Is Listening to Music while you Write a Distraction or an Inspiration?

When I sit down to write, one of the first things I do is open up Pandora before I start writing.

Some writers find background music a distraction, but I love to have music on while I write.

When it comes to music, I listen to aIMG_0345 little bit of everything. My taste in music include all realms of country music, from artists like Toby Keith and Jason Aldean, to the Dixie Chicks to Johnny Cash.  I listen to pop music like Maroon 5 and Justin Timberlake, and classic rock bands from the 60’s and 70’s. I have Pandora stations for Jimmy Buffet, Bob Seger and the Eagles.

But when I’m writing, I like to listen to mellow background music: Dave Matthews, John Mayer, or if I’m feeling especially emo, Death Cab for Cutie. There’s nothing like an emotionally charged song about unrequited love or a broken heart to get me into a pensive mood: Coldplay’s “Sparks,” or my favorite DMB song, “Stay or Leave.” I love anything with an acoustic guitar, or a long jam like Weezer’s “Only in Dreams.”

Music has become part of my writing process. I set Pandora to Dave Matthews Band radio and type away.

Music can set the tone or help to channel a character. When I’m writing a scene set during the Holidays, I listen to Christmas music – no matter the time of year. When I’m working on a longer project, listening to the type of music that I imagine my character would listen to, helps me get into their mindset. For my current novel-in-progress, I listen to jazz when I’m writing from the perspective of my main characters, Miranda, who is a jazz singer and pianist. Now it seems I can’t hear Frank Sinatra without thinking of Miranda. Her musical career is modeled after that of Canadian jazz artist, Diana Krall and I listen to her music for inspiration.

Do you listen to music while you write or do you find it too distracting? What songs are on your writing playlist?

Collecting Ideas

Ideas can come from anywhere. A piece of overheard conversation might make a perfect line of dialogue, or a story in the news can act as a springboard for a plot.

When an idea emerges it may only be a premise, an opening image, a starting point that may need more time before we begin working on it. And so we must remember these ideas to use them or build on them later. How does a writer keep track of them all?

I’ve always been a note-taker. I have notebooks upon notebooks filled with lists and notes. The trouble is keeping track of them all and remembering in which notebook I jotted a particular thought.

The modern version of the notebook is the app Evernote. Unlike my collection of notebooks, which I don’t have on me at all times, I always have my phone with me. I’ve started using this app and have created “Notes” for character names and story ideas.

There are more visual options for keeping ideas, like scrapbooks, collages, bulletin boards or virtual pinboards such as Pinterest. I have boards on Pinterest where I pin photos that inspire my characters and settings.

index-cardsAnne Lamott recommends index cards: “I fold an index card lengthwise in half, stick it in my back pocket along with a pen, and head out, knowing that if I have an idea, or see something lovely or strange or for any reason worth remembering, I will be able to jot down a couple of words to remind me of it.” I’ve used this method too, stashing index cards in my wallet or glove compartment.

I don’t have a singular, organized method for collecting and saving those moments of insight, but I’ll continue to use any method at my disposal to keep those potentially useful ideas from slipping away.

How do you collect your ideas?

Setting Reading Goals

Sometime last year, I became curious about how many books I read in a year. I have never kept track and only had a vague reference of how long ago I’d read a particular book – last year? two years ago?

So I began keeping a list of books I read in 2012 and was shocked at how short the list was. Twelve. Twelve months, twelve books. Was that all, really? Take a look at my 2012 list.

Admittedly, 2012 was a bad reading year and I blamed it on the fact that I spent the majority of that year planning my wedding. But I knew, wedding or not, I simply wasn’t making enough time to read.

Jennifer Kierecki Blog Reading GoalsSo I decided to make a reading goal this year. My goal for 2013 is to read 40 books. It’s not a terribly ambitious goal compared to some, but I chose 40 because that’s a little bit more than 3 books a month which seemed reasonable for me.

I’ll admit I was late to the Goodreads party, but it is a great way to make a keep track of reading goals. It will tell me if I’m behind or on track, and right now, at 18 books under my belt, I’m right on track!

If you like to set reading goals, I recently learned about a blog called A Novel Challenge which is a great place to find all the latest reading challenges. I love the idea of challenging myself to read books by a particular author whose work I am interested in, or books related to a certain topic or genre. Maybe it’s not too late to set a summer reading challenge (or maybe I should stick to one challenge at a time!)

