Who Needs Inspiration?

I’ve been reading a lot of writing advice recently. Don’t ask me why, since most writing advice hinges on style and method, which are personal to everyone. This is just one of my ways of killing time instead of doing productive things, like finding a new job.

Since I’ve been pretty much indiscriminate about which writing advice I read, I’ve come across a lot of contradictions. Sometimes the advice is meaningless enough that I don’t really care whether someone contradicts it or not. But some quotes on each side of a debate have stuck with me.

One thing people seem to be in disagreement about is the matter of inspiration. A number of authors advise writers not to wait around for it. If we sit around waiting for the inspiration to strike, it never will and we’ll finish our lives without ever having made our goals. Others say that it will come. Don’t worry about it. Better to wait and write something inspired than to wallow in bad prose, trying to push through a mental block.

I feel like I’ve been on both sides of the fence here, opinion-wise. When I’ve truly been inspired, I’ve taken every spare moment to work on my piece. I’ve been driven to ignore all temptations such as games, books, films, and the internet. I’ve neglected meals, because the end is always a few sentences away and I can’t bear the possibility of losing my inspiration and my train of thought just because my brain couldn’t control my body.

That being said, my moments of inspiration have come few and far between. When I was really busy on my MA, I only wrote when I was inspired. As a result, I have two pieces from that time – a completed short story, and the prologue to what I believe will be a very interesting novel if I can ever capture that voice again. I do regret that I didn’t spend more time on my fantasy writing during my MA.

I feel – and perhaps some of you do too – that the writing I do when I’m inspired is superior to what I do when I’m just writing because my story needs to go somewhere. But I don’t honestly know whether my writing is better. My judgment may be clouded because I enjoy writing more when I’m inspired. After I finished that inspired short story during my MA, I sent it off to a writing buddy. She tactfully avoided my questions about it and did not provide me with the critique I requested, so I can only assume she didn’t like it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad, of course. I would ask for at least a second opinion before I decided to scrap the whole thing. It might, however, be something that should never see the light of day again, no matter how inspired I was to write it.

I feel as though my first drafts need more work when they’re uninspired, even if I’ve planned them out beforehand. However, my extra level of attachment to my work might cloud my judgment.

Does anyone else feel a difference in the quality of their work when they’re uninspired/inspired? Or is it just that things get done faster, so the draft is finished at lightning speed? Or does inspiration come in the ideas, rather than the more concrete written word?

Characterization in High Fantasy

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading a fantasy book titled Ombria in Shadow.  I have to admit I’m still in some confusion as to how I feel about it. It’s obvious that the author has a great grasp of language, imagery, and the craft of writing itself. What is less clear is whether she has a grasp on how to write a novel. 

The book is about a kingdom called Ombria and the crisis which occurs there when the king dies. He is survived by his very young son and heir, his bastard nephew, his low-born mistress and an ‘aunt,’ a strange woman who has been a shadow power behind the throne for longer than anyone can remember. Of course, a power struggle ensues between those who want to depose the heir and those who want to protect him.

The plot itself is nothing to write home about, though it could certainly be worse. Unlike a lot of literature that deals in politics (fantasy or otherwise), the plot of Ombria in Shadow lacks a certain richness and complexity. We are never in doubt as to who is bad and who is good, or who wants what.

In that same vein, the characters are also strangely lacking. Take, for instance, the mistress mentioned above. In the beginning of the novel she’s being thrown out on the streets, in all her regalia, by the domineering ‘aunt’ who has seized control in the last few days of the king’s terminal illness. The mistress flees back to her father’s inn, where she had worked and been picked up by the king years before.

In the following pages, nothing of her characterization convinces me that she was worth the love of a king who could, presumably, have anyone. She’s a passive character for most of the book and a bit of a wet blanket, to be honest.  And I had trouble with a lot of the other characters as well. They had underdeveloped backgrounds, made poorly explained choices, and often had moments of clarification that were not preceded by moments of actual discovery. Which just goes to show, I guess, that even if you can write, it doesn’t mean that your journey is over.

The character arc can be explored in numerous different ways, depending on how the author wishes to direct the story. For example, in Ombria, it was clear to me that the author was more interested in the world she had created than in the people who inhabited it. Therefore they often did things that altered the world and forwarded the plot, but made little sense in their own lines of development.

