Thursday, February 24, 2011

Music To Scribble By; or What's On Your Writing Playlist?

So as I mentioned in last week's entry*, this week's topic is music for writing.

What makes good writing music? Each of Carrie Vaughn's "Kitty Norville" books includes a playlist of music that inspired her during the writing of that volume. That's one way to select music, of course, by choosing songs that invoke one of your characters, or a setting, or a plot point. I have certain songs that fit in with my stories that way. When one character was torn away from everyone and everything she had ever known, another character who befriended her at that point became her "Bridge Over Troubled Water." When I was writing a particularly painful love triangle, "Torn Between Two Lovers" popped up on my playlist, and as cheesy as it was, it fit my story perfectly. At another point, when one character faced possible death, VNV Nation's "Beloved" was so poignant that it hurt.

Another trick I've done during NaNoWriMo is to skip to a random song on the iPod or music player, and incorporated that song into the next chapter somehow, either literally or thematically. So "Smoke on the Water" inspired a battle scene, while Glenn Miller's "In The Mood" led to an interrupted sex scene.

But while finding inspiration in music can be productive, or at least amusing, most of the time, when I'm writing, I just want some good background music. For me, that generally means that it needs to be instrumental. Sadly, vocal music, even vocal music that I know and love, is just a little too distracting for me to have playing while I write. If I don't get carried off with singing along, the lyrics sometimes get tangled in what I'm trying to write. (As I write this, I'm listening to Loreena McKennitt's album, "The Wind That Shakes The Barley," and it's proving to be more than a little distracting. I may have to switch to something more instrumental for a few minutes, just so I can finish this.)

So instrumental is the obvious answer. And there's plenty of it out there, which is a good thing. But as I've discovered, it can't be just any old instrumental music.

Things that don't work (for me, anyway):

  • Most classical music. I don't know why, but trying to write while listening to classical music is difficult for me. Perhaps it's because the composer is trying to tell me one story while I'm trying to tell another.
  • Music that's too soft and soothing. Because it will put me to sleep. Duh.
  • Music that's too raucous or jarring. Hard rock instrumentals and some electronica fall into this category. If it distracts my brain from what it's trying to write, it doesn't work.

So what does that leave? Well, in my case, a lot of new age/ambient music, some world music (instrumental Celtic music seems to be a win, as does Andean flute music), soundtracks (Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Narnia, and the latest Zorro films all seem to work), and stray bits of light jazz and space music.

I have to admit that one of my favorite composers, as far as good writing music goes, is David Arkenstone. His album "In The Wake Of The Wind" (samples here) is one of the best albums of all time (at least on my top-ten list). And while his latest album, Ambient World, represents a departure from most of his previous work, it's excellent writing music. Go have a listen to some sample tracks if you don't believe me.

Of course, my ideal writing music will be different from anyone else's. So what do other people like to listen to while they're cranking out words?

* which was only written two days ago. Oops.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fishing For Ideas; or, Brainstorming 101

So it's Tuesday, and I still haven't written last Thursday's Melt-Ink Pot posting. I have what I think is a good excuse: My Beloved Husband and I spent all of last week off on a road trip to celebrate 25 years of wedded bliss. And while you'd think a road trip would offer lots of inspiration and plenty of time for writing, the truth of the matter is that even if I hadn't been the one doing all of the driving, I'd still have been pretty busy gawking and trying to run the GPS and fiddling with the iPod, so I probably wouldn't have gotten any writing done anyway. Having cable TV in our motel rooms didn't help, either. Wow, is the Food Network distracting or what?

So here I am, back home, at my desk, in my home office, staring at a blank screen and wondering where I'm going to find an idea this week.

Which brings up the question of where I get my ideas for this blog, anyway.

The answer is that ideas can come from just about anywhere. Sometimes, I have a "eureka!" moment while either writing or editing one of my several works in progress, and I feel a need to share that. Sometimes it's something that comes up at work. A few weeks ago, it was a line from a movie that I saw, and before that, a book I was reading.

When I get really desperate, I ask my Beloved Husband. Who, one must admit, nearly always responds with the ever-useful, "I dunno." But it's surprising to me how often the mere act of asking him for an idea causes my brain to spontaneously come up with one.

