On Questions About Writing

In the past few days — since Shore Leave, really — I’ve been asked a number of questions on writing. Like where I get my ideas from. Like what’s my writing process. Like what kind of music do I listen to. Like what are my plans for publication. Like how do I see my writing — as a hobby, or as a career.

Good questions, all of them. Answering some, especially on the spot, came easier than answering others. With a few days thought, this is how I see my writing career right now. I can’t promise that my answers are good. They might not even be right. They are, however, my answers to the questions.

1) Ideas

I need to differentiate. There are ideas. And then there are concepts. For me, the big concepts are easy. It’s the ideas that go into the big concepts, the idea that actually make the concepts work as a story, that build the skeleton, to say nothing of the musclature beneath, that I struggle with.

If you can’t find a concept, try this trick. Take your favorite television show or a favorite book. Take a character you like (or that you hate) from something else entirely. Drop the character into your television show or book. How does that character fit? What does that character do?

You don’t have to limit yourself to that. Keith DeCandido’s Dragon Precinct is “What would NYPD Blue be like in a fantasy world?” Ben Aaronovich’s The Also People is “What if the TARDIS landed in Iain Banks’ The Culture universe?” You can probably think of a dozen other books or movies that have as their conceptual hook, “What if X happened in the world of Y?”

Here’s a recent example from my own experience. On the train a few weeks ago, musing randomly as I am wont to do, I had an insight. It began with some reading into history, and I realized that two historical personages could possibly have met. History doesn’t record that they met, but they did similar things, they traveled in similar circles. So what if they did? In thinking it through, I realized that it would be easier to put one person into the other’s history than vice versa, and then I started kicking around how best to tell the story of their meeting.

The way I knew I’d hit gold? I couldn’t stop thinking about the possibilities.

Have I done anything with this yet, other than to write notes? No. The problem here is the historical research necessary.

Also, I wrote a novel outline last month, which had similar origins — “What if X happened with Y?”

In the latter case, once I’d put the two pieces together, I saw instantly how the story would unfold. If it weren’t for the typing, I’d almost say that the outline wrote itself. In the former case, the concept is solid and exciting, but I need the research and, honestly, I need a story to go with it.

Some concepts are easier to work with than others. For me, anyway.

2) Writing Process

Okay, let’s say I have a concept, and I have the bag of ideas, and I’m sitting down to write. What do I do?

Well, it really depends.

Sometimes I put music on. Sometimes I go out. Sometimes I write for an hour. Sometimes I write for five hours. Sometimes I write until the sun comes up. Sometimes I crank out thousands upon thousands of words. Sometimes I pound two hundred words out of a stone. Sometimes I work in Microsoft Word. Sometimes I work in Notepad. Sometimes I work with pen and paper.

It really depends.

Whatever it takes to get the creative juices flowing and the words pouring out. That’s what I do.

Take, for instance, “Santora,” my contribution to Peter David’s Potato Moon round-robin Twilight parody novel.

Peter e-mailed me a Word document of the previous thirty-odd chapters. I sat down, started to read it, decided somewhere around page 10, as my eyes were glazing over, that, and I quote myself, “I don’t fucking have time for this shit.” So instead of trying to figure out what was going on with this train wreck, I skipped ahead to the chapter immediately preceeding mine, copied out the last four paragraphs, and started riffing from that, with absolutely no idea of what had gone before.

And then, I essentially punted. I wrote a flashback about Ernest Hemingway set in 1944, who reminisced about Spain and bullfighting a decade before that, all in a faux Hemingway style, to the tune of about two thousand words. I didn’t give a crap for the ersatz Bella and Edward and Jacob. Nor did I give a crap about potato jokes. I had Hemingway on the brain — I’d only recently read Christopher Hitchens’ review of A Moveable Feast — and Ernest Hemingway is so much more fun to parody. Plus, he was on an episode of Animaniacs. Stephanie Meyer will never be able to claim that.

And I did all this in about three hours. With an hour lunch break in the middle. Writing in Notepad.

I don’t claim any brilliance for “Santora.” No, the truly brilliant, demented chapter of Potato Moon is David Mack‘s “The Pitch Meeting.” I laughed so hard reading this that I’d swear I hurt myself.

El Patata, by the way, was supposed to be a Sontaran. He’s not actually a walking, talking potato. I thought I’d point that out.

Oh. And I have a beat-up writing hat. It’s white and it’s stained and it has seen better days, but it’s comfortable and it’s mine, and it’s my writing hat. I put it on, and it’s like I’ve put on my game face. It’s my writing hat.

