On Listening to Music While Writing

I sat down this morning with my laptop—right before my daily workout, which I religiously endure because of the effect it has on my creative mind (a subject that deserves its own post, coming soon)—and wrote fifteen hundred words worth of a story I sketched out yesterday, but I deviated from my normal writing process. I had my earphones on—and wrote while listening to music.
The effects were extraordinary. I don’t know why I’d never tried it before, but I tore through the paragraphs, ideas hitting me as fast as I could write them down, and what I produced during that short 45-minute (or one album) long writing session surpassed my grandest expectations for the story.
Is it a coincidence?
Does it matter if it’s a coincidence or not?

We all do things to coax the most out of ourselves. Some people have special writing chairs; some people can only write poetry in the nude. Why should writing while listening to music be any different?
Of course, it isn’t. It’s just another thing, another predisposition that sets us up for success. But, is there something more to it?

Studies show that music helps you remember things. Students of foreign languages showed exponential improvement in retaining vocabulary definitions when listening to baroque classical music. Also, tempo changes have been shown to disrupt one’s memory. So, if you’re studying the definition of ‘apotheosis’ while listening to Miles Davis, don’t click on some Jay-Z when it’s time to take the test—apparently.*
Some sources said that our brains cannot multi-task, and by giving it two separate objectives we’re diminishing our ability to produce and excel at both of those things, which I think is complete bullshit.
Academically speaking, where your goal is to simply parry facts and information—perhaps. But, in the creative process, I, and many, many others would argue that listening to music stimulates the creative half of the brain, and improves the quality of your writing.

This morning I turned on Marilyn Manson’s new album Heaven Upside Down, listened to the whole thing, and came out the other end with 1,500ish words written. More importantly, they were words I was happy with. They made me excited, and ready to continue with the writing, eager even.
Now, I’m considering how music genre might play a role in this. So, I conducted an experiment. Now that it isn’t morning and I’m writing a blog post about the effects of music while writing, I’ll return to my draft, and write for another 45 minutes while listening to baroque classical music. Then, I’ll compare the results.
I know absolutely nothing about baroque music. But, thanks to five well placed minutes of online research, I now know that Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion and Handel’s Messiah are wonderful places to start. My introductory song is “Zadok the Priest,” by Handel, performed by the Westminster Abbey Choir, English Chamber Orchestra, Martin Neary, and Martin Baker.
This paragraph is being written while listening to Zadok the Priest. I understand why this piece of music might put someone in the right state of mind as opposed to Manson drawling, “WE KNOW WHERE YOU FUCKING LIVE.”

Alright, look, I’m sorry. I couldn’t do it. I know it’s beautiful and intellectual, and that whole schtick, but the simple fact is that I’m not a baroque chamber music fan.
But, maybe the experiment isn’t failed at all, maybe the point I’m trying to make has been elucidated even further by my refusal to write** while listening to that—stuff. I think we all have different tastes, and if you’re a writer, and you’re listening to your favorite music: from Manson to Handel, the Black Keys to white noise. If you love it—I think it’ll make your writing better.

Do me a favor, before you start your daily writing rituals, turn on some music and jam out. If, that isn’t already a part of your writing life because I seem to have missed the boat on this one. People have been doing it for as long as music and prose both existed. Perhaps, even Shakespeare hired a violinist to saw on the ol’ axe while he penned his plays—and fill his wine chalice periodically, of course. What do you think you’re just gonna’ get paid to play a violin and watch a dude write? Pft.

*This is a link to an article that I found particularly illuminating while researching this post. (http://www.brainhealthandpuzzles.com/effects_music_brain.html)
**I did finish my daily writing quota (2,500 words) while listening to music. It happened to be the iTunes curated playlist of essential Black Keys songs. I listened to music I loved—and loved the writing which resulted.



On Kazuo Ishiguro and the Nobel Prize

My current progress in my Ishiguro read through: Chapter 2 (Never Let Me Go).

