February 20

Inspiration – Music

I’ve previously written about listening to music when writing, but for this post I want to write about music as inspiration. I think most people use music as background noise when going about their daily lives, or as a distraction when doing something boring – like driving to work, toiling away in the office cubicles, or doing chores around the house. I do the same thing, but I also spend a fair amount of time just listening to music.

My preferred method is to sit in a comfortable chair or recline on a couch, a nice set of headphones wrapped around my head, with the album cover and liner notes in hand. Of course, a USB turntable is nearby so I don’t have to go far to flip it over to side two. This is how I grew up listening to music (although the turntable used to be part of a stereo system, not a computer peripheral). I spent a lot of time alone as a child listening to the record collections of my older family members. There was a lot of music from the 1950s through the 1970s, classic rock, some early R&B, along with Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. It was an eclectic mix.

And I would spend hours laying on the floor in front of the stereo, headphones on, my eyes pouring over the album art, the liner notes, the lyrics. I think the lyrics were one of the things that inspired me to begin writing, especially the songs that told stories or painted vivid pictures in words. For example, story songs like Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue”, Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland”, or Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”. These song lyrics are like short stories or vignettes that play like a movie in my mind. Coupled with the music, it’s a beautiful thing.

“She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam I guess
But I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out west
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder
We’ll meet again some day
On the avenue
Tangled up in blue…”
– from “Tangled up in Blue” by Bob Dylan.

And then there are the song lyrics that don’t specifically tell a story, but are more free form, creating images in my mind more like a painting than a story. Each line or verse is like a brush stroke on a canvas, evoking an emotional response or maybe just triggering memories of times gone by. Here I’m thinking about the Yes song, “Heart of the Sunrise”, or maybe Elton John’s “This Song Has No Title”. To me, these types of song lyrics (again, coupled with the music) inspire me with their power. How can a song that doesn’t have a distinct meaning still make me feel something on an emotional level?

“Tune me in to the wild side of life
I’m an innocent young child sharp as a knife
Take me to the garretts where the artists have died
Show me the courtrooms where the judges have lied
Let me drink deeply from the water and the wine
Light colored candles in dark dreary mines
Look in the mirror and stare at myself
And wonder if that’s really me on the shelf”
– from “This Song Has No Title” by Elton John (music) and Bernie Taupin (lyrics)

In my world, listening to music – really listening to it – is like reading a collection of short stories or looking at a gallery of paintings. The experience stirs my imagination, sends my thoughts scurrying to both familiar and unfamiliar places, gives me ideas to explore. Something as simple as a song title or a single line from a verse can stimulate an idea for a story. In fact, a handful of my stories are directly sparked from songs I had listened to.

Music has always been a big part of my life, of who I am. I grew up listening to music when there was no one else around to interact with, so basically, music has been the one constant companion in my life. It helps me to remember, it makes me feel, it inspires me to action in the day and lulls me to sleep at night. From an artistic standpoint, music is a muse to me – not the only one, but probably one of the most important.

If you haven’t ever tried, please take an hour sometime soon, sit in a quiet room, and listen to some music (preferably over headphones). Don’t play around on your phone or tablet, don’t surf the net…just lean back, close your eyes, and listen. Let the music wash over you. Listen to the individual instruments and how they come together. Listening to phrasing and tone of the vocalist. Let the lyrics carry you away. I think you’ll find a new appreciation for music, maybe see it in a different light. And maybe it will inspire you as it does me.

RB

February 18

Is Bad Fiction Good?

The consensus opinion is that in order to be a good fiction writer I must read well-written fiction. The idea is that I’m exposing myself to the best and should, in turn, absorb some positive influence from it, making me a better writer.

Sure, I can see that to a degree, but does that mean if I want to write sci-fi I should only read well-written sci-fi? In my opinion, reading a good book, regardless of the genre or topic, should have the same effect. I’m seeing how it’s done, how sentences are constructed, how paragraphs flow, how plot twists are set up and executed. A damn good mystery novel can instill in me new ideas that I can then work into my latest story, regardless of the genre. Good is good.

But what about bad fiction? Should it be avoided because it may have a negative influence on my writing?

