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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 fantasy author and self-publishing zealot Ben Galley @BenGalley
Music. It has always ruled my life. From getting up to falling asleep, I do so accompanied by music.
Where did such an obsession with music come from? That’s a good question. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had this preoccupation with the idea of a soundtrack to life. Let’s be honest – we’ve all pretended, or at least felt, that our lives were a movie at one point in our lives. It’s in this way that I use music. I’ve always been a huge fan of movies and the cinema (media from which I’ve drawn plenty of inspiration from in the past) and for some reason I’ve always paid a massive amount of attention to the soundtrack. Soundtracks can add a whole new level of punch to a scene – it could be emotion, tension, or action, music simply has the ability to add more. That’s why I use music to mark occasions, or to cheer me up or chill me out. I cook to it. I clean to it, I exercise to it, and of course, I write to it. And that’s where the involvement goes a little deeper.
Intriguingly, my obsession with music once usurped by dream of being a writer. In 2006, aged only 17, I swapped that dream for two years of studying bass guitar and music at the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM). It was brilliant fun. Those two years expanded my musical horizon immensely, and as such I began to look into a career in music, performing and touring. Sad thing was, nothing ever really took off. It was difficult. Tough. I felt I had missed the train somewhat. And so, whilst working a succession of meaningless jobs in bars, restaurants, and pubs, I decided it was time to start writing again – to get back that original dream of being a writer.
I first started writing my debut fantasy novel The Written in 2009. Although music was as ubiquitous in my life then as it is now, I quickly discovered something new – a way to take music and use it to fuel writing. I found that writing to music didn’t just help evoke emotion, but it also seemed to affect my pace, my focus, my drive, even the direction of the story itself. It suddenly grew from an accompaniment and a soundtrack to a force. Let me explain more.
I’d written books before, aged 11 and 12 (three terribly written novels that will never see the light of day) but I’d never used music to write before. As I learned more about my book and the series, I also learnt how music could help, testing it against how my tastes and playlist had expanded with age and ACM. This is how I learnt how to make my own private (or underground!) soundtrack for the scenes I was writing.
Getting back into writing and launching into an epic series was tough. Enter rock and metal. Two genres that can curl your fingers into fists, and make grim, determined slits of your eyes. Whatever mood I was in, music ignited my drive, helping me to get stuck and in and overcome those hard initial pages. These were my ‘Come on! Get on with the bloody thing!’ tracks. The main tracks that helped me do this are Dig by Incubus (a calmer track in this genre), Maggie’s Farm by the indomitable Rage Against the Machine, Kings and Queens by 30 Seconds to Mars, and Empire by Alpines.
Fights and cold landscapes
Fight scenes featured prominently in the first few chapters of my book, interspersed with sections setting the scene of the cold, vastness of my world, Emaneska. I constantly switched from rock, metal, and electronica, to softer genres: classical, soundscape, or original film soundtracks. The latter worked particularly well – composer Ludovico Einaudi gave softness to the calmer scenes, pause and mystery too. I Giorni and Monday are some of his finest tracks. Film composer Thomas Newman helped too, with the soundtracks to American Beauty and Shawshank Redemption. Using soundtrack music really helped. It was lyric-less so I could tune it out or in when I wanted to. Primarily though, it brought back memories of film scenes, and the dialogue, action, and mood used within them. This in turn helped me refine my scene-setting skills. Another score for music! Pardon the pun…
One thing I did find was that I would occasionally get bogged down by dialogue and the need to impart information to the reader. To help, I used what I called ‘swagger tracks’ – songs that I used to pump confidence and life into these sections. I believe that confidence can be felt through writing. Just as in social situations where the need to appear confident is important, I believe that writing is no different. Readers need to feel like they are in the hands of a confident story-teller. I call this swagger. Two particular swagger tracks for me are Radioactive by Imagine Dragons, or Miami by Foals.
Music also helped me to apply tempo and pace to exciting scenes. Rock, metal, and upbeat soundscape tracks, such as Staralfur by Sigur Ròs, once again helped. I also used a lot of electronic music, particularly dubstep. For those of you not familiar with dubstep, it can be frenetic and hardcore, more noise than anything, but I love it. It’s no-holds barred production and sampling. A good example of a track I used is Skrillex’s First of the Year – Equinox. Bonfire by Knife Party is also very good. One track in particular is My Obsession by Killswitch Engage. I found myself slowing and speeding up along to the pace of these songs as I wrote. I believe this approach helped me vary the pace of my scenes, making for more interesting, perhaps even more organic, writing.
