Soundtracks for writing?

Environment is important for writing. There are a lot of plusses and minuses to writing in different locations. There are also a lot of elements in those environments that can be hard to control. But, there’s one environmental element we can control, and even bring with us as we travel. It’s also been claimed to have the power to transport us to other places. It’s as simple as listening.

Music can tell stories. Music can trigger memories. Music can tap into raw emotions. Music is a tool that shouldn’t be overlooked in the preparation and process of writing.

There are also complications and problems. But many of those can be controlled by choices you make.

(Some of) the problems with music

Some of us like to write in public. And, it’s problematic to listen to our ‘writing music’ in public places. We don’t want to be offensive, but we also want our music. Can you (safely) wear headphone or ear buds where you’re writing? What about finding somewhere that has ambient sound/music that works for you?

A bigger problem, whether you’re in public or private, comes in the form of sensitivity to lyrics. I don’t mean the “I’m gonna shoot a cop then rape your grandma” lyrics (though there are problems with that kind of lyrics…). The problem we’re talking about is that for some of us, and in some processes, lyrics in music can be distracting.

This one is easier to cope with when you can choose the music you’re listening to (so… in your writing spot at home or using those ear phones/buds…). Choose music with lyrics that work for you, or just instrumental music.

It’s true that sometimes the lyrics you’re listening to get in the way. Sometimes that happens. For me it happens more in new writing. I like lyrics during the editing process. The answer (as usual dear reader) is to experiment a little, learn what works for you, and use it.

And music can work for you dear reader.

Music, emotion, and taking you there

Music (the sound portion) operates on a different level of thinking/feeling than the spoken word. It can convey emotion to us in ways the written or spoken word can’t. This effect can be amplified when you add the right lyrics. Because of this ability, music can be helpful for getting into the right headspace for a scene in a story, or for building up our courage for writing that difficult or scary part of your non-fiction (both my wife and I have finished graduate degrees we know about difficult and scary parts in writing fiction and non-fiction…).

Music can also be linked to a time and place. That’s both good and powerful.

It wouldn’t be too hard for me to get to some of the physical locations we call the old west (a lot of them are within a day’s drive). But, getting back to the time of the old west is harder. Music can help with that. I can find modern (recorded) performances of old western music to help put my mind in the frame of that time and place.

I can also pull out my Japanese, Pilipino, and Thai music to get me over to Asia.

Or, I can throw on some Bach or Telemann (You know… Just in case I need to get back to Leipzig in the 1840s and my TARDIS is in the shop…).

We have the technology to feed ourselves a steady stream of music that helps us be in the mental space to write and even to feel a link to times, places, and experiences near and far. We can use that music to inspire us and make writing easier. (It even helps some of us concentrate better!)

For me, developing a ‘soundtrack’ for a writing project is as useful, or more useful, than ‘teacher approved’ techniques like outlining. Thinking about and planning my soundtrack gets me thinking about what the themes of the story are, what the feeling of the story is. In its own weird way, planning my soundtrack is outlining the story on an emotional level… It can also count as part of my research if I’m doing a period piece.

What are your thoughts about soundtracks for writing dear reader?

Leave a comment if you like. And, I’ll see you next post.

The words will come

Shortly before I wrote this:

  • I hadn’t had a decent writing session all week
  • My schedule had been thrown off all week (first week of school, doctors’ appointments, my wife needed my help…)
  • My blood sugar was about 50 points high
  • I had a headache
  • The music in the restaurant didn’t work for me
  • There were kids screaming
  • The wierdo across the way was straight up glaring at me…

 

In other words… not a lot of writing was getting done. I mean not a word of writing, not until I took charge of myself.

I did what I could. I drank some (diet) soda. I took some deep breaths. I prayed. I got my mind together.

And then, the words flowed.

  • My schedule was still off
  • My blood sugar was still too high
  • I still had a headache (but the caffeine and stress reduction helped)

But, a different song came on. The kids found their way back to the play area. And, the wierdo found someone else to be mad at when I refused to take the bait.

The words flowed. Within minutes I wrote more than I had all week. And, I had ideas for what to write next.

Writing and writing…

There’s writing and then there’s writing…

  • There’s writing you do because you have to
  • There’s writing you do because you should
  • There’s writing you do because you want to
  • There’s writing you do because you can’t stop yourself (when you find this one, you’re a real writer and on your way to being a serious author…)
  • There’s writing that’s two or more of the above combined.

The secret to getting any writing done is to put yourself in the mental space to write. You need to put yourself into a good physical space too. You need to have your supplies. You need to do your research. But, being in the mental space to write, getting past your fears, concerns and hang-ups and into a mental place where the words will flow is something you have to learn if you want to write.

