5 Ways Music Can Help Writers

Blog 84 ImageThis week, I listened to a CBC interview of Ian Rankin in which he discusses the large influence music has had on him. The same is true for me. I especially remember punk and new wave emerging in my late 70s undergrad days. I was in an all-male residence and there was a big debate over how that music measured up to traditional rock. We did agree to disparage disco…until we figured out girls didn’t show up at our parties without it.

Here’s how music can help writers.

Inspiration. Music can inspire a writer to sit down and start writing. The melody or rhythm might energize him. The lyrics might spawn a storyline. The emotion might conjure a scene. (Or he might just be inspired to listen to the next song. No one said it was easy.)

A background for writing…maybe. I need quiet to write. Otherwise I can’t hear the characters speak or feel the rhythm of sentences. Lots of writers do have music on when they write. In the interview, Rankin talks about using electronic music as he writes to separate his real and fictional worlds. Each to his own here.

Characterization. When a writer shares a character’s musical interests, he helps readers learn how the character emotes. In a difficult situation or looking for comfort, does the character long for Dylan’s penetrating lyrics, Miles Davis’s aching trumpet or Amy Winehouse’s sorrowful vocals? In effect, music is a shorthand way for readers to feel more involved, positively or negatively, with characters.

So, at least for main characters, a writer may want to ask himself what music they like. And rather than just saying that a character likes jazz or Top 40, the writer can pick an artist or sub-genre, give the music a listen and figure out what draws the character. Whether or not that detail finds its way into the book, the writer will know his character better.

Setting. In describing setting, writers usually focus on the visual. But telling readers what can be heard offers a lot, too. A Top 40 song places the period of a scene. Music defines a club or bar. A background song increases the sense of a character brooding over a difficult problem.

For Social Exploration. Of course, many writers use their stories to explore social conditions. The musical context can be highly relevant. A great example is Esi Edugyan‘s Half-Blood Blues, which uses jazz in 1940s Europe as a backdrop.

Time for me to go listen to some Deep Purple.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Why I Liked the Movie Whiplash

Blog 66 ImageThe movie Whiplash has stuck with me since I saw it a few weeks ago. I see lots of movies and most zip in and out of my brain. I’m going to blog about why I think Whiplash found a few memory cells. Bear with me. There’s a connection to writing.

If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s about a brutally demanding teacher at an elite New York music academy driving a willingly submissive drumming student to greatness. The relationship is wildly at odds with current expectations around appropriate teacher-student relations, but it’s gripping as hell.

So, why? Some of the credit goes to the acting. J.K. Simmons nails the part of Terence Fletcher, the music teacher, who tests the boundaries of abuse in his obsession to push artists beyond mediocrity. And Miles Teller is impressive as Andrew Neyman, the student driven to be the best, even at the cost of his teacher’s savage mind games as well as family relationships and a love interest.

Mostly, though, it’s the story. This is intense mano a mano, testosterone-filled stuff that just pulls back from being too crazy to believe. Though set in the arts’ world, it reminded me of NCAA football coaches screaming at players and slapping their helmets to induce their best performance. Son, if you wanna be picked in the draft, you’ll take my medicine. Yes, sir! It’s my ticket to realizing my forever dream of going first overall.

For me, the connection between Whiplash and writing fiction is that the story has the key elements of a well-crafted psychological thriller. Great pacing, gripping conflict and intriguing characters. A neat resolution that fits the characters’ psychology, yet leaves enough ambivalence to keep one thinking after. And scenes in which characters spar with nuance to reveal themselves.

In other words, the elements I strive for in my books.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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8 Tips to Help Writers Avoid Procrastination

Blog 61 ImageOne of the pleasures of writing fiction is meeting readers. Some readers also are closet writers. They often tell me that getting words to paper is challenging and completing a story is daunting. So they procrastinate.

This problem, I’m sure, dates back to the first writers in Mesopotamia. Here are some strategies to get the writing happening.

Let the idea carry you. Many books start with an idea that intrigues the writer enough to begin exploring it. I find the exploration most fruitful if I give the idea licence to send me in unexpected directions. Fairly quickly, words emerge, whether for an outline, some pages or a chapter. Even though these words will be revised many times, they’re not a waste. A story is evolving.

Keep the challenge small. It can be exciting for a writer to think he’s writing a book. But the sheer size of the project can create paralysis. So I prefer to think that if I regularly get an amount of writing done, the book will take care of itself. Reducing a problem to small constituents is old advice but it works in writing.

Commit to a daily amount of writing. A daily amount of writing can be measured in hours, words, pages, sunrises, etc. On a first draft, I use 4-5 hours or 2000 words, whichever comes first. For a first edit, that changes to 4-5 hours or 5 pages.

