Tagged: music

Hit the Road, Jack

There’s a lot of music in our lives. We listen to it when we’re writing, editing, and plotting. Our sons are both omnivorous musicians, which means we’ve spent more than our fair share of time attending drum, guitar, bass, and piano lessons, marching band parades and football games, piano recitals, jazz band, concert band, symphonic band, and orchestra concerts, and battle of the bands. One son was in a metal band that had gigs at a local bar before he was 21, the other plays highly esoteric and experimental stuff, in addition to straight-up classical and jazz.

For as much as we like music, though, there unfortunately aren’t many local shows that interest us, which means that when there’s a band we want to see, we have to hit the road.

That’s just what we did earlier this week. We like to use the time in the car to brainstorm ideas, and this time we worked on fleshing out Sibling of Music Novel. It felt fitting to talk about music on the way to the concert, and on the way home we were flush with energy and insight. The drive was about six hours each way, so we had plenty of time to dig in on some details of world building and theme. Since this one is a sequel, you’d expect a lot of the world building to be done already, but we’re adding a new wrinkle which requires us to start from scratch for one of the settings. We’re talking “are the laws of physics the same here?” level stuff. There’s a lot to talk about.

Kent did all the driving, while Jen navigated, which is how we like to run things. It also means that it was up to Jen to take notes on our conversation. She used the voice recognition dealy on her phone, to quite amusing results. Our main character has a non-standard name, and in the notes it ended up being spelled at least four different ways. When we got to our hotel we had a good laugh over all the other kre8ive word choices as we transcribed the notes and expanded them.

We’ve been pretty deep into editing Elsewhere’s Twin, while also doing some writing on Grandson of Science Novel. It had been a long time since we devoted a lot of brainpower to plotting out a new story, and it felt really good. We came up with a lot of really fun stuff. Well, we think it’s fun. Our characters definitely won’t.

But back to the important thing, our concert experience: the venue was small and stuffy, there was unexpected moshing and crowd-surfing, the opening act was pretty good, and the headliners — Royal Blood — were phenomenal. We were only about 10 feet from the stage. We both got caught up totally in the music, which is just how it should be, and which is a feeling we want to be able to capture in our Music novels. The sweat, the flailing limbs, the thump and roar, the smell of the smoke machine, all of it will hopefully make it onto the page.

The evening was topped off with the surreal discovery that the building across the street from our hotel burned down while we were at the show. That unsettling feeling might make it into the novel, too, but mostly we want to just relive the excitement of a really good rock show.

Inside the Rocket Surgery

  • by jenskating together and holding hands
  • then dissolved in acid
  • “You obstinate fellow!”
  • strings of a balalaika being plucked
  • kept the last of my clothes on

Tune in next time part 191                             Click Here for Earlier Installments

Inside the rocket surgery I heard two thumps and a rattle, followed by precise, clicking footsteps. I was pretty sure I knew whose footsteps those were, and it made my heart feel like it was skating together and holding hands with its sweetheart. The doorknob turned and those sweethearts in my chest fell through the ice and then dissolved in acid because the lake upon which they had been skating was not composed of water.

The door swung inward and there she was, Dr Belladonna, the former headmistress of the Academy.

“It’s you!” she cried, happier to see me than I had dared hope. “Unless it’s Jason.”

“It’s me either way.”

“You obstinate fellow!” She stood aside and ushered me into her operating theater. I had no choice but to enter.

The room was well-lit and swelteringly hot, and it smelled of hydrocarbons. Whatever music she was listening to sounded like the strings of a balalaika being plucked with an eggbeater.

“What are you doing in Harmonia, Dr Belladonna?”

“Oh please, we’re not at the Academy anymore. Call me Absinthia.”

“What are you doing in Harmonia, Absinthia?”

“It’s not rocket surgery!” She laughed. “Well, actually it is. I’ve developed a marvelous new technique that turns the whole field on its head. Instead of performing surgery on rockets, I have devised a way to use rockets to perform surgery!” She laughed again, with a triumphant gleam in her eye. “Perhaps I should say ‘developing.’ I’m always looking for new test subjects, and you suddenly appear at my door! I’d say that’s a sign!”

