‘For a month, I listened to music to hear my characters’
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by award-winning literary fiction writer Andrew Blackman @BlackmanAndrew
Soundtrack by Beethoven, Sibelius, Laura Marling, Joanna Newsom, Birds of Chicago, Arctic Monkeys
Ah, the difficult second novel.
I’d written a manuscript of 100,000 words, sent it to my agent, and was feeling good. I met him at a pub in Camden, ordered a pint of Guinness, and sat on a bench outside in the watery spring sunshine, expecting a conversation about how large my advance would be.
Instead, I got something else. Something I wasn’t expecting. I got criticism. The voices didn’t work, he said. I’d told my story as a serial first person narrative, with a different character picking up the tale in each chapter. But they all sounded the same. One was an 80-year-old granddad, another a young woman from California, another a cynical 20-something furniture salesman. But they all sounded the same. They all sounded like me.
When I got home, I did what every writer does after receiving helpful, constructive criticism: I took it as an attack on my ability as a writer, went to bed and turned off the lights and felt like never getting up again. The manuscript I’d been so proud of that morning now seemed to me like worthless junk, a waste of two years of my life. It’s lucky I’d made multiple digital copies, otherwise I’d have burnt the thing.
After indulging in a weeklong orgy of pathetic self-pity, I grew up, accepted that he was right, and went to work.
Changing the voice of all seven different narrators is no simple task. It’s easier to write new scenes or even a new ending. Changing narrative voice means going through every line of the novel and rewriting it. But first it means defining what the different voices are going to be. As I’ve done many times before when in need of inspiration, I turned to music.
I created a different mood for each character, based on my idea of who that person was. The Beethoven and Sibelius I’d listened to while writing my first draft was fine for Granddad, but not for young, idealistic Marie from California. She listened to Laura Marling, Joanna Newsom and Birds of Chicago. As for Jon, the furniture salesman, he was an Arctic Monkeys man. I listened, and I tried to hear their voices in my head. I did this for all seven characters. For a month I didn’t write a thing. I just spent time with my characters, listening to the music they liked and trying to hear them speak the sentences I’d written.
Doing this helped me see just how much my agent was right. My 20-something furniture salesman referred to a smelly minicab as being ‘like a full-bodied wine, releasing more varied and subtle aromas with more time and attention’. With classical music playing, that had actually sounded OK. With the Arctic Monkeys blasting out, I realised just how ridiculous it was. I changed it to:
Another click and we were locked in. Hot and clammy suddenly, choking on nicotine and pine … At a red light, the fizz of a can, loud slurping, the metallic stench of Red Bull. Behind it all, a strange, burnt aroma…
I did the same with every character, line by line, word by word. I changed the vocabulary, I changed the cultural references, I changed the rhythm of the sentences. Jon, with his guitar-charged indie rock, spoke in a choppy, broken English, while Marie with her contemporary folk was more florid, elegant and occasionally long-winded.
By the end, I couldn’t tell whether I was choosing music to fit the character, or whether the character was being shaped by the music. And the best part was that it didn’t matter. I was listening and writing in different voices. I ended up with 29 chapters written by seven different characters, and there’s nothing in the chapter title to indicate who the narrator is. The voices are, I hope, so distinctive that you can tell within a few sentences who you’re listening to. It’s only possible because of the time I spent with my characters, listening to their music and letting their voices enter my head.
Andrew Blackman‘s second novel A Virtual Love is in bookshops now. His debut novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009) won the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. He’s a former Wall Street Journal staff writer, now converted to fiction. More information available at his website, or you can connect with him via Twitter.
GIVEAWAY Andrew is offering a signed copy of A Virtual Love. For a chance to win, leave a comment here or share this post on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or anywhere else (and don’t forget to leave a note here saying where you shared it).
#1 by digitalsarah on April 24, 2013 - 7:47 am
Well done to Andrew for having the courage to start again. Music worked for me too. My story is told by three narrators – their ancient voices (4th century) wafted in on Sufi ryhthms, war drum beats and clanging cymbals and bells tied to a dancer’s ankles!
