Today I’d like to present the first part of a ‘double interview’ where Ryn Lilley (a fellow Snapping Turtle author) and I talk about writing, music, conventions whatever else comes up! Hope you enjoy it and feel free to ask either of us a question in the comments : )
And for those of you looking for a new YA sci-fi series check out Ryn’s Underground books (two are on special right now here & here) for a fast read, great lead character and an alien world that has me deeply curious, especially about the gender politics at play. You can also visit Ryn here at facebook and twitter.
I’ll go first!
Ashley Capes: Music plays a big role in the lives of many writers – can you tell me a bit about how you use it when writing? What genres do you favour? Is there a different style of music required for different phases of the process – say, writing vs editing?
Ryn Lilley: For me, music is as essential as breathing. Even when I’m writing, I need to have my guitar nearby, and music playing. I’m a fan of guitar driven rock, and Australian punk from the 70s and 80s, but there are very few genres of music I don’t like - so have a huge array of music that helps keep my energy high while I’m creating. A lot of The Underworld books have been/are being written to some fairly dark music: Alice Cooper, X (Australian punk band made up of the late, great Ian Rillen, Cathy Green on drums and Steve Lucas,) Nick Cave, Johnny Cash, T-Rex, and The Stooges.
There is actually a scene in Episode 3 - The Fosterling, where I had X’s 'Don’t Cry No Tears' on repeat while I was writing it. It’s a beautiful, haunting piece and when I read back over that section while editing, despite having other music playing, I could hear that song as I read.
For editing, I tend to like smoother, more mellow music that can just flow over me, so I’ll put on J.J. Cale, or Lou Reed. I also find I can come back to my work with a clearer mind if I take regular breaks to play my guitar.
Ryn Lilley: You know I’m going to turn this one back on you, as a former muso yourself, what influences do you find most helpful to your own creative efforts, and do you find any real difference between what you listen to while writing, and what you listen to while editing?
Ashley Capes: Deal! I do find that when writing it’s often about pace. A fast beat really keeps me going and I listen to a lot of metal while writing first drafts, along with hard rock like Sabbath and Zeppelin. Sometimes it’s any music I know so well that the lyrics don’t bother me and for some scenes I’ll switch to something tense – for instance, in some parts of City of Masks, where I wanted more tension, I looped ‘The Battle Remembered’ by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble and it worked really well.
And like you, for editing I ease off a bit too. I might go with Miles Davis’ cool era or sometimes a game soundtrack, something from the Sega Megadrive perhaps. One of my favourite albums to edit to is actually the Howl’s Moving Castle soundtrack, it’s beautiful and just works so well when I’m revising. Like you said, it gives more space to the thinking process I think.
AC: I know a lot of writers get asked about where ideas come from and it’s an old question perhaps, but I hope I can flip it on its head a little and ask instead, what makes you pass on an idea? For instance, maybe when it comes to you at first it seems exciting but you go to write and it just isn’t? Maybe it’s too small, too big? I’m curious :)
RL: My usual answer to where I get my ideas from is that they come from breathing; I’m an inveterate people watcher, so as long as I’m breathing, I’m getting new ideas from the world around me : ) However ideas that I don’t use? I can’t think of any that haven’t been used, or notes taken for use in other stories, if the idea requires a lot of research or isn’t suitable for the story I’m working on. An idea may not always be used in the way I expected – they might turn out to be not big enough to carry an entire story, but they will shape a scene or a chapter, or work in as a sub plot. Of course, the original spark can always be improved on, I’m currently writing Season Two of the Underground series, and I re-wrote the first chapter five times as a better way to begin telling the story occurred to me.
RL: I’m going to tweak your question a bit further – with your writing, have you ever been ambushed by an idea that was really essential for the story you were trying to tell, but required a great deal of re-writing to make it fit in?
AC: A few times, yeah! It’s always exciting but frustrating too – and if I was a hardcore plotter I think it would be a rare thing, but I generally pants within a framework and so it’s definitely happened. In City of Masks I had to do that for Sofia, one the leads. Her opening chapters were scrapped between draft 1 and 3 and it included removing a mentor character and changing her personality a fair bit for the rewrite – but I’m happy I made the changes!
