On Writing, Revision, and Recording Music

[Note: I posted this at my LJ back in September 2013, and thought it would be worth reposting here.  Enjoy!]

A short time ago I tweeted something that came to me about the writing and revising processes, and partly how I was finally able to understand what I needed to improve my writing, and also made me understand just how to write and record a song correctly. This came to me while I was doing my Blogging the Beatles posts a few weekends ago, and I’d like to expand on it a bit here.

In short, it occurred to me that revision, for the most part, is very much like how many rock bands record their music. The listener–and with books, the reader–are only given the finished piece: the end result of a long process of composing, noodling, demoing, recording, overdubbing, and final mixing. What the public often does not hear/see is all that work as it unfolds. You don’t hear/see the alternate words, the alternate melodies/plots, the mistakes and the other bits and bobs. And if all this is done correctly, you hardly notice all the tiny flourishes as separate entities of the whole, because you’re not supposed to; they’re supposed to be part of the entire, much larger experience.

For the longest time–probably up until the last two years or so–my writing process has been extremely slipshod and make-it-up-as-I-go-along, and giving myself subconscious reminders for things that would need revising later. I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to remember the story arcs and the random plot twists that I would need to expand on later on in the story, and I’ve made copious notes on the esoterica of my created world. I may have crowed about outlines in the past, but I’ve used them, or at least planned out the plot a few chapters ahead of where I was at that time. Still, after all these years, I’ve come to the realization that while this process may work, it’s time consuming and unorganized.

In the last few years, I’ve been working primarily on the revision of the Bridgetown Trilogy, rarely writing anything completely new. That’s not to say I’m not writing anything at all; there are several passages in this revision project that are either total rewrites of older scenes, or are brand new scenes that replace old ones that don’t work. I’ve been writing a few other things here and there, outtakes for Walk in Silence, posts for Blogging the Beatles, and making notes for both new and old ideas. It may look like I’m getting nothing done, but trust me–I’m doing all the background work right now.

Again–it’s like recording a song.

Over the course of the Blogging the Beatles posts, I’ve done a lot of reading of Mark Lewisohn’s book The Beatles Recording Sessions, which goes into fascinating detail as to when, how, and where their songs were recorded. I’ve read this book countless times in the past, but in the context of my blog series I’ve begun appreciating the crafting of the music, listening to the songs and trying to understand exactly what they did to make it sound that way. In the end it’s also made me think more about my own creative processes, both in writing and music.

The beginning always starts with an idea. It might be something obtuse: John Lennon came up with the vocal melody for “I Am the Walrus” from the up-down tones of police sirens as they passed by his home. It might be something coming from out of nowhere: Paul McCartney was convinced he’d copped the melody to “Yesterday” from somewhere, but it was his own creation. It might be inspired by life: George Harrison wrote “Savoy Truffle” about Eric Clapton’s addiction to sweets. The point being: this is where the idea takes hold. I’ve mentioned in the past that my trilogy came from watching the Gall Force animes.

The next step is the rough draft, the demo. Here’s where a band gets together at someone’s house and hashes out a few ideas that have been brewing over the last few weeks. The Beatles did this in early 1968 when they came back from India, gathering at George’s house for a few days and hammering out a few rough drafts of songs that would eventually show up on The Beatles (aka The White Album), as well as Abbey Road. In writing, this is where you’re writing longhand, maybe doing a bit of outlining and/or plotting, drawing maps, putting up that wall of Post-Its. In essence: here’s where you sit down and riff it, build on that one idea (or multiple ideas) and see what unfolds.

Next is the first draft, Take 1. It’s going to be rough, there are going to be dozens of mistakes and wrong notes and flubbed lyrics. If the demo contains enough ideas that you can continue fleshing out, this is where you start adding a few things here and there, perhaps fleshing out a melody or two that you found captivating. You may even find that a bit that worked in the demo sounds horribly out of place here, and you drop that. Now, unless you’ve been practicing and rehearsing that one demo for quite a long time, you have to remember that this first take is going to sound like crap, no matter what you may think. Rarely does one get a complete finished song at this point. In writing? Same exact points. You’ve got the idea, now it’s time to start molding and shaping it into something better.

Next is the following drafts, the continuous takes. However long it takes to get that one passage right, to fix that lyric or bum note that’s been bugging you all this time. You may even resort to outside influence–your bandmates/your writing group–and ask them to take a listen/read and see if they find something you’ve overlooked. This is the longest and the most frustrating part, because you’re focusing mostly on building the song/plot. You may even drop it for a time and work on something else so you can return to it later, listen/read it with a clear mind.

