Over the last several years, I’ve been working on a new novel. Now normally I don’t blog about my writing process or about the writing I’m doing. But this novel isn’t normal, and where it led me and what it’s taught me has opened some wonderful doors for me.
For one thing, it’s SF, which I love reading, but have never written. Children’s fantasy is about as close as I’ve gotten, and none of that has been published. But this character showed up one day when the kids were little and simply wouldn’t go away. So I finally sat down to write the story he wanted me to tell.
Normally, I write in silence. There is no music, unless it’s in a coffee shop (and I tend to tune that out), no conversation I’m involved in, and nothing other than the background noise outside my office window.
My main character is a teen musician. And when I started writing, he had a distinct voice. But as the novel limped along, the voice dissipated. I could not figure out how to get it back.
I like to walk. And when I walk, I listen to music. My musical tastes are eclectic – the shorter list is “what kind of music don’t I like?” Damn little is usually the answer. So I have rock, folk, country, bluegrass, classical, Orthodox, Celtic, a capella, blues, and “easy listening”. There’s more, but that’s off the top of my head. I keep my Ipod on “shuffle” on my “All” playlist so I get a mix and am never sure what’s coming up next.
The walking and the music help me work on my writing. I don’t think about it on purpose, I try to keep my mind on the sights and sounds and smells around me, on who and what I meet on the walk, on things unrelated to my work. But at some point, I’ll often find myself thinking about the story, or, even better, will find, in a corner of my mind, two or three characters busy about their lives. I listen in and realize this is my next scene, or the solution to the problem the story is facing, or is what is going to happen a few days from now.
On one particular walk, I hadn’t been doing that – I’d been trying to force the solution to the problem by actively thinking about the story, the characters and the problems facing both it and me. But the movement and the sun on the water, the green trees and grass, the wind in my face and the music in my ears kept pulling my mind away from the story. So I gave up and just walked.
A Louis Armstrong piece came on, and I perked up – I like Louis, although at that time I knew little about him, except that he had a trumpet and a gorgeous gravelly voice. The music flowed into my ears, the day into my eyes and for a while, I didn’t think at all.
About halfway through the piece, I realized that Kote, my main character, was narrating his story – in his voice! I hadn’t been able to access Kote’s voice for a couple of weeks. Every time I tried, I started sounding like the narrator from Feral, which was a completely different style. So, I listened in. The next piece of music was Janis Joplin – Piece of My Heart. Kote shut up. Next up, a big band number from Glen Miller. Kote started whispering again. Another swing number after that one, and he kept talking.
It took only those three numbers before I realized that Kote liked jazz. When I got home, I pulled the few jazz pieces I had on the Ipod into a playlist and turned the music on while I wrote. Whoa! His voice took over, stronger than ever. By the end of the day, I had some really good work done, and I was overdosed on the five jazz pieces I had. A trip to the library, and a plunder through my son’s music collection, and I discovered the joys of John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, and lots and lots of Louis.
I started pestering friends and relatives for suggestions. Then my friend Matt pointed me toward Ken Burn’s Jazz, a PBS documentary on the history of Jazz. Wow – what a gold mine. Our tastes are similiar, right now Kote’s and my favourite is Thelonius Monk. I love Billie and Ella, he’s not so excited about them. He loves instrumental. I love voice, but to get HIS voice, I listen to instrumental, otherwise what I do is listen to music instead of write.
The book is moving ahead, and I’ve had a whole new world of music open up to me. And I’ve learned a new way of writing – with music in the background. I knew music could influence the way you wrote, but until Kote came along, didn’t realize it could make writing even more of a joy than it already was.