Category Archives: writing

NaNoWriMo is a battle of endurance.

NaNo-2015-Participant-Badge-Large-Square (1)

Well, we have survived the first week of NaNo. How about a big cheer? If you are like me, you spent these 8 days riding the excitement and doubling if not tripling your word count. As of today, my WIP stands 500 words shy of 20k.

Even if your word count is less than that or if you are behind the curve a little, don’t get discouraged. Remember that every words you write this month is one more word you didn’t have before that. Anything is better than zero.

But as we are entering the second week of this challenge, you have probably started noticing that your enthusiasm is waning. You might have hit a road block, or your story turned down a totally unexpected road, or you might just have gotten tired of writing it.  After all writing 1667 new words a day every day is hard and sometimes soul wrenching work. Especially if you also work full time, have a family that wants to be fed every day, and a house chores that won’t get done by themselves.

So now that the first rush is gone, it gets harder and harder to force yourself to sit down and write. If you’re like me, the sight of an empty page scares you when you stare at it first thing in the morning and the prospect to have to fill it with another 1.6k can seem daunting. That’s why I say that NaNoWriMo is a battle of endurance.

Don’t give up now. It doesn’t matter is you are ahead or behind on the word count, keep on writing. The only way you will win and, more importantly, get that novel written down, is if you work through the slump, and through the fatigue, and through the discouragement. All writers go through that stage at least once per first draft (and sometimes more than once) and the only way to get across the wall is to grit your teeth and keep climbing.

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But I have a few pieces of advice to help you win this battle. They worked for me, so hopefully they will work for you as well.

  1. Pace yourself.

Don’t try to do all of your daily word count in one session, and don’t postpone that session until last thing in the evening before bed. You will be tired then and the amount of words you’d have to produce would seem more daunting than ever. Break your day into several smaller sessions instead: 400 words with your morning coffee, 300 more during your coffee or cigarette break at work, 600-700 at lunch, and all of a sudden the amount you need to do in the evening would shrink to almost nothing at all.

  1. Write down what you want to work on the next day.

Even if you’re pantsing your NaNo, I found that it helps to jot down a few thoughts before going to bed. Write down the next scene you need to work on, or just an inkling of who where and what will happen. That why the next morning you won’t have to frantically rake your brain about where your story is going. You would have a departure point to start on your writing.

  1. When you hit a roadblock, throw a wrench at it.

If you’re stuck in your story and have no idea what to do next, make something bad happen to your characters. Then buckle up for the ride and watch them scramble to overcome this new crisis. You might get so excited about this new turn of events that you wouldn’t even notice that you hit your word count for the day.

Lost

  1. Don’t give up.

Seriously, don’t. Nope! Forbidden! It’s your story. Nobody will be able to write it if you give up. So fight on, get to the end of it one word at a time.

 

Write on wrimos!

Is Writing an extensive Outline a Waste of Time?

nanowrimo1

I had a conversation today on Facebook with fellow writer about NaNoWriMo and different methods of preparing for it. Plotting or pantsing it? If plotting, then how much to prepare in advance? Stuff like that. She is the ultimate pantser who doesn’t even have the vaguest idea of what her story will be about. She said she will just sit down on November 1st and write whatever pops into her head.

I must admit that I am envious of people who can pull that off. I can’t. I tried a few times and failed miserably. Those unfinished stories still gather virtual dust somewhere on my computer…

Anyway, I admitted that I need a detailed outline  as well as extensive character and world-building research in order to make the most of my NaNo writing time.

She asked me just how detailed my outline for Shadow Hunters was, and I told her that it was 20k words long.

You know what her answer was? “What a waste of time.”

Original by nord_modular on Flickr
Original by nord_modular on Flickr

I was rather speechless at first. Then I started doubting myself. I had been researching this project since the idea popped into my head in July, though I put it aside to do a new round of edits on Mists, but still, I put A LOT of effort into the prep work. Was it really a waste of time?

I guess it depends on your point of view.

Sure, I could have written 2-3 short stories in the time it took me to write that 20k words outline. And by the time I finished it, I also knew that I would change most of Part 1 anyway, because what I had written in the outline simply wasn’t working. And, judging by past experience, I tend to deviate from my outline all the time, sometimes tossing it out of the window altogether.

But you know what? If I hadn’t written such an extensive outline, I wouldn’t have noticed the problem with Part 1 until I was a good ways into my first draft. So I would have had to drudge to the end of the draft knowing that I would need to rewrite at least 1/3 of the story upon editing. When it comes to editing, I am slower than a turtle, so a full rewrite would have cost me countless hours. But since I noticed that problem at the outlining stage, I can rectify it directly in the first draft.

