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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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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 award-winning author Linda Gillard
Soundtrack by Philip Glass
When I ground to a halt writing my fifth novel, Untying the Knot, the second movement of Philip Glass’s first Violin Concerto showed me a way forward. I wanted to tell the story of a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, an ex-soldier, ex-bomb squad, whose career had been ended by an explosion. I wanted to write about his marriage (which had ended in divorce) and about the loyal wife who’d stood by him through many years of active service, then years of rehabilitation and then walked away.
I had a story, but I didn’t know how to tell it. I knew the emotional trajectory of my characters, but I hadn’t a clue how to structure my novel. I’d called it Untying the Knot because it was a love story about a divorced couple, but the title was ironical. Divorced, my characters discover they’re bound together indissolubly, not only by continuing love for each other, but by their traumatic history.
The book was to be about both of them, not just the attention-grabbing hero, Magnus. I wanted to show his wife, Fay, quietly getting on with her life, quietly cracking up while no one noticed. But Magnus had taken over. My work-in-progress was about a hero, his sacrifice and terrible suffering. I couldn’t see how to bring his wife into the foreground and make her story – and her sacrifice – as poignant and moving as his. I was close to abandoning the novel as unbalanced and too complicated to work.
I always use music to support and enrich my writing and I usually have a playlist for each novel. I’d been looking for a piece of music to represent what’s known as ‘the long walk’ – the bomb technician’s lonely approach to an explosive device he’s about to disarm. I remembered the Glass Violin Concerto, with its descending ground bass pattern that repeats for the whole of the second movement. It sounded like someone walking, but it also had an edgy, disturbing quality, created by oscillating broken chords. This wasn’t just a slow walk, this was a walk towards something ominous, even dangerous.
In the music
As I ‘auditioned’ the Glass, it triggered an almost overwhelming cascade of ideas and I suddenly saw – almost completely – how I could structure my novel by emulating the structure of this eight-minute piece of music.
As I listened, I could hear two voices, male and female, engaged in a kind of dialogue. The male voice was the low, see-sawing strings and woodwind that create the walking ground bass. Over the top, I heard a female voice – a solo violin, calm and lyrical at first, a woman pleading with the man to give up his dangerous job, perhaps asking for his help. As the violin solo is repeated again and again against the implacable ground bass, her voice becomes desperate (anguished arpeggiated figures), yet the man never stops walking. It’s as if he can’t hear her and is walking away. Towards the end of the movement, the violin produces high, sustained notes. I found them heart-rending. The woman has finally lost it, given up and gone under.
The music showed me how I could weave my two narrative threads together. The long-suffering wife could move into the spotlight for a while, then retreat while her husband’s horrific back story took over. The couple could keep changing places until, at the dramatic climax of the novel, their two stories would collide and combine, allowing the reader to discover exactly why the marriage had foundered, why the wife had walked away. What had appeared to be his story would be revealed as her story.
As I listened, I felt Glass had written my novel for me, in miniature. I just needed to expand what he’d done, then translate it into a fictional form. There was an added musical bonus. The movement ends abruptly and is quite unresolved. I believe that unsettled feeling gave me the impetus and energy to get on with writing the book. Much as I admired the music that had inspired me, I thought, ‘In Untying The Knot, all this is going to be resolved.’ And it was.
Linda Gillard lives in the Scottish Highlands and has been an actress, journalist and teacher. She’s the author of six novels, including Star Gazing, shortlisted in 2009 for Romantic Novel of the Year and House of Silence, which became a Kindle bestseller, selected by Amazon as one of their Top 10 ‘Best of 2011’ in the indie author category. Her website is here and you can find her on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Linda is excited to give away one copy of the ebook to a commenter here – so if you drop by, be sure to say hello!
Amazon top 10 best of 2011, armed forces, authors, bomb disposal, bomb technician, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, entertainment, indie books, kindle, landmines, Linda Gillard, literary fiction, literary novels, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Philip Glass, playlist for writers, post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, rehabilitation, Roz Morris, self-publishing, soundtracks, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Untying the Knot, Women's fiction, writers, writing, writing to music
- 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 2011-2020. 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'