Recently Dave Grohl released a 23-minute instrumental called “Play” that was written and played entirely by him alone, and upon hearing it, I realized the creation of this track is very similar to how I write novels.
The accompanying video is prefaced by a six-plus minute talk about not just the recording but a music school for kids that he’s taken part in. It’s worth watching for both; in particular, I’m intrigued by how dedicated he is to his creation. It’s not a long-winded progfest at all, but very similar to an orchestral piece in its structure. It’s going in a specific direction through deliberate sections, laying down certain motifs to experiment on and later return to, and each instrument is supporting the other. Grohl also ensures that each segment is played to the best of his ability, leaving no weak or meandering moments.
This is how my mind works when I’m writing an extended project like a novel. While the initial pass-through might be raw and desperately in need of revision, once I immerse myself in the serious work of laying it all down, I’m all in. I immerse myself in the story by seeing it from multiple angles: there’s the shape of the overall piece, where I can see the plot’s peaks and valleys as a whole; there’s the attention paid to the scene itself, and its relationship not only to what’s already gone on, but how it’ll affect future scenes; there’s the volume of the piece, where I can feel when it needs calm and when it needs friction; there’s the motifs (such as character traits, for instance) that I will return to in different shapes and forms throughout the novel.
Over the years I’ve talked with writers and musicians (and music historians) alike and interestingly I’ve found that many of them are kind of surprised when I tell them this is how I taught myself how to do it all, that this was the way it made the most sense to me. I think this is also why I find myself drawn to other creative people whose process is unique and/or unexpected. To me it gives their projects a deeply personal touch; it’s not just their style that gets imprinted in the words or the music or the art, it’s their own spirit. It’s what makes their creation uniquely their own.
During a Worldcon panel the other weekend, someone had asked one of the panelists about detail in your prose; when do you need more, and when do you have too much? It’s a very good question indeed, because it’s one of the biggest mistakes a beginning writer often makes.
I should know, because I’ve gone through both extremes. Back in my school days, my writing lacked so much exposition that it read more like a shooting script than a novel. A few years and a handful of trunked projects later, I finally got the hang of balancing exposition with the action and dialogue. However, I soon slid to the opposite end of the spectrum: my prose was far too verbose. It took a few more years before I finally found and stuck with a happy medium.
How do I handle keeping a fine balance between prose and exposition in my writing? Good question, because half the time I’m going by instinct. I suppose all writers have their own balance they’re comfortable with, and mine is achieved by being aware of my pacing. It all goes back to my equating novel writing to songwriting: I go with what sounds right to me musically.
When I’m writing a scene, I’ll know ahead of time whether or not this is going to contain a lot of action and detail (fast beats, layered production, a high-powered chorus, and perhaps a middle eight to provide a quick breather before moving on again), if it’s going to be a highly emotional scene (slower pace, minimal production with detailed focus on the melody, a memorable chorus, and a solo to pull at the heart strings), or if it’s just going to be a connecting scene (short, sweet, and to the point, and the barest hint of a motif borrowed from a previous piece).
With this in mind, I’ll know when I need to fill out the scene with exposition or detail, or when it needs the barest of touches. A connecting scene will be tedious and drag on if I decide to put an infodump there, but it’ll make much more sense if I spread it out over the course of an action scene. Perhaps as a character slowly coming to the realization that the cousin was the murderer after all, and that all the pieces suddenly fall in to place and giving him even more reason to keep chasing this now-familiar shadowy figure in the alleyway.
Most of this is instinct to me now, because of my decades of listening, studying and memorizing different pieces of music. I write the scene according to the pace and the emotion I’m looking for. This is my particular style of writing so it may not work for everyone, but it certainly works great for me, and hasn’t steered me wrong yet. I even use it now and again when I’m writing these blog entries; even if it’s only a quick five hundred words, it’s still worth it for me to make the flow and style enjoyable to you, my readers.
I can’t tell you exactly what works for you as a writer, but I think keeping all this in mind might give you an idea of providing your own answer to that question: when do you need more information in your prose, and when do you have too much? Listen to the pace you’ve set, and let it provide the clues for you.