Eventually, you’ll hit that last draft, that last take of the song. There will be a point, if you’re paying attention, where everything will just click. The song might not be the most perfect one in existence, but it’s exactly how you want it to sound. You’ve fixed those bum notes, you’ve cleaned up the lyrics. You’re at a point where you’re happy with it, maybe even a bit proud of it. In writing, this is where you’ve pretty much tied up all the loose ends of the plots, fixed the grammar and spelling mistakes, gotten it to the point where it looks clean.

This, of course, is not the final result. Not yet. And this is where, for years, I’d stop. I thought I’d be done with the book and send it out to agents and publishers, thinking I had a good shot at getting accepted. This is where I’d also get rejected, of course. There are many and countless reasons for that, which I won’t go into at this time. The point is, it’s not quite finished yet.

This is where the overdubs, the final mixing, and the running order come in. There’s that one point in the middle-eight that sounds just a bit too sparse, so you decide to throw a bit of horns or a solo in there. The vocals are weak here, so you overdub yourself to punch up the strength of the sound. This song sounds quite out of place as the third track on the album, but would sound so much better as the second-to-last track. Translated: this is the final read-through, the point where you pick up the novel as a whole, read it as you would a potential reader instead of its author. This is where you pay attention to how you react to the story. This is where you notice that one character needs more description or action. Where you notice that this subplot leads nowhere. Where you feel that Chapter 5 would make so much more sense chronologically as Chapter 8 instead. Where you threw a deus ex machina or something in there out of laziness, or as an “I’ll fix it later” and promptly forgot about it.

THIS is the final draft: this is where you make the song sound seamless, like you and the band recorded it in one go, without a single blemish. This is where your audience will not see the work you put into it, but only the end result.

Once you hit that point, then it’s time to send it out to the agent and/or publisher.

Writing Soundtracks

Most of you out there know that, aside from being a writer, I’m an incurable music fan.  Not a day goes by where I’m not listening to some radio station or some new album I downloaded that week.  I laugh at polls that ask if I listen to music more than a few hours a day–it’s more like all day long.

This includes my writing time.  I’m one of those writers who prefers to have some sort of music going while I’m writing.  What I listen to actually boils down to whatever project I happen to be working on.  I’m currently working on Walk in Silence, so the music of choice has been strictly 80s alternative.  For the most part I’ve been listening to the 1st Wave channel on our Sirius XM setup, where Swedish Egil and Dave Kendall have been providing me with tasty retro goodness for the last few months.  This is perfect for this first draft, as I’m not focusing too much on specific albums and songs at this time.  The second draft will focus more on that, so my soundtrack will focus more on my own mp3 collection.

The evening writing sessions down in the Belfry that produced The Phoenix Effect from 1997 to 1999 and the Bridgetown Trilogy from 2000 to 2004 had their own expanding soundtrack; the former contained a high amount of the free cds I got when I worked at HMV, and the later contained many of the titles I bought during my weekly journeys to Newbury Comics back when it was in Amherst.

Was the writing influenced by the music I bought?  Well, yes and no.  I didn’t go out of my way to look for the perfect song that would fit a specific scene, nor was I writing and editing a scene to a specific song in a Miami Vice-like manner.  I’d grown out of that habit a long time ago.  I merely found myself gravitating towards the moods the music created when I listened to them, and used that as a mental anchor when I needed it.

When I was writing a number of scenes that needed personal and emotional tension, I would often throw on Dishwalla’s And You Think You Know What Life’s About.  If it was an epic action scene, it would be Failure’s Fantastic Planet.  Global Communication’s two albums 76:14 and Pentamerous Metamorphosis fit the bill perfectly when I was writing about the world of Trisanda.  Trip-hop like Massive Attack and Sneaker Pimps worked good when I was writing about the seedier areas of Bridgetown.  I also had certain go-to bands whose entire discography worked, like Porcupine Tree.

I always made a conscious effort never to let the music interfere with the story; I tried not to write scenes that lost their energy when the music wasn’t playing.  If anything, the music served as an anchor, giving  me something to focus on, something to aim for.  Failure’s epic album closer “Daylight” served as the audio anchor for the final scene in A Division of Souls–I needed something desperate and angry and with a hint of fear that would mirror what was going on during those final pages, and I think that it paid off.

Now that I’m working on a project that’s specifically about music, I have every reason to listen to whatever I like.  Whatever my next writing project is, will I have the same listening habits during my writing sessions?  Who knows, but I’m pretty sure something will be playing.

On Conlangs in Science Fiction: When Should a Writer Use It?

