Tag Archives: creative process

A day of drama

One of the most exciting things a writer can do is push a character outside of his comfort zone.

It turns out the same is true for writers themselves.

I suppose I stepped away from the proverbial safety net the day I stopped being a dabbler and became a so-called authorpreneur. By and large, however, I write sci-fi and fantasy series. Throw in a handful of speculative short stories over the years, and my fiction fits snugly into a relatively contained space.

But as of last month, I can add “playwright” to my bio.

That’s right. I wrote a stage play.

In less than seven hours.

The premise

A little while ago, my services were solicited for something called 24-Hour Theater. It’s billed as a “race against the clock,” and the challenge is this: community members create an original play from scratch over the span of 24 hours.

That includes writing, rehearsing and performing.

Writers have nine hours after receiving a shared (but broad) theme to produce a 10-minute play. After writers email their hot-off-the-laptop scripts to the production team, directors and actors must interpret and memorize it before the curtain rises exactly one day after the kickoff.

Adhering to my “Year of Yes” mentality, I decided to give it a shot.

The process

Honestly, I had no idea what to expect. My sole goal was to avoid embarrassing myself. I’ve written scripts for marketing videos and television commercials but never for a live performance. How difficult could it be?

I was about to find out—and fast!

7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19

  • The writers, directors, actors and production team gather to reveal the theme: “fall.”
  • Groups are assigned lottery-style, and once writers learn who their actors are, they choose costume options from a few pre-selected possibilities.
  • Both of my actors provided pajama options; deciding that it’s serendipity, I go with that.
  • During a couple team-building exercises, I meet my two actors: Julie Wild and Nate Scheuers, who will also serve as director. I also take the opportunity to ask questions about their favorite roles, style, and so forth.
  • Before I leave the kickoff meeting, I grab my complimentary survival kit, which contains snacks, caffeine, and even some Tylenol.

8:10 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19

  • I arrive home and immediately get to work, starting with the theme. Dismissing the season as too obvious, I list other definitions and expressions. “Falling temperatures,” “falling asleep,” “falling in love,” “falling star, “falling out,” etc.
  • Next, I brainstorm scenarios where two people might find themselves wearing pajamas. A couple enjoying a rare lazy morning? The only two coworkers who dressed up for Pajama Day? Patients in a psych ward? Two strangers falling down a bottomless pit in some kind of Kafkaesque catastrophe?
  • I latch onto an idea about two neighbors trapped in a building without heat and/or electricity. I begin outlining to see where the story takes me. I get to the end and don’t bother to map out any of the other options. This is “the one.”

9:25 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19

  • My goal is to start the first draft before 9:30, which I do, albeit barely.
  • The outline is broken out page by page, so I’m able to get the structure down relatively quickly.
  • The only thing that slows me down is adhering to the proper playwriting format, which is foreign to me. I know I’m providing too many stage directions, but I want to remove as much guesswork as possible to make it easier for my actors.
  • I think I’m moving at a pretty quick clip, but it’s already tomorrow.

2:35 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 20

  • I finish the script. But I can’t submit a rough draft, so I go over it again, fixing typos, cleaning up formatting, and reworking dialogue.

3:05 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 20

  • I know I could continue to tweak until the 5 a.m. deadline. Instead, I email in the script for my one-act play, “Fallout.”

3:?? a.m. Saturday, Oct. 20

  • In the grip of a major writing high, I toss and turn in bed. I’m excited to see what the actors make of the script. I’m stuck in creative mode, but eventually my brain shuts off, and I fall asleep.

The performance

Although a couple of texts came in from my actors, by and large it was radio silence on Saturday. I spoke with a fellow writer before the performance, and she too felt a little in the dark. And maybe a little apprehensive.

Of course, we didn’t have to wait long to watch the fruits of our labor. The five plays—“TKO,” “Fallout,” “Foodie Fallout,” “Cookie Con,” and “Falling for Kitty”—all took a different approach to the theme. Comedy decidedly won the day.

I have to say I was incredibly impressed with all of the actors and directors. It just goes to show what can be accomplished when creative people are passionate and dedicated to a project.

As for my play, “Fallout,” I can’t express how delighted I was with how it turned out. Mostly, I amazed at how close the performance matched what was in my mind. And when a change was made, it was for the better.

