N. Renee Brown

Part-time Author, Full-time Book Junkie

Word and Tune, Hand in Hand?

It must be something in the air or water or weather, but lately everyone in my reader (and remind me later to do a neat little update on my latest net gadgets) has been talking about writing and music and I just wanted to take a moment to chime in.

Here are a few interesting tidbits about me/friends/writing/music…

I had a very talented friend who was majoring in music education, she was able to play the piano, sax, clarinet, flute, and drums (and I’m sure many more I just never had the opportunity to witness). She took part in an experiment dealing with memorization.

She was put in a soundproof room and given a list of items she had 30 seconds to memorize it. When she was done they gave her 30 seconds of silence then asked her to recite all the items she could remember.

Next they did the same thing with numbers.

She did very well on both of these, surprising even herself.

Then they turned on talk radio softly in the background, gave her a different set of items and then numbers.

Again she did very well.

THEN they piped in a piece of classical music, again softly in the background and again gave her a different set of items and then numbers.

She bombed.

She was trying to concentrate on the lists at hand but her mind kept deconstructing the music. She told me later she found herself straining to hear the notes being played INSTEAD of concentrating on the lists. She was shocked that a piece, one that she had played often and knew well, could do that to her especially when she KNEW she had to recite these lists again.

We tried it on our own, we set up a little area (granted not as silent as the place she had been in) and gave me a list of items and numbers.

I did great on the silence.

I did great on the music.

On the talk radio, I could not stop myself from listening to what was going on! I thought I was paying attention to the lists, I thought I knew what to watch out for and was able to drown it out…not so friends, not so!

Actually, she quizzed me on what the radio had been saying right after she asked me about the second list and I could tell her EVERYTHING they had been talking about.

Another interesting tidbit with me and music.

I used music heavily to help write a short story that sold to a small (at that time) webzine. I played the same song over and over to keep me in the mood and in the mind space for the story. I did it from start to finish, the walkman on LOUD and my fingers doing the talking.

It wasn’t a half bad story, and at the end I put a credit to the song that had given me such inspiration.

Unlike now, when people like Rachel Caine and Carrie Vaughn put not just songs but playlists at the beginnings of their books, no one I was reading was crediting music in their creation process.

I went out on a limb.

I took a chance and stuck it in there.

And I got laughed at.

Respectfully, the editor asked me what that credit was and if I had intended it to be there. He assured me that sending him a working copy of the piece with my “personal notes” in it was fine, but did I really want him to publish some strange credit to a rock band at the back of the story?

Unfortunately, being new to the publishing arena and not really having a voice or the experience with which to stand up for myself, I took the credit out.

Well, here today, let me put it back in.

Thank you for the inspiration…The Cranberries – Electric Blue

Find your peace and live it…music or not!

Renee

Writing as a journey and a destination.

“Life is a journey, not a destination.”

I can practically see Day making a face as she reads this. Why? Because she is of the opinion that the person who coined this phrase must have, “never gotten anywhere in his life.”

Day is one of those people that fill their life with goals and accomplishments, awards and failures, plans and plots…even her writing is mapped out to within an inch of its life. She is the kind of person that will get things done, damnit! None of this lollygagging, we’ve got places to go, characters to meet, and plots to see!!!!

I am the exact opposite.

When I write, I start out with a scene I think is interesting. I may have a character or two, but no more than that…just a scene and my computer. I start to write the scene and develop the characters but other than the cell in which they have been drawn the rest of the world is empty. A white space waiting to happen.

As the scene develops, so does the world around them…things they have experiences populate the past, issues they have fill out the present, hopes and dream lie in wait in the future. The people they think about inhabit the homes, the animals they see scurry away into the underbrush. It’s a very train of thought sort of thing, and yeah sometimes it gets me in trouble and sometimes I’m backtracking to rewrite stuff that would not have been necessary if I had just thought about the organization of the police union…but that is no fun for me.

