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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 my guest is multi-award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick @marcussedgwick
Soundtrack: folk ballads of Eastern Europe, Gustav Mahler
I’ve mentioned music quite a few times a while blogging over the years; and the gist of it all was this: I wish I’d been a musician. You often get asked what you would like to have been if you weren’t a writer, and that’s my answer. And when I say a musician, I mean of almost any kind. But since I’m not, I’m pretty happy being a writer instead, though that being the case, I use music a lot in my writing.
I mean that in two ways, at least. Firstly, like many writers, I prefer not to write in total silence. I can do that if I have to, but I prefer to have music playing while I write. This music isn’t random, however; I choose it very carefully, and the general rule of thumb is that I choose music that creates the same atmosphere in my head that I am trying to create on paper. Music really can help put you in the mood, that’s obvious, and I see it as another tool the writer can use to make life easier. Sometimes, I might choose music that is directly related to what I am writing; for example, when I wrote My Swordhand is Singing, I listened exclusively to Klezmer, the gypsy folk music of Eastern Europe, such as this. It’s music that can be both incredibly joyful, and then, at other times, perhaps the most mournful thing you’ve ever heard.
Births and inspirations
I referred to an actual Romanian folk ballad in the book, and I listened to that over and over again too. It’s called The Miorita (‘The Lamb’) and was inspiring both in terms of mood, but also for the story itself: it’s the mystical tale of a lamb who warns a shepherd that his colleagues are going to murder him, and it’s both beautiful but also right on the theme of the book I was writing, about the acceptance of death.
This is the second way in which I work with music in a text I’m writing. A piece of music may have led to the birth of some element of the book. Another example would be Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the Resurrection, which directly affected whole sections of White Crow. But this time, it wasn’t the music itself, it was something that Mahler wrote in the program notes for the premiere, which was this:
The earth quakes, the graves burst open, the dead arise and stream on
in endless procession… the trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out; in the eerie silence that follows we can just catch the distant, barely audible song of a
nightingale, last tremulous echo of earthly life! A chorus of saints and
heavenly beings softly breaks forth:
“Thou shalt arise, surely thou shalt arise.” Then appears the glory
of God! A wondrous, soft light penetrates us to the heart, all is holy
And behold, it is no judgment, there are no sinners, no just. None is
great, none is small. There is no punishment and no reward.
An overwhelming love lightens our being. We know and are.
That kind of thing brings shivers to my spine, and when I read a passage like that, I know that very often it will end up in a book.
Which brings me to my new book, The Ghosts of Heaven. This book doesn’t have music in the story directly, and when I came to write it, nothing in my music collection seemed appropriate to play as I typed. So I took a pretty drastic step, which was to write to my own music. The book is made up of four novellas, effectively, four quarters, which are interlinked by an image – the form of the spiral. One part is set in prehistory, and is written in free verse. Another part is a straight narrative of a late witch-hunt in England. There’s a section set in an insane asylum on Long Island in the 1920s, and there’s a quarter that takes place in the far future, aboard the first ship from Earth travelling to colonise a new planet.
There’s a short snippet of what I wrote as the soundtrack to this trailer for the book, and if you think listening to that for days must have put my head in a strange place, well, you can judge for yourself if you read it.
Marcus Sedgwick was born and raised in East Kent in the South East of England. He now divides his time between a small village near Cambridge and a remote house in the French Alps. Marcus is the winner of many prizes, most notably the Printz Award, the Booktrust Teenage Prize, and the Blue Peter Book Award. His books have been shortlisted for over thirty other awards, including the Carnegie Medal (five times), the Edgar Allan Poe Award (twice) and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (five times). In 2011 Revolver was awarded a Printz Honor. Marcus was Writer in Residence at Bath Spa University for three years, and has taught creative writing at Arvon and Ty Newydd. He is currently working on film and book projects with his brother, Julian, as well as a graphic novel with Thomas Taylor. He has judged numerous books awards, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Costa Book Awards. Find him on Twitter as @MarcusSedgwick and at his website.
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There’s a shelf chez Morris that holds a set of books with such exquisite titles as Midwinterblood, White Crow, Floodland and, of course, the one quoted in the catchline of this post. So shall I cut to the chase and state that I’m honoured that he’s my guest this week? His novels blend folktales, myth and sometimes futuristic speculation, and music is a significant companion in the writing – from the mournful and joyous gypsy and folk ballads of Eastern European to the romantic compositions of Gustav Mahler. For his latest novel, The Ghosts of Heaven, no music would fit – so he composed his own. Do join me tomorrow for the Undercover Soundtrack of multi-award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick.
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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 my guest is debut YA paranormal novelist Christina Banach @ChristinaBanach
Soundtrack by Iggy Pop, Evanescence, Cyndi Lauper, Robbie Williams, Samuel Barber
I find background noise somewhat distracting when I’m working, so my normal practice is to squirrel myself away in my study and write in silence. However this doesn’t mean that music plays no part in my creative process – far from it. Even in the initial stages of brainstorming ideas and exploring characters I find lyrics and melodies filtering through my consciousness and seeping into the story I’m trying to tell. It’s at that point that I compile the playlist that I will listen to, time and again, when I’m not actually writing, that is. Then, as I work through the revisions, shaping my manuscript, this music spools in my mind, helping to deepen character and clarify – and intensify – plot points. This was especially true when I was writing Minty.
