How do I make a world come alive?
My goal is to lose reality, immerse myself in the mythos of the story, and bring the whole thing to life with just 26 letters organized onto a page. I want my readers to forget there are words and allow themselves to see through space, time, and reality into a life that has never existed. In other words, if I want to make magic, then I must lose all relationship to the mundane.
The image that started a series
For me, the first step is always art. Maybe that’s a photograph, a painting (digital or otherwise), or a song. Something has to spark a reaction in me, to make me start thinking, “what if?” For Rise of the Iliri, it was a rather popular piece of fantasy art. Two lovers kiss under the cover of night. He’s clearly a slave. She’s quietly showing her control by taking what she wants. There’s this feeling of defiance in the couple, like it would be dangerous to get caught – and it made me think.
So I opened up my music collection and found a song that felt right for it. That, I played on repeat while staring longingly at the image, allowing the words to pick me up and carry me away. Very quickly, I realized that if I told the story in that picture, I’d be telling his story, not hers, because it was the more interesting of the two. Considering that I’m a huge fan of strong female leads, I decided to switch things around. While my music played, I just stared and thought. For me, this is the most important part of my writing process, and yes, I do consider it “writing”. I also go back to it whenever I’m stuck.
And that was the song. Each time it played, I began to know a little more about where I was going. Some of it was inspired by the words, but much of it was just the hopeful concept. Hope. Hmm. That’s kinda central to the whole Rise of the Iliri series.
As I’ve said before, I type stupidly fast. Right now, I’m averaging between 180 and 220 words per minute. In other words, I type about as fast as the thoughts flow through my head. So, once I have the basic idea down, I need to get it out. I’ve learned that the best and easiest way to do that is to write the description of the book. It lays out the main characters, gives a hint to the major conflict, and leaves the ending open. Plus, if I don’t know myself what’s going to happen, I’m not going to give it away in the book’s blurb.
Granted, it took me a while to figure that part out, and I’m still not perfect at it, but a rough description (usually about 500 words, which will be edited before the book’s release) is a great way to form the bones of the story in my mind.
Here’s an example:
I’m a magnet for trouble. The Senator’s daughter is exactly that. Gorgeous, spoiled, and annoying as hell, I should just walk away. I can’t. Not even the rules can get her out of my head, and every time I turn around, there she is. Then I stood between her and a gun. I didn’t mean to. Hell, that wasn’t really my intention, but I’d promised to keep her safe. To me, that’s called honor. To her, it’s hope. Everyone needs a little hope. Tonight, I made the mistake of carrying her home. My home. Now I’m in over my head. This girl isn’t spoiled – she’s desperate. She has nowhere else to turn and the longer I’m around her, the closer I get to going over the edge. I should just take her back, but I can’t. I should just walk away, but I won’t. I swore to protect her with my life and I’m not about to stop now. She may be trouble, but I have nothing left to lose. Except her.
That book hasn’t been written yet (ok, it has a few thousand words to it) but I know a few things already. It’s told from his point of view, possibly his and hers. He’s a bad ass, she’s in trouble but most people think it’s just because she’s spoiled, and they have some pretty amazing chemistry.
Now, I start to build my list of music that I will listen to very loudly, on my headphones, to block out the reality around me. For the book above, I’d pick songs with powerful tempos, some with a feeling of desperation, and a lot of male vocals. Like this:
It has both the desperation and the persistent drum line that keeps moving. The lyrics seem to fit the description. It also adds another layer to my main character. He feels compelled and is hoping that she’ll give him an out. In other words, he’s put HER in a position of power. Yep, that’s something I can write.
And then I start typing. I don’t worry about the first line or first chapter. In fact, I actually have an easy way to make sure it’s going to be potent enough. I write one chapter to get the “let me tell you all about this” out, and then cut it. The second chapter naturally starts off powerfully enough, and in the middle of the action, so it just falls into place. Granted, I often need to go back and introduce characters, but meh. That’s a couple of sentences worth of editing.
