Inspiration Board: Spirit Caller

Readers often ask authors where they get their inspiration from. For me, characters often spark my imagination and then I build a story around them. I find these characters in the strangest of places: an avatar in a game I’m playing, an image I see on Pinterest or just a random idea that pops into my head.

The first thing I do after a story idea starts taking shape is hop onto Pinterest and find pictures of the characters and the places in my story. I always, always have an inspiration board perched precariously over my desk while I’m writing. I have trouble focussing on physical features, so it’s incredibly handy to have an image I can refer to. Description of any kind is not naturally my strong point, so whenever I get stuck, I like to look at a real-world picture of someone or somewhere and then modify it to suit my story’s vision.

The board also helps as a reminder whenever I’m in the room to stop procrastinating and sit down and write! And whenever I look at it, whether I’m busy doing my taxes or scrolling through Facebook, the pictures on display keep the current story in the back of my head, letting my subconscious work on it when I’m not actively able to do so.

This is what the inspiration board for my short story, Spirit Caller, looked like:

Spirit Caller inspiration board

It’s a little sparse, but I think you get the general idea. If you’ve read the story, I think you’ll probably know who’s who on there, even if you didn’t picture them exactly like that in your mind. That’s okay. I much prefer to give one or two defining characteristics and then let readers come up with their own images. It’s more fun for everyone involved that way. The pictures on the board are merely my way of putting shape to the people who live in my head (that sounds like I should consider making an appointment with a psychiatrist… Moving swiftly along…).

Do you enjoy these behind-the-scenes details of stories you’ve read? Would you be interested in seeing the inspiration boards for other stories, or does it spoil the vision you have in your head? Do you have inspiration boards too?

What’s up with LitRPG?

I don’t really understand LitRPG. Granted, I’ve only read one novel in the genre and it was, admittedly, mindless fun – but I still don’t really get the appeal of it.

For those of you who don’t know, LitRPG is literature (and I use this term loosely) based on role-playing games (RPGs), such as World of Warcraft or Star Wars The Old Republic, to name a few. In LitRPG stories, the main character is physically immersed in an RPG world and the reader follows their adventure as they, quite literally, level up in the game. There are stats galore as we see the character lose hit points or gain buffs or attain better gear or learn a new skill. It’s like reading about playing your favourite game.

A gnoll hits you for 5HP! Current HP: 15/20
A gnoll hits you for 5HP! Current HP: 10/20
A gnoll hits you for 5HP! Current HP: 5/20

And that’s where I fall out of the bus. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for people reading more, but really, why not just go and play the game? I reinstalled and reactivated my 18-year old Everquest account after finishing one of these books, because it made me so nostalgic about the “good old days” that I wanted to recapture the fun.

So it makes sense if the novels were written in recognisable worlds and perhaps used as marketing material for existing RPG games to get old players to come back or entice new ones, but they’re not. They’re original inventions (possibly loosely based on the writer’s own favourite game or on an old Dungeons & Dungeons campaign, but likely not). And again, I ask, what’s the point?

If you’re going to create a new fantasy world, why not write a straight-up fantasy story? Why encumber it with game mechanics? And why would you want to read about game mechanics when you can go play a game first-hand? Have we reached a new level of laziness where it’s just too much effort to play and level up a game character ourselves and would rather just lie back on the couch
and read about it instead?

Games and Books © Unknown

I can’t really comment on the quality of the genre (having read only one book), but some reviews have indicated that a great many of these LitRPG novels lack in many of the things required for a good story: well-developed characters, a coherent plot and interesting themes. Some of them are basically just a novelisation of a kill-10- rats-receive- a-reward quest line up until you’ve killed enough rats to be able to defeat the big boss. Yawn. Okay, so it’s about the little guy improving his lot in life and moving up in the world, but still, yawn.

A friend suggested that I rewrite my Everquest fan fiction as a LitRPG novel. I was tempted at first, but I’ve decided against it. I would have to change so much to make the world and the magic system unrecognisable from Norrath, and with that kind of effort I may as well just write something original.