And lastly, the finale. I needed something softer, for the calm after the storm. For my main character, Farden, he needed a moment sat atop a snowy peak, staring down onto his city. A moment of reflection. What was my send off? It was Sæglópur by Sigur Ròs. Beautiful song. (Fast forward to 1.50.)
Overall, I’ve found that when I’m writing, music becomes a tool. It helps me focus, helps me keep those fingers moving. I’ve learnt to feed off its pace and passion, off its confidence, off that unquantifiable ‘oomph’, off its conveyed emotion. When I’m writing, music becomes less of my own soundtrack, and becomes more the soundtrack to whatever world I’m building, hopefully enriching it. And that’s my undercover soundtrack!
At 25, Ben Galley is a young self-published author from sunny England. He is the author of the epic and gritty fantasy series – The Emaneska Series. He has released four books to date, and doesn’t intend to stop any time soon. Ben is also incredibly zealous about inspiring other authors and writers. He runs the advice site Shelf Help, where he offers advice and services for writing, publishing, and marketing. Ben is also the co-founder and director of indie-only eBook store Libiro. Ben can be found being loquacious and attempting to be witty on Twitter (@BenGalley) or at www.bengalley.com.
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My guest this week began writing at roughly the same time as she started piano lessons. She says music and writing have always been natural pursuits for her, ways to help her grapple with a fundamental need to express the inexpressible. When she needed an aural companion for her epic fantasy series she found it in Bill Whelan’s rousing Riverdance. She is Melissa McPhail and she will be here on Wednesday talking about her Undercover Soundtrack.
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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, writing mentor and novelist KM Weiland returns with the soundtrack for her new novel Dreamlander @kmweiland
Soundtrack by Nightwish
I see my stories like movies in my head. When I was a kid, before I even knew I wanted to do this crazy thing called writing, I would call the stories I told myself “my movies.” Great acting, gorgeous cinematography, haunting soundtrack, they’re all there. When I started writing Dreamlander, my first foray into the fantasy genre, I knew exactly what the story soundtrack should sound like.
Dreamlander spans two worlds—modern-day Chicago, where my protagonist Chris Redston starts out as a restless, unfulfilled journalist, and the fantasy world Lael, which is a gorgeous but raw 17th-century-esque world of fading feudalism and dawning technology. Dreamlander is really a story about these two worlds colliding, and I could hear that collision in the music in my head: aggressive heavy metal guitar riffs and driving percussions contrasted with the melancholy lyricism of early Celtic folk songs.
I could hear it, but I’d never heard it. My best description for what I was listening to in my head was Celtic Rock, but the likes of Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Then, one day, there it was . . . I sat up in my desk chair, electrified. From another room came the strains of what I’d been hearing in my head all those months while working on Dreamlander.
I rushed right over and demanded to know what I was I hearing. And that’s where it all started. Nightwish’s Ghost Love Score began my love affair with symphonic metal and brought the story in my head swirling to life on the lush bellicosity of soaring string sections, operatic vocals, hard-hitting rhythms, and, under it all that, slightly jarring, always compelling hint of folk music.
In a sense, all of Nightwish’s music left its mark on Dreamlander, but several songs in particular seem to have been written just for me. The lyrics from Ever Dream, on the Century Child album, express my female lead’s perspective with eerie precision. In the dream world, she is the Searcher, charged with finding and discovering the Gifted, who cross over the worlds, even though she’s terrified he will repeat the mistakes of the first Gifted, whom she aided when still just a child:
Her lungs quivered. She couldn’t mistake this strange rhythmic quiver deep within her brain, this almost magnetic pull, driving her to get up, to move, to search. She had been nine years old when last she felt it. The Garowai had told her then it meant a Gifted had arrived in Lael.
Eyes closed, she crimped her fist in the letter to her father. What she needed to do was relax and let the taste of the Gifted wash over her brain. She needed to get a sense of this man who had been summoned here to do . . . something. To save Lael? Or to plunge it even deeper into darkness than had his predecessor?
Last of the Wilds, on the Dark Passion Play album, would ultimately become what I think of as the book’s theme song. An instrumental, it expresses perfectly all the elements I originally heard in my head when imagining the book’s soundtrack. When I listen to it, I can see the story playing out: the desperate sword fights, the horses galloping through the snow, the love that grows between the two main characters, and the loss that tears them all in some way. I can only describe it as magic, and its perfection is almost unnerving.
