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.

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.

giphy

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.

Don’t Hire an Editor You Can’t Afford

Recently, there has been some bad advice floating around social media for writers. It has been called out time and time again by much better-known personalities than myself, but I still thought I’d touch on the topic here.

Writers new to the writing community can be especially vulnerable to bad advice. More seasoned writers might start to doubt their own perceptions and believe it too. It’s important that we look out for each other. Because above all, the writing community is a community. It is not a competition.

The particular piece of advice du jour is to be willing to take out a loan or find a patron in order to hire a quality editor. No. There are several reasons this is bad advice, but the first and foremost is that it implies that if you can’t afford an editor, then you’ll never be a quality writer. That’s absolute malarkey.

When someone tells you to “go for broke” in your writing, they aren’t talking about paying for editing services.

Some writers, especially those who have decided to pursue self-publishing instead of a traditional route, do hire professional editors. And professional editors who charge for their services are not the enemy. After all, they are providing a service and expect to get paid. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s just not a requirement for a well-polished manuscript.

Don’t misunderstand, it’s still good to have other pairs of eyes look at your manuscript and give you feedback on ways to improve it. Not someone like a significant other, close friend, or family member–unless, of course, that person has experience and is likely to offer better constructive criticism than just “It’s great and I love you!” That’s what critique partners are for. I have already written a post about finding critique partners if you’re unsure how to connect with someone. Critique partners are invaluable and free at the same time. I strongly recommend having more than one, or more than one group even. Everyone will bring something different to the table and you’ll learn something new each time someone critiques your work or you critique theirs.

But I digress.

Do not take out a loan because you think you need an expensive professional editor. Don’t feel like you have to have a patreon account, a single wealthy patron, etc. No. There are some writers who do have those things, but they aren’t necessary for a writing career in general.

Also, don’t quit your day job to completely dedicate yourself to your art unless you can afford not to have a day job in the first place. The vast majority of authors don’t make enough off of their work to support themselves entirely. There are perennial best-sellers who can and do. They are not the rule. They are the exception, and even they will admit that. I’ve never seen a career author–not once–say that you should quit your day job to write full-time.  For most authors, writing is at best a side-hustle. A passion. Perhaps a lucrative (or not so lucrative) hobby. Because publishing one or two–or ten–novels is not a guarantee of fame and fortune. But editing the first one shouldn’t send you into immediate debt, either.

And when an agent wants to sign you, remember this: money should flow toward the author. If an agent wants to sign you, but also wants to charge you for editing services run screaming for the hills. That’s not an agent, it’s a predator and you’re the prey. Don’t do it.

Now, if you are completely against critique partners (why?) and want to self-publish then hire an editor. If you have excellent critique partners, but want to have a pro look over your manuscript too, hire an editor. I’m not saying you should never, under any circumstances, hire one. That’s madness. You do you. But do your homework first. Not all editors are created equal and not all of them charge comparably. Research is your friend.

And your research should tell you that anyone who suggests you take out a loan for their services is not the kind of editor you actually want to work with. Ever.

 

**I know and follow several freelance editors. They are not all predators to be avoided. This post is meant to be a warning against feeling like you have to pay for editing services you know you can’t afford, or that if you can’t afford them you can never be agent/publisher worthy. There are good, affordable editors out there for writers who want to hire one.**

 

A Lesson in Storytelling from Star Wars

I don’t know anybody who cheers on Darth Vader in A New Hope. He’s scary, he destroys planets, and–while he looks very cool–he cuts down our newly beloved mentor with a lightsaber. He’s the bad guy, the villain, the terror that flaps in the night–wait. That’s Darkwing Duck. Anyway, you get the picture. But here’s the catch, we don’t just love to hate him, we love him too.

Darth Vader isn’t a good guy, but by his untimely end two movies later, we’re sad to see him go. That’s the mark of a good villain. He was redeemable. And if you bring in the prequels, we can see his deterioration and understand why he made the choices he made to become the source of so much fear. It had a lot to do with the fact that he was super emo and brooding, but then his son started out the same way, so it makes sense. But I digress.

