Talking Ideas and Inspiration with Annabeth Albert

I love chatting with other writers, so I was thrilled when Annabeth Albert agreed to answer a few questions about her new book, Off Base, where she gets her ideas, and what inspires her, because, well, I’m talkative and can’t ask simple questions.

Welcome, Annabeth!

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An Audience of One

Who do you write for? It’s a question I’ve pondered a lot over the past few weeks. It’s something every writer has to ask at least once. Most of us probably ask it every time we open up a file or pick up a pen. Every word we put down has been chosen for a reason. It carries more weight than its place in a sentence.

My first answer to this question was myself. I remember feeling quite virtuous as I said it, as if I were giving the only right answer. I’d skipped to the end of this particular lesson.

My second answer to this question was a more subdued echo of the first. As I read some of the not so nice reviews of my first published book, Less Than Perfect, I needed to remind myself of the fact the story had been for me. I also consoled myself with the fact that someone other than me had seen value in my words, my characters, my vision. Someone had chosen to help me rewrite it, doubling the length of my original submission, improving it, then covering and producing it.

But I hadn’t written it for them. Or had I? Maybe just to prove I could? I certainly hadn’t written it for anyone who might read it, not then.

What about my second published book, Chaos Station. Who did I write that for?

Hence the third time I had to answer this question. I wrote it for myself, damn it. And maybe for Jenn. Because the guys we nicknamed space boys had been kicking around both our heads for a while. If we didn’t let them out, give them voice, they were going to start leaving bruises. I guess that means we also wrote it, in part, for them—for our characters—and oh how that answer complicates such a simple question. Or, maybe the question isn’t as simple as I thought it was.

So who did I write Lonely Shore for? Well, we had a contract, so I had to write it for Carina Press. I also had to write it for the guys, because Chaos Station was only the first chapter of their story. I think we both also felt we might be writing for readers at that point. Surely they’d want to know more? Overwhelmingly they did. By the time we got to Skip Trace, our readers also had criticisms and suggestions in the form of reviews.

You can’t please everyone. Often you can’t please anyone. Does that mean you should change your story? Yes and no. Reader expectation is a thing and, unless you’re Stephen King, you have to take it into account. Also, with every book, particularly when you’re writing a series, you’re laying out the terms of an agreement. You’re fulfilling a contract to a certain point, with some clauses still under negotiation. As a writer, I have an idea of how I want every story to end. The points I want to hit along the way. But if a reader posts a review of book three pointing out something they’d like to see in book four—that is not a part of my current plan—do I listen?

Yes. But only if what they’d like to see makes sense. Because, well, I’m supposed to be writing these books for me. They’re my art, my form of expression. The message within (if any) is mine to share.

I wrote Out in the Blue for myself. Jared is me (in an alternate reality). Same with Paul from When Was the Last Time. These guys are expressions of self I use to explore ideas. Is it weird I chose to represent myself with a male character rather than female? No. Changing the gender of my main character helps me maintain distance, to write someone who is not me. Also, I’m fascinated by men. I love writing them. I almost always choose a male avatar when I’m gaming. I prefer to read books with male leads.

We’re not going to examine that in further detail.

So, what brought on this post? Well, it’s a number of things. It’s a reaction to some conflict in the romance writing community. It’s me questioning the validity of my work and the desire to continue writing love stories. It’s me wondering if I should submit the sequel to a book I currently have in edits now, or wait to see if anyone likes the first one.

It’s the answer to the question of should I be scanning the MSWL hashtag for project ideas that will sell, or should I be writing that post-apocalyptic Christmas love story that’s been kicking around in my head for way too long.

Seriously, who is going to read that?

I would—and that’s why the answer to my question “Who am I writing for?” always has to be me. Myself. Because for a lot of what we do, we’re only going to have an audience of one. So shouldn’t we strive to make them happy?

In a word, yes.

(This post was also inspired by a post by Dan Blank called Why We Create.)

Stories Waiting to Be Told

Have you ever browsed stock photo sites? There are some ridiculous pictures posted there and I often wonder what the photographer was thinking. Obviously, they were setting a scene with the hope it matched a story waiting to be told – probably by an advertising company or a journalist. Because nuns praying to fish is a thing, right?

