Advice to writers – playlists

This is a departure from my previous posts aimed at young writers. This one is for everyone because this post is something I really needed to know ages ago but instead had to find out the hard way.

Music while writing can be controversial. Some writers, like Ian Rankin, swear by it and some, like Philip Pullman, can get quite salty on the subject. Even the writers that like to write to music tend to say that they can’t listen to music with words.

For years I resisted writing music, even though I love music, even though my husband would make me writing playlists based on the book I was working on, even though I tend to turn to music videos for inspiration when I’m all out of ideas. Gentlepersons, I was wrong. Sort of.

I come to you today not to praise the writing playlist but to suggest a new use for it.

One reason that we use music in films is because it’s great at setting the scene, creating mood, driving emotion. That’s not necessarily great while you’re writing. Unless you’re very careful you can end up with the music you’re listening to driving the scene instead of the characters. But writing doesn’t just happen while you’re sitting at a keyboard or a notebook.

My best writing often happens while I’m standing at a bus stop, or shopping, or looking out of a moving vehicle. It’s not really writing then, of course, at that point it’s still story. It doesn’t become writing until I sit down at the computer and write it. But that purposeful daydreaming of story is a vital part of my creative process and I can’t be the only one.

Here’s how to use a writing playlist to make your purposeful daydreaming more useful.

  1. Create a playlist for each writing project. Name it after the working title.
  2. Give each of your characters their own theme songs, they can have as many as you like.
  3. Pick some songs that reflect the major themes or moods or events of the story.
  4. Every time you add a new element to the story try to add a relevant song.
  5. Listen to this playlist whenever you’re doing something boring, like housework or shopping or walking somewhere.
  6. Only listen to the playlist that’s related to the current project. When you switch projects switch playlists.

This is so useful because the playlist creates a headspace that you come to associate with the project. That means that you can stop working on it for a while, do something else, come back and the music will take you back to where you were when you were working on it. The music pulls your imagination in the right direction. It becomes the soundtrack to the moving pictures in your mind.

Try it out, folks, don’t make the mistake I did and write another four first drafts before giving it a chance.

Advice to a Young Writer Part 2

This is based on some advice that I came up with to help my daughter. She loves telling stories and writes poems and fan fics but she’s having trouble finishing things. If there’s one thing I’m good it it’s helping people finish things.

This is part 2. Part one is here. There will be more parts. Each one will include homework.

The commandments of Writing

  1. Start your story
  2. Finish your story
  3. Make your story better
  4. Repeat

Writers can have trouble with each one of these and the trouble is nearly always caused by some combination of these:

  • The illusion of perfection
  • Shiney new ideas
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of success
  • Prioritizing other things

Some aspiring writers are full of wonderful ideas. They imagine beautiful plots and glorious character arcs and their characters have names and backstories and sassy dialogue but they never write any of it down. In their heads the story is perfect but they’re scared of spoiling the idea by pinning it down on paper.

Some writers start the story but then stall almost immediately. The more they write the more they hate the story. It’s not the way they imagined it. It’s not perfect

Destroy the illusion of perfection. Perfect is the enemy of good. And a story can’t be good until it’s finished. Go farther than that. Kill the idea of good or bad writing. Give yourself permission to suck. Start with a rough first draft or an outline. They don’t have to be good they just have to be written. You’re just finding the shape of the story. An outline is like an artist’s sketch. A rough first draft is like the Alpha build of a computer game. Once you have the shape of the story you can fill in the colour and the light and the shade.

During NaNoWriMo we have to deal with a phenomenon known as the week two wall. To write 50,000 words in 30 days it’s recommended to keep up a pace of at least 1667 words a day. Every year we see people keep up that pace with ease. They surprise themselves. They’re actually having fun. And then some time in the middle of week two it stops being fun. If they don’t keep pushing through the wall the writing stops completely. Some people give up at this point, some slow down but keep going. Some people decide that the problem is that the story is no good.They start a new one and then hit the wall two weeks later.

The wall happens because the thrill of the shiny new idea wears off. After more than a week of thinking about the same story it starts to seem boring. The writer loses faith in the idea. And then other ideas start to distract them. Newer ideas, shinier ideas, ideas that haven’t had a chance to get boring yet. Ideas that are still perfect.

The best way to deal with the lure of the new idea is to make a few notes about the new idea and then back to working on the current thing. By making notes you are making a promise to yourself that you’re not abandoning this new idea. You’re just putting it to one side for now.

Fear of failure can get in the way at every stage of writing. It makes some aspiring writers terrified of the blank page. Some get near the end but then can’t finish for fear of messing the story up. Some others can finish a first draft but then don’t dare to face it so they never edit.

Hold on to the idea that there is no failure in trying a thing and then that thing not working out like you hoped. That’s not failure that’s learning. If you write the story and the story sucks then you’ve learned one way not to tell that story. Your effort wasn’t wasted. It was practice. It was research.

Fear of rejection plagues writers when the work nears completion. If you finish a story then you have to show it to people and what if they don’t like it? For some writers the fear of rejection changes how they write. They pull their punches. The don’t write the story that is in their heart because they think people will judge them for it. Some writers don’t fear the rejection of their writing but the rejection of their identity as a writer. Sometimes people will hide that they even write. Historically some women writers concealed their writing. They pretended that they were sewing, or writing letters and they published under male pen-names.

Fear of success is usually a late stage writing problem. It makes writers avoid putting the final polish on their words. It’s why sometimes a writer will hesitate to call a work finished. It’s why some writers hold onto finished manuscripts and never show them to people. You might wonder why success would be scary. Didn’t I just say that writers fear failure and rejection? Why would success be scary too? Because when you succeed at something you sort of have to keep doing it. And now there’s an expectation of success. Success is a kind of responsibility.