Nothing about Anakin/Darth Vader is out of left field when you know the story. It’s a natural progression. A slave boy who dreams of more is taken from his mother and trained in how to use the galaxy’s greatest power and then told he’s not allowed to love, fear, or hate anything. Naturally, this becomes a problem sometime after puberty. Then when he fears losing his lady love, his fear drives him to make questionable decisions. I know, it’s a very simplistic view of what happened, but when you break it down to the bare minimum, that’s his character arc. And it’s very relatable. We’ve all made questionable decisions out of fear, and I’m almost positive we’ve all made questionable decisions when it comes to whoever we’re attracted to. Just saying. It’s like a rite of passage. His decisions just had higher stakes than looking like an idiot in front of the whole class/school/whathaveyou.

So he’s relatable, and because he’s relatable he’s redeemable. And even while we hate him, we can’t help but be a little in awe of him. And if you don’t believe me, go to a Disney park and look at the line just to meet him.

As writers, our villains should be relatable on some small level. Leave some smidgen of a chance of redemption, even if you know they would rather die than take it. Give them dimension. Sure, you can make them terrifying. You can make them powerful. But make them whole in the process. Nobody is ever just power and fright. At some point, they got that power. At some point, they wanted to be frightening. You don’t have to give the entire backstory in an info dump, but leave traces of it. Leave hints and trust the readers to be smart enough to follow the breadcrumbs.

The lesson here is that in stories, and in my experience life itself, nobody is all good or all bad. Everybody struggles with internal demons of some kind. It’s how they face those demons that makes them protagonists or antagonists. While this post has solidly focused on making sure your villain is more than just one big ball of scary, the same rule applies to your protagonist. They have to be given the opportunity to make bad decisions. Because people do. And they can make the right decision or they can make bad ones and then redeem themselves.

Luke was a whiney brat who just wanted to go to Tochi and score some power converters. He chose to train with Ben Kenobi and Yoda to become a Jedi. He found out who his father was and was given the opportunity to go dark and rule the galaxy. He turned it down. And when he shows up at Jabba’s place dressed in all black, we all know that some questionable things happened since we last saw him, but we trust him to still be at least mostly on the light side.

I could do this for every major character in the story. And before you go pointing out, “But Palpatine!” I’m going to stop you. I watched the movies. I haven’t read the bajillion and one books and comics and read all the fan theories the internet has to offer. I don’t know his backstory, but I’m pretty sure if I did I would find reasons he became a Sith. Because nobody is all good or all bad.

Except for Leia. She’s perfection.

Just kidding.

Sort of.

A Matter of Distinction

A friend and I were talking about different books that we had started lately and decided to DNF. The premise of each book appealed to us, but we weren’t pulled in. We couldn’t immerse ourselves in the world the author created. After talking for a just a few moments, she said something about her book that was one of the main reasons she couldn’t connect. I realized it was the same reason that I couldn’t get on board with the one I was reading either. The character voices weren’t distinctive.

When I talk about character voices, I mean more than the way the character speaks in dialogue. It’s their attitude, air, personality. It’s their essence. If characters are distinctive enough, you could theoretically tell which one of them is “talking” without any kind of tag or beat.

Think about opening up a text from someone you know and immediately knowing, without needing to be told, that their significant other sent it from their phone. How did you know? The feel of it was all wrong. Your friend wouldn’t say it that way. But their partner would. That’s what character voice is.

Think about the music you listen to. If you heard a new song, just the first few bars before the lyrics begin, do you think you’d have a clue which of your favorites was performing? Perhaps. What if you read the lyrics. You might be able to figure it out. Because different artists/acts/bands do more than sound different. They feel different. Their voice is different.

So when you write characters, each of them should have a distinctive voice just like the people in your life. Even if there are similarities, no two people sound exactly the same. I have two sisters. They each look a bit like our mother in their own way. They shared a room growing up. They were taught the same idiomatic expressions. But they don’t say things the same way. When I answer the phone, I know which one of them is calling me without looking at the name on my phone. Even with similar tones and pitches to their voices, their “character voice” is very different.

Because this happens with real people, it needs to happen with fictional characters. Otherwise, each character comes off as a wooden copycat. Unless you’re writing a story about creepy Stepford clones, that shouldn’t happen. And if you’re writing a romance, character voices that sound too similar will seem like the main character is falling in love with himself/herself/themselves. And not just in a healthy self-esteem kind of way.

So when crafting characters, explore their personalities. What are their idiosyncrasies? Everyone has at least one. Do they use different idioms? Does everything they say have a passive-aggressive bite? Maybe they’re more direct? Do they say exactly what they are thinking, or do they expect everyone to hear what they aren’t saying? It will affect how you write their scenes. And it should. Characters should sound different because people are different.