What Do You Listen To While Writing?

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I can’t stand absolute silence when I write. I have to have some kind of sound in the background–an open window on a rainy day is my favorite, but I don’t live in a climate of eternal rain.

I have trouble writing to any music with lyrics–my singing training basically makes me sing along in my head–so I’m sometimes jealous when I see other writers post their superb writing playlists that match a certain mood or story. Those are fun to listen to when I’m doing other things, but they just don’t work for me when I write.

Back in college, I relied heavily on remixed instrumental video game music from my favorite games. I think I wrote an entire NaNoWriMo novel just to stuff from Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. (Thank you, OverClocked Remix.)

As my video-game playing decreased, though, I moved on to other sources. Rain is always going to be one of my favorites, and I used to listen to RainyCafe a lot, though with the cafe sounds turned down or off–I’m not a coffee shop person, I find that many people moving around too distracting. For a more relaxed mood, I also like Jazz and Rain, which, as you might expect from the name, is jazz music and rain sounds.

My newest favorite, though, is myNoise. Many different soundscapes are available for free, all with adjustable sliders for the individual sounds that comprise them; and many of those also offer a calibration mode, where you perform a brief test to determine your personal levels across different frequencies, then save it to apply to the offered sounds.

Today, though, I finally donated $5 to help support the site (since I like it so much) and discovered how many more soundstreams available to donors! (A one-time donation unlocks these for life, though continued support is of course an option.) I’m not being compensated to advertise for the site, I’m just impressed and want to share.

What other sound resources are out there? Which ones do you find yourself using again and again? Leave your favorites in the comments and I’ll put together a master list!

Save Every Word You Write

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When I got into art journaling last year, I found myself hungry for new media. I had some craft acrylics leftover from old projects, I had plenty of paper and fabric and yarn, but I wanted more. Lots of the journals I saw and admired used watercolors.

I had some old tubes from a set I bought on a family vacation. I don’t know how I always ended up with new art supplies on vacations, but I did. I hadn’t touched them since high school, so at least twenty years ago, and I didn’t doubt they were damaged, but I still had them. Rather than buying a new set, I decided to rescue them.

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Some of the colors were fine, like the cadmium yellow and red, squeezed out of their tubes as easily as if they were brand new. Some, like the burnt sienna and black, were stubborn and gooey–I had to slit their tubes open with a blade and scoop them out.

The worst, the white and crimson, had completely dried out–I peeled the slit tubes away from them like wrapping paper.

But I can still use them. Add a little water, and presto, it’s still paint.

Where am I going with this?

Save everything you write.

Every plot bunny. Every imagined scene without a story attached to it. Every line of dialogue or descriptive phrase cut from a piece during editing. Save all of it.

Your words don’t lose their power with age anymore than my watercolors did.

Every time I sit down to edit a first draft, I make a new file called “Deleted Scenes.” Anything that gets cut ends up there. Does any of it make it back in later? Not usually, but a joke from one of those deleted scenes in What We Need to Survive is now in a different scene in the forthcoming What We Need to Rebuild, where it works much better.

The joke didn’t get cut because it was unnecessary, or even because it was bad–it got cut because the whole scene needed to go, and there wasn’t a place for the joke anywhere else in the book. Turns out, two books later, it found a home.

Save everything you write. You don’t know when you might need it again.

Letting Your Mind Wander

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I was lying in bed, still half-asleep, my brain jumbled with random images from the dream I’d had.

I remembered seeing a window decorated with paper snowflakes. I thought about how badly mine used to come out when I was a child, because the scissors were never sharp enough.

Okay, so use an X-acto knife.

I’ve done plenty of work with a blade like that before, but I remembered even with the sharpest blade, my hand would shake or slip, and the paper would tear.

(Here’s where it gets weird.)

How does a cutting edge actually work?

In the obvious physical sense, it’s a fine (ie, sharp) object that a force acts upon to insert itself between two parts of another object, separating them. Like putting my hand into water, but in a more permanent form–the blade pushes the two parts to either side of it, but unlike water, solid objects can’t rush back together like it never happened.

