Archive for July, 2009

Serial – Episode 6 of “20th”

Lynn hung back from him, letting her arm be carried along in his hand, but keeping her feet planted. It struck Tim as an odd time to be reticent. As far as Lynn should have been concerned, she is dealing with a boyfriend who is mourning the loss of two parents who wants to discuss something important.

“I’m not trying to be funny or anything. We have things we need to talk about.”

“Oh, I know. And I want to talk to you about whatever it is. But I don’t want to keep them waiting too long.”


Tim was taking enough of a risk bringing Lynn into things. He couldn’t think of anyone else that he would consider wanting to have around. But he could think of someonewho would jump at the chance to be around and not have it be his fault.

“Dave,” he said. He shook his head. Dave had been asking for years if he could accompany Tim around on one of his birthdays, as if it was a road trip he was going to be taking and he was leaving Dave out of the fun. He had never attempted to crash before, presumably because it would be difficult to follow Tim around if he didn’t want to have a shadow. But today would be different. Dave was invited, and by Lynn. Which meant that he could play innocent and invite as many people as he could, making it harder and harder for Tim to just ditch him and take off on his own.

And he knew it wouldn’t just be Dave.

Lynn turned back to the door and pulled it open. From outside, Tim heard Dave call out. “Is it now? Are we yelling surprise now? Did I screw it up?” A smattering of confused yells of “Surprise!” followed. As Tim had suspected, Dave had brought the Crew.

Dave was a far more active individual than Tim had ever been. He exercised. He ran. He hiked and climbed and played after-work sports. He karted and paintballed and bungeed. In the pursuit of these myriad activities, he picked up a fairly odd assortment of companions. Tim never had much cause to be exposed to them. They were mostly present for activities that he had no interest in taking part of. The few times he was surrounded by them at parties he found them both enthusiastic and abrasive. Features he expected frequently went hand-in-hand.

Dave peeked his head around the door jamb a few seconds later, looking impish, though clearly of the mind that this was his sheepish face. Tim wanted to slap him.

“Surprise,” Lynn said, distracting Tim from his anger with Dave. She was of course picking up the vibe that he was not pleased.

“Did you bring the Crew?”

“Just a couple people, it’s cool,” Dave said, hands already out and placating.

“A couple?”

“Like five.”

From outside: “Did we say it loud enough?” “Say it louder this time.” “Surprise!”

“Will you give us a second?” Tim asked to Lynn. He grabbed Dave’s arm and pulled him inside the house, still wearing the grin he was convinced said that he was sorry, and towards his bedroom. Tim gave the door a bit of a slam and regretted it immediately, but just for a moment.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“Happy birthday.”

“Why would you think being cute would suddenly make the slightest bit of difference to me?”

“Just take it easy, everything will be cool.”

Tim pointed to the sheet of paper on the back of his door. Dave groaned.

“Man, you bust that thing out every year before your birthday. It’s so morbid. Why do you bother? You’ve got all that shit memorized anyway. Like you should want to remember it anyway.”

“That shit on there is my life. It’s my family and friends dead and gone.”

“Yeah and it’s winning the lottery and picking up a chick and getting cash and prizes. You only talk about the sad stuff.”

“The sad stuff?”

Dave nodded at his sage wisdom, eyeballing Tim meaningfully.

“You brought the Adventure Crew.”

“I did.”

“So which one of them would you be comfortable having die today? Anyone you’re not fond of? Or maybe you’ve decided you’ve had enough running around, is that it? Would this make you an accessory to manslaughter?”

Dave waved his hand in dismissal. “That’s all melodrama, man. You never know what will happen each year, you just expect it to be death. Sometimes it’s amazing stuff.”

“Why did you bring them here? Why did you come?”

“Amazing stuff, man. I ask every year and I got tired of hearing no. And the Crew came because they’re kind of your groupies now.”

“What did you tell them Dave? Did you tell them? I swear to you—“

“Relax. I didn’t tell them shit. I told them you were struck by lightning once and you won the lottery and then made up a bunch of stories about cool shit you’d done before. They ate it up. I convinced them that adventure follows you and, being the Adventure Crew, they demanded to ride on your coattails.”

