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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 Hollywood screenwriter Mark Staufer @MarkStaufer
A few years back, I wanted to break out of my screenwriting comfort zone. I decided to confront the issue that bemused me the most of all: acting.
As a screenwriter, I’ve always viewed actors with a certain amount of trepidation and — I’ll get shot for this — a smidgen of superiority. I mean, we’re the clever ones, right? We writers conjure universes and characters and astonishing dialogue from our super-awesome-God-anointed well-spring of transcendental brilliance. And we do all this in three acts — not exceeding 90 minutes for a comedy and two hours for a drama — and we always deliver on time and don’t require a Buddhist Lama or a manicurist written into our contract. Unless we’re that Joe Ezsterhas-from-the-80s guy.
Damn actors, though, they simply wander in and rearrange their photogenic facial expressions and move their well-toned bodies like puppets, parroting the words we maestro-minds have spent months bleeding over and creating. And rewriting. Again. And…
Wait. Just, before I die, let me finish…
So, I confronted my fear and wrote a script with one of those bloody annoying actors. You may know Josh Stewart from Third Watch or Dirt or The Dark Knight Rises — to me, he was a friend first, and a scary, Brando-esque methody-actor second. As we worked on the script together — he as committed as I was — it became (painfully) apparent that I was learning a whole new dimension in screenwriting. Sure, I was fucking superb at writing and scenes and structure and ‘creating universes’ and theoretical whatnot, but Josh, as an actor, slipped into characters and dialogue like an eel. He was like a specialist fine-tuning these parts of the body, while I resembled something akin to your garden variety local GP.
Josh taught me so much about the most important parts of screenwriting — characters; motivation; showing, not telling; use of the semicolon; minimal big-print — that I feel totally embarrassed about the whole ‘rearranging expressions’ statement a while back. Oh, if you want to read our magnificent script about an archeologist-turned-grave-robber… Give me a yell.
And a similar thing has happened with music and writing with The Numinous Place. Not that I’ve ever been quite so damning about music and composers — but I’ve learned so much from actually listening, and listening hard to music, and musicians, that it’s completely transformed my approach to writing as well.
You see, in the middle of the night, about a decade ago I awoke from a most wondrous and startling dream and immediately thought to myself, how cool would it be if we developed the technology to film dreams. That was the spark that hovered and wormed its way into my consciousness until I finally dragged myself into the dark room and began work five years later on (gulp) my life’s work. By that stage I’d been researching like crazy, the characters and plot were pretty much fully formed, my entire belief system had been turned upside-down, and I knew I needed to tell this particular story in an utterly different way.
For maximum impact, I needed to create an authentic storyworld about the scientific discovery of the afterlife using all storytelling techniques: first-person narrative, audio, video, web and magazine articles, comic, photographs, diagrams… Nothing less would suffice than every narrative device we’ve used since cave-painting began 40,000 years ago.
Reading is visceral
There was no gimmickry involved in this decision to create in a multidimensional fashion. It’s just that I believe a reader’s response to realistic artifacts and information is more visceral — it’s a case of showing not telling (remember what Josh taught me?). As the narrative unfolded I didn’t want anyone to have to suspend their disbelief for a moment. Everyone really needed to believe that science had indeed discovered the afterlife. And for that to happen, it was going to be necessary to present them with all the relevant evidence — totally believable evidence I’d gathered from since the beginning of time. Here’s the newspaper article, take a look at the news report, here’s the page in Wikipedia… Seeing is believing.
I also wanted to include a soundtrack with the book. With the technique of lucid dreaming — becoming conscious in your dreamworld and controlling it — at the core of the narrative it was important to be able to conjure an immediate response with readers. And music is by far the best way to do this.
It was necessary for my writing, too. Music was what helped me tap into my subconscious and those other realities in which my narrative and characters already existed. Music was the bridge to the worlds of archetypes and parallel universes where every story lives and waits to be told in the here and now by someone like you.