But even the finest knife edge still has thickness, so my brain spiraled down to thinking about it on the atomic level.

Atoms are mostly empty space. Matter is mostly empty space–we perceive it as solid because those mostly-empty spaces have rules and properties about how they arrange themselves, and our senses are orders of magnitude too dull to notice the atomic trickery going on.

So on the one hand, it makes perfect sense that a sharp blade could slice through something easily, pushing all those tiny parcels of empty to one side or the other.

Then I realized the blade is mostly empty space too.

That’s when I got out of bed and made myself a cup of tea, because visualizing an X-acto knife made of hardly anything at all was too taxing for my sleep-muddled brain.

As a writer, I believe it’s important to give your mind time to wander down these odd little paths. Is this pseudo-revelation I had about atoms immediately useful to a story I’m writing? No.

But could I use it to inform the personality of a future character? Absolutely. I can already picture one–a young man with perpetually disheveled hair and an air of constant distraction, because he’s busy thinking Deep Thoughts and when he comes up with one, he realizes someone’s already had it, someone’s already figured that out, and he needs to read more widely and study more things so he can finally have New Deep Thoughts.

And I could play it straight and let him be serious, or he could be the weird one everyone makes fun of. Depends on the story.

So make a habit of daydreaming. Let yourself travel along unknown ideas to their inevitable conclusions, be they weird or obvious or downright foolish. Write those ideas down, if they amuse you, like my atomic X-acto knife did.

Give yourself permission to be strange, sometimes. It’s fun.

Flash Fiction#5: Limninal Spaces

At the laundromat, the lights are always on, and one dryer is always running.

I’ve taught myself not to let it bother me, the same way I taught myself not to be afraid of the spider, the one under the banister on the stairs leading up to my apartment. She never moves. Familiarity breeds contempt, or in this case, it dulls fear.

I am not afraid of the dryer that is always running. I am not afraid of the spider.

These things are always true, and if they are ever not true, then I might be afraid.

The laundromat isn’t empty this Friday morning. It almost always is–day-jobbers, nine-to-fivers, do their laundry on the weekends, or sometimes in the evenings. Most of them in their own home washers and dryers, too, probably.

I see the man slumped in the hard plastic chair at the far end of the room, but I don’t greet him. His chin is on his chest. His eyes are closed. If he’s not asleep, he’s faking it well.

I walk along the wall of machines, peering inside each for stains. You never know what sort of dirty laundry other people are washing.

I choose the fourth washer, measure the detergent into it, and load my clothes. The steady hum of the tumbling dryer near the sleeping man breaks, punctuated by the high rattle of metal on metal. He’s drying something with zippers, though the rest of the sounds are muted, rustling, like pillows being punched.

I start my wash, the plink of the quarters as they fall through the slot into the collection bin providing a tinny counterpoint. Looking over my shoulder, the man hasn’t moved, undisturbed by the noise.

There are chairs that face him, and chairs that don’t. I brought a book to read–I always bring a book to read, because leaving the laundromat to do other errands in town is just asking for your clothes to vanish into thin air. But I don’t know where to sit, if I’m not alone.

Facing him, he’ll distract me from my reading, even if he never moves. But he will. My eyes find the timer on his machine–twenty minutes. He’ll be done, packing up his clean and dry clothes, before mine are even finished in the washer.

The idea of facing away from him makes my heart stutter.

I settle with my back to the opposite wall and manage to read three pages before I can’t help studying him.

Young, barely out of his teens, maybe, though some people just look younger in their sleep. No older than I am, anyway. Dark hair, wavy and disheveled. Eggshell-brown skin liberally peppered with deeper freckles, clustered over the bridge of his nose and fading out across his cheeks. White tee shirt with some logo on it I didn’t recognize, red zippered sweatshirt, tattered jeans.

He raised his head, opened his eyes. They were entirely white, like pools of milk. “You’re staring.”

