I listen to music basically whenever I write, often as a simple practical matter (I have a wife, a barky-bary-bark, two school-age kids at home, and a house that backs up to an apartment parking lot). What I’m listening to during a given period often seeps into what I’m writing. I listened to Steely Dan’s “Fire in the Hole” every morning while working on the middle section of this novel—both the longest and darkest (“Where There is Nothing, There is God”—itself a title stolen from William Butler Yeats.) At some point, I’d gotten the notion in my head that the narrator of the song was a waiter/actor, which is why the protagonist is a waiter/actor. Looking at the lyrics now, I have no idea where I got that impression. (I’m told Fagen—who co-wrote the song—said in an interview that it was about dodging the draft during the Vietnam War, which makes a lot more sense than my interpretation of the song.) Doesn’t really matter; it was always the piano that caught my mind. It’s the piano, more than the words, that seeped into that story.
If anyone’s got any ideas for additional challenges, let me know.
— Ben Brainerd (@ben_brainerd) May 24, 2018
Hey Ben (and the rest of the world),
Sorry this took so long to put together. Life happened. Here goes:
- “There is a corpse in the barn!!!” X finds a corpse in the barn. S/he needs to go tell Y about this, but doesn’t want Z (who is in the same room) to grok the situation. (Back when I used to teach high school, we’d frame this exercise like so: “You have found a corpse in the barn; alert your sister to this fact. You may not use the words ‘body,’ ‘dead,’ ‘corpse,’ or ‘barn.’ Go!”) Who are X, Y, and Z to each other? Why must X inform Y of this situation? Why doesn’t X (or Y or both) want Z to know? What happens if (when?) Z figures it out?
- Eschew the Voodoo We all have voodoo around our creative processes: We only work in Scrivener or with this font in Word or using that pen or writing in a Moleskine or before 8am or whatever. For your next project eschew your usually voodoo and replace it with a totally foreign “habit.” Write the story entirely on 3×5 cards, or in the “Stickies” app on your computer, or in emails sent to yourself from your phone, or on a piece of crap 99-cent notebook from the drug store or in Comic Sans or only working before getting out of bed or after brushing your teeth for the night or whatever. Feel how changing tools changes the feel of writing and the piece itself–but also see how little difference it can make, how your good work is still good scrawled on a Post-It note stuck to your kitchen table, and how lazy hackwork is still just that, even when you’ve used your favorite pen in the prettiest journal anyone ever gave you for Xmas.
- Write in Freddish: Write your next story in a style that is a. highly constrained and b. very different from your “default” voice—for example, borrow the voice of an autoclave installation manual, or a EMT handbook, or extremely constrained vocabulary (see, for example, any early-reader children’s book, of Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words Hardcover). My absolute favorite recent fiction application of this technique has to be Greg van Eekhout’s “Will You Be an Astronaut?“ That story fucking crushes my heart every time.
- Rewrite What Vexes You: Take some story that recently annoyed you by not living up to your expectations and rewrite it the right way. (I just found myself doing this the other day via text message with my Mom and sister after we all separately saw, and were annoyed by, Solo—a film that I desperately wanted to love, but could not; it has some good gags, but a thin plot that is massively overburdened by something-for-everyone, “fan service,” and box ticking. Something thats for everyone is for no one, and box ticking us inherently boring. Most annoyingly: You can actually make Solo into a really good movie purely through cuts; it’s a good, lean story buried in flab.)
- Write to the Formula: I usually use the 45/45/10 Formula as a tool for revising—I have something roughed out and now it’s time to make it run smooth—but you can use it to build a story from scratch. Outline it in three sections (I. is the Setup, II. is the Tangle, and III. is the Resolution). Flesh out each section, noting that I. and II. need to have about equal amounts of material, while section III. has only about a quarter as much stuff. Draft from there.