In my opinion, no. Reading bad fiction (poorly written) can be just as educational, and maybe just as entertaining, as quality fiction. Is it really any different than purposely watching a bad movie? It’s just a different type of entertainment.

And reading poor execution in plotting or characterization can be enlightening. It helps me to see what not to do and things to avoid when I’m feeling experimental. It can also be a boost to my self-esteem…“thank goodness I’m not THAT bad.”

For writers who are always working on honing their craft, reading is key, and reading a wide variety of authors and genres is essential. With that, we also have to consume the bad with the good. It gives us perspective on our own work, shows us what elements should be used and which to avoid.

Besides, how can we tell what’s really good if we don’t know what’s bad?

Do yourself a favor and read some bad writing every so often. If you don’t, you won’t know what you’re missing.

February 14

The Solitary Writer

I realize I’m showing my age with this post, but I feel the need to comment on how things have changed for writers. Previously, I wrote about how much easier it is now to find and submit to magazines and journals than it was twenty-five years ago. What occurred to me this past weekend was how the social aspect has changed for writers.

If you’re a writer (or most any artist/creative type), you know that the act of creating is a solitary process. Most writers like to have a certain atmosphere when they write – a specific location, background noise, pen, paper, notebook, and cup of coffee or tea. Sure, we can adjust and adapt, but regardless, we do it alone. It’s just us and the blank page or screen, our thoughts spinning and consolidating as we slip into our zone. It’s not necessarily a group project.

When I was starting out, the internet wasn’t quite a thing yet. I was using an old warhorse of a typewriter my dad had given me, one that he got while in the Navy back in the 1950s. I think it had been to Korea and back on a minesweeper. And the “e” key stuck. Every time. But I pounded away at that keyboard every night in my one-room efficiency converted from the back end of an old house. I’d churn out reams of pages covered in angst-ridden poetry and early attempts at horror and sci-fi.

From there, I had a few friends that would read and give me feedback, but they weren’t writers and, as good friend often do, loved everything I wrote. The only real feedback I got was in the rare personal rejection letter I’d receive from a thoughtful editor. Those I always cherish because, even though they didn’t accept my story for publication, they felt it was worthy enough to send me a few comments.

Then the internet happened. Things changed a bit. There were chat rooms, BBS, and other ways for writers to find one another and share their ideas, exchange stories for feedback, and provide a social outlet. But that only worked if you could afford a PC or Mac, and in the early 1990s those boxes were expensive. For a guy working two minimum-wage jobs and surviving on canned tuna and Kraft Mac & Cheese, I could only read about these places in Writer’s Digest. When I could afford to buy a copy.

Eventually, the internet gave birth to social media in all its hideous glory. Having been a solitary writer for so long, I avoided the lure of “likes”, retweets, and “follows” for as long as I could. I didn’t see the point.

But, yeah, I finally dipped my toes in the dark waters of MySpace, then later, Facebook. They both lost their charm rather quickly and I returned to my solitary world.

Then an acquaintance mentioned Twitter to me. I knew about it – how could I not with it showing up in the news every few minutes. Hell, entire newspaper “articles” were being composed of nothing but tweets.

So I gave it a shot. I logged in and, on a whim, looked for writers. I was pleasantly surprised to find a robust writing community thriving there, sharing thoughts and ideas, frustrations and struggles. I was drawn in and began to interact with these strangers, who weren’t really that strange since we all shared a common thread…the written word.

It’s still strange to me, even after a few months on the platform, to feel this camaraderie, to ask questions and receive thoughtful answers, to share my experience and encouragement.

Technically, I’m still a solitary writer. I’m alone with my MacBook. I don’t know any of these people personally. But they seem to be there for me, and I for them. I always thought that I’d be alone in my craft, but instead I’ve found a community.

RB

February 9

The Cold Open

What’s more important, a strong first line or a strong first paragraph?

I posed this question on Twitter the other day and received an amazing number of responses (and retweets). There were a variety of replies, but the consensus opinion was that a strong opening paragraph was more important.

I agree, despite the fact that, over the years, I’ve been repeatedly told by “experts” that the first line is the most important thing in a story. Sure, a solid first line can grab a reader’s interest, but if the next three lines are weak you lose them. One of the responses I received summed it up nicely – and I’m paraphrasing here – “The first line should catch their attention, then the paragraph pulls them along, then the chapter leads them to the next…” So sort of like an assembly line, with the narrative slowly pieced together to produce the final product at the end.

