Writer Triggers

05 Nov

Today, class, I am going to talk mindlessly about triggers. What they are, what they do, how to recognize them and most importantly, why you really should work to figure out what they are.

(You may already know yours, consciously and unconsciously)

Triggers are those things which spur you into writing. Specifically, they are things which take you past ‘just writing’ and make you write in a manner you are excited about, in love with, and writing fast. They are the things which make you tremble a little as you type, and you’re terrified of a typo, because if you stop and go back to fix it really quick, then you’re stopping.

They can be all manner of things. Many of them can exist in your own head, and they are as useful and viable as outward triggers. Those inward triggers are a little harder to define, but they’re anything that makes you excited.

For example, maybe in your head — or in the privacy and dignity-saving silence of an empty room — you imagine yourself standing on a dias, or sitting at a table and answering fan questions about your book. You’re at ComicCon, and you repeat the question back to the audience, and then you talk about it.

Dignity aside, I will shamelessly admit I do that one. I used to use it as a method for figuring out problems when I was walking. How did you overcome the problems with Thracius in the second half of the book? Well, it was complicated and interesting, but… and so on.

They can be shameless confidence and ego boosters. They make you excited and they make you work, and they can also focus your up-front-mind on your current project, which also focuses your in-the-back-mind on the problems in it. A good thing.

But those aren’t the only sort of triggers I’m talking about.

External triggers are music, books, TV shows, walks, and so forth. They are a piece of music which puts you in a certain type of mood — or puts you in a certain type of tone, if that makes sense to you — and which fire you up to work.

For example: During the early and middling stages of writing Where Sea Meets Sky, my Rome novel, I read and re-read, over and over again, two books. This tends to be fairly common, whenever I’m working on anything. I get ‘stuck’ on certain books (sometimes just one) and I just read them over and over. I can’t finish anything else.

This isn’t because I’m pulling the author’s style, or plot, or even characters…frankly, I’m not always sure why it is.  Sometimes, I can tell what about the books makes me want to write, and that’s useful. I think it’s my brain getting involved in my novel and putting things like my Reader Brain on hold, or on re-runs. During Where Sea Meets Sky, I read Pompeii by Robert Harris (a book set in Rome, in Pompeii obviously) and Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett. Over and over again. Either I read them, or I read nothing.

They were trigger books, you see. They put me in the mindset of Rome, and they set me off writing it. They gave me certain things which went into Rome — I think there’s a little of Sam Vimes in Thracius, and I know that Pompeii taught me some things about the spoken language I could use in the time period — but mostly, they contributed to the shape and color and tone of my working mind, on that book.

With The Nondescript, I am stuck on American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and The Book of the Long Sun series by Gene Wolfe. I know where these things are influencing the text, but they really are influencing how my brain is ticking. And they’re triggers. In the back of my mind, they’re things that make me want to write and work on that project.

It’s the same with music, with movies, with TV. All the rules transfer.

Now, the key point which I am testing — and discovering to work — is to discover what your triggers are for a project (to consciously discover them) and then to exploit them carefully. If I knew that listening to Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker puts me in the right tone to write Nondescript, then I have to use it carefully. If I just play it all the time, it’ll wear off. But! I have discovered that if my mind is frazzled, or I’m in the wrong ‘tone’ of mind for Nondescript, I can use a little bit of music, a half an hour of reading, whatever, to get myself in the right spirit. You see?

They trigger different things, too. Perhaps it triggers the desire to write a certain type of text, or perhaps it triggers your speed, or perhaps it triggers your desire to think of new ideas, new characters, and so forth. American Gods is triggering the desire to write in an entertaining way the mundanity of life. John Steinbeck is triggering the urge to bring poetry into my writing. Not his style, my style, just more languid. I adore writing like that. I’ve tried to get away from it for a long time, for a lot of convoluted reasons (many of which were probably stupid) and I finally gave in.

I don’t know if I’m explaining it correctly, but that’s what triggers are, that’s why you should work to consciously figure out what they are, and that’s what you should use them for.

And that’s what I’ve got.



Posted by on November 5, 2007 in Uncategorized


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9 responses to “Writer Triggers

  1. MidnightMuse

    November 5, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    Teacher! Teacher! Pick me! Pick me!!

    I’ve used triggers for years. Oddly enough, my best ones are photographs. I have these photographs of people I don’t know – sometimes I find them in magazines, often they’re just some random photo of a guy whose look at that time sparked something in me that said: He’s Stephen! or That guy IS Evan. I have these photos somewhere close, where I can look at them to get me excited about playing in the story again. A visual boost when I need a push.