Using your characters and campaigns for the basis of a story – that makes sense. Reading about their stats and quest progress – no thanks, I’d rather be behind the keyboard or a console any day.

Do you read or write LitRPG? What is the appeal in it for you? Can you recommend some of your favourite LitRPG novels for anyone interested in giving the genre a go?

Why You Should Consider Writing Fan Fiction

My favourite novel from 2017 was Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, which is about a girl who is obsessed with a fictional world, much like that of Harry Potter, and who writes fan fiction about it which is almost more popular than the author’s books themselves. It reminded me of a time when I honed my own writing skills on Everquest fan fiction. Although I limited myself to the world created for the game, fan fiction writers write about almost anything under the sun, from erotic Twilight spin-offs to alternative Buffy endings and crossovers between Shakespeare and Star Wars.

You may wonder why anyone would spend their days writing about characters and worlds they could never call their own. In my case, I enjoyed documenting and embellishing my adventures in Norrath and the stories serve as a fun reminder of the good times I had playing that game and of the friends I made there. Others like to explore the worlds of their fandoms a little bit more even when the official series has long since been completed or cancelled (oh, Firefly, how we miss you!).

Writing fan fiction is oddly liberating. There is no pressure to write well from anyone but yourself, and the world and characters have already been established, so you only need to take the story further from there. You don’t have to invent something completely new, but can build on the existing lore to explore your fandom further or from a different angle. As long as you stay true to the core of your chosen fandom, you can be as creative as you like. It’s a good way to learn the craft and mechanics of writing without being too serious about it.

Another appealing aspect of writing fan fiction is that you automatically have an engaged audience who love the story (or at least the characters and the world) as much as you do. If you publish your fiction on a reputable fan fiction site, chances are someone will read them and, if you’re lucky, engage with the story and leave comments. That kind of interaction is incredibly rewarding and motivating. You’ll be able to meet and converse with people with the same interest and, perhaps, learn a little more about what makes a good (or bad) story.

If you’re a budding writer with a passion for a particular fandom, or if you’re currently struggling with writer’s block and need a creative boost, or you want some validation from readers, then perhaps you should consider fan fiction. No matter what others may think about the value or quality of the genre, there’s no denying that it can help you hone your writing skills and perhaps even build an audience for your future original work. And hell, it’s fun, and writing should always be fun, or else why bother?

Do you write or read fan fiction? Why? What is your chosen fandom? Feel free to link to some of your fan fiction in the comments below.

Looking Ahead to 2018

As we stand with Janus, Roman god of doorways, looking both back at the past year and ahead towards the year to come, it’s customary to review what we have achieved and make plans for the future.

I like to make New Year’s resolutions. I firmly believe that you always need to strive towards something. How else can you improve yourself or reach your goals? While there are some lifestyle websites imploring people to forget about making resolutions because they set us up for inevitable failure and we’d all be much happier if we didn’t have them, I think a little failure is worth it if it helps motivate you to keep on trying again and again until you succeed.

Janus, Roman god of doorways | Adolphe Giraldon, Wikimedia Commons

Last year I had the goals of making writing a priority, finishing my novel and getting published. To that end, I quit my job and for a period of five months, tried to do just that. It didn’t work out quite as planned (for a variety of reasons) and, in retrospect, I would have done it a little differently, but I learned so much from the attempt. I learned that I do not enjoy freelance writing; that I cannot spend eight hours a day writing, even if it is for my own pleasure; that it’s no fun being a penniless writer; and that the real work only starts once that first draft is done.

So here are my writerly resolutions for 2018:

  • Complete the free magnet story to be sent out to email subscribers
  • Complete the second (and subsequent) installment(s) of my Mythical Menagerie series
  • Redesign this website to be less generic and more personal to me
  • Publish one short story every two months
  • Blog one piece of flash fiction every month
  • Finish the first draft of (one of) my novel(s)
  • Increase my email subscriber list to at least 500 readers

The biggest hurdle to achieving these goals for me is to find time. I wrote last week about an experiment of getting up at 5 am every morning, but this has been utterly unsuccessful thus far! I’ll keep on trying though. Writing is important to me, and somehow I’ll make the time I need.