Putting yourself in the mental space to write is a management thing. It’s a self-mastery thing. You need to develop skills to deal with outside people and things, and the determination and self-control to put you into the place to write.

Sometimes we all need to break out the (hopefully metaphorical) battering ram and break down the barriers that are keeping the words from flowing. The problem may be one big thing or lots of little things working in concert. Your problems might not be my problems (or maybe they are!). But, one way or another we have to deal with them if we want to write.

That’s what this series is about dear reader. It’s a conversation (I’d love to hear from you!) about making the words flow. It’s about putting body and mind in a place to write.

There are lots of things we can talk about and not nearly enough time to cover them all in one post. So, let’s start with something simple.

Priming the pump

One of the more annoying kinds of writer’s block is fear of the blank page. This one occasionally hits even those of us with lots of words under our belts. And, it’s one you can cope with.

If you’re writing long hand (like I do) pick up your pen (pencil, crayon, whatever…) and move your hand to the top right corner of the page and write the number ONE (1) in the corner (and circle it if you want…).

If you’re writing electronically type a 1 on the first line, then hit return (or just turn on page numbers…)

Good news, your page isn’t blank anymore!

There’s still more to do. It’s time to put words on the page.

If you’re having trouble writing about what you think you’re supposed to be writing about, give yourself permission to ‘stream of consciousness’ write.

Write what’s on your mind. If you trust the process, your writing will probably “find center” and (after editing) you’ll have a written something that you can use.

Even if your something isn’t a sellable piece, you have proven to yourself that you can create a stream of words from your mind to the page. You may have written something that will help you learn and understand. You may even have created something that other people will want to read, after you clean it up a bit.

Sometimes you really need to write on a specific topic. In those cases ‘stream of consciousness’ may not be the right technique. Here we need to delve into our self-mastery toolbox and move the stream. But that, dear reader, is another post.

We all have hard days. We all have times where it feels like the words aren’t coming. But, if we do our part, they will.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Good luck with your words, and… I’ll see you next post!

Don’t give up…

Yep, it’s been a couple weeks. But, I’m still alive.

Sometimes you want to work, but life has other plans. Sometimes you just can’t put off that scary step any longer (at least not if you want to finish the project). Sometimes you find someone or something isn’t what you thought, and you have to change plans.

Yes, sometimes it’s an uphill fight.

Sometimes it’s an uphill fight featuring 100 mph winds, precision guided ball lightning, and terrestrial laser sharks.

But, if the project is worthy, don’t give up.

All success comes at a cost. At a minimum, you could have done something else instead. In the middle range, that ‘easy’ success results from learning and practice. And then, there are the successes that come only with great personal cost.

Writing and other creative activities are definitely not at the easy end of the spectrum dear reader.

So, why do we do it? Well, here are a few of my answers, feel free to add your own…

  1. Because we love it.
  2. Because acts of creation rank among the most God-like things a human can do.
  3. Because anything else that’s worth doing will also be a struggle. So, we might as well work on the one in front of us.

You might have to put things on hold.

You might have to hire a little help.

You might have to learn a little more.

But, don’t give up dear reader. If it’s worth doing, don’t give up.

Next week (I think) we’ll be talking about office supplies and gearing up for NANOWRIMO…

Don’t give up dear reader. And, I’ll see you next post…

Audience expectations

Playing with what our audience expects can be dangerous. Sometimes you can pull it off. Sometimes it really backfires. This week we’re looking two audience expectation failures I’ve found.

Email oops…

First, early this week, I got an email from a spice monger I buy from. The first couple of lines were what you would expect, “Hey we have some great deals and a free offer!” Then, instead of telling me about the great deals and wonderful spices, the author hits me with two rambling paragraphs about the president and the Muller report before getting on with talking about the spices

I will not go into what I believe, or don’t believe, about the Muller report. This isn’t the place for it. And, an advertisement for spices wasn’t the place I expected to find it either… Mulling spice, probably. Mulberries, possibly. But Muller the ‘special council’, no.

The author was passionate about the report and presidential politics, but he was talking about them in the wrong place. At best, he got a “Huh, what?” response.

Or, he could get “this is click-bait $#$@#%@$#!!!” and the audience stops reading.

What if the author was actually successful with those paragraphs? The reader rages about presidential politics and forgets to buy spices!

We can, and do, have many interests and many things to talk about. When we are writing, or talking, we need to think about our purpose and what we’re trying to achieve in a piece.