But when I’m not giggling over implausible scenarios, I’m collecting another type of stock photo. These ones are, well… They’re book covers for the stories I haven’t told yet. It’s kind of annoying, to be honest. Because as just about any writer will tell you, ideas aren’t hard to come by. We have notebooks and files full of them. The stories that come from these ideas are less abundant. The time to write these stories? At a premium. I’ll never get to a quarter of my list.

But, hopefully, I’ll get to at least one of these:

the-hand-1172231The Hand

The door has just been closed, but whoever is on the other side with her has given them a moment. He’s let her touch the window, just once. Is it because he knows it’s the last time they’ll see each other? Is the gesture cruel or kind?

Where is she going? Why? That’s the story I don’t have yet, but this photo suggests something sinister. Interrogation? Experimental gene therapy? Prison?

Maybe she’s going willingly. Maybe she asked for this moment, knowing it would be the last one. Or, maybe the shape of her hand is a symbol.

 Here, Now

This stock photo is tagged passion. I…don’t see it. I can see the tension. This kiss is a spur of the moment thing, but it’s more meaningful than hormonal, in my opinion. It might just be that the models were asked to pause before their lips connected, but in that pause is the story. The distance between their faces and the stillness of their pose. They’re in a public location, but their posture is fairly relaxed. They don’t fear being caught out in this kiss. Their connected at several intimate points – the hand on the thigh, a hand around the back of the head. There is a possessiveness to both gestures, and familiarity. This is a couple, but maybe not one well established.

So, maybe this kiss began as a passionate impulse. Then, as they drew close, something else intruded. A realisation that this moment was about more than the kiss. It was about them telling the world they’re together. That they’re intimate. That their feelings are something they want to acknowledge and share.

Footsteps

It took me a while to figure out that wasn’t snow. Before I did, though, this picture begged for a story. Why is this woman out there without the proper gear? Has she been abandoned? Or has she escaped from a remote facility. Once thing is clear: she isn’t going to get far. The shadows are long and with the night, any lent by the sun will disappear, as will her compass.

Any stir of wind will erase her footprints, hiding her trail. This is good and bad. In the event someone is following her, it’s a good thing. But it also makes it hard for the good guys to find her, and if she can’t look back along her trail, how will she find her way in the dark. She has to keep moving, remember? It’s cold. Even if that is sand, it’s going to be cold – but traveling at night will protect her from the heat of the day.

Where did she come from and where is she going? I don’t know, because I’m probably never going to write this story.

I Heart LA

I nearly bought this image to use for “Graduation”, the short story Jenn and I wrote for our Chaos Station series. The clothing wasn’t right, though, and my Photoshop skills aren’t up to all the other changes I wanted to make, such as modernizing the city skyline and changing the letters. Adding another figure.

But there is a story here. It’s separate from the letters this guy is writing in this picture. Change those words and this could be about anything. Is he writing a name? Is he giving a clue to the code? Maybe he’s been possessed by aliens and he’s writing equations against the night sky as if it were a blackboard. He could be solving the theory of everything.

Or, he could be pointing to a bird, a plane…Superman. Or a UFO. He could just be really, really drunk and imaging there’s something there.

I really like the idea this picture is a celebration, though. It just has that vibe. Maybe he has just graduated and he’s writing his new name in the sky. Or maybe he’s dancing and what he’s writing isn’t important at all.

I have close to a hundred other stock photos saved to favourites folders, though, and some of them…some of them are calling. They’re weaving their stories for me, even as I write this post. I just hope that when I get around to writing one of them, the image hasn’t already been used by Stephen King or something. Or in a Buzzfeed quiz.

Character Theme Songs: Zander

Zander—or Zed, as we like to call him—is our white knight, our hero. But, like all heroes, that’s not all he is. The man is self-sacrificing to an annoying degree. He wants to SAVE THE WORLD, and everyone in it. His career has a soldier has taught him that he can’t. But, like all of us, Zed sometimes ignores that lesson and tries anyway. It’s who he is.

Zander Anatolius (portrait by Tami Santarossa)
Zander Anatolius (portrait by Tami Santarossa)

He’s still very human, though. He has wants and desires, and they can blind him to his ambitions on occasion. That’s a fancy way of saying he’s gloriously flawed. In Chaos Station, his initial attempts to save everyone meant slipping away and hiding from the world. Following a path to oblivion alone. He ignored and broke promises. Got a little selfish—and why not? He’d been cast adrift by the Allied Earth Forces. Put in a life raft with a puncture in one side, and his supplies did not include a roll of duct tape.

