All the World’s a Stage.

Picture taken from Wallbo.com
Picture taken from Wallbo.com

I have been thinking about this expression a lot lately.

Most of us writers are the ultimate introverts. I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually go out of my way to interact with other people.  I get all the human interaction I need at work, so by the end of the day all I want is to be left alone. When most normal people go out on Friday evening, I’m perfectly content to spend the evening with a good book or playing with my imaginary friends and writing my own stories.

If the house becomes too silent, I can always have a meaningful conversation with my cat. I swear, that little s&^t talks back to me too! More than my husband does, who has by now learn to leave me alone when I’m in “the zone.” 🙂

Anyway, what I wanted to say is that it’s easy to get too comfortable in our little world where we are the god and master of everything, and  the only human interaction we have is via Twitter with other fellow writers.

That’s why I think it’s important to remember that there is a vast and wonderful world  just waiting to be explored and experienced. All the world’s a stage, and it’s waiting for us just outside the doors of our tiny office.  I think that we need to venture out there from time to time, especially when our muse seems to lose steam or our creativity is low.

I know that it’s not easy to step out of our comfort zone, and sometimes we might even think that we don’t need to do it. After all, we have plenty of books, TV shows, movies and the whole vast Internet to draw our inspiration out of… But I would argue that the best ideas are not found on the Internet, but in the streets of your city or along a forest trail. You just have to be there to pick them up, because if not, somebody else might pass on that trail and get the idea for their new bestseller before you do.

Picture taken from Dreamstime.com
Picture taken from Dreamstime.com

That’s why it’s so important to step out of our comfort zone from time to time. To go sit in a cafĂ© and just listen to the conversations around us. It’s amazing how many plot bunnies you can get within just 10 minutes of sipping your coffee in Starbucks!

On a bigger scale, we should never be afraid of new experiences. Go to the gun range and try as many different guns as you can. Rent a four wheeler and go ride in the woods. Go hunting, diving, paragliding. Take a pottery class or learn how to draw. Start learning a new language. Listen to a genre of music you never tried before. Instead of going to the same tried and familiar spot for your vacation, choose something new.

Don’t shy away from those new experiences. Embrace them instead. Accept them with open arms because everything you experience will be fuel for your creativity. It’s surprising what kind of ideas your brain can come up with after watching the total lunar eclipse for example. And yes, I wrote at least 3 new plot bunnies down while I sipped my wine and watched the mood disappear Sunday night 🙂

So how about we make a resolution this fall – Let’s go out and be adventurous at least once a week, shall we?

Rant – Why the phrase “I don’t read because I don’t want others to influence my voice” makes no sense to me.

So I had a conversation with an aspiring author on Twitter the other day, and something that she said just absolutely floored me.

 

She is writing fiction, and her latest project is a science fiction / space opera story. When I asked her what science fiction authors she likes and what books influenced her story, she said the following:

 

Oh, I don’t read fiction. I don’t want other authors to influence my voice.

 

I was shocked speechless at first and could only repeat after the 10th Doctor, “What? What!? What!?!”

What? What?! What!?!
What? What?! What!?!

Frankly, I never shared the fear of some writers that reading books in their genre would somehow “contaminate” or alter their writing voice, but I can understand where they come from.  It’s true that we tend to borrow something from every book we read, especially if we really like it. It can be a story idea, a plot twist or, yes, the writing style, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

 

I mean, how can you improve your voice and your writing skill if have nothing to compare them to? How can you ever mature as a writer, if you don’t read a wide variety of books?

 

It’s all good and well to say that you don’t want other authors to influence your own unique voice, but I believe that your voice will stay unique no matter what. Even if you try writing like Charles Dickens or Stephen King, you will still be you, and your personality will still shine between the lines. And by experimenting, you will understand what works for you and what doesn’t, thus improving your style.

 

On the other hand, how can you improve your voice and mature as a writer if you never read? There is no growth if you have nothing to compare yourself with. Sure, you can look back at your earlier works and strive to write better, but how do you know what that “better” is if you don’t read anything in your chosen genre?  How can you even write in a genre if you’ve never read any books in it? That just baffles me.

