Archive for January, 2012

It’s not easy to write about music.

I realised this as I put the finishing touches to my shamefully biased and narrow-minded account of 2011’s finest music. After all, there are only so many times one can describe a guitar riff as “soaring”, a bass line as “brutal”, a chorus as “anthemic” before inspiration fades. Luckily, I don’t want to be a music journalist. I just want to write about music.

I should explain. My obsession with music predates my obsession with becoming a brilliantly successful novelist by several years. Before I ever put pen to paper, I applied plectrum to string and decided to be a brilliantly successful guitarist. It was not to be; I was – to use a technical term – fucking awful, and soon settled on another way to express myself.

But, even once I started writing, the music wouldn’t leave me alone. It probably didn’t help that I always had some tune or other playing in the background when I wrote, but the songs I adored kept weaving their way into my narratives. Characters shouted to be heard over Blondie’s hits at discos; fights kicked off to the sound of The Clash; drunken, hazy sex was soundracked by…er, Fugazi. Music was all around me, and hugely influenced the words I wrote. Sometimes, I incorporated the sounds I heard well; at other times, my overwrought attempts fell flatter than the bummest note.

Nothing’s really changed; I’m still a sucker for a song. But I’ve been thinking about this unhealthy addiction a lot recently, as the current novel I’m writing, the tracks…, features a character who is near-reliant on music. And I wonder: can a song soar within fiction? Or – like punk and stage musicals – should the two never mix?

The desire to include music within a narrative is easy to understand: the right song can create another world. It could be the words, the sounds, or simply the feelings it evokes, but suddenly a whole new reality exists which – to the listener – was inconceivable three minutes earlier. Individual songs have inspired scenes, characters, plot developments…entire stories for me. That’s usually why I write them in to my fiction; I struggle to separate the sounds I hear from the story I have to tell.

I’ve never incorporated music into my writing to show off how impeccable my taste is. It’s always simply been a case of loving a song, and believing it fitted in with what I was writing, especially if the track in question helped me create a particular scene. At best, I hoped that somebody somewhere would tap their feet in recognition of my reference points, or be excited enough by the mention of new music to seek it out for themselves. Having said that, it’s obvious now that I needlessly padded out narrative with more songs than anyone could care for.

My first book, Stays, was littered with references, ranging from classics to tracks so obscure that the artists themselves would struggle to remember them. It was impossible to ensure every song ‘meant’ something in the context of the story and, as a result, Stays was a case of noise over substance. My second novel, Dead Dom, was a misanthropic dose of viciousness (click here if you don’t believe me), and so was its soundtrack: Butthole Surfers ‘Sweatloaf’ signalled Dom’s death – its “sludgehammer riffs nailing regret” – and the usually well-behaved Blur packed the one-minute-punch of  ‘We’ve Got A File On You’ into an explosive bit of carnage. Most of the music worked, but I was still guilty of crowbarring in riff-heavy stompers simply because I wanted to. Though I’m sure there are other reasons why both of these novels remain unpublished, it is tempting to – ahem – blame it on the boogie.

My most successful attempt, I think, to fuse fiction and music is a short story I wrote for Pop Fiction: Stories Inspired By Songs (which, if you do like your tales song-tinged, you really should read about here before investing in here). ‘Disney’s Dream Debased’ is based on the song of the same name by The Fall, which recounts a queasy real-life fatality at Disneyland. My story not only imagines the life of a Disney employee referenced in the song, but also details how this character’s realisation that he’s been mentioned in a tune by his favourite band results in the return of unwanted memories. One reviewer called it “an ingeniously post-Modernist spin on song interpretation itself”, and I feel it would be churlish to disagree.

Maybe ‘Disney’s Dream Debased’ works because its music is integral to the story. The reader doesn’t need to know the track, simply understand the impact it has on one particular listener. But, without The Fall’s song, there is no tale. And, perhaps, that’s the key: if music is to work in fiction, it needs to be essential – not incidental – to the story.

In films, it’s rarely so complicated; sight and sound always seem to lock together in perfect harmony. Film soundtracks are often made up of apposite songs, so well-tied to the image on the screen that they then become synonymous with the film itself. Think of the obvious examples: Tarantino’s masterful misuse of upbeat classics, not least his sickly satisfying take on Stealers Wheel’s ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’, or Danny Boyle’s exhilarating Iggy-fied intro to  Trainspotting. Less predictably, film meshes magnificently with music when Mick Jagger unleashes ‘Memo From Turner’ in Performance, and Stanley Kubrick incorporates Richard Strauss’ ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ into 2001.