“This is so stupid.”

“We’ll talk tomorrow about how stupid it all is.”

Tim sat on his bed and ran his hands through his hair. He was heaping stress on top of his stress and was already beginning to feel the fatigue from his lack of sleep.

“I saw Janet this morning.”

Dave made the universal hands-in-the-air gesture for “so what”, and then followed Tim’s eyes as he stared at the list on the back of the door.

“Oh! Oh. Heavy.” He sat down next to the bed with Tim. “We all go a little crazy sometimes, man. You’ve had to put up with more shit than most, and you’ve got this weird curse going. Look, I’m sorry I crashed your day and I’m sorry I brought the Crew. I just figured you shouldn’t always be alone all the time. It’s not good for you and I thought if I showed you a good time today maybe things would change.”

Crazy. Dave had kept talking, but that word hovered around Tim’s ears and kept him from absorbing much else. He hadn’t really stopped to consider that possibility. He’d finally snapped. Visions. Paranoia. Maybe today would be the day that he would be committed to the asylum.

“It was so real, though. She told me that I could find her.”

Dave clapped him on the shoulder and leaned in close.

“Well then let’s find her, man.”

No Comments

Braaaaaaaaaiiiiins to help your Brains

Zombies might be the perfect tool to help improve pacing and dramatic tension in your writing. I’ve been reading Robert Kirkman’s excellent The Walking Dead comics and had been remarking to my friends on how they are more or less a non-stop cascade of bad things that happen to the main characters. I thought about this, as I’ve been trying more and more to not just read and enjoy but to study and absorb the material I look at, and I realized that it’s not just bad things that happen to the cast of characters in The Walking Dead. It’s a steady and increasing wave of highs and lows, which any writing text book will tell you is the core of a solid dramatic experience.

Stories about zombies are the perfect avenue to explore action, drama and pathos in your writing. The zombie world is one that is fraught with danger, filled with human emotion and human madness, has opportunities for hope to bloom and then be dashed against the ground, and is wide open enough for you to never run out of options. There are many scenarios that you can write that meet these criteria, but none that are as easy to jump directly into as the zombie apocalypse.

There are many features of the zombie scenario that make it writer-friendly. Everyone understands the zombie. We know what it is and what it does and what it means. It’s horrifying without being too abstract and the zombies are quite clearly us and that makes for some great thematic fodder. No one needs to understand what caused the zombie outbreak. Most great zombie films never address this. It could be supernatural, it could be scientific. It could be an accident, it could be evolution. You don’t need to ever explain it, but discussing what brought it about can fill pages upon pages. It doesn’t need to end, either. You don’t have to wrap up the zombie apocalypse. Your hero doesn’t need to save the day. In fact, if you’re doing it right, chances are your hero won’t survive. You’re able to craft a tidy little ending by leaving things wide open with a zombie story (well… to an extent).

Constantly ratcheting a story up to more and more tense situations can be difficult to sustain in many writing scenarios. There comes a point where you simply cannot top yourself anymore and you must revert to gimmicks or just plain end your story. With a zombie outbreak, there’s simply no limit to the heights and depths you can expand to. Maybe you start small with your hero never being able to return home, but then they find a warehouse to hide in and friends to stay with. Then a friend is bitten and they have to flee and lose companions in the process. Then they find a car to escape in, but the car soon runs out of gas. They find a gas station, but in a scuffle with some zombies end up blowing up the gas station, which brings a zombie horde running. They escape the horde, but end up leading them right to a school where children are hiding out. They help the children escape but…

You can go on and on and on and explore just about any permutation for relationships or scenario for danger that you wish. Characters can fall in love, develop neuroses, become psychotic, start to hallucinate, some will rise to be heroes, others will fall and become villains, children are born and lost, societies can rise and fall. You can do all of this and more and do it with relative ease because people will understand. The zombie scenario itself presents a plausible background for everything. The hero all of a sudden cracks and starts trying to kill his friend… we understand, a zombie just killed his daughter, so he snapped. Or he’s seen so many zombies he can no longer differentiate the living from the dead. Or he’s in some form of psychotic state. The stresses of this world setup are so extreme, you can take the story virtually anywhere and your audience will come along with you.

