NOTE: This is an updated version of a post I wrote five years ago, about the writing process, or at least “my” writing process. As we near the release of Magicians Impossible I wanted to revisit this piece, and add some additional flavor.
I’m not much for talking about my “process”. There are plenty of places you can look to read about “process”, and there are plenty of people who are happy to share what their process is. They’re all interesting and informative, and also contradictory and probably of little use to you. That’s because they’re talking about their process; they aren’t talking about what process works best for you. Some insist on powering through the first draft and revising after it’s finished; others swear by revision as you go. Some obsess on word count or pages per day; others are concerned only with “good” pages. Some brave souls rise at 5am and write for three hours before starting the day proper; others write in the evenings when the day is done. Some say you need to write every day; others say weekends are fine. They’re all right … and they’re all wrong.
So here’s a piece about my process. Please feel free to ignore it.
For me it all starts with the idea. Sometimes it’s a detailed idea; other times it’s just a rough sketch. From there I think about whose story “my” story is; the characters. Male or female, child or adult – I’ll try various combinations and complications before settling on POV. From there, assuming the story I’ve put together is any good, and the characters I’ve conceived are going to be interesting enough to follow, I clear the decks, close my door and start writing. I outline before I draft, I treatment after I outline, I look for leaks and plug plot holes the best I’m able, and once that’s done, I start writing. Because if I don’t, this happens:
But before I do any of the above … I listen to music. Music may in fact be the most important part of my process. If I haven’t decided on what music I’m going to write to, chances are I won’t be able to do any writing, and what I do write will be shit.
Okay maybe not shit, but difficult.
My favorite approach to this is to assemble a playlist or mixtape to accompany whatever particular project I’m working on. This is music that gets me into “the zone”, but more importantly into the character’s heads. I’ll tailor a playlist to a specific character, and use the songs I choose to illustrate their personalities, their hopes, their fears, their everything. I’ll create several such playlists for any given project, and I’ll listen to them when I’m focusing on a particular character or subplot.
There are a couple of reasons for this. The first I already mentioned; to get into the characters and the world they inhabit. But the second is more basic; to get me going. Because some days you just … can’t … get … into … the writing part of writing.
You have lousy sleep or a lousy day. You’re at one of those points in the story where you’ve lost the plot. You want to do anything but write. Every writer has days like this. But since I started creating playlists those days are fewer and come further between.
That’s where the playlist comes in. Because you’ll sit there and you’ll listen to it, or you’ll throw it on your iPod and go for a walk, and pretty soon the story will come back to you. And once the story comes back to you, you’re able to write it down.
Now, this music doesn’t have to be of the period the project is set in; in fact I’d strongly advise against that. The reason you create a playlist is not to be authentic but to be real. To connect with the characters and the story on an emotional level. So unless you grew up listening to Civil War era grassroots music, using that music to score your Civil War era story is going to make it a dry museum piece. Ask yourself what your characters would listen to if they were alive today (and seeing as they are your characters they are alive). Would they be into rock? Punk? Country? Hip-hop? Put yourself in their headspace and assemble a list of songs that relate to them, their trials, and their troubles. See them as living, breathing people, not just words on the page and an idea in your head. Once they become “real” to you, they will be to the reader.
Some examples: my first (unpublished) novel was a murder mystery set in Renaissance Italy. It was written primarily to 60s British Invasion and 90s Britpop. There are two main characters, each with alternating perspective chapters. One was 50-something, the other a 20 year-old. Any time I was writing for the older character I lived on a steady stream of Rolling Stones, The Hollies, Manfred Mann, and the Yardbirds. For the 20 year-old, it was Blur, Oasis, Elastica, Inspiral Carpets, Happy Mondays, and so on.
Squadron, a TV series I’m developing with Copperheart Entertainment, was largely written to early 90s alternative; grunge mostly, but a lot of Pogues, Dropkick Murphys, early U2, Depeche Mode, and Duran Duran. I wanted to capture a feeling of excitement in the lives of WWI flyers, all young twenty-somethings taking to the skies to vanquish their enemies. Because a substantial portion of the story deals with the after effects of being the most famous killers in the world, I balanced fast paced rock with more introspective music for the quieter moments.
