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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 award-winning mystery and thriller novelist (and musician) Timothy Hallinan @TimHallinan
I could not write without music.
With more than 7,000 tracks on my hard drive and the best pair of earbuds money can buy, I can create a distraction-free workspace anywhere in the world. That’s necessary because I like to write in public, usually in coffee-shops, where there’s already caffeine in the air and I can look up and steal a face whenever I need one.
I work to playlists with different qualities, most of them 400-1,000 songs long. (My current all-purpose playlist has 1,356 songs on it, heavy on Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, Jon Fratelli, Emmylou Harris, Mindy Smith, Lindi Ortega, Over the Rhine, etc.) Generally, music seals me off from distraction, provides a source of energy, and, depending on what I’m writing and the playlist I’ve chosen, an actual entry point to certain emotions and even imagery.
I virtually never write without those earphones plugged in. (I’m listening to Jack’s Mannequin right now.) About half the time I work to the all-purpose playlist, which changes all the time as I add new stuff and yank the old. But occasionally a piece of music will emerge and take over the writing of a book.
In my fourth Poke Rafferty novel, The Queen of Patpong, a young woman has leapt from a boat into the dark Andaman Sea near three large rocks called The Sisters. It’s the middle of the night, rain is pouring down, and the water bristles with sea-wasps, a particularly lethal jellyfish. The man in the boat has brought her there specifically to kill her. This is the turning point of the book, and it became the longest action scene I’ve ever written. A few pages in, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand kicked in, and I immediately put it on a loop. I wrote to it for several days. In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, I wrote:
the chapter when Rose is in the water was written mostly to Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, a piece of music that’s got dark water running all the way through it.
I mention the music I use most at the close of practically every book, and many, many people have emailed me to suggest new artistes. I get a lot of good music that way.
The forthcoming Rafferty book, For The Dead, is largely about a 13-year-old girl having her carefully constructed and entirely fictional identity ripped from her, revealing her to the kids in her exclusive school as a former street child who’s befriended them under false pretences. Much of it was written to Tegan and Sara, who create great, hooky, irresistible rock about girls and young women. They were the primary soundtrack for Miaow’s sections of the story.
But early in the writing process, I began to listen to Fun., and their music crystallized certain aspects of Miaow’s story. At the beginning of the book a phrase from a Fun. song called Benson Hedges, We all float until we sink, keeps running through her mind, and that also song provided the titles of the first two sections of the book: We All Float . . . and . . . Until We Sink. The third section is Drowning Girls, which is a lyric I actually misheard, but there was no way to drop it because it worked so well, and the fourth section is Aim and Ignite, which is the title of a Fun. album.
Finally, in the new Junior Bender book (due out July 2), The Fame Thief, Junior is hired to find out who destroyed the career (and the life) of a young actress in 1950. The central section of the book departs from Junior’s first-person to take us back to the 40s and the early 50s, and for this section I listened to pop music from the day, which had a real impact on both the dialogue and the visual landscape.
If anyone who reads this has some recommendations for me, please comment below or email me at email@example.com And thanks in advance.
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music in their creative process. This weekend, to celebrate a year since the release of My Memories of a Future Life, I’m turning The Undercover Soundtrack inside out and talking to two musicians who have been inspired by novels featured on this series.
Today I’m talking to SJ Tucker, @s00j, who has composed entire albums to novels by Catherynne M Valente, and most recently for The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making.
Sooj, how did you write September’s Rhyme, the song for Catherynne M Valente’s book trailer?
September’s Rhyme was inspired by chapter one, where September has to figure out how to get herself into Fairyland. The Green Wind gives her lots of advice, but most of it she finds confusing rather than helpful. To her credit, she finds a way to make it work for herself rather quickly. September’s Rhyme is a teaching song, to help September and other potential heroines remember the formula for the riddle that must be solved to pass the border into Fairyland. I was sitting in the doctor’s waiting room when I wrote it, reading the manuscript on my laptop.
Catherynne says you’ve written several albums based on her stories. How do you condense a novel into a set of songs? How do you do justice to a novel’s world and characters in a different medium?
Cat’s work is so descriptive and inherently musical to me that the songs fall into my lap as I read. I get ideas left and right. She keeps me pretty busy. My creative process is straightforward where Cat is concerned: start reading and get my butterfly net ready, ’cause the ideas are coming!
So far, I’ve written songs inspired by The Orphan’s Tales duology: In the Night Garden, In the Cities of Coin & Spice, Palimpsest, The Habitation of the Blessed, Deathless, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.
Cat’s novels strike me as being like a family – in the characters, stories and scenes there are aunts and uncles and cousins and parents and grandparents. Some of those family members, you don’t see but once a year at Thanksgiving. Some of them are part of you from the very beginning. Others can surprise you and become vital later on. That’s how I’ve approached writing the songs and albums to accompany Cat’s work.
