January 28

Writing Tunes

I like to have background music playing when I write. Nothing too distracting. I generally like something like Ambient or Lounge, maybe Classical or Alternative. Just depends on my mood and what I’m writing.

For sci-fi, I like to have electronic music playing, generally instrumental. It sets the mood, makes for a nice layer of white noise in the background. With vocals I usually default to listening to Bjork. Her voice is beautiful and her music is sort of hypnotic. I guess that gives me that cyberpunk vibe.

When I work on a “mainstream” story (i.e.; nothing too weird) I like to listen to Tom Waits. His music always evokes dimly lit bars, cigarette smoke, a jukebox playing in the corner of the room in the early hours of the morning. It helps me to write something real, something cut from real life. Dark, brooding, dysfunctional.

On occasion I play classical. The thing about classical is that it’s often very powerful and hits me on an emotional level, which can be distracting if it’s one of my favorite pieces (like Fur Elise). I hear the music begin and it catches my mind like a fish on a hook, and the next thing I know I’m daydreaming about the notes being played. I see the fingers on the piano keyboard, or the bow thrashing back and forth across the strings. Not exactly conducive to writing.

Very rarely do I have nothing playing when I write. I need to have something, some white noise, in order to let my mind relax. Even need that background sound when I go to bed at night. Sounds of the ocean surf, or a fan, or music playing softly from the radio.

I guess it comes down to the fact that I need some noise in my life. Maybe it’s from growing up in the city when I was a kid. I know the brief time I spent in rural settings, I wasn’t exactly comfortable with the lack of noise. Found it unsettling. I think that when it’s too quiet – going to bed, writing, or some other function that requires shutting off your waking mind – a sudden noise becomes an explosion, breaking any concentration and ruining the mood.

Weird. I know.

I also find it interesting that music plays such a large part in my creative process. I write music when I can, strum on my guitar, or play around in Garage Band on my iPad. It’s always been a part of my life and it seems I can’t do without.

I’ll write more about music in the future.

RB

January 21

Dreaming

I often dream about the stories I’m working on. Sometimes it’s on purpose. I’ll lay in bed at night and think about the story so far, the characters, who they are and what will they do, and then I drift off and dream about what happens next. Other times, it’s completely involuntary. I sleep and dream, and somewhere along the line the story makes its way into the steam and I imagine scenes or characters interacting. It’s random.

If I’m lucky, I remember enough of it when I awake so I can continue writing. More often than not, I’m left with vague impressions of what transpired in the night, but it’s still enough to fuel the next scene or perhaps take me all the way to the ending.

Some writers like the dream state for story ideas and working out roadblocks. Robert Olen Butler (a Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer) wrote a book about this phenomenon. He believes that all writers write from the dream state, even if we don’t realize it. In a way, I sort of agree with him. Imagination and creativity are not far removed from dreaming. We can’t really control when the ideas happen and we don’t really know where they come from. Things pop into our heads out of nowhere and we run with them.

The unconscious mind is a tricky place and even the people who study it don’t really understand how it works. I’m confident that our dreams and our stories all come from the same source; the same font spews out these random images and words and we don’t question it. Perhaps that’s the muse the ancient Greeks used to worship. We don’t need to make offerings to any supernatural entities…we just need to feed our heads.

And we do this how? Through reading, watching the world around us, from the news or a movie, from conversations with friends and strangers.

I’m not sure how ethical it is, but I find it fascinating to simply sit quietly in a restaurant and listen to the conversations going on around me. I rarely hear all that’s said, but I hear enough to have some fun with it by filling in the blanks. I mean, no one is getting hurt and it’s a public environment, so I don’t think I’m breaking any laws.

I also find that listening in on conversations helps to understand dialogue. No one speaks in proper English (or any language for that matter). Speech patterns are strange and random, with weird pauses and breaks, misspoken words, slang, and of course, cursing.

But I digress.

Dreaming, to me, is just another way of priming creative pump – the font – and helping the creativity to grow. I also find that the more I read, the more I dream. I’m sure that’s not a coincidence.

So tonight I’ll dream and hopefully think about the story I’m working on. I’m ready to move forward on it and I need to see what happens next.

