Inspiration. It's just out there, waiting.
Music, the mood foodSome writers require silence to work. I used to be one of them.
Then I read an interview with Zach Braff. He discussed the role music plays in his screenwriting process and said he actually soundtracks his scripts, using the music to inform the writing. Hmm, I thought. Interesting concept. Later that day, I was listening to the radio and heard a song by The Fray. Suddenly, the scene I'd been struggling with earlier came roaring into my head in full, living color. I mentioned it to a writer pal, who told me she always creates playlists for her projects, and a whole new writing process opened up for me.
Now, one of the first things I do when a new idea floats up from the depths is to find a song - or two or three - that seems to resonate with the story. I'm not looking at lyrics so much as feeling for mood and tone, though the lyrics sometimes slide under the cracks and open a secret passageway into an unexpected corner of the story. I've always been a music lover, but I didn't realize what a powerful creative tool it was for me until I started writing to it and discovered that the right song can tap something buried deep in my subconscious - an idea, a piece of dialogue, a scene - pull it up, and drop it into my eager hands. In fact, for one of my novels, a song tripped the switch in my head, unleashing the entire first chapter in a pulse-pounding rush.
So how does it work, exactly?
I don't soundtrack my books by scene but sometimes, if a particular song fits the moment or the situation, I'll set it on repeat for as long as it takes to complete the writing. Because of this, some of the songs on my lists clock hundreds of plays. Sounds weird, right? Don't I get sick of hearing the same song, over and over?
I'm sure I would, if I were really listening to it. But I'm not. I have my headphones on because they block out the whole world and - like blinders on a horse - keep me focused on what's right in front of me, but the volume is very low. The music is just there, white noise of a sort, holding the mood of the scene, infusing the words, helping me translate what I'm feeling or seeing onto the page.
…as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown—
Giving Imagination Form
In the film world, story boards are illustrated panels blocking out the scenes of a script. In my world, they're a steel-framed collage of cork and whiteboard panels dominating the wall above my desk. They're covered with scribbles and notes in various colors of dry-erase ink and pictures of locations, houses, cars, art, street maps, people or metaphorical representations unique to a story, all of which serve to help me visualize the world I'm writing.
When I work, I see the words building across the screen. But I also see - on a magical screen somewhere in the back of my head - the scene unfolding. I'm watching it, like a movie, so the less detail I have to make up, the easier it is to keep the action rolling. Having pictures of a place or a thing right in front of me makes bringing it into my head and out onto the page almost effortless. The same holds true for people.
I spent my college years in San Francisco State University's film department. One of the first things they taught us in Screenwriting 101 was cast your movie before you write it.
This translates beautifully to novels, as well, and I've gotten a few of my writing friends hooked on the process because it's fun, and it makes life easier.
If you have an actor in mind when you're thinking of a character, you don't have to concoct details for your description. You can look at a picture and write dark, soulful eyes and messy hair. Or sharp cheekbones, wicked grin. And the best part? You won't forget what your characters look like. If you do, just glance up and there he/she is, staring right at you.
Besides, it makes for some killer conversation starters. My office is in the middle of the house, wedged between the living room and the kitchen, and whenever we have a gathering, I invariably find a few people clustered around my boards playing "name that actor". If they haven't been here before, I get the puzzled look and the inevitable question: "What the heck is all this?"
Foot it featly, here and there
There's nothing quite like a road trip
I have the requisite stack of research books, documentary DVDs and YouTube bookmarks, of course, but I love walking in my characters' footsteps. I'm always up for an inspirational ramble, exploring new corners of familiar areas or taking on a whole new city. Sure, there's plenty of information and images galore to be found on the Net, but that doesn't give me the deep sense of place I like to impart in my stories. Plus, when you're out and about, you never know what sort of cool stuff you might discover. I've stumbled across some of my favorite settings in serendipitous ways and, more than once, I've found a great gelato shop along the path. Win!