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My guest this week has written a psychological thriller in which two former school friends confront a life-changing event from their past. To create their teenage years in the 1980s, the author delved into her own archives, discovering old mixtapes and an Elvis Costello LP whose sleeve contained a lyric sheet written out by a close friend. She was struck by the way music became less significant over the years. What had once been such a fierce marker of personal identity was now an emblem of a simpler time – though not necessarily for the characters in her novel. She is Women In Journalism advocate Meg Carter and she’ll be here on Wednesday with the Undercover Soundtrack for The Lies We Tell.
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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 guest is novelist and creative writing tutor Niki Valentine @nikimon
Music is incredibly important to me as a writer and has played a large part in my process, as well as populating my stories almost constantly. My latest novel, Possessed, is immersed in music in that it takes place in a conservatoire at an unnamed university. The students are obsessed and driven by music. This means that music comes out in the story itself. Both of the pieces I’m going to talk about appear in the narrative, in rather dramatic ways, but what’s more interesting, I think, is how these pieces fed into my writing process.
The vulnerability of a female soloist
The first piece is Schubert’s Ave Maria. This has a special place in my heart because it was performed at my wedding. For some reason this piece was running a constant background in my head as I sat down to write. As the music played out in my head, I could see one of my main characters singing it, and it meant I could hear her voice, picture her vulnerability. This fed into her character in many ways. Firstly, she became a singer as well as a flautist, which I hadn’t originally planned, and it helped to distinguish her from her twin sister, both in my mind and in the narrative. There is something haunting about this piece of music and I think part of that comes from the vulnerability of a female soloist, hitting those high notes. And, of course, it’s often a funeral hymn, or sung in church.
The other piece came later in the process, meaning that I was brought to it by one of my characters rather than the other way around. I realised that my protagonist, a young pianist called Emma, had never played a Rach and that she wanted to. This led me to listen to some Rachmaninoff concertos and sonatas, which became a constant background to my planning and writing. I wanted to bring in the intensity of certain pieces of piano music and how they could be consuming. In the end, I chose his Sonata number 1 and focused on the first movement. I was particularly struck by this recording by Valentina Lisitsa.
The characters in the music
There is something compelling about this sonata and, of course, it’s highly technical. I think it’s utterly lovely, and full of power, and the Lisitsa performance keys into that. Each time I listened, I found something different there. Since I’ve been writing I’ve had two absolute gifts that have presented themselves to me in the research stage. The title of my first novel was one and this piece of music, the other. The more I listened, the more I felt that my characters were there in the music, trying to get through to me. It fed into my process in an ongoing way.
I then read about its genesis and Rachmaninoff’s composition process. This was where something magical seemed to happen. I discovered that the composer had originally themed the Sonata on Goethe’s Faust. The tragic play of lost innocence has so many resonances with my story. Like the play, Possessed has three main characters and, similarly, there’s the sense of naivety about one, malevolence in another and, perhaps, collusion and deception from the third. I love to play with grey areas in my fiction, so there is sense that these personality traits move between my characters but, essentially, the triangle is similar. Even more wonderfully, I’d focused on the first movement, said to represent the turmoil of Faust’s mind. In my stories, the psychological disorder of the characters is all important and perhaps this is why the particular piece appealed so much.
To begin with, my connection with this music thematically was entirely to do with what I heard and how it made me feel but, as I researched, the theories fed in to my process too. With a thriller, you don’t want themes or ideas playing on the surface, but they were certainly something I kept in mind as I continued to write and draft. I doubt there are many readers who would see this through my writing and understand it but, for me, the music added a depth to this book that made it far richer.
Niki Valentine is the award winning author of The Haunted, The Doll’s House, and Possessed, published by Sphere. She also writes gritty, realist fiction as Nicola Monaghan. When she isn’t working on her next psychological thriller, Niki teaches creative and professional writing at Nottingham university. Find her on Twitter @nikimon
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My guest this week set her psychological thriller in a music conservatoire. Two pieces of music brought the book to life for her – a Schubert song with a beguilingly vulnerable female vocal, and a Rachmaninov sonata that turned out to have an illuminating link with Goethe’s Faust. She is Niki Valentine and she’ll be here on Wednesday talking about the Undercover Soundtrack to her novel Possessed.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music in their creative process. This weekend, to celebrate a year (or thereabouts) since the release of My Memories of a Future Life, I’m turning The Undercover Soundtrack inside out.
Today and tomorrow I’m talking to two musicians who have been inspired by novels featured on this series. Stories with origins in music, coming full circle when singer-songwriters are stirred to interpret them.
Beth, novels are huge. Songs are a mere handful of words. How do you condense a story into one song?
I first ask myself a series of questions. What is the emotional make-up of the protagonist? What issues are they struggling with? What past or present event is haunting them? What is the current emotional state of the protagonist? What does the protagonist have to do to begin to climb out of that and the events that are causing it?
I begin by writing a short story about the main character’s emotional state and the dilemma they find themselves in. After that I write the lyrics as a poem, choosing words that are very visual. I then go to my piano and as I reflect about the character, I start to create an intro to my song, which sets the mood. Then I start to write the melody and chord structures that convey my lyrics and music. From there I start composing the chorus, whose essence must grab the listener by the throat.
What other music work do you do?
I compose songs, soundtracks and perform the vocal for films. I also record background vocals for various pop recording artists and their tracks, perform as a singer-songwriter in cabarets and clubs, and also sing in concerts on Broadway that feature actors from the Broadway stage.
Here’s a live performance I did on my brother Seth Rudetsky’s radio programme Seth Speaks on SiriusXM Stars 107 in NYC. The song is called Empty Projector
How did you start writing songs for book trailers?
