I’ve been rereading Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent essay collection, The Language of the Night, most particularly “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” which examines the importance of language and style in writing fantasy. Le Guin’s main thesis is that fantasy isn’t defined so much by wizards and dragons. What makes it fantasy is the style: “The style, of course, is the book…If you remove the style, all you have left is a synopsis of the plot.” (Le Guin, The Language of the Night, p. 94).
She hastens to add, “I speak from the reader’s point of view. From the writer’s point of view, the style is the writer…Style is how you as a writer see and speak” (ibid).
Which is certainly true. Style can be learned, imitated, affected—but we all have a style that is uniquely us, as personal as our fingerprints or speaking voice.
But I was thinking—I have a story coming out in Lackington’s at the end of this month that’s a very different style than my other fiction. It’s contemporary and snappish (the editor called it “almost hardboiled,” which delighted me to no end). And yet—it’s still me.
As usual, I turn to music to help me understand my own writing process.
First, some technical things: vocal registers.
Vocal pedagogy is its own delight, but for our purposes, let’s talk about chest voice, head voice, and the break. Super simply (I apologize), chest voice is the low part of the vocal range, head voice is the upper part, and the break is that frustrating bit in the middle.
There’s a difference singing across registers. Physically, of course, but also in terms of intention.
And yet, it’s still the same voice—used differently, resonating in different places, useful for different types of music (I would die trying to sing descants in my chest voice).
For me, this is a useful way to think about writing. Some stories sit in my chest voice. Some sit in my head voice. Same voice, same style, just applied differently.
(As a sidebar that really deserves its own blog post, I think that the same logic applies to fairy tales. Tolkien famously described a “fairy-story” as “…one which touches on or uses Faërie, whatever its own main purpose may be…” (Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, p. 16). Much like how fantasy isn’t defined by wizards and dragons, fairy tales aren’t defined by wee sprites. I think defining “fairy tale” comes down to register, rather than plot motifs or tropes—a “Faerie voice,” if you will. But I digress.)
But wait, there’s more!
Even within the same register, vowels change the sound dramatically! Consciously adapting vowels is an important skill for choristers; just like adapting vocabulary, syntax, and vernacular is important for writers.
Good singers can sing across all genres of music. Sure, it may sound different, but it’s always them, always their style. Good writers do the same—and that’s what I’m aiming for.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Christmas has started at the dayjob, so bring on the Christmas/Advent music! It’s going to be a fun six weeks. Here’s a macaronic piece already getting considerable play on my rotation:
So the big news this week is that I finished the Beer Magic novel. It was as exciting and exhausting as one might expect, and now my plate feels strikingly lighter. We also forged ahead with our callbacks for “Six Stories – the Neo-Wagnerian Opera.” Plus a whole host of various and sundry projects.
But Beer Magic. That’s the point of this post. It was such an odd novel for me to write. First off, it took a comparatively long time. I think I started midway through November? For me, three months is definitely on the lengthier side. Partly, there were more false starts than usual; this surviving draft was the fourth after a series of gut-and-revamps.
And it’s very different than any other novel I’ve written, which probably contributed to the hesitation and self-doubt.
But hey, we’re done for now. At this point, it goes into the deep freeze (because ahahahaha March is nearly as busy as February). I’ll likely pull it out in April, take a whack through, and then send it to betas.
That’s the plan, anyway.
But one thing was consistent in this process! The Beer Magic novel had a pretty solid soundtrack, with a shortlist of songs that contributed in some way. Some helped me understand character; some set mood; some just made me want to work on this story.
So without further ado:
The Beer Magic Playlist!
Hunter (Heather Dale)
Dacw ‘Nghariad (Welsh Traditional)
The City (Ola Gjeilo)
Look What You Made Me Do (Taylor Swift)
The Reproaches (John Sanders)
Homecoming (Thomas Bergersen)
Together Again (Evanescence)
Once Upon a Dream (Lana del Rey)
I See Fire (The Hobbit, via Celtic Woman)
Three Ravens (English Traditional)
Stabat Mater – Introduction (Pergolesi)
An eclectic mix for an eclectic book! Warm fuzzy feelings abound at the moment…though I shan’t rest on my laurels for long. A writing retreat beckons!
What I’m Listening To This Week
This piece got me through the past-midnight marathon session that saw the novel nearly finished, particularly underpinning the climax. Another piece by Ola Gjeilo, I especially like the back-and-forth between the two upper voice parts. And Christina Rossetti poem is lovely, of course!
I don’t often write poetry. Sometimes I get the odd one, but I almost never share my poems.
But when I do, they become opera arias…
Story time! New Zealand and I adopted each other long ago. I love the landscape, the people, the culture, the history…but when I backpacked around the country by myself, I got a little homesick. To be clear: I had an amazing time, with once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and I do not regret a single second.
And I also missed home.
So, one day while riding the InterCity bus between towns, I stared out the window at the impossibly green, mist-shrouded hills, and I composed some verse in my head. When I got to the backpackers’ that night, I tapped it out on my phone. Several weeks later, when I came home, I transferred it to my computer.