The words I tried to say in apology came out as a squeak instead.

He laughed, then cocked his head and studied me in turn. “Wait, I know you.”

“No.” I’d remember this man, if I’d ever met him before. “You don’t.”

“I dream about this place, sometimes. Sometimes you’re there.”

I wanted a mirror to raise between my face and his, so I could look into it and be sure I was still me. Not someone he knew, someone he’d dreamed about. “I’ve never dreamed about a laundromat, or about you.”

“Course not.” He stood, shoving his hands in his pockets and rolling his shoulders in a stretch.

I saw feathers behind him on the wall, cream edged in red. I blinked. Blank wall.

One hand stretched out toward me–I hadn’t seen him take it from his pocket. “What’s your name?”

I touched my neck, my hair. I still felt like me, but I didn’t answer.

His hand dangled at his side again. He shrugged. “Someday, you’ll tell me.”

The buzzer on my laundry dinged, and I whirled to face it. It hadn’t been half an hour yet. The man’s laundry still tumbled in the dryer.

I turned. He was gone, and the dryer that was always on, wasn’t.

I shuffled through transferring my wet clothes to a dryer–not the one that should have been running, but wasn’t–and the room held its breath. Not me, not mine, but the air was so still.

I fed in the quarters. A hand touched my shoulder.

The white-eyed man held my wrist, keeping my raised hand from his face. “Sorry I startled you.” He actually sounded sorry, but my heart didn’t start to drift down from the contact high until he let go. “Can’t always be sure where I’ll appear.”

“What?”

“Never mind. When you’re done, want to grab some coffee?”

I stepped back and found myself pinned by the dryer. “No. No, thank you.”

“Right.” He turned and stepped away, leaving a scent in his wake, a sharp blast of air flavored with salt and pine and dampness. Then he turned back to me with an eager, boyish smile. “Tea?”

As if coffee were the problem, not the invitation. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing.

“That’s better.” Whatever he’d meant to say next, he stopped, turning his head to the window. “Rats. Gotta go.”

I blinked, and he was gone again.

I leaned against the dryer until my bones rattled in sympathetic vibration, wondering if I’d been hallucinating, wondering if he’d reappear the next time I moved. A crack of thunder boomed through the sky, shaking the building, and I went to the window.

A storm was moving in from the south, but in the pale brightness of the northern sky, I saw the shadow of an enormous bird, circling in the air before fleeing ahead of the rain.

Looking at Writing from a Different Perspective

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Sometimes, I feel as if I’ve read every piece of writing advice floating out there in the collective consciousness of the Internet. Obviously that’s not true, but the diligent writer is exposed to so much that even the best bits of wisdom can start to seem stale.

Good news, though–you don’t have to get take all your advice from other writers.

Among my many and varied YouTube channel subscriptions are two I’d like to recommend as alternate sources of writing advice/criticism from different disciplines: movies and video games. Not every video on both channels will have direct applications to writing, but a great many of them have interesting things to say about storytelling, characterization, and presentation, so there’s plenty of crossover subjects.

For video games, I present Extra Credits. A collaboration between some incredibly intelligent people across several video-game disciplines (artists, animators, developers/consultants,) they cover a broad range of topics from the importance of integrating gaming into the classroom, to narrative choice and structure, to how the game mechanics influence and limit storytelling potential. (I consider this a must-watch for any video gamer, regardless of its application to writing. Also, on a side note, their sub-series Extra History is fantastically fun and interesting, and they cover all sorts of oft-neglected events and time periods I’ve known absolutely nothing about. Also a recommended watch.)

In the episode I’ve shared, the topic is why video games often tell bad stories, and it was one of the ones that hooked me–but there’s YEARS of episodes to go through, so I’m sure you’ll find plenty more worth your time.

For movies, I present Every Frame a Painting. Yes, film is a visual medium and we writers are working with words instead, but a lot of the same lessons apply.