Ever since I was a teenager I have had a tremendous passion for mystery and crime thrillers. I have always been intrigued about what makes people tick, the reasons behind their sadness and what haunts them in their lives. It drives the music and lyrics in all of my songwriting.
The idea of composing music for book trailers came to me during a Facebook conversation with Zoe Sharp. She has a great passion for music and when I told her I was a singer-songwriter she asked to hear my work and loved what I sent to her. I realized my character-driven songs would be a perfect marriage with the psychological portraits of her characters and she was thrilled when I asked if she’d like me to write a song for one of her novels.
Zoe chose Fifth Victim. I wrote The Victim Won’t Be Me. It received wide praise from authors and crime fiction bloggers and another author, J Carson Black, asked me to write a song and make a trailer.
Her novel, Icon, is exciting, eerie and stays with the reader long after the end. One of the reasons is the main character – a film star who has fallen out with Hollywood, struggles with addiction and is then kidnapped and held for ransom. On his escape he finds he is being pursued by a far more lethal killer. He starts out as a broken soul who has lost his way in life and then finds he has the strength to struggle for recovery and fight for his life.
I wrote the song Vengeance, produced the trailer with filmmaker/director Mark Ezovski who wrote a script to resonate with my song and the novel’s original story. I orchestrated the music for me on piano, along with violin and cello. I got two musicians (Karl Kawahara on violin and Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf on the cello) to record the arrangement with me.
Going back to the writing, how long does it take you to finish the song? Do you redraft much? Do you write first and then take it to the studio, or does the song evolve during the recording?
I am a perfectionist and after I have the basic draft I go back to it many times, finessing the music score and lyrics. My signature is to compose dramatic, haunting music and compelling lyrics. I keep at it until I feel the song is at its most moving.
Then I record a version with just piano and my voice and send it to the author for approval. After that I write a full music arrangement for me and other musicians and we record it at Millrose Music studio run by Pete Millrose. He also does a wonderful mix.
Are there other authors you’re inspired by?
I’d love to write music for Gregg Hurwitz, Wallace Stroby , Joseph Finder, Christopher Smith, Douglas Corleone, CJ Lyons and Steve Jackson .
Some authors might be wondering about approaching a songwriter for a book trailer. How much does it cost?
The cost is USD $5,500-6,000 and covers the entire trailer. I compose the music and lyrics to the song, perform the vocal, orchestrate my song for me on piano along with wonderful musicians and then record my song. I work with a filmmaker and director to produce the visuals with script, cinematographer, professional actors, studio and props.
Finding all those people takes time and know-how – for instance, a great cinematographer elevates a basic trailer to film quality, as you can see with the Icon trailer (cinematographer Robert Michael). We did not use stock footage, sound effects or music from other sources. A photographer filmed live action footage in Arizona where the novel takes place. The author doesn’t have to do a thing but sit back and enjoy the result.
Are there any rights issues?
I copyright my song. The author, publisher and I are free to share the song and video with any sites.
I also help with publicity. A lot of authors are shy and don’t have the experience or know-how to publicise their work. I do – and I love to publicize the authors and their work through the trailers. I am told that people listen to my songs over and over – a thrilling feeling for me as a composer and singer.
Beth Rudetsky is a composer, arranger, performer and book trailer maven. Find her on Facebook
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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 thriller writer Kelly Simmons @kellysimmons
Of all the issues that divide writers – to tweet or delete, to Skype or to not, handwritten first drafts? Are you kidding me?—the greatest dividing line seems to be between those who write with music, and those who don’t.
I have a foot in both camps. I don’t listen to anything during the first draft – I don noise-cancelling headphones because even relaxing sounds like birds or waves irritate the crap out of me —but I crank it up during revisions.
There is something about the enormity of the revision task that requires pumping up, like music during a marathon run. And like many writers, I enjoy pairing the music to the task.
My favorite secret weapon is soundtracks. Soundtracks from movies and TV help me think visually, help frame out scenes. It all started when I was writing an unpublished novel about a mob wife in South Philly. The Sopranos soundtrack was an unbelievable inspiration to me over three years of revisions. It kept me focused on the violence, but also the humanity, of that world.
For my first published novel, Standing Still, about a woman with panic attacks who offers her life in exchange for her daughter’s mid-kidnapping, I relied on soundtracks with plenty of tension and pathos – and surprisingly, the soundtrack to Grey’s Anatomy, with its wealth of new artists, proved helpful and poignant. The lyrics to Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars still go through my head when I think of the kidnapper and kidnappee telling each other their darkest secrets in a motel room.
Another great side benefit of the soundtrack is that while some of the selects will have lyrics, many will be instrumental. An instrumental piece doesn’t crowd into my thinking space the way songs with lyrics do. For my latest novel, The Bird House, about a grandmother with Alzheimer’s struggling to connect with her granddaughter and remember the secrets of her past while chasing down a mystery with her daughter-in-law and son, I listened to the Philip Glass soundtrack to the movie Notes On a Scandal, which offered just the right amount of tension for the scenes in my book when the grandmother steals her daughter in law’s phone, and follows her after seeing her kiss a strange man on a jogging path.
Listening to music from that film, movie, particularly since it starred Judi Dench, who could easily step in to the role of Ann in The Bird House, helped me think about the characters and plot beats differently – more like a screenwriter. And that keeps your novel taut and faster paced.
Like storyboarding on Pinterest – another helpful obsession – music can inspire a novel to feel more cinematic. And if that leads to a movie deal, well, cue the Rocky soundtrack on that, and I’ll run up the stairs at the Philadelphia Art Museum.
Kelly Simmons is the proud recipient of starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly for her novels from Simon & Schuster: Standing Still and The Bird House. She is a former journalist and advertising creative director. Her website and blog live at www.bykellysimmons.com And she quips on Twitter: @kellysimmons
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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'