Writing to music

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I had an amazing writing day the other day. Words flowed out of me in a way I’d been working towards for a while.

What did I do differently that day? I asked myself. It took me a while to work out what it was, but I’d spent the morning doing physical work and listening to music  – my Best Songs Eva playlist. I’ve been experimenting since then with listening to music before and during writing. This is what I found:

  1. Music inspires
    Art feeds art, and music can inspire you to write in a new way.  Choose the right playlist to arouse, impel, exalt, animate, fill  you (you get the idea) with feeling,  openness and receptivity and let it flow out of you onto the page.
  2. Music enhances mood and creativity
    There’s something about listening to the right kind of music to get your neurons and synapses firing. I had to write about something based in personal pain, which I hadn’t been looking forward to. But it flowed out of me with an honesty I was flawed by, and surprisingly it was less painful than I’d expected. My word combinations were also new and exciting. I came up with language I didn’t know I had in me. Some of it needed paring back, but it was a great start. Music seemed to be my muse.
  3. Great lyrics help language
    Music with great lyrics – by that I mean words combined in a new way to create meaning and impact greater than their sum – can make you think about language in a new way, just like reading a classic book by a great author. It’s about looking at language through someone else’s eyes to spark new ways of using it yourself. It’s also about absorbing compelling language in an unconscious way that will hopefully show up on the page.
  4. Music can block distractions and create focus
    Some people use music to block out other distractions. I didn’t find this myself, but it definitely gave me greater focus and single-mindedness.
  5. Write while listening to music?
    This is OK for me, but not ideal. I found it interfered with the music of my words, sentences and paragraphs. That said many people swear by it so experiment to work out what’s best for you.
  6. Or listen to music before you write?
    This works best for me and it’s how I plan to go on using music. I’m working on creating playlists for certain moods I want to create in my writing. But really, anything that moves me seems to inspire. What works best for you?

Should you write every day?

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I’ve been tussling with this one for a while. Some people are happy writing when the mood takes them and produce plenty of work they’re satisfied with. Others find weekly word quotas work for them. I thought I was one of those people. But if that’s the case, why did I struggle to get back into my manuscript after a weekend break?

Over the last two weeks I’ve attempted to write every day, which I largely managed except for one day. Here are the things I discovered:

  1. Writing is a committed relationship
    When writing a story, whether fiction or creative non-fiction, it’s as though you’re in a long-term relationship with your characters and story. By dedicating daily time to spend with your work you’re remaining connected. That means it’s easier to pick up where you left off the previous day. Your work is fresh, alive and growing, like a plant you have to water daily for it to thrive. Also, the characters and story stay with you, which means you’re more likely to be working on them at a subconscious level. It’s all about maximising your flow.

    The other point about writing being a committed relationship is that if you treat it well like you would a loved partner, your writing becomes less like work and more like fun. With your story and character connection strong, you’re happier to nurture and spend time with them. This has to be a productive thing.

  2. Set time aside, even if you don’t write
    By setting time aside every day, be it half an hour or two, you’re allowing the possibility of writing to happen. You’re receptive and open to the possibility, like you’ve put the kettle on or wine bottle in the fridge in anticipation of a good friend’s visit. This is about giving your characters permission to speak and allowing your story to move forward as it needs. Perhaps they don’t turn up on the day, but by creating the space you’re extending a welcoming hand. You never know what might happen.
  3. Form the habit
    There are loads of myths out there about how many days of repeating something it takes become you form a habit, but my research showed the correct number is sixty-six. If writing becomes a habit, you’re more likely to do it regardless of your mood or circumstances or other forms of resistance. Do first, think later.
  4. Write little and often
    You’ve probably heard the maxim that goes something like, ‘Don’t write a lot, but write often’. I’ve been doing a lot of this—an hour’s writing, half and hour of something else, another half an hour of writing and so on. For me it takes the pressure off having to sit down for hours, taking on large chunks of work, big themes and major events etc.. I can attack my work in bite-sized pieces and come back refreshed and willing to write the next bit.
  5. It feels better
    Writing is an outlet and a purpose, and on the days I write I simply feel better. I feel more me, more grounded, more satisfied. I’m not sure I’ll write every day, but most days seems to work well for me at the moment. Try it for yourself.

How long’s a piece of string or how many REWRITES should you do?

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You thought your novel was finished. Did you send it out to publishers who rejected it? Or did you put it away for a while like you’re supposed to and realised months later it needed more work?

What to do? This is the point where plenty of people self publish. If you’re convinced — and others in the know are too — that your novel is ready, then go ahead. But if you see problems with your manuscript and are serious about your writing (as in you want to continually improve it), you have other options.

You could shelf it. You could see your story as a learning experience and move on to the next project with a sense of liberation. On the other hand, is there a voice in our head niggling at you to keep going until you get it right? Perhaps your story is too good to let go or you’re simply stubborn that way.

1.  Should you rewrite?

Recently I’ve been considering whether to rewrite my first novel again after already having rewritten it twice. I’ve had six months away from it, which has given me a new perspective on its strengths and weaknesses. 

There might be things you can learn by rewriting and improving your novel. For example, in writing my new novel I’ve been working hard on improving my style and other aspects of craft, which I could apply to my old story.

When discussing this with a friend, however, they suggested that after three versions and much time, I should give the old story up and move on; I should focus instead on finishing my current novel. Are they right?

2.  When should you let your manuscript go?

There are situations when you might consider giving up your novel such as:

  • You can’t finish the story, it ran out of steam and there’s nowhere to go
  • You’ve lost your passion for it and you can’t get it back even though you’ve honestly looked at everything that might be blocking you such as structure, style, voice, character etc.
  • It’s just not working despite having rewritten it umpteen times. Perhaps you’re too close to the story or you’re being held back by the first draft, which you wrote when you were less experienced
  • It’s destroying your love for writing after many attempts at rewrites. Ask yourself, is it worth it?
  • You’ve put it away for months, tried to rewrite it and you have nothing more to give. Your story is dead.

I’m not at the point where I’m ready to let go of my first story. So what now?

3.  How to rewrite your story for the umpteenth time and not lose your will to write:

  • Apply new craft skills such as  improving dialogue, heightening conflict, adding nouns and verbs, creating a compelling first page, showing not telling and so on. Really get into the words and challenge your grasp of technique. I love this stuff, even if it’s hard. It keeps me from getting bored.
  • Change your manuscript sufficiently so the process becomes engaging again. Don’t just edit, which is where you tighten your manuscript by moving line by line from the beginning to the end. Rewriting involves meatier processes like adding, subtracting or deepening characters, making structural changes such as moving chapters or the order of events, and cutting large sections. Rewriting involves prioritising problems by issue, not fixing the smaller stuff in a straight.

I’ll let you know how this goes in six month’s time. I’m encouraged by author Richard Flanagan’s struggle with his Man Booker prizewinning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which took him numerous attempt over many years in various formats before he created something he considered publishable. The story was problematic, I suspect, because it was close to him, which is my challenge too.

My only decision now is should I burn/trash every single earlier version like he did before starting afresh? This sounds dangerous and scary, but possibly liberating. What do you think?