Being a film music supervisor must be the coolest job in the world. You watch the film, then decide which music goes where. Yes, I know there’s more to it than that, but you get the idea: a great scene deserves a fine song, just as a schmaltzy death-by-incurable-illness scene deserves a scoop of Snow Patrol. However, the same job can’t exist in fiction. The author alone is responsible for the world he or she creates, and it’s up to them to provide the soundtrack. But do writers ever truly hit the right note?

There are a few authors who, I think, balance words and music admirably. Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting soundtracks his reprobates’ lives even more successfully than the film. Haruki Murakami’s fiction frequently mixes in music; many of his protagonists are single, spaghetti-loving jazz fiends and, predictably, Murakami owned a jazz bar when he was young and single. Bret Easton Ellis has repeatedly used 80s music as a shorthand for the superficiality and sadness that defines his characters, most successfully throughout American Psycho, even going as far as to dedicate chapters to the relative merits of singers such as Phil Collins and Whitney Houston. It goes without saying that the person raving about these artists is insane.

Another author who springs to mind is Nick Cave, whose The Death of Bunny Munro offers a protagonist who obsesses disgracefully over Avril Lavigne, and near loses his load every time Kylie Minogue’s ‘Spinning Around’ comes on the radio. Fittingly, his Grinderman 2 album is the perfect soundtrack to the novel, its songs bursting with middle-aged men whose libidos refuse to play ball.

Other writers who incorporate music include Kevin Sampson, Ian Rankin, Hanif Kureishi, Iain Banks and, of course, Nick Hornby…but, still, I’m struggling to recall an author who has written a key scene which ties in a song or an artist as effortlessly as the above-mentioned films do. I’m sure they’re out there; I just haven’t read them yet. And that’s where you come in: if I’ve missed anyone out, let me know. Maybe I’ll discover a great new writer or a fine new tune…and all in the name of research for my new novel.

I believe I’ve got a good reason to tune things up for the tracks…, as Benny, one of the novel’s three narrators, is a sensitive soul who’s only truly happy when immersed in music. His ever-present iPod’s earphones not only ensure his life’s soundtracked by the music he loves, they also handily block out the chattering intrusions of the big bad world. As a result, the music he references – and the way it makes him feel – remains relevant to the story. Or, at least, that’s the plan. Read the opening chapters here, and judge for yourself.

I can’t resist writing music into my fiction, no matter how tricky it seems. And, with the tracks…, I’m determined to justify its noisy intrusion, and finally make my prose sing.

***

Daniel Lewis has written two novels, a few scripts, and a whole load of short stories – some of which can be found on youwriteon.com and by downloading Ether Books’ iphone app. He edited and contributed two stories to Pop Fiction, and is currently writing his third novel, the tracks…, about the impact a train track fatality has on three narrators.

He’s a little bit obsessed with music, and writes an impressively dry bio.

Check out daaanlewis.com for words and, of course, music.

Follow daaanlewis on Twitter.

‘utter crap’
‘rip off’
‘can’t write’
‘a load of old ~@:LO##!*’
‘doesn’t make sense’

(samples taken from online comments left by displeased readers)

Not only have the floodgates burst, they’ve buckled, twisted, torn free of their foundations, and pulled up the contents of the sewers. At least that’s what some readers crying dismay from the forums seem to think.

Eager writers want their books out there, and there’s nothing wrong in that, problem is, readers want reasonable quality, and quality is often lacking in the self-pubbing department.

Without doubt, there are gems to be found on the packed electric shelves – obvious care taken with presentation and form resulting in a sparkling jewel, an engaging story. Perhaps the owners of these gems are well established in the art of the craft. Perhaps some have employed an editor to pick away at the fluff and mould a decent blurb and pitch; and an experienced designer to create an engaging cover; and beta readers have made it better. Simply, the author has put considerable effort into crafting his baby. But these gems are few, and the overwhelming expulsion of sludge tumbling through the E-doors is not being easily tolerated.

So where does the craft go from here? Writing evolves, its forms and conventions reacting to ever-changing reader needs and perceptions, and so the e-flood has at least one spectacular thing in its favour…writing will evolve quicker than it ever has.