Although the book is shot through with humour, Minty is undoubtedly an emotive read, a true emotional roller coaster according to its reviewers. It centres around one of life’s big questions – is there life after death? – and deals with love, loss, friendship and redemption. Above all it is a book about hope. With such weighty themes it is no surprise that much of the music that informed the story is haunting, thought-provoking and stirring.
At the beginning of the book the protagonist, Minty, and her sister, Jess, are ordinary girls who are in love with life. As I grew familiar with their characters one song began to fill my head – Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life.
However, these typical teenagers are also identical twins, girls who are bound by a steadfast bond, one that is jeopardised when Minty drowns during a family trip to the coast. Yet the sisters’ connection isn’t broken, for Minty finds herself trapped between life and death, forced to watch Jess’s spiralling grief.
In the immediate aftermath of the accident Jess is desperate to catch Minty’s last breath (the twins are fascinated with the customs of ancient Rome). My readers tell me this is an intensely emotional scene. It was certainly emotional to write and this is partly due to the song that ran through my mind as I crafted it – Evanescence’s My Last Breath. It speaks to me of Jess’s despair, and Minty’s full appreciation of the situation she is now in.
Indeed, Evanescence features highly in the Minty playlist, for it is their songs that influenced the development of Jess and Minty’s character arcs. For instance, My Immortal could have been written specially for this book. It is this song that helped me drill down into Jess’s core and uncover not only the pain she feels now that she has to live without her sister, but also the agony of Minty’s presence still lingering in her mind. It’s Jess’s lament, if you like.
Then there is Bring Me To Life. I tend to think of this as the Minty anthem because, even although it is Minty who is deceased, the twins are both dead to some extent. In their separate, and very different, ways they need to be saved from themselves. Bring Me To Life helped me clarify this.
Why can’t I grasp it? Cos I’m nothing – a shade, a ghost, whatever I want to call it. I am a big fat zero. I should be used to that by now – being in this world but not of it. The thought sickens me. This existence sickens me.
Which brings me to my final Evanescence song, the beautifully haunting, Missing. It is this song that helped me tap into Minty’s pain and confusion at a particular juncture in the story, a plot point that is all the more poignant because it comes hard on the heels of an uplifting episode, featuring Jess and her friends. Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun was the musical inspiration for writing that light-hearted scene.
And yet writing Minty wasn’t purely a full-on Evanescence fest, the music of other artists also wormed their way into my subconscious and aided the creative flow, and I don’t only mean Cyndi Lauper although another of her songs, True Colours, assisted me greatly in pinning down Jess and Minty’s characters.
Cue Robbie Williams and Angels. This well-known song is actually mentioned several times throughout the novel. In fact, it has a significant role in three of the pivotal moments in the narrative. One of these is Minty’s funeral, a chapter that stood unchanged through drafts one to eight of the revision process. I reckon that this song helped me nail it first time. Another of Robbie’s songs, Nan’s Song, was the soundtrack to one of my favourite scenes in the book, a scene based on something rather mysterious and perplexing that had happened to me many years ago. Listening to the music playing out in my head allowed me to capture that moment and transplant it into Minty’s story.
The ultimate fragment in the soundtrack puzzle is Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Several people have told me that Minty is an extremely filmic book, which is interesting because as I wrote it I saw it played out before me as if I were watching a movie on the big screen. This was never truer than when writing the closing scene of the final chapter. For me, it’s a moment of such poignancy, such beauty and high emotion – of hope. Perhaps Barber’s Adagio unleashed something in my psyche that enabled me to create the scene that needed to be written. I don’t know for sure, all I can tell you is that I cried each time I worked on it.
Christina Banach is an ex-head teacher who lives in Scotland, UK, with her husband and their two rescue dogs. Her debut novel, Minty, was the first acquisition of new publishing house Three Hares. She is currently working on her next book, a contemporary ghost story come psychological thriller set in and around the legendary village of Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands. Find her on Twitter @ChristinaBanach, or on her website, or Pinterest. Cover of Minty by Serafim.com
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My guest this week is releasing her debut novel, a tale of love, loss and friendship centring on a pair of twins. She says that music was her anchor while she was brainstorming ideas and exploring the characters, helping to deepen her characters and refine her plot points. Her soundtrack ranges from the mournful to the joyous, with tracks by Iggy Pop, Evanescence, Robbie Williams, Bette Midler, The Hollies and Samuel Barber. She is Christina Banach and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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Once upon a time, a schoolgirl resolved to never be a slave to music. She says she is glad this promise never lasted, because she cannot imagine having a creative life without music to guide and inspire her. Her latest work is a historical novel for young readers about the story of cacao, and features a heady soundtrack of Lana Del Rey, Cirque du Soleil and Manish Vyas. She is multipublished author Birgitte Rasine and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 my guest is YA fantasy author John Dutton @JohnBDutton
Creating a work of art is usually stochastic; a combination of logical planning and inspired randomness. A novelist needs to wobble across this stochastic tightrope from blank page to finished text.