And I mean commit. Everyone I know is busy and constantly prioritizing. So when I say a writer must commit to a daily amount of writing, it probably means he must move writing up the priority list. Which means bumping other things down. Which can be stressful. Other than long walks, I don’t have a great solution for that stress.

Recharge. I find I need a day off a week to recharge the writing battery. It’s also a good time to let the story sift through my mind. I get new ideas as well as a broader perspective on the story.

Start writing the same time every day. I find this makes me more productive. It’s made easier by knowing that I’ll feel a sense of achievement 4-5 hours later.

Cut out the noise and get comfortable. I get the most done when it’s quiet, I’m sitting in a good chair and the temperature is right.

Use the smartphone. Ideas that stimulate writing can come out of nowhere. I keep my iPhone close for voice memos and quick notes. Sadly, when I tell myself I’ll remember an idea, I usually don’t. Getting an idea while at the movies is still a problem.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Writers Should Network

Blog 46 ImageI know that I should network to advance my writing aspirations. But knowing doesn’t mean doing, at least for someone like me, whose default is looking inward, not outward.

So this blog considers the reasons writers should network. Extroverted writers might shrug and stop reading. As far as I can tell, networking and its benefits come naturally to them. This post is intended for writers who need the extra push to connect with others.

First, however, a comment on what type of networking to engage in. Social media obviously offers many ways to connect. However, it’s very easy to post and dash, with the result that, at best, a superficial connection is created and the benefits of networking don’t materialize. So, in this blog, what I have in mind is old-school conversation, preferably face-to-face, or real social media interaction.

Here are the reasons I see for a writer to network.

It’s less lonely. Writers seem generally constituted to work happily over long stretches on their own. Most, though, need at least some human contact from time to time, which networking can help.

It’s enriching. Apart from helping her writing, networking will enrich a writer through what she learns and the benefits of friendship like an increased sense of belonging and the ability to share life’s stresses.

For content. This verges on crass, but a writer will be exposed to another person’s experiences, which in turn can be fodder for writing.

To help research. Lots of book research can be done using online and textual sources. However, interviews can greatly improve verisimilitude. Often, though, strangers will not give interviews without a reference. Networking can offer routes to and references for interviews.

For feedback. It’s possible a person with whom a writer networks has read her book(s) or knows someone who has. The writer may have an excellent opportunity to receive constructive criticism.

To promote. And if that person hasn’t read the writer’s book(s), the writer has an excellent opportunity to pique that person’s interest or induce him to think of someone who might have an interest. It’s best to promote with a soft touch, though.

For other opportunities. The person with whom a writer meets may know circumstances which could help the writer. There are countless examples, like the person having novel promotional ideas or knowing a book club that follows the writer’s genre.

For more networking. And that person will also have his own group of friends who might be suitable for further networking. In corporate networking, it’s often said that a person should leave a meeting with three new contact names. A writer can think in the same terms.

To offer help. The writer should be on the lookout for how she can help the person she’s networking with. Without intending to sound like a line from The Godfather, a writer who offers a favour may gain a future one.

Copyright ©2015 Peter Fritze

Where to buy The Case for Killing.

Follow me on Twitter @PFritze.

A Protagonist’s Birthdate

Blog 42 ImagePeter Bradley, the protagonist in my first book, The Case for Killing, was born on July 20, 1960. It’s an interesting day to look back on. Eventually, it also causes Bradley some trouble.

From the July 21, 1960 Toronto Daily Star, we learn time-capsule things about July 20 like:

  • The Cold War utterly dominated international politics. Fears were growing of a new U.S.-Soviet clash in violence-stricken Congo; England’s Prime Minister Macmillan thought Premier Khrushchev had been particularly aggressive in the previous sixty days; and the wounds of the Cuban Revolution were raw and the seeds of the Cuban missile crisis sowed.
  • A Quebec divorce was front-page news. Divorce in Canada then required a salacious precondition like adultery. Quebec divorces were only available through private acts of Canadian Parliament.
  • It was warm and pleasant in Toronto, high 72 F (22 C) and low 55 F (13 C).
  • Measured by price, products were cheap. The newspaper cost ten cents; a sixteen-ounce jar of peanut butter was on sale for twenty-nine cents; a ten-piece bedroom set was on special for $159; inspected used tires were $4.95; and a Chevrolet Impala cost $2500-$3500, depending on the model and options.
  • Everything was much less connected. New Zealand had just introduced legislation to permit television. Two Toronto men became the first to travel by car from North America to Bogota, Colombia. In jungles, they lived on monkey meat, iguana and wild pig. People sold things using the classified sections of newspapers.
  • People worried how to fund the Toronto Transit Commission and that fare increases would worsen street congestion. Sound familiar?
  • President Eisenhower announced there would be a one billion dollar surplus for the year. A surplus.
  • The S&P 500 closed at 55.61. Last Friday, it finished at 2051.82. My parents should have bought and held.
  • In baseball, Mickey Mantle had the most runs in the American League; ditto Willie Mays in the National League. Like today, even in July, hockey figured prominently in Toronto sports news. Unlike today, news about horse racing did, too.
  • Suddenly Last Summer, The Battle of the Sexes and something called Cha Cha Boom played in the movie theatres.