But, when called to action—first to find Emma, then to help her—Zed doesn’t hesitate. In fact, the only reticence he shows in Chaos Station is in rekindling his affair with Felix. And that’s another of those annoyingly self-sacrificing acts. He knows he’s not going to be able to be who or what Felix needs. But love conquers all, right? Or beats our protests into pulped submission. Or just makes us stupid enough to ignore all the other stuff.

So, Zed’s songs need to cover all of these things. It’s a tough call! A song I like for Zed is “The Pretender”, by Foo Fighters. The sound, the lyrics. I think all heroes are pretenders, on some level. They’re the last person to believe in themselves. Jenn and I also really love “Come Alive”. This song. It’s impossible to listen to it and NOT think about our guys and that moment Zed steps aboard the Chaos, and discovers Felix is alive. In that instant, everything he thinks and feels changes.

“You saved me the day you came alive.”

(Being saved isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, which is another theme we explore over and over in these books)

What does Jenn like for her character? I know she has sorted through many tracks on the way to finding Zander Gold. Here’s what she had to say on the subject:

Often when I start working on a new character, I like to find a song that fits some aspect of their personality or journey. Something that I can attach to them in my head so I can easily pull them to the forefront just by listening to it—which definitely helps when the character is new. (Sometimes the song precedes the character, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.)

When I started coming up with the concept for Zed—rich boy with some grit, a broken super soldier, a guy who has a well-developed martyr complex, and one who regrets losing the love of his life very, very deeply—one song in particular looped around in my brain: “Do I Wanna Know?” by the Arctic Monkeys.

There are so many parts of this song that just scream ZED! to me.

Listening to a song on repeat because it makes him think of Felix—this lyric actually inspired Zed’s musical talent, but beyond that, I could definitely see him doing this after he and Felix parted ways following graduation from the Academy.

Wanting to know if he’s alone in feeling the way he does about Flick—particularly after their reunion in Chaos Station.

Wondering if Felix’s heart is still open, if he still has a chance, and desperately wanting to kiss him, always.

Hiding himself and his feelings, but still wanting, still looking for the courage to say what he wants in the daylight.

Admitting that he’s never moved on, that he’s always belonged to Felix.

Not to mention, the song has that strong, slow beat and bass riff that just gives it a dark, steamy feel—which fits with the darkness in Zed’s personality. Also, it’s sexy. And these guys are nothing if not sexy.

Next challenge is to choose songs for the rest of the crew, individually and together. We should probably get them some art too. Elias wants art. Nessa’s indifferent to the idea and Qek is curious. Very, very curious. ♥

Character Theme Songs: Felix

I don’t listen to music as I write. I find it distracting. I do think about my characters when I am listening to music, though, and sometimes a lyric or melody will separate from the whole, and one character in particular will stand up to claim it. Then, every time that song plays, I will think of just that character. Their story and their relationships. It can be a very moving experience, particularly if the song is connected to an emotional aspect of one of my characters. Or a specific event.

Back when I was writing fan fiction (Dragon Age: Origins), I made the mistake of connecting a song to the death of my most beloved character, my Warden, Aedan Cousland. The song, ironically, is called “To Heal” by Underworld. “To Heal” was always destined to be a favourite. My relationship with Underworld has been long and fruitful, and the song (there are no lyrics, it’s all melody) is from the soundtrack to one of my favourite films, Sunshine. Long story short, it suits the moment in the film, and it suits the moment of Aedan’s death—which is not written from his point of view, but that of his wife, who feels him go through the magic of an amulet. To this day, I cannot listen to the song without getting misty-eyed.

I role-played a character called Andrew Banvard for about three years. I adored Andy. I sobbed almost disconsolately when I had to write his last post (I didn’t kill him, I retired him). But his music never fails to cheer me up, particularly his theme song, which is “Upside Down” by Jack Johnson.

Before I share the playlist for every character I’ve written, let me introduce you to Felix Ingesson.

