Writing with Moody Music

While I don’t mind writing without music, I need it most of the time. I give more than forty of my waking, productive hours to corporations in exchange for a paycheck, which makes it hard for me to shift my focus to something creative. I’m sensitive to music, so I can use it to change my mood and set a mental environment that’s more fitting for writing.
Everyone who writes with music takes a different approach to it, so if you’re picking this up for the first time or thinking of altering your current practice, consider that each person will respond to music differently. Experimenting is the only way to find what works for you, and beware that you may need more than one music setting depending what you write.
Variables to Tweak:
  • Volume - Does the music have to be so loud it drowns out any other distraction? Or does it need to be quiet enough that you can hear yourself think? Don’t just set the volume at what you usually have for other activities; play with it while writing and see how your brain responds. What if you find out your actually do your best work when you have 150dB of butt rock music pounding through your skull?
  • Lyrics - I almost always need music without words when I’m writing. I can handle them when I’m manipulating large amounts of data in Excel, but those voices need to shut the hell up when I’m forming sentences on a screen. You might be indifferent though, but you should try the opposite of what you normally have in the background. I’ve had coworkers who listen to hardcore rap for leisure, but need a philharmonic orchestra to get them through the work day. To completely contradict myself, I can write some things with soft French music in the background, like Coeur de Pirate.
  • Type of music - This is probably where you’ll have the most experimentation. I need different types of music for different tasks. I can’t handle as many beats per minute while writing as I can at work, so my power hour playlist I use to crank through monthly financial reporting won’t do when I’m trying to write a scene involving any kind of real emotion.
Finding the Right Type of Music
My background music can’t have surprises, so I have playlists with vetted tracks I know won’t throw an emotional curve ball through my brain. Building and maintaining the mood lists I have is a bit of work, so here’s my method:
Passively discover new tracks while doing tasks with less creative demands like outlining, copyediting, and incorporating feedback from readers. I do this using streaming services like Pandora, Google Music radio, or one of the sites below.
When a track comes on that will fit nicely in a current playlist, find it and add it to that list. This means your default music manager will eventually have its own mood lists that curated to your needs. If I’m creating a new mood, I’ll create a station on Pandora with an artist or two that match that mood and start flagging tracks that work well. In Google Music, I can create a playlist with those tracks, then turn that list into a radio station to get even more customized results. Personally, I think Pandora does better at helping me discover new music, and Google Music is better at helping me grow that style of music and keep good tracks “on demand.” I pay for both services so I don’t have to deal with ads, and it’s worth it for how much I depend on each.

focus-at-will

Here are some great ways to find music that fits whatever mood you need to create:
I discovered this service on a couple productivity blogs, and it’s pretty brilliant. If you don’t have the energy to hunt for a bunch of songs and make playlists, or if you just need to get into a mood right away, head here. The site let’s you “set it and forget it,” meaning you pick from its preset tempos and let it go. The free version lets you listen to any one channel for up to 60 minutes. Paid, unlimited access is $5/mo or $45/yr.

A similar site is Stereomood. I think the songs it chooses for each mood fit the category more vaguely than Focus @ Will and its layout is messier, but it’s worth checking out if you need some variety.
Do you prefer the sound of falling rain to keep you productive? How about rain mixed with your music? Check out Rainfor.me.

RainForMe

You can have this running in the background so it mixes with your music. It’s browser-based, but you can also download a track to play offline. I know, people like me from the Pacific Northwest shouldn’t need fake rain, but I’m a huge fan of this as white noise.
Still not getting tons of writing done with all this help? Are you distracted and doing too many other things when you should be focused? It might be time to rebuild your attention span.

Find Books to Read, Without Human Interaction

I’m really flattered whenever someone asks me what they should read next. It’s confirmation that I have good taste, but it makes me sweat in funny places. I hate when I choose the wrong book because I suck at quitting a bad one. When someone else recommends one to me, I feel pressured to become a fan of the book, even if it’s not one I end up being crazy about. In order to avoid these awkward situations, I’ve found some great tools to help me evade all human interaction while book hunting.
I’m not going to even talk about Amazon. I know their recommendations based on what other people have bought or searched for are getting better, but it hasn’t provided me with a good recommendation in so long I just skip it. I love Amz to shop for everything else, and I might end up buying a lot of books from them, but I don’t discover the next read through them. That said, let’s get to the hunt.