I write songs about the characters and scenes that strike me on first view. Then I look for anyone I might have left out who needs time in the spotlight. Then I make time for the surprises – the things I never expected to write a song about. Sometimes Cat has written a song into a book for me to find and set to music, as in the case of Go To Sleep Little Skylark, a lullaby in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland.
Do you compose to other writers’ novels or for other writers’ book trailers?
I have songs inspired by Lewis Carroll, Seanan McGuire, Terri Windling and one collaboration with CSE Cooney. Lots of other collaborations and inspirations are in the works. So far, Cat is the only contemporary author who has gotten my song engine to bear fruit more than once. It doesn’t hurt that we pretty much agreed to be good friends the moment we first met. That was back in 2006, when she was on the cusp of releasing The Orphan’s Tales.
How long does it take you to write an album? Do you redraft much? Do you write first, then take it to the studio, or does the song evolve in the recording?
I take a terrifying number of notes. Thank goodness for laptops – specifically for voice memo recording and document catching software.
Every novel I decide to write songs for gets its own master file on my laptop, where all of the ideas for songs go. I’ll often include passages from the novel, the sections that I know have a song waiting between the lines.
Sometimes, getting all of the songs out, or even coaxing just one along, can take months.
Sometimes I’m intensely self-critical, as I’m sure most writers are. Fortunately, redrafting for me usually involves moving stanzas around, catching new verse ideas as they fall, and singing different versions into my laptop or iPhone. It’s a very satisfying process, especially when I feel ready to share. There’s nothing like playing a new creation for its first audience, watching expressions and getting first opinions.
Again, it all started with Cat’s duology The Orphan’s Tales. She mentioned that someone had done an instrumental album for her first novel, The Labyrinth. And ‘wouldn’t it be cool if somebody did an album for The Orphan’s Tales?’ I had devoured The Orphan’s Tales, but it didn’t occur to me until that day that Cat and I would eventually go on tour together and present many an odd multimedia book-and-song circus all over the country. But I went down into her basement for a couple of hours and came back with a song called The Girl in the Garden, and we all wept.
I play a song for an audience several times before I take it to the studio. Part of the reason is that I am constantly touring and performing. I have to slow down in order to get recording done. Also, songs evolve when I play them live. Verses shift, entire new sections present themselves, which I didn’t even know were missing. I’ve learned to let a song have time to bloom before I put it in front of the machines to be captured.
Some authors might be wondering about approaching a songwriter for a trailer. How much does it cost? Are there any rights issues? Do you release the music on your own album too?
I have a flat rate for song commissions, but each time I’ve had a song already written that the author and trailer director were specifically requesting. Paying mechanical rights to the songwriter is an option, but as anything that officially involves my music on Youtube is free advertising for me, I usually only require a link to my download page and proper songwriting credit in the video description, or in the video itself. And yes, I release just about every song I write that I feel is good.
I love that my songs are used in book trailers. The more we all cross-pollinate and cross-promote our work, the more people will find out about us. I urge other indie musicians to say yes to opportunities like providing music for book trailers, because you could find a whole new audience. Cat’s and my mutual fans are some of my favourite people on earth, and they are legion.
Let’s face it: there are millions of us, writers and songwriters alike. If we form alliances and create memorable shared works, the world is a lot more likely to pick us out of the crowd and join our little circus. The more we help each other out, the more we retweet and link for each other, the more beauty we can create, the more fuel we will have for our creative fires, all of us. That’s what I want for all of the creative folk I know – to be our own renaissance.
The Undercover Soundtrack will be back in conventional authorly form on Wednesday – and as it’s anniversary week there will be a chance for commenters to win a very special prize… To make sure you don’t miss it, subscribe now!
authors, Catherynne M Valente, composers, Deathless, drama, entertainment, fantasy, green wind, how to write a song, how to write a song about a novel, how to write an album from a novel, In the Cities of Coin & Spice, In the Night Garden, literature, making a book trailer, music, music for book trailers, music for writers, music inspired by books, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Palimpsest, Roz Morris, singer-songwriters, SJ Tucker, songs, songwriters, songwriting, teaching song, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, The Habitation of the Blessed, The Labyrinth, The Orphan's Tales, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Undercover Soundtrack from the other side, writing, writing to music
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
authors, Beth Rudetsky, composers, crime, drama, entertainment, Fifth Victim, FIFTH VICTIM: Charlie Fox book nine, how to compose a song, how to compose a song from a novel, how to write a song, how to write a song from a novel, Icon, J Carson Black, literature, music, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, psychological thrillers, Roz Morris, Seth Rudetsky, Seth Speaks, singer-songwriters, SiriusXM Stars 107, songwriting, The Undercover Soundtrack, thriller, thrillers, undercover soundtrack, Undercover Soundtrack from the other side, writing a short story, Zoe Sharp
- 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'