How do I make a world come alive?

DCIM100GOPROA quick glimpse at social media shows that every author has their own way of taking an idea and making it into a book.  I’ve never spent a lot of time thinking about mine, until someone asked last night, but it’s pretty easy.

I drown.

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.

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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.

Rise of the Iliri

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).

 

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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.

Img_1461You see, the day Mr. Perfect and I decided to make a real push at turning this obsessive hobby into a career, he agreed to help.  As a feminist, his idea of being helpful was to split the work evenly, not just ideally.  We gave it two years.  During that time, I’d push myself to my limits, and he’d handle everything else.  I went to work and came home to write.  He literally did every single thing that was left.  Dinner?  All him.  Feeding the pets?  He had that down.  Mowing the lawn, making sure I had clean clothes to wear to work, and even renovating the bathroom were all his purvue.  I just had to “work”, which meant go to the job and come home to type.  A lot.

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.

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But not too much.

 

 

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From there to here, the lessons I’ve learned.

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Once upon a time, I was poor, broke, stressed out, fighting depression, and pretty desperate.  My career had just become very un-fun and my income had dwindled down to catastrophic failure levels.  Pretty much the only thing I had left was the solitude of my mind and a strange fondness for enjoying the act of typing.

To me, typing has always felt like my fingers dancing.  The keys are like tapping of shoes on a hard floor, the choreography of my fingers finding the right letter is complicated, and the faster it goes, the more amazing it always feels.  Then there are the words.  I figured I wasn’t so good at those, but it didn’t really matter.  It wasn’t like **I** could ever write a book, right?

I was wrong.  I was so wrong.  I didn’t have just one book inside me or one series, I have a lifetime of suppression ready to burst out and shock the world.  Well, at least the world of people who knew me.  So I wrote a book.  It was kinda cool, I was kinda ignorant, and in the end, I didn’t think it would amount to much.

Boy was I wrong.

But let me not get ahead of myself.  Back then, when I started on this crazy trip of becoming an author, I was broke.  I couldn’t even afford the $50 dollars for a pre-made cover, let alone an editor.  So, I decided to get inventive.  I reached out to someone I happened to know and offered a trade.  She accepted (and no, I didn’t trade her for a book) and sent back this wall of red text.  *gulp*

My book sucked.  My writing was atrocious.  I had no idea how to properly punctuate things like dialogue, introductory phrases, or even compound sentences.  Commas peppered the page like a default option, easily interchangeable with spaces.  Yeah, it was bad… But the story was there.  And to think, I’d been so convinced that book was perfect, but it wasn’t.

So we worked at it, then worked some more.  I wrote another book.  I found some decent pictures on a free stock photo site.  My own experience in advertising design left me with the skills to design the typography.  It wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but it all cost me about twenty bucks to get a tolerable book in the market, and that was a price I could afford.

So, I decided to test the waters and published One More Day.  The first month, it earned a whopping hundred bucks.  When I got the check, I reinvested it, improved the cover, did more editing, and made it something to be proud of (instead of just “good enough”).  Sales naturally increased.  Then I did it again, and again, and finally, I sent my second book to the editor.

Now, these weren’t published in the order they were written.  I was wise enough, and objective enough about my writing, that I knew my first book had a great story but needed more help than I was qualified to give it.  (Trust me, the editing remarks from the first one made an impact!)  I let that one sit, slowly fixing as I learned, and kept writing other novels.  The newer books were much cleaner and cost a lot less to get out without making a fool of myself.

And every check I got, I put back into my literary empire.  From outside help with things like formatting, cover design, and of course editing, I kept moving FORWARD, always intending to make the best book I could.  I judged myself on traditionally published works, not the dearth of crap lingering at the bottom of the indie market.  I put a lot of money into my work, because I’ve always believed that if I won’t pay for my books, why would a stranger want to?

But even when the books were good, I still was just limping by.  I wasn’t even close to being the rich author that everyone hears about.  I certainly was NOT a breakout success.  I was spending a lot of time at a hobby that was going nowhere, but I seemed to know one thing that a lot of authors don’t.  Discoverability isn’t accidental.  It’s all about marketing.

So, I invested even more.  Fifty bucks a month here.  Five dollars there.  I tested, I kept records, and I learned about things like ROI and click through rates.  I changed the description of the book, changed covers again, and tried to make the view rate as close to the buy rate as possible.  If I wanted to be writer, publisher, and money maker, I was going to have to do more than just type.  Then, finally, it happened.