2017 has been a tough year in many ways, but I’m looking forward to 2018. Let’s make it the year in which all our dreams come true.

Do you make New Year’s resolutions? Do you keep them? What are some of your successes and failures of the past year, and what do you have planned for the year ahead?

All I Want For Christmas

The internet is abuzz this time of year with lists of gifts to buy for everyone, including the writer in your life. And sure, I wouldn’t mind another pen and notebook set, or a scarf covered in Jane Austen quotes, or a Harry Potter-themed board game, but I don’t need any of those things.

There is only one thing I need for 2018, and I’m sure many people will agree with me.

All I want for Christmas is… time.

Time Flies © Michel Curi / Flick

Yes, I know we all have the same 24 hours each day and it’s really up to me to use my available time more productively, but believe me, time is the most fleeting commodity in my life right now, what with working full-time again and being a mother to a nearly two-year old boy. By the time the little one is in bed, I’m ready to follow suit fifteen minutes later, completely exhausted. Yes, I know I could probably watch a little less TV in the evenings or write a book instead of reading a book right before bedtime, but at the end of the day I honestly don’t have any energy left.

I’m sure I’m not the only one.

If there’s one thing I learned this year, it’s that I need to make time for the things that make me happy. Time for writing, and yes, time for fun. But where do I find more time?

During NaNoWriMo last year, I got up at 4:45 every morning to write for an hour before it was time to get ready for work. This worked extremely well for me. I recently read a post from one of my favourite travel bloggers turned writer about her new 5:15 wake-up routine that’s changed her life, and I’m wondering – should I try this too?

I’ve been thinking about it the last few days. It’s summer here in the southern hemisphere, which means it won’t be as dark anymore at that time of the morning. It’s not cold either. And although I love being snuggled up in bed until at least 7:00 (if I had my way), this would be the perfect time to experiment with an early morning rise.

Think about it – an extra hour every day to do with as I please! I could write, read, do some yoga, build a jigsaw puzzle, play a MMO… the possibilities are endless!

I think the motivation is there, and the act itself should be reward enough. The only restriction is that this should entirely be me-time: no guilty thoughts about what I should be doing instead and no social media (sorry Facebook, it’s not you, it’s me).

I’m going to try it for a week and see how it goes… If it works, this will be the best from-me-to-me Christmas present ever! Will you join me?

Do you struggle to find time to do the things that make you happy? How do you manage your time? Are you an early morning riser, or do you prefer to stay up late into the night? What are your best productivity hints for those of us who need to manage our time better?

A Worthwhile Prize

© theDURRRIAN / Deviant Art

Alanna grabbed Kael’s shoulder, wrenching him backwards. “Stop!” she hissed, pointing at the spot where he was about to step. The warrior looked down, his face paling visibly as he noticed the slightly raised edge of a round disk on the elaborately carved floor.

“Trigger trap,” he confirmed. “Better keep a close eye on the floor too from now on.” He proceeded carefully, plated greaves clinking softly with each step.

“Do you think we can risk more light?” Alanna asked. Kael nodded. A nimbus of soft light surrounded her left hand, and she drew in a breath as the shadows around them retreated. They were in a great hall that stretched out as far as they could see. Alanna’s eyes widened as she tried to take it all in at once. The walls were covered in fine stucco engravings, the light casting strange intricate shapes that seemed to dance around the two explorers. Semi-precious stones glittered from the lofty ceiling, stars in a forgotten sky now buried deep beneath the ground. Tall pillars guided the way to a raised dais at the very end of their field of vision.

“The god-king’s throne room,” Kael said, breathless with wonder. He looked up at the ceiling. “Just a handful of these gems and we could retire to the Isles of Amara until the end of our days.”

