Tidbit (Not Exclusively) for Novelists: Writing Momentum Isn’t Always Brash and Dazzling

It’s so hideously easy to feel like you’re treading water.

I used to think that the distinction in my case was related to a lack of handwritten draft. I do have many pages of early scenes scribbled out, of course, but less than 10% of them proved salvageable years later. Some of my ideas came in such a tangled blur that it became totally impractical for me to handwrite them. I couldn’t pick them apart, which probably led to years of crawling through half-remembered ideas. I used to believe that computers weren’t a suitable medium for random notes, so I only used them for coherent writing moments. Everything else stayed locked up in my head, especially the more outlandish or harsh ideas. To this day, I firmly believe that my mistake was overcensorship, not the nature or length of the story. On the other hand, it was inevitable. I didn’t realize just how vast of a story I was forming at the time – and if I had, everything probably would’ve turned out differently.

Nevertheless, I have immense respect for those who actually take a pen to paper for something other than vague bullet lists. If you scratch entire chapters out by hand or incessantly print your draft, God bless you for a thousand and one years, because you’ve probably given yourself access to an element that many of us blunder past without realizing it. Likewise, those who use typewriters (I know you’re still out there, folks) also have an edge over computer-only writers because they get to immediately see what they’ve written in coherent ink on a physical page.

But it’s not necessarily the digital format to blame. The bigger the project, the easier it is to lose sight of the “you are here” symbol on the map. A large number of our ranks prefer it this way, and it’s often downright necessary. It’s also extremely toxic.

Recently, I was quite ill for two weeks. The chief symptom was, annoyingly, eye strain. I couldn’t type, I couldn’t read anything – digitally or on paper – and I could barely even watch TV. The slightest exertion extended or renewed the pain despite careful food intake and – I jest not – 12 hours of sleep a night. In effect, I couldn’t move.

It should go without saying that when I assessed my progress at the end of that month, I was flabbergasted to realize that I’d somehow done intensive editing on almost 400 pages in a few weeks (post-illness, of course). The law of averages had been on my side, and I hadn’t even noticed it.

We often forget about our dear old friends like the law of averages. We somehow assume that because we happen to have one absurdly good week of writing out of the blue, every week should be that way. We even get mesmerized into thinking that if we didn’t generate (or mutilate) large chunks of draft, it doesn’t count. We’re tricked into saying “to hell with character analysis” or “I don’t need to summarize the next four important points that come in this book.” For those working on an invented world, details like geography considerations or cultural habits suddenly don’t matter – because we didn’t fiddle with the words today, damn it.

Meanwhile, writing is supposedly a methodical and meditative pursuit.

Momentum is a tightrope as thin as a razor. I hesitate to say that you should enjoy writing 24/7/365, but if you’re going to go in with all guns blazing, you might as well be smart about it. Take on what you can and no more. There’s an agonizing art to this, and it takes a lifetime of study before you even begin to grasp it.

 

Soundtrack Month: “Breach” (Mychael Danna)

Breach is an understated gem, both as a movie and a score. While the film can be quite tense at times, its soundtrack mostly reflects the plotting, devious side of a spy gone awry. Mychael Danna is a master of methodical, swelling orchestral arrangements, foreboding harp introductions, and angsty piano solos (quite a lot in this case). A few pinches of tasteful programming keep the momentum going. What more do you really need for setting a sad mood?

 

Soundtrack Month: “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring [The Complete Recordings]” (Howard Shore

This probably appears to be an excessively obvious choice, but it’s still worth considering if you really haven’t listened to it yet.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy had some of the longest soundtracks in recent years. In an age when a 100-minute movie is considered long, only Bollywood soundtracks boast a longer average duration than those for LOTR. While the standard-length albums are a fair representation of the scores, there’s a great deal more to glean from this extended cut.

The Complete Recordings version of this soundtrack is notoriously difficult (and expensive) to obtain – not to mention the fact that it cannot be legally purchased as a download to date – but YouTube bootleggers have been universal in their belief to share a good score with the world…and they have a point. This might be the longest soundtrack you ever listen to, but it might also be one of the most worthwhile ones you find for a very long time.