Another advantage of this extensive outline is that now I know exactly where the story goes and what important milestones it must hit along the way for maximum impact. And I have detailed outlines of those crucial scenes. I also know what role most of my characters play in the story and how they will react in different situations.

I know that for some writers, this knowledge will kill the creativity. After, what’s the point writing a story if most of it is already in the outline? Well, the story might be in the outline, but it’s written in a dry plan-like manner. Now I have the exciting task of taking that lifeless outline and instilling it with my character’s voices and breathing life into this world. That’s the most difficult and the most rewarding part of the writing process.

So for me, spending a month to write a 20k word outline is NOT a waste of time, but an integral part of my creative process. If fact, I wouldn’t even call it an outline anymore, but a pre-draft.

Of course, just because this method works well for me, it doesn’t mean that it would work for you as well. There are no absolutes when it comes to writing. The writing process is as unique and deeply personal as each writer’s personality. To me the pre-draft is essential to understand the story I want to tell, but to the person I spoke with, it was a waste of time. That doesn’t mean that my process is better than hers or that her story will be more interesting than mine…

good-luck-road-sign

So what is your writing process? How do you prepare for NaNo? Or what do you do before you start writing a brand new story? Outline or not? How extensive are your outlines?

NaNoWriMo is almost upon us.

nanowrimo1

For most people November means Thanksgiving, College football, Black Friday, and stuffing yourself with so much turkey that we can’t look at it for at least the next six months. But for a select group of crazies out there, November is the month where they throw caution (and sometimes sanity) to the wind and attempt to write 50k words in just 30 days. Which also means starting a brand new story on day 1 and either finishing it on day 30, or in my case, getting a good chunk of the narrative down.

For millions of writers around the world, November is the event they have been waiting for, hoping for or dreading, gearing up for all year long. It’s NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month.

Last year, I did a series of posts about NaNoWrimo that you can find under the On Writing – NaNoWriMo cathegory, so I will try not to repeat myself too much. If you are still not sure if you want to try doing NaNo  or not, I would recommend reading this post – 5 reasons everyone should do NaNoWriMo at least once.

So today, I want to talk a little bit about my reasons for doing NaNoWriMo. This isn’t my first rodeo, so to say. I’ve done (and won) NaNo in 2013 and 2014, and I went on writing afterwards until I finished the novels I’ve been working on. So I am not approaching this year’s NaNo with a need to prove that I can do it. I’ve already shown that I can. But I am just as giddy and excited about November 1st as I was two years ago. And do you know why?

Because NaNoWriMo is a wonderful and unique opportunity to throw your caution to the wind, shut your inner critic in the basement, and just run with the story. There is nothing better to shut down your “Spock Brain” as Kristen Lamb puts it in her excellent article, than having to put out 50k words in only 30 days. That’s roughly 1.7k words a day, which can be a challenge, especially if writing is not your full-time career and you have to carve time for it out of your already busy schedule. My average daily output during the year is about 600 words, sometimes a bit more, but I try to never do less. Well during November, I have to do almost triple to keep with the word count.

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Let me tell you that when you are pushing yourself to write as fast as you can for as long as you can in the limited time you have (for me it’s early morning before work, during my lunch break, and before bed when the rest of my household is asleep), you don’t have time to second guess yourself or worry about your sentence structure or verb usage or even if that paragraph you just finished makes sense. You have to press on and keep the story moving, no matter what. Even if it seems silly or stupid; even if you feel like your writing is horrible; even if you are certain that you just zipped by a plot hole so big a small truck could fall into it.

During NaNoWrimo, I don’t have time to worry about that, and I never go back to re-read / edit what I have written. If I get an idea on how to change something, or if I know there is glaring mistake somewhere, I write it down in my notebook and keep on going. I can address all these issues during revisions, but I need a fully finished draft first.

And I don’t know about you guys, but for me there is something liberating about just rushing ahead and letting the story spill out of you without any restrains. Yes, it might be half-baked and will definitely not win the Nobel prize of literature, but it won’t do that just sitting inside your head either.

Hemingway

So I take a deep breath on October 31st and set off into a mad dash that doesn’t slow down until November 30th. By that time, I usually have over 50k words of my new novel written and the momentum carries me well into December and January when I finally finish the draft, because most of my novels run in the 100k words category. Of course, I usually slow down after NaNo, going back to about 1k words a day, but by that time I’m past the halfway point of my story and I am excited about reaching the end.