The newest Nobel Prize in Literature laureate has been announced: Kazuo Ishiguro. British by residence and Japanese by birth, this wonderful wordsmith is the author of eight books including the highly acclaimed Never Let Me Go, Booker Award winning novel The Remains of the Day (both of which have been adapted into equally prestigious motion pictures), and his latest novel: The Buried Giant, published in 2015 by Random House (Faber & Faber in the UK).
The 62-year-old novelist, screenwriter, and short story writer is preceded as laureate by the greatest writers in history such as Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, Alice Munro, and most recently (and controversially) mainstay folk-god Bob Dylan



What are we talking about when we talk about genre-writing? Dragons exhaling plumes of fire onto legions of nocked and ready archers? Starships engaging their FTL drives to evade the blood-thirsty Martian horde? Serial killers dressed up like everything you fear while killing children? Whodunnit murder mystery’s? Russian spy intrigue?
What we really mean is simple: writing considered by the “literary fiction” community as lesser.
Is there a difference? Literary fiction, genre fiction, and any other segregation of the artistic? Probably not. It’s a marketing thing. It’s all about the platforms book peddlers use to unload their merch.
With that being said, Kazuo Ishiguro may be the closest thing to a genre writer to ever win the Nobel Prize. His novel Never Let Me Go includes highly speculative elements—if nothing else his fiction has worked to disintegrate the boundaries between literary and genre (much like Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, etc.), but has also evaded the even more entrapping genre of slipstream (which, really means: light genre fiction sold as literary fiction).

Genre fiction is not exempt from prejudice—quite to the contrary it had separated itself from its literary counterparts in every way possible. Awards given specifically to speculative fiction (Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker, World Fantasy, Shirley Jackson, Sturgeon, Eugie) at the bare minimum evenly match those given exclusively to literary fiction.
Is this the way the world is to be? A permanent schism between the penmen of lit and spec? Perhaps, in some future (a sci-fi by its own right) world, we might see a change. But, pretty much this is the way it is.
It’s a marketing thing, an organization thing, it makes sense when you consider it from a business perspective. Because of that, I can find it in my heart to forgive those slimy pigs who hang up the “scifi/fantasy” signs in the bookstore.

In honor of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel win, I’ve decided to reread his eight published books. Starting with Never Let Me Go. Also, given his Nobel win, his name is everywhere! Every major website is posting articles about him, writing about his work, weighing him among the greatest prose stylist of our generations, and he deserves every bit of this attention!
I read an article over at The Guardian, which Kazuo Ishiguro wrote regarding the four-week binge writing session he undertook when drafting his popular novel, The Remains of the Day. (A link is here, plus I’ll put one in the footnotes because you should read it*).
To summarize what he said—he sat down in his study, and worked 13-hour days for four weeks straight—taking small breaks for lunch and dinner. Such a romantic idea of itself! (Plus, Tom Waits’ song “Ruby’s Arms” inspired the protagonist, which is awesome)
This is like mainline writing—hook-up, ride out the creativity high, and return to the waking world as a disjoined husk of a human, slowly, through nutrition and regular life habits, returning to normal working order.
But, what you get from this process is a manuscript written with complete immersion. Kazuo Ishiguro quite literally dedicated his life to drafting of the novel. Is it any wonder than many consider it his magnum opus? As writers, we should give this a good long thought.
This is the level of dedicated sowing that will produce the sweetest reaping. Living disconnected from your writing will leave your readers disconnected from the story.

So, if you’re to ask me, “what should I do to become a better writer?”
I don’t think I need to answer that question. Go and read Kazuo Ishiguro, and soon enough you’ll realize that he’s earned the Nobel Prize, and does it a great honor to be its current laureate


* https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/dec/06/kazuo-ishiguro-the-remains-of-the-day-guardian-book-club (This article is fantastic and insightful for anyone who’s interested in the writing process.)

On Editing Your Short Story Manuscript


I’m not here to tell you how important it is to edit your short stories; I’m assuming that you’re a talented enough writer to know that you don’t shit rainbows of magical prose, and you’re surer than shit aren’t Jack Kerouac. So, a talented writer like yourself understands that you must edit.
So, we’ll skip the spiel about how dreadfully important editing is (don’t get me wrong, it’s the most fucking important part of writing, what am I saying? It IS writing), because the assumption is you already know that.

Very good question. I’m here to talk with you about HOW we edit our short stories. Do you break apart every sentence, write them out on post it notes, and stick them chronologically across your tile floor? Do you lock yourself in the bathroom with a clipboard, your manuscript, a notebook, your laptop, and a stack of books, and work through the night scribbling on your manuscript sketching out scene placement for your complete rewrite?
I do those things.
Why do I do those things?
Because sometimes it takes weird shit to coax out the most brilliant facets of our diamond skulls. That’s the truth of the matter. We all do different things to connect with the ambiguous literary overseer: the muse.
But, it’s all true.
It’s not as simple as sitting down and writing (unless it is, and you know as well as I do the world is made up of exceptions to the rule). It’s about altering your mindset, giving into the gods by offering them human offal, and on the flip side, after all the hard, back beratingly laborious work is finished…
You do it again.