I edged back toward the door, but not quickly enough. Absinthia sprang at me and injected me with some sort of paralytic. I was helpless as she laid me out on the operating table and stripped off my crocs and snowpants. I suppose I should feel grateful that she kept the last of my clothes on, but the calico pinafore was easy for her to pull up to my neck, exposing my entire torso to this madwoman and her collection of surgical rockets.

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It Counts as Research

It’s been a while since we talked about the music we listen to when we’re writing, but it’s still an important part of our process. Especially this time of year when all of our neighbors renew their passionate love affairs with their lawn mowers. It’s been an especially noisy spring around the writing cave. A few weeks ago we rode out a pretty severe storm, and ever since we’ve been treated to practically daily concerts by the chainsaw chorus. And as I write this post, the people across the street have a cement mixer beeping and chugging away in their driveway. They’re in the midst of a never-ending construction project of some sort, and I can’t imagine what they need the cement for, since yesterday it was all nail-guns all day, putting up siding.

Both Jen and Kent skew pretty hard toward the Introverted/Antisocial end of the spectrum. In order to keep our sanity we need a buffer from the leaf blowers and hedge trimmers, the shrieking kids and teens on skateboards, the yodeling beagle and that weird guy who walks the streets in the dark, singing.

No, I’m not tense. Why do you ask?

Music is our respite, and lately it’s also been research. We’re in the early stages of plotting out our third Music Novel and it’s really helpful for us to swim around in songs that we love in order to get in the right headspace.

Last weekend we went to an out-of-town concert. We used the drive time to hash out some character details and brainstorm some plot points. Once we got there, we put that part of our brains in neutral and simply had a helluva good time. Of course, being writers, we were observing everything, soaking in the atmosphere along with the secondhand pot smoke. The ride home was filled with talk of fun details to work into the two extant Music Novels.

Now that we’re trapped in the writing cave again, we’ve taken to choosing songs from our collections that we feel exemplify the sound of the various bands in our novels. Interspersed with that are stretches where we listen to nothing but the Red Army Choir. Son and Grandson of Science Novel feature Russian characters and settings, so it really helps to set the mood.

Sometimes instrumental music is called for, especially during editing sessions. At those times we gravitate toward classical guitar or piano

What do you like to listen to when you’re writing? Let us know in the comments.

My Conversation with Svetlana was Interrupted

  • by Kenta “macho male rock figure”
  • with the utmost coolness
  • that delectable pastime
  • turn doorknobs without fainting?
  • began unlacing his moccasins

Tune in next time part 67                             Click Here for Earlier Installments

My conversation with Svetlana was interrupted by a sudden shift in the music, and a titanic increase in its volume. Chopin was replaced by a thunderous chord progression. The flying piano was still upside down, but now the red haired performer stood on it, himself still inverted as well, with his electric guitar’s strap slung cleverly between his legs. He cut quite a “macho male rock figure” up there, belting out crunchy music with the utmost coolness. Svetlana gaped, all carnal thoughts of me clearly washed from her mind, but the sexy swiveling of her hips indicated she was still daydreaming about that delectable pastime.

The female dancers’ fancy costumes had been shucked, revealing neon-toned unitards more suited to the modern interpretive style of their new dance, a swooning rubbery motion that made me wonder, could they turn doorknobs without fainting?

“Let’s keep moving,” I said, again using the pistol to encourage Svetlana to walk. We found another door in a distant corner of the warehouse and exited into an alleyway. One other person was out there, dressed all in buckskins and feathers.

“Who are you?” Svetlana asked. The stranger silently began unlacing his moccasins.


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Far Above the Heads of the Dancing Ladies

  • by jenhandcuffed to the table
  • you know that’s not allowed
  • I’m not a machine
  • now she was all sweet decorum
  • I wish I could sing like that

Tune in next time part 66                             Click Here for Earlier Installments

Far above the heads of the dancing ladies, the pianist was strapped to his bench, playing what I now recognized as a Chopin etude. He sang along, his voice as striking as his red hair. I wish I could sing like that crazy upside down man, but my talents lie in other areas.

Svetlana stared at the tableau, transfixed. I heard her sigh and reminded myself that even if now she was all sweet decorum she was a very dangerous woman. I led her into the darkened recesses of the warehouse, away from the stage and its peculiar performers.

I didn’t know exactly, or even roughly, where we were, and Svetlana refused to tell me. I frisked her, hoping to find a phone, but all I found under her leotard was her blowgun and a tube of chapstick. My hands lingered on her narrow hips.

