Writing Thoughts

The Music I Write To

Music is powerful. It sets a mood and evokes emotions. And it can be a writer’s best friend.

While there are times when I prefer to write in silence, I usually have music playing in the background. Though it has to be the right music for what I’m writing.

When I was writing The Insistence of Memory, I listened to a lot of 90s alt-rock with strong female vocals—most often that meant Poe and K’s Choice—with some breaks for Nine Inch Nail’s Downward Spiral. There was also quite a bit of moody trip-hop/electronica, like Portishead and Thievery Corporation. One standout song that I played a lot was Colour Me by Dot Allison.

My playlist for To the Left of Death was less ethereal/folk and more about young, powerful female singers/songwriters like K. Flay, Alice Merton, and Bishop Briggs. Though, hands down, Halsey’s Badlands album was my absolute go-to while working on this book. (And when boxing—Badlands is excellent for boxing!)

Now that I’m working on a young adult, adventure book, my music has shifted to classical and fantasy-instrumental music. Some of my favorites include well-known melodies like selections from The Carnival of the Animals (Saint-Saëns) and Claire de Lune (Debussy), as well as instrumental pieces from soundtracks like Harry Potter and Final Fantasy X.

I have a weakness for piano and, thanks to Pandora, I’ve discovered so many fabulous soloists/composers who inspire me to write fantasy, such as Paul Cardall, Philip Wesley, Emile Pandolfi, Michelle McLaughlin, and Van Jensen.

My musical taste is wide. What I listen to when I write may not be the same thing I would listen to when I cook dinner, practice yoga, or go on a road trip, but music often stimulates my creativity and helps me find (and keep) the mood of my writing project. In short, music is magical.

On Writing About Trauma

Trauma survival plays a part in some of my writing. That can be a difficult issue to tackle.

My main character in To the Left of Death struggles with post-traumatic stress after being unwittingly involved in murder. The novel is written in the first-person, which lets you step inside her mind and (hopefully) experience some of her feelings.

As a writer, it’s a little scary to present that kind of story—because Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an important, yet extremely sensitive issue.

When describing life with PTSD, I want to get it right. I want trauma survivors who read this book to feel like they are not alone, but I don’t want to write in a way that will be too upsetting or triggering. That’s a fine line.

Creating a realistic portrayal is also challenging because PTSD comes in many forms. One trauma survivor’s experiences may be very different than another’s, and both are equally valid.

It’s important to note that PTSD can be a result of any form of trauma. While we often association PTSD with war veterans, it can come from other experiences as well, such as physical/sexual assault, an accident, a natural disaster, or the death of a loved one.

There is no specific type of trauma, or level of trauma, that leads to developing PTSD, and PTSD is not a sign of “weakness.” Surviving trauma takes strength, and so does reaching out for help (more on that below).

In my opinion, some fictional portrayals of trauma and recovery are excellent, while others tend to sensationalize its trickier symptoms like dissociation and depersonalization.

Living with PTSD can include some scary experiences, including memory loss or “losing time.” You may have altered perceptions, where things around you feel louder, softer, brighter, dimmer, closer, farther, etc. You may feel disconnected. You may have flashbacks—images, sounds, or smells—that show up suddenly or play on a loop. You may feel emotions that seem to be out-of-context with where you are or or what you are doing.

When living with these symptoms, you may worry that you are “crazy” or “going crazy.” You’re not. Millions of people learn to live with post-traumatic symptoms while still maintaining normal, fulfilling lives.

If symptoms of trauma are affecting your life, talk to a trained professional. There are treatments that can help.

You can learn more through the PTDS Alliance (ptsdalliance.org) and the National Center for PTSD (ptsd.va.gov).

As a writer, I try to create stories that help us imagine life from another person’s point of view. In To the Left of Death, I hope I’ve been able to capture trauma survival in a helpful, compassionate light.

I Want To Be a Writer

After publishing The Insistence of Memory, I can’t count the number of people who have told me some variation of “I always wanted to be a writer.” My natural reaction to confessions like that is something like “Cool, what have you written?”

The answer to that question varies, but most often it’s along the lines of “Oh! I haven’t written anything since school.” With school being a time 15+ years in the past. And, more than I’d expect, the answer is closer to “Oh, I’ve never actually written anything, I just have great ideas.”

Now I mean this in the least judgmental, most genuinely curious way. When I hear answers like that, one follow-up question always comes to mind:

If you don’t spend time writing, why would you want to “be a writer”?

Be honest with yourself.

Do you genuinely enjoy expressing yourself through written work, even if you’ve gotten away from it over the years?

Do you love reading and have a vague sense that it would be <insert positive idea> to be the one who writes books?

Do you think being a writer is the same as being a bestselling author?

Maybe you know the answers to those questions. Maybe you aren’t sure. Either way, if you want to be a writer there is something you can do about it:

Start writing.