To me, putting all the emphasis on the first line isn’t reasonable. That’s basically saying that the entire worth of your story is based on one sentence. That’s also putting too much focus on one line when you should be focusing on the entire story.

I can’t think of a single story I didn’t read because the first line didn’t draw me in. Personally, I feel it’s the first paragraph or page. When I’m browsing in one of my local bookstores looking for a new book, I often read the first couple of paragraphs, but I also flip through to some random page in the middle and read a few there, as well. I don’t consider the first sentence as a make or break. As long as it leads me into the next sentence, then the next, and so on, then I’m hooked.

The reason this came up is because I’m preparing to begin the second draft of my novel and I felt I was thinking about the first sentence a little more than I should. I was trying to rewrite it over and over again in my head, bordering on obsession. But then I took a step back and looked at it from a reader’s standpoint. (Note: I’ve found that, more often than not, looking at my work from a reader’s perspective is incredibly helpful). I thought to myself: If I picked this novel off the shelf in a store and looked at the first page, what would encourage me to read it?

That’s when I decided I’d focus on the first two paragraphs. Not only has that taken the pressure off me to write that amazing, astounding, captivating first sentence, but it gives me room to maneuver. It’s like painting on a canvas – I’m not trying to get that one perfect brush stroke, I’m looking at the bigger picture.

RB

February 5

Writer’s Guilt

Confession time – I feel guilty when I have some free time and don’t spend it writing. It’s strange because I love to write, I need to write, but there are some moments when I simply want to unplug my brain and do something else. Usually, it’s something unproductive, like play a game on my PC, kick back and listen to some vinyl over headphones, maybe sit on the back porch and watch my dogs chase squirrels while sipping a potent potable. I consider it decompression time. Between working a full-time tech job, taking care of a house, aquariums, garden (vegetable and carnivorous plants), and – last but not least – working on my short stories and a second draft of my novel – I feel I deserve to unwind.

But when I do I always end up with this voice in the back of my mind reminding me, “you could be writing.”

Yep, even if I just spent two hours working on a draft, finally sit down with a cold drink and load up a game, that voice inevitably chimes in with its maddening reminder. I’m not sure where it comes from. I mean, is it my conscience? My muse? Some remnant of guilt from my Catholic upbringing? It’s a soft voice, barely a whisper, but it’s still strong enough to cut through the music in my ears or the dogs barking at the foot of a nearby tree.

I’ve tried to ignore it, but it’s a persistent bugger. The only thing I can do to silence it is to give it what it wants. So I hold off as long as I can, but finally I’ll give in. I always give in. Back to the table, open the MacBook, find something to work on and get back to writing.

The thing is, I’m not sure if I should be annoyed by the voice or thank it for keeping me on task. As long as I’m still churning out words, I guess I should be happy, but I also know that I need a recharge every so often. Maybe that’s what sleep is for. That’s my downtime. As long as I’m awake and have free time, my brain (or conscience, or muse) wants me to write.

Of course, when I sleep I dream, and my dreams are often about my stories. Methinks there’s no escape.

RB

February 4

Why I Write

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been writing stories and poems for as long as I can remember. I started in early childhood, inspired by song lyrics and the wide variety of books handed down to me by much older family members. As I grew older I began keeping a journal, writing down story ideas, exploring my neurosis, and trying to understand myself better. I think it’s been cheap therapy for me and a way to figure how who I am and how to be the person I want to be.

But the other day I was working on a short story and as I read over the draft I began to wonder who the audience would be for this piece. When I’m writing I only think about the story and the characters, who they are, what they’re doing, where they’re going. I never think about how I should market it, who I should try to sell it to, or who might be interested in reading it. I worry about those points once I’ve finished the last draft and have a final copy staring me in the face.

Why don’t I consider my audience when writing? And should I? It was strange that I’d never thought about it before during the drafting stage. I assume that many authors do, at least, genre authors. If someone is writing a YA novel, then it’s safe to assume they are thinking about the teens and pre-teens who will be reading it once it’s published. Same goes for spy novelists, or erotic novelists…they probably have a good idea of who purchases these stories and have these people in mind while drafting.