Consider the zombie story next time you’re looking to beef up your ability to carry a plotline along a steadily rising wave of action. It’s the perfect way to explore amazing highs and absurd lows for your story in a manner that will remain compelling.

And consider this your hint for what I’ll be tackling eventually for my Friday fiction.

No Comments

Give it a Shot

First off, my photos from Comic-Con collected and presented by way of a sort of “my dog ate my homework” for Friday’s lack of post and Wednesday’s dearth of content.

Day 1, Day 2, Day 3

And now, to business.

Comic-Con illustrated several things to me. I came to realize that geeks are at once the most cynical and most hopeful of people. This was most clearly demonstrated to me during the Heroes panel I visited. The show is, let’s be honest, not what it once was. Last season was largely frustrating due to glimpses of brilliance amid a sea of confusion, and ratings were dropping and fans were getting twitchy. But these same fans went absolutely nuts for the season 4 previews we were given… myself included.

It also proved to be a somewhat magical weekend for one Oliver Grigsby.

I’ve been pimping Ollie’s recent work for web-giant Penny-Arcade around on Twitter, Facebook and Friendfeed, but I don’t think I covered it much here. Penny-Arcade is the kind of phenomenon that is hard to explain to people who are not geeks and do not read webcomics. If web sites were movie stars, Penny-Arcade would be Johnny Depp. At the mere mention of URL in the newspost on their site, they can destroy webservers. To illustrate this, when Ollie’s site was mentioned on Penny-Arcade’s site in conjunction with announcing his stint as guest-author for a 4-comic arc (first guest author ever in 10 years of the site, by the way) he received 50,000 unique site hits in the span of 48 hours. Penny-Arcade can make or break a reputation in the geek world, as fans set their watch and warrant by the opinions of its creators. The site has made Ollie’s reputation.

So am I just here to go on and on about my best friend? There is a point. This all came about because Ollie took a shot in the dark.

He wrote a query.

Covering the best way to write and format a query is a matter for another time, but what’s important here is that Ollie went ahead and wrote one. Penny-Arcade is huge. This would be like walking up to Spielberg and telling him you’d like to take a shot at directing a few scenes in his next epic… and then he walks you over to a chair, sits down and says he’d love to hear what you have to say.

Writers everywhere stymie themselves. They say that a project is too big or they’re not good enough or that too many other people will be applying and they just do nothing. You’ve got to play to win, though. If you have an idea and you want to go for it, there’s no reason not to throw it out there and see if someone else likes it as well. The worst that will happen is they say “No, thanks.”

Everyone assumes rejection is for amateurs and it happens because they’re not good enough. Ask a professional screenwriter, though. If they’ve made five movies, they have 25 more that got show down out of hand. Sure, it’s possible that talent is what separates you from them, but the key difference is that they put all 30 of those scripts out there.

So when you see a contest that you think you could win or a job you think you’d be great for or if you have an idea that you think someone could really benefit from—write it. Send it in. Pitch it. At worst, things stay as they are. At best…


The Non-Post

As advertised, I’ve been destroyed by a full day at the Con, and then a full 20 minutes or so of driving around to try and find a parking space outside my apartment.

At any rate, I promised photos, so photos there shall be.

My gallery via my Facebook.

A small IMDB album from Preview night and Day 1.

Highlights so far?

Randomly running into Dennis Miller wandering the exhibit hall. Catching Kristin Bell at the Astro Boy panel. The Dr. Horrible viewing complete with total fan sing-along action and Rocky Horror style fan callbacks at the video. More updates on Monday!

For now… sleep.

No Comments


With enough hard work, burnout is inevitable. It doesn’t matter how much preparation you’ve done or how well you’ve blocked out your time (well… that’s not entirely true, but that’s what I’m going to talk about today, so I’m taking a liberty). If you’re always firing on all cylinders, you’re going to wear down. So, how to combat it?

You don’t.