If we’re here to sell spices, we need not talk about politics.

If we’re here to talk about politics who cares whether the Cumin is available in a quarter cup jar and the three-quarter cup bag.

And, if we’re supposed to be talking about either of those topics and somebody lurches into “why rainbow suspenders are cooler than bow ties”… Forget it! I’m out!

When you come to your audience with a topic and a subject line, you probably want to stay on topic (or at least explain why you’re changing topic and make  your topics somehow related…)

Video Voops…

Unfortunately, switching topics without a clutch isn’t the only way to offend your audience and violate their expectations.

One of the basic assumptions a good audience has is that you are a credible source. And if you mess with that belief you can get yourself in a lot of trouble.

Ok, in fiction we have the unreliable narrator, that’s a device authors can use in telling a story. It isn’t the author screwing up or failing to do research. It also isn’t the easiest technique to use in fiction. In non-fiction, it’s better to stay away completely.

The day I wrote this I watched a non-fiction video about exotic weapons and watched the narrator/writer’s credibility burn on impact. The problem: the narrator/writer put up a wacky old pistol design and proclaimed it had 20 barrels and 2 chambers. He then described the function of the mechanism, and just like his picture, his description proved he didn’t know the difference between a barrel and a chamber.

It wasn’t just a onetime mistake. He made the mistake three times in that description and then made it with multiple other museum pieces…

Ok, the gun community has debates and wierdnesses about terminology. In practice, the person on the street probably doesn’t care whether you call them clips or magazines (stay away from clipazines though…). If you really have to call a revolver a wheel gun I’ll try to be patient with you. But, when you describe things in a way that is obviously wrong, even to people outside the field, there’s a good chance you will come out looking like an idiot.

For other examples, just turn to the customer reviews at Amazon or other online sources. Somewhere, right now as you read this, somebody is posting a review calling a pipe wrench @$@#!!! because it doesn’t ‘hit down’ the screws right…

One of the basic audience expectations is that you have some basic knowledge about your subject.

In fiction, that means you know something about genre conventions and the lore of the world you’re in. (Please, please do not show up at the Star Trek convention and talk about the time R2-D2 piloted the Serenity straight into a black hole while Captain Reynolds watched from the Bridge of the Galactica…)

In non-fiction (and in fiction) you need to do your research. You need to have some understanding of the subject.

When you claim knowledge you don’t have, your readers will figure that out. Maybe not all of them, not right away at least, but some of them will figure it. And, readers talk to other readers, especially in the day of social media.

When your readers figure out you don’t know what you’re talking about, say goodbye to your chances to get them to do anything, and (probably) your chances of them reading something else you wrote.

There are times and ways to play with audience expectations, but going off topic unnecessarily or proving that you don’t know what you’re talking about aren’t good ones. The good ways of playing with audience expectations take skill and practice; and even then you only want to do it when there is a payoff for you and the reader.

That’s it for this one dear reader. If there’s something you’d like to say, or a way I can improve in my fulfillment of audience expectations, leave a comment. And, I’ll see you next post.

Chaos, panic, other people, and getting it done!

At the time I’m writing this I have (at least) four big projects going, including: getting the finish work done on a book, getting a new chainmail project set out, putting together a story for a national completion, and gearing up for writing the third novel in a trilogy. I also have my wife at home recuperating from surgery, a Cub Scout den meeting tonight, dinner to make, shopping to do, and worky icky manager stuff demanding my attention. It isn’t always easy being a writer!

There are times when being a writer is really great; there are times you get into a flow and get some good work done.

There are also times when you’re a couple lines into your flow and someone comes and bangs on the door…

There are times that you want to work, but there are just a few too many things pulling you “out of your zone”.

We want things to go perfectly when we write, but let’s face it. Perfection is an ideal thing not a real thing. Fortunately there are things that we can do to help ourselves be better and more successful even when the wife/husband/child/pet is sick, the phone is ringing off the hook, random people are at the door, and your social media is infested with trolls.

Learn about yourself and your work style and then put that learning into action…

We’ve talked about this one before. You will be well served to learn about how you work as a writer: do you prefer to write in the morning or the afternoon? Do you like the stimulation of a busy place? Do you like to listen to music as you write? Do you need a lonely quiet place? Does a lovely beverage help? If so, which one?

When you learn these things the next step is to start putting them in place in your schedule.

If you write best in the morning, make it so that you can write in the morning. This may mean coordinating your schedule with other people and things. If you have a “day job” this means the “day job” gets relegated to afternoons or evenings. If you have to take the young’uns to school, you may want to figure out a car pool so you have more morning time to work.

