Writing Soundtrack

In my last post about the writing process, I mentioned that novel aesthetics aren’t something that really works for me. I really want them to, but alas. Something I’ve found that does sometimes help me if I’m struggling to get in the right mindset for a particular story is to listen to a writing soundtrack.

Some writers build a playlist to write along to as they start each new manuscript. Since a lot of my writing happens in spurts between errands, chores, taking kids to school and/or practices, etc, I generally jump into writing first and then pick some music when I need it.

And I don’t necessarily go to the same playlist all the time. When I need my writing music, it’s usually for a specific type of scene. A romantic scene and a battle scene don’t call for the same type of background music. Luckily, I can head over to Spotify, Amazon, or Pandora and pick a few songs and let the algorithms do the rest. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s quick and it works for me.

However, if I know I’m going to work on a specific type of scene later, I have been known to put together a purposeful playlist to keep me focused. For really intense scenes, I can’t risk picking songs with lyrics that I love. I’ll stop writing and sing along, which is not productive.

The best part is when the music inspires you. For instance, when I sat down to write this post I had no idea what I would write about. I put on my headphones and stared at the screen. Time ticked away and the screen was still blank. Then I found myself singing along to the songs of my childhood and adolescence. Each new song triggered a specific memory and changed my mood. Then one came on that I realized would be perfect to help me through a scene in my current project. Once that train of thought left the station, this post was just a few stops down the track.

Do you make aesthetics for your projects? Do you make soundtracks? Do you work in complete silence and make everyone leave you alone? That last one is perfectly fine too. Whatever works for you. But if you have go to songs for writing, I want to know. I might have to add them to my arsenal.

The Fallacy of “The Process”

Some writers like to make novel aesthetics to help them visualize their story; others find making such collages a waste of time they could use to write. Some writers like to make extensive outlines so they are never lost in the story once they start writing and can crank out a draft. Some writers just start typing. Some writers scribble in notebooks on public transportation during their commute, others pound away at their laptops after their kids go to bed. Some writers dream up worlds while doing a million and one other tasks while others may stare at the wall but see galaxies instead of shiplap.

The point is there is no one single process. Everyone has their own. It’s important to figure out what works best for you. When you have a routine that fits you, it’s your process, but not the process. It might not work for someone else, even if that someone else is a gifted and ambitious writer.

There are some steps that should apply to everyone. Write. Edit. Revise. Repeat. But how those things happen is very individual in nature. I often do my best work after the rest of my house is asleep, but because I also dislike sleep deprivation sometimes I have to change things up. I know several people who keep a notebook in the bag they carry to and from work and handwrite their notes for each new story. I know still others who get up at the crack of dawn to run miles and miles and then write a whole chapter–presumably all before I ever have my first cup of coffee. It sounds nuts to me, but it works for someone.

I have tried making novel aesthetics. It mostly took up way too much of my time and didn’t accomplish anything. But I have a friend who is awesome with photoshop and the collages she makes help her see the world she’s building a little clearer. Neither of us is wrong. That’s the beauty of writing. It’s not about conforming to someone else’s standard–at least when it comes to a process. It’s about self-expression.

Don’t get bogged down in all the advice like “you have to write at least a few words every day” or “you must finish at least one chapter per week”. It works for some writers, but not for everybody. Even the adage of BICHOK (Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard) discounts the very productive time some people spend spinning worlds into existence while on the treadmill.

There is no one process. That’s a conceptual lie perpetuated by bad and/or blanket advice tossed about on blogs and social media accounts. There is only the process that works for you. Daydream. Plan. Type. Speak into voice typing software while scrubbing floors. It’s okay if what you do doesn’t match up with what other writers do. Write, in whatever way you can. Edit. Revise, no first draft is perfect so take the time to mold and shape it into something beautiful. Outside of those steps, the execution of which could look vastly different person to person, your process can include or exclude almost anything you want.

So when you see someone give blanket advice, keep in mind that what works for them isn’t required of you. If you can’t write every day because your schedule doesn’t allow for it, you won’t automatically be excluded from the club. If you can and do write every day of the week, great.

You’re a writer. You do you.

Editing vs. Revising

In English, we often use the terms editing and revising interchangeably. However, when it comes to working on a manuscript, they are not the same. While there are different kinds of edits, most editors are actually pointing out things that the author should consider revising. Editing is polishing up. Revising is deep cleaning.

I’m going to run with that analogy for a moment.

