Influence Is Bliss, episode three: Laini Taylor

It’s sometimes said that people look like their scripts/resemble their writing. It’s often true. In Laini Taylor’s case, with her awesome bright pink hair, she could be the long lost sister of the blue-coiffeured Karou, hero of DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE and DAYS OF BLOOD AND STARLIGHT, two of the most stunning YA genre novels ever published.

Laini Taylor. Pink Hair.

Laini Taylor. Awesome Hair.

Taylor is a HUGE inspiration to us. And not just because we admire her hair (although, A really does). She is one of the most extraordinary storytellers out there, not just in YA, but in fiction, and even beyond. If you put together an elite band of the greatest storytellers from the realms of novels, TV and movies, like a superhero team up (Marvel’s Writers Assemble?), Taylor would be one of the first writers you would choose.

Her storytelling is a thing of wonder. It’s robust, muscular, epic, capable of soaring into light and diving into darkness; it’s visceral in the most emotional of ways, which are the ways that really count. But plot counts too. Her books are not just character studies. They are deeply, thrillingly plot-driven. They achieve the perfect harmony whereby character and plot are the same thing. That’s the holy grail of great writing. Karou’s emotional journey in book one is the driver of everything that happens. In book two, Taylor expands to include much more of Akiva’s story — action and character are simultaneous in his chapters too.

Her situations challenge the characters in deep, testing ways, driving them beyond their ability to cope and into that exciting, edge of your seat realm of not knowing what the hell they are going to do, or what the hell is about to happen. That’s the essence of the greatest drama, in any format: testing your characters beyond their endurance. Taylor puts her characters through unimaginable stresses and horrors, situations that are emotionally intense, and emotionally devastating. They are also situations that do not allow the characters to dwell or wallow, even for a second. They are situations that demand further action. Taylor’s worlds are kinetic on every level — there is always forward motion, which is the first law of awesome writing. Motion can be emotional, physical, plot-related, atmospheric; however it manifests, it needs to be there. And boy, is it there in Taylor’s writing. She has a beautiful understanding and grasp of advanced narrative mechanics, and she wields her characters and stories like blades in the hands of an angel.

It’s as though she’s in a simultaneous state of nithilam and sirithar.

Daughter Of Smoke And Bone

Daughter Of Smoke And Bone

Any writer of any kind would learn much from these two books. SMOKE AND BONE is a masterclass of character-grounding, scope-expanding narrative flights. Taylor sets up a complex array of characters, both human and otherwise, and also complex worlds and societies. Read this book closely; it’s impossible to see her doing it. Her lightness of touch is remarkable; the worlds illuminate the characters, and the characters illuminate the worlds.

BLOOD AND STARLIGHT rapidly expands its core cast and develops an array of new characters, all while driving forward a terrifyingly inexorable storyline that, somewhat amazingly, makes the events of book one seem small in comparison.

It’s a masterclass in how to write a sequel.

Days Of Blood And Starlight

Days Of Blood And Starlight

Sequels are notoriously tricky. It’s genuinely rare to find a sequel that is even as good as the original. They exist. But sequels that dwarf the preceding book, eclipse it, go supernova on it… those are like goddamn unicorns. BLOOD AND STARLIGHT is one of those unicorns.

It happens in movies slightly more frequently; a subsequent installment that goes harder, does it differently, expands its universe while still retaining the spirit of the original — ALIENS, THE DARK KNIGHT, TERMINATOR 2, J.J. Abrams’ STAR TREK (technically it’s STAR TREK 11), THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Just a few examples at the highest end of the quality spectrum.

DAYS OF BLOOD AND STARLIGHT is in that company.

SMOKE AND BONE got progressively bigger emotionally and plot-wise, then exploded in a mind-blowing, stunning revelation that took us literally up to the skies at the end. BLOOD AND STARLIGHT made that ending look like a grainy YouTube video on a flip phone compared to its VAST, gorgeous, perception-altering, universe-expanding IMAX scope of emotion and action. That’s how you do it.

With just these two books, Taylor has made her way to the very top of our inspiration list. We devoured both books; and they consumed us. That’s the most beautiful kind of reading experience. And as writers, we bow down to her. She’s the standard we want to reach, the stars we aim for; even if we don’t always get there, we’ll be much further along that we would have been otherwise. This inspiration really is bliss; her writing is incredibly gorgeous, wild and dangerous, entrancing, stunning, exhilarating.

It’s writing you lose your head to; writing to lose your soul in.

Not only that, she writes more perceptively, intelligently and inspiringly about the act of writing than almost anybody. Just spend some time on her site at www.lainitaylor.com and you’ll see what we mean. She’s so open and honest about the whole messy, thrilling, terrifying and wonderful process of writing. Her words are always encouraging, like beacons of light in the dark night of the soul that all writers face at some point.

Thank you, Laini. For all the above.

We can’t wait for book three.

Influence Is Bliss, episode two: Russell T. Davies

How do you know when you’re watching something written by TV writer, showrunner extraordinaire and all-round genius Russell T. Davies? You’re probably crying.