I liked it. Nothing super fancy or experimental; I wanted something simple. It had an interesting meter, though. The pattern of stressed syllables reminded me of someone running. Which was exactly what I wanted. It captured those nights in hostel bunk beds, staring at the bunk above me and trying to work out which direction home lay. I figured the poem might be interesting set to music (again, that very bare, understated pub song feel), but I don’t compose. Heck, I barely write poetry.
I came home. I forgot about it.
Fast forward to January 2013. I was rewriting the libretto for East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon. Since I was eighteen the first go-round and the performance requirements had changed in the interim, I was mostly rewriting from scratch.
Rose (our plucky young heroine) had an aria. There were some duets and trios, several chorus numbers for the kids. But the White Bear/Prince didn’t really have an aria of his own. I started thinking about how the enchanted Prince would feel: roaming through the northlands, lonely and just wanting to be warm again, waiting to come home…
And a spark of emotion and memory flared.
I dug into my files. I found the poem. It already had a strong meter; I’d already wondered if it would work with music.
Time to find out.
I slipped that poem into the opera almost unchanged (I think I altered the tense of one verb, maybe?). And there it’s stayed. My partner in this—composer Norbert Palej—did a beautiful job with the aria. I didn’t tell him what it was really about, and yet he crafted a lovely piece. The music aches.
Nothing you write is ever wasted. You never know when thoughts, emotions, and memories will reappear to inform your creative work. Save it—because someday, it may find its home.
Cool Thing of The Week
You didn’t think I’d go through all that without showing you the poem, right? I mean, it’s part of an opera now: I think I’ve lost any rights to qualms over sharing it!
I was waiting for the passing
Of the bleak and bitter night,
For the fleeing of the shadows
And the coming of the light.
I was waiting for the dawning
Of the absent summer sun,
And the waiting warmth that spurs me
On the distant roads I run.
I was waiting for the tasting
Of the season on the air,
For the old familiar fires
Breathing smoke upon my hair.
I was waiting for the greeting
And the chorus from the hearth,
For the end to all my calling
From the very end of Earth.
I was waiting for the sighing
When I stood before your door.
I am waiting, and so dying –
Waiting just a little more.
Creating things takes a lot out of you: mentally, emotionally, and physically. This is why you often hear creative-types talking about the need to recharge creatively, to surround one’s self with things that keeps the muse purring and the creative furnaces hot. There usually follows images of the creative-type serenely contemplating a field of wildflowers, or perhaps meandering serenely through an empty art gallery…
Well, I found something that keeps my creative well consistently full, something that energizes me and makes me want to WRITE ALL THE THINGS.
Spoiler: it’s not wildflowers.
I’ve become a fan of Celtic Woman. And also a fan of the High Kings, which are basically the male equivalent of Celtic Woman. It’s been this way pretty much since last summer, when I started work on the Victorian Dark Fantasy. I don’t know what the kids are dancing to in the clubs these days, but you better believe that I can belt out Rocky Road to Dublin from memory, in the correct 9/8 slip reel time.
It’s not something that I can really explain. Sure, I’ve always been a fan of traditional music, but these aren’t necessarily super-traditional. The translation for Celtic Woman’s version of Mo Ghile Mear is…um, well, you can take a look for yourself:
Can you feel the river run?
Waves are dancing to the sun,
Take the tide and face the sea,
And find a way to follow me.
Leave the field and leave the fire
And find the flame of your desire.
Set your heart on this far shore,
And sing your dream to me once more
Vs. the actual words:
Once I was a gentle maiden,
But now I’m a spent, worn-out widow,
My consort strongly plowing the waves,
Over the hills and far away.
Every day I’m constantly enduring grief,
Weeping bitterly and shedding tears,
Because my lively lad has left me
And no news is told of him – alas.
But you know what? I don’t care. There’s something in the drums, the harmonies of their arrangement that ignites that creative spark. Normally, I tend towards classical music, choral things, and musical theatre. But for whatever reason, this music punches some part of my brain and makes words want to happen.
I like ’em.
I worked my way through most of their music while writing the Victorian Dark Fantasy…and now, I’ve got it back on repeat. Plus, their newer members come from musical theatre backgrounds. It shows, and these more theatrical performances are making ideas echo, even if I can’t articulate them just yet:
So yeah. My musical tastes have always been eclectic (I’ve also fallen in love with Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, but that probably won’t end up in a novel for a while), but this is perhaps a bit odd even for me.
As for the High Kings…well, again, they’re basically the male version. It’s more stand-and-sing, but their songs do that same punching-through-to-some-flash-of-idea thing. I think this is one of Mairi’s theme songs:
Although she is not at all a fan of this one, which is hugely interesting. Especially because I start dancing in my seat from the opening chords:
And of course, this song, which is actually Mairi’s theme song:
The things that stoke our creative fires aren’t always the things we expect. That’s ok, though. It opens us to things we might never otherwise find. Besides, this music makes me happy. Then I want to write, which also makes me happy.
And man… those 9/8 slip reels are catchy!