Today, however, I resorted to truly desperate measures. I called up my Twitter feed -- the vast, howling, unfiltered one that would eat my soul if I let it -- scrolled down thirteen screens, and scanned for an inspiration.


Thirteen more screens.

Still nada.

Come on, Twitter, don't fail me now!

Thirteen more screens.

Aha! A link telling me how to improve my writing. I follow it, eagerly...but there's no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.

But wait! All is not lost! A list of other blog entries down the right side of the screen contains the word, "Brainstorming".

And I'm off and running!

Of course, while I'm in the middle of composing this entry, the CD drive of my computer bumps against my leg as it auto-ejects the CD I'm currently ripping, and I find myself thinking, "Good music for writing, that could be an entry..."

Think I'll just tuck that one away in my "ideas" file for next week's entry...which is, after all, due the day after tomorrow.

It's odd--or perhaps it's not, actually--but I find that ideas seldom travel alone. So once I've come up with one, finding one or two more usually isn't difficult. Remembering to write them down, or at least keep track of them somehow* is another matter entirely.

And so are the rules for safe brainstorming. Which I also think I'll save for later. See how productive this entry has been?

What strange sorts of places to you look to find ideas?

* I often use private entries on my LiveJournal for this--and there's another topic for another week, "Ways To Use A Blog As A Writing Tool," see how easy this brainstorming thing is once you get going?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Advancing The Plot; or, When Darlings Have To Die

(Pretend this is last week. I got busy getting ready to go on vacation and never quite got around to posting this until now. Sorry!)

I had to kill some of my darlings last week.

No, not characters. But in the process of editing Book 1 of "The Daughters of August Winterbourne", a couple of my favorite scenes had to die.

One scene was particularly painful to cut. It involved having my characters go to a concert conducted by Johann Strauss II, and, because my lead character, Celia Winterbourne, is somewhat famous in her own right, they all get invited back stage afterward to meet the composer, who has written a piece in honor of Celia and her sisters.

One reason it was painful to cut this scene was because I had put a fair amount of research into it. While there is no evidence that Strauss came to Oxford in 1873, he did tour England that year, before going off to America to give a series of concerts there. And it appears that he did tend to compose waltzes almost "on the fly," as it were, in honor of the places he visited. I'd also worked hard on his accent, trying to give the flavor of an Austrian accent without going too far overboard on it. The scene also had some very nice interaction between Celia and her sisters, and between Celia and her suitor, Nicholas Fletcher.

But in the end, despite all that, when I went back and re-read the story, I concluded that the scene did not advance the plot one iota. And so, with greatest reluctance, I deleted it from the story.

I console myself with the fact that it still exists in the saved file of the first draft, and if I ever want to go back and visit it, I can. And perhaps someday, if this story ever gets published, I'll put it (and a few other deleted scenes) out on a web page somewhere for people to read and laugh at and say, "Yep, you're right. That really didn't advance the plot at all, did it?"

Has anyone else ever had to kill a "darling"? Have you read stories where you found yourself thinking, "Okay, that was fun, but what did it have to do with the plot?"

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Exposition Done Right; or, I Saw What You Did There

Just got back from seeing Tron: Legacy. Yes, I know. The movie's only been out for what, two months now, and I'm finally getting around to seeing it. I don't know why the studios think the holidays are such a great time to release their big-budget blockbusters, because I'm always too busy to go see them then.

So anyway, Tron: Legacy has one of the neatest examples of exposition in it that I've seen in a long time. In the beginning of the film, our young hero, Sam Flynn, has a run-in with the law. The next scene shows him walking out of the police station to the adjacent parking lot, which is labeled "Towing Impound Lot" (or something like that). He hands a slip of paper to the gate attendant, who greets him with, "Hiya, Sam."

And with those two words, we know that this is not the first time Sam has needed to retrieve a vehicle from this particular impound lot; that in fact, his visits have been frequent enough for him to be on a first-name basis with the lot attendant, and that the attendant is not especially surprised to see him, but is in fact almost bored.

I was in awe. Not only was it a great example of exposition, but it was also "showing, not telling." An author could easily spend a paragraph or two conveying the information contained in those two words.

I think it's something all aspiring authors (and even some published ones) could stand to keep in mind.

Does anyone else have a good example of Exposition Done Right?