Then I keep writing. And keep writing. I do not go back and edit. I try very hard not to go back and READ it even. With that said, if I get pulled away from my book for too long (a week without being able to write, as an example) I will read the whole thing from start to finish, and I will correct typos and basic punctuation issues, like a comma instead of a period.
Then there’s the series problem.
A lot of people have problems writing series. This is why serials are so popular. Keep the world that the author worked so hard to build, but change the story to another couple, another incident, or such. Very common to see them in romances and mysteries/crime dramas. For fantasy, it’s not typically accepted by the readers.
Yet these epic stories want to be long. Some authors compromise with a cliff hanger ending. Me? I hate those so much that I refuse. Instead, I think of it like battles within a war. Each book is a battle. The series is the war. Talking about World War II, there are plenty of things to say. Talking about D-day has its own stories that are a lot closer and more personal. When you add the Battle of the Bulge together with D-day, you end up with a “series” (aka, one big nasty war). This is how I broke down the Rise of the Iliri.
Each novel needs its own conflict. Each book deserves to tell a single story, but those stories are tied together into something bigger. Before I even start my book, I want to know the conflict of the first novel, plus the conflict of the series. Again, using WWII as an example, D-day was all about deception and one group taking the majority of the punishment so that the allied forces could get a foothold. That was a major stepping stone in overthrowing Hitler (the series goal).
The photo inspiration for Zep
I try not to worry about what conflict I will have for the second book and on. So long as I know the series conflict and the primary novel’s issue, I can go crazy. You see, I don’t overly plot out things. I learned that’s a bad idea, because my characters like to change the rules, and I really like to let them. Just try to imagine Rise of the Iliri if Zep had been the antagonistic character I designed him to be! Zep and Sal, constantly at odds? Bickering, often even breaking into fist fights? Just not the same at all.
Besides, it really would have been a waste of such an interesting character.
But, once I have this simple frame work – characters created, world researched, and a conflict – I get to writing. I refuse to tell myself whether or not the character(s) will achieve their goal. The story tends to decide that on its own. In When We Were Kings, Leyli’s goal is to resume her rightful place. Tristan wants to live long enough to earn his freedom. As the story goes on, their desires change a little to add happiness into that, but things are rarely simple. They win some, they lose some, and the ending isn’t quite as clean as the characters would like. It wasn’t quite what I planned, but by letting the characters be true to themselves, I found myself with one hell of an amazing story on my screen – and that led to the conflict for the second book.
As far as my method for getting the words out of my head and onto the page? Well, that’s easy. I’m married to the most amazing man in the world. For his privacy, I’ll simply call him Mr. Perfect.
But transitioning from the day job mentality to the artist’s mentality isn’t that easy. From the moment I walk in the door, I start to decompress. There’s a bit of talk time with Mr. Perfect. That gets out the “stupids” that happened over the course of the day and naturally moves on to the stuff I’m writing. He listens to me talk about Kolt’s kinky side, Zep’s insecurities, and Cyno’s, um, everything. (See, he really IS perfect!) Then I’m ready.
I fire up the desktop, assume my writing position (for maximum comfort) and plug in my headphones. The music I choose is based on the scene I’m working on. Right now, I’m writing Rise of the Iliri #7, and Sal has finally figured out that she really is a bad ass, but her Kaisae powers are making her mind slip. That disconnect is reflected in the songs I choose, like:
Power, despair, disconnect… they’re all in there. And cranked up to the max? Yeah… the only lyrics that are clear and easy to make out is “I’d love to change the world” which is kinda the point of this book. The EDM (Electronic Dance Music) element in there just works for how I perceive Sal’s little sanity issue. I’ll let y’all ponder who I think the line “So I leave it up to you” is about.
And maybe, I’ll put together a youtube playlist for the books I’ve written, so all my adoring fans (I mean obsessed individuals that I adore) can hear the inspiration for my currently released novels. Stay tuned, because that’s going to have to wait until I finish writing this chapter. My characters are at it again, twisting things around to suit their own little desires, and I need to keep them under control a bit.
Just a bit.
But not too much.