From left, Nathan Scheuers, Julie Wild, and yours truly | graphic by Julie Wild

If you’re interested in reading my script, you can download it here.

Meanwhile, I’m hoping the 24-Hour Theater will have an encore in 2019!

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The secret beauty of bad ideas

Writers never kill their darlings.

We just lock them away…in a dungeon…indefinitely…

Even when we expunge plots points from the pages, old drafts linger long after their expiration date, haunting hard drives and battered binders for years. The same goes for ideas that never even had a chance to thrive as well as stories that don’t survive a full draft.

I keep my little failures in a folder called “Ideas and false starts,” a literary gulag whose inmates date back to the turn of the century.

What makes an idea bad?

Bad is in the eye of the beholder. Most ideas start out as precious—too precious—so if the author passes harsh judgement on his/her own work, it’s probably really bad. Some common culprits are ideas that are too unrealistic, convoluted, or clichéd. If an idea doesn’t serve—or can’t support—the story, it has to go.

Then there are the ideas that might have made it to those two little words if only they had kept the author’s interest. Boredom aside, ideas also can lead writers down dead ends. Writer’s block has murdered many a storyline.

And here’s a tragedy: a perfectly adequate idea can perish before it reaches its full potential when a shiny new one shows up, usurping an author’s brainpower and priorities.

Can two wrongs make a write?

Abandoned ideas don’t really rest in peace. I, for one, occasionally visit their proverbial prison, poking and prodding to see if there’s any life left in them. Better to have many ideas waiting in the ward than too few to fill one’s time.

I admit very few people to this freak show. Family members, writers groups, beta readers—they alone get glimpses at the grotesqueries. However, after watching a certain movie and playing a somewhat related video game recently, I can’t help but wonder if there could be beauty in the bad.

The LEGO Batman Movie and LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 both feature D-list characters from comics past and present. If Condiment King and Chipmunk Hunk can star in successful stories, what about some of my own castoffs?

The Bad Idea Club

Supposing there’s validity to the theory that mixing up a bunch of bad ideas can result in something good, here are a few mostly forgotten characters of mine that could conceivably band together:

Digger (circa 1984)

Likely the first instance of my unfulfilled fiction, Digger’s Days would have recounted the adventures of Digger, a robot equipped with a drill and a number of other tools to do…stuff. I’m pretty sure this prototype didn’t make it past the drawing board, literally, since I was all of five years old when I sketched him. Still, what story couldn’t use a mechanical sidekick?

The Ultimate Crusaders (circa 1991–1993)

Drawing robots eventually led to illustrating massive battles. I flirted with the miserable (and trademark-infringing) G.I. Joe: The Next Generation before inventing cringe-worthy acronyms for my elite soldiers. Once my interest switched to comic books and their super-powered characters, I invented the Ultimate Crusaders. Many of these heroes and villains they thwarted were Marvel rip-offs (e.g. The Mutant Flame and Electra); others were just plain terrible (the Quarter Note and Herron, whose helmets were as groan-inducing as you might imagine). However, Mr. Mysterious did get reincarnated for a short story I wrote in college.

Yalte Dark Elf (fall 1994)

After months of building my own fantasy world, I decided to attempt a novel. While Altaerra would live on and eventually serve as the setting for The Renegade Chronicles, the original cast of “The Maltaken Experiment” did not. There was an elven bard, a gruff dwarf (of course), a warrior woman, a pixie, and a barbarian guy. Leading the pack, however, was dagger-flinging Yalte Dark Elf, whose only saving grace was that he wasn’t inspired by Forgotten Realm’s Drizzt Do’Urden (like most dark elves), but rather DragonLance’s Dalamar the Dark.

Tarreth (spring 2001)

An attempt at co-writing a fantasy series with a fellow college student quickly fizzled, but not before I wrote a scene introducing Tarreth, a half-immortal child adopted by a creepy old wizard. I think she was going to eventually destroy him and meet up with a delusional “Chosen One.” Alas, her quest was over before it began.

Benedict Strong (fall 2006)

When I stepped away from Altaerra to take a stab at a fantasy novel set in the real world, I conjured up Benedict Strong, who was one of only a handful of true wizards remaining on Earth. He learned from Merlin, I believe, and so did his rival/counterpart, Pandora, who used her arcane talents to perform true magic on stage—unbeknown to her Vegas audiences. Rasputin would have made a cameo. I know: hard to believe this one flopped.

