Creating a Writing Playlist

What gets you in the zone for writing creatively? For me, music a huge help. It also helps drown out the sounds of the dog barking at a falling leaf or a noisy cafe. I was talking with a friend and fellow writer the other day, and she expressed that she was beginning to appreciate and enjoy Classical music. Of course, my response was a calm smile to dance around the room.

I love Classical music, and an appreciation for it is one of the benefits I gained from my undergraduate education. Because of my adoration for Classical music (and Baroque and Romantic, which are often lumped under the Classical umbrella though they’re a different genre), I learned to play piano, which has become one of my most beloved hobbies.

My friend told me she’d been listening to Bach’s cello suites, as performed by Yo Yo Ma. This beautiful example of Baroque music is great for unleashing creativity, but now she’s working on scenes that require a different mood. We started talking about putting together a playlist and it made me think about the different ways one can use music to fuel the creative writing process.

Create a Soundtrack for Your Work

Like my friend, one way to use music in your writing is to create a soundtrack. Much like a movie soundtrack, pieces are chosen to represent the emotions in specific scenes. My friend and I discussed this at length–and discovered that historical dramas typically have soundtracks with the range of emotions she was seeking. After listening to some selections from Pride and Prejudice (the 2005 version) and The Duchess, we surmised that historical dramas starring Keira Knightley are a good way to source writing music–in case you’re planning your own soundtrack.

The real key though to creating a soundtrack is to find the the song that fits the scene. Depending on how many scenes one has in a story, this can be an extensive project in its own right.

Create a Playlist of Songs for Emotions in Your Work

I think this is more where I stand–not because I cannot come up with a list long enough to provide unique musical inspiration for every scene–but because that would be a project of such gargantuan proportion as to intimidate me right out of the process. Rather, I think I will source a few songs for various types of scenes. This may be a bit repetitive, but I don’t mind, particularly as the songs won’t have lyrics. (If I listen to music with lyrics while writing creatively, I just start typing the lyrics.)

On Tuesday, we’re going to devote some time to sourcing music for our respective playlists. I’ll share mine here on this blog, and you can feel free to use the same music if it speaks to you.

What’s your favorite Classical music?

Go ahead and include Baroque and Romantic music in with this one. You have my permission to lump them together. If you’re a writer, I’d love to know your favorite selections for getting into the zone. If you’re not a writer, what music do you simply enjoy?

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MFA Update: Final Submission of the Semester

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Thesis

In just over two weeks, my final submission of the semester is due, and I just deleted what I’d written so far toward my 30 pages of fiction for that submission.

Yesterday, on my 3-hour drive to New Hampshire for my TA responsibilities, I had several chapter epiphanies:

  • The chapter about the Mystic Massacre needs to start right near the end of the event and fill in with carefully crafted flashbacks.
  • I need to flush out a conflict for my protagonist that shows that when the other men he’s working with are together, he becomes more of a bystander and less of a factor in making decisions. I need to go back and strengthen this in earlier chapters because it is at the end of this chapter that he overcomes that, in order to allow him to do what he needs to in the next chapter.
  • I need to emphasize his guilt that his actions in the previous chapter made the massacre more likely.

To accomplish all of this, I had to delete what I’d already written. This leads me to a conclusion I’ve long held but not experienced in a while:

Sometimes writing requires taking two steps forward, and one back.

This is okay. I think a writer ought to be comfortable with the delete key, and not fear it. Why continue to thrust writing on a reader that does not best serve the story? It might be lyrically beautiful, but that’s not enough of a reason to keep it.

So, that leaves me with two weeks to write, edit, and revise about 10,000 words–but I’m excited about the task.

Another major change I’ve made in my thesis is that I had planned, originally, on characterizing real people who lived in the past and influenced the events in my book. The difficulties with this approach proved to be three-fold:

  1. I felt constrained like I couldn’t take a character too far from who they really were. For a fiction writer, it’s important to have the freedom to develop characters.
  2. I wanted to make one such character an antagonist. However, I don’t think that person in history was the way I want to characterize him. This man has hundreds of descendants and I wouldn’t want to alienate them because I made their ancestor out to be a horrible person just to suit my story.
  3. There are many characters on whom I can find very little information. I felt imbalanced completely making them up on my own while other characters had definite timelines and personality traits.

For this reason, I need to rename all of my characters. This is a fun process, albeit time-consuming, as I typically like to do some research and choose names for a reason, instead of just picking them out of a hat. But I’ve already decided what I will rename my protagonist, so it’s a start.

