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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is editor and author Aaron Sikes @SikesAaron
I go for instrumental over vocal music when I write. Spoken or sung lyrics are a distraction. My mind wants to catch the words and hold them long enough to get immersed in the experience of the song. But with orchestral or ambient electronic music, my imagination is free to roam through my story worlds.
My serialized novel, Gods of Chicago, was drafted to the title track of Joe Satriani’s Time Machine. Satch paints pictures with melody, and every one of his songs can bring an image to mind. Listening to Time Machine as I wrote brought to mind scenes of dirigibles soaring overhead while automatons march on the streets below. Radio signals beep and crackle through the air from spires and beacons. Bootleggers’ sedans rumble down back alleys, and my protagonist, a hard-boiled newshawk named Mitchell Brand, races around the city to find the answers nobody else seems to care about. Following on the tail of Time Machine, I happened upon a mind-blowing noir soundtrack by Josh Pfieffer of Vernian Process (DJ Fact.50). The Mixcloud of his DJ set, Noir Jazz and Swing, saw me through first round revisions.
As I moved into deeper revisions, I got turned onto three soundtracks. I started with Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight. The moody atmospheric quality of the music was a perfect fit for the noir landscape of my story, and the score really helped me get under Brand’s skin a lot better.
In early drafts of the character, I had him as a mashup of Edward R Murrow and Philip Marlowe as played by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. This gave Brand a rough exterior and a hard nose for news, but he lacked depth of feeling, and I couldn’t get into his motivation well enough to fix that problem. Once I had The Dark Knight soundtrack playing in the background, I quickly found Brand’s core as a WWI veteran, and much more than the ronin I’d originally thought him to be. He’s still a man obsessed with truth, but he’s also a would-be father to the three newsboys who answer to him. That puts a softer edge to the character, making him feel more like a real person.
I’ve also written to Zimmer’s score for Inception and Daft Punk’s soundtrack for Tron Legacy, which have been incredible for helping me visualize major action scenes, flight and escape scenes, and moments of peril faced by all the major characters in the story. The ambient symphonic quality of both soundtracks is also responsible for me discovering how much more my supporting cast has to say. Previous drafts were Brand-centric, but now I have two major POV characters in addition to Brand, and each supporting cast member gets a little air time of their own.
Last but not least, when it comes to editing, I change gears and go with Adrian Legg – Guitars and Other Cathedrals. The exacting and fluid brilliance of Legg’s fingerstyle playing calms down all thoughts of action and suspense and puts me right into editor mode, smoothing out clunky prose, fixing typos, and ensuring clarity.
Aaron Sikes has been writing and editing full-time since late 2011. Gods of Chicago is his first full-length novel and he has previously had three stories published in anthologies by independent presses. Find him on Twitter @SikesAaron or visit his website http://www.ajsikes.com. He is also one half of the editing/formatting duo, The Wordwrights, with fellow author Colin F Barnes.
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You could divide my Undercover Soundtrack guests into those who aren’t put off by lyrics and those who are. My guest this week is one of the latter. He says that music with lyrics is too domineering when he’s trying to write – but that orchestral or ambient electronic music sets his imagination free to roam. His novel is a quirky noir of dirigibles, automata, back alleys and a hardboiled hack (the bipedal journalistic sort, not an equine), and his central character was honed by long hours simmering with Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for The Dark Knight. He is Aaron Sikes and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by magical realist suspense novelist Candace Austin @caustinauthor
There are two things from which I abstain while writing—music and wine. I write better in silence while sober. Maybe this is why I work through a first draft fairly quickly?
I can reduce the bustling of my busy family to a low murmur with my thoughtful plotting, but music, I cannot. It’s captivating to me. Music does, however, play a huge role in the growth of my novels. Once my protagonists and their stories germinate in my brain, I set out in search of a song that will help them flourish. It never fails. I find a perfect song that speaks to their stories and tells me their secrets. It’s as if the song was created just for my characters—for me.
My debut novel, The Layers, is the story of David Kiplinger, a 19-year-old living in a post-Unveiling age in which most everyone remembers past lives. When TheLayers.b4u website (think Facebook meets Ancestry.com for millennia past and present) reveals that David has lived exponentially more lives than anyone else on earth, he’s lifted to a level of fame reserved for the divine. To answer questions and diffuse the onslaught of attention, David agrees to an autobiography, but when he meets his ghostwriter, Holly Stone, he can’t help but wonder if she’s the woman who has lived alongside him, the one he has loved unconditionally, the one who killed him.
Regardless of David’s suspicions about Holly, theirs is a sweet and humorous story of unconditional, eternal love … and irony, there is irony. When I heard Brandi Carlile’s The Story, I knew it was their song. Ms. Carlile sings about the layers, the depth of our individual life stories and how immensely satisfying it is to find that one person who knows your story like the back of their hand and appreciates it for all that it is, and all that it’s not. It’s messy. It’s glorious. Life’s elation and misery are there in her lyrics. I often listened to it before I began my daily writing. The intensity with which she sings the song inspired me to elevate the emotions as I wrote, and I think The Layers turned out better for it. How this song was not a chart topper, I’ll never know.
Whimsical and inspiring
One song does not fit all, however. Much of The Layers is humorous, and I found that I needed to shift into another gear when writing the lighthearted scenes. Jamie Cullum’s remake of Ruby and the Romantic’s classic Our Day Will Come struck the perfect chord. The tune is whimsical and inspiring, hopeful and innocent, much like David.
David handles his complicated relationship, newfound fame, and status as the most reincarnated of men with a cheerful optimism. He likes to think that living is a gift, not a punishment. Life is Okay by Michael Johns and Brooke White embodies the guarded optimism that defines him.