As you have seen here and here, the Mendaihu Universe has its own constructed language, or conlang. which I’ve chosen to use for the alien Meraladhza race.  Creating this ersatz language was not just a hella nerdy thing to do, but it was a lot of nerdy fun as well.  As noted in that previous blog post, there were two reasons for doing so:

1. To give the aliens their own language, pure and simple.  Once you read Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as a writer you can’t help but feel super-conscious about aliens being able to speak your native tongue so easily, and sometimes fluently to the point of using localisms, without thinking it’s a cop-out.  It’s a silly worry, as it’s widely accepted in the genre, expected even, for aliens from other worlds to be able to speak your language, or at least to have some sort of translating device.  Thus Adams’ brilliant sendup using the babel fish–it’s a brilliant satire of the old-school science fiction stories where the aliens somehow knew the Queen’s English upon first contact.

2. What if I wanted them to use their language?  In a way, I wanted to play around with the idea that our languages have permeated Anjshé, just as it has permeated ours–which is how a lot of real languages have evolved on Earth, anyway.  This is another reason I chose the aliens to have been among us for at least a few hundred years before the trilogy’s timeline; this would have given time for a bit of cultural bleedover to take place, including language.  The Meraladh would have picked up on various languages, and the Earth humans would have picked up on Anjshé, and both sides would have appropriated a few phrases into their own language at that point.

So if you’ve created a conlang for your novel or your created world, you may need to ask yourself: when is it needed?   In my opinion: when it’s needed within the context of the story.  Think about why you want to use the alien language–I mean, aside from “because it’s cool”, of course.  Give the language a reason for being there.

Say your main character is meeting up with your aliens for the first time, and he or she doesn’t know the language, or doesn’t have a translating device on them.  You could play up the tense moments by having them attempt to converse, never quite sure if they’re being friendly or aggressive.  Some writers have used this as an ongoing plot device, such as CJ Cherryh whenever she has the alien kif speak in her Chanur books.  Even Adams used this idea to amusing effect, having Arthur Dent hear a few moments of the Vogon language before Ford Prefect slams a babel fish into his ear; in the process, we find that the Vogons are not just horrible amoral aliens in general, but their language is so hard on the ears that it has literally caused other aliens to kill themselves rather than listen any further.

Within the trilogy, I use the Anjshé language only where it’s truly needed, specifically when a character is having an extremely emotional or spiritual moment.  It could be passive, such as when Alec Poe spits out the word pashyo (a general exclamation of surprise or frustration) whenever he’s annoyed with the situation.  Or it could be when Caren Johnson humbly apologizes to a Meraladian character with nyhnd’aladh…I am sorry, when she speaks out of turn and inadvertently says something hurtful.  I also use it whenever a character is performing some kind of spiritual action; just before a major ritual begins, I have Denni Johnson speak an entire introduction completely in Anjshé before she repeats it in English.  All these moments not just utilize the conlang to give the moment realism, but I’ve also given it a reason for being there:  as the Meraladians are a very spiritual people, so is their language, which they deem just as important as their actions.

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As always, one major thing to remember about creating a conlang is to make it pronounceable to the reader.  Unless you’re creating a language that’s deliberately hard on the tongue and/or ears, such as Adams for his Vogons or Cherryh for her kif, you’ll want to voice them out as you create them.  If you can’t pronounce it without tripping over your tongue or your throat seizing on you, chances are good that your reader will have the same problem.

A few other hints to think about:

–Make some ground rules to keep it consistent.  As stated in a previous entry, the most common sounds in Anjshé are “mmh” and “aah”, as they are the sounds of the spirit at rest.  Creating these kinds of rules will show that you put effort into this conlang, that you’re not just making it up as you go along.

–Study up on real foreign languages–or even your own native tongue–as a way to see how and why that culture created its vocabulary.  Anjshé is partly inspired by real languages that create new words through existing shorter words, like some Japanese and German; it’s also partly inspired by the aural flow of Gaelic.  In this process, keep in mind how these new words will affect your characters:  how would they deliver them, and is there a specific reason why they are saying them?

–Create a primer or a glossary that you can always refer to while writing to help you remain consistent in usage as well as in spelling.  You may even want to add these words to your word processor’s dictionary to avoid the auto-correct kicking in.  Additionally, you can use this glossary as part of your novel’s endnotes so the reader can refer to it when necessary.

–Have fun with it and see where it leads you!  Don’t think of it as your boring homework from high school–you’re creating not just new words here, but a new created culture, which you can then integrate into the novel itself.  This  will give your story more depth in the process, even if it’s just a short passage.  Readers will pick up on this and enjoy the reaction it causes.

 

Creating a conlang can be as detailed or as vague as you want and need it to be.  On the whole I believe I only have about seventy or so Anjshé words I created and added to the Bridgetown Trilogy, and used them only when necessary.  I left the door wide open for expansion, of course, and if that is part of your long-term goal, then by all means, go for it!