If you like music, figure out what works for what you’re writing and build a sound track.

If the phone is what’s getting to you, you don’t have to answer. (Actually when I’m in my office my phone is usually on the other side of the house (which is why I never seem to answer phone calls before about two in the afternoon…)).

When you learn about your writing habits and what works for you, and then put that learning into action, you are actively reducing the distractions and other problems that can get in your way.

Plan and communicate with those family members…

This is a hard one. Your spouse/bf/gf/whatever always needs attention. So do your children. And of course the dog, cat, hamster, raccoon, or purple spotted land squid is going to do it’s best to stick its nose in as well. (And we haven’t even gotten to the mail man, the door to door salesman and the old friend from high school yet…).

One of the best things here is an office with a door (or perhaps even an office outside the house). This is actually one of the reasons I favor writing in restaurants for some projects (the caffeine refills also really help!).

I like my office time.  But I also know that you can’t just wall yourself off. Family members get hurt feelers, and the cat… Well he/she/it can get just plain vindictive. You need to communicate and do a little teaching. Help those family member and others understand that you are working and as much as you love them there are things you need to get done.

It’s complicated. You can have some real struggles with this one (enough to get their own post at minimum…). But you do have to set some boundaries and find some balance.

Don’t stop, redirect…

Even though it makes things harder sometimes, there is a reason I’ve always got more than one iron in the fire.  There is also a reason I try to plan ahead and know what needs to be done on which projects and when.

Having multiple projects, and plans for those projects, allows me to redirect when I’m really struggling to get work done. If the baby’s crying for attention, the ferret wants to nap on your keyboard, and your mother in law reeeaaly wants you on that conference call about the family reunion it’s probably not a great time to be working on new writing. But, it’s a funny thing…

Babies like a soothing tone of voice no matter what the words are. What about reading your work aloud while you’re holding the baby? That’s more the review/editing side of things, but it can help you think about what to write next.

If the ferret’s on the keyboard, maybe it’s telling you to get off the computer for a few minutes. Pick up the weaslekin and head for another room. You might not be writing at that moment, but you can still be figuring out how to pitch your story to an agent or editor. You can also be pondering that one detail on page 47 that just kind of feels wrong.

As for the mother in law… It’s a conference call. Unless there’s a camera on she’s not going to notice if you put the call on speaker and clean up your desk (you know you need to… And dust those shelves while you’re at it…).

The point is,  even if you’re stuck beating your head against the wall with one part of the process there is still probably something worthwhile you can be doing, something that will be moving your writing forward. It’s generally a better idea, and a better feeling, to be getting something done than to be banging your head against a wall and getting pissed off about it.

If you can’t seem to get rolling on what you’re trying to do. Find some other productive part of the process to work on and let your subconscious work on the hard stuff. It works amazingly well (definitely better than stopping completely or having a hissy fit…)

You have to make choices…

Let me bottom line it for you dear reader…

As much as I love writing these posts, if my wife is in pain and needs my help I’m going to be over there helping her and not in here writing this post. That’s a choice I’ve made.

As much as I want my story in that contest, I’m still making sure the light bill gets paid.

On the other hand…

As much as some people tell me I can’t do this I’m still getting the book done, I am still going to write. (Actually, those people are fun sometimes! Like when they tell you you’ll never be able to do this and then you pull out a royalty check… (And it doesn’t even have to be a big one…))

You have to make choices about what’s really important to you. It is the important things that will get done.

It helps to figure out why the stuff is important. I do the worky icky manager stuff because getting it done supports the writing stuff that I want to do. Another guy I know once spent two hours getting the lint out of the track for his closet door because he really didn’t want to face cleaning  the bathroom (the avoidance was important to him).

Sooner or later we have to make decisions about our writing. We have to decide what we really want and how to go about getting it. We have to decide how we work best and to organize our lives so it can happen. We have to decide what is really important and seek after those things.

When we genuinely make these decisions we can move on to figuring out how to make them happen. When we are honest with ourselves we can find ways to put down or deal with the distractions, and some of them may even go away on their own once the decision is made.

We do have to keep our decisions and reasons out in front of us (it helps us to stay on target). But we start by making the decisions and then succeed by following through.

Remember style points are only added after successful completion of the project! There will always be things we could have done to make it better.

If we continue in writing there will always be things to learn from and do better (or change completely!) next time.

But nothing succeeds like success. You have to finish a project for it to be done, and that means finding your way past the obstacles and distractions.

Speaking of getting it done…

I think we’ve finished the post dear reader…

So what say we all go out and get some other stuff done, and I’ll see you next post!