Improvements in writer ability, and therefore writing quality, will speed up tremendously, so I’d like to add to the ripple by revealing the three most common self-pubbing bloopers along with some proven fixes.

Over-writing

No not insurance, I mean depositing fluff. This is the biggy, the main man, and to make matters worse, to most it is invisible. Over-writing is responsible for a massive 80% of editorial pounces. De-fluffing isn’t as easy as swiping with a lint brush, but employing a simple technique can work wonders. Here’s how: Take one paragraph at a time, get into the narrative voice, read it out loud, and consider every single word for deletion. Every one! Ask yourself if reader would notice the deletion? Ask yourself if the story would be spoiled if that one word or sentence was taken away. It is amazing how much can be trimmed, leaving the STORY to work for itself. Cutting the fluff allows the STORY to run with clarity, and hearing it read out loud helps to identify the fluff. It works, and with practice, one just gets better and better at picking it away.

Dubious dialogue

Ditto the above. Once again imagine the scene playing out on the screen in your mind, get in character, and read it out loud. Does it sound realistic, believable? Does a word need italicising for improved inflection? Can punctuation be used to better effect? Can improved word choice aid delivery? Does word choice convey the expected character mood? Reading aloud, and playing the part really does help.

Unconvincing mood and tone

For your story to be conveyed satisfactorily, for reader to believe it and enjoy it, individual character mood (resultant of story events) must conform to reader’s inbuilt preconceptions of human reactions, otherwise the resulting perceived tone will be off-key. For a woman to chuckle in the scene after her husband got sliced in two by an axe murderer either says something wonderfully insane about the character, or something woefully lacking in the writer. For the pov narrative to wax lyrical about the rosy fingers of dawn when there’s a murder going down means the `writer` needs to shut up. To have the shy boy suddenly become brassy, but only for a page or two, or a character NOT reacting to a story event, simply won’t do. Fix this by standing back and watching the scene. Examine the event/s portrayed. Examine each character’s action and reaction, followed by their mood. And not only their current mood, but the after effects. If a character loses a relative, or a pet, or even a job, then that character may take some time before the mood changes. Character mood needs careful moulding and tracking through actions, best word choice, narrative voice, and dialogue before it can become believable.

So that’s it. If you’re thinking of self-pubbing, put some thought into the cover and hire the services of an experienced cover designer. Remember, you’re not just hiring their software expertise but their opinions and ideas, and achieving a decent cover is not an expensive outlay for such a decent return.

And do consider hiring an editor to help your prose shine. A good editor will not only correct grammar and punctuation, he will hoover up your fluff and bring ideas for improvement in plot, characterisation, and tone. There are many ‘editors’ touting their services on the net, so be sure to get a free sample edit of your first chapter before parting with your cash.

But if you are your own editor, read it out loud, pick away the fluff, take care with speech and mood; tackle those most common bloopers, and do the E-book rEvolution a favour.

***

In the northernmost spire of his black-brick chateau, John Hudspith edits novels by day and scrawls scary stories by night. Kimi’s Secret won a highly coveted youwriteon book of the year award and has had huge acclaim in every room in John’s home. John may look handsomely ancient but he’s really only 30. Five years to write a first novel takes it out of one’s mojo – that and the time-travel. But Kimi is alive now, waiting to suck you in and thrust you onwards. John is now working on the sequel and hopes to see daylight before next Christmas.
Creative Collaboration

In 2011 I wrote and illustrated my first children’s book. My husband, who is a programmer, turned this story into an app for the Apple store. A storybook app can function just like a traditional printed picture book, but an app includes narration, music, sound effects, animation and touch interactivity. The Artifacts  is now a picture book which can be read on iPads, iPod touches and iPhones all over the world.

One year ago this all sounded like gobbledy gook to me. I’d heard a lot of talk about the iPad, but had never actually clapped eyes on one. Then I was given an iPad for Christmas. I started downloading various apps, including storybook apps for our toddler which she really enjoyed. Storybook apps will never replace traditional books, nor will any narration capture the joy of a parent and child sharing a reading experience, but I was suddenly spared the burden of reading Goldilocks And The Three Bears ten times per day. The app could read it for her when I had gone crazy from talking about porridge and, even at the age of two, she could work the iPad entirely by herself. I was pretty impressed with a device so intuitive to use, so I wanted to have a go at creating one of those storybook apps myself. Enthusiasm aside, I had no idea where to start.