When I map out a plot like that I can’t find the joy of discovery, the shock from distress, or the laugher in a joke. It’s just not there for me. If I know it is coming, I am prepared and my emotions are dampened (thus my writing is dampened). Seriously, I’ve got to have an instant when I am writing my own novel and I BUST OUT LAUGHING at something someone did or it’s just not a good time. Why? Because it is a journey I’m taking just like you will one day…I’m just doing it earlier…and if I don’t like it why should I inflict it on you?

The other problem I’ve got with pre-plotting to that extent is that I have a bad habit of hitting people over the head with information. I can’t leave it that they will know that so and so did such and such, I’ve got to say, “Hey! Did you notice that? So and So did Such and Such!” I am even worse when I outline/pre-plot things. It’s like I’ve got the caps lock switched to the on position and I’m going to tell you if you wanna know it or not.

I’m the kind of girl that has a place to start and a place to end and somewhere in the middle a miracle occurs…and actually, it does. Between start and finish I find a whole novel hiding away, and it is usually something worth reading. How great is that?

The reason I bring all this up, is that at Balticon (which will have an update this week, I promise) Day and I came up with a great idea for the novel. We talked about it all weekend and if you heard us wandering in the halls you likely heard snippets of our brainstorming session. It was wonderful, we worked out a few things and we bounced around a few ideas and we got really jazzed about this work.

But then it didn’t stop. We had to define everything, we had to know where everyone was going, we had to figure out who ended up where and before I knew it we were planning book 2 and 3! On Monday night, after brainstorming this world for 3 days I had to put a stop to it. All the mystery was disappearing and with it my anticipation for writing the novel. I was sad that I was forced to put a stop to it, as Day was so obviously enjoying the process…but I had to preserve a little of this project for myself.

I’ll be happier in the end if I do.

So how do you write? Plot and plan? Or seat of the pants? An aspiring author wants to know!

Find your peace, and live it – even if it is missing its middle.

-Renee

It’s official.

This weekend at Balticon (more on conventions and Balticon in particular later) I reached the 100,000th word on In Harm’s Way.

WHOO HOO FOR ME!!!!!!

I found it sort of anti-climactic, honestly.  I know the story is not done and I know there is more work ahead of me than I expected.  It is just the way I write, just the way I work.  I’m ok with that. 

We all need to discover not only our muse, but our inner slave driver and work with him (instead of fighting him as I so often do) to get things done.  It isn’t just about the muse at the end of the day, I mean yeah she’s the flirt at the party making you grin like a goon…but that person back in your hotel room, your slave driver/internal editor/whatever, plays just as big a part when you come down to it.  Afterall, they are the one paying the bill at the end of the stay.

Still yet, I made my goal and in honor of that and to celebrate it, I purchased two masks made by Christine Yolan at the Balticon Art Show.  I wanted to track her down and get a signature on the works, but no such luck.  Oh well, perhaps I can track her down on the web, send the masks to her…get them signed…and then get them back.

Here’s the plan for the immediate future:  1)  Work on the three short stories that are done, save for some polishing 2) Leave In Harm’s Way alone for a month 3) re-launch the Unleaded-Fuel for Writers podcast on July 1st.

Yes, you heard it here first.  Unleaded is coming back, and better than ever.  Day has stepped down as co-host to instead concentrate on production, and I am more than happy to keep my fingers out of that side of it.  Instead I’ll be concentrating on the hosting/content of it.  Day will still contribute and you might still hear from her on occasion, but mostly you’re stuck with me.  We are also going to change the format a little to add some guest inspirations and writer interviews.

July 1st, be there or subscribe and listen later…as long as you listen, we don’t care.

 

-Find your peace and live it…even if it is anti-climactic. J

Renee

P.S. Adding the tags to this post I realized In Harm’s Way no longer belongs under “Works In Progress”, that did sort of give me a squee.

Zombies, oh my!

Day and I went to see Max Brooks, author of “The Zombie Survival Guide” and “World War Z” Monday night at the Jewish Community Center of D.C. It was such a wonderful event, in a really intimate venue with a lot of really crazy folks and Max making it worthwhile!