Why does Peter Bradley’s birthdate cause him trouble? He may be Canada’s foremost anti-trust lawyer and quite engaging, but he’s also manipulative and arrogant. The type of arrogance that makes him believe he’s incapable of mistakes. He should have chosen a better online banking password, though. He keeps his wife, Amy, on a shoe-string budget and she’s after more cash. With her brother’s help, she steals Peter’s banking password then laughs at his choice: 072060PB.

Copyright ©2015 Peter Fritze

Where to buy The Case for Killing.

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Improving the First Draft

Blog41 ImageIn early January, I read through the first draft of my as-yet-untitled third book. I wrote it last summer, so I got a fresh take on it. After finishing the book, I considered what questions to answer in order to create the best next draft. Here’s what I came up with.

Is the book a satisfying reading experience? If I didn’t like reading my book, it’s unlikely others will. I did though.

Does the structure work? I enjoy experimenting with structure. However, it can’t be at the expense of plot unfolding properly and good pace. I thought that, for the most part, the third book’s structure worked.

Are there plot problems? I plotted the third book quite carefully. However, I’ve seen at least one major plot problem. I’m sure I’ll also find many more minor inconsistencies; it’s amazing how those can hang around for many drafts.

What research is required? For better or for worse, I tend to write the first draft of a book with only the most essential research done. As I read the draft, I note down where more research is needed. For the third book, there’s a lot to do.

Do the characters resonate? In the first draft of a book, I only make the acquaintance of the characters. Going forward, they’ll develop much more. Lots of pleasurable work to be done there.

Do the characters have consistent voices? Characters’ voices can take time to develop. Many of my third book’s characters have only hinted at how they like to communicate.

Do the characters’ interactions make sense? Ah, no, not in all cases. For example, in the first half of the book, one character is quite friendly to another when she has reason to be angry or at least ambivalent. Overall I need to get to know the characters better; their reactions to one another will then clarify.

How is the writing? The quality of writing in my first drafts is always suspect and inconsistent. No surprise there; my first drafts are largely about seeing if there’s a story. I know it takes many drafts for the writing to become succinct and fluid. However, reading the third book front-to-back allowed me to identify redundant passages, poor transitions and, yes, even writing I liked.

On to the next draft!

Copyright ©2015 Peter Fritze

Where to buy The Case for Killing.

Follow me on Twitter @PFritze.

Reconnecting Through Writing

Blog40Last week, I tweeted that writing books is a great way to connect with people from one’s past. Many tweets have an untold background story. I’ve decided to tell the story behind my tweet.

My father was a Professor of Chemistry at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. The Klaus Fritze Memorial Prize at McMaster is in his name. He came from a strong scientific pedigree, having been the graduate student of Fritz Strassmann in Mainz, Germany. Strassmann worked with Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner in the discovery of nuclear fission for which Hahn won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944.

My father died much too young in 1980. My only time with him was when I was young. By his nature and through circumstances, he was withdrawn. I’ve been left with a picture of a man who was intelligent, inquisitive and introverted.

Several of my father’s former colleagues and graduate students are in touch with my mother. She told one about The Case for Killing, who told another, and both have bought my book. I ended up meeting the second and his wife last week.

What I got from a delightful afternoon was a new perspective on my father as a professor. I learned of his love for pure research; of his interest in bright minds from many countries; of an open door policy that led to a spirited exchange of ideas; and of help given to others so they could find their way in the world. I also learned that he was an independent thinker, sometimes to his detriment.

In addition, I heard details that drew me closer for the first time in a long time: morning and afternoon teas in his office; disdain for conservative politicians; neat laboratories; and handwriting which mine has followed.

A happy, unexpected result of writing a book!

Copyright ©2015 Peter Fritze

Where to buy The Case for Killing.

Follow me on Twitter @PFritze.

Eight Thoughts to Help Writers Persevere

IMG_20110531_095913I took a hard look at my writing accomplishments in 2014 and they’re mixed. I received a lot of positive feedback on The Case for Killing. I’ve also had strong beta reader and editorial support for False Guilt. However, sales of my first book have been modest; somewhat above average for a first time self-published author I think. And while I received some reviews, for which I’m very grateful, it’s challenging to get them.