There are other examples. A suspense thriller I wrote some years back (also unsold – see the pattern?) was scored to a lot of Madchester-era music, which is appropriate given the main character has walled herself off from the world and is living in something of a nostalgia bubble. It made sense for her to be into the music she was into as a teenager, like she never grew past 2000. A thriller I wrote for a prod co about an EMT on the edge had a lot of 70s Punk in the mix – The Diodes, The Demics, The Clash, The Ramones. Music that reflects the thoughts of a main character living on the edge.
And there’s Magicians Impossible.
The Magicians Mixtape (which will be released on Spotify September 12) is pretty eclectic, featuring Metric, The Kills, The Dread Weather, T. Rex, David Bowie, The Jam, The Vaselines, XTC, The Human league … the list goes on. That playlist is distilled from about seven separate ones I created, each focusing on a major character or moment in the story. Because a novel has more working parts than a screenplay or comic book, I needed to go into greater musical depth. The end-result 50 track mix loosely follows the plot of the book and is a great accompaniment (though I recommend you listen to it after reading the book).
That all being said if your particular project is of a period where music – contemporary music – is available, use it. If there’s an emotional component also, even better. The novel I’m drafting right now features music as a major plot point; specifically one-hit wonders of the 80s and 90s. The music the main characters – all teenagers – would have grown up listening to because that was the music of their parents’ generation.
So that’s it, really. That’s my process and it probably only works for me. But maybe it’s worth a shot if you’re stuck on a plot point or something with your story that just isn’t working for you. If you can’t figure out where your character goes next, why not think about the music they would enjoy and the memories that would be associated with it?
In the end, you need to find what works best for you, and stick to that. Don’t let people like me or anybody else tell you what you’re doing is wrong because it’s not wrong; it’s right for you. As long as what you do works for you it’s better to stay on that track than try and write like someone else.
Because they can already do that. Your job is to write like you.
Well, I’m back. To what though, is the real question. Had a glorious 10 days in Canada, crisscrossing the GTA as far north as Muskoka and as far south as Niagara. Saw friends, saw family, and introduced our child to his Canadian heritage. The weather was pleasant and comfortable, and made me question why I live in the humid blast furnace that is NYC June-September (and sometimes May-October). Plus, there’s the whole America Collapsing Under Generations Of Racial Hatred thing. To be honest at one point in our travels my wife joked about not coming back at all, and I was sorely tempted to say “no problem.”
Okay maybe that’s an exaggeration but a year that began with the death of Bowie and continued thru the death of Prince seems hell-bent on taking away everything good and leaving everything bad.
In other words, I’m here to talk all things Pokemon.
Pokemon Go to be exact. Amidst the shitstorm that has been the daily news the past year, it was a bright spot. What’s not to like about people leaving the confines of their home and, phones in hand, tracking down the anime characters of their childhood on their own neighborhood streets?
Well … I hate to be that guy, but someone has to be.
Look, I get it; it’s a game, it’s fun, and what’s wrong with fun? Absolutely nothing. But Central Park has become a mecca for Pokemon Go and it’s absolutely cluttered with slow walking I-Zombies hunched over their phone searching for these characters. They’re looking into their phones when they could be looking at the stars, and that’s the problem isn’t it? Not a Pokemon problem but an overall one with my generation and the generation following unable to give up their childhood. We’re in our 30s and 40s, reading comic books, buying action figures, watching old cartoons, watching movies based on those cartoons. We’re looking to the past and missing the present.
I am as guilty of this as anyone. I mean, look at my cork-board above my desk:
Yes, those are 2 GI Joe figures in their packaging – part of the line’s 25th anniversary re-release. No I have no intention of taking them out of the package. Why do I have them there above my writing space where I can glance at them anytime I want? Nostalgia. that momentary thrill I got every time I hit the toy section of whatever department store I visited with my parents back in the 80s. Rounding the corner and seeing all those glorious action figures on pegs, row after row of them, waiting for me to convince/beg/plead with my parents to let me have just one. It’s a silly thing, but the microsecond I get of re-experiencing that thrill fills me with a tiny sense of well-being.
Getting nostalgic is a thing that happens when you’re older. It’s a natural part of growing up. The more serious and complex life gets, the more inclined we are to seek comfort in the past. The past is knowable. It’s predictable. It’s safe. When I was in Toronto did I make sure to swing through my old neighborhood and grab a burger at my favorite burger joint, for old time’s sake? Of course I did!
