Tag Archives: inspiration

A Moment of Quiet Inspiration

By Jo Zebedee

I had the fortune of “meeting” Jo through Tickety Boo Press (TBP).  I felt an affinity for her immediately since we are about the same age and have been writing genre fiction since we were children.  I’ve heard good things through the grapevine about her first novel with TBP.  Jo and I are cross-pollinating our Web sites this month, so stop by her site and read That’s What Editors Are For.

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Abendau’s Child is available for preorder on Tickety Boo Press.

I’m just starting to get asked interesting questions about being a writer. I’ve had the “Oh, I hope you aren’t intending to put me in your novel” (nope, and even if I did by page three you’d have changed sex, creed, colour, and become an alien life-form, given my thinking processes), the “That sounds exciting” (it’s really not), and the dreaded “Where do you get your ideas?”

That one’s a pig to answer. Partly because I write quite diverse things: I’ve had people with removable souls in their arms; tricksy AIs; aliens invading Belfast; a sexy love affair on Callisto (not seen the light of day, that one); a huge space opera world. Somehow, they’ve all resided in my head and popped out. I worry I have a great pit at the back of my mind where I should have some useful knowledge. Like algebra.

However, since I hope to write lots, lots more (just need to work out the ‘time/income-eating’ thing), I thought it was about time I answered that question and figured out what sort of themes drive me. It seems like what a Proper Writer should do.

My first world came  into being  in the mid-eighties when I was sixteen. It’s changed a lot since then but, in essence, it is that world. Some of the big sci-fi influences on it are clear: Blake’s 7 was my favourite show in the seventies (but I loved the quirky, twisted character of course, so Avon got a nod in the main character’s name), and a certain amount of Servalan’s style transferred to my Empress, although my so-and-so’s much nastier.

So, too, are the Star Wars elements—psi powers are important in my trilogy (although they lack the mysticism of the Force and are Properly Scientific), and the  level of technology in Abendau is properly equatable to Star Wars, although I have no droids or aliens.

Dune had a later influence when I was shaping my central planet, and it turned out to be a desert world—one without giant worms and spice, albeit, and with its own history and culture, but I’d still give a sage nod if anyone wants to mention Dune as an influence (and there could be much worse influences).

But it isn’t just this mish-mash of story influences that became uniquely Abendau, my sense of place and my background are central to the things that inspire me.  Working in a medieval castle near Belfast had its own inspiration—my torture chambers are housed in an ancient part of a futuristic palace, for instance.

What’s harder to work out is where the themes that I now recognise after writing several books come from. Themes around edge of madness come up a lot—people struggling on that edge, hiding it under normal lives; people where madness is an ill-defined but deep-seated part of who they are. I have no deep hidden secrets in that arena, no reason to explore it. Perhaps it is simply that the conflict it creates in a character is so central, close to their core, that I find it fascinating.

Perhaps some of my inspiration is rooted in the needs of a sixteen year old girl.  Kare is a protector, a complex person with a core that is untouchable. A person with more demons than would fit in the average crypt. When I found out about existentialism as a concept, it rooted in him.  Kare became a person who followed his own path, living by his own morals, having been left to find them for himself. He makes decisions based on personal beliefs, rather than something religious or spiritual. Thus I found inspiration in a philosophy, perhaps, or just one of those alchemical moments of writing where the missing conundrum reveals itself. That’s how elusive inspiration is; a narrow coil of visuals, beliefs, knowledge, memories, and ideals needing to be unwound and dissected. I’m not sure I’m able to do that for myself—I’m not sure anyone is.

Which is where I was when it occurred to me around a year or two ago that I’d have to keep getting new ideas. That worried me. I sat with a notebook with the words “What if…?” written in bold and tried to come up with scenarios. I think I managed one. The wall of panic was considerable—I wanted to write, I was getting better at it, but the ideas well was empty.

Since then, I’ve realised a blank piece of paper and some forced words are not where I gain inspiration. I find flash fiction useful, especially when inspired by something visual. Three of my novels have come from a 75- or 300-word piece.

“What if?” may not work for me on the harsh white page, but ask it out in the magic of some primal forest or by the roar of the sea  and results are a lot different.   Last summer, on my holidays—no writing, or thinking about writing, of course—I looked around the woodland up into some trees and knew there was a story waiting in that forest. That new little baby book is about 20,000 words now, and whatever is in those woods wants into my character’s  head.  And now we’re at that edge between the normal and unbalanced again.