I have two small children. They have a talent for destruction. I generally don’t worry too much about the mess they make with their toys while they are actively playing. But when playtime is over, it’s time to put everything back where it belongs. While they do that, I generally do small, everyday household tasks like unloading the dishwasher, swapping a load of laundry, dusting off the dark wood bookshelf that hindsight says was a terrible idea. That’s editing. Picking up stray toys off the floor and giving things a quick polish.

Two days a week my boys go to preschool. On these days, among 5,000 other things, I generally try to do the bigger cleaning tasks. Scrubbing the toilets. Steaming the mystery stain out of the carpet at the foot of one of their beds. Cleaning out the ears of our large dog–who does not enjoy this process and so participates rather unwillingly–so that his head won’t smell like bacteria and death. This is revising. There is some major dirt that needs to be attacked. It takes time. It can be grueling, and when you’re finished you should feel both a sense of accomplishment and the dread of knowing that this isn’t the last time you’ll have to endure it.

Manuscripts will always need both editing and revising, but they are not the same thing. If you mostly correct typos and fix sentence structure and you’re done in three hours, you were editing. If you spend time beefing up a character arc, reinforcing the themes of your story, making sure the threads of plot and subplots weave together to make a discernible picture, and cutting out unnecessary elements, that’s revising and you probably won’t finish in a single day.

Revising is done largely on your own, while it’s often helpful to have someone else help you edit–like little boys who help pick up toys and sometimes wipe down baseboards, but who cannot yet be trusted with a steam cleaner! And someone who edits your manuscript might also point out something that needs to be revised, so don’t assume that you’re finished after round one.

This week, I was cleaning up our house because my in-laws are coming for a weekend visit. My husband is out of town and won’t return until about two hours before his parents arrive. If you’re wondering, yes, that does have something to do with why my usual Thursday blog post is about 14 hours late. Anyway, before the boys left for school, I had them clean up all their toys and put them away so I could sweep, mop, and vacuum without any obstructions. Then the boys came home from school and toys once again covered the floor. They picked some of them up before bed and the rest they’ll clean first thing in the morning. That’s a lot like what editing and revising can be. A lot of us edit as we go, so we have a pretty clean workspace for revisions. Then we revise our butts off. And then we need to edit again. After that, new people show up, CPs or in-laws, and suddenly we see other things that need to be cleaned! I’m sorry I overworked the analogy, but you get the idea.

All manuscripts need both editing and revising, but they are not the same.

Getting to Know Your Characters

I used to think character interviews were a complete waste of time. I created these people, I know who they are. I know what they look like and how they sound. I hear their voices and the nuance in their language. They take up space in my head. We’re well acquainted.

However. As Rachel from the show Friends would say, “that’s just a fancy but”.

I did take time each time I wrote a scene to get into my character’s head. Yes, they take up space in my brain and now I have to take up space in theirs. Writing is a weird cycle of purposeful insanity, which is why it only works if you love it. Anyway, I realized that the time I took to shake off the world and put myself into the character’s shoes so that I could write in their voice and not mine was basically like a mini-character interview each time I started writing.

“Okay, I’m Livi. I’m overworked, my ex is an inconsiderate manchild who needs validation that I’ll give when Hell freezes over, and I’m in a fight with my best friend. How do I respond? Oh, that’s right. I’m going to down an entire bottle of bourbon, eat greasy foods, make bad decisions and then power through tomorrow like a champ because hangovers are for amateurs.”

That was my character interview. Instead of filling out pages of questions before I ever started writing a draft about backstory, likes, dislikes, hobbies, etc I would go over the highlights before every writing session. In my latest project, I’m doing the full character interview before I ever start. I may end up needing the mini-recap before writing sessions anyway, but if I struggle–as sometimes happens–I’ll have something to flip back to for help.

The point is, just because a character or a story lives in your head, doesn’t mean you don’t need to take the time to get to know them. Even if–no, scratch that, especially so you can understand the parts of the backstory you might not use in the draft. Just because I’m not going to write about the precise moment that Livi realized she needed to leave home all those years ago doesn’t mean I don’t need to know about it. It will affect her decisions and her relationships with other characters.

I need to know what happened to Scarlett’s parents and why she was living with her grandmother to begin with. I need to know about Eitan’s deep need to protect the people he cares about because of the one time in his childhood that he couldn’t. These moments shape our characters. It shapes their personalities, their voices, what drives them. When we come up with a character, they’re not fully developed. How you choose to fully develop them is up to you and your process. But I’m woman enough to admit that I was wrong. Character interviews are not a waste of time if they help you round out your character so they can be multi-dimensional.