 

I know, they’re owned by Amz now, but Goodreads has become more and more useful for me. Here’s how I do it:
  1. Get some friends - Add people from Facebook, Twitter, and your email contacts. At first I only added people who I thought would have similar tastes, but then I noticed a couple people I didn’t even know were big readers reading books. It’s like some people are in the closet about their habits. So yes, add everyone. Next time you search for a book, their rating and review will appear first. You can then either judge whether or not that’s a good thing and even reach out to them (if you’re willing to talk to human beings at that point).Goodreads  Add Friends - Google Chrome
  2. Follow like-minded reviewers - Go back to Goodreads after you finish a book (or look up one you read) and go to the reviews. Read the first few. Make sure you’re looking at positive and negative reviews so you get a good range of opinion. Reviews are rated, so the most popular ones will float to the top, and they’re usually the best. If you keep doing this with books you read, you will eventually start to recognize some reviewers. People are prolific on this site. You’ll see that some of these reviewers are reading a lot of the same type of books, which for me is freaking crazy because I read all over the place. You can click on them and use the Compare Books feature to confirm that you think similar books are shitty or great. Once you’ve figured out that there is one more awesome person in the world, either friend or follow them. They’ll start showing up in your Goodreads feed either way, and when you click on new books, their reviews (along with other friends) will be at the top of the list. This is AMAZING. I can’t even count how many stories I’ve discovered or avoided this way.
  3. Listopia - Goodreads has a super duper neat feature called Listopia, which is useful if you’re reading something obscure and trying to find something similar. Pull up a book on Goodreads and scroll down. Between Friend Reviews and Community Reviews, you’ll see Lists with This Book. There may not be any, but if there are, click through them and see if there’s anything interesting. I was on an ancient Greek fantasy stint for a while, and this is how I found a lot of material for that streak.
  4. Goodreads recommendations - Goodreads now has a recommendation engine, which suggests books you might like based on what’s on your shelves and how your ratings. It’s nowhere as freakishly good as Netflix at knowing what I will like next, but it’s still better than Amazon because it considers whether or not I actually liked some of the books I bought.

Bookish

Bookish
A few of the big publishers (Hachette, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster) teamed up to get more of their books in readers’ hands. They love bestsellers, but they love selling other books too, so they created this site as a way to find books that Amazon and the New York Times haven’t discovered yet. It’s dead simple. You enter a book you liked and it spits out a few recommendations–not a huge list, just a few. You can then add up to three more books you liked to get more tailored suggestions.
Bookish has formed partnerships with most other publishing houses, so their database is fairly large. It’s so quick to search that it’s worth checking out.

LibraryThing

LibraryThingLibraryThing is a lot like Goodreads. I’ve noticed people tend to like one site more than the other. Some like GR because it’s free no matter what, while LT only lets you add 200 books for free ($10/yr or $25/yr for unlimited). GR is now owned by Amazon, so there’s been some defection to LT, but at the same time people from LT are switching to GR because it’s free. It’s complicated. Whatever. If you try Goodreads and decide you don’t like their site colors or parent company, give LibraryThing a shot. Obviously, I’m a Goodreads user, so if you want to shout about your favorite LibraryThing features that I’m skipping, feel free to do so in the comments and I’ll update this post as appropriate (with a tender, loving thank-you note, of course).

 

Books by Setting
I wrote a book that is partially set in Montreal. I’ve been there twice, but I wanted to make sure I had a good feel for its culture, so I went hunting for stories also based in that beautiful city with the best bagels on the planet. I got a few results from Google and random Wikipedia entries, but I found even more on this handy site:

BooksSetIn

The design is totally dated, but I was really impressed how many results I got. Sure, some of them were only partially set in Montreal, but once I had a few good titles, I was able to find other books by those authors and similar stories through further Goodreads searching.
Barely related: if you’re hunting for books by locale, check out this data source and see how stories set in that city are trending against other places like New York or Paris. You might not find new books to read, but it’s super interesting.

Find Books by Mood, Theme

This site uses some pretty abstract concepts with slider bars to narrow down choices for your next reading adventure. I think the results are a bit wild, but I had fun playing with the slider to see what combinations I could make that have “lots of sex” or some other available parameter. Seriously, you might not actually find anything here, but it’s worth the time for entertainment value.
WhichBook
Happy book hunting!

Surprise! Worldbuilding Is Hard and Doesn’t Work Out Your Shoulders

While filling out the outline for the sequel to Far From Light, I realized I needed to use Excel to track the histories I’d created. I spent the better part of an evening reconciling a “Timeline of the Children of Luthonai” to a real, legitimate timeline of human history. Stupid as they seemed, those idiots painting shit in caves 40,000 years ago sure made my story hard to explain. I found a solution which requires me to redo some stuff, but good lord, worldbuilding is a mean chore. There’s only going to be one sequel, and the two books combined will barely total a thousand pages, so there’s a lot I need to hint at without burying the reader in historical monologues.