“If the stories are true, then the biggest prize waits for us at the end of this hall.”

Kael grunted. “If the stories were true, we’d be dead by now. Let’s grab what we can and get out of here.”

Alanna leveled a gaze at her companion. They had worked too hard, searched too long, to give up now. No one had set foot in the lost city of Bataar-Ilan for centuries, until now. “You know why we’re here.”

“I hope you know what you’re getting us into, Alanna,” Kael said as he renewed his slow advance. “This book you’re after had better be worth it.”

“The entire city’s population died to protect it, and then the god-king buried this place under a mountain,” she reminded him. “It’s worth it.”

A faint click was all warning they had. Alanna reacted instinctively, surrounding the two of them in a protective shield of energy. The smell of burning wood tickled her nose as a volley of arrows sizzled to ash and fell at their feet.

Kael shot her a sheepish grin. “Didn’t see that one.”

Carefully, oh so slowly, they advanced towards the dais. While Kael’s gaze swept the darkness around them, searching for hidden traps and other unknown threats, Alanna’s thoughts were bent upon the prize. For years everyone had believed it a myth, but she had known it was real. It had to be real, and it had to be here.

“There it is,” she said almost reverently. Relief washed through her, she had been right all along. The legendary Book of the Dead rested upon a golden plinth next to the throne at the top of the dais. The power of immortality lay within her reach.

“Careful,” Kael warned as she ascended, but Alanna scarcely heard him. She reached out for the book.

“It’s… empty.” Alanna flicked through the blank pages, disappointment burning like bile in her throat. “All this way for nothing!”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”

Startled, Alanna and Kael spun around. A man stepped out of the darkness. He was dressed in a long golden robe, skin as pale as moonlight, black eyes cold as obsidian. He was so thin he seemed almost skeletal.

“It’s been a while since someone has come in search of the book. But, finally, you are here.”

Kael leveled his sword at the man. “Who are you?”

“You know who I am,” the man replied.

Alanna inhaled sharply as realization dawned. “The god-king.”

The man inclined his head slightly, a sardonic smile playing across is lips.

“It’s a trap,” Alanna said as she descended the steps to stand beside Kael. “There is no Book of the Dead.”

“Of course not. Immortality belongs to the gods, not mere mortals such as yourselves.”

“Then why…?”

“Even gods must feed.”

Kael swore loudly. He charged at the god-king, his wordless roar echoing through the cavernous hall. The man side-stepped him deftly and then effortlessly swatted the huge broadsword from his grip. He pushed Kael over as if he were a small child, then drove his foot into the warrior’s chest. Kael grunted.

Fire shot from Alanna’s hands. It hit the god-king in the back and sent him sprawling, giving Kael the chance to regain his feet. Alanna grabbed him by the hand and pulled him behind her.

“We can’t win this,” she hissed as they ran. “He’s a god.”

“What are we going to do?”

Alanna risked a glance behind her. The god-king was on his feet, smoke smoldering from his golden robe. His face was contorted with rage.

“The only thing we can.” A faint rumbling sounded and the ground shook. Pebbles fell from the ceiling.

“You’re bringing the mountain down again,” Kael said, understanding lighting up his eyes.

They dashed through the hall, heedless of traps, dodging arrows flying past. The entranceway collapsed just as they sprinted through it. A great bellow, louder even than the roar of the mountain, sounded behind them.

“Immortality might be overrated,” Kael quipped as he evaded another trap.

“Hurry!” Alanna urged, pointing at the exit. Rubble had covered almost half of their escape. They scrambled over fallen rocks and tumbled out into the blinding sunlight. They stopped a safe distance from the entrance and turned to watch the mountain envelop the ruins of Bataar-Ilan once more.

“Isles of Amara, Alanna,” Kael said as the riches of the lost city was buried again.

“I know, I’m sorry,” she replied. She grinned impishly at him. “Maybe next time.”

Do You Enjoy Reading Flash Fiction?