It’s the old adage: all things in moderation. This includes work. I don’t care if you’re on deadline. If you have burned out, you need to stop. Read a book. Watch a movie. Get some dessert. Do something you enjoy and do only that for as long as it takes for you to feel on top of things again. If you’ve got something due in a few hours, just reduce your break time. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you don’t need a break or cannot afford a break, though. You can’t afford NOT to take a break. Trying to play through the pain is just going to result in shoddy work or, worse yet, greater injury. Stress will break you down both mentally and physically (as it did recently with one super-worker I know who came down with pneumonia).

In that spirit, this post is going to be a short one, as I’ve been feeling the burn. Between my day job and my writing responsibilities, I’ve been fairly well slammed and with Comic Con coming up this weekend, it’s not looking like my pace will slacken much during the day. So at night I’m going to try to work as little as possible. I need this time to rest and recuperate so that I can stay on track overall.

I may have to put off my fiction post this week so that I can make sure I’m not writing up something that’s lacking… but I promise if I don’t have that up, I’ll have as many wacky Comic Con photos as I can cram into a post.

No Comments

Gotta Catch ‘Em All

As with Pokémon, it’s important to capture all your ideas as you have them. They are wily and fleeting and if you don’t wrangle them as they crop up, you run the risk of losing them forever. Some ideas will keep returning to you, but there are some that may have been triggered by something very specific or cropped up suddenly in the midst of other thoughts and if you miss them, they’re just gone.

To avoid those ideas sneaking off, it’s best to make sure you have a bag of tricks to snare them and keep them around for when they’ll be useful to you. Some of these items are pretty standard. But a few are more gadget-based ideas that you may want to consider. Here’s a good run-down of things you’ll want to have.

Pen and Paper – A notebook and something to write in it with. Ubiquitous. Just something you need to have. Take it with you to work. Keep it in your glove compartment. Carry if with you in your bag. A small notepad is a good idea for times when you won’t have something like a larger back to carry around. This way you can fit it in your pocket and not worry about needing to tote something everywhere.

Smartphones are doing a solid job at being excellent overall capture devices, but I still find them too cumbersome to really use for an extended period of time. The speed I can write far outstrips the pace at which I can thumb-type.

Voice Recorder – This is something I consider a must-have for the car. Long car rides are often where I do my best thinking. I make the trip up into the Los Angeles area from San Diego quite a bit. It’s a straight shot up the freeway and can take anywhere from two to three hours. I know the drive well, so my mind can wander quite a bit. The time to sit and think (see Colin Wright’s 20 Minutes of Awesome) and listen to some thought-provoking music can lead to some great ideas. However, you can’t write them down and because you’re stuck in a car (and just pulling off to the side of the road to jot something down is not a great idea), you’re apt to lose great ideas before you reach your destination.

A voice-recorder here is the perfect save. Just grab the recorder, hit the record button and start talking. You’ll be able to get every little nuance just as you want it. MP3 recorders can store a ridiculous amount of audio content as well. For about $40, you can get a Sony digital voice recorder that will record 280 hours of audio. That’s over 11 straight days of audio. So, if you really needed to, you could narrate yourself a few novels.

Again, smartphones will perform this function as well, but not as cleanly. It can be dangerous, while driving, to snag your phone and navigate your way through its menus to find the right function and then queue up a recording. With the digital recorder, you just hit the red button on the front and you’re good to go. However, applications like Evernote will not only record voice (among other things), they will also upload them to a central web location that can then be synced down to any other machine you have Evernote set up on. Pretty useful.

Part of the problem with voice notes, however, is transcription. It can be a hassle to rattle of twenty minutes of chatter and then have to head home and spend twice that time trying to write it all down. I haven’t found a great capture device/solution that will go speech-to-text in an all-in-one solution (let me know if you have one!), but you can always just snag something like Dragon NaturallySpeaking and have it do the heavy lifting for you. Fire up the application, open your word processor, hit play on  your recorder and then go make a sandwich.

Digital Camera – This is something that I will say you can probably get away with having your smartphone for, if you have one. Many ideas are prompted by something visual. A place or building or tree, anything. You might not need 10 megapixel clarity, but just something to trigger your memory, or allow you to get the general details of the scene that you can flesh out more on your own later. Digital cameras run pretty cheap these days (a decent Powershot will run you about $100) and are great and ever increasingly compact, but they can be tricky to juggle all the time unless you always have something to carry one in.