Between the two new projects I’m working on, I’m listening to a lot of newer albums lately. This is quite the change from the older projects I’ve spent tons of time on (such as the trilogy) or ones where I need to focus on a specific time period (such as the 90s and Meet the Lidwells!). It’s part of returning back to deep immersion with the music.
Mind you, I do give a lot of my purchases a deep listen as it is, or else I wouldn’t be gushing over albums over at Walk in Silence like I have for the past few years. This is about really getting into the meat of the album, and I find I often do that best when I can assign a mnemonic to it. That way the album will stay with me that much longer. [This is precisely why albums like Beck’s Sea Change are forever connected not just to the trilogy, but to my writing sessions in the Belfry.]
I’m doing this again with a handful of new albums that have become soundtracks of a sort for the Apartment Complex story and In My Blue World:
Beach House, 7. Unlike their more Cocteau Twins-like previous albums, this one ramps up the noise a little bit and sounds more like Slowdive and a bit of My Bloody Valentine as well. The dreamy atmosphere works really well for the otherworldliness of IMBW.
The Naked and Famous, A Still Heart. I keep coming back to this one for the Apartment Complex. TNaF are a much louder band with walls of guitars and soaring melodies, but this ‘stripped’ album takes out the volume and leaves beautifully delicate reimaginings.
Lucy Dacus, Historian. “Addictions” is one of those tracks you hear on the radio and then get stuck in your head for the rest of the day. The music is laid back and unassuming, but the melodies go in really interesting places. This one’s been getting plays for both projects lately.
Editors, Violence. I think pretty much every project I’ve ever worked on since 2005 has had Editors playing in the background at some point. They’re just an amazing band with a unique and adventurous sound. This one often gets played when I need to write an exciting action sequence.
Pinkshinyultrablast, Miserable Miracles. I gushed over this band on the other blog last week, and I still love them to bits. Russian shoegaze is all I need to say, and it’s all kinds of fun. IMBW has been getting most plays of this one, not to mention the rest of their discography!
GoGo Penguin, A Humdrum Star. Same thing — a recent discovery and now I play all of their releases during sessions, mostly for the Apartment Complex. Intriguing jazz sounds that remind me to keep the setting just a little bit on the odd side.
This is the fun part of my writing sessions…I love listening to music while I write, so connecting to a new album while working on a new project makes the sessions — and the albums — that much better for me.
Now that Meet the Lidwells is in post-production revision status, I can now finally move parts of the New Project to the front burner. Yay! I’m really looking forward to writing this one.
Which of course means switching up the tunage I’d be listening to during my writing sessions. Being the music nerd that I am, I’d been thinking about this for the last few months. What would fit the mood of this next story? It’s going to be a much lighter story, at least in terms of mood — I’ve been describing this as my Studio Ghibli-inspired project — so I don’t think the epic epicness of alt-metal or prog rock that were my stables during the trilogy would fit all that well.
No, I think this one’s going to go all the way and attract a lot of dreampop and light electronica like M83, BT, Lamb, and my latest find, The Sound of Arrows. That sort of thing. And maybe some alt-folk? We shall see. I’m keeping my eyes and ears open.
This past Saturday was Independent Bookstore Day, and so of course we made our way over to our local indie bookstore, Green Apple Books, to spend some time and a bit more money than normal. Sure, we go there at least once a month anyway, but it’s always fun to join in the celebration. [And to be honest, I’ve kind of given up on Record Store Day, which was a few weeks previous, as it’s become more a Come Buy Our Overpriced RSD Collectibles Day for me, but I digress.]
A and I will always find a reason to head there to browse the shelves. They have a stellar collection of all kinds of new and used titles, and if they don’t have it, they’re more than happy to order it for you. A lot of the music bios I’ve read over the last six or seven years have come from that store, in fact, as has most of A’s history books. And as I’ve mentioned before, they sell e-books on their website via Kobo, as well as ordering self-published books through CreateSpace…which means this store carries my trilogy!
Which brings me to a conversation A and I had earlier today when we were out for a walk around the neighborhood. One of our internet friends had tweeted her concern about the state of e-books, having read an article somewhere online about how Kids These Days are leaning towards Good Old Fashioned Paper Books or something of the sort, and I replied saying that e-books really weren’t dying a horrible death at all. It was just stabilizing. Having followed Publishers Weekly on this very subject for a good couple of years now, I think I can say that with conviction.