There’s a fantastic music site called A Closer Listen which supplied me with many leads and from there I discovered a bunch of musical geniuses whose ethereal compositions sang to my subconscious and allowed me to bring the dreamworld into this reality. The darkly claustrophobic ambience of Adrian Aniol, the hauntingly cinematic music of Leonardo Rosado, the angelic pyrotechnics of Sorabji, the fiery minimalism of Italian composer Ezio Bosso and the wafty electronic otherworldiness of The Caretaker.
But what would an actual soundtrack to a book such as The Numinous Place sound like, and how would it work? Books aren’t movies or games — the reading experience is intimate and self-paced, and I don’t believe any reader wants music or sound effects blasting away behind every word. How could I make music an evocative part of the experience, integrate it into the storyworld and allow it to accentuate the narrative?
Under the guidance of composer/sound designer Walter Werzowa it was decided the music — like the tech and design by Dean Johnson and the team at digital agency Brandwidth — would be used strategically. Pieces would be composed by Maestro Werzowa to specifically enhance the narrative, underscore the emotional intensity and act as scene-breakers.
And, since reading is more about choices than, say, watching a film — the reader can choose to listen immediately, or save the piece and listen later.
Dreamworlds move at their own pace
Because the dreamworld itself moves at a different pace from this reality and is often so difficult to recall, Walter set to work reimagining well-known classical pieces that evoke the moods experienced in the dreamworld by the book’s hero, Henry Meat. You can hear an example here, along with Walter’s magnificent Agnus.
And, just like James Bond films, The Numinous Place needed a theme song. For this I approached fellow-Kiwi Alicia Merz who records under the name Birds of Passage. Alicia’s compellingly hypnotic theme for The Numinous Place captures the atmosphere of the storyworld perfectly — it evokes the dreamworld in a way words often struggle to achieve.
Music being such an integral part of both the creative process and finished product has also assisted me in an unanticipated way. The structural multidimensionality of The Numinous Place means there are a lot of balls in the air during writing. Similar to music — cadence and rhythm and texture are incredibly important — and I’ve learned from all those composers on my soundtrack during this journey.
I’ve learned that, just like acting, it’s the silences between the notes that are equally as important as the notes themselves.
And it is the same with words.
Hollywood screenwriter Mark Staufer is the curator/creator of an ambitious new way of storytelling, a supernatural thriller called The Numinous Place which will be available later this year. Staufer is a former head of production at Universal Studios Networks in London and has been working on his “destiny project” for more than a decade. You can follow him on twitter @MarkStaufer and @NuminousPlace and the lead character in the book @HenryMeat.
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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 my guest is urban fantasy writer Paul Anthony Shortt @PAShortt
Music is one of the most vital tools I have as a writer. The visceral feeling when a particular piece strikes me just right is astounding, whether it’s a film score or a favourite song. When I write I picture the scenes as though they were a movie in my head, and for me, the score of a movie is often as important as the acting or the scriptwriting. So it felt completely natural for me to use that response to music to help my writing.
When writing Locked Within, I listened to a very specific selection of music to get me into the right mindset. In addition to my ample collection of film scores for action scenes and keeping both my own pace and the pace of the writing as fast as possible, I used certain tracks to help focus on certain aspects of the book.
A city that doesn’t want to be saved
For the suffering of New York’s clued-in citizens under their supernatural rulers, I used a cover version of We Don’t Need Another Hero by Northern Kings. Their version has hard, heavy guitar riffs and a desperate, pleading chorus that evokes such a sense of passionate resignation. It was perfect for keeping me grounded in a city that doesn’t want to be saved, even though it needs to be so badly.
As my hero, Nathan Shepherd’s theme song, I chose Locked Within The Crystal Ball, by Blackmore’s Night. It has a haunting quality to it that fills my mind with images of warriors in different times. It resonates so perfectly with my story of a reborn hero trying to remember his past lives and stop an evil monster.