One of the things that struck me about this score is how un-orchestral it can feel. Many soundtracks feel like they’re scrambling for arrangements that sound suitably sophisticated. Instead, this one just looks like music that happened to be recorded with an orchestra. Some of it would sound fantastic on a swarm of half-tuned ukuleles. It’s grand stuff but rarely grandiose. Considering the effort and scale involved to make such a soundtrack, everyone involved made it look incredibly easy in the finished product. You’re more likely to find restful moments than busy “adventure” ones. It’s sweeping but inviting. It’s exciting and awing without also being sugarcoated. It’s also 16 years old but still feels as fresh as morning dew.

If you can’t find something amid this huge landscape – foreboding choirs, thrumming double basses, noble horns – to spur on your writing and general creativity on, you might want to get your head examined.

 

Soundtrack Month: “Dragon Age: Inquisition” (Trevor Morris)

Fantasy RPG games always run the risk of being too abstract or too dense to be approachable. Yet some well-wrought character development and a knockout soundtrack kept the world of Thedas grounded and more than a little palatable in this third installment. Trevor Morris (yes, his second appearance on this blog this month) managed to keep a balance between intrigue, excitement, and melancholy.  Too many “let’s go save the world with swords” stories go straight for the jugular and try to make every musical cue heavy and loud – in short, “action” music. That’s fine for combat sessions, but the calmer moments of landscape exploration or cinematic cutscenes need something a bit different. There are plenty of haunted but rational moments to mine from this lengthy album, to which I give a hearty bravo.

 

Soundtrack Month: “The Virgin Queen” (Martin Phipps & The Mediaeval Baebes)

Yes, yes, I already mentioned a song from this album in a previous post – but you’ve never heard Elizabethan-themed music quite like The Virgin Queen. Underdog Martin Phipps, mostly known for his work in British TV, nailed this album. While little to none of it is a direct transplant from bygone centuries – this is not a historical reenactment album – it’s still rather gorgeous most of the time. While the Bulgarian vocals might baffle you, their arrangements aren’t actually out of place (amazingly), and they add a unique and seldom-heard tonal quality to break up the hazy daydreams of guitars and subdued orchestral portions. Contributions from the Mediaeval Baebes add a softer touch and good ole mojo.

Soundtrack Month: “City of Ember” (Andrew Lockington)

City of Ember is a worthy movie, but unlucky timing made it a borderline flop in theaters. Andre Lockington’s score work for it is solid, if a bit repetitive. Keep in mind that this is a soundtrack for a children’s movie and is bound to feel a bit more exuberant or even a little shallow when compared to epically epic movies for the grown-ups. Even so, the “pure of heart” spirit in most of this score won’t be denied if you have a measure of flexibility in your tastes. Beat-driven strings and polite horns conjure up a wholesome but failing world – one that just might be worth saving if its fate falls into the right hands.

I particularly recommend the final song, “One Last Message.”

 

Soundtrack Month: “Fringe: Season 1” Michael Giacchino, Chris Tilton, & Chad Seiter)

Fringe was one of those sci-fi shows that almost – but not quite – wanted to laugh at itself now and then. Armed with speculative science and just enough gunplay to seem like an ordinary mystery thriller at times, it initially grew a legion of fans by being daring and borderline grotesque – and seemed to keep said legion by maintaining those same standards throughout the series’ life.

The soundtracks had very conventional composing habits presented in an edgy way. Sawed jabs of string instruments and endless layers of guitar pulses were prominent throughout, along with a healthy dose of understated but extremely effective percussion. The occasional intelligent piano flourish kept the sound from becoming too hard. If you’re writing any sort of fiction reliant on tension and momentum – espionage, noir, mystery, even horror – this should just about do the trick.

