Monday, September 20, 2010

Music and Writing and You

So I’m basically the antithesis of Nora when it comes to writing with music.

I can’t do it. The lyrics screw with my head and seep into my prose, and if I’m writing to classical music or a scored soundtrack, the big moments invariably come at the wrong time and I have to replay certain parts and it just slows down my whole momentum.

That having been said, though, music is one of the most integral parts of my writing process.

I like to jog. I like to listen to music while I jog. I like to daydream and imagine whole scenes out while I’m listening and jogging. I’ll go jogging just so I CAN do this daydream/plotting thing.

Because, while I’m imagining my scenes out, there’s no place or time restriction, no inability to keep typing pace or mood with the music. It just comes, beautiful and mutable and lucid; I can mold it any way I see fit, imagine it over and over again in my head with varying shades of beauty and terror, and I love it.

It also helps me burn some calories.

My tunes of choice are epic soundtracks and classic rock. Sometimes metal. SPITFIRE’s got a much more epic feel to it than THE FOREVER DARK, for example. Lord of the Rings soundtracks, lots of trailer music by Two Steps from Hell and X-Ray Dog, Chronicles of Narnia. A little Led Zeppelin for the less-intense moments.

When I’m working on THE FOREVER DARK, though, a lot of (GASP!) corporate rock slips in, much to my dismay. Also Metallica and anything that works as the backdrop for a heroine made of badassery toting a submachine gun and firing it in slow motion.

But I’m not ashamed. Whatever helps me create the scenes I need to make my novel work will do.

So what about you? Does music have a place in your writing process? If so, what kinds of music do you listen to?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Music and writing

Listening to music while writing is a surprisingly controversial subject.  I’ve heard people say that they can’t get any work done if there’s music playing; personally, I can barely work without music or noise of some kind.  Back in college, I was most productive when working in a loud place like the student cafĂ© - sequestered in the library, I’d start to lose focus, but when everyone around me was making noise, I just blocked it out and did my work.

If you can’t stand music while writing, this blog post won’t help you much.  As far as I can tell, there are two basic strategies for creating writing playlists.  First, a playlist of songs somehow related to what you’re writing.  If you’re in the midst of an ongoing project, you may find that a lot of songs suddenly seem very relevant or appropriate.  I have a playlist that I use specifically to write death scenes, as well as playlists that are thematically related to entire novels.  I’ll share a short one at the end of this post.

The other major strategy for building a playlist is songs that motivate you to write.  I find a driving beat helps keep my fingers moving; in fact, I tend to ignore the lyrics when choosing songs for this type of playlist and listen to stuff like Nine Inch Nails, Daft Punk, The Prodigy, etc.  Other people choose classical music over techno.  Don’t let other people’s judgment stop you from listening to music that helps you – if Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” on repeat is what finally gets the words flowing, don’t hold back out of shame (I once spent an hour writing to “When I Grow Up” by the Pussycat Dolls).

So, what do I listen to?  Here’s the playlist I’ve started building that I associate thematically with my 2010 NaNoWriMo novel.
  1. Runs in the Family, Amanda Palmer
  2. The Wondersmith and His Sons, Astronautalis
  3. Filthy Mind, Amanda Ghost
  4. Dance Off, We Are Scientists
  5. Send Him Away, Franz Ferdinand
  6. Stupid Thing, Nickel
  7. Jackie Wants a Black Eye, Dr. Dog
  8. F**k and Run, Liz Phair
  9. Kiss with a Fist, Florence + The Machine
  10. I Hate Everyone, Get Set Go
  11. Windowsill, Arcade Fire
  12. End of the Movie, Cake
  13. Kiss Me I'm #!@'faced, Dropkick Murphys
  14. It Ain't Me Babe, Johnny Cash

Monday, September 13, 2010

Presumption and Pretention

So for better or worse, there are some amazing authors out there who also happen to have (or have had) drinking problems. And depression. And have—in some cases—actually ended their own lives because of these things.

And of course, there’s a large minority of folks who buy into this mythology that these things are all the mark of a Great Writer.


Those are pretty serious problems. There’s nothing glorious about that mental destitution. What made those writers so brilliant was their ability to channel and structure the emotion they felt into narrative and plot. The vices were just jumbled, messy extras encroaching on their functionality as people.