Felix Ingesson (portrait by Tami Santarossa)
Felix Ingesson (portrait by Tami Santarossa)

Felix (Flick/Fixer) is the character I write for the Chaos Station series (co-written with Jenn Burke). His name is a deliberate choice. It means “lucky”, “favoured by luck” or “lucky one”. Felix survives almost four years as a prisoner of war, escapes, learns his family was killed in the war, and his lover—whom he hasn’t seen in five years—is buried so deep in secure military files, he may as well be dead. Still, Felix manages to survive. He lives on. In Chaos Station, he is reunited with Zander Anatolius (Zed), the love of his life, and over the course of the next year (five books), their love and loyalty is tested. Their ability as survivors will be tested. I figured he could use a little luck. 😉

When I first started writing Felix, a tune would nip at me now and again. Carolina Liar’s “Tell Me What I’m Looking For” describes many aspects of Felix’s journey through life. “Who We Are” by Switchfoot evokes Felix’s shared childhood with Zed. But it wasn’t until Jenn sent me a link to “Something from Nothing” that Felix stood up and started waving his arms around. Singing, yelling:

“Fuck it all, I came from nothing.”

And you know what? He did. Several times over. Felix is an angry guy, and in his situation, who wouldn’t be? He’s not ashamed of his parents and his humble origins, but he knows that without the help of Zed’s family, he’d never have been more than a station rat. His talent for mechanical engineering might have got him a job in the massive ship yards attached to Pontus Station. It was more likely he’d have used his wits to hack and steal, however, as he was already doing at age eight. He stole Zander’s wallet, after all. That’s how they met.

He came from nothing when he won a scholarship and graduated near the top of his class from the prestigious Shepard Academy. He came from nowhere when he escaped stin custody, and from nothing once again after the Allied Earth Forces discharged him, leaving him without family—the one he’d been born to, the one who had turned him into a soldier. Luckily, his mate Elias was there to catch him before he fell too far, to adopt him, give him something to live for again.

Felix named their ship Chaos because he is very well aware of what comes from nothing. Not just something, but everything. He lives his life by that law and often in defiance of every other one.

So, yeah, the Foo Fighters really capture Felix for me with this song—it’s almost like they wrote it just for him. And, as often happens, when I listened to my other favourite Foo Fighters songs, I pretty much decided they’d written them all just for our boys. Also, look at the album art for “Sonic Highways” (“Something from Nothing” is the first track), it’s all futuristic and stuff!

"Sonic Highways" Foo Fighters
“Sonic Highways” Foo Fighters

Does Zed have a song from the same band? Why, yes, he does (according to me). Next week, I’ll reveal which one it is and let Jenn talk about her favourites, too.

 

Location: Imagination

Mir Diamond Mine, Mirny, Eastern Siberia.
Mir Diamond Mine, Mirny, Eastern Siberia.

I have a series of posts about Earthly locations that look quite alien. While the photographer responsible for the images I use may not have always been inspired by the same thoughts, I think there is something in all of us that responds to the “alien”. Not many of us get to travel, and so we spend our lives surrounded by the familiar. Images that expose us to the unfamiliar can elicit a variety of responses ranging from fear to wonder.

When I look at these images, I almost always imagine a location—either for a story I have read, written, or the one I have to immediately sit down and make notes for.

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Story Book Scenery

Time for another photography post. As always, the pictures I have collected inspire my imagination, but this time the stories in my head are on our planet. There are no aliens or mythical creatures. I cannot rule out the possibility of magic, though.

(Each image links to its source. Please click through to appreciate the work of each photographer.)

We’ll start by visiting Norway. This photograph entranced me the first time I saw it and as I researched the origins for this post, it did so all over again. I stumbled across it shortly before Christmas and it seemed to me that I looked at Christmas. Or, at least, the story book version of it.

All I know is that it’s Norway and it’s gorgeous.

It’s a beautiful scene and I’d love to credit the original photographer. If anyone recognises it, please let me know.

The next photo is from an Italian Photographer by the name of Riccardo Criseo, and…I lied. This one does, to me, hint at alien activity. It’s all happening here, on Earth, however. Comforting, I know.

Weather Lightning Landscape by Riccardo Criseo

My favourite aspect of this photo is the glimpse of city lights beneath the clouds. There are storied down there, and they run on, regardless of what is stirring the heavens above.

The next image is from Canada. I’ve seen a lot of photographs of bubbles caught beneath the ice. It’s a picturesque phenomenon. What I love about this image is the painterly quality of the light, particularly in the foreground. The grainy texture of the ice almost seems to be oil scratched against canvas.