Finally, to remind myself of what my hero was fighting for, and to strengthen my mental movie’s closing scene, I kept the final track from Sarah Brightman’s Fleur Du Mal album on my playlist. It’s a march that starts low and builds to a triumphant fanfare, helping symbolise, for me, my hero’s acceptance of his destiny and role as New York’s protector.
Quite simply, I don’t think I could write if I didn’t have music. There are times I wish my readers could hear the music I have in mind for each scene, because part of me wonders if they’re missing out on an element of the story that I just can’t put into the page. When I write, I try to put that emotion, that raw power I feel from music, into the words of my story. If I can bring about those feelings in a reader, even for a moment, then I know I’ve done my job.
A child at heart who turned to writing and roleplaying games when there simply weren’t enough action figures to play out the stories he wanted, Paul Anthony Shortt has been writing since he was a child. Growing up surrounded by music, film and theatre gave him a deep love of all forms of storytelling, each teaching him something new he could use. When not playing with the people in his head, he enjoys cooking and regular meet-ups with his gaming group. He lives in Ireland with his wife Jen and their dogs, Pepper and Jasper. Their first child, Conor William Henry Shortt, was born on July 11, 2011. He passed away three days later, but brought love and joy into their lives and those of their friends. Paul’s first novel, Locked Within, is published by WiDo Publishing. The sequel is out later this year. Find him on his blog, Facebook and Twitter @PAShortt
authors, blackmore s night, Blackmore's Night, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, evil monster, fantasy, gaming, guitar riffs, Irish writers, Locked Within, male writers, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, New York, Northern Kings, Paul Anthony Shortt, playlist for writers, roleplaying, Roz Morris, Sarah Brightman, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, urban fantasy, WiDo Publishing, writers, writing, writing to music
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.
authors, entertainment, epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy series, fundamental need, gaming, mcphail, Melissa McPhail, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, piano, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack
My guest this week was so young when Faber bought her first fantasy novel that her father had to sign the contract. She’s more than built on that early promise by scooping the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian prize and is so prolific that in her credits she only lists her best-known works. Her imagination has ranged everywhere, from a fantasy czarist Russia to the far future – and thrilling, evocative music has been intrinsic to all of them. She is Susan Price, and she will be here on Wednesday talking about her Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, Authors Electric, Carnegie Medal, Christopher Uptake, Do Authors Dream of Electric Books, entertainment, evocative music, faber, Faber & Faber, fantasy novel, gaming, Ghost Dance, Ghost Drum, Ghost Song, guardian, Guardian prize, imagination, literature, music, music for writers, Odin's Voice, Susan Price, The Devil’s Piper, The Sterkarm Handshake, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, writing to music
My guest this week says her fiction explores the hidden side of human existence, delving into mysticism, the paranormal and deep psychology – and her latest novel was sparked by a disturbing dream. Its soundtrack encompasses Vivaldi and Tori Amos, a potent aural brew that allowed her to forget she knew what was going to happens and live the story moment by moment. She is Vivienne Tuffnell and she’ll be here on Wednesday sharing the Undercover Soundtrack to The Bet
authors, Desert Island Discs, dreams, entertainment, fiction, gaming, human existence, literary fiction, literary novels, literature, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, mysticism, Nail Your Novel, paranormal, parapsychology, playlist for writers, psychology, reincarnation, Roz Morris, spiritual possession, The Bet, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, videogames, Vivienne Tuffnell, Vivienne Tufnell, writers, writing, writing to music
My guest this week is a fan of BBC literary adaptations and describes music as a ‘necessary luxury’ in her writing process – magnifying the worlds of her characters, helping her to wriggle inside their plights and their conflicts. She is historical novelist VR Christensen, author of the bestseller Of Moths And Butterflies and she will be flitting over here on Wednesday with its Undercover Soundtrack.
BBC, BBC costume drama, BBC literary adaptations, gaming, historical fiction, literary adaptations, literature, moths and butterflies, necessary luxury, Of Moths and Butterflies, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, VR Christensen, writing
- 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 2011-2022. 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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- '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'