Give a try. Google character interviews. There are tons of resources with lists of questions to get you started. Maybe it will work for you. Maybe it won’t. Maybe you’ll end up looking crazy because you’re talking to yourself and answering as if you are more than one person. That’s okay, too. You’re a writer. You’re like Alice in Wonderland. You fell down the rabbit hole the minute you committed to letting that first story out of your head.

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Imagination and Mess

My living room has toys all over it. I don’t pick up toys after my sons unless there are extenuating circumstances (or it just really starts to bug me). I will leave the toys where they are until the kids get home from school and can pick them up for themselves. But as I look around, I’m finding traces of their imaginative exploits and can’t help but smile.

  • A rolled up piece of construction paper, a shark, a dinosaur, a lion, a crocodile, and a book about animals. They went on an “expedition” together. The construction paper was their magical map that could show the whole world or just the area where they stood. They were searching for animals who were “living free and in the wild”–a phrase they learned from the Wild Kratts, who also star in their animal book. At different times my living room was North America, my second floor was South America, my kitchen was Africa, etc. They went all around the world together with minimal sibling bickering.
  • Black Widow and a train tunnel. The Avengers saved the day again, though they may have sustained some losses. At least Black Widow has both her legs. The last time I found her on the floor she was a double amputee. It seems the reattachment surgery went well.
  • A big Lego firetruck, an 18-wheeler, and several loose legos. They’re the big sized legos because my younger son is too young for the small ones. Those are hidden away so my older son can play with them while little brother naps. But they still play with the big ones together. I don’t know what buildings were saved or demolished, possibly both, but the evidence of a great adventure abounds.
  • Books. My older son can read, and when he’s feeling generous he’ll read to his younger brother.
  • Pieces of the preschool “build your own robot” set. They built a robot together. It moved, so they chased it and laughed until they ran it into the wall too many times and it broke apart again (it snaps back together, so it’s not broken). I don’t know why only one piece is left. Let’s hope it’s because they already put the others away.
  • Bobba Fett wearing a football helmet. If I remember correctly he was matched up against Chewbacca. I don’t know who won.
  • Pages from the Star Wars day calendar someone gave them. It’s a miracle those are at least gathered in a pile because they were being thrown about the room so the boys could dance through the “paper storm”.
  • The hat from my brother’s old Navy uniform. They protected the “high seas” today.

My sons are blessed with imagination. There are days when I look at the mess that gets left behind after one of their “adventures” and I get irritated. I grumble about dodging their debris and feeling like the walls are closing in. But there are other days when I look around and am so grateful. I’m grateful for the generosity of our friends and family who are part of the reason they have so many things to play with. I’m thankful that they like to play together–even if I have to break up an argument with some regularity. I’m thankful they both are gifted with imaginations that let them travel the world and save the day.

And then I look at my workspace. Blankets, notebooks, pens, bookmarks, books. Even on my computer, my bookmarked sites are nothing but organized chaos. There are separate folders for inspiration and research for different manuscripts, workout programs, music lessons, podcasts and more. It’s my own writer mom version of toys strewn about because I was too busy creating new worlds to worry about keeping it all tidy.

Sometimes feeding your imagination is messy and that’s okay.

I’m Not Your Search Engine

The online writing community is friendly, supportive, and helpful. As with any community, there can be exceptions to the rule, but I’ve found this to be true far more often than not. Other writers love to share experiences and knowledge, to commiserate, celebrate, and bond with others like them (or not like them!). However, being so willing to share what I know does not make me your secretary, your search engine, or your virtual assistant.

If you are genuinely having trouble finding information or understanding something you’ve read about, by all means, ask your questions to the online community. Someone will be able to help you. But if you are tweeting out a question simply because you don’t want to ask a search engine, that’s abusing the kindness of others. People notice.

An example I’ll give–though I will not supply screenshots or names because that is not the point of this post–involves the rules to a pitch contest. There is a website where anyone who wants to participate can find the rules to the contest, as is true with many such contests. I distinctly remember the first time I participated, there was some buzz about it on Twitter prior to the contest itself where many hopefuls were discussing it using the hashtag. Enter into the conversation a person who we’ll call Newbie.

Now, Newbie’s first question was when the actual pitch party would take place. Innocent enough. He could have meant what hours, which day, which time zone, etc. So many people obliged to answer his question and be as specific as possible. Newbie was very thankful and polite. He next asked what the rules were. He was given the web address for the site with any and all information he might need. It was his response that made us all step back. It went something like this, “That’s a lot of information to comb through, can you just give the highlights?”

No. For several reasons, but still no.

I started to list all the reasons that attitude was rude, but honestly, it started to irritate me just thinking about it. The biggest offenses are that it’s lazy and it implies that Newbie’s time is more valuable than the rest of us. We aren’t sitting around on our butts eating bonbons. We read through the complete rules page, so could Newbie. He was not unable. He just didn’t feel like it. It’s not a good sign in an industry known for deadlines and self-discipline.

