Different Worlds

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Small announcement: I will be doing #askawriter on Twitter, from 6:30-7pm, PST. Come ask me questions about writing and publishing, I will answer all I can within that timeframe. Be sure to use the hashtag! I’ve done #askawriter twice now, and it’s been a lot of fun, not to mention good practice distilling answers into 140 characters. Also, you can check my Events Calendar. I will be putting #askawriter and other chats on there, as well as appearances and signings.

A lot of people have asked me recently if I get confused between the different worlds and series I write. It’s a fair question, since I am seen as being pretty prolific. (I am not nearly as fast as I want to be, believe me.)

The short answer is, no. The lighting is too different.

The long answer requires a digression. But you pretty much guessed that, didn’t you.

I’m going to tell you (oh, all right, I’m telling the world, same difference) something I’ve never told anyone before. When I was a little girl, I would be sent to bed far earlier than my body clock liked. I had a lot of time, lying there in the dark. And what I would do is tell myself stories. But I wouldn’t just repeat them, words on a string. I saw them. I literally built them inside my head, like movies. I trained myself to see every scene, right down to the glasses on a kitchen counter or the titles of the books on a nightstand. I built very detailed scenes inside my head, and fell asleep inside them.

What I didn’t realize was that I was training to see stories. Recently at an event, a scriptwriter told me my books are “cinematic.” The reason is simple: I see them. I stop scenes, pan around, and the soundtrack gives me a voiceover of what the characters are thinking. I can slip inside a character’s head and see things from their angle, jump out and into another body–it was and is intensely liberating, for someone with such an emotionally impoverished and stricture-heavy childhood.

So, you will now understand when I say there is never any doubt or question for me what story I am in at any particular time. I can’t help but tell them apart, if only for the simple reason that the lighting is different.

For example, the Dante Valentine series had a very specific look. It was very Ridley Scott Bladerunner. The Jill Kismet books are very Alex Proyas, the first Crow movie. The lighting for the Watcher series is very Conspiracy Theory. My fantasy books are highly color-saturated, very Tarsem Singh, like the Cell or the Fall. (Or like House of Flying Daggers, which is what Kaia Steelflower’s world looks like inside my head.) Dru Anderson’s world, in Strange Angels, looks a lot like the lighting in Wong Kar-Wei’s Fallen Angels.

It’s become second-nature for me to go inside my head and let the scene open up around me. Then it is a straightforward matter of finding the most elegant or efficacious way to describe what exactly I’m seeing. The words and the vision go together for me, two wheels of a bicycle. I have two problems while writing: getting enough detail in the scene to help other people see it, and finding the exact right word to describe what I’m seeing. The first is often solved by one of my editors, who quickly learn to mark where I’m seeing the scene so clearly I fall into the trap of assuming everyone else can see it too. The second is why I am a word magpie, always hunting them down and stuffing them away inside my brainmeat. I need every single one I can find–who knows when I might have to use them to convey a precise meaning?

This is why I am never uncertain of what story I’m in. Often the lighting alone will give me clues about what sort of story it is, and I learn a particular story’s lighting very thoroughly by the time I’m done with a book.

Each book, each world, is a total-immersion hallucination for me. Which makes it sound crazy, yes. But that crazy pays the bills, so I’m not complaining. (“We need the eggs.”) I see, smell, touch these worlds. I know what the bars smell like, how the alleys look at three in the morning, what a sunrise means to people, the creaks of individual houses, the shape of characters’ noses. The training–literally hundreds of hours spent building them from the time I was old enough to understand what a story was–has been invaluable. I still fall asleep spinning stories and worlds inside my head.

I think many writers are afraid of letting their worlds become too real. Who wouldn’t be? “Don’t daydream, pay attention!” is something we’re told thousands of times, growing up. Learning that skill–and it is a learned, learn-able skill, to a better or worse degree–of building something inside your head isn’t just for writing stories or painting, though. Every day an adult human being runs through possible consequences of their actions, lightning-fast decisions based on scenarios. Seeing a story is, for me, no different than playing out “what will happen if I run this red light?” inside your head. I can visualize the resultant car crash or ticket just as vividly as I can block out a fight scene in Jill Kismet’s world.

If visualizing a story sounds like a skill that will help you, try setting aside some time for it during the day. I’m not talking much–five or ten minutes, with your trusty kitchen timer set to help. Close your eyes and start simple–try visualizing a point. When you’ve got the point, try a line. Make it a white line on a black background, and then change it to different colors. From there you can try flat shapes in different colors. When you’re ready to make the jump to 3D, try simple things–an apple, a brick wall.

I know some writers don’t visualize, but I think that’s probably the one thing I can’t imagine. So, my question for this week is, how about you? Do you “see” the stories you write? Do you hear or smell them? How does that work for you? Tell me how or if you see the stories you tell.

I’m listening.