AC: The changes above were spurred on by some great feedback I got from my writing group actually, and it brings to mind what I hope is a Stephen King quote, to ‘write with the door closed, revise with the door open’ and so I wanted to ask, when do you let first readers see your work? At planning? Only after a draft is complete?
RL: You are correct, it is a Stephen King quote from On Writing, and I’ll put the whole quote in as I think its good advice to remember:
‘Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.’
I tend to do this, a few people are allowed to read over my shoulder now as I write – but these are people for whom my Underground world is as real is it as for me, they have known the characters and the set up since I first wrote it. It has undergone a great deal of re-writing since that first early work. But those who are allowed to read over my shoulder will always get a defensive answer to criticisms, and it takes me a day a two before I accept they are right, and I act to make the work better. At research stage I will talk about specific needs for research, and I find some research and some conversations lead to future story ideas, that I write a rough plan for, add in the links of any sites that I might need, and file it til I have finished the work I’m on. Mostly I write without others seeing the first draft til it’s done – and then send the whole story out to be beta read. Then the rewrite process begins, until it’s ready to send to the publisher, which is of course, never the end of the story : )
Stay tuned for Part 2 & Part 3 coming soon!
2014 has been a big year in terms of writing & publishing (3 titles released this year!) and rough spots (especially health-wise - having a bit of back trouble of late) but squeezed in there has been a lot of fun too. Music, volleyball, great food - and I even managed to read a few books!
I really did enjoy preparing The Fairy Wren for publication and having some great early reviews come in has been a relief. I think being the one upon which ultimate responsibility falls, for all aspects of quality control, adds more pressure but also more satisfaction to a work.
I've also been really happy with the way City of Masks has been received, so thank you to everyone who has read a copy!
In 2015 I hope to read the entire Tintin Series, publish a novella (Sea of Trees) and another novel (The Lost Mask), hopefully record a spoken word CD of poetry finish writing Greatmask (Book 3 of the Bone Mask Trilogy) and announce a Book Pack Competition in January, details of which are to follow!
Have a great break and hope to see you here in 2015!
For me the very idea of writer’s block is a myth.
I don’t mean that artists (not just writers) cannot find themselves struggling with motivation or with non-project related problems.
What I believe is false, is the idea that the BLOCK is some great, unseen, unknowable force that simply comes crashing down like a wall to stop us. We don’t forget how to use words or sentences, no force binds us to a chair in a shack deep in a jungle, no thing physically stops us from writing.
That’s equally unrealistic as the idea of a mystical muse that feeds the artist ideas.
Instead I believe in the agency of the writer. And when we’re blocked, there’s probably one of two things happening from a craft viewpoint or a third thing happening from a motivational viewpoint.
1. We’re blocked if we’re not sure/have fooled ourselves, usually via excitement, into thinking an ‘idea’ is the same thing as a ‘story’.
2. We’re blocked if we’re working in the wrong mode, or even in the wrong percentage of a mode, ie: we are ‘plotters’ at heart trying to ‘pants’ a story or vice versa.
3. We’ve been working on this damn novel/short/poem/script for way too long and we’re sick to death of it, we’re sick of writing, we’re burnt out. There’s no motivation left, there’s no joy in the task anymore. Forget it, get the thing out of my sight!
Any of these three things might be at play at any given time when a writer feels blocked. But it is possible to break through each of them, we’ve all done it before and we’ll do it again, it’s all part of the job.
Below is how I generally beat those problems:
1. Story vs Idea
I ask myself, do I have an idea or a story on my hands? That’s the most important question for fiction, I feel, when it comes to sitting down and finishing a project. Ask yourself that question in the beginning and if you can answer ‘story’ you ought to have a great chance of finishing.
Here’s why I think that’s so.
An idea is exciting and highly motivating and for me, it’s the best part of writing, but the sad fact is an idea is not a story. One is a spark, one is a complete piece of work. A story has conflict, movement and structure, a story has narrative. An idea does not.
So, to try and illustrate my claim I’ll make up an idea and the summary of a story:
A man uncovers a golden elephant statue in his backyard.