In the episode I’ve shared, the topic is what the chairs in the film tell you about the characters and the setting, making them a fascinating shorthand object for the scene. When I first saw it, I kept thinking, yes, this is what I need to be doing in my writing, keeping the details minimal by utilizing important, signifying objects. Though not necessarily chairs.

EFP doesn’t have the same deep back-catalog to dive into, so I’d go ahead and say watch them all (unless you come across one for a movie you haven’t seen but intend to–though EFP’s mastermind Tony does diligently warn the viewer of spoilers, so have no fear on that score.)

Again, not all of them will have a direct analogue to writing like the chairs, but I’d usually finish most of them thinking about my own writing from a new angle.

 

10 Dialogue Prompts, Movie Edition: Airplane!

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I’m a sucker for a good movie line, and the other day at work, I tossed out “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue” when things were going very, very wrong.

A handful of coworkers busted their guts laughing, while the rest looked at me funny. Turns out, not everyone’s seen Airplane!

But it gave me the idea to set out some of my favorite lines from the movie as dialogue prompts, because oh, the places they could go.

  1. “It takes so many things to make love last. But most of all, it takes respect, and I can’t live with a man I don’t respect.”
  2. “It’s a damn good thing you don’t know how much he hates your guts.”
  3. “No, I’ve been nervous lots of times.”
  4. “Surely you can’t be serious.”
  5. “You can tell me. I’m a doctor.”
  6. “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.”
  7. “But what’s most important now is that you remain calm. There is no reason to panic.”
  8. “I can’t tell you that. It’s classified.”
  9. “No… that’s just what they’ll be expecting us to do.”
  10. “What are you doing here? You can’t fly this plane!”

Have fun with them, and keep an ear open for good prompts when you’re watching your favorite movies!

5 More Prompts to Develop Your Characters: Stress

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A person who never suffers any kind of stress would be rare, and a fictional character, next to impossible. What drives interest in a story? Conflict. And with conflict comes stress.

Reactions to stress can be as simple as a single beer after dinner to mellow out from a hard day at work, or as complex and life-altering as self-destructive behaviors like drug abuse.

Both of those, and everything in between, provide tons of meat for your characters’ personalities.

So, let’s find out what sends our characters in search of their happy places.  As always, “they” = the character in question, regardless of gender.

  1. What do they find stressful? External sources, like work, politics, illness, family, trouble with a significant personal relationship, social obligations? Internal sources, like perfectionism or poor time management or forgetfulness?
  2. How to they react in the moment to a stressor? Physical reactions (flight-or-flight response, upset stomach, nervous tics, for example); internal/emotional reactions (anger, anxiety, or grinning and bearing it); or some combination of both? Do they react differently to different sources of stress?
  3. How aware are they of their stressors, and do they actively seek to avoid them?
  4. What do they do to wind down after becoming stressed?
  5. Are there any preventative measures they take to compensate in situations they expect to be stressed?

I hope I’ve given you a new angle to come at your characters, because while they might be reacting to the conflicts of the story, you shouldn’t be stressing about how they’re going to react.


Want more character development prompts?

Writing Homework #4: Drabbles and Self-Editing Practice

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For this assignment, you don’t need to pull any books from your shelves.

You need a drabble prompt, a word-counting app, and about fifteen minutes.

(Feel free to use other sources for either, those are suggestions. I do recommend using an app, though, and not checking word counts in your normal program, because it’s helpful to see the count change in real time.)

I want you to write a drabble–that is, a 100-word scene–based on one of the prompts. Write the first thing that comes to your head, and write fast–don’t overthink it or worry about the exact word count yet. Just aim for a scene that’s short, but still has a clear beginning, end, and purpose.

Then, your goal is to cut it back to 100 words (or less.)

I started with this prompt: Meet me at midnight. Alone.

Without paying attention as I typed, I got 119 words:

My phone buzzed on the nightstand. I wanted to ignore it, but I checked the new text anyway. Billy had been having a rough week.

Meet me at midnight. Alone.

