Being Creative: Writing with Music

It should not be a surprise to anyone that music and writing are often closely linked. While some people can write in absolute silence, I generally benefit from music to help block out the world.

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The trick is in finding the right music. Something that stirs the creative mind, something which matches the mood of the work, and most importantly of all, something which isn’t overly distracting.

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NaNoWriMo To Go

NaNoWriMo Day 3I’m taking a stab at NaNoWriMo this year. Writing a novel in a month certainly sounds like a challenging task, especially as I’m perpetually busy.

One of the most common pieces of advice I’ve read is to take every possible moment to write. The whole point of NaNoWriMo is not just to drive aspiring authors insane, but to foster the habits of daily writing.

What tools can help an author on the go? Software like Scrivener is great if you’re sitting down at a desk, but it’s not as helpful when you’re on the go.

My challenges in time management mean that I need to be able to write anywhere, at a moments notice. Lugging around a laptop just isn’t going to cut it. Even carting around an iPad isn’t going to give me the flexibility I need.

I’ve already started writing my novel on the iPhone. It’s a compact device I always have with me, and it’s possible to type one-handed. I’m impressed with the autocorrect behavior, even when typing one-handed.

While typing speed may not be as fast as with a full-sized keyboard, the main point is that you can write when you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. You can fill in those otherwise dead spaces, and actually write.

The recent advances in cloud computing allow the work to be saved online, which both provides backups as well as the ability to resume writing on a different device when the opportunity arises. For example, this post was composed on the iPhone to this point, where I switched to writing it on the iPad with an attached bluetooth keyboard. Before published my post, I did a final edit on the desktop in a browser.

If the primary block to writing is finding the time, consider using a mobile platform. A common saying in writing is “butt in chair, hands on keyboard”, but that doesn’t really serve the mobile writer very well. To fill in those smaller blocks of time throughout the day, I’ve found that I need a solution that doesn’t involve sitting in a particular spot.

As a tool, I’m using the Elements text editor on iOS, by Second Gear software, which has Dropbox support. It has a folder structure, which allows me to group files together, and separate the work by chapter, or as supplemental notes. Also important is the easy info button which provides the important word counts. Because it’s plain text being stored in Dropbox, it’s easy to do any later edits on the desktop.

The Quest for Excellence

Now that my daughter has turned three, she’s moved up to the next level in gymnastics. Instead of having myself out on the floor spotting her in a class of younger kids, she’s now out on the floor with a group of older kids and a coach. The difference has been spectacular. As the youngest kid, she has suddenly become motivated to try harder, to follow instructions, and generally behave more responsibly than when she was the oldest. Where a month ago she was afraid to let go of my hands while walking on the balance beam, for three weeks straight she has walked solo, without a hitch.

Gymnastics, like many other sports, encourages participants to excel, not just through self improvement and positive reinforcement, but also through the examples set by more experienced gymnasts. Before her sessions, my daughter watches the teenaged gymnasts practicing their backflips on the floor. “That’s cool!” she exclaims.

This same quest for excellence can be seen in the technical fields. With the recent launch of Google+, many authors have begun writers hangouts, where they can talk shop and write together. More traditional writers groups, such as the East Block Irregulars, continually challenge each other to write great fiction. The results can be seen by the number of nominations the writers in the group have received recently. The trick with writers groups is to properly match the skill levels of all the members. Just as it wouldn’t make sense to pair a three year old with a thirteen year old at gymnastics, a beginning writer such as myself would slow down an experienced group such as the Irregulars.

Even without participating in one of these groups, the wider writers community still provides support and encouragement. Attending local conventions provides inspiration and a sense of belonging.

Of course, nothing helps quite as much as the practice of writing words down. This too is an area where accountability with other writers can help. Some authors can seem to write two thousand words in a day. I’m not anywhere near that point in my writing career. I’ve got enough other things on the go right now that I’m happy with a few hundred words a day. Right now, I just think it’s cool to see how many words the writers I look up to can write in a day. Someday, maybe I can reach that same level of excellence.

Writing With a Baby

With an infant, tablet computers like the iPad are great. They provide casual use of the internet from an extremely portable position. The thing is, they still aren’t that great for content creation. The adage of “butt in chair, hands on keyboard” is difficult to do without a keyboard.

It’s even more interesting when there’s a three year old around as well. It’s very difficult to find the time or energy to find some time to sit down and crank out any writing.

The trick appears to have a chair where you can partially recline at your desk, with the keyboard within reach, and have your infant on your chest, snuggled up against your shoulder. There isn’t much mobility available, make sure the mouse is within reach.

In the reclined position, the monitor is likely further away than usual. Increasing font sizes, or remembering the hot key combinations to increase zoom levels would be a good idea. On the Mac, pressing control while scrolling your mouse wheel will zoom the screen in.

Inevitably, you’ll end up shifting slightly, disturbing the peaceful rest of the little furnace on your chest. If you’re lucky, this will be momentary. Other times, it’s game over, and your writing will be left in stasis, until your eventual return. Over the past month and a half, I’ve had a number of half-finished posts which seem to take forever to complete.

When I come back to them, it is sometimes difficult to piece through the half-connected thoughts on the screen. Other times, I’m just too tired to think through them coherently. I’m reasonably certain that this post is going to come across as a stream of consciousness. The trick is to let the words flow.