Persephone (fall 2010)

Some ideas are enticing solely because they are something other than what you are currently working on. While up to my elbows in dream drifters, editing If Souls Can Sleep, I began mentally exploring a story where a teenage Wisconsinite named Persephone gets possessed by her unborn granddaughter, a time-traveler comprised of consciousness-preserving nanobots. Of all my bad ideas, Sunny’s story is most likely to orchestrate a jailbreak.

Ysa (spring 2013)

It turns out that writing a story about an alien anthropologist isn’t all that new. Ysa, a genderless extraterrestrial from a mostly lifeless universe, would have been one of three interplanetary delegates to travel to Earth, where the anthropologist would use his/her woefully incomplete knowledge of humankind to forge a lasting friendship between worlds. Naturally, Ysa would have discovered a conspiracy on one side or the other and then foiled it.

The Later Gator (fall 2013)

A few years ago, my wife and I penned a children’s chapter book. The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers had a very limited run for complicated reasons, but the story foreshadowed a sequel in which the titular heroine would square off against an anthropomorphic alligator whose tide of chaos causes tardiness wherever he goes. The Later Gator still hasn’t shown up.

A song for the unsung heroes

My abysmal mashup may never come to be, and there’s an excellent chance not a single one of these characters will ever escape my digital dungeon. But even if bad ideas can’t be reformed, they serve an important purpose.

Bad ideas take the brunt of punishment from an author’s inner critic. For example, if Benedict Strong hadn’t been such a bore, I might never have given Vincent Cruz a chance, which means The Soul Sleep Cycle would never have happened.

Once a bad idea is banished, we turn with fresh eyes to a new idea, our sadism sated…for now…

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How long does it take to write a book?

Answer: I have no idea — even after writing nine of them.

Maybe some authors have a formula that produces consistent results, but for me, the question is too nuanced to allow for a simple solution. Here’s why:

  • No two novels are the same.
  • I tend to work on other projects in between drafts, which artificially extends the timeline.
  • I don’t consider a book “done” until it’s published.

In other words, the writing itself is but one portion of a much longer process that starts with choosing a worthy idea to pursue and ends the moment the product is available for purchase.

Sometimes it can feel like centuries pass between penning the prologue and typing “THE END.” | Image by Alan Jacobs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Often that journey has as many ups and downs—and plot twists—as the fiction itself.

Take Project 5, for example…

After writing the three books of The Renegade Chronicles and a standalone (and currently unpublished) Altaerran novel called Magic’s Daughter, I attempted to compose a book that would merge characters from both works. I abandoned it after 22 chapters because it felt like I was simply filling in the blanks, and truth be told, I was starting to burn out on sword-and-sorcery fantasy—as a writer and a reader.

I decided my next book would take a step in a drastically different direction. I chose the working title “Project 5” because, well, I hoped it would yield my fifth complete novel. (Not very creative, Ghost of David Past!)

In June 2006, I began plotting an urban fantasy novel set in present-day Earth. The cast included Benedict Strong, a nearly immortal magic-caster who defied his heritage by trying to live a normal life; Lady Pandora, a stage magician who used real sorcery in her shows; and a few others.

I wrote a couple chapters before losing interest.

Next, I embraced a completely new plot — a fantasy/sci-fi hybrid that would eventually become If Souls Can Sleep. Once that story got its hooks in me, there was no turning back. Here’s a snapshot of the steps leading from inception to publication:

Dec. 10, 2006 — Began brainstorming a new Project 5, starting with rough character descriptions.

Dec. 31, 2006 — Wrote the prologue and began researching sleep disorders while hashing out ideas for the plot.

March 5, 2007 — Wrote the first chapter and then drafted a chapter a month for the next two years.

Oct. 30, 2008 — Realized that I was trying to write three books in one; removed select scenes from the first draft and saved them for Books 2 and 3.

April 7, 2009 — Developed an outline for the remainder of the novel after finishing Chapter 24 to prevent “writing in circles.”

July 1, 2009 — Finished the first complete draft of If Souls Can Sleep.

July – September 2009 — Read through the first draft and made notes for editing.

Oct. 18, 2009 — Started working on the heavy edits.

May 2, 2010 — Finished the second draft.

May 3, 2010 – Sept. 4, 2017 — Did lots of other stuff.*

Sept. 5, 2017 — After finishing the second draft of Book 3 in The Soul Sleep Cycle, jumped into proofing and prepping If Souls Can Sleep for publication through One Million Words.