Craft Essays and Exercises

I don’t often blog about the non-thesis work I’ve been submitting all semester. I’m not sure why, but with the semester winding down, this seems as good a time as any to write about these other elements.

The craft essays are both frustrating and satisfying. I always find finishing an academic essay satisfying because it’s like solving a puzzle. I love proving my point through writing, which I know is an unpopular opinion among many. Yet, I enjoy it. Even when I’ve not loved the book I was assigned, I’ve enjoyed writing the essay. I have two more to go. I’ll write one this week, and another next week for a total of 10 this semester.

My mentor assigned me 3 writing exercises this semester, all of which I found both helpful and enjoyable. Some of them involved research, one of them involved going to a place of personal emotion so powerful that it released some of the grief I’ve been working through since the death of my father a little over a year ago. I’m working on expanding that exercise into a short story that I will then submit to literary magazines and hopefully find a home for it. It might just be the most powerful work of fiction I’ve ever written in my life–I’m not trying to boast here, but I’m simply comparing it to previous work I’ve done.

Having completed my 3 exercises for the semester, I have no more to submit, which means my 30 pages can be completely devoted to my thesis.

Teaching

My TA experience is going so well. I’m really enjoying it, and yesterday I met with another professor who has welcomed me to stay at her house one night a week so I can split the drive. Speaking of driving, I was thinking about what tires me out about it. Driving up and back (a total of 5-6 hours depending on traffic, weather, and construction), isn’t what tires me out. It’s doing so as part of a 12- to 13-hour day. I’m on campus each Monday for 6 hours.

Next term, and the following term, I’ll be on campus twice a week, but only for about an hour or two each day. That means my 13-hour day will become two 7- or 8-hour days. This is a huge difference! I’ll have to try it out to see but I think I won’t mind so much driving up and back a couple of times a week. After all, I once had a 1.5-hour commute to a job I didn’t like, and I love being in the classroom.

Besides, those hours on the road give me ample time to think about my fiction, and I’ve made some pretty important decisions on that drive.

Getting back to the classroom, I’ve had some fun opportunities to teach mini-lessons, and plan to teach a few more. I’m starting to get to know the students, which I think would have happened faster were I sitting in on every class instead of every other class, and I’m frequently and overwhelmingly impressed by them. That’s not to say I had low expectations. I didn’t have expectations. I’ve tried to go into this semester with a blank slate approach as to what to expect from students, as this was my first chance to work with college students.

I also love tutoring. There’s nothing quite like working one-on-one with a student and witnessing that a-ha moment. I’ve experienced it before, but I’ll never tire of it. I liken it to a runner’s high.

I’m also really enjoying the TA Colloquium. This is a once-weekly, no-credit class that provides an opportunity to study and discuss pedagogical theories and strategies for the Freshman composition classroom. Some of the readings are challenging–this week’s caused a grammar-related existential crisis based on a 30-year-old debate about the value and approach of teaching grammar in college–but I enjoy them all the same.

The semester is half-over so my work as a TA will continue beyond the MFA semester (it will be the opposite in the spring), and I’ve really enjoyed growing alongside the students in the class I’m observing. The professor I’m working with has gone above and beyond, even finding me that housing arrangement for the rest of the term.

Final Thoughts

There’s been a lot to reflect on today, with the MFA semester drawing down. But I’ll continue my monthly update because just because the semester is ending doesn’t mean the work stops. Here’s what’s coming up between now and my second residency week:

  • Nov. 7 is the final submission deadline for this semester.
  • Nov. 10 is the deadline to submit my work for peer review at residency.
  • Nov. 14 I should receive final feedback from my mentor.
  • Dec. 11 is the day my peers’ stories are released so I can begin preparing my critiques. It’s also the last day of the TA semester and the date my teaching portfolio is due.
  • Jan. 7 is the start of my second residency; the day my peer critiques are due (though I will have them finished before then).

Also during this time, it’s my goal to make at least one round of edits to the thesis work I’ve done. I also hope to finish my work with the short story I want to submit. You can see that even though the MFA grading period will end, the work does not. For me, that’s a good thing. It’s always best not to stop and realize I’m tired until the end.