Chuck Wendig wrote a humorous and useful post on worldbuilding recently where he very succinctly states, “you’re not writing a fucking encyclopedia.” I agree, and as much as I love sci-fi and fantasy, even I get a little lost in the details sometimes. The only exception to this is Tolkien’s Silmarillion. I’ve read that mythological beast half a dozen times, and I kind of want to call in sick to go home and read it again. I’m not doing that because my work email is blowing up and I’m also not ever going to pretend I’m Tolkien.

No lesson here, but this is what I discovered about me and my future projects:

  1. Never try to tell the story of the entire universe.
  2. My next story will be a romantic comedy.

Pitching: My awkward dating life saved my ass

I’m at the PNWA (Pacific Northwest Writing Association) Conference this week. This event is like Gay Pride for writers–so a lot fewer speedos, but everyone is stoked about their alternative lifestyle of colorful characters.

About 35 literary agents and editors are here, listening to all of us desperate writer freaks pitch our super neat stories. I did this last year for the first time. I was so nervous, all I did was read my pitch to agents. I got some requests for samples out of it, so I figured it must not be that bad.

Working with a slightly better pitch this year, I again tried reading to agents. Oh my God, the way their eyes glazed over when I did that. I realized what I look like on the other side of the table: an OK Cupid date who is citing a list of reasons why he is so great. Shoot me in the face.

I had time to talk to a couple more agents, so I figured I might as well try abandoning my rehearsed pitch and just be conversational about my book. I’ve been on a lot of shitty dates, and I won’t lie–many of them were made bad from me spilling word vomit on the table. Reining in that experience, I turned on my charm and tried to get my book laid. SCORE! That’s exactly what they wanted. In just four minutes, those agents figured out my hook, my style, and laughed at me breaking the cussing barrier. I was having an amazing hair day too, which I take as a sign that I was meant to get lucky.

Five agent & editor cards are tucked behind my conference name badge now. Five. I’m probably going to get humbled/rejected by most of them, but I’m walking on water now.

I’ll admit my mind wanders in the gutter so much, it’s more like a fast-flowing canal of dirty jokes and uncomfortable moments in a silent, crowded room, but after spending most of my twenties serial dating, I am good at flirting and selling myself. I recognize when someone isn’t interested and switch tactics or move on to the next target. Here are my quick and dirty dating tips I’ve applied to pitching:

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Writer’s Block Is a Crock

I’m just going to be blunt and say that “writer’s block” is a made-up phenomenon. If you can’t write, it’s because you either don’t want to or don’t know what to write, which then means that your imagination is not stimulating you into the proper state of word-pooping frenzy. Naming it seems to give people freedom to use it as an excuse, as if they had contracted some kind of paralyzing, fatal, and highly communicable disease. Admittedly, I often get stuck when I’m trying to write something, but the words won’t come. I don’t have writer’s block though because I actually do write when I’m stuck, but the results usually look something like this:

Stuff2Write

Look at all them boxes I checked! YEAH!

Writing Your Own Hate Mail

Last month, I finished reading the sequel to a book I’d been looking forward to for a couple years. I wanted to see what other people thought of it when I finished it because I was having trouble putting words to my own opinion. Yeah, and I’m supposed to be a writer. Go, Me! This is the review I read that made me nearly wet myself from laughing and also really got me thinking.

I realized that I don’t ever want to read a review like that about my own work. As funny as it is, it’s not flattering to the writer because the reviewer is really tearing apart things that were frighteningly obvious. The writer failed on several parts, and he made readers angry enough that they spent God knows how much time telling the world why and how he disappointed them.

Weeks later, I finally thought of a way this could be useful before you have something out in the world, naked and exposed. So I wrote my own hate mail. I was formulaic about it. I wrote how pissed I was that the writer (that’s me) failed with character X. I pointed out how he did a miserable job executing each storyline and how his subplots were meaningless distractions from the main plot that I already didn’t give half a damn about. I told him how I wanted  to love certain parts of the story, but his incompetency prevented me from doing so because of example A and example B.

It felt so good. Being angry at myself was such a relief. This is the outlet I needed. I knew where the story was falling apart, but it seemed like such a daunting task to fix those broken pieces that I’ve felt powerless the past couple weeks. I needed to get out my own aggression before I could proceed.