PS. Yes, I totally wrote this post while listening to Téir Abhaile Riú on repeat…
I’ve been editing the Victorian Dark Fantasy all afternoon, headphones in, as per usual. In keeping with the mood of the book, it’s been mostly Celtic music the past few weeks—both pseudo-Celtic-inspired-it-sounds-close-enough music and actual Gaelic-language folksongs.
I love them.
But it’s not just the bouncing fiddles and reels that have me wriggling with joy. See, lots of people know about using images as story prompts. You look at a picture and it triggers a story (or questions that lead to a story) on some visceral level.
Honestly, I mostly use music.
I’m not a musician, but music seems to bypass my squirrel-brain and punches me right at the level of emotion. Because I tend to hear everything at once if I’m not careful, it also helps quiet my brain down—the racing thoughts just get drowned out. And, like many writers, I use music to help get into the mood of a story/scene.
But for me, it also triggers stories. And that’s kind of awesome, because I’ll be searching for music to help with one story, and inadvertently stumble across another piece that sparks something else. It exposes me to a lot of cool stuff, both musically and story-wise.
Take the Victorian Dark Fantasy. Early thoughts had been clattering around for a while, but the story really only snapped into place when I found a lovely Scottish tune called “Mari’s Wedding” (or “Marie’s Wedding,” or “Mairi’s Wedding” or “Mairi Bhan”). Actually, the song only caught my attention because I wondered if it had anything to do with the play “Mary’s Wedding.” It doesn’t seem to. And aside from the fact that someone named Mari/Marie/Mairi is getting married, it has nothing to do with the VDF, either.
Except it does. Because listening to that song, I caught a flash of character—and then I started asking questions. I also started looking for more music, something that could help me enter this emerging world.
That’s the one that’s been making me grin like an idiot for the past two days. Because in this song about a young girl wanting to hook up with some sailors in Galway, I hear another conflict in this world. I hear opportunities to make my characters confront some really difficult choices. I hear the beginnings of another story.
After a very rough year, I think I’m finding my passion again. That’s a very, very good thing.
Naturally, I’m getting ahead of myself, still riding the “I FINISHED THE BOOK!” high. I do need to return to Strix. Not to mention a few other projects in the pipe…
But oh man, when I hear that chorus, I just squirm with excitement:
Téir abhaile riú, téir abhaile riú
Téir abhaile riú Mhearai
Téir abhail gus fan sa bhaile
Mar tá do mhargadh déanta…
My name is Errol and K.T. is graciously allowing me to blog on her website. I first met K.T. on the set for the musical I wrote: NaNoWriMo: The Musical. She’s a friend of Blythe Haynes, who played one of the main leads. If you wish, you can see K.T. in the first and last episode of the musical. She’s in the background dancing!
If you are not familiar with National Novel Writing Month, it’s one of those monthly challenges where you write a fifty thousand word novel in a month. Monthly challenges are getting more popular as of late – did you know there is one for every month of the year? You could keep yourself so busy your significant other will start inventing new ways to be upset with you!
If you feel that you wish to get in on a crazy, self-imposed deadline which has no reward other than satisfaction, there is one coming up in February related to writing music. It’s called February Album Writing Month (FAWM.org).
Thousands of musicians around the world congregate on this site and upload music they have written that month. And it’s totally awesome.
My bandmate told me about FAWM before we were bandmates. She tried to convince me it was fun. Up to that point my current record for song writing was about one every two months and a number of soundbites of me belching into the mic.
But I was game to try anything because I was impressionable. I made myself a goal: write two songs. If I could do that, then that was two more songs that I could inflict on my friends.
Once February started, I got involved with the community and fully immersed myself into being a newb fawmling.
I had a blast.
This was surprising to me because I’m a geek and I like talking and writing about geeky things. Musicians usually reflect on things like emotion, drama, and drinking.
The best thing for me was the collaborations! I could find others more talented than myself willing to write songs with me! Sometimes I would write the music. Other times I would write the lyrics. And other times we would collaborate on both.
It was amazing!
What else did it help with? It stretched me musically. One person asked me to write a jazz song. Did I know how to write a jazz song? Of course not. But I was going to try. I also wrote a polka, a tango, some country songs, and whole host of other styles I never would have attempted.
In the end, that year I wrote almost forty songs. Obviously most of them were collaborations and, because of me, quite amateurish, but it was much more than I had hoped for.
Finally, it’s a site of encouragement. People know you are writing fourteen songs in a month. No one is expecting Mozart. There are people like me that lower the bar! The forums and the comments are there to encourage you to keep going! There are online chats, streaming radio shows, challenges, a whole host of things to keep you occupied for the month.
The community aspect is great! You have at your disposal the expertise of thousands of musicians. They know what they’re talking about, they know what you’re doing, and they are just as excited about writing music as you are.
My bandmate was right, it was a lot of fun. I’m coming up to my sixth year now and I can’t wait to get started.
The only reason I can write music now is because of FAWM. The only reason I wrote that musical is because of FAWM. It helped me grow as a musician and introduced me to a number of talented folks.
And now… I’m in a band. That’s great for me. Maybe not so great for my bandmate. 😀
Currently, he has an IndieGoGo campaign to raise funds to put out a NaNoMusical CD.