Writing Ritual and Routine

I always write to music, but a problem arose recently that made me question my writing ritual.

But I love writing with my headphones on, music blocking out the world around me. There’s no better way for me to strike the right mood in the WIP. I create a playlist for each book, with overlapping “series songs.” Songs I listen to only while writing books in that series. Since my series are vastly different so are the songs in each playlist.

As soon as I slide on the headphones, the music transports me back to my story world.

The problem I ran into recently was with writing true crime. I’d created a playlist for Pretty Evil New England. But for this new book I veered away from my usual writing routine and threw on Pandora.

Big mistake.

I struggled. The words wouldn’t come like they normally do. My mind felt cluttered and bogged down. Hence why I wrote my last post about multitasking and the brain. Frazzled, I panicked. Why I couldn’t reach “the zone” with my WIP? The beginning had been so easy, words flowing like Niagara, paragraphs in perfect harmony with one another. Had I finally lost my writing mojo?

The answer seemed clear. Only it wasn’t an answer I could accept. I emotionally degraded myself, exercised, read . . . I tried everything I could think of to breathe life into my muse, dying next to two unfinished WIPs. And yet, every time I slid on the headphones and clicked Pandora . . . total brain block.

After several grueling days (felt more like years), I stumbled across a blog post that advised writers never to listen to music unless it has no lyrics, background instrumental music. In other words, the total opposite of my music. But I’ve written all my books to music. What changed?

The metaphoric lightbulb blazed on.

By switching to Pandora, not knowing what song would play or when, my brain couldn’t interpret the music as white noise.

As soon as I went back to YouTube and clicked the playlist for Pretty Evil New England (since I’m writing true crime), my fingers could barely keep up with the flood of creativity.

I’m back!

Writers have writing rituals/routines for a reason. The ritual or routine encourages focus and has the ability to get us back on track if we drift off course. The familiarity snaps us out of the funk and reminds us that yes, we can finish the WIP, just as we’ve always done. It also allows the words to flow. Rituals help us find comfort and balance and sets the tone for a solid writing session. Routine is especially important. Employing a consistent writing routine can be the difference between hitting our word count or staring at a blinking cursor.

If your writing comes to a screeching halt for no apparent reason, a change within your writing ritual or routine may be to blame.

For me (obviously), it’s sliding on the headphones with a familiar playlist cranked. Emphasis on familiar. An argument could be made that I’m not really listening to music. Rather, the playlist morphs into white noise and acts as the gunshot to start the footrace. Although, strangely, I’ve tried the white noise app and it’s not nearly as effective (for me). All my research is done on my iMac, but I switch to my MacBook to write. This was a subconscious act. I wasn’t even aware of the ritual until I focused on changes within my writing routine.

For others, the writing ritual may include an environmental change, like shutting the door to the office or sitting outside in a special chair. Some writers trek to the local coffee shop or settle in at their designated desk in the university library. *waves to Garry*

Some of our most celebrated authors had/have consistent writing rituals and routines.

JAMES JOYCE

Joyce’s ritual included crayons, a white coat, and a comfy horizontal surface. For word flow, he would lay flat on his stomach in bed. Since he was severely myopic, crayons enabled Joyce to see his own handwriting more clearly, and the white coat served as a reflector of light.

MAYA ANGELOU 

In her own words:

I keep a hotel room in my hometown and pay for it by the month.

I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible. Usually a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles. Something to occupy my little mind.

I think my grandmother taught me that. She didn’t mean to, but she used to talk about her “little mind.”

So when I was young, from the time I was about 3 until 13, I decided that there was a Big Mind and a Little Mind. And the Big Mind would allow you to consider deep thoughts, but the Little Mind would occupy you, so you could not be distracted. It would work crossword puzzles or play Solitaire, while the Big Mind would delve deep into the subjects I wanted to write about.

I have all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room. I ask the management and housekeeping not to enter the room, just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded. About every two months I get a note slipped under the door: “Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linen. We think it may be moldy!

But I’ve never slept there, I’m usually out of there by 2. And then I go home and I read what I’ve written that morning, and I try to edit then. Clean it up.

TRUMAN CAPOTE 

The creative genius behind In Cold Blood was a superstitious man. Capote’s writing ritual often involved avoiding things like hotel rooms with phone numbers that included the number 13, starting or ending a piece of work on a Friday, and tossing more than three cigarette butts in one ashtray.

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.

No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

Even so, Capote stuck to his writing routine because it worked.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY 

In stark contrast to James Joyce, Hemingway was a firm believer in standing while writing. While working on The Old Man and The Sea, he followed a strict regimen.

“Done by noon, drunk by three.”

This entailed waking at dawn, writing furiously while standing, and eventually hiking to the local bar to get hammered.

JOAN DIDION 

Didion holds her books close to her heart—literally.  When she’s close to finishing a manuscript, she’ll sleep with her WIP.

“Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it.”

E.B. WHITE 

In his own words:

I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me.

KURT VONNEGUT 

Check out Vonnegut’s writing routine:

I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare.