But I also remember when my childhood ended. Not by year – when you’re a teen you can’t really call it a childhood, but you are still a child. No, ended when I started college; not being in college, but at the end of my first semester when my parents announced they were getting divorced. I was an adult then, but wasn’t until that news dropped that I realized there really was no going home ever again. And I never did, really. That’s a theme running through much of my work; the character in search of a home. I have one now, with my wife and child but there’s a small part of me that would trade all I have now to experience those years that were far from golden and only seem that way through the gauzy filter I’ve slapped on my formative years. Even the mid-late 1990s when my life kind of sucked has taken on a mythic tone. There was good stuff nestled amidst the bad, but there always is.
So yeah, the day I found out the future would never be the same as the past I wanted that past back, more than ever. I dug deep, into comic books and movies and TV – not the new stuff but the old stuff. Because it was comfortable. Because it was there. Because unlike my future, I knew how the past ended. Only years later did I realize those entertainments and memories associated with them were my life preserver. But then, when I got on top of my shit, accepted the new reality, and forged my own path those toys were put away.
But does childhood even end now? When 40-something bitch about an all-lady Ghostbusters, when people who are actual adults are running around with their phones to find Pokemon characters, when we’re splurging on toys and trinkets that make us think of a simpler time, are we short-changing the present and future by holding onto the past?
I’m as guilty of this as anybody. I listen to 70s-90s alt rock exclusively, though I do listen to my share of newer artists as well. if I really want to go down the rabbit hole there’s YouTube, which has vintage toy commercials, old After School Specials, music videos, documentaries, home movies. Last year as we prepared for our child’s birth I marathoned my way through The Wonder Years and the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose on Netflix, YouTube, and Crackle; both for completion’s aspects – I missed huge chunks of both series, but because watching them as an adult transported me back to a time I was a child. Mixtape trades on Gen-X nostalgia for the music of its youth. Hell, my next novel, a sci-fi/horror thriller called Underneath, is set in 1988 and features everything from MTV and video stores to mix tapes and John Hughes. You can’t fully leave your past behind. My parents were nostalgic for the Beatles, Woodstock, and their lazy days at the cottage when they were in their 30s and 40s, and more so now that they’re in their 70s. Life moves fast – faster the older you get. Summers used to drag endless; now they’re far too short.
But as my time becomes more precious, I find I have less time for childish things. Having a child is part of that, but I still managed to unload my old Star Wars, GI Joe, and Transformers toys on eBay without so much as a tear shed for those pieces of plastic that provided my childhood with so many fine memories. The time I have not occupied by work and day-to-day maintenance of house and home is spent with my wife and son, creating new memories for all of us.
So I hope you enjoy Pokemon and comics and toys and games; I really do. I hope you find them a salve for the struggles of your day-to-day life because while I don’t know your struggles I know they can beat you down and leave you broken. But I also hope they aren’t becoming substitute for new experiences, new joys, and even new sorrows. My son started walking on his own while on our trip, and I’m happy I was able to see it unfold in real-time, not thru the screen of a phone surrounded by Anime characters. I’m only going to get one chance to experience these things for the first time and I don’t want to miss any of them.
I often joke the worst “life flashing before your eyes” would just be your POV of your phone screen. But it’s no joke – I see it in the playground when pushing my son on the swing and I’m the only adult not staring at their phone while their child tries to get their parents’ attention. When my son rolls his ball across the floor to my desk while I’m working, I feel a sense of shame that he’s trying to get my attention while mine is focused elsewhere. That’s why I turn the computer off and get down on the floor with him; because while work will wait, if you wait too long for it, life will pass you by.
I moved around a lot as a child. By the time I was 12 years old I’d lived in 8 different cities and two different countries. I got very used to (and very good at) making new friends and even better at saying goodbye to them. In fact, my entire childhood is pretty much compartmentalized, with memories tied to a specific place and time, and those memories extend to TV, music, movies, comics and so forth.
For the longest while I thought this was normal; that everyone moved with the frequency we did. Then I later realized that my life was the exception; my friends were kids born in their city or town and grew up there and would very likely remain there for. They were lifers; I was just a face and a name passing through, staying put for a short time, then one day I was gone and my face and name would fade from their memories. I doubt many, if any of the people I went to school with in Vancouver or Edmonton or Greensboro remember me at all. I was the anomaly, not them, and while I once liked the excitement of new cities, new homes, and new schools, over time I came to hate those moves. I came to hate having to say goodbye. I wanted stability. I wanted a sense of place. I wanted a home, not a house.
