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July, 2009 : Essay:

Hearing the Music

"Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul."

Some of the best story ideas arise when you shake up your regular process, challenge perceived notions and assumptions, and experiment. The following essay discusses my own attempt to use music, free writing, and discipline as part of a new process for creating story material. The results for me were successful and even profitable, so I decided to share them.

The Need for Change

I'm a very driven writer—I work on my craft every day and have improved my rate of production over time. For a while I was having a rough go of it, though. My enthusiasm sagged. Colour was draining from the work and grinding through the stories in my usual fashion was not helping. In fact, it was hurting. I needed a new approach—one that could kick start my engine. The approach I finally amalgamated required music, freedom, and discipline. In that order.

Freedom to Write

Normally when I'm burned out, I seek advice from other writing resources. After reading Lawrence Block's Write for Your Life, I was introduced to the idea of automatic writing. Essentially, you have a prompt, such as a first line or an image, and write non-stop for ten minutes with that as your inspiration. Don't worry about spelling mistakes or plots or characters—just write what fills your imagination. The goal of automatic writing is to help you get in a groove—to tap the source of the subconscious where most of our best material comes from.

I hated it.

At least, I thought I did. It sounded like "artsy fartsy," new age bullshit to me. I resisted the exercise for a long time, in part because I believed in all the tough guy writer myths about hammering, hammering, hammering until the story is done. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it is the best medicine. And sometimes it is like doing heart surgery with a flame thrower—it defeats the intent. When I found that pounding and grinding was not getting me what I wanted, I decided to give automatic writing a shot. I really had nothing to lose and possibly something valuable to gain.

After a handful of ten minute sessions, some good, creative stuff began to flow. But I didn't like a lot of the prompts Block used. They made even this "artsy fartsy" exercise seem forced. I was too conscious that I was writing a story, and that triggered all my old reflexes, which was not helping me. I had to disentangle myself from those thoughts. What about using something more abstract than prompts? Something that might be a trapdoor to the story-mill inside my head, instead of hammering against the barricade?

Why not music?

The Secret Door to the Subconscious

Normally, I write in silence. I need the stillness to get inside the heads of my characters and their world, but since that wasn't working, I gave music a shot. I selected a series of instrumental albums of various moods and styles. My one attempt to listen to a CD with lyrics was a flop because the words of the singer kept getting in the way of my own, so I tried albums that featured an acoustic guitarist, a bizarre classical group, and a legendary jazz pianist and band leader.

The goal was to listen to the songs and write. Just write anything that came into my head. Images. Actions. Thoughts. Dialog. No objective. No goal. The point was to move away from all the writing lessons I'd read, all the laws of scene structure, and the bellowing voice of my internal editor. I wanted to just listen to the music and follow it where it led me.

Initially it felt stupid, and what was coming out was terrible. Then I realized why—I was still trying to write a story, and that hadn't been the goal. I had intended to write story material—what I thought of as vignettes. Nothing with structure, nothing my internal editor could chew to pieces. Just follow my imagination, with the music as the guide. There was no right or wrong way. Just write. Get all Zen and not judge what came out. Eventually, I got in a groove and damn it felt good.

All of a sudden the screws in my temples loosened. Interesting stuff flowed. Vague story shapes emerged with wild images, people, scenarios and landscapes. And they lasted as long as the songs did. As a result, I'd finish a CD and I found that there were fourteen story vignettes, full of feelings and themes and a hodge podge of images from all over the map of my mind.

But they were not entirely random. Each vignette, no matter how wild or weird, could not have come from anyone else. There was enough Jay Ridler stuff in there that it was all mine, symbols and characters and environments that clearly fit within my work, but yet were manifestly different because they had been born through a different process than my standard operating procedure.

The same thing happened with each CD. The creativity got loose and ran wild and some good, primal stuff had come through. This was a fine reward after weeks of slogging and getting nowhere. It was freeing, exciting, and yet all still me, full of images and themes that were as far from "artsy fartsy" as Lawrence Block himself.

But these wild dollops were not stories. Not by a long shot. And some of it was rank awful, go-nowhere, half-brained nonsense. There was mood, theme, image, and movement—but no structure to hold it together. I had to turn a snapshot into a moving picture. And that took discipline.

From Vignette to Story in Mach Ten Blips

I examined the vignettes and found that out of each batch of ten or fourteen, about four or five were really compelling in some way. I grabbed the primo stuff and added some discipline. Remember, these were just vignettes. They weren't stories, even in the loosest sense of the term. They needed form; they needed substance.