I’m not sure any of this helps another writer. Inspiration is so hard to explain, that moment of magic where you realise you have a story. I think it’s an individual thing that comes with time, when you realise what sparks your imagination. Inspiration needs a chance to catch and burn, a way of getting out; that is something that can be managed. You can make time for the your story, for the growth of the spark.  Don’t be ashamed to revel in what if?—that defines science fiction. Staring into space?—that’s part of the writing process just as much as typing and editing and promoting is. Even on holiday…

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Appropriating Inspiration at BayCon 2014

Confession: I’ve let writing lapse lately and that feels BAD. Maybe that’s happened to you, too. Life gets in the way, and it’s hard enough to put one foot in front of the other, let alone put your fingers on the keyboard.

Seeking inspiration and writerly motivation, I spent this past Saturday and Sunday at Baycon 2014, one of the larger science fiction and fantasy conventions held annually in the San Francisco Bay Area. Along with Denise Tanaka and Jennifer Carson, I happily threw myself into the open arms of my fellow fen and found inspiration and motivation aplenty. Now here I am, writing, my fingers feeling fine as they tap the keys.

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I woke at 5:00 in the morning, and the first song of the day on shuffle was Laura Line’s “Dreams.” Good omen! Dreams inspire (several of my short stories have come from dreams that I’ve remembered upon waking), and the con would be filled with fellow dreamers.

Jennifer Carson looking at jewelry

Jennifer Carson looking at jewelry

By 10:00 a.m., I was in the dealer’s room with Jennifer, drooling over jewelry from Angelwear Creations. Jennifer (and, later, Denise) were drawn to the fantasy-inspired necklaces, but I was drawn to the science fiction pieces: silver rocket earrings, necklaces of silver shuttles in orbit around gemstones that look like planets, pins shaped like spiral-armed galaxies studded with pearls. Motivational? You bet. It’s often hard to find beautiful jewelry inspired by science fiction; at the typical SFF convention, jewelry inspired by fantasy—Celtic designs, dragons, and (lately) steampunk gears–far outnumbers science fiction pieces, a state of affairs that reflects the relative popularity of the two genres in ways that I find depressing, given that I primarily write science fiction. So I bought a spaceship-circling-a-darkling-moon necklace and wore it during the rest of the con! Wearing that necklace, I could defy the oft-repeated, demotivational claim that “most women don’t read science fiction.”

Kevin Andrew Murphy being inspired by the menu

Kevin Andrew Murphy being inspired by the menu

On Saturday, Denise, Jennifer, and I ate lunch alone. On Sunday, we were joined by several people from former writers groups whom I hadn’t seen in years, including Kevin Andrew Murphy and Wanda Kurtcu. (I had a chance to say howdy and thank you to Carrie Sessarego for her perceptive review of Skin Deep, my latest paranormal romance.) Sharing food and face-to-face conversations with these like-minded, long-lost friends, hearing how life and writing have treated them, helps put my own life and writing in perspective. Writing is a joy we can turn to when life isn’t.

Denise Tanaka giving her business card to Elanor Finster

Denise Tanaka giving her business card to Elanor Finster

Friends who aren’t long-lost can also inspire. Denise is shy, but at the con, she made a conscious effort to stand out and market her work. In her wizard’s robe and hat, staff in hand, she asked at least one question at every panel, handed out her business cards, struck dramatic poses, and furthered her brand. Her example inspires me, motivates me, to look for ways to make marketing what I write as enjoyable as the writing is itself.

Denise Tanaka in full wixzrd robes with staff

Denise Tanaka in full wixzrd robes with staff

Strangers, too, can inspire. Strangers in clever costumes. Strangers with smiles on their faces, complimenting my Firefly T-shirt or striking up a short conversation in line. Just being “of the Body” with the SFF community, being physically present in a place where so many others are, refreshes the spirit.

Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, Jennifer Carson, and Kyle Aisteach speaking at the panel on "Listening to That Critique"

Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, Jennifer Carson, and Kyle Aisteach speaking at the panel on “Listening to That Critique”

Certainly I was motivated by the topics for panel discussion (designing an effective book cover, marketing your work, using a pen name, making use of critiques, avoiding cultural appropriation, etc.) and by listening to what the panelists (authors, editors, artists, independent publishers) had to say about writing and creativity. But I found equal value in observing the panelists’ behavior. Watching how they made fans comfortable at signings, in the hallways, or in the Q&As after the panels gave me ideas about what to do and say (and not to do or say).

Random signs

Random signs

And the art: art in the dealers’ room, art in the artists’ room, random convention signage on the walls of the hotel–all inspirational. I wish I could show you images of the gorgeous, clever, thought-provoking artwork I saw, but I won’t infringe the copyrights. Looking at various paintings in the artists’ room, I thought about what would be inside a book if that painting were its cover, and although ideas for plot and characters came to mind, I found I was most inspired by the mood of the painting. I made a mental note to consider mood more consciously as I write.