I sighed and dropped my book, dragging myself out of bed. I had half an hour to get dressed and find him, because of course Billy hadn’t said where he was. I had a good idea, at least of where to start looking. The last time I’d gotten a cryptic message like this, I’d ended up at the lake, twenty minutes late.

I hoped this time around, I wasn’t going to need my shovel.

I checked my trunk before I left, though. It was still there, just in case.

So here’s the question–can I cut 19 words without giving up any story elements?

My phone buzzed on the nightstand. I wanted to ignore it, but I checked the new text anyway didn’t. Billy had been was having a rough week.

Meet me at midnight. Alone.

I sighed and dropped my book, dragging myself out of bed. I had half an hour thirty minutes to get dressed and find him, because of course Billy hadn’t said where he was. I had a good idea, at least of where to start looking. The last time I’d gotten a cryptic message like this, I’d ended up at the lake, twenty minutes late.

I hoped this time around, I wasn’t going to wouldn’t need my shovel.

I checked my trunk before I left, though. It was still there, just in case.

I cut 26 words and added 5 new ones, when I shortened a phrase instead of cutting it, leaving me at 98 words.

Let’s look at the changes:

  • “checked the new text anyway” — At first I was going to cut “new” because that’s implied, but so is the fact that it’s a text, not a call, because the narrator doesn’t speak or mention Billy’s voice, then later refers to it as a “message.” The whole clause could go.
  • “had been” — It was acceptable as it stood, but changing tenses not only cuts a word, but makes the tone more immediate since Billy is still having a rough week.
  • “half an hour” — This one is debatable, since most people would say “half an hour” naturally, and I ended up two words under my goal. I could have changed it to “twenty minutes” to both cut the extra word and add more immediacy, but that would have changed a detail, which wasn’t the point of the exercise.
  • “wasn’t going to” — It reads fine, if informal, but “wouldn’t” is cleaner. Don’t complicate your verbs more than necessary.

Everything else is a straight cut of filler or redundancy. I could have even cut the final “just in case” as a trite phrase, but I like it, and it does imply something about how the narrator expects the night to unfold.

I’m deep, deep into this sort of editing on What We Need to Decide, but I know not everyone has a full-length manuscript lying around to practice on. Drabbles are quick to write, making them handy mini-editing lessons.

Give it a try, and if you’d like to share your finished drabbles, leave them in the comments–I’d love to read them!

Writing Homework #3: Chapter Breaks

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We talked about first lines last time, so now, let’s talk about last lines. Not last last lines, because ending the whole story is a topic worth covering on its own; today, I want us to study chapter breaks.

Now, I’m not concerning myself here with how long a chapter is–it’s a common question I’ve seen asked writing advice blogs, and the answer is invariably “As long as it needs to be.” I want to take a look at how the chapters end.

Chapter breaks serve two purposes that almost seem conflicting: they divide a story into manageable chunks and give a reader easy places to set down the book for a while, but they also need to keep the reader interested and make them want to turn that page, to keep going.

So, they’re kind of a big deal, and they don’t get talked about much that I’ve seen.

I want you to pick a familiar book off your shelf with distinct breaks, be it chapters or sections or days, as long as one chunk of text can be clearly separated from the next. I don’t recommend an unread book for this exercise, as I have with the other assignments so far, because a) spoilers, and b) the tone of each chapter is important for this, so you won’t know if you haven’t read it.

For as many chapters as you want to look at, write down the chapter number and title, if it has one. Then skim the chapter for the major tone–is it action, tension, flashback, character study-ish, and so forth–and note that down. Then copy out the final line.

