Saturday, August 24, 2013

Writing with Tunes

I like to listen to music while I write. Not the radio, mind you, unless it's classical music on the public supported KING FM (98.1), Seattle, or KEXP (90.3) "where the music matters"; otherwise, all the banter and commercials between songs are too distracting. And, usually, the tunes I choose to play have a connection to what I'm writing; they help set a mood or tone.

In the early drafts of "Gospel...", when I was going for something with a harder edge, it was heavy-metal: Metallica, Megadeath, Godsmack, System of a Down, and especially this one compilation, Nativity in Black (Volumes I and II), where classics of Black Sabbath are covered by the likes of Biohazard, Faith No More, Type O Negative, Pantera, Slayer, and Primus. It's awesome! I highly recommend it.

But later, the tone of the book became more brooding, and I changed the musical selections similar to the pieces mentioned in the book's party scene - the adagios and Gorecki's 3rd Symphony, and lots of Tangerine Dream.

Currently, I'm working on a novel with themes of the wild west, so I've got some Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, and Del Castillo often playing. A bit cliche, I guess, but it's all about adding a certain flavor to the words. 

Monday, August 12, 2013


I have a confession to make: 

Given the choice between reading a novel and watching a movie, I choose the movie. This is because reading makes me sleepy. Two, three pages, and I'm out. It doesn't matter what time of day. (Frank Zappa admitted to the same problem in his autobiography, so I like to think I'm in good company.) Perhaps there should be a name for this condition, like readarcolepsy, or something. 

Because of this "condition," it can be quite laborious for me to get through a book, fiction or otherwise. It took me nearly a year to read Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars. By no means should this reflect on Robinson's fine writing; it's me, the guy who falls asleep reading the Sunday comics. And it explains why many of my favorite novels tend to be short - Fahrenheit 451, Siddartha, Notes From the UndergroundRumble Fish, Illusions - and why I'll probably never write something of "epic" stature. Don't look for something longer than 60,000 words from me anytime soon.

So, as sacrilegious as it may be, I'll take a couple of hours in a movie theater over battling with the R.E.M. inducing effects of the latest best seller.

Now, let me just read through this post again and check for editing issu--ZZZZZZZZ!  

Saturday, August 3, 2013

My Writing Process

As I mentioned earlier, I really didn't know what I was doing when I began writing my first novel. By the time I was done, I had developed a pretty good process (one that works for me, that is) which I'm applying to my current projects.

Naturally, it all begins with an idea. But exactly where these ideas originate is hard to say. They may come from the interest I have in a variety of subjects, like the wild west, silent movies, travel and the open road, or linguistics. Sometimes an idea will germinate simply by looking at a genre I find intriguing: speculative fiction, or steam-punk, or the mystery-thriller. Mostly, though, ideas come from observing the world around me - watching the news, reading periodicals, or simply taking a walk. On occasion, I'll develop an idea from nothing but a phrase or word. That's a good title for a book, I may think, or what a great opening sentence. From wherever it starts, the seed is then planted in my little brain and left to grow, often unconsciously, into a story concept.

From there, I think a lot about the plot. I like to know where the story begins, where it's going, and how it ends. This works in hand with developing the characters, though I don't always have a clear idea who they are until I actually begin physically writing; the action of the plot and how they interact with the other characters brings out details of who they are, and dialogue seems to naturally spring from there. I also do a lot of reading on subjects that I believe will contribute to the richness of the story, give it depth or a certain authenticity. 

And then starts a series of outlines, each one progressively more detailed, sort of like using a Google Earth map where you zoom in closer and closer for a better look at where you're going. This technique might be criticized for creating a story that is too plotted, sterile, predictable, or contrived. But as I begin typing the first draft, I get a better perspective on the best way to communicate what is happening and take steps to make sure it doesn't seem forced.

The creation of the first draft is a slow, meticulous task for me because I edit and revise as I go; I can't just spew words onto a page and then go back and sort it all out. The OCD in me insists that every word, sentence and paragraph be just-so before I can move on to the next. While this is painstaking and time consuming, it makes for a nearly finished manuscript that requires little rewriting.

Still, I rewrite, making all kinds of tweaks and changes to bring all the details into something cohesive and readable; for me, it takes a lot of effort to create prose, dialogue and plot that appears effortless. This rewriting happens after I have two or three people give it a read and make critical notes.

What I give little or no consideration to are the elements of motifs and themes. This is what I enjoy most about writing: seeing what emerges once I've got all the pieces of the puzzle in place. For instance, the parallel drawn between animals caged in a zoo and humans confined within a quarantined environment behaving unnaturally in "Gospel..." came about entirely on its own; I did not consciously put it there, and yet, it's become, I believe, one of the book's defining themes.    

So, how do I know when a book is done? When I can't add or take anything more from it, I guess. It's done, well...when it's done.