Properly understanding and motivating a character can push him or her far towards becoming more like a real person and less like a tool. Back when I was in high school, in order to flesh out my characters I made a 3-page character sheet detailing their physical features and abilities, their strengths and flaws, their phobias and their big psychological traumas. I haven’t looked at that sheet for years now, but it helped me think about different aspects of my characters so I can understand their motivation and what might get in their way.

When fantasy was just starting out as a genre (and even in the case of high fantasy up to the late ’90s and the Harry Potter era) I think it was easier to get away with less-developed characters. Now there’s so much competition out there that we fantasy authors have to make everything as good as we can. We shouldn’t try to focus on a good plot or good description to gloss over larger problems in our work.

Anybody have tips for making a well-rounded character?

Making a Nanowrimo Playlist

Someone, probably on the OLL blog, once suggested that you make a playlist that corresponds to what you’re writing on a given day. You put a playlist on repeat and it just goes round and round until you’re done with the scene.

I think this is an awesome idea. I can prep my scene without overthinking it – if I want to capture a feeling of melancholy, I pick a few melancholy songs and I’m good to go. And once I’ve used my playlists one time, I can just go back to the ready made mood-setter. Also, it means that I won’t be able to procrastinate by searching for adequate songs from my music library. Of course, I’ll be able to procrastinate by making long and elaborate lists, but I’m going to try and put a few together on the weekend, before November actually starts.

I’m a big fan of grand, symphonic music. I have played classical piano for almost 20 years now, and the modern music I like usually involves a symphony. When I was eighteen, I was introduced to the genre of symphonic metal, which has fueled my writing ever since.

Here are some of the pieces that I find particularly inspiring, and will be listening to (a lot!) during November. As I wrote up the list, I realised – a lot of these pieces are pieces I discovered a long time ago. I think I need to have a little more inspiration in my musical life. If you have a favourite song to write to, help me expand my horizons and put it in the comments! My novel may take roads I would never have dreamed of.

Adventure music:

Theme from Pirates of the Caribbean – Klaus Badelt
Theme from The Lord of the Rings – Howard Shore
The Hazards of Love (album) – The Decemberists

Happy music:

The Game of All Fours – Kate Rusby
Almost anything by Owl City (I know it’s sappy electro-pop, but it’s just so darned cute!)

Sad music:

Gymopedie – Erik Satie
Gnossienne numbers 1-5 – Erik Satie
See Me in Shadow – Delain
The Crow, the Owl and the Dove – Nightwish

Epic music:

Ghost Love Score – Nightwish
The Bridge of Khazad-Dum (from the Fellowship of the Ring) – Howard Shore
Theme from Princess Mononoke – Joe Hisaichi

Thoughtful music:

Lappi (Lapland) – Nightwish
The Wheat (from Gladiator) – Hans Zimmer

Creepy music:

Theme from Pan’s Labyrinth – Javier Navarrete
The Rite of Spring – Igor Stravinsky
I am Stretched on Your Grave – Kate Rusby

Scary Music:

Serenade Schizophrana – Danny Elfman

 

Now it’s your turn!

A Typical Day in My November Life

Here is a breakdown of my morning during Nanowrimo last year:

  • 09.15: Arrive at coffee shop – late, of course. Put bike away, go stand in the coffee line.
  • 09.20: Juggle hot coffee glass from hand to hand. Why do they always have to serve it in a glass? Haven’t they heard of mugs? With handles? Find writing nook, with already-present writing buddy. Hug writing buddy, exchange pleasantries.
  • 09.30: Turn on computer during casual chatting with writing buddy. Gossip about work, university, bosses, and so on.
  • 09.35: Fellow wrimo has found picture of adorable cat. Awwww! See writing buddy’s pictures of her actual cats. Norwegian forest cats are the best! Watch video of cats playing.
  • 9.45: open Scrivener. Stare at empty slot.
  • 9.50: open previous Scrivener chapter for inspiration. Complain to fellow wrimo about the difficulties of finding inspiration. Agree to a 30-minute challenge.
  • 10.00: Finally settle on a good song to listen to on repeat.
  • 10.20: compare notes. Both of you have around 500 words. Compare more cat photos.
  • 10.30: with regrets, head down to university. Swear that more writing will be done tomorrow.

Sometimes I wonder how I managed to win last year. I’m going to have to be way more disciplined this year – not because I won’t win if I don’t follow a tight schedule, but because I’ll stop working on my thesis to finish Nanowrimo, And that will essentially doom my master’s degree.

