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.
The inspiration behind the stories, ideas, settings and characters of the Mendaihu Universe have come from all kinds of places over the years. I’ve talked about quite a few of them on various blogs as well. I’ve mentioned the albums I listened to, the movies and the books and the TV shows and and and… There’s been a lot that I’ve read and enjoyed that inspired me to write these stories. I made a semi-official list sometime around around late 2002 that included all of these. Maybe one of these days I’ll update it and paste it here on the blog, just for fun.
So where does this inspiration come from, anyway? Well, my first rule of being inspired by something has always been if it causes me to drop everything and run to the computer to start typing. If I finish reading a book or watching a TV show or a film and my first reaction is a creative excitement, if it’s made me notice the writing and the production in a good way…then it’s done its job, and done it well.
[Good recent examples: the always level-headed Christopher Foyle in Foyle’s War, no matter what mood he may be in; the deliberate pacing of the movie adaptation of The Martian, the one-person cast of driving ninety percent of Gravity; the movements of a large cast in Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves.]
I always cite music as an inspiration, though that tends to be more on a molecular level, as it were. Certain songs will inspire the mood of a specific scene; some albums will be my go-to’s for writing sessions (one recent release getting heavy rotation here is Shearwater’s Jet Plane and Oxbow). I may occasionally hear a song and imagine a scene not yet written; with those I’ll either make brief notes or I’ll listen to the song a few more times and think about whether it’ll fit in the project I’m working on.
I like to keep my eyes and ears open for these sorts of things. I’m not one to read or see something and think I want to write THAT! Mainly because I know by the time I finish it, it’ll no longer be in season. It’s more on a creative level; if I’m amazed by the writer’s dexterity in weaving a complicated plot, or their ability to look at a well-used storyline from a completely different angle, that’s what will inspire me to take the same route.
I suppose it all boils down to: how did the creator get his or her creation stuck in my mind? It has to be more than flashbangs and shock-and-awe and disturbing scenery; there’s a time and place for all of that, but it’s nothing I can or should completely rely on. It has to be the whole as well as its elements; the artistry as well as the work.
One thing I didn’t expect to revisit while writing the new MU story is to visualize the scenes I’m writing based on a specific song.
I used that sparingly during the original writing of the Bridgetown Trilogy; there are very few scenes where, at least in my mind, a specific track should be playing. The final scene of A Division of Souls having Failure’s “Daylight” playing. A scene of Alec Poe driving down a highway with Supreme Beings of Leisure’s “Strangelove Addiction” playing. And so on. I never mentioned them in the book outright, of course. The scene was never based specifically on the song, it was only background that happened to fit.
Come 2015, I’m writing the second chapter of the new story, in which a character has stepped into Light and is soaring over the extended metropolitan sprawl of Bridgetown, sensing the presence of everyone he flies past as he heads towards Mirades Tower. I’m about a page in, when Dot Allison’s “Message Personnel” pops into my head. I play the song through with its peaks and valleys of psychedelic ambiance, and the next thing I know…the entire rest of the scene plays out crystal clear in my head, just waiting to be written.
I haven’t written a scene in that manner since…well, since I wrote the Infamous War Novel almost entirely in that fashion, nearly thirty years ago.
I found myself doing it again just the other day, as I was writing the start of the new chapter while flying home from London. The in-flight music selection happened to include Led Zeppelin’s recent remaster of Physical Graffiti, which meant I got to listen to my favorite LZ track, “Kashmir”, in all its epic glory. I’d used the song in the IWN, so it was to some surprise that the lurching bombast of the track somehow lent itself to the scene I was writing that moment, in which another character has ascended towards a higher aspect of the kiralla (a dragonlike form meant to be one of the highest forms of spirit in physical form), and she’s reveling in the fact that she’d ascended all on her own without training or ritual. The track screams BIG, and so does the scene.
It’s kind of weird to revisit this old writing process of mine that helped me finish my very first novel when I was a teenager, especially when I wasn’t expecting it. I’m not planning to lean on this style exclusively, though now that I know it still works to some extent, I’m not exactly going to avoid it either. Whatever works to get the scene done how I’m visualizing it.
Between the trips to New York City and London, the weekend plans, multiple work-related issues and everything else, I’ve been so full up that I’d made the decision to clear the whiteboard schedule, temporarily stop work on a lot of creative projects, and focus only on the most important ones. That meant that I focused almost all my creative juices on the new Mendaihu Universe story. Little by little, I let a few things in as time permitted, such as guitar practice and photography.
Now that all the major events are out of the way for the time being, it’s time to get back to the grind and open up the floodgates a bit more. I’ve replanned the whiteboard schedule again; I’m not filling it up too much just yet, but I’ve added art, music and work on the Walk in Silence book back into the mix, and moved the updating of the WtBT blog to Mondays. I may revisit the daily 750 Words if time permits. And musically, I have a few ideas I’d like to record in demo form as part of the Drunken Owl project.
The temporary hiatus did have its positives, as I was able to provide better focus on what needed it, and still have time to relax. I was also able to recalibrate how I viewed my writing — not just the output but the style, and looking at what can be adjusted — to the point that I should also be able to do the same with my other writing projects that I put aside. Long story short, I’ve realized that the best practice (to borrow an annoying work-related phrase) for me is to do most of my writing longhand and use my PC time for revision and rewriting, and that’s how I plan to work from here on in.
These last few months have been a relaxing reprieve, but I’ll say this: it’s great to be back on schedule again.