At the same time, Dan was interested in learning how to code in Obj-C, and had been looking around for a new project to do in his spare time. Suddenly it became clear: instead of me working independently on various writing projects and him coding retro games of an evening, we could pool our enthusiasms and work on something together! I still don’t know why it took so long for us to work out that’s what we should be doing, but better late than never!

Finding People To Work With

Dan and I happen to be married, and we are unusually fortunate to have complementary but distinct interests which lead to the creation of an app.

The great thing about the Internet, though, is that you don’t have to be living in the same house as your collaborator, nor even in the same country. There’s video conferencing and email and live chats. It would be quite feasible to find collaborators living in the opposite hemisphere and still work closely together. (It’s amazing how often Dan and I just emailed each other or adjusted a shared Google doc rather than get off a chair to leave a nice, warm room and walk all the way down to the other’s study area. When working together on a project, physical proximity might be overrated!)

Chatrooms/Bulletin Boards/Forums

Dan was brand new to the Apple world so, like me, he has made extensive use of forums – me, art forums; Dan, programming forums. Places where you can pose questions and search archives are an invaluable resource. It’s all about knowing where to go and which questions to ask. The more specific the community, the better.You can make some surprising connections.

For example, Dan met film and game composer  Chris Hurn on a gaming forum a few years ago, where Chris expressed interest in composing music for indie developers. I’m not sure if Chris is a gamer as well as a musician, but it was with foresight that he approached the gaming world to offer his services. Sometimes it’s worth visiting forums which are outside our regular haunts. Writers looking for illustrators may do well to visit art forums, for instance.

Chris has composed superb music for The Artifacts. (You can download and listen to it here.) I’m so pleased at the difference his soundtrack made to the final product. That one chance encounter – when Dan and Chris just happened to be on the same forum at around the same time – has been one of the most serendipitous yet. You just never know where you’re going to find great people to work with.

A Few Thoughts On Social Networking

I don’t remember how I first met most of the people I now know online – people who have helped in the specifics of writing, illustration, usability testing and promotion. The most valuable resource lately has been twitter. More specifically: making use of twitter to find people with similar interests, then following them and their lists. Next, talking to people you don’t know and waiting to see who talks back. That, in my opinion, is the best use of twitter. That, and inviting yourself into established real-time chats by making use of hashtags. It can sometimes feel like everybody on twitter is just trying to sell you something, but twitter can be so much more valuable than that. It’s the people I have met via twitter who keep me going back to it. I was very lucky to find an established community of storybook app developers already on there. They’ve since directed me to other places on the Internet where they chat in more detail and less publicly. I wouldn’t have known where to go otherwise. Yet I hear a lot of negativity about twitter: always from people who aren’t doing it right or who have never tried it themselves. Whatever your thoughts regarding social media, I guess you just have to go where your community is.

Once you’ve found your collaborators, there are many benefits to be had from working with others:

GIVING UP IS NO LONGER AN OPTION

When you decide to work with a partner, you’ve brought a formality to the project which might never have existed had you soldiered on alone. You’ve made a commitment to each other.

DISCUSSION BUILDS RESILIENCE

When you’ve worked with a partner, you’ve already had extended discussions about every little decision along the way. So by the time your masterpiece hits the public, you both have a clear vision of what you’ve tried to achieve. Such clarity is vital because everyone’s got an opinion on your work. Reviewers bring their own set of expectations to your project, so you need to know exactly what it is you stand for, and by extension, you’ll know exactly what you don’t stand for.

COLLABORATORS MAKE YOU LOOK EVEN MORE TALENTED THAN YOU ALREADY ARE!

At least this is how it should work, if you’re working with the right people. There were numerous times throughout this project when I was surprised at how much better the page looked after Dan had worked his programming magic on it. Dan also brought his own quirky sense of humour to the story, and there are few things more satisfying than seeing your own work improved by someone else. I imagine this is what it’s like for a novelist whose work has been expertly edited, and is something self-publishing authors may miss out on. This is why I’d recommend working with collaborators at some stage of any artistic project, even if the project is essentially your own.

LEARNING FROM EACH OTHER

I learnt from Dan in unexpected ways.

As Dan puts it, I am ‘untainted by the corporate world’, which simply means I haven’t the first clue how large projects get done. Dan, on the other hand, has been working in development teams his entire adult life. I learnt from him the psychology of project management.