He is so effortlessly funny and engaging, that it didn’t seem like a lecture so much as a stand up routine (which is what it was SUPPOSED to resemble, I am sure). The lecture was presented in the form of an actual “informational lecture” on defeating the zombies. When someone asked him where he got the “idea” for his book he looked at them, as serious as could be and said, “This is from actual documented historical fact!” After that the crowed got into it asking questions like, “In the recent movie ‘I Am Legend’ there was a contention that zombies might be able to be cured and returned to a human state.” To which he responded, “You’re with the ACLU, aren’t you?” – his basic ‘serious’ answer was no, btw, because when you are dead there is no cure.

Some of the best lines of the night included a discussion of “zombieploitation films” that he has issue with, such as the new “Dawn of the Dead” who’s only redeeming scene was the one where they stood on top of the building with a sign that said, “PLEASE HELP” and the helicopter just flew by… “Because THAT’S never happened before.” *lol* There was also a live demonstration of the single most effective move you can use to defeat a zombie. He invited someone up to “pretend” to be a zombie, limbered up a bit, took off his jacket, got in fighting stance and when the “zombie” took a step toward him he walked away.

Still the best thing was all the writerly food for thought he gave me! Let me share…

First, he used the word “micro-horror” and my little writer brain began to turn. He described horror (world encompassing, disaster horror) as being very micro in scope. One guy, one group, one select area being followed and explored. He said he had always wondered what was going on in the rest of the world as he read/watched these things. He even went so far as to say: “During Independence Day I didn’t care what Jeff Goldblum was doing, I wondered how the Chinese were handling the aliens.” Thus he wrote World War Z as an oral history…basically in answer to all the questions he’d had that had never been addressed.

For me, as a lover of disasters and a writer of horror, this was a mind-blowing statement.

Would I have come up with this concept? Well…no, because I didn’t. Instead in my world disaster book I would have had my characters do the same things all the other characters do in all the other books/movies. Suddenly there would be a communication from the outside, the radio crackles to life or someone has a working television or passing groups exchange gossip on the road…very typical and expected but that is what happens to genre it gets very typical and expected (why? Likely because it has other things to keep it fresh, I mean hey, monsters are often strange enough to carry an entire book with little other support…but that is another blog).

So now my personal challenge, my goal, is to try to write a macro-horror like Max did. Find a way to broaden my horror/disaster scope and show the world in the throes of its chaos…and not just in the typical ways either. I’m not sure how, exactly, to accomplish this yet…but let me think on it.

The other thing I realized after listening to Max speak was that the man basically wrote an entire novel of short stories and sold it without having a name to hook it on. That’s amazing. Short story collections are nearly impossible to sell (or at least that’s what I’ve heard) unless you’ve got a name that is recognizable to a majority of your target audience…and I don’t think “The Zombie Survival Guide” shot him into that level of notoriety. Not just that, but the stories he wrote all in the same world, revolving around the same events, but with different characters and he still managed to pull it off.

Wow.

It shows how truly talented this man is, that he can write a two page story that to this day gives me shivers when I think about it (the one I have in mind is about the “feral child” talking about her mother trying to kill her before the zombies arrive). He is such an effective writer, so crisp and yet powerful. He has distilled his writing down to such a concentrated form that digesting them seems easy until they lump in your stomach and you find yourself planning your escape with loved ones. Or worse yet, you look over your shoulder at night…not for muggers or rapists, but for zombies. I’m so impressed with him, so very, very impressed and not just with his writing either. He was personable and sweet…and damn that man had a smile that could light up a room. He was great, and if you get the chance go see him!

While there we picked up our own copy of World War Z and Zombie Survival Guide and had him sign them both. Squeee!

I know I talked about the book before, but let me use this time and place to once again plug “World War Z”…where one is encouraged to “don’t run, walk fast.”

-Find your peace, and live it…even if it has zombies!

Renee

I’ve got a plan!

During my writing group meeting last night, we discussed a problem one of our members is having.  Her writing, while good, is never POP/ZAP/POW.  Every time she sends stuff out to editors they tell her no thank you, and that her stories never seem to go anywhere or are lacking something.