Once you have a finished piece, try and write two hate mail letters. You’ll be writing as an intelligent reader who knows how to take apart a story. You’re not allowed to write, “this book sux as bad as twilight, man, i just thought it was lame and had emo shit on every page and i felt like i couldn’t go on and it was making me all emo reading it and why were there no frackin’ unicorns?!” Okay, fine. Write that once if if makes you feel better or at least makes you laugh so you can be in a good objective mood. Then, you’re going to write either two letters, or one letter in two parts, depending on how many angry voices you have in your head:

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Quick Writing Tips for Newbies

This isn’t very useful for anyone participating in NaNoWriMo, as they’ll be writing full stories, but if you’re just now starting to write creatively or if you’re trying to get back in the habit, here is some advice I recently passed along to a couple friends.

The hardest part about writing is that you get really rusty if it’s not habit.

It’ll be like pulling your own nails out at first, but it’s important to just write anything that comes to your head. You can throw it out or clean it up later–it’s not sacred! So if you just think of one thing and go with the first way of describing it that comes to mind, you might be surprised what you end up with. Nothing comes out polished the first try, so you have to turn the inner editor off when you’re just getting ideas flowing.

I’m working almost entirely on fiction now, but these ideas should apply to other genres. Every day, you could try to challenge yourself to describe an idea, a product, a project, or a concept. What are the mechanics of it? How does it make you/others feel? What need does it fulfill? How does this better the position/situation of the user and the producer?

Think of writing in layers. For example, when I write a new scene in my story, I get all the action that happens first just so I have a rough sketch of what’s going on. Then I add in dialogue and setting. I’m almost never able to get that all out at once, so that’s why I just capture the skeleton of it first and fill the rest in later. When I had to write about poems or fiction in my literature classes, I would look at the piece from a physical perspective first. How is it structured? What style of writing/word choice is used? Then I would look at what it actually meant, whether line-by-line or overall. Finally I might expound on its themes or compare it to something else. Again, I was using layers to both learn about it and describe it myself. Never be afraid to just outline rough notes first, then add detail later. Beautiful sentences usually pop up in later drafts, so be ready to see a lot of crap on a page at first.

So basically I’m telling you to be both free-thinking and methodical. Break down what you’re going to write about into the biggest potential subject matters/aspects first, then let your mind wander as you describe each.

The last really useful piece of advice I have is to read, and to read a lot. Read what you want to write. Read something once, then go back and look at how it was put together. You’ll start to recognize patterns and devices used and you’ll develop your own opinion of how well the writer conveyed their message. Often if I’m stuck trying to write something, I’ll read something else that’s completely unrelated which allows my imagination to run free, and the idea to continue my own work will conjure itself. I’m an anal-retentive Capricorn, so I have a reading list with material that is in any genre I’m working on, books in different genres to stretch my creativity, and a healthy amount of crap literature that I would never admit to reading, but it makes me happy.

If you want some prompts to get ideas, here are a couple sources:

http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts

http://www.squidoo.com/dailyjournalwritingprompts

The Write Technology

People are going nuts during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).  Millions of pages of horse shit are being produced, and from the steaming ashes of that mess, a work or two of incredible brilliance just might materialize.  One of the problems people are encountering with the rubbish produced from NaNoWriMo is that it’s a jumbled mess.  I think there are very few people who actually sit and write a book from beginning to end, going from page to page in exactly the order in which the finished piece will be.  This chart I just made up represents the number of people who actually do this:

Chart

As you can see, next to no one writes like that, so why are you opening a document and typing, hitting return a bunch of times when you change scenes?  That’s effing stupid, and you need to stop.

There is a lot to be said about distraction-free writing.  If you have trouble staying focused, you should explore some distraction-free writing software where all you can do is enter text, and you can’t see your taskbar to notice that 598 people you don’t really know have commented on your Facebook pictures of your cat’s hairball collection.  Lifehacker did an awesome job polling its readers to find the five best distraction-free writing programs, so I’m not going to even bother compiling them here.  Just check out their post.  Alternatively, you can just write on paper, or in an Alpha Smart so you can’t play Solitaire or get distracted by your tasteful torrent collection.

Once you’ve got some spectacularly terrible word vomit that you want to save for whatever reason, don’t just put it in a document and think you’ll know what filename “ChapterXX” means later on.  What will save your unorganized writing brain is a hierarchy.  You might not ever outline before you start writing, but once you have that junk out in plain sight, you can sort it and have it make sense visually.

Here is some of the best software I’ve found to help you organize your writing.  There are about three shit tons of programs out there aimed at writing. I’ve thrown out all the trashware that tries to actually help you write a novel by asking you questions and forcing you to run through mazes to somehow arrive at story. Writing can’t be forced, so stay away from anything that promises to help you do so, especially if they want money for it.