When I hear these songs, I see the flawless story I wanted to write. No matter what I’m writing, my words never live up to the music that inspires and influences them, but when I listen to the music, it makes me better than I am. It makes me remember the color and the power I’m trying to share with my readers. It makes me ache inside with the beauty of it all and thank God that I get to try to capture a little piece of it.
KM Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. Find her on Twitter @kmweiland
The Undercover Soundtrack will take a short break for Christmas and will return in January.
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One of my earliest Undercover Soundtrack guests returns this week with a brand-new novel – and another beguiling musical journey. The story features a character whose life spans two timelines, which she envisaged in her head as having a soundtrack of two personalities. Aggressive guitar, driving percussion – softened by the melancholy lyricism of early Celtic folk songs. But she’d never heard such a thing in real life – until a chance listen one day expressed exactly what she’d been looking for. She is KM Weiland and she’ll be here on Wednesday talking about the Undercover Soundtrack for her newest release, Dreamlander.
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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 books podcaster and Nikolas & Company author Kevin McGill @kevinonpaper
It’s midwinter in Texas, which means mild winter. A buddy and I have done what my 13-year-old self did with a few crumpled up dollar bills in my pocket and a vacation day: see a movie.
Carlyle and I sit in the movie theater, chatting on about our expectations of Tron 2.0. Disney had taken a gamble on reviving the Tron franchise, hoping that my 34-year old nostalgia would translate into box office sales. As the movie plays on, Disney’s gamble pays off in an unexpected way. The soundtrack, which had been composed by Daft Punk – a band reminiscent of New Wave, flipped a switch. Suddenly, old childhood movies flicker across my mind’s eye. Blade Runner, Mad Max, Ghostbusters, E.T., Indiana Jones, Buckaroo Banzai, Stand By Me. Then came the bands. Talking Heads, The Ramones, REM, Madonna, Michael Jackson. Finally, it just starts pouring out: Punky Brewster, Family Ties, Pong, Alf, jelly shoes. Nite Brite! Hi tops! Sweat bands! By the power of grayskull, I have the power!!!
Yes, friends. I was a child-of-the-80s sleeper agent, and had been activated by the Tron 2.0 soundtrack.
As a writer, I use music constantly to activate emotions, mood, character qualities – it is a crutch I happily lean against. I used no less than 15 different albums and soundtracks to guide me through Nikolas & Company.
Earth: Paradise Lost
The first 100 pages of my story jumps between a fantastic version of Moon set in the past, and a dystopian version of future Earth. It is in this imagined Earth that we meet our hero, Nikolas, and his company. Since my main cast is made up of teens and preteens, I had a bit of a challenge. I had to find music that hinted at a space age, while also tapping into my 13-year-old self. And no, I don’t mean what 13-year-old boys have in their Ipods today. I needed to drum up those teenage feelings about life, adventure, and parents who just didn’t understand me. Oddly enough, the best music turned out to be retro New Wave and other slightly quirky bands. A few favorite songs from the list were Arcade Fire’s Wake Up, Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek (that’s for the girl scenes), and of course, Daft Punk’s Derezzed from Tron (which I’m listening to, right now). Also, the soundtrack for Firefly (Greg Edmonson) and the new Star Trek (Michael Giacchino) movie popped in and out.
Eventually, the story comes together in the magical world of Mon. For this fantastic version of Moon, Yann Teirsen and Bruno Coulais aided me in scenes about remedial classes filled with mythological students, half-marionette, half-arachnid guardians, and volcano-born nymphs. Loreena McKennitt and Zoe Keating provided the mystical, sombre moments. They got a lot of play during the winter months in Huron, or as Monites called it, Blue Moon days. Of course, let’s not forget the movie soundtracks. Any scenes where Nikolas is sleuthing or traipsing through the underground world of Huron required the new Sherlock Holmes’ Discombobulate (Hans Zimmer) and the Triplets of Belleville soundtrack (Benoit Charest).
What about you? What music awakens the sleeper agent in you? Where does it take you?
Kevin McGill is the mad writer of the Nikolas & Company series where the Moon is much more than we think, mermen walk on automaton legs and 14-year-old boys talk to cities in their heads. When not spinning Lunar yarns, Kevin hosts a weekly books podcast Guys Can Read along with his college buddy and co-host, Luke Navarro. Find Kevin’s blog here and contact him on Twitter @kevinonpaper
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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.
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- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2022. 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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