With my reading challenge for 2013 well under way, this may not have been the best time to read Stephen King’s 800+ page  11/22/63. Considering I could read two or three books in the time it will take me to read this one, it may set me back, but I’m enjoying it nonetheless.

I recently wrote about how good readers make good writers. And now that I’m really making time to read as much as possible, I’m finding that it is making a huge impact in my writing. Not only am I writing more, I want to write every chance I get.

I’m a believer now that it isn’t enough for a writer to simply read a book or two here and there. Reading is part of the creative process.

How many books do you read in a year? Do you have a reading goal? Please share your goals in the comments below!

If you haven’t got an idea, start a story anyway

As a writer, sometimes ideas come easy. Inspiration can strike while I’m in the shower, on the drive home from work, or while I’m reading. Ideas can take form from something someone says in passing conversation, the lyrics in a song, the words printed on a sign. But sometimes, our creative outlets are tapped. When you’re in a writing rut, nothing seems worth writing about.

It’s times like those, I find that I must write anyway.

William Campbell Gault says, “If you haven’t got an idea, start a story anyway. You can always throw it away, and maybe by the time you get to the fourth page you will have an idea, and you’ll only have to throw away the first three pages.”

writingSometimes the best thing I can do is write just to see where it takes me. I have to write outside my comfort zone, both literally and figuratively. Sometimes all it takes is changing my physical writing spot, like moving out to the patio to take in the sights, sounds and smells. Or ditching my laptop and taking a notebook to write from a coffee shop or a park bench – these are great places to eavesdrop on conversations and take notes!  A change of scenery and a change in the regular writing routine can be a simple trick to inspire something new.

But what happens when you get to the fourth page, or the tenth, and you still don’t have any ideas? We all have days when it seems no matter how much we write, or how hard we try, the writing just isn’t there.

And that’s okay. Not everything we write is publishable, sometimes it’s just practice.

Looking back in old backup documents, I recently found dozens of short pieces I had written over the years. I couldn’t  believe how many of them there were and it was fun looking back on them. And it was then, I realized, even if I never get to quit my day job to write full time, I can still call myself a writer because, after all, a writer writes. And I will always write.

What do you do when you’re stuck for ideas?

An Ode to Shitty First Drafts

We’ve all heard the quote from Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

What an empowering thing for any writer. How liberating to be reminded that when we sit down to write, our first draft is probably going to be awful, but that’s okay. It’s part of the process.

When I sat down a few weeks ago to write an assignment for a local newspaper, I was reminded of this quote. The blank document stared at me and every time I started to write a sentence, I deleted it or worse – stopped myself before I even put any words on the page. I was too focused on wanting it to sound good.

Finally, I said to myself (out loud) “Okay, this is going to be shitty, but I’m just going to do it.” It got a lot easier after that.

Once I gave myself permission to write badly, I was able to get out of my own way and just write. I simply had to remind myself that what I was writing didn’t have to be perfect. I had to tell myself that no one was going to see this draft but me, and that I just had to get the words down and I could figure out the order of them later.

Fortunately, writers have a lot to say about first drafts. Natalie Goldberg says, “If every time you sat down to write, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment. Plus, that expectation would also keep you from writing.”

I can’t talk about first drafts without talking about Anne Lamott. She wrote a very helpful, very reassuring chapter on Shitty First Drafts in her book, Bird by Bird, my favorite book on writing which I wrote about here.

She reminds us that all writers write bad first drafts. She says, “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” No one sits down to write and gets it right effortlessly on the first try. She says the only way she can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. I find the same is true for me, too.

Lamott insists that the first draft is where you let it all pour out onto the page, no matter how childish or silly or terrible it may seem. She says to just get it all down on paper because, “There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go – but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.”

The key is to not let that terribly written first draft stop you from going back to it and writing a second, and a third.

For me, the first draft is for figuring out what the story is really about, what story I’m really trying to tell. It’s about getting the ideas down, discovering who our characters are, their motives, and their flaws. Who are they and what do they have to say? Anne Lamott says, “Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t – and, in fact, you’re not supposed to – know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.”

I find that sometimes the story that comes out on paper is very different than the story I imagined I was sitting down to write. It’s easy to dream up an idea, to have a plot in mind, but it doesn’t always work out the way we imagine it would.