#2 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on April 24, 2013 - 8:15 am
Thanks for the comment, Sarah! Yes, we can’t overestimate how much of a blow his agent’s comments must have been. It was a brave post. And I’ve seen many highly lauded novels that didn’t manage to nail different voices as well as Andrew clearly has.
#3 by Andrew Blackman on April 24, 2013 - 12:24 pm
Thanks Sarah! Yes, it wasn’t easy, but it was definitely good criticism, and made the novel better. I like the sound of your characters. I have an album of Sufi music that I listen to sometimes while I’m writing – it’s such dreamy, trance-inducing music. I can see how it would help you create your characters. Thanks for commenting!
#4 by courseofmirrors on April 24, 2013 - 8:52 am
Quite a challenge to pick oneself up from a devastating critical push, and it worked. I work mostly from silence but occasionally listen to choice music when I ponder on a character, an unconscious quirk. Andrew’s story will remind me to do it more often.
#5 by Andrew Blackman on April 24, 2013 - 12:28 pm
Thanks for commenting! It is hard to take criticism sometimes, but it can be very useful. Your way of picking music to listen to sounds good. Any particular examples, of music and/or quirks?
#6 by courseofmirrors on April 24, 2013 - 12:55 pm
Can’t right now recall. I also employ music more generally, like J J Cale or African music, like Masekala Hugh when action needs to be rolling 🙂 Mozart to loosen up the braincells or Bach Magnificant for a majestic mood I remember using Ravel during a short story, which ended up being a feature in the story itself.
#7 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on April 24, 2013 - 4:24 pm
Ashen – nice to see you here! Andrew’s post is a story of real perseverance and dedication.
#8 by raizscanlon on April 24, 2013 - 9:46 am
Wow! That was a labour of love by the sound of it – but how inspiring. And a great way to prevent it happening again (multiple voices all sounding the same).
Thanks – as a beginning author one of my fears is that all characters not only are flat, but that they all sound the same (like me).
I shall duly research the “music in their veins” – luckily I am in first revision, so this is timely. Thanks Andrew 😉
#9 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on April 24, 2013 - 4:26 pm
Hi Robert! You’d be amazed what a difference music can make to your inner vocabulary. (And you might also be thankful that I’m tackling this problem in my upcoming book on characters…)
#10 by Andrew Blackman on April 26, 2013 - 9:04 am
Glad to hear that it was helpful, and thanks for commenting. Personally I think that the more fears you have as an author, the better (as long as you find ways of dealing with them!). It shows that you are aware of the many potential pitfalls, and so I’m sure you’ll be able to avoid them and create good, rounded, distinct characters. Music is a great way to make them seem more real – and if they’re real to the author, they’ll be real to the reader too.
#11 by raizscanlon on April 26, 2013 - 9:23 am
This I can understand too – being real to me. My characters feel like real people (almost dreaming of them), so I guess that’s a good thing?!!
I worked for many years in the music industry and used to play loud music while writing documents in my office. I still write with music on (and edit too), but hadn’t thought of identifying a track/artist or genre with a character. Great thinking and I appreciate your comment on my comment 😉
#12 by Andrew Blackman on April 26, 2013 - 9:31 am
Yes, dreaming of your characters is definitely a good thing! For me, the test of when they are ‘real’ enough is when they start doing things I hadn’t expected, even things that go against the plot I had mapped out for them.
#13 by Peter Domican on April 24, 2013 - 11:28 am
Fantastic post. I often think that my first person stuff lacks a distinctive voice. Some great ideas to take away.
#14 by Andrew Blackman on April 24, 2013 - 12:33 pm
Thanks Peter. I think it’s natural for you to sound like yourself when writing in the first person. Always something to fight against, especially when the character you’re creating is quite different from you. I think the 80-year old grandfather’s voice came most easily to me, which was surprising. I guess I am more old-fashioned than I realised 😉
#15 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on April 24, 2013 - 4:28 pm
Thanks for the comment, Peter. First person can be tricky because we can forget to give the narrator a voice of their own. Andrew certainly set himself up with a hard task here.
