Thursday, August 16, 2007

Music or Silence

I’m not sure what kind of background noise, if any, writers like to have. For me, if I have a choice, I prefer either silence or music.

Up until this year, I would always turn on music. It just seemed to add to the overall experience, further dropping me into whatever piece I was working on. That said, I found that my preference swayed towards classical and orchestral soundtracks. Anything with lyrics generally distracted me, which is odd because I usually don’t pay attention to lyrics in the first place. It feels like a sung conversation that I can’t quite tune out.

When I started changing my editing habits by really thinking through everything quite carefully, I found that all music distracted me. I needed complete silence. I admit that part of my problem may have been that ever since installing Windows Vista, my media player stalls every couple of minutes for up to five seconds at a time. Aside from that irritating issue, I think the high concentration comes from the difference in what I’m doing during an edit. When writing from scratch, everything goes down, don’t stop to think, write, write, write. Then, I have to go back and make sense of the story, pick it apart, and ensure that it flows poetically and succinctly.

Last night, I found myself back to the skipping music, even during an edit phase. The difference, though, is that now I’m on light cleanup. The colossal edit has already taken place, and I’m just left picking up the loose nuts and bolts off the floor. I wanted something more than silence to help set the mood.

I don’t know that I’m consistent with my preferences these days, and with our daughter arriving later this year (yes, the latest ultrasound revealed that it’s a girl), my definition of silence will likely change anyway. I wonder if a writer’s preference on background sounds ties into what is being written, or if it is simply a matter of personality. Does anyone write happy children’s stories about lambs while listening to death metal?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Characters play such a vital role in storytelling, arguably the most critical role. I have recently discovered that some of the best writers bring their characters out fully developed. I don’t mean to say that everything you want to know about a character is spelled out in the first few sentences. I simply mean that the character is fully realized before he/she/it ever appears.

Last night I was watching an old episode of Naruto, and I was really intrigued by the emergence of Orochimaru. He appears in disguise at first, so you learn about him before you really know who he is. Looking back at this episode after seeing so much of him later, it’s quite impressive at how developed he is when he first comes on the scene.

Masashi Kishimoto (the writer of the series) has proven himself to be quite brilliant, especially with characterization. Keeping to the example of Orochimaru, Kishimoto has broken a cliché with villains that I didn’t even realize existed. Typically, there’s the cool factor of villains, that they make evil look appealing. Other stereotype villains include the child who wasn’t loved, any kind of dark lord, or anyone who cackles after a few lines of dialogue. Orochimaru, by contrast, has a creepiness to him that so many villains lack. I don’t want to identify with him, and I certainly don’t see any cool factor to him. He’s repulsive in an almost perverse way, and it’s beyond dialogue; it’s in his appearance and how he moves. It’s enjoyable to have a fictional villain that I don’t like at all.

As for applying all of this to writing, I think it’s important to understand your characters before you use them. It seems easier to me to already know a character than to just throw down Generic Protagonist A, let the story develop this character, then go back on an edit and fix any discrepancies. Even better is to write a simple story that just involves the new character that you can tweak until he/she/it feels complete, almost like a narrative dossier. We wouldn’t go on a trip with someone we don’t know, so why, as writers, should we go through a story with a character we don’t know?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Beyond High Fantasy

I recently realized that I had a bias towards High Fantasy, specifically favoring it over other subgenres within fantasy. I felt it was what I should write and that I should not deviate. In trying to identify myself as a writer with very specific parameters, I limited what I could do, the stories I could tell.

This week, my wife and I watched a film titled Pan’s Labyrinth. This is a remarkably well-made film that uses magic realism in a brilliant way because to me, it seems that the audience could question whether there was ever any fantasy in it at all. (Hopefully that isn’t a spoiler for those who haven’t seen it.)

My wife and I spoke afterwards, and I mentioned that I wouldn’t write a story quite like that even though I enjoyed it, and she questioned my motivations. I found that I didn’t have any good justification for exclusively writing high fantasy, and if I continued to pursue that one type of writing alone, I would eventually burn out. I think I was scared to try something new, afraid of stepping beyond the familiar one-world I had created. Now that those fears have been exposed, I realize how foolish they really are, and that it’s time to let go and simply write without self-imposed boundaries.

From here on, I think I will fall back upon the more general title of storyteller, rather than fantasy writer. All of my recent work has been fantasy, specifically high fantasy, but in the future, my active collection of stories will include other genres and subgenres as well, depending on the stories I felt led to write. My writing will define who I am, not a subgenre.