Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Power of Music in Your Writing

I'm about to reveal something very strange:

I dream music.

That's right. Occasionally, I'll have a dream that involves nothing but the sound of music. And these aren't songs I know ... these are compositions that my mind creates ... while I sleep.

Don't get too excited -- I'm no Mozart. I can't actually put the stuff down on paper. I just wake up, hearing the music I've just dreamed in my head, and I usually hum it through the day. (Would that I could compose it, but that's a gift that eludes me).

Even though I can't write the music I'm hearing, I use it as a vehicle for more creating. It sparks me internally, gives me that heave-ho I need to put words down on paper (or in this case, the computer screen) and bathes my mind in the peace it needs to compose the lyrical structure of prose.

What do I do when I'm not dreaming music?

Well, today is a perfect example. I'm writing up stories for a technology magazine. These aren't always the types of stories that inspire one to create a blissful scene or dialogue. However, if I'm writing to the backdrop of music from "The Lord of the Rings" or "Prince of Persia," suddenly, my mind is alive again. I'm able to fully engage my copy, as if it were a long-lost, elusive love.

So here's what I want you to do ... dig deep and think about the music that inspires you.

Then, when you really want to punch out the prose ... play it. Sing it. Hum it. Blast it.

And maybe you'll even dream it.

Music has power. Harness it, love it ... and believe me, baby, it'll love you right back.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

My Evelyn Salt Inspiration

Don't ever think of the beginning of your story as the "lead." That's such a clinical, sanitary term for something that ought to be a boisterous shout or poetic whisper of an introduction to your prose.

I like to think of the opening paragraph as my "nugget" -- a gleaming jewel of information that catches sunlight and reflects a dazzling prism.

But how to unearth it?

I have a perfect example from yesterday.

Once every six weeks, I write about technological or engineering corporations or government agencies. Sometimes, these stories completely numb my mind, especially if I'm trying to cobble them together on a Saturday afternoon. (And especially if I'd rather be sitting at a pool than in my tomb of a living room on a hot summer day.)

This story was no different. It was about the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, otherwise known as the DTRA. To be frank with you, when I see acronyms in my notes -- even in the first sentence of my notes -- I get completely zombie-fied.

I was so deadened to the prospect of writing this story that I fell asleep sitting up. I'm not making this up.

After my short cat nap, I decided that rather than try to force the piece, I'd watch a movie. So I plucked up "SALT" on my Netflix account and gave it a whirl. If you've seen the movie, you know it's filled with espionage and big boom-booms and lots of high-speed scenes.


There, on the screen, was a scene right out of my notes -- a description of the IT professionals doing their jobs for national security as they tried to track down Angelina Jolie, aka Evelyn Salt.

Suddenly ... I was inspired. I watched the movie to the end, and then I came up with this nugget:

"These are the people who stand between you and disaster: The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA/Fort Belvoir, VA). The DTRA’s mission sounds like the backdrop for an action-thriller film: It’s the Department of Defense’s official Combat Support Agency that counters weapons of mass destruction."

Sometimes, discovering the nugget in the story isn't as dreary as my task of yesterday. Your source may give you the gem of a quote, or during the reporting of the piece, you may have stumbled into a scene that stayed fixed in your mind. (I once covered an apartment house fire, and the firemen were shooting so much water into the structure that it gushed out of four windows. My "nugget" described the windows as "gaping like astonished mouths.")

Other times, as it was for me yesterday, you just need to give your brain the R&R it needs to give the Muse entree.

Don't actively seek the nugget. If you're stuck, do as I did and take a break. When your brain is ready for it, the nugget will jump out at you like a Jack-in-the-Box.

When it does, that's when you'll get your "Evelyn Salt Inspiration." Then grab onto that inspiration like you would Angelina Jolie on the top of an oil tanker ... and give the readers the ride they deserve.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Writing in "The Zone"

Number one: There is no such thing as writer's block.

Number two: If you've told yourself you have writer's block, you're just not writing in The Zone.

Number three: Stop what you're doing to try to force yourself to write. Do something else, completely unrelated.

Number four: Expect the Muse's visit anytime now.

Pretty much, this is what I tell myself every time I'm staring at a blank screen or struggling to put two words together.

There are different reasons we hit that "block." For me as of late, those reasons are related to stress and fatigue. Unfortunately, in our American Puritanical-cultural-way-of-thought, we employ the worst method possible to force ourselves to write: We tell ourselves that we're being lazy if we move to another activity and if we don't SIT THERE until we get our perfect lead or paragraph or story spin.

Pardon the French, but all of that is Bullshit.

I'll tell you a secret about me that may come as a shocker:

My best writing is done while I'm taking a shower.

Or drying my hair.

Or putting on my makeup.

Or sitting at a stop light or in a traffic jam.

Or unloading my dishwasher.

I call this, "hypnotic time," or ... "The Zone."

What is The Zone, exactly?

It's that time of day when you are physically engaged in one activity, but your mind is wandering all over the place. You know what I'm talking about ... You're driving along a road and you hit a stopping point like a busy intersection, and you realize you've been driving along thinking about things. You don't necessarily remember the actual path you took or what was happening around you when you took it, but you successfully drove from Point A to Point B. All the while, you were engaged in something else -- brain matter.

That's The Zone.

Now the secret is ... harness that time. Seize it for yourself.

You DO NOT have to sit in front of a computer screen or at a desk to create. In fact, I think that's one of the worst places to come up with beautiful prose.

There have been plenty of times when I've been under the gun with 13 stories to write in one week, and I'm so tired that I can barely keep my eyes open.

You know what?

If you're in that situation, GO TO SLEEP. Get up 30 minutes later and then do something in The Zone, like ... water your garden. While you are engaged in that other activity, think about what it is you're trying to create or communicate. Get lost in it. Look at the surroundings -- the trees or sky -- listen to the surroundings -- the birds or a siren or a barking dog -- feel the surroundings -- the grass under your feet or the sweat beading on your forehead.

And then sink into the story.

You'll hit The Zone, I promise.

And when you do, the words will flow.