Friday, 23 December 2011

Can music help the writing process?

Some writers work better with the sounds of a bustling cafe around them, others prefer the comfort of silence, but for some writers, the medium of music helps them to write better. There is something about the right background music that magically lights the creative touch paper.

Imagine watching a movie without any musical score. Would the emotional, dramatic or action scenes seem right? Would they have any impact? Imagine the opening scenes of Jaws without the clever cello build up of John Williams’ score. Without that creeping sound, the scene loses the sinister feel and it also loses any opportunity to create tension.

And what would the vast visual beauty of Lawrence of Arabia be without Maurice Jarre’s romantic swish of strings to rouse the audience? It would be somewhat empty.

Music and writing works the same way. The right music can create drama, it can affect the mood and it also stirs the imagination.

Of course, every writer is different and it may not work for everyone. But for those who have never really thought about it, the right music can do the following for writers:

  • It helps to create atmosphere
  • It helps to stimulate the senses
  • It fosters creativity
  • It helps you visualise scenes
  • It’s a way of infusing your narrative with heightened emotion and feeling
  • It can create impact

Again, think about how you feel when you hear music in a movie – it’s a perfect accompaniment to heighten atmosphere or tension, to draw our emotions, to rouse us with the action. Let it so the same for your writing.

It’s important to choose the right music for the right scene (although you might be one of those writers who can write sensual scenes to the decibel shattering sounds of Metallica) so perhaps non-distracting music may work better, so that it actually helps you focus on your narrative rather than detract from it. Whatever works for you.

Scene-appropriate music

Choosing the right music for the right scene is important if you want those creative juices to bubble. Light classical or movie soundtrack music is perfect for this because scores can provide the right amount of mood and atmosphere for a particular scene. For instance, slow thoughtful music for contemplative scenes, or upbeat, bristling, stirring music for action scenes, and sad, softer music for emotional scenes.

Instrumental music tends to be better simply because of its composition and melody structure, whereas songs could distract from the actual ‘sound’ of the music because you might have the urge to sing along or tap your fingers to the beat, when instead you should be writing!

It may be that writing with certain types of music can increase writing productivity because it helps the writer focus the tension, the atmosphere, emotions or conflict into the writing.

Also, try to focus on the piece of music you choose, listen to its rich layers and let your thoughts wander. It should stir your creativity and stretch your imagination, after all, these two art forms - music and literature - work in tandem. They are so ingrained in our psyche that the world would seem strange without them.

I write to well chosen movie scores – ranging from John Williams, James Newton Howard, James Horner, Thomas Newman and many others. Each one offers something different and I can tailor the music to suit my writing needs. Some of these come from CDs while others are from online playlists.

There are a number of free online resources for those interested putting together playlists.  Just follow the links: is a free streaming and radio service. offers some free music downloads for your MP3. is also a free streaming service, which I use. You’ll find many movie scores and classical composers here, and you can also create your own playlists.

Background music is just one of a number of tools that can support a writer and in some cases, boost the creative output, so If you haven’t already, why not give it a go? It might inspire you, who knows?


Next week: Passive voice

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Character separation disorder...moving on from your characters

You’ve created your novel, you’ve devoted months or perhaps years to writing it, but then the daunting task of sitting down and starting your next big creation begins, yet somehow you just can’t get into it.

Sometimes writers become so entwined with their characters when writing with them for such a prolonged period that it’s difficult to move on and think about new characters and new stories. Months or years spent sheltering in the skin of their protagonists and antagonists can force a wedge between the writer and their creativity.

But this isn’t unusual for writers.

We grow to understand and love our characters, and sometimes it’s hard to move on from them. Character separation disorder simply means that the bond we have with our well-drawn heroes and villains is sometimes hard to break. When we need to create new characters for new stories and themes, we first have to let go of our first set of characters in order to gain and understanding for the new set of characters.

Of course, this poses a one or two problems, because writers will start thinking things like ‘my new character won’t be like my old character, so how can I possibly write a new one?’ or ‘I miss writing with my old characters’ or ‘I loved the way my hero was in my first novel...’ etc. The moment these thoughts creep in, the creative process might stall.

And if there is an excuse, a writer will find it. 

Why do some writers find it difficult?  

Writers devote time and effort, planning, empathy and creativity within their characters, they have nurtured and watched their characters grow, they have lived through the fictional ups and downs, the highs and lows, and so all these elements are a psychological part of the writer. Those characters will have developed personalities, ways of talking and behaving. They are almost real, and finishing a novel - and therefore finishing with your characters - is rather like seeing children grow up and leave home.