An offshoot of this mentality are, I think, the inherent pretentions of some so-called writers. And here’s where I get up on my soapbox.

Wearing a fedora does not make you a writer.

Rhapsodizing about the torturous glory of the life of a starving artist while you sip your coffee laced with absinth or some such ridiculous thing for the sake of imagery does not make you a writer.

Bashing successful authors for their trite, plebian words does not make you a writer.

Getting shit-ass drunk and writing while totally wasted does not make you a writer.

I think the majority of people who think that this is what a writer does and acts like approach writing like a Pollock painting—just throw a lot of colors together, with a lot of rage and angst, and you’ll get art.


Writing takes thought. Control. Effort. Writing takes wiping the morning drool off your face and putting your butt in the chair. Writing takes words on a page, and structure, and beauty, and subtlety.

There are those cathartic, raw, emotive passages that seem to defy this advice, seem to bubble and burst out of the wellspring of the human psyche—and to some extent, this is true. But it takes a writer to shape that power into something so potent.

Because I’m a huge Led Zeppelin fan, I read and watch lots of interviews with Jimmy Page et al. So forgive me for this. But I respect him as an artist, because he’s brilliant, and he describes his approach to music as exploring “light and shade.”

To me, that’s what being a writer is. It’s not substance abuse or depression--or useless pretentions. It’s about uncovering something through the complexity of thought—through the light and shade of the human experience, the words and the shapes of the narrative, that world you c

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The myth of the alcoholic writer

Everyone's heard of the alcoholic writers - Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, the list goes on and on.  A lot of people out there seem to think that drinking alcohol somehow translates to writing brilliance.  As a person who enjoys drinking and enjoys writing, I thought I'd take it upon myself to clarify a few things about booze and books.

Personally, I find it almost pointless to try to write if I've had any significant amount to drink.  Sure, if I had a glass of wine or a beer with dinner, I can write perfectly well.  But I would never drink solely to improve my writing.  First of all, if I've had a lot of alcohol, I am easily distracted - which means that what would be, sober, a quick trip to Wikipedia to check the population of a city turns into a tour of every corner of the Internet when drunk.  Often, I'm more interested in an impromptu dance party than I am in writing a pivotal scene of my novel.

Last year (2009) during NaNoWriMo, I had a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label (that's Scotch, for non-drinkers) that was supposed to be my 'reward' for days when I wrote a lot.  I learned very quickly, though, that I should only drink it when I was done being productive; romantic as it sounds to write with a glass of Scotch and three clinking ice cubes in one hand, I found that I often wanted to take a nap after finishing a glass.

Maybe hard liquor doesn't affect you the same way.  Speaking honestly, though, does it really make your writing better?  Does it make it easier for you to write about difficult emotions?  Consider investing in a close friend instead.  Does it make you more prolific?  ...I don't believe you, unless you're mixing it with Red Bull (in which case you should try Red Bull without a depressant added!).

You're welcome to try it out yourself, but I think you'll find what many others have discovered - many great writers drank, but it was in spite of their heavy alcohol consumption, not because of it, that they succeeded.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Shayda's Guide to Revision

I confess--I haven’t had a whole lot of practice with revision, at least not with novels. During college, I wrote tons of dark, lyrical short stories for my workshop classes, but revising those is a completely different animal from the beast that is novel revision. Aside from my trunk novel, I’ve never had anything of that length or complexity to revise. And, of course, my experience with revising my trunk novel (before I realized I was beating a dead horse) was something akin to floundering in the middle of an ocean.

In short, terrible.

While that was largely due to the fact that I was trying to whip something useless into a respectable shape, I’ve never been extremely fond of revising. That having been said, though, I’ve managed to glean some valuable pre-revision techniques that—at least for me—will make all the difference in the world when I’m finished with my WIP.


Sometimes, either while you’re writing or as soon as you’ve finished writing a certain scene, you’ll hate it. Or you’ll realize it’s not working the way it should. Or that you need to expand something. Or cut. Or change the tone or the voice or where it falls in the story arc.