We got to talking about how, just like the music business, the excitement and shininess of having a new platform in which to enjoy something has leveled off. Just like CDs, just like mp3s, e-books have matured as they’ve become more prevalent. Sidetracking ideas and not-quite-successful failsafes (like DRM) have slowly faded into the background. You don’t need to buy a Nook when you can download an app (and on your tablet, PC, or phone at that) instead. And for every person who swears by physical books and loves them like children, there’s another person who swears by e-books because they save a hell of a lot of space. [And like music: I used to be a physical-copy purist and my collection took up a sizeable chunk of a room in my parents’ basement, but it’s now 99% digital and takes all of one external drive the size of an index card.]
This is partly why I don’t take sales too seriously. Sales teams are there to push the latest toy into your hands…as well as push the latest version of the toy you already have. They’re there to say This Version Is Better.
Which is all well and good, when the thing your selling is constantly evolving. Back in the 90s, with computers getting smaller and stronger, CDs being more durable and travelworthy, and so on, Sales had their work cut out for them.
Nowadays, I think the reading public is at a point where they’re just as happy reading a book as they are reading something on their tablet. The product excitement wore off some time ago; they just want to enjoy the actual text at this point. Which means that if you look at the sales graphs just for e-books alone, they’ve sort of leveled off, maybe gone down a bit. But if you take book sales as a whole — books, e-books, audiobooks, and everything in between — it’s still a pretty stable and vibrant business. It might not be skyrocketing the way Sales wants it to, but it’s moving at a damn healthy walking pace.
When we lost Borders Books & Music a few years back, and now that we’ve also lost a number of Barnes & Noble storefronts, there’s a justified worry that there’s no available bookstores in a lot of towns and cities. Some of them had gotten run out of town by those two chains, others had simply given up. Or didn’t bother.
But I’m starting to see a return to that, really. The ‘big box’ stores are indeed becoming a thing of the past, for multiple reasons: internet shopping, unrealistic sales forecasts, and even a small resurgence of small stores. Some companies aren’t quite sure how to handle that, but others are finding new ways to make it work; some are even flourishing. The Bay Area is blessed to have a high number of independent book stores and small local chains (such as Copperfield’s and Books Inc), so this area is more of an exception than the norm, but I’ve heard tell — again, via Publishers Weekly — that that’s slowly turning around.
I’ve complained about outlining before, both here and elsewhere…even in high school I disliked outlining, if only because I knew even then that I was a pantser writer and that whatever outline I created would be thrown out within the first couple of pages. It always felt like a waste of time. So previously here, I talked about swallowing my pride and stubbornness (and working against my long-ingrained pantsing style) and giving Meet the Lidwells! a solid outline. It’s working out well so far, I think.
Especially since I came to the conclusion that in order for me to have a solid story, I needed to give it a solid backbone. And considering this story is about a band, what would be more solid a backbone than said band’s discography?
If you think about it, a band’s discography does tell an interesting story. Take the Beatles, for instance. From the prologue-worthy “Love Me Do” to the first peak point at “She Loves You” to the end of Act I with A Hard Day’s Night; the conflict of fame versus creative evolution in Act II (with plot peaks of Rubber Soul and Revolver) and climaxing at Sgt Pepper; the conflict of creative outlet versus personal evolution with The Beatles and the recording of Let It Be, climaxing with the creative peak of Abbey Road. And finishing the story with a bittersweet denouement; the band breaking up but their legacy lasting far into the future. [Hell, they even have a song called “The End” that works as a closing epigraph.] It’s no wonder they have so many books written about them.
Read any music biography and you’ll see similar backbones. Each band or performer has their own life story with climaxes and low points, successes and failures. These are actually great books to read if you want to learn this sort of storytelling. [Off the top of my head and looking at my nearby bookshelf, I would definitely suggest reading Johnny Marr’s Set the Boy Free, Bob Mould’s See a Little Light, or Carter Alan’s Radio Free Boston: The Rise and Fall of WBCN for a taste of a rock bio with a lot of plot peaks and valleys. Those are but three of the numerous books out there; next time you’re at the local bookstore, take a peek at their music section and take your pick.]