When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not.

JODIE PICOULT 

Picoult doesn’t believe writer’s block exists:

Think about it — when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.

Wise words. I agree. Nothing motivates quite like a looming deadline, self-imposed or contracted.

DAN BROWN 

Most writers would do anything and everything to get rid of writer’s block. According to The Da Vinci Code novelist, Dan Brown hangs upside down to cure writer’s block. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But we can’t argue with the results. If Brown didn’t hang like a bat, imagine all the amazing thrillers we would have lost?

Bats can’t launch into flight until they’re upside down. Why not Dan Brown? He says he’s more productive and creative afterward. He also does push-ups and stretches every hour. Not only has he found the cure for writer’s block, he’s in tip-top shape.

Writers are complicated beings. 😉

Do you have a writing ritual and/or routine? Tell us about it.

My publisher ran a sale for Pretty Evil New England last week. Not sure how long the sale will last, but for now the ebook is $1.99 on Amazon.

Vonnegut’s Rule #5

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

A topic I’ve seen on forums and blogs is Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules of writing fiction. They’re worth reviewing and taking to heart. But his rule number 5 is the one that made the biggest impression on me. Rule number 5 is: Start your story as close to the end as possible. This is relevant for both the entire book and a single chapter. We often hear that the most common mistake of a new writer is starting the story in the wrong place.

Well, it happens to published writers, too. Lynn Sholes and I are guilty of drafting whole chapters that either occurred in the wrong place, or worse, weren’t even needed. Usually they turn out to be backstory information for us, not the reader. We go to the trouble of drafting a chapter only to find it’s to confirm what we need to know, not what the reader needs to know.

So if we apply Vonnegut’s rule number 5, how do we know if we’ve started close enough to the end? Easy: we must know the destination before we begin the journey. We must know the ending first.

To me, this is critical. How can we get there if we don’t know where we’re going? And once we know how our story will end, we can then apply what I call my top of the mountain technique. In my former career in the television postproduction industry, it’s called backtiming—starting at the place where something ends and working your way to the place where you want it to begin.

But before I explain top of the mountain, let’s look at the bottom of the mountain approach—the way most stories are written. You find yourself standing at the foot of an imposing mountain (the task of writing your next 100K-word novel), look up at the huge mass of what you are going to be faced with over the next 12 or so months, and wonder what it will take to get to the top (or end).

You start climbing, get tired, fall back, take a side trip, climb some more, hope inspiration strikes, get distracted, curse, fight fatigue, take the wrong route, fall again, paint yourself into a corner—and if you’re lucky, finally make it to the top. This method will work, but it’s a tough, painful way to go.

Now, let’s discuss the top of the mountain technique. As you begin to plan your book, even before you start your first draft, imagine that you’re standing on the mountain peak looking out over a grand, breathtaking view feeling invigorated, strong, and fulfilled. Imagine that the journey is over, your book is done. Look down the side of the mountain at the massive task you have just accomplished and ask yourself what series of events took place to get you to the top? Start with the last event—the grand finale— make a general note as to how you envision it. Then imagine what the second to the last event was that led up to the end, then the third from the last . . . you get the idea. It’s sort of like outlining in reverse.

This takes it a step further than Vonnegut’s rule number 5 by starting at the end and working your way to the beginning while you’re still in the planning stage. Guess what happens? By the time you’re actually at the beginning, you will have started as close to the end as possible. And you will see the logic and benefit of rule number 5.

Naturally, your plan can and probably will change. Your ending will get tweaked and reshaped as you approach it for real. But wouldn’t it be great to have a general destination in mind even from the first word on page one of your first draft?

__________________________

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What does your character want?

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By PJ Parrish

Many moons ago, when I was just starting out in this crime writing business, I wandered into a workshop at SleuthFest. That day, all I was looking for was a reason to not lurk alone in the lobby of the Deerfield Beach Hilton. Besides, I had two books under my belt that got some nice blurbs and some good reviews. So I thought that I had all the answers.

Man, was I wrong. And thank God I went into that workshop because it forever changed the way I wrote.

LesStandifordHeadShot

The workshop was conducted by Les Standiford and he was talking about creating memorable characters. Now, every writing conference has panels on this. Yada yada yada…don’t rely on stereotypes…blah blah blah…give them interesting backstories and dossiers…humanize your villain…make your hero fallible but likeable…same old same old.  And despite the fact Les Standiford had his own successful mystery series and was a celebrated fiction teacher, I didn’t think I was going to get anything new from his session. But then, as I sat in the back of room, half-dozing off the effects of last night’s cocktail party, Les said something that made the hairs on my neck stand up:

“Ask yourself one question of every character you create: What does he want?”

He had hit a nerve in my writer’s subconsciousness. Because although I had been writing about my cop hero Louis Kincaid for a while, I had never really thought hard about what Les was talking about. So as I sat there in that hot crowded room, I asked myself:

What did Louis want?

Well, he wanted to solve the case! He wanted to find the men in the small Mississippi town who, thirty years ago, had lynched a black man and left his bones in a shallow grave in a swamp.