I only learned about flash fiction about a year ago. If you haven’t encountered it before, flash fiction is the term for fully contained stories in a very limited number of words. They usually range anything from 100 to 1000 words. Personally, I prefer writing stories towards the upper reaches of this word limit, because it gives me enough time to establish the scene, introduce the characters and play out the plot.

It’s important to note that, while extremely short, flash fiction is not just an extract or a section of a story. Like any other work of fiction, it has a beginning, a middle and an end, but unlike a novel or even a short story, flash fiction writing needs to be succinct and to the point. There’s no room for meandering descriptions or characters going off on tangents. Short and sweet, that’s the ticket.

Striking example of flash fiction by Hemingway

You may wonder what the point of such exceptionally short tales are. As a writer, I find it a fun challenge to convey a rich and detailed narrative in so few words. I grab a picture off Pinterest that speaks to me and, without having to make a huge commitment, write something about that place or that character that inspires me. It often leads to more ideas for longer stories, which is always a good thing. As a reader, I have the pleasure of being transported into a fantastical world or an interesting character’s situation for the length of time it takes me to eat a sandwich during lunch break.

While flash fiction may be extremely brief, don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s easy to write. I wanted to make a commitment of posting one piece of flash fiction each week, but I found that it takes time to choose the best possible way and just the right phrase to say what I want to say in less than a 1000 words.

So, I’ll be aiming for one a month instead and I’ll include the picture that inspired me in the post. I’ve added a link to the header of this site for Flash Fiction stories where you can access them easily should you want to indulge in brief flights of fancy with me.

The first story will be out next week. I hope you’ll read along and let me know what you think.

Have you heard of flash fiction before? Do you enjoy reading it? Do you write it?

Why You Should Review Books You Love

I know, I’m guilty too.

It’s just so much effort to log into Amazon and write a coherent review about a book, even if it is one you loved that resulted in a three-day book hangover preventing any kind of productivity at work. And even if I did take the time to write my thoughts on it, I’m sure it’s all been said already by someone else, much more eloquently. Why bother?

Well, I’m here to ask you to bother. Just two minutes of your time to at least give a star rating on Goodreads can make a world of difference to an author, especially an unknown one like myself. Why? Because it affects the algorithms that govern discoverability at online bookstores. The more people who discover and are aware of my book, the more potential readers I’ll gain, who (hopefully) will love it too and who might leave more (glowing) reviews and lead to more people discovering it and so and so forth until the point where I become the next JK Rowling (just kidding!).

Apart from unsexy algorithms and spiders crawling the Net, it’s also fantastic to hear what others think of my work. Like most authors, I’m inherently insecure about putting my innermost thoughts and fantasies out there in the world for anyone to peruse, and to learn that someone not only took the time to read it, but enjoyed it as well – well, that just sets my spine a-tingle. I’d love to hear what you liked, what you disliked, how you think I can improve as a writer.

Really, just about any kind of feedback is appreciated.

Book love | © Kate Ter Haar / Flickr

Unless you hated it. Then please refrain from mentioning it anywhere or to anyone. Ha, I kid of course. You are entitled to your opinion and if you feel like setting my ears ablaze with a scathing review, then go right ahead – but please do tell me why so I can learn from it.

And if you want to inject some humour into your bad review, as the writers of these hilarious one-star reviews of children’s books have done, then even better.

Although I very rarely write a full review of the books I read, I make a point of always giving a star rating on Goodreads. It’s nice to reward an author with a good rating and it helps other readers decide whether or not they should read the book too. I hope you’ll spare a few minutes of your time to review my books and any others you read and truly enjoy.

Do you leave reviews of books you’ve loved (or hated)? Why do you do it and where do you review them? Has another reader’s review ever influenced your decision on whether or not to read a book?

 

Representation in Fiction

“Representation” is the current buzzword in the world of fiction. Readers are getting more and more vocal about stories that are not representative enough and woe betide anyone who happens to write something with a straight white male protagonist in the lead.