So to conclude this rambling post, for me NaNoWriMo is the essential yearly boost of motivation , like a writing vitamin shot, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world!

Writing Progress Report.

I haven’t posted an update on my various writing projects in a while, so I think I’m overdue for one, especially since I will be starting a new first draft for NaNoWriMo 2015. So here is what I am working on, what I set aside to grow and mature, and what I had to shelve until better times.

hourglass_parchment_quill_cover

THINGS I’M WORKING ON NOW:

Of Broken Things

This is the first story I had ever finished, and like any first book, it needs A LOT of work to transform from a messy disjointed first draft into something I wouldn’t be too ashamed to put out into the world.

I have been doing edits and rewrites on it off and on for the past two years, with long interruptions to focus on something else, because otherwise I get the desire to pull my hair out, bang my head on the wall, and laugh hysterically. The good news is that two out of three parts are now fully rewritten. The bad news is that Part 3 will require a MAJOR rewrite. I’m kinda dreading that one, actually, because I’m pretty sure it will bring me to the brink of a nervous breakdown by the time I’m done with it. So that story will remain on the shelf until I’m done with NaNo and the revision of Choices.

But I discovered one good thing about going back to edit a story I wrote two years ago. I can see just how much I’ve grown as a writer. It’s easy to get discouraged in the writing process, because the changes are so gradual that they often get unnoticed. Sometimes we even feel like we are regressing instead of improving. That’s when you should pick up one of your old drafts, because you look at it and you think, “Wow, I’ve really come a long way! This is ghastly… but I know exactly how to make it better.”

The Choices we Make.

I had tried to write this story down several times during the years and gave up, but I finished the first draft during NaNo 2014. Well, in January 2015 after that Nano, to be precise. But I haven’t touched it since then. This is the second book I’ve ever finished so it doesn’t need as much work as Of Broken Things, but I will still need to do a pretty significant rewrite of Part 3.

This is a recurring trend for me, I’m afraid – I tend to drop the ball in the third part of the story. I get cold feet and decide not to follow the conflict to its logical resolution. I am too nice to my characters to make them suffer, even if it’s necessary to the story. So the climax and resolution of the main conflict falls short of the expectations.  I know exactly what I need to change to bring this story to the next level, so Choices are in the first place in my editing pipeline after I’m done with NaNo.

After all, my beta extraordinaire and most ruthless critique partner says that once this story is fixed, it’s good enough to try querying agents for traditional publishing with. Coming from her, it’s A HUGE compliment.

Blue blood on the page!
Blue blood on the page!

Mists of the Crossworlds.

This novella is fully rewritten. The story is as good as it will be plot and character-wise. Now I just need to tighten up the prose and hunt down all the pesky grammatical and spelling errors.  And find an editor who wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg.

I think about self-publishing this story sometimes in the December – January timeframe. This will likely be an adventure on its own, so expect a few blog post about that particular endeavor.

Shadow Hunters.

This is my new project. I’m planning on hammering down the first draft during NaNo and after it (and be done with it by the end of January at the latest). As of today, the worldbuilding is done, and all the main characters have complete bios. I am working on the outline, which promises to be 25k words long all on its own, the longest outline I’ve written yet. I’m done with Parts 1 and 2, but I still need to outline parts 3 and 4 before November. I can feel the stress levels rising.

 

WHAT I PLAN TO WORK ON IN THE NEXT COUPLE YEARS:

Ghost and the Good Doctor (temporary title).

This is a novel-length story that popped into my head after listening to the k-pop group BigBang’s song Monster.

I have written down the scene that sprung into my mind during the song and jotted down some details about my protagonist, Ghost, as well as some other characters. I barely scratched the surface on the worldbuilding front though. This will probably become my NaNoWriMo 2016 project, because I have too many things to edit to be able to start working on another full-scale novel until then. It’s hopping around my plot bunny enclosure right now, growing fat on fresh grass and the corpses of other, weaker plot bunnies.

Eye of the Norns Cycle:

After I had published the first short story about Ryssa in this anthology, I got the idea to write several more stories about her journeys and put them in chronological order. I have written the next story in the cycle, but haven’t had time to edit it yet. I have also outlined one more story and have ideas for at least 3 more. This might be a project I work off and on in between the revisions of Choices next year.

Breathless.