Removing Adjectives and Adverbs

One of my greatest takeaways on a micro level from my MA fiction coursework is that adverbs should be avoided as much as possible. The reason for this is that they tell instead of show. If I say, “Susie ran quickly,” isn’t it better to say, “Susie sprinted,” and show the reader with a stronger verb?

(The answer is yes.)

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So, I tried to write without adverbs whenever I could, with one exception–in speech. I don’t know about you personally, but I, and most people I’ve observed fall back on laziness in speech. I use “very” and other adverbs, because I’m trying to get a thought across fast enough to keep up with conversation, and sometimes the more powerful word doesn’t jump off of my tongue.

But in writing, there is plenty of time to draft, unless you’re participating in a writing challenge like NaNoWriMo, which I no longer participate in (but that’s a topic for another day), or unless somehow you don’t plan for deadlines and have to rush to get work done. In that case, stop reading this post and go organize your work so you don’t find yourself in that precarious situation.

Then, after drafting, there’s plenty of time to edit and revise. There’s time to go back through and think of the more powerful words to replace those lazy substitutions our brains make when we’re just trying to get ideas onto paper or screen before it flits out of our heads again.

And that, my friend, is what I want to talk about today.

My experiment started with my mentor’s feedback.

Months ago–wow, has it really been that long?–I received my first round of feedback from my mentor. I was ecstatic that she approved my thesis topic–the themes that drive the novel I’m working on for my MFA. I was less enthralled to discover I’d fallen into the trap of using adverbs in my narrative.

How did that happen?

After forcing myself to break that habit two years ago, how did I fall back into it? Simple. I was focused on other elements and let my guard down. Like an infection, adverbs infiltrated my prose and took it over, with the help of their slightly less harmful cousins, adjectives.

Wait, what’s wrong with adjectives?

Nothing really, except for when there are too many of them. My mentor commented that the text felt bogged down by them. She understood I was worldbuilding, but by focusing on that one element, I’d unwittingly abandoned character development and plot. They were there of course, so perhaps I didn’t really abandon them, but they had taken a back seat to shaping the 17th-century world.

My mentor said many of my descriptions were beautiful, but that’s not enough.

My first reaction was to wonder if I’d gotten in over my head. So I put down her email, which I had printed as though that would change the words, and went to sleep. The next morning, I woke knowing that I wasn’t in over my head, but that I had to take a drastic step to undo the laziness to which I’d allowed myself to succumb.

The Delete Key

I deleted every single adjective and every single adverb from my work. What happened next was eye-opening. Suddenly, I had space to explore my character. I had space to draw out the plot points and make them exciting.

And the worldbuilding? Don’t worry. It’s not gone–but it’s woven in more subtlety.

I remember years ago when I was working on a historical fiction piece, one of my beta readers told me she stopped reading because she didn’t know what a “davit” was. I always kept that memory with me, but now, thinking back on it, I decided a few things:

  • She didn’t need to know in that instant what a davit is.
  • She could have looked up the term instead of expecting me to stop my plot to explain every detail in the moment.
  • I shouldn’t have felt compelled to compose an encyclopedic dump on whaling vessels and their parts.

Instead, what I ended up doing, was writing from the point of view of a character who had never worked on a whaling ship before. Just because I knew the parts were called davits didn’t mean anyone else had to at that time. Instead, I described the parts by their function–they’re wooden arms built off of the side of the ship with pulleys. They’re used to raise and lower whaling boats, among other things.

Do you need to know they’re called davits? No. I was being pedantic and a little lazy, and my reader was being lazy, too–perhaps because I had been.

A time and a place…

Just as I said there was a time and place for adverbs (only in dialogue or internal thoughts), there is a time and place for an adjective. They can be used, but only when they add to the value of the narrative, and never when they detract from it.

I spoke with my mentor on the phone recently and tried to get a definitive answer from her but she reminded me that answering that would mean telling me what my style should be.

I’m still feeling that out–exactly how often I should let myself include adjectives. But I know this: When I don’t include them, my writing is more active and more exciting. When I do include them, it’s prettier, but it slows everything to a crawl. For now, I’m using pacing as my guide, and in the meantime, I’m enjoying writing my character’s thoughts and feelings in addition to his actions.

Agency of the Month: The Aponte Literary Agency

The Aponte Literary Agency seems to seek, among other manuscripts, historical fiction. You can check out the agency at: aponteliterary.com.

Reminder: I have not worked with or spoken with anyone at this agency. I’m sharing because it seems like a worthwhile agency to research if you have a manuscript to submit.