Original, unexpected ideas come from a variety of sources. Dreams, alcohol and drugs fueled writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William S. Boroughs. As for myself (and in the words of the great Meat Loaf) two out of three ain’t bad. The odd pint of Guinness has certainly helped my out of writer’s rut. And so have the even pints. Of course I would never take drugs as they are illegal, but fortunately dreaming is still allowed. I’m currently writing a trilogy of young adult novels like everyone else, and I even woke up one morning with the title of the second novel, Starley’s Rust, in my head.
But there’s another way to get those creative juices flowing, and that’s music. Either melody or lyrics can be inspirational. When I needed to write the introduction of a major character in book one of the trilogy, I was driving one morning with my iPod set to random. A song came on (I honestly don’t remember which one) but it may have been Simon and Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade of Winter. Suddenly the idea came to me to write this character introduction.
The Friday I met Aranara was a cold, cold day. My hometown of Lancaster, Wisconsin is in some kind of microclimate and we rarely got snow, even in the middle of winter, so I wasn’t expecting the betrayal that lurked in the air that early October in New York City.
When I wrote this atmospheric paragraph it was the middle of summer, so it was directly inspired by the song I was listening to. But my aural surroundings have to be just right for it to help my writing. I often write in a particular café here in Montreal where the music is good (in other words, I enjoy the songs they play) and not too loud. When I go to a café closer to home for various reasons I’m quickly reminded how hard it is to get this balance right by the annoying FM pap that blasts every good idea out of my mind before it can reach the keyboard.
Atmosphere for nowhere
Sometimes an entire album can create an atmosphere in your mind that helps you get inside the head of a character you are writing. This was the case for me when I wrote my (as yet unproduced) screenplay Rd 2 Nowhere. Originally inspired by the title of an amazingly atmospheric 1985 hit by the Talking Heads, this movie features a teenage girl who is uprooted from her Montreal home when her mother dies, finding herself in a medium-sized town where nothing much seems to happen. Of course, things do happen! The main character, Jen, is overtaken by grief-fueled ennui, and takes to hanging out with a bunch of kids at a makeshift skate park where an unfinished highway ends abruptly at a river. Her mental state and attitude towards others was perfectly reflected by the music of Arcade Fire’s albums Funeral and The Suburbs. As Jen’s mind found ways to escape her dull everyday reality (her everydull realiday?) I was listening to songs like Neighbourhood 1 (Tunnels) from Funeral and The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains). It’s not necessarily easy for a male writer in his 40s to get inside the head of a teenage girl, so I’m forever grateful to the helping hand my muse received from my local heroes.
I’m clearly more influenced by the lyrics of rock and pop songs than by classical or jazz music. It’s amazing how a random word in a song can trigger a chain reaction of mental associations.
Start making sense
Sometimes you’re writing something and you hear a song that you can actually incorporate into your work. One of my novels is called The New Sense. It’s an epistemology-themed epistolary mystery (which might explain its failure to attract readers as effectively as a YA fantasy) and one of the main characters claims to have, yes, a new sense that other humans don’t possess. I originally published the novel in the form of a blog, posting it ‘live’ in serial fashion every day or so. Since it deals with the issue of how we know what we think we know to be true, it was very important for me to make the blog as believable as possible. I must have accomplished this, because the fictional writer of the blog soon began to receive emails from real people who thought that she was also real and her story true.
I decided to continue the fiction-reality mashup by creating fictional emails from made-up people to post alongside the real ones. And that’s when I heard the Blondie song (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear. It contains a line about a person using an extra sense when playing cards. My character actually funds his lifestyle by using his sense to win at cards in the Montreal casino, so I used this line in a fictional reader email.
And sometimes music can be simply a source of fun that gets the mind working and creative juices flowing. I’ve been a fan of both the BBC sci-fi show Doctor Who and popular pop-rock combo The Beatles since I was very young. My commercial writing self has recently been hired to write the new Cirque du Soleil website and I’ve been researching their shows, including one called The Beatles LOVE that is performed permanently in Las Vegas. My sudden re-immersion in the Fab Four’s music combined with Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary clearly sparked something in a strange corner of my mind, because I came up with the idea to create a Dalek-Beatles mixtape (the Daleks being the Doctor’s arch enemies).
For a day or two I had a permanent semi-smile on my face as I re-imagined Beatles classics as performed by evil Daleks. The resulting mix tape insert card is here for your enjoyment. You may then exterminate it from your mind if you like.
After graduating from film school in London, John emigrated to Montreal in 1987, where he still lives with his two young children and their even younger goldfish. He spent over a decade as a music TV director before moving into the advertising industry as an award-winning copywriter and translator. In parallel to his corporate work, John has written novels, short stories, blogs, screenplays and a stage play. He is currently writing a trilogy of young adult novels under the pen name JB Dutton, the first of which, Silent Symmetry, was published in early 2013 and features neither vampires, zombies nor wizards. John speaks four languages and has been married three times in three different countries in three different decades. Find his blog here, get his Facebook page here, and tweet him as @johnbdutton
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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.
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- 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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