Does keeping a specific audience in mind help the story in any way? It seems to me that if I’m focused on trying to write to an audience the story would evolve differently than if I simply focused on the narrative. With the former, I’m potentially changing the natural progression of the story to fit what I think a reader wants. In the latter, the story progresses on its own, finding whatever path best suits the narrative.

I can see an argument for both. In writing to an audience I might be improving my chances for publication and finding readers. If all I care about are numbers and the bottom line, this would be the route I’d choose. But I don’t really care about those things. Sure, I want to be published and have people read and enjoy my work. When it comes right down to it that’s what all writers want. To me, however, money and popularity are secondary. I just want to tell a good story. If people read and enjoy my work, then I’m happy. I don’t need much more than that.

When it comes down to the bottom line, I write for two reasons – first, because I have to. I have an urge, a calling, a need to write. I have words and stories tumbling around in my head creating one hell of a racket. I need to get those words and stories out and onto the page. The second reason is what I mentioned above: I want to tell a good story. I’ve written a lot over the years but only a handful of my stories have been published. Part of that is my fault for being too critical and insecure. But I’m proud of the few that have made it into print, especially so when I hear from a reader who enjoyed the piece they read. Hearing, “I liked that story”, means more to me than a paycheck.

I know, that’s not very capitalistic of me. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to turn down a paycheck. I’m not THAT crazy. Money is secondary to me as an author. I write because I want to, because I have to. I would be fine if I never published another story, as long as I continue to write. It may not put food on the table, but it keeps me grounded.

RB

February 2

Publishing

I’m amazed at how much publishing has changed over the past decade or two. When I was first becoming serious about being a writer, I would spend hours looking for magazines to submit my work to. This was at the very beginnings of the internet as we now know it. There wasn’t much out there – very few fiction magazines had websites – and the only somewhat reliable way to find a place to submit to was in the Writer’s Digest annual compilation of market listings. It was a big paperback, similar in size to a phone book. Oftentimes, the listings would be out of date by the time they were published, but that was just part of the game. Find a magazine and hope they were still operating.

It was also a pricey endeavor. There weren’t any electronic submissions. Everything went through the mail, so that meant buying large envelopes that would hold a manuscript without folding it. Then there was postage. A thicker manuscript cost more to send, so a struggling writer had to be sure their story was ready and hope the editor on the other end was in an accepting mood when they picked it up off the slush pile. It was almost as time-consuming as writing a story. But less fun.

The days of paper manuscripts and mailed submissions are long gone. Everything now is via email or online submission portals. I no longer have to look through hundreds of pages of market listings because I can go online and find websites that compile a searchable and constantly updated database of magazines. That part of the submission process has gotten easier and less expensive than it used to be. I appreciate that.

But there have been other changes that have changed the face of publishing for both good and bad. Arguably the biggest change has been the steady decline of print media. Twenty years ago there were hundreds, possibly thousands, of magazines looking for stories to publish. It wasn’t terribly difficult to get a story in print, although it depended on how low you set the bar. For example, it was tough to get published in the New Yorker (where they pay very well for fiction), but I could easily get published in a small-circulation magazine or self-published ‘zine and either get paid very little or not at all.

When starting out, I felt that getting a publishing credit was sometimes just as important as getting paid. I just wanted to see my name in print and to be able to list a handful of previous publications in my cover letters. Sort of like a writing resume’ – the more experience (publishing credits), the more likely an editor would be to read my submission. It has a certain logic, but I’m not sure about the accuracy of that assumption. Having worked as a magazine editor (both literary and commercial) I admit that I was more likely to pay attention to a submission from someone with more experience. Not that I’d dismiss the submission from someone with little or no experience. Having been there myself, I always tried to balance acceptance between the two.

What this means is that I’ve had to change the way I look at things like finding publications to submit my work to, how I submit my work, and how I track it all. In a way, I like the changes because I find it easier to do all the tasks I used to do with pen and paper and mail and stamps. Sure, I may be required to pay a small submission fee now and again, but if it helps to support a publication I’m willing to hand over a couple of dollars. And if I’d rather keep the money I can always self publish. But that’s a discussion for another day.

RB