"Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul."
Some of the best story ideas arise when you shake up your regular process, challenge perceived notions and assumptions, and experiment. The following essay discusses my own attempt to use music, free writing, and discipline as part of a new process for creating story material. The results for me were successful and even profitable, so I decided to share them.
The Need for Change
I'm a very driven writer—
Freedom to Write
Normally when I'm burned out, I seek advice from other writing resources. After reading Lawrence Block's Write for Your Life, I was introduced to the idea of automatic writing. Essentially, you have a prompt, such as a first line or an image, and write non-stop for ten minutes with that as your inspiration. Don't worry about spelling mistakes or plots or characters—
I hated it.
At least, I thought I did. It sounded like "artsy fartsy," new age bullshit to me. I resisted the exercise for a long time, in part because I believed in all the tough guy writer myths about hammering, hammering, hammering until the story is done. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it is the best medicine. And sometimes it is like doing heart surgery with a flame thrower—
After a handful of ten minute sessions, some good, creative stuff began to flow. But I didn't like a lot of the prompts Block used. They made even this "artsy fartsy" exercise seem forced. I was too conscious that I was writing a story, and that triggered all my old reflexes, which was not helping me. I had to disentangle myself from those thoughts. What about using something more abstract than prompts? Something that might be a trapdoor to the story-mill inside my head, instead of hammering against the barricade?
Why not music?
The Secret Door to the Subconscious
Normally, I write in silence. I need the stillness to get inside the heads of my characters and their world, but since that wasn't working, I gave music a shot. I selected a series of instrumental albums of various moods and styles. My one attempt to listen to a CD with lyrics was a flop because the words of the singer kept getting in the way of my own, so I tried albums that featured an acoustic guitarist, a bizarre classical group, and a legendary jazz pianist and band leader.
The goal was to listen to the songs and write. Just write anything that came into my head. Images. Actions. Thoughts. Dialog. No objective. No goal. The point was to move away from all the writing lessons I'd read, all the laws of scene structure, and the bellowing voice of my internal editor. I wanted to just listen to the music and follow it where it led me.
Initially it felt stupid, and what was coming out was terrible. Then I realized why—
All of a sudden the screws in my temples loosened. Interesting stuff flowed. Vague story shapes emerged with wild images, people, scenarios and landscapes. And they lasted as long as the songs did. As a result, I'd finish a CD and I found that there were fourteen story vignettes, full of feelings and themes and a hodge podge of images from all over the map of my mind.
But they were not entirely random. Each vignette, no matter how wild or weird, could not have come from anyone else. There was enough Jay Ridler stuff in there that it was all mine, symbols and characters and environments that clearly fit within my work, but yet were manifestly different because they had been born through a different process than my standard operating procedure.
The same thing happened with each CD. The creativity got loose and ran wild and some good, primal stuff had come through. This was a fine reward after weeks of slogging and getting nowhere. It was freeing, exciting, and yet all still me, full of images and themes that were as far from "artsy fartsy" as Lawrence Block himself.
But these wild dollops were not stories. Not by a long shot. And some of it was rank awful, go-nowhere, half-brained nonsense. There was mood, theme, image, and movement—
From Vignette to Story in Mach Ten Blips
I examined the vignettes and found that out of each batch of ten or fourteen, about four or five were really compelling in some way. I grabbed the primo stuff and added some discipline. Remember, these were just vignettes. They weren't stories, even in the loosest sense of the term. They needed form; they needed substance.
I had had a desire to write flash fiction for a long time, and I had a sense that many of these vignettes would work well in that form. But I still didn't want to hammer at them in my usual manner. Instead, I spent the first ten minutes of my daily writing session attempting to "fast" write with these vignettes as the prompt. Fast writing, unlike automatic writing, is an approach to story production that does require attention to story structure and form, but at a high speed (also to avoid your internal editor from shooting down ideas before they take shape on the page). I used all the tools in my writing arsenal and got to work post haste. Instead of nit picking them to death though, I found my compass had turned. As I was cranking out the words with the vignettes in my head, stories were starting to take shape. The results took a week or so to bang out, another week to polish, and the end game was terrific. I'd written a handful of new stories, fresh and different, but as equally "me" as anything else I'd done. Not only had I found more enthusiasm for stories than I'd had in a long time, I'd found a new process to create even more stories. In short, I'd grown as a writer.
A Successful Conclusion
In terms of productivity, it was a boon. I spent three days listening and writing to music. I created fourteen possibilities on average with each session, for a total of forty two vignettes. I took five vignettes from each session and had fifteen story ideas waiting to be turned into fiction. If each takes a week to complete, that means that after fifteen weeks (four months) I could have fifteen stories where most writers working at a story a month have only four. Even if half of them are thrown away that is still seven or eight stories, or double what most folks do in the same amount of time. And it was fun and rewarding to do—
The end results were also successful. Two of these stories have already sold—
I hope that if anyone reading this is suffering from writer fatigue, block, or exhaustion, you can find some solace in this story. There is no one right way to write a story, but dozens. Sometimes what worked in the past cannot help you out of a current jam. If you're in such a state, maybe give this experimental road trip between freedom and discipline a shot. Find some music you can work with and groove on, and get started writing your own vignettes, then turn those vignettes into the stories only you could write. Hopefully, you'll end up with some great and published tales. Even if they don't turn into sales, the experience and growth of improving your craft through experimentation will likely do wonders for your skill set as a writer, and put some fun and excitement back into work that might have otherwise become stale. Maybe you'll find better variations on the process I mentioned, variations best suited to your own needs. Awesome. The key is to keep trying, finding, learning, experimenting and growing. That's how we up our game and come closer to becoming the writers we all want to be.