When a writer needs new characters, he or she might make comparisons to the old ones, or simply disguise the same old characters but with new names, however, new stories and themes require new, fresh characters, not old ones masquerading as new. 

How does as writer overcome it?

The best way to overcome this is to allow enough time after completing the novel before sitting down to write the next novel. That time allows you to think afresh, sketch new characters, flesh out storylines for them and get to know them. 

If you don’t give yourself that time, you’ll spend far too much time making comparisons to your old, dearly loved characters and falling into the trap of trying to start a new novel with poorly planned ideas and badly drawn heroes and villains.

It’s also important that you get to the inner workings of your new story before you jump in with both feet – this allows you to form a writing bond with the elements of the story, and more importantly, it allows you to warm to your new characters.

Once you have sketched out new characters, try writing some practice scenes with them. This is a good way for you and them to become acquainted.

You will grow to love your new characters throughout the lifecycle of your new novel, you’ll get to nurture them and go through the emotional highs and lows. They will become an intrinsic part of you, just like the old set of characters, and you’ll enjoy writing with them just as much.

Characters are like family. They come to stay for a while, but eventually they have to leave and go home.


  • Allow time from finishing the first novel to starting the next.
  • Discover your new characters, develop them and get to really know them.
  • Plan and get to know the inner workings of your new story.
  • Don’t compare your old characters with your new ones.
  • Write some practice scenes with your new characters to get a sense of who they are.
  • The more time you spend with your new characters, the less likely you are to think of your old ones.

Next week: Can music help the writing process?

Saturday, 10 December 2011

How being subtle can improve your descriptions

The art of good description is sometimes about intentionally holding back from your reader.

Have you ever watched horror movies where the monster or creature is never revealed until the very end? You only get hints or shadows or brief glimpses. But if you compare them to movies where you see the monster from the outset, while they might be entertaining, you get two very different results.

The reason that not seeing the monster works so well is that, psychologically, it deprives the visual part of your brain from what is, so consequently, your brain has to fill in the gaps, it has to build up a picture of what the monster looks like. It also helps focus tension and atmosphere, precisely because you don’t know who or what it is.

Imagine the same technique in fiction. By not revealing too much to the reader, you not only create a sense of tension and atmosphere, but you also keep them guessing. And by doing that you keep them reading, because physiologically, they have to fill in the gaps.

It is true when they say less is more. Simply by hinting at something within your narrative will fire your reader’s imagination, rather than a reliance of revealing everything in one great chunk of text. Hold back a little; make the readers draw their own thoughts.

Subtlety can actually improve your descriptions, so try not to over-describe. Give the reader something to work with – it could be a word prompt, a colour or a hint of something.

This is a flash fiction piece, called Prelude, a good example of how description can hint at something without going into all the details:

The shape of deception toiled in the strained expression in the window.

The silence of the moment dragged across her nerves, tore a hole in her senses as the sticky residue of rationality dribbled from an overloaded mind. 

Behind her, a figure lay beneath the covers, untainted by such burdens.  

Emotions bubbled beneath the surface. They neither made sense nor soothed, but they forged a path through her resolve. She’d given in to temptation. 

Cold neon reflections flashed across her face. 

Her wedding ring glinted. Guilt clung to her reverie.  

And still the blade in her hand sang to her.

Here there is a build up to what will happen, but I wrote it in such a way that the descriptions speak for themselves without being overbearing and too full on. 

The key words in the first line are ‘deception toiled’. This tells the reader what is on the character’s mind, again without writing seven or eight sentences going into the finer details. A few well-chosen words do all the work for me.

The key words in the second sentence are ‘silence...dragged across her nerves.’ What does this convey? What can you hear in that? And ‘sticky residue of rationality’ prompts the reader to imagine the character’s thoughts and feelings.

What else do the descriptions tell you? What can you imagine from them? What colours might you see? What might you hear?

The closing line implies what might happen, what she will do, all without going into too much detail. There is just enough there to stir the reader’s imagination, to fill in the visual and sensory gaps for themselves.

What I did with Prelude is deprive the reader of many visual aspects – forcing them to imagine more of the story.

Every writer’s mantra is to ‘show, don’t tell’, and it works the same way to tease your reader. Show them, don’t tell them outright. Plant clues, foreshadow, drop hints through narrative or dialogue. Let them fill in the gaps and let their imagination do the work.