Some advantages of writing with a baby on your shoulder is that you’re likely to be left alone. After all, you’re making sure the baby isn’t crying. (Note well: this advice does not apply to three year olds. They’re even more likely to want to interrupt if you’re trying to write and hold a baby at the same time). Disturbing your peace is likely to wake the baby. There is some common advice, “don’t wake a sleeping baby”. Use this to your advantage.

And keep the words flowing. Seriously, the slight tapping of the keys gives a gentle rocking motion to your body, and to the small bundle you’re supporting. With a proper writing cadence, this can be relaxing. Or maybe that’s just my overtired eyes closing on me.

Hush! The little one awakes…

Two Months In

So, I’m two months into my regular posting schedule to my blog. So far, I haven’t really been able to build up any kind of appreciable buffer. I have a couple of posts in progress, but they don’t really fit the vision I have for this blog.

I also haven’t been able to transition from writing blog entries into writing my fiction. There just isn’t time right now to do everything I had hoped to. Since I’m approaching the end of the school term, the assignments are going to start piling up again shortly.

I’m therefore planning on changing my schedule to a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule. This should give me more time to properly craft my posts. I shouldn’t feel as rushed as I do currently, with some of my writing. My posts will likely be longer. I might also add more shiny pictures. Everybody likes shiny pictures. I’m also likely going to start a second, separate blog for the other posts. It’s kind of a niche project, very much unrelated to what I’m doing here. It would have at most a weekly posting schedule.

Over the past two months, I have proven to myself that I can write each day. I plan to keep that up, I just want to be a little more polished.

The Fiction of Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer published his first novel in 1990, but his first SF publication was a short story called If I’m Here, Imagine Where They Sent My Luggage, in 1981.

I don’t remember when I first started reading Sawyer’s fiction, but I do remember his time as the Edna Staebler Writer In Residence at the Kitchener Public Library, in 2006. During his first appearance, I also met Paddy Forde, Suzanne Church and James Alan Gardner, all local authors in Waterloo Region.

Rob is often one to talk of how perseverance is one of the great assets of a writer. The ability to keep cranking out the words, and the stories, day after day, is one of the signs of a writer. His addition to Heinlein’s rules of writing is simple: keep writing.

Clearly another important part of Rob’s success is his great skill as a communicator. Not only does his writing express a sense of clarity, but his interaction in person is phenomenal. He has a strong, projecting voice, which is great for public readings. His degree from Ryerson is in Radio and Television Arts, where he specialized in screenwriting, which doubtless helped him land so many guest appearances on television. He also had the opportunity to write the screenplay for one of the episodes of the ABC Flash Forward adaptation of his novel.

When talking with Rob at conventions, he shows an earnest interest in what others think, even when it’s some mindless fan (namely myself) uttering a spontaneous, unplanned question at a reading, with no real relevance to the story at hand. Rob is quick to deflate the question with a simple but humourous response, and then follow up later. For those wanting to know: “The reason in WATCH that the CSIS agents flew from Ottawa to Toronto then drove to Waterloo is that the first flight from Ottawa to Toronto arrives at 7:00 a.m.; the first flight from Ottawa to Waterloo arrives at 8:30 p.m. — and the Toronto airport is less than 75 minutes from Caitlin’s school, so you get there earlier by doing it the way I described in the novel.”

Rob’s fiction is based on important, contemporary issues, often dealing with morality. Whether it’s the rights of the consciousness transferred into an android body in Mindscan, or that of a nascent AI in Rob’s latest Wake, Watch, Wonder trilogy, Rob raises ethical issues which arise due to advances in modern technology.

It’s quite appropriate when Rob is held up as the answer to the techno-thriller. Often in American SF, technology is shown as being inherently chaotic. Cloned dinosaurs escape, robots travel from the future to kill a boy who would grow into mankind’s greatest leader, etc. Instead, Sawyer brings us aliens who say “take me to your paleontologist”, exploring issues of faith and morality in a compelling and respectful way.

Some of his greatest short stories, such as Shoulders of Giants, do not contain an antagonist at all, but are instead testaments to the pioneering spirit. Others, such as Just Like Old Times, examine a Canada where state-sponsored euthanasia transfers the consciousness of convicted felons into people (and dinosaurs) from the past.

Rob’s stories are designed to provoke thought, to question beliefs, and to raise awareness of the role science plays in modern society. Keep up the good work.

Fear of the Blank Page

One thing I’ve found while doing my daily blog posts, is that I’ve lost most of my fear of the blank page. While I may occasionally have difficulty in deciding what to write about, either as a book review, or current events, it’s usually a narrowing of possible topics, rather than coming up with something new.

Writing on a daily basis has become a habit. I set down, and my fingers type. Perhaps this is what they advocate during Nanowrimo. November tends to be the busiest time of year for me, so I’ve never blocked off time to participate. Maybe I’ll be able to do so this year.

I was afraid when starting my daily posts that I would quickly run out of things to say, or that I’d sit in front of the blank screen for hours. Some posts tend to take time to write, those are the ones that require a little research. When I’m talking about current events, for example, I like to ensure that I check a few semi-reliable sources first. Being connected to the internet doesn’t always help my productivity either.

My blog posts have been coming faster, as well. On average, it’s taking much less time to make my minimum word counts. I’m still not making much progress in writing them several days in advance, like I had originally hoped. I have a few drafts in progress, but they’re more for exploring ideas which may not really go anywhere. We’ll see what happens.

For now, I remain pleased with my blogging experience. I’m certainly making better progress than I at first feared.