Then, finally, it happened.

Sales started to increase.  I could afford to pump out novel after novel, allowing Amazon to do half my marketing for me.  My income rose exponentially, allowing me to invest even more to make books that my readers truly deserved – and the whole time, my friends kept giving me a hard time about it.

“Isn’t it good enough yet?” they’d ask.  The answer was simple.  No.  I’d still seen typos, I’d found size issues, formatting problems, and more.  Oh sure, all books have them, but if I wanted to be a serious author, then I had to take all of it serious.  Close enough wouldn’t cut it.  My friends’ opinions were biased, because they didn’t want to hurt my feelings.  If I wanted to be a professional writer, I had to make professional quality books.  There is no middle ground.

Somewhere along the way, my editor, formatter, cover artist, and a few fellow writing friends all came together to make SHP Publishing.  It’s a cooperative of people interested in the book industry who want to work outside the constraints of “normal publishing”.  In other words, we’re pretty sure we can find better ways, new tech, and work together to all succeed.

Yeah, I’d also gotten a day job.

The day job paid my bills.  The book job paid for my dream – one I never knew I had until then.  From the moment I woke up until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore, I worked.  I wrote my first book in 2013.  I published my… I think it was the third or fourth book I wrote, but the first to market… in 2015.  From that day on, I had no free time, I worked a minimum of eighteen hours a day (over 120 hours a week), I didn’t watch TV, I stopped gaming or even sleeping, and I had to put alarms on my phone to remind me that my husband couldn’t be ignored.

But we had a plan.  We’d talked this through, and he was all in.  He’d handle everything else.  All I had to do was work at my two jobs.  He cooked, cleaned, cared for the pets, made sure I had clothes to wear to work, and did literally everything.  I wrote, I went to the day job, and then I came home to write more.  I’d stay up until 3 am, wake up at 7, and start it all over again, but we could see the progress, and he believed in me.

He always believed in me.

Needless to say, that faith helped so much.  When I was so tired I couldn’t think of words, he’d remind me of some amazing review I’d gotten.  When I was convinced that this would never work, he always told me he believed in me.  Enough so that he was the one who said, “your day job is actually cutting into both your writing time and your chance to make a living out of this.  Quit.  It’s time.”

Twenty-three months after I first released my book, just shy of that two-year mark we’d agreed upon, and I’ve finally done it.  I’m a full-time author.  It was “easy” in some ways.  It also was harder than I expected (the parts that weren’t about the writing).  It just required a lot of dedication for a very long time and a willingness to do whatever had to be done.  In three weeks, I will no longer have to worry about taking a break from writing, losing my place in my story, and struggling to sleep enough.  I will no longer get burned out on a story because I had to go over the same part, again and again, to remember where I was and where I was going.

Today, I spend more a month in marketing than I used to make and live on.  Every time I hear authors wail that it’s not fair, I’m torn between shaking my head at them and feeling the pain.  I know what it’s like to not have enough money to pay the utilities this month.  I also know that complaining never made any progress.  It’s a crutch, and one that’s too easy to use.

My point isn’t that I’m so great.  It isn’t that there’s some miracle answer out there.  I just want people to know it’s possible, but it takes WORK.  You will never become a success if you aren’t willing to bleed for it, to sacrifice for it in some way.  And if the sacrifice it will take to get there isn’t worth it?  Then you have no one to blame but yourself.

See, readers don’t owe us a damned thing.  If we want to be considered “real authors” then we’re the ones who owe them a properly made, professionally edited novel.  We can’t cut corners.  We can only work harder, learn more, and struggle to always improve upon what we did the day before.

And if people aren’t buying your book, it’s not because of the competition.  It has nothing to do with a flood of crap in the market.  It’s because YOUR book is part of that crap.  Even if it’s beautifully written, you’ve missed the mark somewhere, and no one cares if YOU like it.  They care if THEY do.  They care if it’s worth the time they spent doing something they hate.  They want to know that the book they buy will give them more enjoyment than that cup of coffee for the same price.

They are the readers, the fans, and the experts.  They are the ones buying it, and they worked just as hard for their money as you, dear author, do for yours.  I’d even dare to say harder.  THEY are the ones who deserve to be pampered, and I sure hope my stories can do that…

So they can keep pampering me in return.