This short story will be a companion piece to Of Broken Things and will take place 15 years before the events of the novel. I know exactly what it will be about, but I haven’t done any outlining on it yet. I’m not in a hurry on this one because the novel itself still needs a lot of work.

The Price we pay.

Sequel to Choices, taking place a few months after the first book ends. It will follow a different set of protagonists, because Sky and Selena’s story was resolved by the end of book 1, but the story of the Free Kingdom is only just beginning. But do not fear, Sky and Selena will still make an appearance, because they aren’t going anywhere.

I haven’t even started brainstorming this story yet. I have a vague idea where I want it to go and who my protagonists will be, but nothing beyond that. So I might get around to it in 2016, but 2017 would be more optimistic.

 

 

Of course, this list is not set in stone, because plot bunnies can attack me at any time and just not let go until I write them. This year I got Shadow Hunters and Ghost and the Good Doctor like that, seemingly out of nowhere, so who knows what next year brings me.

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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 café 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?

Characters should grow and evolve with the story.

Creating new worlds.
Creating new worlds.

Humanity loves good stories. If we didn’t, there wouldn’t be so many books published, movies filmed and TV series renewed long past the date they stopped being relevant. We love forgetting about our everyday life and losing ourselves in the problems of fictional characters for a few hours. Sometimes we just need a distraction, but sometimes seeing these characters grow and overcome their troubles helps us face ours. That’s why stories are so important.

 

I receive a lot of review requests from self-published authors, so I have been reading a lot of new books lately. And I have noticed a worrying tendency – a lot of books tell a story, yes, but forget that a story is first and foremost about character growth. In the past 2 weeks alone I had started and dropped about 7 books because there was no character progression. They were well written and well-edited. Things were happening, the story was moving, but the main characters remained absolutely the same. It felt like nothing affected them at all. Unfortunately, that is the best way to lose my interest and make me put the book down.

 

I don’t know about you, but to me, all stories are primary about character growth, no matter the genre in which they are written. Even in mystery novels, the detective investigating a story is irrevocably changed by what he finds at the end of the book. The hero who sets off to rescue the princess / save his kingdom / just go on an adventure comes back older and (hopefully) wiser than he was at the beginning of the book.

pen-and-paper

Harry Potter starts book 1 as a naive twelve years old boy who is ignorant about the wizarding world and the role he played and still has to play in it. By the end of book 7, he is a radically different person: he has grown, not only physically, but also mentally. He has suffered great losses and found love and friendship along the way. He has matured and discovered what his priorities are and what he is willing to sacrifice for the people he loves. That’s why his choice to go to Voldemort and basically let him kill him to destroy the last horcrux is so significant. It shows that character growth.

 

The story doesn’t have to be as dramatic as that though. I have finished watching an excellent Korean drama called Queen of Reversals, and it’s all about everyday life. There are no life or death situations, no care chases or serial killers, but the story still pulls you in and keeps you wanting more, making you watch episode after episode. Why? Because it’s all about character growth. The story itself is simple and easy to relate to. A successful woman falls in love and marries after a whirlwind courtship. She gets pregnant and becomes stay at home mom while her husband struggles to earn a living. Unfortunately, he is nowhere as smart and successful as his wife has been, which puts a strain on their marriage, so she is forced to go back to work after 5 years, starting basically at the bottom of the ladder again. The whole story is about her struggle to go back to the top of that ladder again and to regain her self-confidence. A lot of things happen along the way, like her marriage failing and ending in a messy divorce coupled with problems at work that she has to overcome. Nothing earth-shattering. Just everyday stuff that all of us face in our lives as well.

It’s basically  a story about someone who loses everything and sees her life crumble in front of her eyes and has the strength to pull herself back up and fight for her success and happiness. Someone who gets betrayed by the person she loved, but still finds the courage to love and trust again. That’s why we can relate so well, that’s why we root for the heroine and cry and laugh with her until the end of the series.

 

That’s the point of the story, to make the characters change and evolve. If they don’t, then “Houston, we have a problem.” And I have noticed that a lot of first-time writers tend to overlook that character growth for some reason. They throw everything into the story. They add mystery after mystery, twist after twist. They up the stakes, throw dragons, armies and the next apocalypse at their protagonist, but forget that everything that happens MUST change that protagonist somehow, even if it’s in small ways.

hourglass_parchment_quill_cover

If the heroine never learns from her mistakes and is just as loud, obnoxious and clueless at the end of the book as she was at the beginning – I’m sorry, she is not someone I can be bothered with. I want to read about fleshed out people, not  cheap video game characters who never evolve, but just level up and get better gear.

