Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Sound Track

What's the sound track for your book? Does it have one?

Over the years, I've found that it helps a lot to choose an album or several albums, or put together a collection of songs that specifically tell me "I'm working on (the current title) and no other." It does a lot of things.

For one thing, music is easy to have going in background. I can ignore it while I'm paying attention to what I'm doing, but its rhythm and feeling are still going to influence my prose. Movie sound tracks are really good for this because they have background music for scenes similar to the ones in my book. If the movie was in the same genre, it keeps me focused in the style of that genre.

Music is very personal. It helps to have headphones if you live with any other human beings. One side effect of my total immersion writing process is that I'll sometimes play the same song over and over and over like a teenager, driving my poor family or housemates up the wall.

Back in 2009, I discovered Radio Rivendell.

This site is beautiful. If you write fantasy novels, it provides continuous fantasy theme music and provides a link on the side to the album and artists so that if I like something they're playing, I can jot it down and find it again. So I started using that for my writing music with fantasy novels. They played The Emerald Sword by Rhapsody while I was getting ready for that year's 3 Day Novel..

I heard it and it went right straight to my brain's Story Sector.  That's my novel! I started with the Sword as a title character, sitting up in his fancy shrine full of traps and stuff watching adventurers come up and quest for him. Basically started my story at the end of the story in the song, which was just vague enough that I could make up all the cast and everything in the world. It's one of the typical Moderately Magical Worlds on the elven Great Migration. I knew it'd have elves, dragons, dark elves, humans, goblins, the usual fantasy folks in the great big iceberg of backstory that is the Great Migration (every fantasy novel I've ever done.)

I knew the locals would be interesting and unique. They didn't disappoint me. I downloaded the song and played it over and over and over like a crazed teenager, trancing on it. This works great for a writer. Please use headphones when you try it. The people you live with may not love the song as much as you do. They are not writing a novel. They are going around living their lives in the same building that you're working and while they do, they may not even like the song the first time they hear it.

One of the greatest kindnesses my daughter ever gave me is that she waited for 72 hours to tell me "Please, just do me a favor, Dad. Please never, ever play that song again without wearing headphones. I've been listening to it over and over for three days and I hated it the first time I heard it." She has perfect pitch and is a serious musician. I just listened to it again - in the intro there's a couple of dischords that don't bother me by genre (it's heavy metal rock) but must have caused her literal pain, over and over and over.

There's also a point in the recording where it distorts, which I know had to be extremely painful. Sour notes cause her physical pain, her ears are that sensitive. I don't mind it any more than I mind having a stain on a page in a favorite book and having to read through the coffee blotch. I don't understand music the way she does nor am I that physically sensitive. But even if it was something she loved, by the end of that 3 Day Novel weekend, she would have hated it by repetition.

So get a good set of headphones or ear buds, whatever works for your machine and your body. It'll give you privacy and help avert household members coming up to interrupt you with idle chatter while you're writing too. Then use them. Don't be self conscious about the style or type of music you like. What works for you for writing music is going to be completely personal. It has to be.

You're opening up a deep part of your mind. Writing is introspective. Music is a well known trance aid, so once you train yourself to use it, listening to the novel's sound track can drag you right into the altered state of creating that novel - observing that story and no other in the movie of the mind. Reserving certain favorites for writing music also creates a physical cue to tell your body "This is writing time."

Most writers eventually build up a set of situational cues that help them get started. Creating a routine that tells your unconscious and your left brain "I'm writing" gives confidence. It's a familiar, well known thing you do that you know how to do well. You can put in some good hours of work on it and know that work is valuable. Habit is far, far better than wringing your hands staring at a blank screen trying to figure out what to write next.

Other cues can help too - your favorite drink sitting beside you so that you hydrate while you immerse in the process, maybe a snack, maybe a couple of objects you set out as indicators. If you're doing a fantasy novel, putting out a toy dragon or something can be a reminder of what you're doing. These things aren't superstitious. They're habit cues. Another of my writing cues is choosing the wallpaper for the novel I'm working on, a powerful genre image that makes me think of that world and those characters.

When you go back to edit that novel, put on the same music and set up the same wallpaper as all the cues to tell you that you're working on that story in particular. That helps by association. It's easier to remember what you liked about it and get the feeling back with those cues.