These are not exhaustive reviews. I just want to let you know what’s out there, and I figure when you see what’s available, you’ll recognize which is the best solution for you.

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Getting Past Tweeny Angst

LoveNoteI am a twelve year-old girl.  I thought I had reached an enlightened stage in the craft of writing when I truly felt I was falling in love with my characters.  I believed that was the secret to me understanding them and making them shine on a page.  In reality, I was that love sick tween that writes a crush’s name on her book covers and draws little hearts around it, drifting to sleep each night fantasizing what our lives would be like together.  Who the hell knows what my characters were actually doing while I was too busy making out with my imagination.  Every nut who thinks they can write loves their characters, and they wear that affection on their sleeve like an obnoxious purity-pledging fanatic.  It’s not hard—you just come up with people who have traits and stories you like and it’ll happen, adolescent bliss all over again.

I had brought this chapter to writing group I was excited about because it’s where one character starts to see another in a better light, and their friendship becomes what it needs to be to carry the story.  Hearing it read aloud was like having a burn book with nothing but embarrassing stories about me read over the P.A. system at school (yes, you must suffer my teenage references this entire post).  I hated it because I realized it was me talking, not either of the characters.

Sitting down to re-hash it, I knew I had to let the characters fall in love with each other…and completely ignore me!  It’s brilliant, and the chapter came out exactly as it should have, but it is not fun writing that way.  It’s like when someone you like falls for someone else, and you have to endure their cutesy public displays of unfair love all day because you don’t want to look like a bad friend.  Internally, you’re rolling your eyes at everything your should-be-lover’s newest flame gushes, and you just wanna scream at them for not seeing that person the way you do—you know, the right way that only you can see.  Ugh.  And you have to prevent any of your own angst from seeping in or it’ll turn into another God-awful vampire series!  The horror!

The more I learn about writing, the more I realize that it isn’t really about the writer at all.  In fact, it’s best when there is no evidence of the writer in the story.  You have to create the story’s world and completely exit after.  No leaving little plaques declaring how awesome you are for coming up with such neat ideas.  How thankless!

On Death and Dying

TrexI may get eaten by a rabid Tyrannosaurus Rex tonight.  My fear of getting clipped by a biker while walking across an overpass and getting knocked into I-5 traffic may come true.  Any number of wretched things may happen to me at any given moment in this imagined “timeline” of my life.  We all like to pretend that we’ll die peacefully in our beds, holding the hand of the love  of our life as we slip off to Bliss, but really, zombies may be just a few blocks away with a big appetite.

Tonight in my writing group, one of our members shared a piece she had written for a women’s conference about how her cancer survival story changed the way she looked at life.  It was beautiful, and I gave her a big hug when she finished reading it.  I don’t have any right to tell her story or use her words to convey my point, but it certainly got my gears going (at some point, this has to do with writing, I swear).

My grandpa died when I was about seven, and I remember a long period where I would lie in bed and think about what death was, when it would come, and what it would be like if you knew when it was coming.  Cancer stories fascinated me.  Terminal diseases turned people that fought them into heroes.  It was probably in some sappy Lifetime movie, but I remember hearing these brave souls called angels, because they show us how we should be living, and I always thought that profoundly beautiful.  Every time I would hear one of these stories, I would remind myself that I needed to make every day important, that I heard it for a reason.

Tonight, I was reminded that I need to make sure I enjoy life since I don’t know how much of it I have left, but I also realized that I need to make sure my characters enjoy their lives too.  First of all, I need to finish writing their tales so that they can be passed on for others to enjoy.  I also need to ensure that these characters meet what those who have a life-threatening illness often encounter: reconciliation.  Now in real life, a quick car accident can prevent someone from having the chance to reflect on life and discover its meaning before it ends, and their death doesn’t necessarily follow a story arc like in a novel.  I’m not allowed to have a character get killed by a tornado unless tornadoes were part of my story.  A character can’t be on an epic quest and drown in a puddle because their armor was too heavy (history be damned).  In story, death has to have meaning.  The dying character or those around him/her have to reconcile that character’s significance to my story or else the reader will hurl it out the window and go watch Misery for revenge ideas on me.

When I’m writing characters, I have to pretend as if their days were numbered, especially if they are actually going to die in the story.  Whether or not the character knows it, I have to give each day, each event meaning.  The reader will recognize the thought I give to these details to help them appreciate having known the character.  I have to play God, giving someone one more day, over and over again, until I’ve finally conveyed my theme or message.  Whether or not the character dies in the story, the reader needs to recognize the beauty in what happened, whether it be tragic, humorous, or happily-ever-after.

I better not have dreams about dinosaurs tonight.