One such concept is ‘scope creep’, which I had not heard before, but recognised immediately. I’m definitely prone to scope creep, which means a longterm project gets bigger and bigger until it’s no longer manageable and I throw in the towel. Sometimes during this project, when I had a wonderful new idea for a page, Dan would say, ‘Nup. We’re not going there. That’s a classic case of scope creep*. He was usually right. I even threw it back at him a couple of times. The psychological traps are always more obvious when someone else is there to point them out.

HOLDING THE OTHER ACCOUNTABLE

Dan and I are married so we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s fair to say we know them even better now.

We both knew that I’m easily distracted, and tend to struggle to finish the final ten percent of anything. I was constantly getting great(!) new ideas for our next project long before finishing this one. But I’m never short of ideas, so we both knew this was going to happen. Dan has refused to discuss these new projects with me in detail. He has a very methodical way of working, and I knew from assembling furniture with him that he won’t worry about the extra, weird looking screw until he actually gets to step 9.3, at which point it will be needed, or not. This sequential manner of working has been beneficial for someone like me, who can flit around having fun while never finishing anything.

Like many programmers, Dan is very literal in his interpretation of everything, but I’ve studied just enough programming to know that this is probably because he spends all day translating human language to be understood by the most literal-minded thing on the face of the planet: a computer. I therefore speak to Dan in the most detailed and specific language I can muster, because the programmer has a difficult job.

Respect has been an important part of holding the other accountable, because communicating was possibly the biggest challenge of all. When we started this project, I had an entire interactive book inside my head, but lacked the language to describe to Dan exactly how it should work. However, we have made up our own language. It includes gesticulating, scribbling on paper and comical sound effects.

PERFECTIONIST TENDENCIES ARE MODERATED

If you tend towards perfectionism you might identify when I say that it’s hard to know when to let things go sometimes. I am perfectionist in some things but not in others (like most perfectionists, I think). Dan is the same with his programming, but has learnt to deal with this tendency after years of working to deadline in the workplace. We both told each other when good enough was good enough. Also, I think everyone is a perfectionist in their own specific area, and when it comes to creative work we can be a little hard on ourselves. It’s nice to have a non-specialist tell you it’s okay to move on because what you’ve accomplished is just fine. Especially when you know for certain that this particular non-specialist cares as much as you do about the project, so can’t possibly be dishing out platitudes. That’s what got this app finished to deadline, this year, rather than in 2027.

AND… WE CAN LEGITIMATELY REFER TO OURSELVES AS ‘WE’!

As in, ‘We create high quality interactive stories for young readers.’ This will always sound more impressive and permanent than ‘I’, even if it is just the two of us!

Finally, if you don’t feel it strictly necessary to find a creative collaborator of your own, you can always do what good fiction writers do well: imagine one up.

…imagine that instead of a little kid, there’s a long-necked, good-natured Dr. Seuss character down [in the depths of your mind], grim with concentration and at the same time playing. He cranes his head toward the sound of the characters talking, but not like a court reporter, more like somebody sitting alone at an adjacent table, trying not to pry but wanting to take it all in. You may want to come up with an image or a metaphor for this other part of you that is separate from your rational conscious mind, this other person with whom you can collaborate. This may help you feel less alone.

* from Bird By Bird: Some instructions on writing and life by Annie Lamott

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If you would like to follow our progress, we’d appreciate a ‘like’ at Slap Happy Larry on Facebook.

If you own an Apple device (iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch) and would like to see for yourself how our app turned out, you can download The Artifacts from the iTunes Store.

If you have specific questions about the technical and logistical side of publishing your picturebook as an app, feel free to contact Lynley or Dan at  admin@slaphappylarry.com.

2011 in review

Posted: January 2, 2012 in News

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,500 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 58 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Never Too Late

Posted: January 1, 2012 in News

A longish short story I wrote a few years ago, after we started dancing, has finished the month at number 2 in the You Write On charts. It now gets ‘Best Seller’ status and is removed to the permanent Best Seller chart to allow new stories through. You can read it here.

I’m much happier with this story now. When I first put it up for peer review in 2008 it didn’t even break into the top twenty. It has been through many edits and rewrites and is obviously much improved, so thanks to everyone who picked holes or made suggestions.

Cheers and a very happy New Year to all!