With these three items in your possession, you should be able to keep track of all those brilliant ideas. Write them, speak them, photograph the inspirations.

No Comments

Serial – Episode 5 of “20th”

Tim waited on the floor, still recovering. It was too early for this to be some random solicitor, but still he hoped. From outside he heard a faint “Hello?” in Lynn’s voice. He hadn’t been wrong to expect her, and he knew she would be aware he was home still. His car was out front. He needed to recover. Quietly as he could, he unlocked the door, hoping she wouldn’t hear the click as the mechanism disengaged.

He sent moved quickly to the bathroom just across from his bedroom and closed the door. He waited for a second set of knocking.

“It’s open!”

He heard the turning of the handle as she entered. “Where are you?”

“In the bathroom, just getting ready.”

“Well, happy birthday, butthead.”

“Right. Thanks,” he called. He ran the water in the sink and stared at himself in the mirror. He didn’t look like a crazy person. He maybe led the life of someone crazy, or certainly the life of someone destined for insanity, but he didn’t feel that he’d crossed that line yet. But then what had just happened to him? Did he have an episode. Janet felt so real, but the whole thing was so surreal.

“That doesn’t sound very cheery.”

More to the matter at hand, he still looked like a man who had seen a ghost. He splashed water on his face and rubbed it vigorously. Grabbing a nearby towel, he dried his face in a similarly aggressive fashion. His face looked a bit more lively, if splotchy now. He replaced the towel and stood in front of the bathroom door, breathing deeply. He needed to be careful. Lynn hadn’t been filled in on a lot of his past, and certainly not on the significance of this day for Tim.

Out in the living room, he heard her plop down onto the couch, followed shortly by the sound of a zipper being undone. Tim was about to wonder if considering recent events he would be up for a bit of friskiness in the early morning when he remembered the backpack on the couch. Stocked for a day of potential emergencies. It was not the kind of thing a man just heading in to work would have with him.

He opened the door and stepped out into the hall. Lynn had placed a small wrapped package on his coffee table, but was now poking at the contents of the backpack, as Tim had feared.

“Good morning.”

“Looking a little bleary-eyed there, birthday boy.

“Early day.”

“For both of us. You said you’d have to work, but I don’t buy that whole celebrate the day after stuff. So. Surprise.”

“You didn’t have to get me a present.”

“Shut up. After a year, you get a present. Maybe that’s not all you get, either.”

“I do have to go into to work.”

“What’s with the backpack?” And there it was.

“I was just organizing some things. Moving stuff around.”

“And storing it all in here? You’re like Survivor Man in there.”

Tim laughed and hoped it sounded more natural to her than it did to him. This was very rapidly turning into something that he felt as if he should be able to handle in a suave fashion but was failing to do so entirely. He turned to find his laptop bag so he could busy himself with packing that up in an effort to look busy.

“These water bottles are still cold.”

“Yeah?” He braced himself and tried to think of what he would say in response.

“Were you going somewhere?”

The playfulness was gone from Lynn’s voice now. There was suspicion there. Tim had the fleeting thought that the fact she wasn’t suspicious immediately spoke to her good nature. He had to stall.

“What?” Brilliant.

“You heard me.”

“I’m going to work. I told you.”

“Why would you need to bring all this gear to work?”

And then he was a deer in headlights. He stood, scratching at the back of his head and, he knew, looking all too much like he was trying to come up with something believable to say.

She got up off the couch and approached him with an inquisitive and pained tilt of her head. It was the look of a hurt woman and Tim, who had yet to be in what he would consider a mature relationship, half expected that what he would hear next was some form of ultimatum.

Guilt and relief washed over him simultaneously. Emotional involvement was always something Tim felt was akin to signing a death warrant. He couldn’t tell himself what he felt for her was love, but he couldn’t tell himself it was anything else, either.

A breakup then would be a blessing. She wouldn’t be blown up or kidnapped or murdered or raped or stuck in a car that was sinking to the bottom of a lake. She would just break up with him because he was a bad boyfriend and after a year of it, on a day when she had tried to surprise him and be sweet, she had had enough.

“Is this about your parents?”