Soundtrack Month – “Skyrim Atmospheres” (Jeremy Soule)

How does one easily sum up a fantasy game world as expansive as The Elder Scrolls? You don’t. While the franchise was always known for a staggering (and occasionally unmanageable) amount of objectives, quests, and hidden surprises, Skyrim was especially praised for its landscapes and especially free-form world. Seven years after its initial release, it still garners praise, even with its amusing and often morbid bugs (including this one). Some people even turned to modern gaming specifically for the charms of this title, which allows your character to be anything from a stealthy assassin to a hopeless kleptomaniac to a noble fighter of dragons – or just an outdoorsy type on a hunting trip or alpine hike.

Jeremy Soule, the composer wiz behind several TES installments, went out with a bang on this one. The Skyrim soundtrack contains enough material to warrant 4 discs for its physical CD release. Why so many, you ask? I must assume that the developers expected – nay, demanded – that players wander and explore as much as quest. If you’re going to spend that much time in a game, you might as well have a healthy variety of music.

While the overall score’s sound is honestly a matter of taste (there are as many brassy or monotonous moments as there are heartfelt and melancholic ones), the Atmospheres portion is deliciously meandering and does indeed set the atmosphere. Numerous fans have used this 40-minute treat as a sleep, study, or meditation aid for years (I highly recommend playing some nature or rain sounds over it for that extra lulling touch). While the rest of the soundtrack needs whittling down for first-time listeners, every minute of Atmospheres is approachable without having a context first.

Soundtrack Month: “Vikings: Season 2” (Trevor Morris)

Vikings is a fascinating, unsettling, and frequently brutal series, but it’s also bar none for strange atmospheres. The music is no exception. Trevor Morris (with more than a little help from some neopagan enthusiasts) mixed beat programming, ambient thoughts, and a variety of unique solo instruments together to get the mysterious cocktail that is Dark Age Scandinavia.

The thing that gets to me about this album isn’t so much a particular track or melody as the sheer seamlessness running through most of it. Since most of the tracks have similar or connected thoughts (not so much themes as vague framework), the shrill and jarring strains of a primitive bone horn are offset by the soothing low saw of a proto-hardinger fiddle and plenty of synthy drones.

It might or might not be for you, but it’s worth trying if you’re seeking something genuinely different.

 

 

 

 

Soundtrack Month: “Serenity” (David Newman)

Serenity was the sobering epilogue to Joss Whedon’s fun but short-lived Firefly TV series. The music is a bit more reflective than the show’s was, but it still has a decently gritty, spunky, and achingly melancholic Old West feeling. This one is perfect for those of you who want structure without excessive formality.

 

Soundtrack Month: “The Golden Compass” (Alexandre Desplat)

While The Golden Compass as a movie made some disruptive and dividing waves among viewers, the soundtrack is delightful. I don’t always understand Alexandre Desplat’s music (especially when  the moments in this score when an army of pianists play through a section at the same time – talk about organized chaos!), but the balance between classic epic excitement, tranquil afterthoughts, and evocations back to childhood is robust. You probably won’t like everything on the soundtrack (I don’t), but you ought to find at least one likeable track. For orchestra nerds, one highlight includes contributions from Skaila Kanga, a harpist of such a high caliber that her skills (and superb harp) have been used for sampling libraries around the world.

 

 

 

Soundtrack Month: “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (Nicholas Hooper)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has a strange place in both the film  franchise and book series. Gone is the startled, biting darkness that Order of the Phoenix so masterfully covered. Harry and those around him are both grimly resolved to fight chaos and irrecoverably entrenched in teen angst. The movie’s overall vibe is dark meditation. The score is suitably textured and moody (it even resembles dark ambient at times), though it isn’t without a few witty bright spots. Choirs, very much in the back seat for Phoenix and even somewhat absent in Goblet of Fire, roared back with a vengeance in this score. Weeping strings pair well with angelic treble voices and tasteful percussive touches. If you want a good mope in full orchestral glory, go for this album.

Jeremy Soule – “Harvest Dawn”

For writers, it’s entirely possible to have plenty of ideas but not enough focus to put them into words – because you just can’t relax long enough to sit still sometimes.