This would be my living room if we didn't have ebooks.
This would be my living room if we didn’t have ebooks.

I’m an avid reader. I read a lot of books in a wide variety of genres, both fiction and non-fiction. Heck, any time I need to do research for my own stories, I browse the Internet, then I hit the library for reference books. Right now, I’m reading a research paper on Shinto, the traditional Japanese religion, for my fantasy book Shadow Hunters. The spirits in my book are not exactly like the kami and yukai, but Shinto gave me many inspirations, and it’s just plain interesting to learn something new!

 

I am not afraid to “muddy” my voice by reading and being influenced by other writers, because I don’t think that it’s going to happen. I know that sometimes I would read a book and think, “I love how this author handles dialogue. It flows the seamlessly and feels natural.” So I would pay very close attention to how it’s done, then try to integrate that knowledge into my own writing. Does that alter my voice? Yes. Does it make it better? Absolutely!

 

So in my opinion, a good writer needs to be first and foremost an avid reader who is willing to learn from others. Everybody is influenced by everything going around them, be it a TV series they watch, a book they read or a video game they play. All of these influences will show up in our writing, whether we want it or not, but that’s a good thing. If we feed our brain with a steady diet of diverse and interesting entertainment, it will produce some wonderful plot bunnies for us to write about! So read on, get influenced by what others do, evolve! And have fun!

There is no such thing as too many books.
There is no such thing as too many books.

Let your ideas rest – don’t rush in.

This blog post is sort of a follow up to last week’s post about my Worldbuilding process, as well as friendly advice to new writers. Since NaNoWriMo is right around the corner, I thought it might be a good idea to talk about why you shouldn’t rush your inspiration.

 

I think it happens to all of us – we get this shiny new idea, and we get so excited about it that we want to drop everything we’re doing (including current writing projects) to start working on this new gem. BAD IDEA. Let me explain why.

Finish what you start!
Finish what you start!
  1. That the surest way to never finish anything.

 

Writing is hard. Finishing a first draft is a long process. It can take months of slow and painful progress to get to the end of a story, and some days it feels like you are making no progress at all. Some days it feels like you have to fight for every word you put on the page. So it’s normal to get a bit tired of the story you are telling.

 

So when this brand new idea aka plot bunny jumps in to your head, of course you want to drop that burden you’ve been dragging for so long and run with this shiny gem. It’s new. It’s exciting. Surely, the process of writing it would be less tedious?

 

Well, even though it might seems so in the beginning, but once you run long enough with this new idea, it will become hard to write as well. After all, that other idea you abandoned for this one has been bright new and shiny at one point as well.

 

So you’ll end up with two unfinished stories that are equally difficult to write. And then another bright idea pops into your head, so you jump ship again… Well, you get my drift.

 

  1. An idea does not a story make.

 

That new plot bunny that just jumped into your head might look all fluffy and cute, but I suggest that you take a closer look. You might notice that it’s malnourished and rather worse for wear. That’s because, most of the time, it’s just a scene, or a character, or a vague idea. Yes, it makes us stop and think, “Oh, that would be so cool!” but by itself, it’s not enough to make a whole book out of. You need to put it in a nice little cage and feed it lots of carrots and other tasty foods so that it can grow and evolve.

Image courtesy Badgirlzwrite.com
Image courtesy Badgirlzwrite.com

Or, in other words, you need to work on that idea, ask questions, discover your world and your characters and, most importantly, the actual story you want to tell. All this takes time. Sometimes a lot of time and research before you are ready to sit down and write the first sentence of your very first draft.

 

  1. Write it down and put it on the backburner.

 

Oftentimes you can’t see the story clearly enough at first, no matter how much you want to start writing. Maybe you have a hard time seeing the characters, or maybe you have no idea where that shiny scene that came to your mind fits in the story, if it fits at all. And no matter how much you poke at it, you don’t seem to get the answers you need.

 

That’s when stepping away from the idea and putting it on the back burner is a good idea. Let it simmer on low heat. Let it percolate into your brain while you finish that other story, the one you have already invested so much time into. I am willing to bet that when you are finally done with it and go back to your new idea, you will be surprised at how much more information you have about the world, the characters and the story.