Or not. But she had provided the excuse that was so obvious that he was amazed he didn’t think of it himself. More guilt at that. His parents’ deaths, reduced to a convenient ruse for his girlfriend.

“I just try to get out, be on my own a bit.”

“And I’m messing that all up. I’m sorry.”

She turned red and turned, reaching for her purse. “I should go. We can just celebrate tomorrow.”

“Wait. No. It’s fine. Stay.”

“It’s fine. I don’t know what it must be like to have lost parents. I’m not mad or anything. I’d never be that girl.”

“I mean it. Stay”

Tomorrow. Lynn assumed that there would be a tomorrow. And why shouldn’t she? She lived in a world where they would both be fine tomorrow and everything would be the same. They would be young and in love and they’d get dinner and watch a DVD and unwrap presents. He didn’t want the last day that either of them saw each other to be one where Tim brushed her off for any reason.

He also couldn’t have her stay with him for the day and not warn her. Maybe after he was done, that breakup would be coming anyway.

“Come on, I need to show you something in the bedroom.”

“That’s a big 180.”

Tim shook his head. “I’ve got a poster I need to show you. And then we need to talk.”

No Comments

Stalking for Fun and Profit

When you’re trying to become a writer, irregardless of the specific field in question, it’s good idea to be a bit of a stalker as well. The internet, I’m sure you’ve heard, offers a great many ways to get information. It also has given a great many ways to give information. Writers like to share, so this means that there is a ton of information out there for you to absorb.

So get out there, and start stalking. When you’re dealing with some of the real luminaries—the Stephen King’s or Dan Brown’s or John Grisham’s—you’re not going to get much but a PR storm. That’s really only useful if you’re looking for information on upcoming release dates. Look for authors who are a bit more in the middle on the fame scale, the geekier the better. Script-writers are perfect for this. They have experience and resources, but are rarely so famous that a public relations team needs to manage everything that comes out of their mouths or onto their computer screen.

Find blogs, subscribe to RSS feeds, follow on Twitter. In those ramblings, you won’t just find out information about the next gig they have coming up, though there will be a lot of that. You’ll start to be able to piece together a pretty good look at how this author functions. You’ll pick up habits, inspirations, techniques and musings. You’ll even begin to get a sense of what their life is like, and maybe even be able to decide if you still think it’s the life for you. It’s easy to forget that after a major sort of literary success your life ceases to be your own to manage for large swaths of time as you take part in a media blitz.

It’s critical to remember that someone who is writing for a living didn’t just get discovered one day and then a book fell out of their ass. This is a job. It’s a grind. Writers who are famous stay that way because they work. They take on a lot of projects, they stay diverse in their interests, they pitch their work around. It’s hard for them. Being able to follow them and read about the process is important as a reality check and an inspiration. If it’s hard work for you, too, it’s not because you’re just plain not good at it. It’s just plain hard work.

A few people I’ve taken to stalking:

Neil Gaiman – Gaiman is a fantasy legend at this point. Chances are you know is work whether or not you know his name (Coraline and Stardust are a couple of recent films based on his work), and he is absolutely prolific. He dabbles in all sorts of mediums, from comics to film, and he writes about it all constantly.

Jane Espensen – Espensen is a television writer who is about as well-known as TV writers get in the sci-fi world. She’s worked on Battlestar Galactica, Buffy, Dollhouse and… Gilmore Girls. She’s stopped actively updating her blog, but it’s ab absolute gold mine of entirely practical tips about how to writer for television. This isn’t a lofty discussion about ideals of the artform. It’s down and dirty tactics from the writing room.

James Gunn – With Gunn, you’re apt to get a lot of randomness. But you also get a pretty good sense of someone actively working in Hollywood. Gunn wrote and directed Slither, and has written a few other titles like Dawn of the Dead and… Scooby Doo 1 and 2. What’s working on now, though, is a spoof project called PG Porn, which is an episodic project that he spends quite a bit of energy promoting.

John August – Just so I can prove it’s not all sci-fi/fantasy, August wrote Big Fish (and a bunch of other more geeky things). His blog is devoted to answering reader questions on writing. And he also covers some really fascinating business talk as well. He recently experimented with selling a 23-page short story as digital download or Kindle story for $0.99 and is sharing sales and profits with his readers just to illustrate how it’s going (hint: not well).