3) Music

I almost always have music playing when I’m working and writing.

I generally don’t write to movie scores. A few years ago, a friend recommended Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings scores as the perfect writing music, and because I loved the films and had the scores, I was sure this would work smashingly.

Instead, I discovered that I couldn’t write with these scores playing. I knew the music too well. I knew the movies too well.

(I should differentiate between the music I play at home while I write on personal projects and the writing I do at work for the company I work for. I’ve found that, at work, I can write to pretty much anything; it’s basically just muzak to me.)

I generally write to music with lyrics.

I’ve found that I can’t write to the Beatles. It just doesn’t work. I can write to George Harrison, however. John and Paul solo? No.

Lately, while working on “THOD” my music has ranged from Alanis Morisette and KT Tunstall to My Latest Novel and Y’all Is Fantasy Island. And despite my love of Elbow, I’ve not been listening to Elbow while writing this novel.

I do have to be careful in choosing the music I listen to while writing. Writing “Make-Believe” damaged my ability to listen to Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, strange as that sounds. Which sucks, because I really loved that album.

I also write to jazz. My jazz collection is pretty small — I have Del Paxton’s seminal Time to Blow album, I have some jazz takes on the Beatles discography, I have some of the Marsalis family. Mainly, I’ll listen to the local jazz radio station. Or I’ll stream WSHA, the jazz radio station in Raleigh, which is downright awesome if you like jazz.

And Christmas music. I find Christmas music conducive to writing. If you ever look at my last.fm profile page in mid-summer and see me listening to something like “Walking in the Air,” then chances are I’m writing something. Or maybe I just wanted to feel Christmassy. But I’m probably writing.

I’ve recently picked up the Outlander soundtrack. I liked the film, and I think that if the novel outline flies that Outlander will see some heavy rotation in my writing music queue.

4) Publication

How to get published? It depends.

I’ll start with “THOD,” because I was asked about this one a few times this weekend.

I have a two-pronged approach. Because of the nature of the book — some of it is episodic — some parts of the book would probably work quite well as standalone short stories, and as I get the first draft finished, I’ll be able to better judge that.

My plan for “THOD,” then, is to:

  • Finish the first draft
  • Shop a few select chapters as short stories
  • Submit the manuscript to an agent for submission to publishing houses

Are my chances good? I don’t know. Finishing the first draft isn’t even in question.

The other project, the outline I wrote a few weeks ago, is for a tie-in novel. It’s an extreme longshot, and I freely admit that. I’ve sent the outline off to the publisher that is handling this particular property. If it happened, I would be ecstatic. If it doesn’t happen, that is not, surprisingly, the end of the world for this particular story.

I really just have to file away the serial numbers for the media property. I even know most of the changes I would make. (There’s one element that I’m not entirely sure how to fudge, but I also haven’t given it a lot of thought.) The concept is too good not to use in some capacity.

That’s my plan through the end of the year in terms of publication. Write “THOD.” Get an ageny. Keep my fingers crossed that the tie-in outline flies.

And the long dormant “DOTFE” keeps nagging at me. And two people have suggested that there may be some life in it still. We shall see.

5) Career Goals

Writing full-time doesn’t instill any sense of terror in me. The reason? I already write full-time. Yes, it’s for a trade publication. No, I don’t get paid extra for my writing. I don’t get paid by the word or by the article. I’m salary; my job is payment for that writing.

I’m just not full-time freelance.

I’m okay with that.

The one writing goal I had was to have a book published in my name by the time I was thirty. That happened with Ring Around the Sky. Sure, it was an eBook, but it was still a book-like publication.

There are things I have no interest in. I don’t see myself going Hollywood. I don’t have an interest in writing for comics. I’m a prose guy, and I don’t anticipate that changing.

(Okay, yes, I would write comics, but as I really doubt there’s any chance of my writing a Doctor who/Uncle Scrooge crossover comic, I don’t see comics as something that I have an abiding interest in writing for.)

Right now, my goal is to finish “THOD” by the end of the October. And I’m optimistic enough to think that I can sell it.

In the meantime, I’ll slot in articles and short stories where I can.

Conclusion

There isn’t one.

As I’m sitting here, mid-July 2009, thinking of the questions people have been asking me — at Shore Leave, at work, in e-mail — about writing, this is how I see the answers right now.

Doubtless, I’m forgetting something at the moment. For the nonce, this is how I see the state of Allyn’s writing.

Any questions?

2 thoughts on “On Questions About Writing

  1. I’m totally keeping this for reference. This comment is here to let you know that I do exist, and I am existing with strange sleep schedules o.O;;

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