The attack of evil plot bunnies.
The attack of evil plot bunnies.

That’s when you can sit down and start writing it. Yes, it might be months between the time you get the idea and the moment you actually start working on it, but you would have a finished story under your belt and solid direction where your new story is going as well.

Worldbuilding – my process.

Paiting a new world, what's more exciting then that?
Paiting a new world, what’s more exciting then that?

After I wrote this post about the importance of worldbuilding, I received several comments on Facebook asking for more examples of my process. Since I’m outlining Shadow Hunters, a story that I will be writing during NaNoWriMo 2015, I have a very fresh worldbuilding example to share, so why not write a post about it, huh?

 

Usually, all my stories start with a scene that just pops into my head in its entirety, like it’s been cut out of a movie. In the case of Shadow Hunters, it all started with the following scene:

 

A cable car cabin is slowly making its way above a vast forest. There are two people in it. A man and a woman, both in their late teens / early twenties. They sit on opposite sides of the cabin, as far away from each other as possible. They sit in tense silence, throwing wary glances at each other from time to time. There is definitely history between the two.

 

All of a sudden, the cabin lurches into a stop. Three things happen almost simultaneously. The girl draws her twin long knives and launches at the boy. The cable snaps. The cabin plunges towards the forest floor.

 

That’s it. That’s all I had to work with. One scene does not a story make, so it’s my job as a writer to discover the story this scene belongs to. And the only way to do that is to start asking questions.

Creating new worlds.
Creating new worlds.

The first question that came to my mind, surprisingly, wasn’t “Who are these people?” but “did they survive the fall?” The answer was – yes.

 

Which brought forth another question – how? Because the girl is a Shadow Hunter. But who or what are the Shadow Hunters? That simple question turned out to be the most crucial one, because to answer it fully, I had to build this whole new world and set up the rules.

 

Only after I did that could I go back to the scene and ask all the other questions like did those two know each other? What were they doing in that cable car alone? Did she really try to kill him? All those questions deal with the actual story, but in order to tell that story, I need to know the world these characters live in.

 

So what are the Shadow Hunters? They are a special caste of people who act as intermediaries and mediators between humans and spirits. They are the only ones allowed to travel through the wilderness freely as well as to guide humans along specially designated routes.

 

This answer raises a multitude of other questions. Humans and spirits? Wilderness? Castes? The answer to each of those questions will show me a bit more about this new world and bring forth even more questions.

good-luck-road-sign

In order to answer the question about humans and spirits, I had to do an extensive research and spent four days binge reading everything I could find about Japanese, Chinese and Korean spirits and mystical monsters, as well as everything about Shinto, because this Japanese religion is the closest to what exists in the world of Shadow Hunters.

 

When I raked my brain about the significance of the wilderness, I learned that this world was divided into several human kingdoms that exist within fixed borders and are surrounded by spirit lands called the wilderness. They are connected by several unchanging routes, the cable-car road from the above-mentioned scene being one of them. For a human to venture into the wilderness uninvited or without a shadow hunter guide means certain and often painful death.

 

So why are the shadow hunters able to travel through the spirit lands freely? Because they go through a ritual that makes them more than human, but not quite spirit. They bridge that divide, with their feet in both worlds but belonging to neither.

 

Caste is another word that brought forth more questions. If there is one caste, does that mean there are others? Is this a rigidly divided society like we see in India or ancient China? Another dive into the currents of the Internet and an intensive read about those two countries gave me my caste structure which plays a significant part in the worldbuilding.

 

This also made me think about how people from different castes would recognize each other. That’s important. Their whole attitude and behavior towards each other depends upon knowing where you and the person you are talking to stands on the social ladder. They need a way to determine that quickly and with minimal room for errors. What better way to do that than to integrate the caste into their very names? So I spent a few more days devising a system where certain castes could only begin their names with certain letters, and how those names and surnames changes when they married into different families and (rarely) a different caste.

 

Of course, a lot more questions followed after that, and all of them helped me discover more about this brave new world, but I won’t mention them here because “Spoilers, dear,” as River Song from Doctor Who would say.

River Song from Doctor Who.
River Song from Doctor Who.