Don’t get your hopes up, it’s not as glamourous or earth quakingly eccentric as you’re expecting. It starts with the simplest step of the writing process: writing.
Yup. I cough up the first draft, print it out and put it inside my metal, UPS guy clipboard I bought online for the explicit purpose of manuscript editing.
I usually let some time pass. A few days, a week, I guess it all depends on the length of the work and how hard it was to draft out in the first place. But there’s ALWAYS some fermenting time. You know who taught me that? Cat Rambo. Greatest writing teacher that god ever gifted the collective of keyboard punchers.

A manuscript* I recently finished.

I come back to my manuscript with fresh eyes, and start scribbling all over the pages.
“This is wrong. Cut this. What the fuck? You lazy piece of shit you just wrote ‘describe his gun here’ instead of describing it, asshole. Cut this whole page. Add this scene, that scene, and another scene. Change the ending. Change the beginning…”
The most important thing I do is reassess every scene, and make notes about how I want it rewritten, which you can see below how I mark up the side margins and number the scenes.
The most interesting part about my writer’s mind, in my opinion, is how little I end up consulting the notes I made after the first draft.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s necessary to make the notes, it’s just not necessary to consult them during the rewrite, but once in a great while. For the most part, I have the layout in my head for how I want it rewritten, and I wouldn’t have had this concrete image had I not made the notes, so you understand how necessary they were.
After I have the rewrite printed out, it’s treated like a first draft. I mark it up, find what scenes need rewrites, which only need polishing, what opportunities did I miss to bring the reader into the protagonist’s head?

The polishing process is an unpredictable, excruciatingly painful, yet so fucking sweet, process. Is it done yet? Is it ready? No, of course It’s not ready fool! Yeah, it’s ready to submit, man! No, it’s not!
It’s at that point that I usually send it to my writing groups, mostly on OWW, which is a great community of speculative writers who always help to make my writing better.
While I wait for my writing groups to get back with me, I’ll usually start my next project. Work on a blog post, write notes to develop a short story idea, cry. Lots of crying in this here writer’s life.

The time has come for the most torturous yet rewarding part of the whole activity. You’ll simultaneously praise your brilliance as a writer, and condemn your writing to the pits of hell.
At this point, if I’m not deep into working on another project, I might quit writing entirely. The ol’ fuck-it-all attitude is the constant Goliath for all of us David’s.
The first thing I do is get on Duotrope and assemble a list of 5 publications I think my piece would fit well in. I format and submit my manuscript to the the #1 on that list, and wait. I use my preoccupation in my next project to get through the days of waiting, and automatically submit to the next magazine should I get a rejection.
If the story truly sucks, and nobody likes it at all, it won’t get accepted anywhere. By the time that conclusion can be made, I’ll already have another draft ready to submit that doesn’t suck and I can get excited about!
It’s a vicious cycle, but I’m in love with it all the same.


Is your writing process similar to mine? Do you have to do fifteen naked jumping jacks in the shower before you can write weird westerns? Need three Boost nutritional drinks mixed with a finger of whiskey before you can write your seventh chapter? Let everyone know in the comments what it takes for you to get there. To access the mythical muse of old.

*The manuscript** used in the photos for this blog post are from a completed horror short story I wrote recently while in a Georgia hotel fleeing Hurricane Irma which threatened to pummel my central Florida home. It’s an interesting story, I enjoy it very much, but it has yet to be published. I’m still shopping it around. I’m even considering posting it on bums wear diamonds, but I’m not convinced there will be enough people interested in reading it. So, if you’re someone who likes free stories, click that follow button on the right side of your screen, and I’ll know you’re down for a free story (and you’ll be notified when It’s posted).
**The story itself has undergone a series of name changes, originally it was titled Pages Bound by Leather, but then I changed it to A Collection of Brief Noises. Now I think I’ll simplify it to simply, Brief Noises.