Brad Lyau, Margaret McGaffrey Fisk, Leslie Anne Moore, and Wanda Kurtcu at the panel on "Cultural Appropriation in SFF Media and Costuming"

Brad Lyau, Margaret McGaffrey Fisk, Leslie Anne Moore, and Wanda Kurtcu at the panel on “Cultural Appropriation in SFF Media and Costuming”

When it was all over and I was back home, sitting on the couch in the dark while the cats roamed the room, I found myself pondering one panel in particular, the panel on cultural appropriation. The panel considered possible problems that can occur when a writer writes of a culture not his or her own, warning that such use can be offensive and harmful. In light of all the inspiration and motivation I’d been seeking at the con, I took this as a particularly apt caution.

Apt cautionary sign on convention wall

Apt cautionary sign on convention wall

As writers, we step outside ourselves to step inside ourselves. We take on the viewpoint of others in order to see ourselves more clearly. We create characters, we build worlds, we devise histories, we extrapolate or fantasize or faithfully recreate, all in words on a page outside of ourselves, all to better understand, explain, reflect, memorialize, realize something about ourselves. In writing about others, I come to know more about myself and am inevitably on some level writing about myself—myself among others, perhaps, but still myself. If I see others only from my own perspective, I see wrongly—not only those others, but also myself.

Hah! That’s rolling prose. I’m ready to write.

About Carolyn Hill

Carolyn received her doctorate in rhetoric from the University of California at Berkeley, studying the argumentative artistry of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. She has taught writing, both general and genre, for over thirty years. She is a gifted writer of short stories, which are available in her short story collection, Liminal Eyes. Those who like longer works should check out her two novels, Bead’s Pickle and Skin Deep. When Carolyn is not writing, she is hurling heavy objects into the air above her head.

Characters in Search of a Plot

I got invited to join my first SF/F writer’s group after attending a workshop at a Baycon many years ago. I was so excited! I had taken creative writing classes in college, and I had been part of a mixed-genre writer’s critique group for a couple of years. This was the first group dedicated to speculative fiction. They would understand me, at last! It had a couple of professionally published authors, along with novices like me. I had high hopes, back then, that with a little spit and polish my manuscript would be rescued from the slush pile, and I’d be the next Marion Zimmer Bradley.

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Well…My manuscript needed a little more than spit and polish. It had some serious problems. It wasn’t so much the writing itself. I had a pretty good handle on all the mechanical things like pacing, description, dialogue, and so forth. Some tweaks to world building, okay.

Where the whole thing fell apart was my grasp of the main characters’ emotions. Writer’s group became more like therapy sessions for me. I sat and listened to everything that was wrong with my character’s behavior week after week. It was hard not to take it personally. To hear them read aloud excerpts and laugh, I cringed and could not believe I wrote that badly. My heroine was a bitch. My hero was an asshole, a creep, and a stalker. My villain was ridiculous. Clearly my intentions were not coming across on the page.

Like many novice writers, I started to get defensive. I went to the Number One Cop-Out position, which is to say, “That’s just my character’s personality. There’s nothing I can do about it.” And week after week, my characters got dragged through the ringer as my writer’s group got more and more frustrated.

One day, a pro writer in the group sent out a global email to me and cc: to everybody. (I shall refer to this fellow as K. for anonymity’s sake.) It was a very long message in very strong language with lots of F words and such. But it was not a rambling attack like most of what you see on the internet. It was a detailed, well-constructed essay with lots of specific examples and analysis. It made total sense. I read it and somehow a light bulb went on in my head. I wish I had saved it, because that was the kick in the pants I needed.

Of what I recall, K. informed me that my characters come from my own mind. They are not independent entities acting in a dream world where I am merely the spectator. I realized at that moment that all the advice in writing books was wrong. It was a mistake to let the characters behave according to their own will, for the sake of making them seem real. My characters are not real. They are created in my head, and I have control of them. It is my job to keep track of inconsistency and the flow of action/reaction. As the author, every word on the page is my responsibility.

After K. sent out that email, the others in the group got very worried about me. One woman (I shall refer to her as B.) called me on the phone and asked, “Are you okay? Are you going to quit writing?” I just laughed, no. I surprised everyone by being glad for the tough love. Maybe I didn’t know how to fix the problem right away, but for the first time I understood the problem.

Moral of the story? Critique groups helped me grow as a writer but only when I moved beyond simply taking the punches and listened to the message.

About Denise Robarge Tanaka

Denise is a lifelong writer of magical beings and creator of fantastic worlds. Her debut novel, Touch, is being published by Phantasm Books of Assent Publishing towards the end of the year.