If you have great ideas, write them down. Shape them into a story (or a poem, essay, play, etc.). Put in the effort and see if you actually like the process of writing.

If you don’t enjoy it, you find out that writing isn’t for you. If you do, then you can keep honing your process, finish some projects, and decide where you want to go with it.*

There is more than one way to be a writer, but all of them involve spending some time actually writing.

The same is true of any dream you might have.

I want to be a _______.

How many ways can you finish that sentence? Dancer? Knitter? Actor? Yogi? Singer? Gourmet chef? Golfer? Race car driver?

Whether you’re thinking of a hobby or a career change, there are steps you can take to stop dreaming and try that activity for yourself. Take a class. Buy an instructional book or video. Audition for community theater.

Give it an honest chance. There may be a learning curve. It may take some persistence to get past the initial awkwardness of trying something new. It may take some mental effort (and the moral support of friends) to get over your fears and insecurities. But you can do it.

If there’s something you want to be, turn it into something you actually do.

What’s the worst that can happen? Maybe you discover that you don’t actually enjoy the activity as much as you thought you would. Maybe you love it and add another layer to your identity.

Whatever happens, you’ll have a deeper understanding of what you really want. And that alone can be deeply satisfying.

*Keep in mind that the odds of an unknown writer breaking into traditional publishing, let alone penning a bestseller, are slim. But slim does not mean impossible and there are many other options for self-publishing or sharing your work. 

Writing From Within vs. Writing From a Distance

I’m currently rereading Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s one of my favorite books, though it’s been a few years since I read it last and I had sort of forgotten how much I enjoy it.

If you haven’t read Player Piano, it’s a book that has managed to become both outdated and relevant to our current society. It’s outdated in it’s technology (punch cards and vacuum tubes), but relevant in the way it explores what happens when people (and their jobs) are displaced by machines.

Player Piano is also an excellent example of third person semi-omniscient storytelling. While the book is all third person (he, she, they) instead of first person (I, me, my), it is largely limited to the protagonist’s perspective—except when it isn’t.

Occasionally the storytelling shifts into the perspective of other, more minor characters. That lets you, the reader, see a wider picture of the world. It makes it easier to consider the characters (and events) from multiple points of view, and it creates a sense of distance.

In third person writing, there’s an unnamed, unknown narrator describing the people and events in the story. This distant narrator is sometimes considered a fly on the wall. (Though it’s often a fly that can see into people’s minds, which is an odd thought.)

My first book, The Insistence of Memory, was written in third person and the distance of an unknown narrator made it easier to describe the story as if watching a movie unfold. I tend to like writing in third person because it does feel like I’m simply sitting back and telling a story from a safe distance. In an odd sense, I’m merely an observer, like you, the reader.

The book I’m currently working on (title TBD) has first person narration. It’s told through the voice of one character. (As in: The Catcher in the Rye, The Handmaid’s Tale, or Ready Player One)

Switching to this approach has been interesting. Or maybe challenging is the better word. It’s a good challenge, and I’m enjoying the effort, but the experience is very different than when writing in third person.

When writing in first person, there’s no distance. The entire story filters through a character’s direct perspective. I am not writing as a fly-on-the-wall storyteller. I am writing from within a single character.

It can take some extra effort to get inside the mindset of a particular character and I’ve often heavily revised entire chapters because the voice felt a little off. It does feel more vulnerable to attempt to tell a story from within a fictional character and it can be a little strange to describe thoughts and feelings that are not my own with first person language (I, me, my, etc.).

Another one of the challenges, and freedoms, of first person writing is letting go of a need for accuracy. Since the story is shaped by one character’s narration, it can be completely biased. In first person narration, it’s up to the reader to both look through the main character’s eyes and decide whether to agree or disagree with their slant on the events that unfold.

It can be hard, as a writer, to trust that it’s okay for readers to have the freedom to make their own decisions about what is, and isn’t, true in a story.

Sometimes first person narrators are unreliable, like in Lolita, where the story is told through the twisted eyes of a pedophile. Everything he says is designed to frame his 12-year-old victim as a willing temptress. But we, the readers, (hopefully) use our own experience to realize that that is not true.

More often it’s hard to tell how reliable a narrator may be. In first person novels, there is no slipping into the narration of a minor character to backup the story or to look at the protagonist in a different light. We, as readers, have to decide what we believe ourselves based on nothing more than the narrator’s own words.

To me, a biased or flawed perspective is one of the strengths of first person narration.

If we realize that a narrator has a flawed outlook, perhaps we might wonder if anyone can actually be a reliable narrator of their own story. Maybe that helps us see the value in finding some distance and outside perspectives when considering our own experiences of the world around us.