The biggest reason I do Nanowrimo is because I get to hang out with other writers a lot. It helps me to hear their problems and look over and see that they’re being productive, and I should be too. If I didn’t have my writing group, I could pick any month to write a novel. March is looking pretty good – I’ll be out of a job, finished with university studies – why not write a book in March? Because it just wouldn’t be the same.

At the same time, seeing these people ends in less of a word count than I want. And probably need. I always end up with at least one day during Nanowrimo when I have to write at least 10,000 words. One memorable Thanksgiving with my American family, I got up at 6 AM, wrote 20,000 words before Thanksgiving dinner, and 10,000 after we rolled home. Kids, don’t try that at home. Seriously. I already did, and it was disastrous.

So. My biggest distraction, when I get down to it, is the presence of people who are supposed to be focused and writing, like me. Any other wrimos – are you meeting up with fellow wrimos in your region? What sorts of distractions do you dread during our great writing blitz? And for people not doing Nanowrimo this year, do you meet up regularly with writing groups? What distractions kill your word count most?

Nano cat distracts, yet simultaneously calls attention to the fact that we should probably be attempting to lessen our mediocrity.

 

The World is Not Enough: Worldbuilding in preparation for Nanowrimo

Alan Lee's rendition of Tolkien's land.

Everyone talks about the importance of ‘making your world believable.’ It’s a big issue in fantasy fiction, especially in the genre of high fantasy in which so much can be ripped off from other people. But while I have read a lot of posts saying, ‘be sure to make your world believable!’ I haven’t seen so many that say, ‘This is how you make your world believable.’

An example: a few years ago I was attending the fantastic Eastercon in London. Eastercon is a huge science fiction and fantasy convention which features famous novelists (George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman and China Mieville have all been guests of honour there), and consists of panels, workshops, endless games, book signings and all the things you’d expect at the con of your dreams. When I last attended, there was a late night panel on exactly this topic – how to make a believable fantasy world. So I went to check it out.

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. The panel consisted of four or five authors who, in reality, spoke about very little. One guy who wrote historical fantasy said, ‘make sure that your history is accurate.’ Gee, really? Another self-published woman spent most of the hour complaining that tween fans  didn’t think her vampires sparkled enough. Which is definitely a topic worth talking about, but a little off-subject. At the end of the hour, I didn’t have any new tips. The general consensus of the panel was, ‘historical writers, make sure your world is accurate. Everyone else…make it multidimensional.’ Okay, but again, how?

Since I’ll be working in a high fantasy setting for Nanowrimo, I want to make sure two things happen: firstly, that my fantasy world should not be a lesser copy of Tolkien, Martin or others. Secondly, my work should seem believable.

Here is a list of things I plan to keep in mind when creating my fantasy world:

  1. How does the government work? Who’s helping the king run things? Is there even a king? Or maybe a queen? Government gets pretty complicated pretty quickly, so this is important to think about.
  2. How does the class system work? What do the lower classes think of the higher, and the higher of the lower? Who’s in which class? This is particularly important for me since my main characters will face this issue often.
  3. What is considered normal? Customs differ from region to region in our world, so it goes without saying that they should be totally different in another.
  4. How does the economy work? This is one of those things with which you could go into great detail, or little. I’m no big economist and I don’t think that a lot of high fantasy writers. Putting in a banking or monetary system will make a world seem just a little more convincing.
  5. How does technology interact with the world? With the rise of steampunk this is becoming an increasingly important question.
  6. How do the other creatures of the world come into play? We’re all used to elves and dwarves and orc-like things. If we want them to stand out from the crowd, we’ll have to develop them.
  7. What do the cities look like? We can take inspiration from London, Dubai, Beijing, ancient Rome, Paris underground, the steppes of Mongolia – or all of them. City planning can give a unique feel to something.
  8. How’s the environment doing? Fun fact: the ancient Romans are still at the top of the chart in terms of polluters. Aside from that, what is the environment actually like? How is it different from the environment of all those other books?
  9. What are the fashions? Laugh if you want, but fashion dictates the look of a lot of things. Not just fashionable clothing, but fashionable architecture, fashionable music, fashionable art, and so on.

Naturally, one of the hardest parts is weaving this into a narrative without just setting it all down as an info dump.

This list is a bit slapdash, full of things I pulled off the top of my head. There are, of course, a lot more things to talk about. The list could go on and on, but I feel that this post should not. If you have something you think should be on the list, put it down in the comments. I’ll be thanking you profusely throughout November. Maybe we can get a nice set of questions together that help build that elusive, well-rounded, completely knockoff-free world that we’re all looking for.