Considering how much panic and combat can be involved in an Elder Scrolls game, their soundtracks don’t get much more contemplative than this one. If you never realized how rich an arrangement could be in a game music context, this is a good place to start. If this doesn’t relax you, then you might need to go refill that Valium prescription.

Meditation for Novelists: On Being In the Moment

The English language is baffling, even to native speakers like yours truly. One phrase in particular has harassed me lately, so here’s the score.

Happily or unhappily, most of us have heard the phrase “being mindful.” Sometimes, it’s used in close proximity to “being in the moment.” But I take severe issue with this pairing. They’re contradictions in terms. To be mindful often means to think on your feet but also to be diplomatic – to think of the long-term consequences or to weigh which decision is more practical or beneficial. To be in the moment is to cede to whatever the majority force seems to be: anger, joy, panic, passion.

I just don’t understand how to make those ideas compatible.

I feel that I’m fairly fluent in mindfulness (even if my mindfulness is different from yours). What I fail to grasp is being in the moment. Some people wield both the phrase and the idea as a coded complaint while others offer it up like some kind of mental euthanasia. It tends to denote fickleness or immaturity, and yet it’s seen as a marvelous thing indeed when a busy businessman married to his phone can manage to keep it switched off for the entirety of his child’s soccer game.

Huh?

Language is a flaming hypocrite sometimes, and that’s bad news for novelists.

Being in the moment is similar to (but not always the same as) being in the zone. Things just occur to you. In the span of three breaths, you’re surrounded by a flurry of ideas or solutions. In even less time, those ideas disappear without warning. Losing ideas can be as much of a mercy as getting them in the first place because sometimes – just sometimes – you cannot, in fact, fix every problem in one afternoon.

And yet we writers are slaves and addicts alike to the mere chance of a good writing streak. Some of us use very methodical means to nudge the odds in our favor – the right food, the right music, the right routine. A few of us, deliberately or otherwise, prefer random variety on the (possibly quite correct) assumption that a lack of habit or predictability will stump and distract our brains in the perfect way to solve a problem when we’re not looking. Still others are as rampantly superstitious as sports fans. I’m not passing judgment on anyone’s procedure because there isn’t a universally good one. The point is much starker: many of us are terrifyingly willing to push the limits, and that never bodes well for the outside world.

On a terrific day, we can smell and see and hear a landscape. We can give an exact tally of the wrinkles in an old curmudgeon’s face or mimic the differences in characters’ accents. We can see every kick, swipe, punch, and stab in a complicated fight scene, not just sketch through the most likely sequence of events. It’s one of the most motivating factors in the writing world. One good day of sleek flight can make up for a week of slow, stuttering, interrupted work.

We obsessive types sometimes have even more trouble letting go of the moment than slipping into it to begin with. For some reason, this only levels more blame at us, as if we’re no better than sociopaths. To the outside world, we play games with people because it amuses us. To them, we’re erratic because we decide to be as different as possible, as if we’re all deliberately extreme modernists.

Well, I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t carry water. I’m odd, but I only rarely try to be odd. I write because ideas won’t simply go away for lack of writing them down. In fact, the more I refuse to put something into words, the more it impedes life in general. I can’t be the only one. I’m an instrument, not an enthusiast. I don’t consciously enjoy writing – it’s just something that occurs to me. It’s something that has enough of its own force that I don’t need to add to it. And I can’t possibly be the only one.

Maybe being in the moment isn’t the problem. Perhaps it’s the world’s definition of what “the moment” actually is. Must a moment be bombastically bold or astonishingly heartfelt? I think not. Moments are moments. For me, the best ones are those in which I can take a quiet step back while simultaneously untangling a deafening question. Such moments are impossible to predict and daunting to universally define. They tend to act like petulant children if you try to duplicate them – or worse, they seek revenge because someone forced their hand.

So if “the moment” comes, take it for what it is: a moment. They come and go by the thousands or millions. A bad one won’t last forever, and neither will a good one. Useless and useful are always pitted against each other. Wars can be bloodless and invisible – and they only need the space of a nerve ending to play out.