Sept. 20, 2017 — Finished the production and marketing schedule.

Sept. 21, 2017 – Jan. 29, 2018 — Tackled/tackling all of the tasks required to publish and promote the book.

Jan. 30, 2018 — Publishing If Souls Can Sleep.

* Nota bene: I set aside If Souls Can Sleep for seven and a half years while I worked on a variety of other projects, including writing and editing the next two books in The Soul Sleep Cycle; co-writing and publishing a children’s chapter book (The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers) with my wife; writing a few short stories (“The Lake Road,” “The Monster and the Mirage,” and “Ghost Mode”); reworking and submitting “Ghost Mode” and an older story, “Going Viral,” to various publications; and publishing the three novels and a digital collection comprising The Renegade Chronicles as well as a free e-book compendium (Capricon and Beyond). I also spent time marketing The Renegade Chronicles, creating an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign for a pun-a-day calendar, and making this website during that time.

You could say that If Souls Can Sleep will be 11 years in the making when it publishes early next year—though, technically, the inception for the series goes back even further.

According to the first entry in my Project 5 notes, dated Dec. 10, 2006:

Years and years ago, I thought that it might be fun to write a story about a man who meets a woman that he swears he knows. And she seems to recognize him, though neither can say from where. At some point, he would recall her as a recurring character in his dreams.

There was, of course, more to the story, but a lingering question has (in a sense) haunted me from that point forward: Who are the strangers that appear in our dreams? Are they real people whose names we have forgotten—or perhaps never knew—or are they amalgamations that our minds concoct when it needs nonspecific characters for a scene?

My next book will contend that dream strangers are real people, even if they do not exist in what most would call the real world.

“Years and years ago”?

That initial inkling has evolved—maybe “mutated” is a better word—over the course of decades, which only underscores my belief that the life of a story spans far longer than the time it takes to write it down.

Regardless of when this labor of love actually began, one thing remains true: I’m looking forward to finally sharing If Souls Can Sleep with the world in 2018!

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What to do when writing tips contradict

The only constant when it comes to writing advice is inconsistency.

There are times when I wish someone would come up with a template for writing a creative, impactful and commercially successful novel in “Just 10 Easy Steps!” While there are no shortage of textbooks and self-help guides for writers, I fear there’s no one surefire way to become the best writer you can be.

At the end of the day, fiction writing is more art than science.

Since no two minds work precisely the same way, no two writers are going to approach planning, plot structure, character development, research, writing, and editing exactly the same way. A method that works for one author might result in utter failure for another. A customized methodology, then, is key.

Portrait of author Stephen King

Who am I to question the wisdom of Stephen King? Just another writer trying to figure stuff out. | Photo credit: Shane Leonard

In my first post on this blog, I vowed to abstain from stating “absolute rules that govern writing as a craft or business.” Mostly, I didn’t want to come off as arrogant, but there’s a more pragmatic reason for my promise:

There aren’t any absolutes when it comes to writing.

That’s not to say there aren’t valuable tips to share. (I like to think that this blog contains a helpful nugget or two for people careening headlong down the same crazy path I’ve chosen.) And there are plenty of overarching platitudes that seem applicable to most people.

Yet I have to believe that despite how many successful writers have declared, “You must read voraciously in order to become a better writer,” there’s a genius out there somewhere who penned his or her masterpiece in a vacuum.

Anomalies aside, some so-called writing rules outright contradict others. Never was this more apparent to me than during recent email correspondences with a novice writer and prospective member of the Allied Authors of Wisconsin, who sought my perspective on several conflicting pieces of information—including the sage words of one Stephen King.

The article he referenced included excerpts from King’s memoir, On Writing, which I had read and enjoyed many years ago. In the article, King says writers should “write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open.” The article further paraphrases the point: “You should maintain total privacy between you and your work,” while composing the first draft.

This wasn’t the first time the aforementioned aspiring author had encountered advice dissuading him from sharing his partial manuscript with others. And while I can agree that there are some disadvantages to prematurely exposing one’s story to the critics, I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

In “Why writers groups still matter,” I outlined how soliciting feedback from fellow writers can help an author and his or her book. Of course, one could wait until he or she is finished with the first draft before joining a writing workshop, sending it to beta readers, and so forth.