“If you keep that up, you’re going to make me horny,” Svetlana purred. “I’m not a machine.” She leaned in for a kiss, her arms still bound behind her back.

You know that’s not allowed,” I said. “You’re my captive.”

“That never stopped you before,” she pouted. “Last time I was handcuffed to the table.”

“That was recreational. Today it’s business.”


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Writing Cave Mix Tape

r-avatarSome people prefer to work with no background music. We call those people “freaks.” They “enjoy” something they call “peace and quiet,” and say it helps them to concentrate.

Kent and Jen, like all right-thinking people, feel more productive with their favorite tunes serenading them.

When you’re working by yourself you can choose whatever music you like. Adding a writing partner to the equation complicates things, because chances are you won’t always agree on what constitutes good music. And the only thing worse than no music in the background is bad music in the background. It distracts like a motherfucker.

In addition to the challenge of finding music you can both agree on is the need to have that music also be conducive to writing. Some things, no matter how wonderful, just don’t work as background music, whether it’s because the lyrics are too awesome or too funny, or because the music itself is too kick-ass and all you want to do is dance or headbang. If you get too wrapped up in a song, it won’t work as a writing accompaniment.

We could of course wear headphones, and thus be free to both partake of whatever we want, but one of the most enjoyable parts of collaborating for us is the spontaneous conversations. We’d lose that if one or both of us busted out the Skullcandy.

Our current project presents its own challenges when it comes to choosing a soundtrack. We’re writing about musicians, and as we talked about last week, we like to set a mood with their music. If we’re trying to describe something dark and brooding while we’re listening to something bright and exciting, it’s just not going to work. And vice versa.

Our requirements for Writing Cave background music while working on Son-of-Music-Novel are:

  • is our son currently playing drums or piano? if not:
  • something we both like
  • that is generally conducive to writing
  • that does not set the wrong mood for the scene that either of us is working on
  • something that hasn’t been overplayed

What it boils down to is that we end up working in silence more often than we’d like :(

But what about when it’s not the Sound of Silence (a song which makes an appearance once in a blue moon)?

Classical music works in many situations because of the lack of vocals (we don’t do opera). We lean toward piano pieces, but Kent also has a really nice collection of classical guitar on his Mac. Full orchestration is a bit overwhelming we find, when we’re trying to work.

Non-classical stuff we’ve been into lately:

  • Royal Blood
  • Hanni El Khatib
  • The Kills
  • The Black Keys
  • Franz Ferdinand
  • Radiohead
  • Jack White and his various incarnations (but he tends to be distracting)
  • Fiona Apple
  • Portishead
  • The Cure
  • Bowie
  • The Doors
  • Nick Cave
  • Mike Doughty/Soul Coughing
  • Toadies (they were our first Twitter followers! True story)
  • Talking Heads
  • PJ Harvey
  • Police

Thank you, Sarah M, for giving us the nudge. (Sorry the Decembrists aren’t in our rotation. Perhaps we’ll check ’em out.)

What about you? What are you listening to?


Like Music To Your Ears

r-avatarFunny thing about writing a story that contains a lot of music: sometimes that means you can’t have any music playing while you’re writing it. The right background music can be very helpful, might even be inspiring, but there’s also a potential for the music in the writing cave to clash with the music in the writing. Another danger is that whatever you happen to have on while working on a scene will influence the flavor or even the outcome of that passage.

In the music novel, and now in son-of-same, the goal is to put awesome music in readers’ heads. The conceit is that the band in the story is awesome, that they’re every reader’s favorite band, which, if you’ve ever talked about music with anyone, you can see would be impossible. So comparing the story’s music to any specific real-world bands is off the table. It would backfire at least as often as it worked, no matter which paragons of rock and roll we used as comps.

So, how then to put the magic music in anybody’s head? We use two techniques in combination (in harmony, one might say).

The first and most important thing is to lavish description on the feeling that the music creates, rather than just on the music itself. The proper device for this is the specific feels of a specific character. Showing the sadness Jackie feels when she hears the song is infinitely stronger than saying that it’s a sad song.

The second thing is, when describing the music itself, use metaphor and poetic license. Get across the energy of the sound. Try to describe it without naming any instruments, without using any musical jargon. Pretend you have no knowledge of how that torrent of sonic mayhem was created, you just know it’s a fire-breathing lizard dancing through a forest of giant mushrooms.