Once you’ve got a chunk of chapters done (or the whole book, if you want to be ambitious), take a look at how each line relates to the tone of both its own chapter and the one following it.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Is this a closed ending, or an open one? A closed ending provides a sense of finality to the content of the chapter, which is helpful for dividing chapters of wildly different tones; but open endings leave a question in the reader’s mind and drive them to keep reading for the answer.
  • Does the tone of the final line match the tone of the chapter, and if it doesn’t, does it match the next one? Matching tones will provide a complete feeling, while different tones can heighten tension–for example, a chapter that is mostly conversation ending with sudden action, to set up for an action chapter.
  • How successful is this line at making me want to turn the page? And if you find any that don’t push you to keep reading, how might you change them? Where else in the chapter would you have ended it?
  • Is there a balance to the tones of each chapter ending, or does one dominate over the others? I’ve got an example here, though it’s not from a book. I recently watched the anime Death Note, and I loved it for its twisted worldview, fascinating characters, and tight mystery writing. What I didn’t love as much was that nearly every episode ended on a cliffhanger. Some were bigger cliffhangers than others, so there was a little relief from time to time, but the final half the series, especially, was a long run of ever-escalating tension. And for that particular story, even if I didn’t love it, I can see how it was an effective strategy. On the other hand, if every single chapter in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone ended on a cliffhanger…well, that wouldn’t work, now, would it?

Writing Homework #2: The Worst First Line I Have Ever Read

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Since I contribute writing advice to the vast jumble of the internet, I also read a lot of it, and there is a lot that’s been said on first lines.  I’ve even written some of it.

When I read, I’m not hyper-critical of first lines. I’m usually not even that harsh on first paragraphs or pages.  If I’m not into it by the end of the prologue/first chapter, that’s usually where my cut-off is, so I guess you could call me generous that way.

But a few days ago, starting another free romance on my Kindle, I came across the worst first line I’ve ever read.

I’m not going to give the name of the book, because I’m not that mean.  A large part of my literary heart still feels like judging an entire book from a single line and giving up on it is unfair…so I’ll keep this anonymous.  But I picked up the book based on an interesting blurb and a 4.5 star rating across several hundred reviews, so I honestly thought, going in, that it was going to be a decent read.  I’ve certainly been surprised by less.

So here they are, the four words that made me drop my Kindle into my lap in shock:

“My parents are dead.”

Yeah.

Think about that for a second.

“My parents are dead.”

Where do I even start talking about how terrible an opening line this is, according to every bit of writing wisdom out there?

  1. It’s backstory. Don’t lead with backstory. Lead with action.
  2. This is my first impression of the narrator. Is the fact that her parents are dead really the most important thing about her, so that it needs to be conveyed to the reader immediately? Isn’t that something that can wait, so it can have context?
  3. Not that this couldn’t be forgiven if the rest of the story turns out to be solid, but the absent/dead parents trope is overused.  In YA especially, to give the young protagonists more freedom than they would otherwise have, but it pops up in romance a lot as well, for the easy access to a tragic past. Boooooring.
  4. The only interesting thing about the sentence itself is the shock value, which is negligible at best, since we don’t know anything else about the narrator yet.  It isn’t descriptive enough to be a compelling hook, like “When I was ten, my parents died in a hot-air balloon accident, and I still don’t know how I survived.”  (I’m not saying that’s an amazing opening line, but it’s got a little more oomph, right? Because it sets up a little mystery around the narrator.)

So, this time your homework is to study some opening lines.  Do as many as you want, and again, I’d suggest a mix of some books you’ve read and some you haven’t. Ask yourself with each one if you think it’s a strong beginning, or not, and why.  Which commonly accepted conventions does it follow, and which does it break?  If you think it’s weak, how could you rewrite it to make it stronger? Or, for bonus points, are there stronger sentences on the first page that would have made better opening lines?  Could they be moved to the beginning, or does everything ahead of them need to be cut?

As for the book that inspired this exercise, I did tough it out to the end of the first chapter before I gave up.  It was ten pages long and covered eight years of backstory in the narrator’s life.  I would much rather have gotten all that information spaced out over the first few chapters, and this is a romance, for pity’s sake!  Couldn’t there be character discovery through dialogue?  Couldn’t the romantic hero be curious about the narrator’s past?  If/when she tells Mr. Right everything laid out in the first chapter, it’s all going to be rehash to me, the reader, and there was nothing there so interesting I’d look forward to hearing it twice.

I do not feel any guilt about setting this one aside.