I had had a desire to write flash fiction for a long time, and I had a sense that many of these vignettes would work well in that form. But I still didn't want to hammer at them in my usual manner. Instead, I spent the first ten minutes of my daily writing session attempting to "fast" write with these vignettes as the prompt. Fast writing, unlike automatic writing, is an approach to story production that does require attention to story structure and form, but at a high speed (also to avoid your internal editor from shooting down ideas before they take shape on the page). I used all the tools in my writing arsenal and got to work post haste. Instead of nit picking them to death though, I found my compass had turned. As I was cranking out the words with the vignettes in my head, stories were starting to take shape. The results took a week or so to bang out, another week to polish, and the end game was terrific. I'd written a handful of new stories, fresh and different, but as equally "me" as anything else I'd done. Not only had I found more enthusiasm for stories than I'd had in a long time, I'd found a new process to create even more stories. In short, I'd grown as a writer.

A Successful Conclusion

In terms of productivity, it was a boon. I spent three days listening and writing to music. I created fourteen possibilities on average with each session, for a total of forty two vignettes. I took five vignettes from each session and had fifteen story ideas waiting to be turned into fiction. If each takes a week to complete, that means that after fifteen weeks (four months) I could have fifteen stories where most writers working at a story a month have only four. Even if half of them are thrown away that is still seven or eight stories, or double what most folks do in the same amount of time. And it was fun and rewarding to do—I improved my craft, increased production, and did not feel the painful squeeze of my imaginative gears slowing me down. In fact, I found the opposite.

The end results were also successful. Two of these stories have already sold—"Charlatans and Magi" to Flashquake and "Monsters" to Necrotic Tissue. That's two stories sold that would never have been created if I had stuck to my old process and not pushed myself beyond assumptions and routines. Two stories as purely me as anything else I've written.

I hope that if anyone reading this is suffering from writer fatigue, block, or exhaustion, you can find some solace in this story. There is no one right way to write a story, but dozens. Sometimes what worked in the past cannot help you out of a current jam. If you're in such a state, maybe give this experimental road trip between freedom and discipline a shot. Find some music you can work with and groove on, and get started writing your own vignettes, then turn those vignettes into the stories only you could write. Hopefully, you'll end up with some great and published tales. Even if they don't turn into sales, the experience and growth of improving your craft through experimentation will likely do wonders for your skill set as a writer, and put some fun and excitement back into work that might have otherwise become stale. Maybe you'll find better variations on the process I mentioned, variations best suited to your own needs. Awesome. The key is to keep trying, finding, learning, experimenting and growing. That's how we up our game and come closer to becoming the writers we all want to be.

Copyright © 2009, Jason Ridler. All Rights Reserved.

About Jason Ridler

Jason S. Ridler™'s fiction and poetry has appeared in ChiZine, Nossa Morte, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and other fine venues. His short story "Billy and the Mountain" is forthcoming from Tesseracts Thirteen, edited by Nancy Kilpatrick and David Morrell. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada, and is a columnist for He is also a founding member of the Homeless Moon writing community. Visit him there (, or at his writing blog, Ridlerville, (


Jul 3, 01:09 by IROSF
Comment Below!
Jul 10, 01:14 by Lon Prater
Great advice. You are definitely on to something there. I've progressed from writing in silence mostly to writing with music mostly. I also have a hard time writing when there are words/lyrics included, so I stick to movie and video game scores, plus instrumentals. One thing I've found I like to do now (and I feel like it helps) is to deliberately select music for the kind of story or scene I intend to write. Historical and cultural music is all over the library and net, not to mention the scores to period piece movies, which can be just as evocative. I've been enjoying a few specific pieces as I work on wrapping up the current novel-in-progress.

I already have a playlist set up for my next novel project, and the neat thing about having it is that I can put the playlist on while walking or exercising too and it helps me think about the plot and story structure. Artsy-fartsy? Maybe. But it works for me, too.

Jul 13, 15:56 by LaShawn Wanak
Thanks for sharing this. I always enjoy reading about writers' routines. Each one is different.

I actually started writing using music--lots of New Age and Enya, but I found that using prompts work a lot better for me. I do tend to get hung up on making the story perfect as far as storyline go. I got several stories that are sitting on my hard drive, but the perfectionist in me wants to fiddle with the plot. Maybe I should trust the ideas that come to me originally, do the fast writing like you mention, and just send them out.

Again, thanks for the article!
Jul 14, 14:52 by Jason Ridler
Hi Lon: Thanks for reading, glad to hear I struck a chord (ha!) and that you've already got this process in tow. I agree that the kind of music certainly has an impact on the work, a kind of soundtrack.

And as far as the artsy fartsy stuff, I always think of the wise commentary from Jesse The Body Ventura: If it works, do it.

LaShawn: thanks for reading the piece. If prompts work better, use 'em, I say. I think the perfectionist side most writers have works best during revisions. But some folks hate fast writing, since the magic is in the details of sentence level construction, and fast writing is more flying by the seat of your pants. I say give it a shot for a few ideas and see what happens. The good thing about writing, at least IMHO, is that nothing is ever really lost so long as you keep trying, thinking, and learning.


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