Whatever that is, usually you’ll feel it, even if you can’t quite articulate what’s wrong at the moment. MAKE A NOTE. If you use Scrivener like I do, you’ll find the “notes” section in the right sidebar invaluable. If you’re writing it in a regular word processor or by longhand, mark it where you’ll see and remember it.

Trust me. It will give you a huge jumping-off place when you’re ready to revise. I already have a good five or so major revision spots planned, and I’m only two thirds of the way into my WIP.

The Exception to Write-It-First

Now, while I usually adhere to the write-it-first-then-revise doctrine of noveling, I will say this: sometimes, like with the early draft of SPITFIRE, I realize something is fundamentally not working. I got 30,000 words into that draft before I realized that the tone and voice and tense just weren’t meshing with the story.

Trust me—it broke my heart to trash 30,000 words. Most of those were even pretty good words. But ultimately, they just didn’t serve the story.

I wouldn’t call this revising, per se, but sometimes it pays to scrap what you’ve got and just rewrite the thing.

I also found that, because I’d written the beginning before, it was even better the second time around. I have a whole blog post over at my personal blog about this wonderful and curious phenomenon.  Unfortunately, I can't find it, so you'll just have to poke around over there until it pops up.

In short, revising is one helluva beast--but also the kind that, as long as it doesn't kill you, makes you--and your writing--stronger. Duck your head and barrel through it, because it's all worth it in the end.

*Awesome comic found at Sequential Life here.  

Friday, September 3, 2010

Reviled revision

I know there are people out there who enjoy revision.  There must be.  Personally, though, when I've finished a novel and am about to start revising it - well, that's when I tend to come up with a brilliant new idea that I just have to write out, and revision gets put off for another day - oh my God, I think I just figured out why I haven't sold a novel yet!

All kidding aside, revision is one of the most important jobs every writer takes on.  Revision is when you tease out the best bits of your novel and carefully shape them until they make something worth reading.  The best simile I can think of is that writing a novel is like building a nice piece of furniture.  First you construct the basic form (writing) and carve the rough shapes of whatever decoration it will have (rewriting), and then you begin the endless sanding and polishing process (revising).  If I've left something out, please don't correct me.

Everyone has a different process that works for them.  I find it helpful to print a clean copy of my manuscript, stick it in a three-ring binder, and go through with a blue or green pen, writing sarcastic comments wherever they're deserved.  When I have enough distance, I go back through and find the places where I was most sarcastic - usually these are plot holes, moments where my characters act out-of-character, weird things like that.  I fix the big stuff first, and then (at least in theory), when everything else works I go back and start polishing sentences themselves.

The preferred book on revision seems to be Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. You can get a copy of it at your library (I guarantee it).  In the end, though, revision is a matter of sitting yourself down and working  through your novel, one page at a time.

Or you could just write a new novel.  Revision only matters if you care about improving your writing.

Monday, August 30, 2010

That Thing You Dread

It’s such a common phenomenon that we’ve even got a name for it. Of course, not every writer has one, but I’m willing to bet that those folks are few and far between.

My trunk novel—which I saw crumble into unpublishability before my very eyes as the joy of finishing it faded—was an eighteen-year-old’s attempt at emotional, literary Southern Gothic.

And it was crap.

But it’s the best crap in the world. You can read all you want about novel-writing and structure and plot and character. Go for it. That’s what I did, and it really does help. But there’s nothing quite like writing a novel for teaching you how.

And, at least for me, this is where I can’t tell you much more; because what did I learn from writing this glorious piece of trash? Nothing you’d be able to find without taking the plunge into novel-writing-dom.

I can tell you this: Don’t be afraid of the trunk novel. Embrace it. Hold on to the lessons you learn from it. I’m not saying your first novel will have to be trunked, but the fear that goes along with embarking on such a perilous quest can be debilitating. Don’t let that happen.

My trunk novel actually has a place on my bookshelf. Once I resigned myself to the nature of the beast, I made my way over to and published the novel privately. It’s not for sale. It doesn’t have an ISBN, it doesn’t have a list price, and it will never be seen by eyes other than mine.

But it’s in hardback, wrapped lovingly with a shiny dust jacket, and every once in a while, I’ll pull it down from my shelves and lose myself in it.

Trunk novels are alright. And, let’s be honest—you could do worse, right?

You could just sit there and not write anything at all.