These are also good books for how to tell a story in a format other than straight prose. The current popular style of rock bio seems to be in the form of an ‘in their own words’ text; most if not all the dialogue is from recorded interviews, but without the interviewer’s words or point of view. The flow of the story is usually chronological, from the band’s creation to their demise (or alternately to their present iteration); it behaves almost exactly like fiction does. The only difference is how the story is presented.
As promised, here’s what I call the “Director’s Cut” of the ending of A Division of Souls. This one’s been in my head for at least two years. And yes, this was written to fit Failure’s “Daylight”, as expected.
I actually thought about writing a prose version of this ending for the book, but it would have just been extraneous. It’s a completely visual segment anyway. So, using my dusty and woefully underused BA degree in film, I decided to instead write this in screenplay form.
One of the first things I chose to do the day after The Balance of Light was released was to set one of my guitars to an alternate tuning.
No, really. All my guitars have been in the usual standard EADGBE tuning for years, and over the last few years, I’ve noticed that I’ve been playing the same damn chord progressions and melodies for far too long. I love writing new songs, but I haven’t been inspired enough to come up with that many new riffs that I haven’t already used elsewhere. I figured it was high time to change it up.
My six-string Taylor acoustic is now in the DADGAD alternate tuning. This is for two reasons: one, so I’ll finally force myself to learn how to play it that way, and two, so I’ll pick up that guitar more often. My sister’s a big proponent of this tuning as she loves the versatility it provides. I’ve been meaning to do this for ages, and now that I have the time, I made the move to get started on it.
So what does this have to do with writing, anyway? Why am I posting this here and not at Walk in Silence? Well, mainly because I’m doing the same exact thing with my writing, now that I have the time to dedicate. After years of focusing on the Mendaihu Universe and everything that goes along with it, I suddenly find my brain with a lot of extra processing power again.
So this means that I’ve decided to take some steps that I’ve been wanting to take for quite some time now. The pre-writing work for Meet the Lidwells! has included a full outline — something I’ve nearly always avoided in the past. I’m also playing around with the post-production work early on, since I already have a good idea of how it’ll look and where I think it might sell.
I’ve been reading a lot of different authors and genres lately. I’ve been picking up on the varying styles and moods. I’ve been figuring out how to write a much smaller standalone book with a much smaller cast. I’ve been paying attention to how different races and genders are written. Part of this is so when it comes time for me to write something similar, I’ll do it correctly. Part of it is also because of my fascination in how stories are told from different cultural perspectives; I’m so overly familiar with how Americans tell stories that my own start to sound a bit…bland, so I’d like to try writing my stories from a slightly different perspective.
[Noted, I’m sure someone somewhere will complain that I’m falling into SJW territory, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I won’t write my novels purely for political reasons, because I already know I’ll fail miserably and they’ll read like crap. The only reason I want to write from different perspectives is because I want to. End of story.]
What else do I plan on doing to freshen up my outlook? That’s a good question. The Day Job does kind of keep me from playing around with my writing schedule, though there’s still room for shaking it up a bit. I wake up early on the weekends whether I like to or not, so perhaps instead of draining my phone battery trawling the internet or watching several repeat cycles of the local news, perhaps I could use that time for creative endeavors.
I’ve also been extremely lax on my artwork, especially over the last year or so! I’ve got some fresh pencils and pens that I’d love to start using again. The art process has always been an enjoyable and calming one for me and I don’t utilize it nearly as much as I’d like. I’d also like to be a better artist than I currently am, to be honest. I’m okay, but I could be a hell of a lot better at it. Same with my photography.
Will any of this end up in my future novels? Sure, why not? My reading a crapton of music biographies inspired the interview format for Lidwells. My immersion in music inspired a fresh outlook on my writing. My photography is sneaking into my side project of creating book covers. And my knowledge of art has definitely helped me visualize scenes when writing.
Now that I have more time, I’m really looking forward these new perspectives.