So develop some that are general to tell you "I'm writing" and others specific to long projects. They make the process easier. Anything that makes it easier or more comfortable, reduces distractions and helps focus is going to help you produce better fiction. This is the part of your life where "do it your way" matters most. Writing fiction is flying solo into the unknown.

All this self indulgence is a reminder that you are in charge of this process. The book is yours. You are deciding everything in it - so all the little decisions about screen wallpaper or type of coffee creamer or music are getting you into a habit of making decisions without considering anyone else's opinion. We spend our entire youth following orders in school, doing things on time and reacting to a bell like Pavlov's dogs. Everything in modern American life is intended to teach obedience, punctuality and lack of initiative. If you decide you'd rather do something else, you get punished fast.

Becoming a writer means walking away from that. You are the boss. You are in charge of your writing time. Your writing environment is what you say it is, within your literal physical and financial limits. What you do with that time, how you craft the story, what genre, what you do with it and how you do it is entirely up to you. This is one of the perks but it's also terrifying. You're going to find out by trial and error what works for you. Some things won't. Just don't do them again.

The world will not shatter if you use head phones when you listen to a song over and over, or stay up late working on your book and discover you're a night owl. Even if you wind up overdoing it and making a mistake that affects your everyday life, that's still just trial and error. Find a way to do it that works within your context, like using the headphones. Find ways to make privacy, because this intensely personal process takes having emotional privacy.

Some writers can create this privacy out in public with a lot of people around. Libraries are good for that - it's socially okay to ignore everyone else and focus on what you're doing as long as it's quiet. The kind of privacy I'm talking about is where other people don't interrupt you to talk about what's going on or what was on TV or why they need your advice on a personal problem. You're busy - and that means you need to treat yourself as that busy and that important. During your writing time, you are the boss of everything you do.

Being decisive about the wallpaper and music makes it a little easier to decide whether your protagonist is carrying a sword or a bow or a gun. That makes it easier to decide if she's facing forty demons or if holy water makes them disappear or just burns and makes them mad. It gets you into a state of mind where your artistic decisions can be motivated purely by what works best for the story.

Two nights ago I got started editing The Emerald Sword, now retitled The Sword of Arkatyr. Back when I first did the book, I tried to contact the band for permission to use the song The Emerald Sword as an opening lyric with a link to their website, a win-win deal to help promote their album and my book. They never replied to my query, so I changed the title and the main character's name. I'm carefully editing out the song references in the book so that I'm not breaking their copyright. It was only a starting point.

Turns out their theme album Tales from the Emerald Sword has its own story in the same genre. It has lots of things that never made it into my book, an Ice Warrior, unicorns, all sorts of cool stuff. It's in the same genre and a lot of fun but my story isn't the same. I took one little mosaic tile of it and made up my story on the same archetypes they used. The quest object in their story doesn't even show up till the end and it's not one of my sentient Swordfolk. It's just an It, not a He, an object of great power relevant to people using it.

So he's now the Royal Sword of Arkatyr and the novel is The Sword of Arkatyr. I spent $10 at iTunes to buy their album, half in thanks for inspiring my novel, half to have the album as editing music and launchpad for the series that may grow from the world. I've got a sequel already - a witty minor character just picked on me this morning. He came out gay and told me he's the protagonist of the sequel, that I need to establish he's gay, the ex-lover still-friend of one of the characters in this book to set up for his.

I can do this thing. It's in reach now. I've looked over what it needed to be publishable and this time I have a specific goal. I'm going to put in as many hours as I can on the edits up to 40 hours a week till it's ready. Then send it to my beloved editor, an old friend who's being paid to put it into final form and see into my blind spots. She's very good at doing that and likes my books. From there I'll spend $25-$30 to another bloke online to get it formatted and make it available as an e-book, hopefully to start turning over some royalties to help fund the next project in the series.

Best of all, working on it I've rediscovered everything I liked about this book and this setting. So I'll get back to it tonight and get back to you next week. Cross your fingers I don't get sick or something else happens to disrupt the process again. Life does happen and health is precarious but I think I'm finally ready to start a decent writing routine. Maybe these books will help me finish moving to San Francisco and pay for the rest of my stuff to get shipped from Arkansas!

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