This is just one example that sticks out in my memory, but there are so many more. Remember that while the writing community is a community, it is also a collection of people who are, in a sense, your colleagues. If you showed up to work and told your coworker that a task seemed too daunting and then asked them to do most of it for you, that wouldn’t go over well. At least not in any position I’ve held.

Be kind, be courteous, be engaged, but also be professional. I’m not saying you can’t wear pajamas, but when it comes to writing or promoting your writing, show initiative. If Google, Siri, or Alexa can answer your question, look there first. If you need clarification, the community is there and happy to help. We’re your coworkers, not your search engine.

I certainly don’t mean for this to discourage anyone from asking questions or having fun with the online writing community. That would be tragic. It’s a great place to connect. It’s a great place to get advice. It’s the virtual water cooler in an office filled with really cool people. Joke, laugh, connect. Just don’t abuse the kindness of those around you. It’s not a good look.

10 Things about Valentine’s Day

It’s the tenth of the month! Around here that means it’s time for me to spout off random trivia in hopes that you might find any of it interesting or helpful.

In fiction, especially in Fantasy and Science Fiction, worldbuilding is an important element in telling the story. We want the reader to become part of our world. I’ve touched before on athletic topics and how we can use sports to make our world seem more real. Another way is to assign holidays.

Most cultures around the world have at least a few major holidays and some minor ones as well. Religious holidays are generally the most well-known, but not all major holidays have something to do with religion. Think about the holidays you celebrate during the year. Think about how you celebrate, whether you get the day off or not, whether you celebrate with family or not, etc. The people in your fictional world might celebrate an armistice, a religious event, a monarch’s jubilee, etc. And a holiday that has been celebrated for a number of years might change over time.

This month, our case study is Valentine’s Day. Here are 10 Things about February 14th.

  1. Saint Valentine’s day is still part of the official Anglican and Lutheran calendars of commemorative saints days, but has been removed from the official Roman Catholic calendar as of 1969. Even so, it is still widely celebrated.
  2. There were no less than three saints named Valentine/Valentinus, all of whom were martyrs. The two best known were both originally buried on the Via Flaminia in Rome between 269 and 275 AD, though the remains of at least one of them have been relocated. Both are said to have died on February 14th.
  3. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Saint Valentine is commemorated on July 6th.
  4. There are legends that say a priest named Valentine secretly performed marriages for soldiers under Roman Emperor Claudius II who forbade the practice reasoning that single men made better soldiers because they were less concerned about the wives they left at home. However, there is serious doubt that any such ban on marriage ever existed.
  5. There was a priest named Valentine who was imprisoned in Rome for ministering to Christians during a time when Christianity was cause for persecution. It is believed that this Valentine healed the daughter of his jailer, and the entire family of the jailer converted to Christianity as a result. The legend goes on to say, though this part is more disputed, that Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and on the night before his execution wrote her a letter signing it “Your Valentine.”
  6. There is still no record of Valentine’s Day or February 14th being associated with romantic love until 1400s England when it was mentioned by Chaucer and his contemporaries. There is also a poem the Duke of Orleans wrote to his wife during his imprisonment in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt (1415 AD), which is considered the oldest “Valentine” on record.
  7. Formal “valentines”–handwritten notes or tokens of affection traded on Saint Valentine’s Day–became more popular in the 1500s, but were not commonly traded until the 1700s; and during the latter part of the 18th century commercially printed messages started to become available.
  8. In the 1840s, Esther Howland began making and selling pre-made Valentines greetings with scraps of lace and ribbon around colorful pictures. It earned her the moniker “Mother of the Valentine.”
  9. Though most of the marketing we see near Valentine’s Day seems to be aimed at men, women purchase as much as 85% of Valentine’s Day cards.
  10. In some countries, mass weddings are held on February 14th. It is also said to be the most common wedding anniversary date in the Philippines.

Today we celebrate Valentine’s Day with flowers, chocolates, or other tokens of affection. But Saint Valentine’s Day was originally a day set aside by the church to commemorate a man (or three) who lost his life because he was being evangelical. It was not associated with romance until several hundred years after his death. And was not widely celebrated as a romantic holiday until centuries after that.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The point is that holidays can evolve, no matter what they originally celebrated. Traditions develop over time and sometimes deviate between cultures, regions, etc. They can be an excellent way to showcase different cultures, even ones that are seemingly similar in your worldbuilding.

What are your characters celebrating?