I’ve been watching the miniseries documentary Soundbreaking the last few days, and it’s given me a lot to think about. It’s a wonderful series, focusing more on what it is to create recorded music than it is about telling lurid stories about fame or who knows who.
I knew they were Doing It Right when they decided to dedicate the first episode not to the band or to the music or the industry, but the producer. Often overlooked unless you’re well known like George Martin or Linda Perry, the producer is an extremely vital part of the production…and yet their job is to make their own work on the finished product as invisible as possible. Their job, ultimately, is to make the song be as true as possible.
What do I mean by that? Well, here’s the thing: they’re not aiming for perfection. They might want the musicians and singers to hit all the right notes, but that’s not the main goal. Nor are they solely aiming for the perfect pop hit that will reach number one on all the charts and make everyone involved hell of a lot of money.
What they’re doing is taking the creativity and the ideas of the musicians and the songwriters, as well as the emotional drive behind the song, and maybe even the happy accidents that happen to resonate with the track, and pull it all together. They’re also doing their best to make sure the song reflects the emotions of its creator and not their own.
Sure, there are some producers with signature sounds. Phil Spector, of course, is known for his Wall of Sound (i.e., let’s have forty musicians in the room playing the same thing and drench it reverb until it drowns). Nigel Godrich is known for giving bands a rich and resonant sound. Jeff Lynne likes his drums front and center in the mix. And there are musicians who produce their own work. But the point still remains: they’re aiming for something specific, something that will make the song ring true.
In book speak: they’re your editor. They are not there to put their stamp on it. They are there to make sure this is all your work. Sure, part of their job is to point out grievous spelling and grammar errors, and maybe suggesting that the plot take a gentle curve instead of a neckbreaking hairpin turn. But their job, really, is to figure out what the writer is trying to convey, and help them get there the best way possible.
As a self-published author who’s decided to do the job of the editor as well, I had to keep this in mind when I started the major revision work of the Bridgetown Trilogy a few years back. I knew it was more than just about fixing grammar and cleaning up the prose. I had to connect with the trilogy on a level where I understood what I was aiming for on a deeper level. But I also had to view it on several levels as well: I had to figure out how it flowed, what I was trying to say with it, and how I was saying it. Even as the cover creator I had to keep these things in mind — how was this initial image going to tie in with not just the book but the other two as well? And to top it off: how to produce the end result without making it obvious that I’d done all the work myself?
A lot of moving parts. It’s a hard job, but with time, practice and dedication, it can be done.
I don’t think I’ve written more than a dozen or so songs since I moved out here to San Francisco in 2005. Probably much less than that. A few clips of melody, maybe a riff or two, but nothing concrete, not like my last songwriting wave in the early 00s when I was jamming with Bruce and Eric in jeb!. The latest actual song milling about in my head is an instrumental I created using the sound of London’s District Line clacking down the tracks near Earls Court as percussion (which I recorded to my phone); I have not yet had time to lay it down as a demo, though I did get as far as making a very rough loop of the train as a trial run.
Why do I bring this up? Well, it seems my next writing project involves songwriting.
What’s this, you say? Has Jon gone off the deep end in a severely misguided attempt to write a multimedia book? I mean, he’s a pretty decent writer and makes cool covers, but music? What the hell is he thinking?
Well, I blame Wesley Stace for this. Formerly known as John Wesley Harding for you 90s alternative rock people, he wrote a fun novel called Wonderkid about a quirky band that, against all odds, became a huge hit in the 90s, primarily due to having an extremely large preteen audience. It’s a hell of a fun book and worth checking out.
Sometime later, I was chatting online with a friend about the Osmonds (I forget the context), when I came up with an idea of writing a music-based novel myself. Thus the family band The Lidwells were born!
Now that I’m at the point of wanting to do some prep for the Lidwells project, I’m not just thinking about making character sheets and a working discography (yes, I’m going that deep), but may be writing a few of the songs mentioned in the text. All told I’m hoping to write about a dozen or so songs during the course of writing this book.
Added to that, this story takes place in the 90s during the alt.rock boom, so I’m going to have to write music that sounds like it would have fit then. Will I record them as demos and post them here? Yeah, there’s a good chance of that happening.