So why not acquiesce to King’s (and many others’) point of view? Here’s what I told my friend via email:

I don’t know if I’d say receiving critiques on your work prior to having finished a first draft is detrimental. I can see pros and cons.

Some pros include getting an early understanding about what the readers are latching onto. If their attention is focused on the right stuff, you know you’re on the right track. If they are getting distracted by minor details (or characters), that gives you some ideas not only for how to revise those first few chapters, but also how to treat such things moving forward.

I will say, however, that I think it’s a mistake to perpetually revise chapters. I’ve seen it happen time and time again where writers can’t get past the first handful of chapters because they’re constantly revising until it’s “perfect.” And getting feedback from alpha readers adds more feedback, so, yeah, there’s a higher chance that a writer will want to revise/redo/rewrite instead of move forward.

At Allied Authors meetings, I take notes on the critiques for every chapter I read. But I never work on those chapters immediately after a meeting. In fact, I don’t review them until I’m ready for Draft 2. (Though I will keep comments in mind in case they are relevant for upcoming/unwritten chapters.) I’m a firm believer that it’s better to get a complete draft done before trying to improve on anything. It’s probably because I’ve seen too many people frustrate themselves by trying to make Chapter 1 flawless before moving on. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that work.

Is a completely MS review preferred? Absolutely. …it’s difficult to critique portions of a novel (due to a lack of context, etc.), but imperfect though they may be, I continue to find value in chapter-by-chapter reviews.

So who is right—Stephen King or I?

Or both?

In actuality, I’m not disagreeing with King on a philosophical level, but the devil is in the details. And even if King and I likely agree that rewriting Chapter 1 ad nauseam is a mistake, there are probably those out there who make it work. Probably, there are folks who never get a second opinion on their manuscript before sending it off to an editor or self-publish it and let the public decide whether it’s worth purchasing.

Writing is a complex activity. What’s ideal for one person might not be remotely achievable by another. (Sorry, Mr. King, but as much as I’d love to knock out a first draft of a novel in three months, real life tends to get in the way.)

Every writer must determine his or her own path from conception to composition. There’s a heck of a lot of alphabet between Point A and Point Z. I suppose the only thing that matters is making it to “The End” without getting lost among all of the warnings along the way.

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The two sides to every story

Ask a hundred different people for their definition of “good writing,” and you’ll get a thousand different answers.

On a very basic level, the creation of a story can be divided into two parts: concept and composition.  Without a command of both sides, a writer—more specifically, his or her story—is bound to fall short of greatness.

Coins of the Philippines

Like a coin, there are two sides to every story. Just don’t leave its success to chance. Photo by Kadayawan (own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Concept

How many times have you heard someone say, “I’ve always wanted to write a book about…”?  Or “I have this great idea for a story…”?

When it comes to fiction, most of us dive into the ideas behind a story before we ever ply the pen or keyboard and transpose thoughts from mind to page.  The aptitude for artfully stringing sentences together typically comes later.

Now inspiration comes in many forms, and creativity often strikes without warning.  But a handful of traits do not make a character.  A theme cannot serve as substitute for plot.  And a thin storyline can be stretched only so far.

In short, not every inkling is worthy of a novel.

Understanding how to combine concepts—knowing what to keep, what to lose, what to tweak—forms the roots of good writing.  Of course, all of the wonderful ideas in the world won’t amount to much on their own.  They must grow into something that can be experienced by the outside world.

Composition

At some point in our education, we all learn to write.  Common curricula tackle the basics (e.g., parts of speech, sentence construction, and proper punctuation) as well as the assembly of these verbal apparatuses into a purpose-driven piece.

Stories have a beginning, middle, and an end, and they typically contain a climax and a resolution.  Essays and research papers pose a hypothesis from the outset and are filled with arguments built upon evidence.  Etc., etc.

Writing is an art, yes, but those who neglect the science of it tend to turn readers off by breaking both documented and unspoken rules.  If you litter your prose with homophones, run-on sentences, repetitious words or phrases, and incomplete thoughts, your readers won’t take you seriously.

If you have any readers at all.

Then there are those who go beyond merely competent writing—those who work such wonders with words that there’s no doubt they were put on the planet to pursue this art form.  These writers conjure up mind-blowing metaphors and paint the most evocative imagery in the reader’s imagination.