#16 by kanmuri on April 24, 2013 - 4:22 pm
Love that part about the way you reacted to the citicism at first. People always say that you have to be open about it, but let’s face it, no one really enjoys it. I really like your process. I tend to write while listening to music and I always have this nagging feeling that all my characters speak with the same voice. I will definitely try your method.
#17 by Andrew Blackman on April 26, 2013 - 9:12 am
Thanks, kanmuri. I’m glad you said that. I’ve sat in so many writers’ workshops and discussions where people say you have to be thick-skinned and accept criticism, as if just saying it will make it so. The truth is that most writers, like most other human beings, are sensitive, and criticism hurts. It is possible to learn from it, as I did in this example, but I don’t think I’ll ever be thick-skinned. I’m not sure I’d want to be, either.
#18 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on April 26, 2013 - 1:26 pm
Andrew, I like that point. A thick skin would be easier, but we wouldn’t drive ourselves to do better if the critiques didn’t matter.
#19 by Trevor Veale (@TrevVeale) on April 24, 2013 - 8:58 pm
Very stimulating post, Andrew/Roz. Even when a story is written in 3rd person, the voices coming through spoken dialogue and interior speech/thought need to be distinctive for each character, so “character music” definitely helps.
For my WIP novel set seventy-one years in the future (2084), I chose the Charles Lloyd Quartet’s Tribal Dance (60s psychodelic jazz) to keep me focused on the out-of-timeness of it all. For character music, I played a variety of songs ranging from Bonnie Raitt’s Something To Talk About to Men At Work: Land Down Under.
Yes, there’s an Aussie in the story!
#20 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on April 24, 2013 - 9:22 pm
Hi Trevor! I know one of those pieces, and now have ‘Down Under’ in my head. Thank you very much 🙂
#21 by Andrew Blackman on April 26, 2013 - 9:14 am
Thanks Trevor! You’re right, ‘voice’ is important in 3rd person stories too, and it’s certainly important to know your characters, no matter what narrative structure you decide on. I don’t know those pieces of music, so am heading to Youtube now to look them up!
#22 by Angela Thomas on April 25, 2013 - 8:33 am
Such an interesting post, Andrew/Roz. A really helpful insight into how music helps to build and shape characters. Thank you
#23 by Andrew Blackman on April 26, 2013 - 9:16 am
Thanks for commenting! It’s great to hear that my post helped you. At the time it was quite a difficult experience for me, but it made the novel much better, I think, and I’m happy if I can now help other writers by sharing it.
#24 by Andy (@DecodingStatic) on April 25, 2013 - 11:47 am
Thanks Andrew for the insight, that change in describing the inside of a taxi shows how useful music can be to get into the head of a character and without stereotyping. Cheers.
#25 by Andrew Blackman on April 26, 2013 - 9:17 am
You’re welcome, Andy! Thanks for stopping by. Maybe this’ll be your second giveaway win in a week 😉
#26 by Andy (@DecodingStatic) on April 26, 2013 - 6:44 pm
No worries. Now that would be very lucky!!
#27 by cathysmallwood on April 27, 2013 - 4:36 pm
And timely as I’ve been feeling quite discouraged about a recent criticism, and in need of inspiration to tackle the changes.
Also a wake-up call as I tend to use the same tracks each day to put me in the writing space – when what I should be doing is personalizing the choices, depending on the point of view. (Two male therapists, one 40, the other 27, and their 24 yr old female client)
I know what each of the three main characters likes, but it will be a challenge to see if I can write while listening to their choice of music instead of mine!
#28 by Andrew Blackman on April 30, 2013 - 10:13 am
Thanks, I’m glad it was useful. I often listen to the same tracks as well – there’s some John Barry soundtrack music, for example, that just puts me into a writing space when I listen to it. I think that sort of routine can be useful. But varying it for specific characters is a good addition to the repertoire! Hope it goes well! Thanks for stopping by.