On Making a Living Writing Short Stories (Part 1)


I remember the day I decided to become a professional short story writer, and by that, I mean, I decided that I could produce short stories at a frequent enough basis that I’d make a profitable living. This was a half-decade ago, and my main source of understanding for the short story underground was Harlan Ellison’s many works, and the non-fictional, part-of-the-job, here’s-the-business-of-it-all, sections that bridged one Ellison story to the next.
Harlan Ellison is credited with writing over 1,700 short stories, novelettes, novellas, screenplays, teleplays, moonside tattoo flash fictions, etc. At the time (1960’s-1970’s) the going rate for short fiction was a penny a word. Of course, now, the SFWA classifies 6 cents a word to be the bare minimum a “professional” publication can pay their writer’s.
I got to thinking: what exactly would it take to make a living as a short story writer?

Gotta love the old mags


Let’s say that the average piece of short fiction is 5,000 words. At a penny a word like ol’ Harlan was getting paid, that makes $50 a story.
1,700 (Harlan’s total publications) x $50 = $85,000 (over the course of a very long and winding career.)
That’s not spectacular in today’s economic, fiscal perspective, but at the time it was a living. Though a groveling one. By no means was he a rich man, however this is not taking into consideration the payment he got from television writing in the 70’s and 80’s for the work he did on shows like Babylon 5, and The Twilight Zone.


Now let’s break this down. Thanks to the handy resources over at Internet Speculative Fiction Database, I compiled a spreadsheet of the Harlan Ellison’s 12 published pieces of short fiction in 1959*, to extrapolate exactly how much money he made to live on (considering only his income on short stories), and how that would translate to the modern market.
Check it out.

Ellison Graph_0001
That’s not enough money to support yourself, let alone if you’re married or have kids. It wasn’t enough for Harlan back in 1959, either. So, the real question is, why do we write short fiction at all?
Passion. Of course, you already knew that. You’re a struggling writer yourself who’s faced the same pitfalls I have, and drawn the same conclusions I have. You, on the other hand, didn’t put the time into making such a beautiful spreadsheet to prove your point to the world! (unless you did, and if you did, my apologies.)


To use the figure given in the spreadsheet, the average single person, minimum wage income is $15,080 a year. Let’s say you are only published in SFWA approved publications that pay at the minimum 6c a word. Let’s do some more math.
15,080 x 100 = 1,508,000 pennies a year
1,508,000 / 6 (your minimum per word price) = 251,500 (rounded up from 251,333.333)
To achieve the average minimum wage salary, you must sell 251,500 words worth of short fiction. This means, essentially you must sell the equivalent amount of short fiction as James Joyce’s Ulysses (261,222 words approximately) a year, just to make a minimum wage living.
251,500 / 5,000 (average short story length) = 51 (rounded up from 50.3)
51 short stories a year to professionally selling markets. That’s over 4 stories a month. That means at any given month, your name will be on Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Interzone, and the Magazine of S&SF.
The point is, the odds are highly against you.
Of course, professional writers who have the inclination towards short fiction supplement their income with other things, such as novels, short story collections, self-published pieces, articles, and of course, a day job (that’s a classic).
If, even after an eight-hour day frying burgers at Checker’s, you’re still coming home and writing your daily 2,500 word requirement, if you submit in spite of dozens of rejection e-mails, if you have the courage to accept constructive criticism and make your fiction writing as sharp as it can be, then you have that one thing, the thing that will give you a successful career as a short story writer.


The book that made me want to be a (short story) writer.



So, if you want to make a minimum wage living publishing short stories, you gotta’ sell 51stories to professionally paying markets per year. There are other ways, of course. I’m currently experimenting with them, and when I have enough content to update you on my pursuit, I’ll post the second part of this post.
Until then, write on!

*This is, almost, what Harlan Ellison made from his writing that year. The only other published work he had during 1959 was a double-sided ace paperback. The Man with Nine Lives/ A Touch of Infinity. If you look back at the spreadsheet, you’ll find a novella published in the October ’59 issue of Amazing Science Fiction Stories called Sound of the Scythe, which would later be published as The Man with Nine Lives and makes up half of the ace double. The other half, A Touch of Infinity, contains** five short stories and one novelette.
**Blind Lightning, Back to the Drawing Boards, Life Hutch, The Sky is Burning, Final Trophy, and the novelette Run for the stars. A Touch of Infinity also included an introductory essay by Harlan Ellison.