I bring all this up because I’m at work on my next project, a novel largely inspired by the years I lived in Brockville, Ontario (roughly 1986-1992). While wholly a work of fiction – it’s a horror/sci fi/mystery hybrid – it’s still drawn from the reservoir of memories of my years in that town. It’s about many things I experienced there, and after I left. Mostly it’s about saying goodbye.
It’s been quite the experience so far. Like opening old wounds. Sure, you remember the good but to create real drama you have to zero in on the bad. I’m taking my mind places it hasn’t gone since, well, since those darker days. It hasn’t been pleasant, but it’s been necessary. Both the good and the bad have given me fuel, but so have the mundane moments; shooting pool, hanging out at the arcade, renting crappy horror movies form the local video store. Those moments that seem inconsequential at the time that take on mythic importance so many years later.
When I lived in Brockville I hated it, but I think every teenager hates where they grew up. It was boring, it was stale, and I felt trapped. Even when I got my driver’s license and my first car I felt tethered to home like I was attached by a big elastic. Just when I thought I’d achieved freedom there was something to snap me back. Had I lived someplace exciting like Toronto or New York I’m sure I’d have things to complain about them too, but age changes things. Your memories of that “miserable” time become more golden. You realize that, while they were far from what some would call “the best years of your life” they were special, they were meaningful, and they mattered because they made you the person you are now. Your work ethic, your personality, all of it formed in that blast furnace called High School. It was when you made the decision, conscious or otherwise, to be the person you wanted to be.
Unsurprisingly, if you know anything about me, music has been a great gateway to those years and memories. The infamous box of old mixtapes that inspired Mixtape have come in handy here, as have the assorted yearbooks, photo albums, magazines, notebooks and so on that have been following me around for almost 30 years. Unlike Mixtape, this new project has that element of the fantastic that hopefully means a wider audience than the ‘musical memoir’. It’s very different from Mixtape but shares a lot of its DNA. If you take the cast of my comic and all of a sudden dropped them down into Invasion of the Body Snatchers you essentially have this new thing. Like Mixtape, it has unlocked old memories and opened old wounds. Much of my dislike of those years is because that was the period my parents’ marriage hit the rocks. It was not a happy time. There was yelling and arguments at the dinner table, on outings, even on one infamous birthday celebration (mine). I couldn’t wait to get out of there and when I did I never looked back or went back.
For a while, anyway.
In college when people asked me where I was “from” I never had an easy answer. “Directly” you could say “Brockville” but it wasn’t where I was “from”. When you lived in 8 cities over 12 years you can’t say you’re really ‘from” a certain place. I still saw people from Brockville, and remained friends with them through some of college but we were all moving in other directions. New friends, new horizons; those old familiar faces reminded you of the person you were not the one you wanted to be. So for a very long time I buried Brockville and those years deep, until a good fifteen years had passed since I said my formal goodbye. That story has been documented elsewhere so I won’t bore you. I will say that once I started to plumb the depths of my experiences growing up I became a much better writer. I had a POV, I had a story, I had a voice that was unique yet familiar. My experiences weren’t so different from many others whether you were from Providence, Rhode Island or Buenos Aires, Argentina or Monroe, New York.
One of the great tragedies in life is that we grow up thinking we’re alone and that nobody anywhere understands our problems or what we’re going through, only to learn well after the fact that on every street, in every school, in every town small and large there were people our age going through the same things we were. You can’t help but be haunted by your past and the memories you have of that long ago and far away land. Whether you realize it or admit it, it’s a part of who you are. And I think by embracing the past, warts and all, you stand a much better chance of navigating the present.
If writing is therapy I suppose this new project is mine. Especially being a father now I’m trying to come to terms with the person I was versus the one I am right now and the one I hope to be. To teach my son how to be a better person than his father is. To show him that despite a world that seems dark that there are joyous moments to behold. That even when he’s upset or unhappy and wishing he lived anywhere but here (wherever that will be), that in time it’ll be a lot easier to remember the good moments than dwell on the bad.
So that’s it. Now take care of yourselves. I have a novel to get back to.