tired. She also included characters who sabotage the energy containers (the orbs) due to political tensions in the world.

Snyder said there’s no paper in Inside Out because they’re resource intensive and would not have fit in with the constraints of the world.

Holes in the fire blanket

Snyder said loopholes make for interesting plot developments—‘If I can surprise myself, I can surprise my readers!’—but you have to plan it carefully. Readers will tell you if you cheat!

I asked her if she’s ever found a loophole in her world that surprised her. She replied that the holes in the power blanket in her Study series surprised her, but she qualified this by saying that she felt her subconscious played a large part in bringing up that idea, rather than something that came out of the blue with no rhyme or reason.

The language of nerds

(Snyder said ‘geek’ but I think ‘nerd’ is more appropriate. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We were in the company of friends, after all!)

Snyder talked about the importance of jargon within the world you create. For her, the meteorogical terms and slang came easily due to her background. She also includes obscure references that only those in the know will recognise, and she gets former colleagues who contact her to check that those little geeky in-jokes were deliberate. (Yes, they are!)

Inspirations and anecdotes

In Inside Out, they only have sheep as animals. Snyder asked herself what animal you’d have if you could only have one kind in your world. She compared cow vs sheep and sheep vs goat, but decided on sheep because it could provide milk, wool and meat.

She said there’s a prison in Pennsylvania whose prison guards have formed a Force of Sheep.

Snyder’s children reads her books. They get to read them even before her editor.

She tries to keep her first editions. At one point she had her first book in a special place in the house which her children called ‘The Shrine’.

Sea Glass by Maria V. Snyder (Australian edition)Spy Glass by Maria V. Snyder (Australian edition)Her favourite book covers are the Australian ones. :D She loves the Sea Glass and Spy Glass covers. She said the character looks just like she imagined, which doesn’t happen often.

She wrote a manuscript called Storm Watcher, aimed at kids aged 8-12, about a boy named Luke who is afraid of storms. No publisher picked it up, and she said it probably needs a substantial rewrite.

Her favourite authors include: Rachel Caine, Orson Scott Card, Kate Elliott, Melissa Marr and Harlan Coben. She also mentioned the Undead series. Snyder likes humour in her books.

She recommends that authors listen to their audio books. She said any clunky dialogue becomes very obvious when it’s read aloud.

She hates love triangles and didn’t want it in her book, but the character (Dylan) wouldn’t go away and she had to keep him in the book.

She’s read negative reviews that have affected her confidence in her writing and she wasn’t able to write for days. Now she asks her agent to filter reviews and just send her the positive ones. She doesn’t comment on negative reviews, but she might for positive reviews, just to thank the reviewer.

Killing fairies

It’s no surprise that Snyder never kills fairies. She reads books from start to finish. She also writes in the same way. Even when she already has the idea for a future scene in her head, she must get there sequentially. No skipping.

After her talk, Snyder signed books and stayed to chat with readers for another half an hour. She’s head to New Zealand for the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference. Thank you to the Ultimo Library staff who were, as usual, excellent hosts.

Photos from Maria V. Snyder’s talk at Ultimo Library are up on Flickr.


  1. SonomaLass says:

    Fascinating! I liked the Study series and the first Glass book, but I ned to finish them. I find her world building very strong; now I know why.

    Thanks for sharing!

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