And now that you’re done reading, I’ll apologize if this reads a bit slap-dash. It’s been a long day. But soon… bedtime, and that will be nice.

No Comments

Mood Music

Emotion is a critical component of writing. While this is more obviously true for fiction, it’s just as true for non-fiction. After all, I’m not talking about the emotion of the writing itself, I’m talking about the emotion of the writer. If you feel like crying yourself to sleep, it might not be the best time to write that upbeat human interest story about adorable puppies that make rainbows when they poop. And, of course, a person giddy about everything might find it tricky to write about how all those puppies also give off enough radiation that they gave cancer to an entire kindergarten class and strike the right tone for the article.

Writing is acting, to an extent. The writer needs to be able to evoke images and impressions in the reader. They must communicate emotion through the page. A writer who can’t put themselves into a particular mindset will have trouble doing so. A writer unable to wrap their mind around human tragedy is a writer who will turn drama to melodrama. It’s not particularly easy to get into a mood, though. Actors can have the benefit of costume and set and actively, physically being in a role to generate the mood and find the right tone. A writer that dresses up in medieval garb and constructs a castle fort before writing… well… I don’t think I need to explain what’s wrong with this picture immediately. How best to get into a mood? Consider giving yourself a soundtrack.

Music is the perfect tool to set a mood or focus your mind in a very effective and very surreptitious way. Music can make you wistful, get the adrenaline pumping, remind you of a time or place, describe the feel of an era or just plain help you concentrate. In my own daily work schedule, I’ve found that when I’m not listening to music, I’m far more likely to have my mind wander and engage in a lot of wasteful behavior. When I’ve got something in the background to listen to, its as if that occupies all the little parts of my brain that tell me I should be doing 18 things at once. Those bits are listening to the music, and the main brain is at work on my task.

Music can be tricky, though. Lyrics can really crowd out what you’re trying to bring to mind. If music with lyrics is what it takes to get your mind flowing, then it might be best to queue up the track you want, take a listen and then set down to write immediately after, while whatever the song conjured is still in your head. I find its best to listen things that are more instrumental or atmospheric when writing, though. Classical music is always a great choice for concentration, sophistication and period pieces. Serious and moody and maybe a bit angry goes well with some of Nine Inch Nails’ latest (the Ghosts albums – available for free here).

Regardless of your preference regarding lyrics (perhaps you can tune out the lyrics better than I), music communicates ideas in much the same ways that writing attempts to. If you want to express something, there is music to help. Some Fiona Apple for wordplay and introspection on love. Some Mars Volta for surrealism. Michael Buble for some classic romance. Green Day for some indignation. I could keep going, but you get the idea, and doubtless if I go on too long I’ll list some artist I should be embarrassed to have on my playlist, if I haven’t already.

Having access to a ton of music isn’t something that everyone has, though. It’s something you can have pretty easily, but I don’t want to advocate going out and exposing yourself to the chance for some ridiculous RIAA lawsuit. Despair not! I have three sites for you.

Pandora – Pandora is the byproduct of the Music Genome Project. The goal of the project was to uncover the composite pieces that makes up each piece of music. You enter a musician, and Pandora will create a playlist of music from that artist and others that fit the same profile.

Musicovery – Musicovery is more to the point I’m illustrating here. You can select, from a variety of genres, music that fits somewhere with the bounds of four parameters: from dark to positive, from calm to energetic.

Sourcetone – Sourcetone offers the same sort of concept as Musicovery, but with greater granularity of mood selection. Here you have four quadrants. One covers from Aggressive to Restless, another from Ecstatic to Pleasant, another from Somber to Melancholy and the last from Tranquil to Calm. You can also favorite and ban music according to your tastes.

So get out there and find your musical muse.

1 Comment

Serial – Episode 4 of “20th”

Thanks to my lovely wife and the incomparable Mr. Grigsby for reminding me that people are actually reading this and maybe even liking it. I have reengaged the awesome.

