Why We Write

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:

Pictured: What happens when you don’t plug leaks, or when your manuscript/screenplay hits an iceberg.

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.

Pictured: my soundtrack

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.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Everybody has one: the Greatest Summer Of Your Life. The one that stands out above all others. I consider myself fortunate that I have had many summers that stand out.

Summer 1986, we’re moving from Greensboro North Carolina to Brockville Ontario. Owing to the fact the school year in NC ends in late May, and the school year in Ontario begins after Labor Day weekend, this means I have a whole three months off. I go to Space Camp. My best friend in the world comes down for a two week visit.

Summer 1994. My first full summer living in Toronto. I have money from crewing music video shoots and a few weeks break and end up spending it at the same best friend’s place while his family is away on holiday. We barbecue, we drink, we hang by the backyard pool, we throw parties, and hit the hay as the sun rises. For three glorious weeks I’m the most relaxed I have been and ever will be.

Summer 1999. The year of Robocop. The year I go pro. It’s a great summer, not because I have leisure time because I most certainly do not. It’s a lot of hard work, lots of writing, but the stage has been set that every season subsequent is me, working from home, writing, and earning a living at it. 17 years later I’m still doing it.

Summer 2015. I become a dad, and while sleep is lacking and stress is high, it’s perhaps the most incredible experience I’ve ever had.

But Summer 2016 looks to be over before it’s begun, because Magicians Impossible is coming in with notes and edits from my editor, and a timetable for completion that means the next three months are given over to that.

Plus, things have been moving at a fast clip on Squadron, the TV series I created in development with Copperheart Entertainment. Copperheart (Wolves, Splice) just signed a co-production agreement with Octagon Films (Vikings, Penny Dreadful) to get the show off the ground and into the air, which means in addition to Magicians, I have a WW1-sized shadow soaring overhead. So June, July, August and autumn look to be filled to capacity.

And that doesn’t include being a work-at-home-stay-at-home-dad.

Good thing I already took my summer vacation.

Back on March 1st when I delivered MI, I decided I was taking a break for a month. My first real “time off” from work in a couple of years. That, and the fact I was still recovering from a serious back injury and I needed time to rest and recuperate and clear my head. And I did just that … for maybe 10 days. The writer’s brain is never really idle; after a couple weeks of rest and relaxation and being “dad”, I needed to start something new. I began outlining my next book project, and outlined and began scripting new comic book project.

Where those two projects will fit in the grand scheme remains to be seen but both are on the backburner while I tackle the Magicians rewrites. And Squadron, well, where that goes is anyone’s guess, but it has the potential to completely disrupt and dominate my life for the next several years.

So there’s going to be something of a slow-down on this website the next little bit, until I get atop all the work stuff. I’m also taking a holiday next month and hauling the family up to Canada for a couple of weeks to make the rounds. There will be updates here and there but of the short and punchy variety, like this one.

But rather than just leave you with “I’m going to be away for a bit, I leave you with this. I’m not one to talk about fatherhood because there’s no shortage of people that do, but I leave you with this thought that came to me on Father’s Day as my wife and I took our son to a nearby park to hear some live music.

When you’re young, your first intro to music comes from your parents. Their music becomes your soundtrack. Long car rides for me are always associated with The Beatles and Stones and Simon and Garfunkel and Gordon Lightfoot and ABBA.

Then, when you’re older and in school, it’s your friends music that becomes yours. You bond over it For me it was MTV and Much Music, Prince and Thompson Twins and U2 and INXS. There’s Top 40 and College radio. That’s your soundtrack.

Then, in your later teens, you want to carve out your own identity. You reject the mainstream and find your own path. Depeche Mode. Sonic Youth. Nirvana. In my case the underground became the mainstream for a brief moment before fading back into obscurity. or maybe it’s you who fade.

Life takes over. Music is not as important. You have a job, and bills, and college loans, and just trying to get by living.

Then, you start getting back into it. You find new music, new bands. The White Stripes. Coldplay. Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Or, you dig back to that time music meant the world. You find stations that play the music you listened to in your teens. You find you like the music you used to rail against because it reminds you of those years when you were young and you were looking out the windshield at the road ahead instead of the rear view and the road behind.

Then you find you’re listening to the music your parents listened to because it reminds you of them.

Then you become a parent yourself and your child first experiences the music you listened to. Then they discover their own music. Then the cycle repeats.

Happy Summer everyone. See you in September.