Rounding out my playlist is In My Life by The Beatles and Imagine by John Lennon. Obviously, there’s a theme here—life. Music helps me contemplate life. Just imagine what life would be like if we remembered being someone else, somewhere else? (insert Twilight Zone theme). Would we launch into a new life knowing what to savor? Would the world improve because we understood without a doubt what is important?
Ooh. I will now listen to music with a glass of wine in-hand!
Candace Austin is the author of The Layers and In Her Sleep. Her fast-paced, suspenseful novels use magical realism to explore love, life, and the humorous and heart-wrenching oddities in both. Originally from the Chicago suburbs, Candace resides in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband of 20 years, two kids (one heading for college, the other kindergarten), a hefty Golden Retriever, and a Maine Coon Cat that comes and goes as he dang well pleases. When not writing, she enjoys NC State football games (particularly the tailgating), and traveling to Maine to spend time with her parents and family. Find her on her website and on Twitter as @caustinauthor
That’s the last Undercover Soundtrack for 2013! The series will return on 8 January.
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by poet and Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award finalist Dwight Okita @DwightOkita
I write in busy coffeehouses in Chicago and my iPod Shuffle is always close at hand. I like to be surrounded by the chaos of life because I am writing about life. The sound of side conversations and espresso machines are part of my undercover soundtrack, along with the music I immerse myself in and the voice of the novel’s narrator. The hardest writing period of my life was when I was awarded a week at a writer’s retreat in a quiet, idyllic setting in nature. It drove me nuts.
Wonder and curiosity
I tend to associate my main characters with certain songs. I find it helps me better envision them when I can hear them out loud. My first novel The Prospect of My Arrival is about a human embryo that’s allowed to preview the world before deciding whether to be born. It’s soft sci-fi or literary. The main character Prospect is the embryo and he is full of wonder and curiosity, but he’s also very vulnerable, very susceptible. (Disney Studios has taken a peek at my book along with indie filmmakers. It would be great to see Prospect on the big screen one day.)
The song I associate with my hero’s unique journey is Gravity by Sara Bareilles. The piano work is so clean and pretty, and there is something in the way Bareilles phrases as she sings that radiates wonder and urgency. The lyrics resonate with well with Prospect’s naivete. In the passage below, you can hear the newness of the world as he explores the swanky penthouse of a new acquaintance:
A chrome spiral staircase connects the main floor to the upper one. It reminds Prospect of a big strand of DNA. Once he’s out of the shower, he feels new. He opens a window. The gentle hush of traffic is surprisingly soothing. It is like putting a seashell to his ear, but instead of hearing an ocean, he hears a city and all its voices.
The Hope Store
I’m currently working on another speculative novel called The Hope Store, which is about the opening of the first store in the world to sell hope. The main character, Jada Upshaw, has been hope-starved all her life. (She is, by the way, the polar opposite of Prospect.) One song that makes me think of Jada – her voice, her predicament — is Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. Especially the haunting version Joni sang in 2000 as a mature woman.
But where Joni’s version has gravitas and love and wisdom, you have to imagine a mutated version in which the love and wisdom have been sucked dry, and you are only left with gravitas. And perhaps numbness. I hear the song as a kind of elegy to Jada’s life unlived. The gal is just barely hanging on by a thread. If she has a saving grace, it’s her black humor:
Living without hope for the past fifty years is kinda like wandering through a dark cave the size of the Grand Canyon with bats flapping overhead and not having a flashlight to your name. It’s a mystery to me how I survived this long, though I’m sure that bravery had nothing to do with it.
As I write and revise, it helps me to hold this song in my head as a talisman, for it reminds me of Jada’s essence. And if I should ever lose her voice, the song can help guide me back. This version of Both Sides Now has a meandering undertone, possibly it is a cello. Ms. Mitchell’s voice is husky as she sings about clouds that got in her way. That’s Jada Upshaw in a nutshell. But what will happen when Jada gets her first new dose of hope at the Hope Store? You have to wait for the book’s publication for that. (You can subscribe to my blog ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Dwight’ if you’d like to be kept in the loop. And here’s the book’s trailer in advance of completion. )
As I work on significant revisions to the climax of The Hope Store, the song I plan to keep looping in my Shuffle is Under Pressure by David Bowie and Queen. The song has the driving rhythm of a well-oiled machine. It is a rhythm that seems capable of eating anything in its way…the perfect music to write a climax to.
Crossing With The Light
Lastly, I wanted to mention that I started my writer’s life as a poet. In the early days, I loved performing poems aloud to music. Crossing With The Light is the culmination of 10 years of my poetry writing as a young man. Probably my favorite pairing of music and words was when I would read In Response to Executive Order 9066 to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s gorgeous piece Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
9066 is one of my most widely published poems. It deals with a Japanese American teenage girl who is being forced by the US government to move with her family into an internment camp. The music and poem complement each other perfectly. Here is a poetry video I made back in the 1980s in honour of my poetry book.
Even back then, notions of an undercover soundtrack were very natural for me. Much thanks to Roz for inviting me to share this musical post with you all.
Dwight Okita is the author of The Prospect of My Arrival which was a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards in 2008, and the poetry book Crossing with the Light which was nominated for best Asian American literature book by the Association of Asian American Studies in 1993. He also designs websites, blogs and video trailers. He blogs at Dwightland and can also be found on Twitter (@DwightOkita) and Facebook
GIVEAWAY Dwight is offering his poetry book Crossing With The Light and an autographed copy of his novel The Prospect of My Arrival to one reader who writes a comment here that strikes his fancy. To win you must live in the UK, the US or Canada. Good luck.
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- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2021. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'