Tim pulled the door open with his eyes closed. He knew it would be Lynn, his girlfriend almost against his will. He was glad that he had met Lynn last year on the 20th. It gave him an excuse to include her in his life. That was all that had happened to him last year, meeting her. He knew it must be important. It was a concept he fought for a long time, long enough that he nearly did end up driving her away.

In the back of his mind, though, he knew it was useless. He met her on the 20th. She was an event. No matter the end result, he knew that she would be a defining part of his life. So he decided that he would rather one day have her be the girl that he lost forever than the girl he let get away.

He opened his eyes after an unexpected moment of silence and was not greeted by Lynn. There was a feeling of vertigo that shot up through Tim’s midsection as if he were on a roller-coaster, g-forces pinning him to the floor.


Her eyes were Janet’s eyes and not Janet’s eyes all at once. They were the color and hue that he remembered but they were different. They were not dead eyes. As his mind began to recover, he assumed that she must be a ghost. He stammered something that was trying to become a word, but couldn’t look away from her eyes. They were eyes that had lived too much. Eyes that wanted to forget. She looked through him.

She had grown, he realized. Twelve years old when she couldn’t be found, now twelve years gone. Was this what she would look like at 24? Tim didn’t think so, but it certainly wasn’t how she looked at 12. She appeared healthy. Her skin was pale but not without a certain pink hue to it. Her hair hung straight and brown as it always had. Just her eyes spoke of damage. They kept her from seeming whole.


The repetition jarred him. He still hadn’t spoken. Wasn’t sure if he could speak. She continued to stand and stare, seeing him and not seeing him. Her lips parted again to speak and he found his words again. It was the obvious call and response from their childhood. They rarely referred to one another by name.


“You look well.”

It couldn’t be anything but a dream, but Tim wasn’t going to try and fool himself. He didn’t lead the kind of life where he could tell himself that oddities were just the byproducts of fantasy and the subconscious. This was something real. Somewhere here was a truth.

“We tried to find you. We couldn’t. We couldn’t do it. Mom never gave up. She’s dead now.” Words started to pour from him, their dam now broken after more than a decade of a weighty conscience.

His parents were dead. He knew this. They had lived their lives, and were fortunate enough at least before his birth to live a life unaffected by whatever blessing or curse befell Tim. Janet did not have this luxury and he didn’t have the luxury of being assured her fate. Was she alive and suffering? Was she dead and unknown? Could Tim call it his fault? His mother spent nearly all her energies while she could still call upon them to impress upon Tim that it was not and that nothing ever would be. This had always seemed a bit too cavalier to Tim.

He kept his guilt like a precious thing. Polishing it and mulling over it during quiet times and tucking it away in a hidden place from others. After these many years, it was almost a thing of beauty. He now reached into those deep recesses to share it, just like an big brother flouting a prize to his little sister.

“We worked with the police. They brought the FBI. They were here for weeks. Mom cried all the time. I told her I didn’t cry, but I cried every day. I would sleep in your room sometimes. Mom came in once and saw me in the bed and thought it was you. I thought she’d never stop crying when she saw that it was me instead.”

Janet made no response. Not a blink. Tim covered up his guilt quickly, like a child with a toy who suspects that his audience is there to share rather than appreciate. This was for Janet. And he was suddenly unsure if this was really her.

When she spoke again, there was an echo to her voice.

“I’m not gone.”

He reached a hand forward to touch her. It was time to determine if she was some phantom to be dispelled. Before he reached her, she spoke again. He was unsure if she moved her lips.

“You could find me.”

The voice sounded as if it came from behind him and Tim whirled in confusion. He didn’t see a body behind him, but Janet’s face stared at him from every reflective surface in the room. She stared out from the television screen, from the mirror, from the window in his kitchen.

He turned to the doorway again and saw her fade at the edges, shimmering like a bubble. He could feel the tears welling in his eyes.

“You look well, brother.” And she smiled. It broke Tim at his core. A sob broke free deep within him and he cried out as he went to touch her hand. As he brushed against her, he had the distinct feeling of warm, living flesh and then she was gone, the contact of his hand being too much for whatever tenuous presence she had.

He found himself on his knees, wracked with sobs, hand on the doorknob instead of his lost sister’s wrist.

And the doorbell rang.

No Comments