Jack Dann says, “For me, writing is exploration; and most of the time, I’m surprised where the journey.” So while first drafts can be a struggle, they can be surprising.

Check on my For Writers page to find other great books for writers and resources I have found helpful .

Books for Writers: Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

The first book on writing I ever owned is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I received it as a Christmas gift from my aunt when I was in high school and dreaming of becoming a bestselling novelist. I read the title and thought, “Why is she giving me a book about birds??” But when I read the full title I noticed it said: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

It’s a book I didn’t fully appreciate for a long time until I finally sat down and really read it. I have since re-read it many times and often pick it up to reference particularly helpful passages. I find that I discover something new each time I read it. Now, my copy of Bird by Bird is well worn. It has so many markings and underlined passages I couldn’t even begin to share them all.

Lamott starts by reminding us that, “Good writing is about telling the truth.” She says, “The good news is that some days it feels like you just have to keep getting out of your own way so that whatever it is that wants to be written can use you to write it.”

Lamott offers this bit of advice about getting started:  write about your childhood. One of the first times I read this book, I took Lamott’s advice and I recently came across those writings I had written years ago, reflections about my turbulent years in junior high, a recounting of my awful first kiss. I was grateful to find these pieces, grateful that I had recorded these parts of my life that I’d much rather forget because let’s face it, it makes great material!

Lamott writes about the writing life, and issues like writer’s block, and perfectionism. She offers ways to silence your inner critic (see the chapter on Radio Station KFKD.) She writes frankly and honestly about getting published (and the myth of publication) about which she says, “…if what you have in mind is fame and fortune, publication is going to drive you crazy. If you’re lucky, you will get a few reviews, some good, some bad, some indifferent.” She reminds us the real payoff is the writing itself.

She offers advice, like writing short assignments, carrying around index cards, and one of my favorite bits of writing advice, shitty first drafts (More on that in a future post!)

She writes about character, – it takes time for you to know them –  plot, – Plot grows out of character – and dialogue, – good dialogue gives us the sense that we are eavesdropping.

So much of that advice, so much of what I have learned about writing the hard way, is all written here in this book.

Anne Lamott is funny and honest, sharing her own triumphs, tribulations and humiliations. Reading about her experiences reminds me that I’m not alone in those moments when I sit at my computer staring at the cursor blinking back at me, feeling as though I should just give up on writing altogether. Her stories have stayed with me, and have offered solace and humor in my own writing tribulations.

If you are a writer this book is an absolute must-have.

Keyboard vs. Longhand: How do you Write?

I recently read this post on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog from the New Hampshire Writer’s Network. The  post was part of the Friday Fun series where each week, they pose and answer a different question. This week, they posed a question about writing with a keyboard versus writing longhand.

QUESTION: Early adopter or luddite? A shiny laptop and the latest writing software, or crisp paper and a fine pen? Which do you prefer? Why? If you use both, what drives your choice?

This inspired me to think about my own writing habits.

While I love the feeling of pen-in-hand, I find more and more I use the computer (or my iPhone) for note-taking and writing.

NotebookI still carry a notebook with me and always make sure to have good pen (or three) on hand at all times. In fact, I have notebooks everywhere; a fun-sized notebook for my purse, a notepad in my glove compartment. You’ll find notebooks in my desk drawers, my nightstand, the end table beside my couch. I have them in a variety of styles, spiral bound, Steno pads, and composition notebooks.

I am known for writing things down on post-its and scraps of paper, then losing said scraps of paper. So I’ve taken to using my phone to record my shipping lists. I used to be an avid journal keeper and always wrote in journals by hand. Despite my tendency toward typing in recent years, I love to write notes in beautiful cursive and fear that good handwriting is become a lost art form.

For my freelance writing work, I have always taken notes longhand on a notepad during interviews, but have recently come around to bringing my laptop for note taking. I can type so much faster than I write, that it’s easier to keep up and much better for accurately recording direct quotes.

I do most of my creative writing on my laptop in Microsoft Word. I don’t have much experience with writing software, however, this past November I tried yWriter for NaNoWriMo and enjoyed it. I have also taken to writing notes or starting drafts using my Gmail, composing an email then saving it as a draft to come back to later. As silly as this seems, I can easily access my Gmail from anywhere.

How do you write? How has technology changed the way you write?