The Craft

Both the sides of the craft—concept and composition—require creativity.  Neither half is inherently more important than the other.  They depend on each other.

Granted, there are some writers who could crank out a vignette about an everyman or everywoman simply plodding through life.  No extraordinary back story, no mind-blowing plot twist; just a series of otherwise unremarkable events.  If that author’s exquisite use of language pulls readers in and keeps them engaged, the style alone might transcend the mundane ideas behind the writing.

Likewise, a writer could come up with a brilliant concept—an unexplored aspect of the human condition or an intriguing new situation—and be found wanting when it comes to execution.  Maybe said writer could be forgiven for his or her shortcomings in the composition department if the ideas are compelling enough.  Maybe.

Most of the time, a writer must strive for mastery of both sides of the story before he or she is successful.

Depending too much on concept or composition will only reveal the weakness of the other.  Many readers won’t waste their time with a well-written but boring (or otherwise conceptually flawed) book.  And a writer who has an amazing concept but lacks the chops when it comes to composition can’t hope to do his or her idea justice.

The solution, unsurprisingly, is practice.  Challenge yourself to take your ideas to the next level.  Keep at those finger exercises, read and learn from better wordsmiths than yourself, and then watch your prose improve.

You’ll never get a straight answer when it comes to what makes “good writing” good.  But if you fail to deliver in either the concept or composition department (or both!), you’re bound to get an earful about what makes writing bad.

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Stories, songs make beautiful music together

While working on my third novel, I listened almost exclusively to The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack.

Given the idiosyncratic nature of the album’s songs — not to mention the idiosyncratic nature of the movie itself — it’s perhaps no surprise that a friend of mine once responded, “Man, what kind of weird stuff are you writing?”

It hadn’t occurred to me that the music I listen to while writing could impact the words on the page.  Oh, maybe I was stirred by a turn of phrase here, a shift in dynamics there.  But do I gravitate toward a quicker tempo during action scenes and softer sounds for more poignant plot points?  Hmm…

One thing I can safely say is that my Defenders of Valor, a battle-scarred sword-and-sorcery novel, bears absolutely no resemblance to Wes Anderson’s familial fracas.

[Editor’s note: the book was ultimately released with a different title: Martyrs and Monsters.]

This song perfectly captures the adversarial relationship between Vincent, the protagonist of my novel If Souls Can Sleep, and his brother Daniel.

Whereas some writers find music (or any background noise) a distraction, I am fueled by the creative energy imbued in most melodies.  Occasionally, I write in silence—if, for instance, I forgot to grab my iPod or I’m so wrapped up in a scene that I neglected to notice an album ended.

Otherwise, bring on the aural stimulation!

Maybe it’s because I’m so often inspired by lyrics when away from my keyboard.  A random line from a song can send my imagination soaring.  I might construct a narrative from the verses or create an entirely unrelated story from a minor theme.

Some of my favorite songwriters are those whose tunes “read” like a short story.  The Decemberists, They Might Be Giants, Regina Spektor, Jonathan Coulton — my mind can’t help but get swept away with their short sagas.

It’s like listening to literature.

More recently, the relationship between my love of writing and love of music took an interesting turn.  During the time it took me to draft, rewrite, and edit If Souls Can Sleep, I started collecting songs that reminded me of aspects of my story: a character, a setting, a confrontation.

Then, without quite realizing it, I created a playlist for my book:

  1. “Quicksand” by Travis
  2. “Who Needs Sleep?” by Barenaked Ladies
  3. “Save Yourself” by Tarkio
  4. “Days of Elaine” by The Decemberists
  5. “I’m Only Sleeping” by The Beatles
  6. “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse” by Of Montreal
  7. “Am I Awake?” by They Might Be Giants
  8. “Lucid Dreams (Reprise)” by Franz Ferdinand
  9. “Great Hosannah” by Kula Shaker
  10. “Tattva” by Kula Shaker
  11. “Brother” by Murder by Death
  12. “Rain” by Bishop Allen
  13. “If You Can’t Sleep” by She & Him

Now it’s not amazing that two different art forms would capture themes of alcoholism, sleep deprivation, and a strained relationships.  But when I listen to the unofficial soundtrack for If Souls Can Sleep, I can envision which scene each song would accompany.  Some of the songs fit almost too perfectly.

It makes me wonder what songs have inspired other authors and what kind of an effect it might have had on the stories themselves.