Advance readers of the music novel have universally said they want the albums, want to go to the concerts, despite the fact that their personal tastes are wildly different. Sounds like success to us!

The Host of My Favorite Music Podcast

  • by jenentirely the wrong kind of inflection
  • turned into wobbly rubber
  • delicately touched the sleeve
  • because of technical embargoes
  • liquor and the jellies
  • with ice in his voice
  • only to force cursing
  • Caesar, the Decembrists, Prince Charlie, Xerxes

The host of my favorite music podcast made the announcement with ice in his voice, and entirely the wrong kind of inflection. Big Jim Caesar, the Decembrists, Prince Charlie, Xerxes and Lolita, and KGI would all be playing Bonnaroo this year, but because of technical embargoes, Liquor and the Jellies (my favorite band), would not. The news seemed designed only to force cursing from me, and I complied, letting loose a stream of profanity that did not stop until my neighbor pounded on the wall. My stomach turned to wobbly rubber when I remembered how much I’d paid for my ticket on Craigslist. I delicately touched the sleeve of my kimono to my cheek to blot my tears of disappointment and fury while inwardly I vowed vengeance against the president’s new War on Synthesizers.

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Music To My Ears

r-avatarWe’ve been deep in our music novel for the past few months, and just last week we reached the conclusion of Novel #5 in our critique group. This led to a lively discussion about endings in general, and the parallels between fiction and music composition.

There are many different approaches to endings, and different kinds of readers prefer different ending styles. What they all have in common is that readers seek a feeling of completion, that a “good” ending must be “satisfying” — whatever that means to each individual.

In music, this feeling of completeness is dependent on resolution. If the song changed key somewhere along the way, it will feel unresolved until it returns to its home key. The repeat structure, the lyrics, all kinds of elements of the music can contribute to this sense of resolution, of things coming together. This isn’t to imply that the only valid endings are those with complete resolution. Far from it. Some songs end on the up-beat and leave the listener ringing with unresolved energy. There are false endings, and slow fade-outs, and many other conventions.

Just like a good story ending, these various ways of handling resolution play with our instinctive, intuitive drive to have things tied up neatly. Sometimes the power of the ending comes from the elegance with which this denouement is achieved, while in other cases the conclusion’s ambiguity is what makes it stick with us, like the song that bounds up for its final beat, and never comes back down.

Tricky endings are definitely a place where it’s necessary to know the rules before you try to break them. Done poorly, they just feel flat. Like the author just stopped typing and called it “the end” without addressing questions raised along the journey. An ambiguous ending with no cathartic climax (aka, the European ending) isn’t right for every story, but then again not every tale calls for a big showdown. Just like not every song wants a gradual diminuendo, and not every song wants to end with a cymbal crash.

Look at the threads that make up your story, at the choices that haven’t yet borne fruit, and construct an ending based on satisfying your readers. Or, leave just the right questions ringing in their minds.

Being Awesome Together

r-avatarMostly we write about the logistical and procedural aspects of writing with a partner: how to divvy up the work, how we can each play to our strengths, and so on. What we mention in passing is that we talk to each other a lot, and now maybe it’s time to make those conversations the focus of a post on the Skelleyverse.

Kent’s current assignment is to make a pass through the music novel watching for places to have the main character “think in music” — we want readers to be able to hear the world through his ears, and we want it to be clear that music is fundamental to him, not just something he does. Well, Kent made use of Scrivener’s nifty tools for filtering and organizing text nodes to find the places where such edits would make sense, and … stared at it for an hour. Eventually he changed one word. It was a good one, mind you. But let’s review: one word.

But then — but then! — while Kent and Jen were spooling down from their gruelling work session, they chatted about Kent’s mission for about five minutes and came up with several excellent ideas for ways to incorporate the desired flavor. If Kent hadn’t been so fixated on the notion that it was “his” job to come up with this stuff, they could have spent some time chatting up front and come out way ahead.

Every writer needs someone to talk to, even if it’s not a partner per se. It’s critical for effective problem-solving. And if you are lucky enough to have someone sitting in the same room with you, who knows the details of your project and understands the creative vision, then don’t squander the opportunity to think out loud with that person! Good things will happen.