That helps a lot…if my story doesn’t go anywhere then why are my characters moving around and making decisions?  Lacking something…that’s even better…my story is lacking SOMETHING.  What?  A comma?  A main character?  The kitchen sink?!?!

So we were talking about her writing, trying to ferret out what these editors meant, because we had the SAME responses to her work.  It was always missing that spark, that special something that really made the work stand up and say, ‘look at me!’

Well, huzzah!  We think we figured it out. (Thank goodness!)

Jen, the fearless leader, said that this member wasn’t spontaneous enough…that every plot she writes is a forgone conclusion, every story she crafts had a definite ending and she is taking us there come hell or high water.  This member, while a good writer, is so bent on giving us the ending she has in mind she telegraphs it through the whole story, we never have a moment of doubt as to what is going to happen because her characters never have a moment of doubt as to what they are there to accomplish!  It is amazing what that sort of invulnerability on the part of the characters will do to a plot, even in situations that have a certain amount of tension inherent the audience feels little or none when they should be on the edge of their seats.  (I’m put in mind of the Aeon Flux movie.)

So, having figured out the problem…we needed to figure out a solution.  We came up with some great exercises which I wanted to share for those of you out there that are having trouble with spontaneity:

1)      Take random ideas put them in a bag and at predetermined times pull out an idea and write on it for 15 minutes.

2)      Take random words, put them in a bag, at predetermined times pull out a predetermined number of words and make them into an idea to write on for 15 minutes. (This could be a REAL challenge, and I am tempted to try it myself…oh and NO MULLUGIANS!)

3)      Put all your characters from all your stories into a bag, pull out two slips and make them talk to one another.  The Victorian superhero talks to the space junkie…the futuristic vampire talks to the cult leader.

4)      And finally, re-write your stories with the exact opposite ending.  (The demon keeps his job in hell and hates it.  The social worker decides the exploitation of special needs kids is a necessary evil.  The unicorn decides the dark side is where all the fun is.)

These weren’t the only ideas we had, but some of the more exotic.  We had the full compliment of standards as well:

1)      Free write for 15 minutes.  Do not plan before you sit down, just sit down and write.

2)      Take two characters out of your story and write dialogue for them, only dialogue no descriptions nothing.  Just make them talk to one another.

3)      Write every scene into a box.  Put your characters into a situation you think they cannot get out of, only once they are stuck are you allowed to try to get them out.

4)      Above all, avoid the outline!!!!  If you have spontaneity problems, outlines will only compound your issues.

Ok kids, enough writing tips from me…get out there and write something totally unexpected and make us love it.  That is your friendly challenge for the day.

Peacably Yours,

Renee

Writing out the emotion.

Today is a day for regrets, a time when the past mistakes are felt most sharply.  I’m not sure why, but instead of the usual touchstones of happiness and joy my mind wanders to darker memories and sadder places. 

On days like this, I always find it helpful to write.  Writing has and always will be (I hope) my emotional outlet.  It is the place where I can express these feelings of regret or sadness or joy or confusion in a useful, productive manner.  I fold my feelings into stories and leave behind a richer plot, more complex characters, and ultimately a better story.  It is never easy, but it is cathartic for me and in stressful situations that have no easy solution I more often than not am itching for a pen and paper.  This is especially true for anger.

I do not get on with anger.  My mother once said, “When I get angry, I get stupid.”  Well, like mother like daughter.  My anger can blind me, like a drunk’s blackouts, to things said and done in the heat of it.  Thus, when I get beyond snippy and frustrated to out and out MAD I tend to sit down and write rather than get into a screaming match with the object of my ire.  I scream everything I want to say and do through the pen out onto the paper.  The raw power of my emotions is, I’ll admit, rough and in need of polishing…even unleashing it through the written word I tend to be a bit hot headed and sometimes make little sense…but it is REAL.  I can feel the brutal honesty of the words as I read them, and I know these are the things I would say to someone in the heat of the moment.  So I save them to use at a time when I am calm and need to dig deep into my character for an angry exchange or some home truths.  Sometimes I create scenes as I write, inventing arguments for my characters to have.  Funnily enough, this can usually kick start me into writing more than just the argument but a whole new scene.  Thus when I am done not only do I have another “piece to the puzzle”, but I am also in a better mood than when I started. 