{{{{Loud sound of buzzer going off}}}}}

Okay then, Louis was a rookie who really needed a job and wanted to impress his new boss, the sheriff.

{{{{Buzzer}}}}

Well, dammit, Louis felt compelled to find the identity of the lynching victim and bring him peace.

{{{Close but no cigar}}}}

Okay, okay. Let me think hard about this. Wait…Louis is biracial. He was born in Mississippi but was fostered out to a white family in Michigan. He walks, uneasily, in two worlds. Could this be about him finding his “black” past, forgiving his mother for abandoning him and coming to terms with the white father who deserted him?

{{{You’re the writer. What do you think?}}}

I think that what Louis wants is to find himself. Twelve books later, both he and I are still looking. But way back when, I thought I had all the answers. That day I walked into Les Standiford’s class, I didn’t even have the right questions.

What does your character want?

It sounds like an easy question. But if you’re doing this novel writing this right, the answer isn’t so easy. Kurt  Vonnegut famously said, “Every­one wants some­thing on every page, even if it’s only a glass of water.“  That is true even of minor characters, but when you’re talking about your lead role players, I think you have get to the very bottom of that water glass.

Dead Poets

Are we talking about character motivation here? Well, yes, I suppose so. Les Standiford, Vonnegut and all great writers and teachers tells us we must plumb the depths of our character’s hearts and heads to find out what makes them tick. But it’s more than that. I think why Les’s question made an impact on me was because it forced me to come at the old question from a different angle. It’s sort of like when Robin William’s character John Keating in Dead Poets Society climbs atop his desk and tells his students, “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”

The first step of character development is figuring out what passions, fears, regrets, or desires consume your character. Then, all you have to do is show him interacting with his setting and other characters in a manner consistent with those possible “motives.”

What Les was asking us to do was to go beyond the surface, to dig deep and deeper to find out what was the one essential consuming need of each character. Think of character motivation as having levels. Yes, you can get published by going no deeper than defcon 1 or 2 in character development. But what happens if you push yourself to take just a couple more steps down into the darkness?

Speaking of going into creepy basements, let’s go to a simple example: Silence of the Lambs. If you’ve read Thomas Harris’s book, you know how effective the author was at descending into the lowest rungs of every character’s motivations. But even the movie did a pretty good job at this. Let’s dissect our heroine:

What does Clarise Starling want?

Level 1: She wants to solve the case. She wants to find Buffalo Bill. (basic thriller plot)

Level 2: She wants to prove she can hang with the big boys of the FBI. (basic thriller with feminist theme)

Level 3: She wants to escape her suffocating southern small-town roots and the FBI was a ticket out of hicksville. Remember how impressed one of the victim’s girlfriends was with Clarise’s job? (Basic thriller with feminist theme and rich backstory.)

Level 4: She wants to impress her boss-mentor Jack Crawford. (basic thriller with feminist theme, good backstory and father-figure character interplay.)

Level 5: She wants to validate herself as being worthy of her father’s legacy because he was a cop killed in action. She gets approval by proxy via Crawford, who tells her at the end that her father would have been proud of her.  (Now this is getting interesting!)

Level 6: She wants to make the lambs stop screaming. Cool…But what does this mean psychologically? Clarise is haunted by a childhood memory of hearing lambs being slaughtered. I have always read this as her attempt to exorcise her demons of abandonment, her human need to deal with existential loneliness, her way of pushing back against the black void. “I thought if I could only save just one,” she tells Lector. She’s talking about saving Buffalo Bill’s victims, but isn’t she really talking about herself?

(While we are at it, has anyone else noticed how eerily similar Silence of the Lambs and Jodie Foster’s other movie Contact are in character themes? Both are smart, emotionally fragile women raised by fathers then orphaned, both manipulated by brilliant outcast men. And both women are staring into the vast blackness and hoping they are not alone.)

Let’s go to another example. What does Captain Ahab want in Moby-Dick?

Level 1: He wants to catch the whale that maimed him. (Simple story of revenge).

Level 2: He wants to prove to his crew and himself that even though he’s got one leg, he is still a man. (He even smuggles his own crew onboard just in case.)

Level 2: He wants to strike out against the pacificism of his Quaker religion. Not so simple theme that’s right here in this passage:

The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;—Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.

Level 3: He wants to vanquish evil, what he calls “the inscrutable thing.” And he’s not sure God is on his side or even exists. He’s like Hamlet, looking for some metaphysical truth in all the madness. And I am sure Peter Benchley had Ahab in mind when he created Quint the shark hunter in Jaws.  Both men are nuts but sort of magnificent. Which is why they had to die.

So here’s what I’d like to leave you with. The next time you think about your characters’s motivations, go deeper. Think hard and long, applying great gobs of elbow-grease of the mind. Don’t be content with staying on the top levels. Don’t skim the surfaces.

MSDSIOF EC076

Don’t be afraid to descend to the very bottom rung and enter that dank dark basement of the human soul. That’s where you find the good stuff.