But as you can see, after asking myself some very simple questions and taking the time to explore the answers, I managed to go from one scene to a fully fleshed out world.

 

Now I could sit down and ask story related questions like who the hell are you people? What are you doing in that cable car to begin with? What’s the history between you two? But that could be the topic of a whole new blog post.

 

So here is a little insight into my worldbuilding process. How about yours? How do you discover your stories? How do you get to know your world and characters?

The Good, the Bad, and the Undead (The Hollows book2) by Kim Harrison.

Stars: 4.5 out of 5.

Rachel Morgan is back! She managed to survive breaking her contract with I.S. and even paid off her debt so there is no more death contract on her head. And she has blackmail material to keep Trent Kalamack from eliminating her. So life should be pretty good for her now, right? Wrong.

Being self-employed is not exactly synonym of job security, and Rachel struggles to make ends meet and come up with her part of the rent money each month. Add to that her uneasy cohabitation with Ivy, who is trying very hard to fight against her living vampire instincts and not claim Rachel as her shadow, because she values the trust and friendship the witch gives her more than getting a live-in blood donor. Especially since Ivy has been off blood for over three years and tries to stay that way. Not an easy thing to do when the scar Rachel was left with after the demon attack in book 1 leaves her vulnerable to vampire pheromones as well as telegraphs to all vamps in the vamps in the vicinity that she is unclaimed…

On top of that, Rachel still owes that demon a debt for saving her life (albeit reluctantly) and that he is sure to come claim it sooner rather than later, and you can see that her life is just as complicated as it was in the first book. So when FIB wants her to consult on a missing person’s case, Rachel is less than thrilled at first… until she discovers that the case might be linked to Trent Kalamack. An opportunity to get back at Kalamack for all he had done to her in book 1 is not something Rachel can pass on.

I absolutely love Rachel. She is capable without being a superwoman. She is funny and sassy, but manages to land herself in ridiculous situation from time to time. But most importantly, she has heart. I love how she grew to care for the rag-tag little family of friends she lives with: a living vampire in denial of her nature and desperately trying to stay off blood, an opinionated pixie with a very large family, and a human  dabbling in magics he has no business dabbling in. Rachel might gripe about their antics and their intrusions into her privacy, but she is also fiercely protective of them and doesn’t hesitate to put their safety above her own.

Some readers complained that Rachel often lets her mouth get the best of her, but I find even that endearing. She is a hot head with a tendency to fly off the handle when angry, but that’s part of who she is. And her big mouth and quick temper land her in hot water more than once in this book.

We also learn a bit more about this fascinating world. It came as a surprise to me that while vampires and weres were originally humans transformed by the lycanthropy and vampire viruses, witches are a completely different species. In fact, unlike weres and vamps, they can’t even have children with humans. Witches are thought to have originated from the demon world and migrated to our world some five thousand years ago along with the elves, hence the animosity between demons and witches.

We also learn a lot more about vampires and the difference between a living and an undead vampire, as well as the intricacies of power and domination between undead vampire and his / her living vamp scions and their human scions / shadows. And we learn more about witches and the difference between earth witches and ley line witches. And  we get some surprising insights into Rachel’s past and her ties to Trent Kalamack!

The plot is intense and fast-paced as well. It kept me turning the pages and screaming, “More please!” when I arrived to the end. Needless to say, I’ve already picked up book 3!

So why did I only put 4.5 stars then? Same problem as book 1 – I can’t stand Rachel’s boyfriend Nick, but he got even more obnoxious in this book. He was just the goodie two shoes boyfriend in book one, but here he showed his reckless side as well. He continues to summon a demon and deal with him even after Rachel reminds him how dangerous that is and that he is slowly losing his soul to him, one little bargain at a time. As a human, Nick is obviously in over his head, yet he insists that he is in no danger, that it’s all gonna be just fine… Yet he flips out and withdraws from Rachel after a certain scene at the end of the book. This reaction showed me that he isn’t a good man, but just a coward. Rant over.

Anyway, I definitely recommend this series for anyone who likes urban fantasy. If you enjoyed Kate Daniels or October Daye series, the Hollows are definitely for you!