Glass House – Lake Abraham by Paul Christian Bowman

There are a number of stories here. What lurks beneath the ice? And where is the photographer? Is he on the ice? If so, why? The photographer is Paul Christian Brown and he has a number of other pictures of frozen lakes on flickr.

The next photo is another winter scene. I love the way the light limns the trees. There is a feeling of expectation here, as if something momentous is about to happen.

Warmth in Winter by Prescott Devinney

I don’t know where this is taken, but I don’t think it matters. Story book settings can be anywhere, right?

As always, I have another fifty photos tucked away that I’d love to share. Until next time, please enjoy these.

Character Theme Songs: Reg

A friend of mine, Jenn Burke, has a series of posts called ‘Audibly Inspiring’. I find her choices interesting and, well, inspiring. We have similar tastes in music, but differ enough to find new musical crushes in one another’s playlists. After reading back through a few of her posts, I decided to start my own collection of musical musings.

(This ramble may or may not be related to the fact I recently figured out how to link YouTube videos to my posts.)

A lot of writers find music inspiring. I know I do. Oddly, though, I don’t often listen to music while I’m writing. I used to. Back in the fan fiction days (I say that as if they were sooo long ago, when really, they’re not; I posted a story just last month), I listened to a lot of music while I wrote. It seemed a natural part of the process and I often chose artists and songs that inspired the character I planned to write that day.

I did not write Less Than Perfect under any musical inspiration. But, afterwards, when asked if Reg had a theme song, I felt really bad that he didn’t! And it seemed as if I’d done one of my characters a great disservice by not loving him enough to give him one, to have even thought about giving him one. I put a lot of thought into what he looked like, after all.

Want a peek? You know you do.

Model Ben Hill served as inspiration for Reg. Lovely, isn’t he? (If you’re not attracted to men, you need not answer that. I’ll understand.)

I chose Mr. Hill to represent Reg because he had the sort of face I imagined Reg might have: good looking, but not so absolutely stunning he seemed unreal. He needed to be ‘less than perfect’. To me, this is the face of a man who looks like, well, a man. He might care about what colour his shirt is, but he’s not going to spend all day dithering in his closet. He’s forgotten to shave for a week or more, but it’s the apocalypse. There are more important things to think about than personal grooming. Still,  he has an over all clean-cut sort of look about him. And he smells nice. All forest-y.

So, when choosing a theme song for Reg, I took his looks into account. This gave me an excuse to scroll through my (not creepy) collection of photos references. I also thought about what sort of man he is and here is where I got my first hint of what his song might be. He’s a reluctant hero.

I love writing reluctant heroes. I agree that some of us are born heroes. We have a driving need to serve and protect. I say that as if I’m one of the few, the proud… I think when push came to shove, I’d stand up and fight, okay? Anyway, back to my reluctant heroes. We have those who are born, and then, we have those who are made. The folks who who will stand up and fight, not because they have to, or not necessarily because they believe in a cause, but because it’s the right thing to do. Because they want to protect something important to them. It might be something small and selfish, but more usually it’s an ideal, one they might not even be able to articulate. Am I making sense? They fight because they have to. But lack of choice does not mean lack of conscience. Once involved, they become invested.

Reg is one of these men and he shares this trait with a lot of my heroes. So when it came to choosing a song for him, I picked the same one I use for my Warden, Aedan Cousland: “Superman (It’s not Easy)” by Five for Fighting.

This is a beautiful song. Listening to it has reduced me to tears on several occasions. It’s annoying when I’m driving. But, I think that regardless of reference–mine, yours or the artist’s–this is a song many of us can relate to.

The story does not end there, though. Characters should be mutable, in my opinion. Even after you set them down on paper you can discover new facets. I recently stumbled across another song that I thought suited Reg very well. It’s a more cynical take than I had imagined for him, but the earnest soulfulness of the melody really seemed to speak for him.

Ironically, it’s the theme song for the video game Borderlands 2: “Short Change Hero” by The Heavy.

Okay, that’s it for Reg, so far, but the search for music that inspires the voices in my head is an ongoing thing. Even characters who no longer get written still pluck at my thoughts and, now and again, I collect a new song for them. I have playlists over on YouTube devoted to each one. Yes, this means I’ll be writing more Musical Muse posts 😀 Enjoy!