I know this is not always the case and that many authors out there feel they must write without emotion lest their stories become melodramatic or sappy.  Others believe the pure emotional moments are too real to share, and do not make good writing.

I understand these other schools of thought; I’ve even met a writer or two that claim they cannot write while they are angry.  Then again, I once knew a girl like me…only to the extreme.  She told her best friend, a very sweet gay man who was always the life of the party, that she could no longer live with him because he made her too happy.  She went on to say that she needed to be miserable to write and he was ruining her budding career.

Ok, ok, so that is a bit extreme, but I warned you that it was.

So the next time you get mad or sad, gleeful or silly, thoughtful or regretful, pick up your pen and see what comes out.  You might be surprised or you might not…either way you’ll know.

And if you must be miserable to write and writing is that important to you I feel for you, but understand where you are coming from if I did not have writing I’m not sure what I would do…besides get stupid a lot.

Character (and author) Development.

When I first started writing, all of my characters were beautiful women with power and no weaknesses. All of them. I guess this was because growing up I didn’t consider myself beautiful (how very few of us ever really do anyway?) nor powerful (because in high school beauty and power go hand in hand-and if I were being honest I’d say it was the confidence born from being attractive that is the real power and be closer to the heart of it, but that is a discussion or another time), and I had plenty of weaknesses. So it only makes sense these women I wrote about would be everything I could never be, or thought I could never be. Reading back through an old journal recently, besides being really embarrassed at the childish writing, I was stuck by how unapproachable these characters really were.
How do you connect with a goddess that never does wrong and had a cruel streak? How do you connect with an assassin that does not regret any hit she ever makes? How do you connect with a heroine who gets the guy in the first page? The worst part was the lack of development, the utter flatness, of these characters. Every move was predictable, every reaction without the burden of emotion. I hated these women re-reading them because there was no character arc. These women began and ended every story unchanged, perhaps with the addition of the king’s gratitude or the love interest in the end, but they themselves did not come to any grand realization. The goddess didn’t recognize the value of humanity, the assassin does not regret her choice of jobs, the heroine keeps the guy from the first page without effort or self-examination.
I won’t say this changed overnight. I was still drawn to the ‘perfection’ in these women, a perfection that as I aged I saw ever farther and farther away. Still I changed and because of that my writing changed. I started to see myself as having a beauty. I found power that fit me. And my weaknesses, well they were still there but not as raw as they had once been. Finding these things in myself was only the first step though, now I had to transfer it to my writing.
It was a little thing at first, teaching my characters one of my greatest assets…how to laugh. How to laugh at themselves and the things around them. I gave them a sense of humor. I gave them MY sense of humor and found I related to them in a whole new way. They were multi-dimensional beings worth exploring and developing! What a realization. I began making my characters into a rainbow of people, not just the same mannequin over and over. I gave my characters flaws. Short-tempered or fearful, vain or hopelessly innocent I gave them things I had inside that I never wanted to expose to the world, because it was not in my view of the story’s perfection.
My current character, Harmony Vasquez is a tender woman who works with kids. She is fearful when things get dangerous, but she digs inside for a courage we all secretly know we would find if our loved ones were in danger. Harmony has a mother who scolds her, and whom she tries to please. She has cases that break her heart and she has clients that infuriate her. She is plain. Harmony is as real as I can make her and as far away from my first perfect attempts as I can get. Ok, perhaps not, in the end she DOES get the love interest…I guess that is one thing I just can’t get rid of because I did it too.
Anyway, today is an admonishment for all of us to let go of perfection and just be ourselves. Put those pictures that are fun but not perfect on the web…talk about being broken hearted and sad…be up front about your joys and accomplishments…share your history, good and bad, and above all grow. Just be sure to take your writing with you when you do.

Peace out,

Renee