A Look Back Inside Joss’ Dollhouse

Looking over my bookshelf today, I noticed a copy of Inside Joss’ Dollhouse. This collection of essays has a pretty specific audience: people who watched and loved Dollhouse, Joss Whedon’s short-lived series starring Eliza Dushku.

As a longtime Whedon fan, I can still remember the long wait for Dollhouse to air. That wait began when the show was announced in 2007, and was prolonged by the Writers Guild of America strike that lasted until early 2008.

There hadn’t been much released about the show, but I did know that it had something to do with memories being wiped and replaced. And the people with the new memories (Dolls) being hired out for various services.

That was around the same time I’d started putting together ideas for my book, The Insistence of Memory, and the show’s description gave me pause. It’s really not all that related, but both deal with recording memories, in a sense, so I was doubly interested in what Joss had planned.

The wait continued and I put Dollhouse out of my mind. As I became busier with freelance writing clients, and less sure of where I wanted to take the story, The Insistence of Memory was also left in the background (until I picked it up again and finished it nine years later).

When Dollhouse finally premiered in 2009, I remember being nervous about Topher’s “chair” because I had written a vaguely similar, but much more low-tech version of reclining in a chair during memory sessions in my book. But that was about the extent of the similarities.

While Dollhouse captured my heart from the first episode, the overall reviews were mixed. Some didn’t like the pacing and tone. Some were too uncomfortable with the prostitution aspect of the Dollhouse. Some worried that Eliza Dushku couldn’t carry such a complex lead role. (I thoroughly disagreed, having loved her in Tru Calling—another great show cut short.)

For me, the show explored many beautiful, messy, complicated aspects of identity, relationships, free will, and bodily autonomy. It did bring up uncomfortable subjects, and sometimes went very dark, but it explored them in objective, honest ways. Characters were gradually developed, adding layers as the show went on, and I was sad (if not entirely surprised) when it was announced that Dollhouse would end after the second season.

As the series closed, I happened across a contest from Smart Pop Books that was soliciting fan essays about the show. There wasn’t much time to enter, but I quickly pulled together some thoughts on an idea that I’d been turning over since the show began: comparing the relationship between “personality” and the physical body to the relationship between positive and negative space, as in the classic Rubin’s Vase illusion.

My idea was a bit complicated and I’m still not sure I conveyed it was well as I’d have liked, but it made the cut and was accepted as part of the compilation–which was beyond thrilling, mainly because Jane Espenson would be the book’s editor.

You may not be familiar with Jane Espenson by name, but you’ve likely seen (and loved) her work. She’s worked on a wide range of TV shows, as a writer, creator, and producer. Just a few include Whedonverse shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, as well as Tru Calling, Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, Gilmore Girls, and Once Upon a Time.

Having Jane Espenson read my essay submission was exciting, having her select my essay sent me over the moon! She even sent me a congratulations tweet, which I unfortunately failed to screen capture and have since lost somewhere in the depths of Twitter’s archives. (Doh!)

If you missed Dollhouse the first time around, perhaps it’s time to give it a try. Two seasons makes it easily binge-able, and if you want more, I know where you can find a collection of deep-diving, thought-provoking essays. 😉

**Update: And then this happened…. thank you, Jane Espenson!! You are fabulous! 😁

Getting Comfortable with Writing

Even those who love to write can be intimidated by a blank page. Yet writing, like pretty much everything, gets easier with practice.

If writing is a struggle for you, try breaking it down into smaller steps:
1. Gather your thoughts 
You don’t have to use elaborate brainstorming techniques or a formal outline to prepare your thoughts. Jot down some ideas, focusing on exactly what you want to share. Having a clear understanding of your purpose will make it easier to present those ideas in a clear, concise manner.
2. Write and rewrite
Don’t worry about making your writing perfect on the first pass. Writing is rewriting, and the first draft is a place to simply start putting your thoughts into full sentences. You can rearrange the paragraphs and sentences later, cut some out, or replace them as your thoughts become more clear. 
3. Edit for simplicity
Using esoteric words and complicated sentences often backfires, making it look like you’re trying too hard to impress. Keep it simple with short paragraphs that each express one specific point. Think about mixing up the length of your sentences, as well. Short sentences often punctuate your point. 
4. Read your writing out loud
Even if the piece you’re writing isn’t meant to be a speech, reading it out loud can uncover problems that your eyes slide over with silent reading. Read it slowly and notice any places where you stumble over the wording. Edit and reread until the piece starts to sound more natural. 
5. Get a second opinion
For a final polish, ask a friend or co-worker to read what you’ve written and give you some feedback. Be specific in the kind of help you need. Explain your goals, ask if anything is unclear, and be open to other ideas. You don’t have to agree with all the feedback you receive, but honestly consider if some changes could make your writing more clear. 
Writing may never become your passion, but practice (and patience) can help the process become a lot more comfortable.