It also makes me wish that some of my favorite novelists would include a suggested soundtrack in the back of their books.  After all, storytelling can take many forms.  If moving pictures can have soundtracks, why not the written word?

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The tricky trek toward those two little words

In my experience, writing the end of a novel has to be the hardest part.  (Or, at least, the second hardest part.)

Sure, knowing where to start can be problematic.  Do you go with the proverbial “day that’s different”?  Should the protagonist’s pertinent backstory frame the front end of the piece or be peppered throughout the narrative?  Or both?

I’m sure most writers have more than a few false starts stashed on their hard drives.  The good news about bad beginnings is they tend to fizzle out suddenly and for the most part painlessly.  No harm, no foul.  Nothing to see here.  Move along to the next idea…

Of course, once you have a story that sticks, figuring out what should happen between the introduction and the resolution is no picnic either.  Too many details and deviations kill the pacing, but if you skimp on subplots and layers, your Great American Novel devolves into the awkward middle child sandwiched between long short story and a novella.

Sometimes you lose steam or wander far afield from where you thought you were headed.  The journey itself can be exciting, and when obstacles present themselves, you find a way to write around them.  Worst case scenario, you’ll tidy and tighten during the editing process.

But endings are the worst!  You wrote a beginning that promised to be worthy of your time and talents, something strong enough to support the string of chapters that follow.  If you used an outline, you always knew where the finish line lay.  Even if your plot has meandered a bit, had a good idea where your characters are going to end up by the final page.

Then again, maybe not.

It’s easy to start second guessing as the epilogue draws closer.  You’ve spent chapter after chapter building up to this moment.  Is the climax big enough?  Does the dénouement drag on too long?  Will the final sentence leave the reader with a sense of satisfaction or indifference?

The longer the novel, the more problematic those final decisions become.  A trilogy or longer saga raises the bar even higher, which might be one of the reasons why some authors choose to continue their epics indefinitely.  (The “never-ending story” phenomenon is a topic for another day.)

Yet when to call it quits and how to wrap it all up are irrevocably intertwined.  I’m reminded of this while watching commercials promoting the final season of three different TV series: 30 Rock, Fringe, and The Office.

Only time will tell whether the respective finales will flourish or fizzle.  But going into the home stretch, I approach each of them with very different expectations, and I believe there is something any writer of fiction can learn from the treatment of television endings.

In the case of The Office, I had already given up on the series, watching only a handful of episodes after the departure of show staple Michael Scott.  In my opinion, the series should have ended when actor Steve Carell walked.  My guess is that the network was hoping to squeeze a few more miles (and dollars) out of the mockumentary, and when profits didn’t look promising, they gave the once-successful show a chance to say goodbye as a mark of respect rather than unceremoniously canceling it.

I’m sure there are still plenty of people who want to say a proper farewell to Jim, Pam, Dwight, and the rest of the gang.

While The Office has been in decline, Fringe has weathered ups and downs, including (again, in my opinion) a ho-hum start.  My interest in this sci-fi rollercoaster follows a bell curve, and the most recent attempt to “restart” the story—an all-to-common occurrence thanks to parallel universes and alternate timelines—have left me wondering whether I can really care about characters when I’m no longer certain of their origins.

I might have stopped watching Fringe altogether this season if I didn’t know the end was near.  As it is, I’ll stay tuned simply to see whether the show can redeem itself as the clock winds down.  Any ending is better than none, I suppose.

30 Rock, on the other hand, has kept the laughs coming for six straight seasons, and I have no doubt that the seventh will leave me in stitches.  From my perspective, the show is going out on a high note, not so unlike a past NBC hit by the name of Seinfeld.  There’s something to be said for going out on a high note, and even though Seinfeld’s finale proved divisive (I personally thought it was genius), no one can argue that the writers and cast left on their own terms and with their high standards intact.

So how can a writer—whether a screenwriter or a novelist—know when to say when?  Is it better to leave the audience wanting more or to wrap everything up with a neat little bow?  Does the book deserve a sequel, or are you better off saying what you need to say in a single volume?

Obviously, there’s no one right answer to these questions.  Instinct, artistic integrity, trusted opinions, and trial and error—all of these things (and likely more) weigh into the decision.

For good or for ill, every author must choose where the story concludes and when to type those two final, fateful little words.

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