Russell T. Davies

Russell T. Davies

And by the way, those tears probably started in laughter. Which happened in the middle of a thrilling action sequence in which the characters you LOVE are thrown into high stakes peril, and have to use extreme cleverness to save themselves from a situation that somehow blends terrifying concepts with overwhelming heart, soul and emotion.

That’s just an average scene for Davies, because he is the master of the human heart. When he REALLY wants to mess with you, it’s just devastating.

Davies is best known for his tremendous resurrection of the longest running sci-fi show in TV history, DOCTOR WHO (it first aired in 1953!). This tale of a time-traveling Time Lord known only as The Doctor who journeyed through the universe in a TARDIS (a time machine in the form of a blue police box), usually in the company of one or two humans who were looking for adventure, was originally a much-beloved, yet quaint, show on the BBC. It was known for its charm, inventiveness, futuristic electronic scores and less-than-stellar special effects. Sadly, over time, ever more ridiculous storylines resulted in the show being axed in the eighties, seemingly never to return (with a brief exception in the form of a TV movie that popped up in 1996).

The TARDIS. There's a reason why it looks like that.

The TARDIS. There’s a reason why it looks like that.

However, Davies, who, despite his roots in the gritty, everyday dramas of everyday people, was a huge sci-fi fan, and a fan of the show, rescued it from its cancellation wasteland in 2005 and rebooted it into a glossy global phenomenon.

How did he do it?

With brilliant writing. With feelings. With, as the ultra-smart and Scottish late night talk show host Craig Ferguson describes it, a healthy dose of “intellect and romance.” Because no one does feelings quite like Davies. His stories and scripts are overflowing with heart and emotion. And they’re extraordinarily clever too. But it’s not the cleverness that keeps us there: it’s the people. Davies’ background in writing astonishingly great dramas about “everyday” people was key to the success of this most fantastical of shows. Davies knows how to give us the shortcut right into a character’s soul, and make us feel what they feel. Although the show is called DOCTOR WHO — and although Davies did reimagine the Doctor as intelligent, bold, and very funny, as well as being a dangerous and charismatic hero-figure — he was the first to truly realize that the heart of the show (one of them at least) should be the human companions that accompanied this alien Time Lord. Because they were our stand-ins. Our view into the conceptually mind-bending experience of actually traveling through time.

The Doctor (on the left) and friend

The Doctor (on the left) and something REALLY SCARY on the other side of the wall

Davies was rebooting a sci-fi show and making it fresh and “now.” He could have focused on spaceships, spectacle, action. Instead, to begin this new journey, he crafted a beautiful hour of television that showed us how a girl with dreams plucks up the courage to try and chase them.¬†And so his first episode, the one that relaunched the show, was simply titled Rose, after the girl who decides to give up her life on Earth to follow the Doctor into the stars.

Rose Tyler, played so perfectly by Billie Piper

Rose Tyler, played so perfectly by Billie Piper

Rose Tyler is an ordinary, working class girl, living a regular life, living with her mother in a tiny flat, working in the local department store, just trying to get by. But she dreams of so much more than that. When she gets chased by mannequins possessed by an evil alien lifeforce, has to deal with her store blowing up, and, in one brilliant scene, fails to notice that her boyfriend’s monosyllabic responses are not due to his disinterest but the fact that he is a replica created by the aliens, Rose realizes that life doesn’t have to be ordinary, or even safe. She chooses the thrill of the unknown, and accepts the Doctor’s offer (once he’s saved the day), to journey with him. The smile on Rose’s face as she runs into the TARDIS is one of the emotional high points of the entire show.

Davies understands what it is to dream of something more than what you have, and how you can become something extraordinary when you’re in the most challenging of situations. His characters, his writing, resonate so powerfully. As writers often like to say on Twitter, his writing has ALL THE FEELS.

His era of Doctor Who ran from 2005 through 2009, and it was extraordinary. It’s up there with the best of TV sci-fi like BUFFY, FIREFLY, STAR TREK, BSG, FRINGE, and Davies’ own WHO spin-off, TORCHWOOD. Davies wrote a book about running DOCTOR WHO, called The Writer’s Tale. If you are writer of any kind, a storyteller of any sort, a fan of the show, a fan of sci-fi, a fan of TV, an aspiring showrunner, or just interested in how stories are told, you need to read this book. It’s one of the greatest books about writing, about stories, about TV, ever written. You can see the detailed evolution of stories from initial idea to treatment to draft to shooting script. It’s fascinating, and it shows you above all how important character is.

It doesn’t hurt that Davies is a genius sci-fi writer, able to spin incredible ideas together and create deep and detailed worlds, often one after another to fulfill the hungry demands of a long-running episodic TV show. And he subtly layers in long-running arcs that build to insane crescendos like a boss.

But whatever he is writing, however fantastical the setting, Davies’ primary concern is always the character, and how to make us feel.

And boy, does he make us feel.