 

A good story is about characters. It’s about their journey and their trials. About how they grow and learn. About how they become a better person in the end… or turn into a monster. Doesn’t matter which way they go, as long as they evolve. Give me a good character arc with a satisfying ending, and I will be happy. But no amount of car chases and explosions will keep my interest if your world is populated with cardboard cutouts frozen in space and time.

 

That’s why when I start working on a story, I don’t think “what’s this story about?” I think “What do I want my characters to learn with this story? How do I want them to evolve?” I find it that the story just sort of comes to you once you determine your character’s arc.

The Writer’s worst enemy – self-doubt.

I have noticed that since I started writing almost 2 years ago, I am a more susceptible to extreme mood swings about my work. I can be on cloud nine one day about finally finishing that first draft, and absolutely hate is the next day because I’m certain that it’s just a load of crap and I just want to press DELETE and set my computer on fire.

 

Correct me if I’m wrong, but this must be a problem common to all creative people. I think it’s largely due to the fact that writing a book, creating a painting, or composing a beautiful song often takes a lot of time. Most of that time is spent toiling in our own corner, alone with our muse (if we’re lucky and that sucker actually deigned to grace us with his presence), our thoughts and our doubts.

Lack of Motivation
Lack of Motivation

It’s hard work and there is no instant gratification. You might get praise and admiration once that book is published, that painting is showcased or that song is played. Or you might get critiqued and ridiculed. Either way, there is no way to know until it’s done and out there for the world to see. Until that day, we simply have no way to know if what we create is any good or not.

 

It can be especially daunting when writing a novel, because it takes a LONG time. From the moment this plot bunny on crack happily hopped into your brain and wreaked havoc in it until the moment the finished novel is published, months if not years can pass. You spend time researching, creating your world, getting to know your characters, outlining the story to discover where it’s going. Then you sit down and write that horrible first draft with your own tears and blood. Then you have to edit it to resemble an actual novel that other people might want to read. Then you send it to beta readers who shred it to pieces. Then you get it back and edit it again. Then you send it to the editor who shreds it to pieces. Then you rewrite it yet again. That’s why you really need to be in love with our story when you start writing, because you will be spending  A LOT of time with it.

 

In any case, that’s a lot of work and a lot of time for insidious seeds of self-doubt to start creeping in and growing roots. And soon we start hearing that little voice in our head telling us that nobody will read what we write anyway, because it’s worthless, so we might as well give up now and spare us time and future humiliation. You know the sad part about it? Eight out of ten people who started writing a book will listen to this voice and give up before they even finish their first draft. And an overwhelming majority of those who actually finish it will be to scared by the prospect of dreaded revisions to pick it up again…

revision angst

Self-doubt is the slayer of dreams and the murderer of books. It’s an insidious monster that is very hard to fight against.

 

I must admit that it caught up with me about 3 weeks ago. I suddenly noticed that I wasn’t really motivated to write or edit anymore. I knew I needed to do it, but there always seemed to be an excuse NOT to do it. Dinner needs to be cooked, the day job is hard and demanding, the next episode of my favorite series is out… And when I would sit down to edit Mists, my thoughts would turn down the dangerous path of self-doubt.

 

The following thoughts would start crowding in my head. I’ve been writing non-stop for almost 2 years, but what do I have to show for that? One short story published in an anthology. I have three finished first drafts, but none of the novels is fully edited and nowhere near ready to be released. It feels like I have achieved nothing. And that feeling was dragging me down.

Facewall

So what is the best weapon against self-doubt? First of all, find someone who will cheer you up. Even though writing is a solitary profession, we are never completely alone, especially with the internet at our fingertips. Talk to your family if they support your dreams, or your friends, or that special beta reader whom you share all your ideas with. Get on Twitter or Facebook and shout out to other writers – you will be amazed at the level of support and understanding you will get.

 

But most importantly, try to look at the situation in a positive light. In my case, instead of thinking about what I haven’t achieved in two years, I looked at what I managed to accomplish. I had a short story published. I wrote 3 more short stories in the same series. I actually managed to finish 3 full-size novels. I have at least 3 more novels in various stages of planning. I am so close to finishing my rewrite of Mists that I can almost see the publication date… If you look at it this way, I actually managed to accomplish quite a lot in those 2 years. And what do you know? I am motivated to finish editing that novel now!

 

I am interested in your opinions as well. Do you experience self-doubt? What do you do to fight it off?