Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Writing and music: no, this is not what you are expecting.

I’d like to take some time to discuss inspiration and potential. All that fun stuff. I’d also like to deride a few people, but then again there is every chance I will find some folks who agree with me.

Fiction writers fall into a wide range of levels. I have previously compared it to climbing a mountain. At the bottom you’ve got everyone who wants to write and never does, at the top you have published authors. That’s the spectrum, everyone else is somewhere in between.

But then you can also arrange writers according to potential. Which ones are just wannabes and posers, and who has it in them to truly write full-time. I am a part of the latter group, I don’t mind saying. I know that sounds a bit egotistical, and I know I try to be humble(boyscout thing), but I can and have spent 8-12 hours a day generating solid gold in literary form.

I am not a poser. I am confident in my skills. This is not a self-affirmation ritual; I have screaming fangirls, I’ve got all the confidence I need.

So how do you separate the men from the boys, so to speak? Having worked with scores of up-and-coming writers over the years, I can tell you it’s pretty easy to pick out the ones with real potential, and those pretenders who are destined to languish on fanfiction forums and dream of one day finishing that masterpiece.

The real potential writers can write. And I don’t mean they write well or are simply technically able; I mean they can generate content pretty much on demand. For me, the information and ideas are like a tap, I can turn it on(though not necessarily off) at will. I can, and have built entire worlds on the spot, with no prompting, just made everything up and wrote it down later.

A wannabe can’t do this. They need lots of poetic terms like “inspiration” and “feel” and others I don’t feel like looking up. Production takes time. These are the people that start out writing fanfiction, that even if they do produce something “original” it is just a thinly-veiled copy. Fanfiction writers are, by the way, a step bellow the general public on the writing spectrum.

Real writers can see the entire project, they write with a vision. They do not start with a vague idea and just hope they find the plot eventually. That’s how you end up with several dozen novel openings cluttering up your hard drive. You don’t have to write an outline, but you need to know the central conflict and basic over-arch of your plot before you begin, otherwise you are going to start from nowhere and end up nowhere.

This is where the wannabe lives, figuratively. Their head is full of ideas, but these are largely vague, unfocused. Things like “what if I wrote a story about a boy with bird wings and a cat tail?”. A unique concept, sure(ok not really), but that isn’t a story. There are six basic conflicts:

  • Man vs. Man
  • Man vs. Self
  • Man vs. Machine
  • Man vs. Nature
  • Man vs. God
  • Man vs. The Unknown
When you begin your novel, you should probably know which one yours is. The wannabe writer reading this is, by the way, at this very moment protesting either “wait, what about women?” or “there must be more than six!”. For those of you to whom those were the first thoughts, less address them. First, substitute woman if you want, go nuts, it doesn’t make any difference. Substitute sentient, self-aware being, it’s still the same thing. Second, shut up, there are no others.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, but there are no others. Your story is about one or all of those conflicts, or some combination of any number of them, or it begins as being about one and turns out to be about another. If you cannot understand that, you cannot write.

Finally, a true writer doesn’t need inspiration. Ok, its way, way, way more complicated than that. Yes, we all have to draw inspiration from somewhere. Every book we’ve ever read, every movie we’ve ever seen, every Saturday morning cartoon, every Sunday afternoon spent playing with action figures in the backyard, every billboard, every ad, every second of every day we’ve been alive informs our imagination. That is where the true writer is drawing their inspiration from. It is the one thing that is unique to all of us, and the one thing that truly defines who we are: our experiences.

Of course, we sometimes steal ideas. I myself am currently writing a series of light novels using a plot lifted from a light 90s children’s television show, which itself lifted it’s plot directly from Star Trek: Voyager. This is pretty normal; you can do that and still produce a highly unique and original work of art. Basic concepts are universal, stripped down to the core the series in question is a combination of Man vs. Man, Man vs. Machine, Man vs. Self, and Man vs. The Unknown. I should probably also through nature in there, since it is in space and all.

But you see, I have taken a simple concept, and made it my own. My story is so unique that any resemblance to the source material is so basic as to be universal. There is a spaceship, they are traveling through space. Sometimes they move faster than the speed of light, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they visit planets. This is the sort of thing all space travel stories have in common. What makes it unique is the details: the characters, the technology, the circumstances, the list goes on.

Wannabes can’t generate these details themselves. This is why so many of them resort to fanfiction, or thinly-veiled copies of other people’s work. In the above example, the two shows were actually very unique and original, the details made all the difference.

The wannabes are also the poets. I have about as much regard for poetry as fanfiction, though people have actually made money at poetry. The fact of the matter is, though, you can’t get anywhere today writing poetry. Poetry books do not sell. There are obvious exceptions, I’m sure any one of you whose taken high school English can name two or three famous poets, but here’s the thing: most of them either weren’t famous while they were alive, or didn’t write primarily the sort of poetry your high school English teacher made you write. They wrote, and got famous for writing, very long, multi-page narrative poems that you could be assembled into books you could actually read. These people did not spend all day writing and revising a single 10-line poem. The people who do that do not have what it takes to be a writer.

But the biggest red flag for who don’t have the talent is the requirements to write. Sure, we all have times when we can’t write; I can’t write when I’m experiencing a particular kind of stress(not deadline-stress, I actually write better like that). That’s normal, any art form requires concentration, and there are things that help and hinder that. But the main thing I see in those who just lack what it takes is their requirement for music. When someone tells me “I absolutely have to be listening to [insert music genre] in order to write” or “I need to listen to [music genre A] to write this sort of scene and [genre B] to write this sort of scene”, or, my all time least favorite “I can’t re-write this masterpiece I lost years ago because I don’t have [album from specific band] anymore and I can’t find it anywhere!” I look at those folks and think “You will never be a writer.”

People, this isn’t inspirational music, this is your crutch. You have trained yourself into dependency on something. You are not a good writer, you are an addict. I have mentioned before the reward-nature of writing, and how we are addicted to it. Those who can’t write without highly specific background music have the addiction part, but not the talent.

And the crutch is really hurting you. Nine times out of ten, wannabes with this sort of deficiency write really dull, drab, uninteresting pieces. It seemed great in their heads because they had the music going. It’s like a movie: the write music sets the mood and can make all the difference; but without the music, it’s just boring.

Now, I think it is important to separate out the wannabe-music-crutch writers from the normal ADD folks. When I’m making 3D models, I almost have to have something(TV, radio, cats, etc) going on in the background to help me focus. A lot of people are like that with writing. I knew a fellow in college who had to have the TV and the radio on in order to concentrate. It didn’t matter what it was, he just needed that background noise going to help him focus.

This is different from the person who cannot write unless they have some highly specific genre, band, or album going. Just needing noise probably means you have Attention Deficit Disorder, like everyone else. Needing something so specific makes you a wannabe with crutch music. Maybe I’ll make a song about it. Maybe it’ll help someone write.

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