Prioritizing other things is also known as “I don’t have time to write.” Almost everyone has time to write. It might not seem like that because your time is fully booked. That’s because it’s not natural for a human being to do nothing at all for more than a few minutes. We get uncomfortable if we are not occupied in some way. That’s why we all hate waiting so much. That’s why we have a word for boredom.

Right now all of your time is occupied in some way. It might be social media, or computer games, or dancing around your bedroom listening to loud music, or watching the same episode of your favourite show for the fourth time but it’s how you are choosing to use your time. Maybe that’s more important to you than writing. And that’s ok. People need to spend their time in the way that makes them happiest. But maybe writing would make you happier. Only you know. It’s up to you to decide if writing is a high enough priority to sacrifice the time that you are currently using for something else.

Homework

Your task is to name the problem. Which of the Commandments of Writing are you having trouble with? Is it just one? Is it all of them? Is it some more than others? What do you think is causing the trouble? Is it one of the causes that I pointed out?  Is it several? Is it something else entirely?

Your previous homework was to research how your favourite writers deal with the problem of finishing things. Go back and look at that again and see if your favourite writers are dealing with the same problems as you. Remember that every writer is different so what works for them might not work for you. But it is a place to start. And if it doesn’t work then there are many other writers with many other solutions.

Advice to a young writer part 1

This is based on some advice that I came up with to help my daughter. She loves telling stories and writes poems and fan fics but she’s having trouble finishing things. If there’s one thing I’m good it it’s helping people finish things.

Since her problem is with writing that’s what I’m going to focus on but hopefully this will be helpful for other arts.

There will be many more parts. Each one will set some homework.

You are not alone

The very features of the mind that make a person creative also make it harder to stick to just one thing. The very imagination that flits from place to place and links together disparate ideas and images is also as distractible as a puppy in a room full of squirrels.

All artists have trouble finishing things. All artists try to find methods to harness their imagination to the task. Some struggle with it their whole careers, some beat the problem so comprehensively that you would think they had never had to fight it at all.

Vincent Van Gogh was so prolific he could complete several paintings on a good day, but he sold only one in his lifetime and had to be supported by his brother. Leonardo Da Vinci was a chronic procrastinator who completed only 15 works but was supported by a series of wealthy and powerful patrons.

But they were painters. How about writers? The two greatest writers of humorous sci fi/fantasy of my lifetime were Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. At his most prolific Terry was completing two or more novels a year as well as countless short stories and articles. He was so successful he had to change banks because he filled the old one up. Douglas Adams wrote some of the greatest Doctor Who scripts ever, he wrote the groundbreaking radio drama Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he also wrote several novels and a book on natural history. He was such a chronic procrastinator that some of the episodes of the Hitchhiker’s where completed minutes before they had to be recorded. He once said, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” One of his novels took three and a half years to write, but most of the actual writing was done in the last two weeks, and most of that was done over a single weekend.

My point is that having trouble finishing your stories does not mean that you are not a writer. It means that you have the same problem that every other writer has. And because it’s a problem that every writer has there are loads of solutions to it. Unfortunately there’s no way of knowing in advance which one will work for you so it’s going to be trial and error.

Homework

Your first task is to research some solutions for yourself. Pick a couple of your favourite writers and do some googling. You’re looking for interviews, articles and blog posts that talk about how they work. For example if you google “Derek Landy on writing” you’ll find the writer of the Skulduggery Pleasant books giving his thoughts on writing and answering questions about his method.

 

I do not have writer’s block.

Because writer’s block is not an actual thing.

However I am finding the re-writes on Singularity unusually difficult. It could be down to a lot of things. I could just be tired. I’ve had a week of running round like the proverbial blue arsed fly and maybe I need to rest. It could be editing fatigue. Perhaps I’ve just spent too much time staring at the same book and it no longer makes sense. It could be that I’m worried or stressed. My attempts to improve the family finances and organisation were going well but we’ve hit a difficult patch.

But this will not do. I am a writer and a writer writes.  Yes I know I’m writing right now. Shut up. What I mean is that I need to be moving forward with this novel even if I’m tired, even if it feels like it’s written in Flemish, even if I’m stressed or worried. There will always be reasons not to write. The world is full of them. I could find a million excuses to just let it go.

I do have to come up with a new plan though because just staring at the same scene till I hate it enough to fix it or like it enough to finish it isn’t working right now. I need to sneak up on it. I need to be an editing ninja. I need to leap out at it from the shadows, or drop from the ceiling, or sneak into the novel at night and move the furniture round without the characters noticing.

It’s fortunate that I know a couple of ninjas. I shall have to ask for their advice.

I really should be writing.

I have a novel I should be editing.  There’s a short story I should be finishing for my other blog. I just saw a fantastic flash fiction challenge here. I should probably start the eating disorder posts I promised a few days ago.

You will notice that I’m not doing any of those.  That’s because it feels like someone poured concrete into my brain and now my imagination has set solid.  It’s like there are no moving parts in there any more. I’m sitting in front of my computer waiting for words but the words are all trapped in the concrete.

But a writer writes.  So here I am writing about something that definitely isn’t writer’s block because it’s not stopping me from writing.  I’m writing about how I can’t write.  It’s a kind of magic trick.  It’s like  I’m chiseling words out of the brain concrete using a chisel made of words that are still trapped in the concrete.

All of which leads me to ask once again, “If I’m so clever why ain’t I getting paid?”