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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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You may recognise the name of my guest this week. She was one of my earliest Soundtrackers and she returns this week with a novel of friendship and betrayal: a man looking back on his youth and making sense of a troubled history. It’s set in Glasgow, and traditional Scottish music gave her both geographical setting and emotional landscape: the depth in apparent simplicity, the universal condition of loving and losing. She is novelist and award-winning playwright Catherine Czerkawska; the novel is The Physic Garden and she’ll be here on Wednesday with its 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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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
- 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'