A man uncovers a golden elephant statue in his backyard, quickly becoming obsessed with it. His wife, however, loathes elephants and cannot bear to look at it, let alone have it in their house. She casts it into a river and the man is struck with despair, leaping after it and diving for the statue every day and every night, until his wife finally leaves him.
Hopefully, despite the silliness of my idea, the difference is clear. The idea is a starting point, and the story develops it. The story introduces conflict with the wife and the man’s obsession. Further, it shows change and includes a resolution. When we’re blocked, I believe it’s because we’re so excited about an idea that we leap into it, without realising that there is in fact no story yet.
Related to this problem is
2. Plotting vs Pantsing (and the ratio)
Plotting is the process of outlining and planning a story from beginning to end. The amount of detail which goes into this will vary, but the key point is knowing just about everything before you sit down to write.
Pantsing is the opposite, whereby you write a story without preplanning, simply discovering and creating as you write. This can be quite enjoyable for the writer, but often results in more rewriting in subsequent drafts, while outlining usually makes for quicker work but can be less interesting during the act of writing.
It might seem that one is a safer or better approach than the other, but I don’t believe so.
Both can work wonderfully for different people so it’s best to try each operating mode and see what happens. Neither approach is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ instead it’s whether the mode is ‘suited’ or ‘not suited’ to you.
I, like many writers I suspect, am more hybrid, in that I work in both modes. Here’s where the idea of a ratio is important to me, because I outline a book with dot points, noting vital ‘hit points’ and add to this character sketches and arcs, but then I ‘pants’ or ‘discover’ within the framework I set. (And within this method I can still adjust my outline if I discover a new plot point or character during the writing etc.)
Therefore I’m probably 40% planning and 60% pantsing on most projects, yet even that can change, depending on what the story demands. I find that’s the best way for me to work, because it ensures I stay motivated during the writing and I’m never blocked.
But working in a mode that someone else tells you is the ‘only way to write’ is dangerous and will probably lead hitting a wall at one point. And the way to get around this problem is simple – experiment. Learn how you as a writer actually work best, then refine the process.
Finally I’d like to share an idea in regards to
3. Burn Out
This one is a lot tougher to combat. Especially when you’re close to a story or if you have a deadline and sometimes you’d rather vomit than work on a project for a single second longer.
But the best advice I’ve ever been given is to step away from whatever you’re writing for as long as you can – and to work on something else while you’re having time away.
If you’ve burn out on a particular novel you’re writing, switch to different novel or a short story for a while and see what happens to your motivation when you come back to the original novel. Or, if it’s writing in general that you’ve had enough of, go play guitar for a while, break out the paints or find some friends and shoot a short film. Try another art form altogether.
This really motivates me not only because I’m having fun again, but because I get critical distance from the first story and at the same time, my mind continues to tick away on that story, only I’m not conscious of the fact.
And then, when I sit down again with that first project, I’m ready again!
Finally, maybe the burn out is so deep that you’ve lost motivation for creating. To get around this, it’s recharge time. Get inspired by consuming great art, a favourite book or film, a trip to a gallery or beautiful location – anything but creating.
When you’re finished, hopefully you’ll be ready to hit the keys once more!
Just stopping off to add another quick update about a couple of writing projects.
The sad news is that The Lost Mask, follow up to City of Masks, is now due early 2015, which is hopefully only a month or two later than the original Christmas release date. Some of the revisions have proven more trick-some than I anticipated but it's for the best. The alterations will make it a much stronger book!
The Fairy Wren is now available, but there's still a week (two at the most, I hope) until the ebook is ready for purchase. In the meantime, you can check out the opening here if you wanted to sample it.
Sea of Trees (working title) is hopefully on track for release next year, as is Greatmask, the conclusion to The Bone Mask Trilogy. Everything else is on hold while I work on finishing up the titles above but soon I hope to post a Christmas post/comp/giveaway/thingy, so stay tuned!
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Ashley Capes is an Australian writer of fiction, poetry and very occasional non-fiction.
Imperial Towers (Never Book 5) - draft 1
Moss Dragon - draft 1
Reed Lavender (working title) - draft 1
Unnamed Spec Fic - draft 1
Whisper of Leaves (sequel) - Outline