    I use another method – Zeus gazing down from Olympus.

    That is to say, I have this massive table in my mind, it’s a fancy table that displays images on the surface. Images of my characters and their worlds. I stand at this table and reach down, moving them around like a god in Black and White (geek alert) then watch what happens to them. Like those cool strategy tables they use in war movies, with some guy moving the little battleships around on the board.

    I have to be really careful with musical triggers, because a lot of them actually STOP me from writing. When I’m in “the zone” I’m very careful about what music I’m around. Some of it, even though I do love it, will put me into a complete stoppage, followed by a funky mood.

    One other trigger, more like a tool really, that I’ll use now and again is to have a martini, or put some rum in my coke, after a long day of writing when I feel it starting to slip. That little bit of alcohol, typically before bed, relaxes my brain. The stress of “The Rules” of writing that were starting to creep in and threatened to strangle me are relaxed away. I can once again convince myself that I’m writing what gives me pleasure, and damn the rest.

    I can’t read someone else’s book WHILE I’m writing – it gets into my head in a bad way. I’ve learned to read for pleasure only in between writing my own. There are good triggers, and bad ones. It helps to identify the bad ones in order to avoid them whenever possible. But while writing I CAN read non-fiction without any hangups.

    A new bad trigger is stopping to think about the fulls I have out being read, and the partials. You never hear back in a timely manner, and that can really muck you up. I was doing fine, using The Great Tea Debacle as a way to continue to write AND put those thoughts out of my head completely – but they snuck in this morning. They nearly derailed me.

    (and, since this is all private and not like, on a blog or anything – I’ll admit to using that: Sitting on a panel at a Sci-Fi convention as guest author, answering questions about my novels vision that you mentioned) 😀

  2. MidnightMuse

    November 5, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    I should have added Tea. Two teas I use actually do act as triggers for me, make me feel more Writerly and confident.

    Oddly enough.

  3. tjwriter

    November 5, 2007 at 6:08 pm

    A steamy cup of Cafe Verona, on a the campus of the university, with an mp3 players. That makes me feely writerly and good. I handwrote numerous pages that way.

    There is a Celtic CD I have that triggers something for me. Only it’s epic fantasy. I just need an epic fantasy to go with it.

    Thursdays and Sundays tend to be triggers if I can get other people to leave me alone.

  4. Arachne Jericho

    November 5, 2007 at 7:50 pm

    Hyper dance music seems to get me over the bumps. Especially during this month. I do listen to one song repeatedly until it’s white noise… very energetic white noise. Although _I Don’t Feel Like Dancing_ seems to get the best results.

    It’s always been music first and foremost with me.

    I’m not sure if this is an internal trigger or some other mental pattern—but I tend to visualize scenes from my novels with a particular song as a soundtrack. Sometimes I let myself free-associate actions to music, and that results in very odd character insights. (“I didn’t know he wanted to learn the violin.”) I guess such visualization is what helps me keep a finger on the beat of a scene while I’m writing it.

    Also, I’ve been listening to the 2005/2006 BBC radio adaptions of the Sherlock Holmes stories. They remind me of the darkness inherent in any shapeshifting character.

  5. Soccer Mom

    November 5, 2007 at 10:04 pm

    Okay, I’m glad I’m not the only freak who fixates on certain books. I can’t explain why certain books get linked to my WIP. It isn’t always obvious, but there it is.

  6. mscelina

    November 5, 2007 at 11:05 pm

    I do the same thing. Not so much with books as it is with movies: the visuals give me an idea and I run with it, or I want to explore a similar theme in a different way. And music: I use music as a tool. On those days when I don’t feel like writing, a well-placed playlist will get me started on the type of scene I need to write next.

  7. Pete Tzinski

    November 5, 2007 at 11:08 pm

    Music is so delicate, in that like Kristine, it can push me into writing, or push me back out of it.

    I remember when I was writing “From Grey Mists, Returned,” the book I got ‘stuck’ on was Stephen King’s On Writing…and that was it. And so I read it over and over and over like some sort of residual haunting that can’t stop repeating a task.

  8. tjwriter

    November 6, 2007 at 5:47 am

    I always test music in a non-writing setting. If it’s something that works well for writing, it calls to my writerly soul.

    The Meditation channel on Lucky Seven radio also plays lots of music that is good for me. Most of that is soothing to the other parts of my brain and gets them to shut the hell up for five seconds so I can think and write.

    I know there are books I’ve read to death, but I can remember ever associating them with writing. I’ll have to look into that.

    Of course, all in all, I am my own worst writing enemy.


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