That’s led me to ask how writers persevere. Here are eight thoughts for a writer to work with.

Recognize how perseverance contributed to other successes. My life successes have all involved dogged perseverance and its close cousin, patience. I doubt success at writing is different.

Writing gives pleasure. The challenges in writing are persistent self-doubt and finding a broad readership. But writers are not like Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill for eternity. What they do is (or should be) enjoyable. Things like a fun plot development and seeing a character grow are significant rewards for all the pecks at the keyboard.

A writer is learning a craft. Another reward for all those pecks is that many writers will improve their writing ability.

There are writing successes to enjoy. Finishing research, an outline and especially a book are huge accomplishments that warrant chest-puffing. And if a reader says she liked your book, that’s a home run.

Learn to handle rejection. A writer shouldn’t expect to please all readers. There always will be critics and their viewpoints can offer learning. Also, if many people criticize a book, it means the book, not the writer as a person, is inadequate.

It gets easier after the first book. That’s been my experience anyway. It stands to reason that, like any pursuit, the learning curve of writing flattens.

Promotion can be learned…and enjoyed. Many writers view self-promotion as a necessary evil. However, promotion can be conquered using the vast, free online marketing resources available. And it often leads to gratifying contact with readers and other writers.

Remember how badly you wanted writing success. Pretty bad, right?

Any other thoughts?

Copyright ©2015 Peter Fritze

Where to buy The Case for Killing.

Hey Santa

Blog 37 ImageSanta, I know your focus is gifts for girls and boys, but this year, can you also give to this middle-aged writer? BTW, I’ve already bought you milk and cookies with the proceeds of my book sales this year.

To help you decide, I’m forwarding you my wish list. Right up front, I acknowledge that there are a lot of intangibles on my list. Nothing like, say, a gaming console, though that did cross my mind. But I believe in your magical powers and, really, any two or three of the following would do.

  1. A bit more attention: I had a good start this year with The Case for Killing. But it would help if you installed a copy of my book on all the digital readers and tablets you hand out.
  1. A remedy for shyness: I love it when readers say they like my book. However, I blush, which interferes with my alpha male projection. Is there something for that?
  1. Less writer’s envy. When I read a thriller, I say, “Well, I could write that.” I’d prefer if that happened at the end of the book, not every page.
  1. More perseverance. In pill form, to go with my morning vitamins.
  1. Some new similes. I’m only on book three and I’m running dry already. Metaphors are good, too.
  1. Simplified social media. Why are there so many platforms? Can’t they be combined?
  1. Data. There’s a lot of discussion in the blogosphere whether writers earn more if they’re traditionally published or self-published. But the folks who sell books never give us the proper data to decide. Can you put it on your website?
  1. A minimum wage for writers.
  1. A Stanley Cup for the Leafs. I’m toying with you now.
  1. Amendment to wish #2. Just change me into an extrovert.

Good luck with the holidays, Santa.

Copyright ©2014 Peter Fritze

Where to buy The Case for Killing.

New York City Inspires

photo 6Writers are drawn to New York City.

Many visit, as I did last week to research locations for my third book. Others choose to live there, or having been born there, never leave.

Take just one small neighbourhood, tony Brooklyn Heights (pictured) across the East River from south Manhattan. There I communed with the ghosts of Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Paul Bowles. And that’s a short list of the greats who have lived there (see here).

Some kind of inspiration is at work.

It must be NYC’s famous, abounding energy. The incessant flow of people and vehicles;  the services available any place, any time; the look in so many people’s eyes that shouts, “I got to get this done”. Whenever I’d walked close to the point of exhaustion, I tapped into that energy for an instant dose of revitalization.

Or maybe it’s NYC’s tenacity. Strolling across the Brooklyn Bridge, I tried to imagine the effort that went into the bridge’s construction before completion in 1883. Or the will in 1898 to consolidate separate counties into one city with five boroughs – Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island – with the City of Brooklyn choosing to join by only a few votes. Or the determination to build world-class art collections like the one at the Museum of Modern Art. Example after example of tenacity, wherever I looked.

Probably above all else, it’s how NYC embraces creativity. Creativity that’s beyond the standard and accepted, that’s experimental and jolting, sometimes commingling with the mundane and decrepit. It’s the creativity that’s seen at the High Line, a renewing park in the Meatpacking District with a walkway along an abandoned, elevated train track now enveloped in regional trees and plants.

New York City. Loud, in-your-face, exhausting. Sure. But also energetic, tenacious and creative.

Qualities to inspire writers.

Copyright © 2014 Peter Fritze

Buy The Case for Killing here (Canada) or here (U.S.).