Here’s a simple example:

Josh walked slowly to the car, his mind heavy. He opened the door and climbed in, thought about what had happened. He started the car, clicked his seat belt in place, and wondered how he was going to tell his wife, Melissa, that he had been made redundant. He gripped the wheel and drove away with a heavy heart...

Compare that with:

Thoughts fizzled as Josh walked to the car. A cold realisation trickled into his veins. Redundant. Reduced to nothing. The serrated fear of what he would tell his wife troubled him and shame crept in as he drove away...

The reader doesn’t need to know every single movement Josh made, so the descriptions of getting into the car and starting it and putting the seat belt on are irrelevant. What are important are Josh’s feelings and thoughts. He feels as though he is nothing, he feels ashamed. It’s up to the reader to decipher what that means to Josh and his wife, because the hint has been planted.

This style of description also forms part of the ‘moving the story forward’ idea. In a few sentences we know what’s happened to him and the hint about what his wife will say when he returns home moves the story forward to that moment.

Subtle hints work well in dialogue, too, and will help you move the story forward. Read your favourite authors to see how they achieve it.

Remember the following in your descriptions:

· Prompts – visual, sound, colour, shapes,  etc
· Hints – Thoughts, feelings, emotions, events etc.
· Foreshadowing
· Deliberately deprive the reader

Achieving good description isn’t always about describing everything in minute detail. As a writer, you are playing a psychological game with your reader. How good you are with that will depend on how good your description is.

Next week: Character separation disorder...moving on from your characters.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Narrative Oppositions

Firstly, what are narrative oppositions? These are certain words – they can be nouns, adjectives etc - that crop up within descriptive passages, but are actually opposite it their meaning. In other words, the writer is trying to describe a scene and inadvertently ends up using pairs of words that mean opposite things.

This is not uncommon because many writers misunderstand the meaning of some words and therefore group them together. For instance, ‘foreboding’ and ‘forbidding’ mean different things but are often wrongly used together when trying to create tension and atmosphere within a scene. For instance:

The house had a cold, foreboding appearance, forbidding in the dark...’

Forbidding means ‘repellent, stern’. Foreboding means bad omen, an expectation’ of trouble or evil.’

Another often seen example is sob and wail.

‘She sobbed into her hands, wailed into the silence...’

To sob means to cry quietly. To wail means to cry very loudly or bitterly, therefore you can’t have a character sobbing and wailing at the same time, and yet writers mistakenly put these two together. These are narrative oppositions that look as though they belong together, but actually don’t.

Another two words which are commonly grouped together within narrative, but actually mean slightly different things, are moan and groan.

‘He moaned and groaned as the pain rippled through him...’

Because of the way English constantly changes, both moan and groan are now used in the context of meaning the same thing, however, to moan is to whinge about something. To groan is to cry out with pain, but where fiction is concerned, describing a character doing both is a sign of lazy writing, so don’t make the mistake of having your characters moaning and groaning. 

Clarity, simplicity and accuracy should always be at the forefront of every writer’s mind.

Another two descriptive words commonly linked together, is flail and thrash, for instance, ‘he flailed on the floor and thrashed about...

Flail means to swing or wave erratically or wildly. Thrash means to beat or strike with a stick or whip etc, as though to flail someone. They mean similar things in English, but when using them in your narrative, they can cause ambiguity and confusion.

The same could be said for writhed and thrashed. Or writhed and flailed. These are two distinct words of different meanings.

Another example often seen is narrative that has a character shuddering and then quivering.

He shuddered as he looked up, quivering in the cold.

Again, while these two words may indicate similarity, they actually describe different things. Quivering and shuddering are different movements, because quivering is like a tremble, from either fear or excitement, and the act of shuddering is a large convulsive movement, associated with extreme cold or terrible fear. Writers mistakenly group them together thinking they mean the same thing.

And two words that often crop up in romance fiction is husked and rasped, as though trying to evoke sensual allure. But husk and rasp mean different things. One is a deep throaty sound; the other is a serrated, sharp sound. You can’t have your hero doing both.

The beauty of the editing process, however, is that you can remove oppositions like from your manuscript and correct the narrative before it hits the agent or publisher’s desk.

When it comes to your descriptive passages and narrative, use your words wisely and only in context, think about what you want to convey, otherwise you risk losing the meaning of what you’re trying to say, or worse still, you’ll end up confusing your reader altogether.

Remember - clarity, simplicity and accuracy.

Next week: How subtlety can improve your narrative.