RB

January 14

Story Titles

Writers are always looking for new ideas, new themes, new prompts. I had a professor in college who wrote a collection of short stories based on the short, sometimes cryptic, scribblings on the back of old postcards. Other writers get their ideas from their dreams, or from free writing. I know one writer who updates fairy tales…modernizing them to the point where the reader doesn’t see the source material.

Of course, there’s also the argument that there are no more original stories to tell, that every story has already been told. All the modern writer can do is try to find a new way to tell them. I’m not sure I agree with that sentiment, but I can see where the opinion comes from. For example, boy meets girl. Basic story. Been told thousands upon thousands of times. So one could argue this story has already been told.

But it continues to be told by each new generation of writer. Why and how?

Why? Because it’s a timeless theme.

How? Update the time and place, add a new little twist in there.

Result? New story.

Personally, I’ve gotten ideas from many different places. I’ve gotten story ideas from dreams, from reading (newspapers, magazines, other stories), and on occasion they just pop into my head out of nowhere. But the one avenue that I always go back to is my list of story titles.

I don’t recall when I started keeping a list of story titles. I’ve been doing it for probably twenty years or more. I think the idea sprung from an article I once read. So over the years I’ve compiled a fairly extensive list of story titles…just random words or combinations of words that I’ve added to the list every so often. It’s like a mini creative project. Once or twice a year I open the document and spend twenty or thirty minutes coming up with some things to add. Occasionally, I’ll have a thesaurus handy and look up random words. Or I’ll scroll through a news site and pick out some interesting phrases.

Then when I’m ready to start a new writing project, I open my list and read over it, looking for entries that pop out at me or trigger an idea, a scene, maybe a character. In fact, the last three or four stories I’ve written were sparked by that list. And now that I’m ready to begin a new project I’m going to go through the same steps and see what transpires.

So for any writers out there who are interested in an alternative way to trigger a story idea, consider keeping a list of story titles. It’s easy. It’s painless. And you never know, your next great story may be hiding in there.

RB

January 6

Journaling

I’ve been keeping journals for almost thirty years. I started back in my early twenties. I was living alone in a one-room efficiency, working a minimum-wage job, and was in between relationships. I’m not exactly sure what prompted me to start writing my thoughts in a notebook. Maybe I had been reading about the habits of other writers. Or maybe someone suggested it to me. I had been writing poetry in spiral notebooks since high school, and it’s possible that’s what led me to the idea of keeping a journal.

My first journals were indeed spiral notebooks. Remember, I was living hand to mouth and couldn’t afford anything fancier. But the notebooks were fine for my purposes. I wrote about loneliness, about struggling to find my way, to find myself. I credit writing in a journal with my transformation from angst-ridden, confused, socially-awkward kid to a rational-thinking, socially-adept adult. It was a long journey, but I’m happy with the results.

And while I haven’t always been consistent in writing regular entries, I always come back to my journal during times of stress or uncertainty. I use the time to work on issues I’m having, to try to understand the world around me, or just to vent. I also use it to flesh out ideas for my stories, or to admonish myself for laziness. I sometime use it to just be silly. You know, to write whatever comes to mind and see where it takes me. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it’s just weird. Either way, it’s a chance to let my mind go and be creative.

Now days, I write in hardback journals. They’re still cheap…like five bucks for 250 pages, but I like the paper and the feel of it. Writing in a hardback journal makes me feel more mature, more professional. But honestly, I could just as well write in a spiral notebook again. It’s just that the spiral notebooks don’t look as good on my bookshelf.

Keeping a journal is cathartic. It’s cheap therapy. It’s a sounding board. It doesn’t matter if you’re a writer or a painter, a housekeeper, a beekeeper, or just another face in the crowd, I recommend that everyone at least try to keep a journal, if only for a little while. You never know what may happen…you might find the answer to a question that’s been bothering you, or maybe it’ll help you get some stress off your mind. You might figure out a way to solve a problem. Hell, you might even find enlightenment.

Or maybe you’ll find it isn’t for you. And that’s okay. The point is to try it out and see if it fits. There’s no harm in trying to write down your thoughts, and there’s always the possibility that it may just help you in some small way.

Cheers!

RB