And I get it. Sort of.

When I first started reading (English) fiction on my own as a child, Nancy Drew and the Famous Five were my staples. The girls in these books were not passive stereotypes and they passed the Bechdel Test and the Sexy Lamp scenario long before I knew to look out for it. When I started reading fantasy the heroines became scarcer, true, with female characters usually relegated to the role of love interest who either stays home and yearns after the questing hero, or dies tragically to give him the motivation he needs to confront and defeat the bad guy. And yet Susan picked up her bow and arrow to fight against the White Witch and Paksenarrion left the farm behind to become the gods’ champion. When Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series entered my life and I met Moiraine, Egwene and Nynaeve (to name just a few of Jordan’s incredible cast of strong women) I found it natural for them to take on the prominent roles that they did.

The Path of Daggers – The Wheel of Time Book 8

I’m lucky in that way. I’m an able-bodied straight cisgender white woman of privilege, and somehow I never felt left out when reading.

Others are not as fortunate.

For years I vowed never to write anything other than white female characters. How could I possibly depict someone whose skin tone, orientation and life experience differed so much from my own? I would never be able to do the character justice. Whatever I wrote would always, in some way, offend someone, because it would be clear that I had no insight into a character as diverse as that.

But times are changing and I think it’s worth trying to incorporate diversity into stories for the sake of inclusion. I’m not saying as a writer I’m going to try and please every demographic. The changes I make will be small and subtle at first. Although my main characters may remain the same for now, there’s no reason why my supporting cast can’t become more representative. I will be asking myself: Does this character in a position of power absolutely have to be male? Does she need to be white? Does he need to be straight? Am I unconsciously writing a stereotype? Am I reading enough books that are representative?

Small changes to help effect larger ones.

And if my story calls for a white male main character, as is the case with my Mythical Menagerie series, then so be it. But just know that I’m trying to fill the world around him with more interesting, more diverse and more representative characters, one little step at a time.

What are your thoughts on representation in fiction? Have you felt left out? Does the thought of reading diverse characters scare or annoy you? Does it matter to you what type of characters fill the pages?

Second Book Syndrome is Real

NaNoWriMo kicked my butt this year, and the reason for that is because I’m trying to write the second installment of my Mythical Menagerie series.

While the first story flowed from my fingertips as if Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, was whispering in my ear, writing this second one is like trying to wade through a pool of neck-deep mud. I’ve heard about Second Book Syndrome, where the second book just doesn’t live up to the greatness of the first, and I’ve even read my share of sequels that were really very bad, but now I’m experiencing it for myself and I have nothing but commiseration for those authors whose second attempts have disappointed me in the past.

The things is, the story is planned and plotted and I’m happy with the character progression and the themes, but oh my word, the magic that made that first story so much fun to write is just not there this time! Every phrase I write is awkward, every word feels misplaced, and all my inherent sense of humour that seeped through the voice of book one is gone.

It’s a disaster.

And this is the reason why NaNo will fall by the wayside this year with less than 5k words under my belt. The point of NaNo is to write as fast as possible and as badly as needed to get the story out. But that’s not working for me this year. I don’t want to end up with a hastily written manuscript that needs to be scrapped and redone completely. Too much is at stake for me to spend months fixing writing that just isn’t good enough and was only tossed onto a page to meet an arbitrary word count.

I can’t sacrifice quality for quantity.

So while it would have been wonderful to have another NaNo success to my name, it would be even better to have a good story I can publish and feel proud of instead.

Frustrated Writer | © Alberta Johnson / Flickr

My plan to combat Second Book Syndrome is to start over completely (at least some of that 4k-odd words are salvageable), this time taking the time to have the characters and setting infuse my writing. If it takes a little longer to get it right, so be it.

But get it right, I will.

Have you heard of Second Book Syndrome? Have you read a second book that disappointed you so much because the first one was amazing and this one just didn’t live up to your expectations? Do you move on to the third book if the second one was bad?