As mentioned in a previous post, I’ve written The Fog of Dockside City in various incarnations across two decades before finally landing on the right formula of characters, time and place; once that was done, the plot fell together. But there was one thing common to every round of writing and editing: music.
Helix, Judge Not and The Fog have little in common: different characters, eras, settings, and genres. At times, I was working on them back-to-back – rewriting Helix the same day I spend a few hours editing Judge Not, or dashing immediately from the decopunk adventure of The Fog into the toothy, dystopic science fiction of Helix.
Because I’m working at this pace, I run the risk of making the narrative voice sound the same in all three books. So how do I stay in a Judge Not head space without drifting into the aerobatic race lanes of the Fog? Music.
Here’s the theory. You know how a particular song will remind you of high school? Or of drinking coffee while the rain is falling against the window?
As with certain smells, songs trigger in me a flash memory of a specific time and place. Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock” makes me hungry; at our work cafeteria, there was a jukebox, and each lunch hour, I would be down there listening to that song, so now I’m conditioned to associate “Like a Rock” with ramen noodles. Jason Mraz‘s “Love For a Child” reminds me of driving down a specific section of highway between Ottawa and Montreal after writing the first draft of Helix in Huntsville. And every time I hear Macy Gray singing “I Try“, I remember leaving the parking lot at the Erindale Campus (University of Toronto at Mississauga). In fact, when I hear the song, I remember the size of the main building in front of me, the slope of the driveway, the colour of the ticket-taker’s booth beside me, what car I was driving, the season, what I was feeling, and where I was headed next.
Music can be used as a mnemonic device, a way to record and to access emotional memory; and if a single song can trigger an emotional memory, then you could, theoretically, use several songs as an unconscious mnemonic strategy, and keep yourself in a prolonged state of emotional recall.
(HOORAY! Thirteen years after graduation, I’m finally using my Psychology degree!)
So when I’m writing the Fog, I listen almost exclusively to music by Artie Shaw, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Billie Holliday. I play their songs repeatedly until I no longer hear them. I attenuate to them. I could use any set of music, so long as it “fits” together. Fast paced music for action scenes, smooth jazz for the quieter passages.
Whenever I worked on the first Fog book, I used that sound track; when I started work on the the second book, I used the same playlist, to keep the “flavour” of the narrative consistent across the series. It helps to keep the characters consistent, too. Swing music also keeps the narrative light and popping, and it works well for action scenes.
And when I was working on the original draft of Mummer’s the Word, it wasn’t during a Muskoka Novel Marathon; I had to go to work during the day, and write before and after my shift. But during my shift, I listened to the same sound track on my iPod, or on my computer. If I was too tired to write any more, I’d turn on a black-and-white movie, or searched WWII-era photos. I was immersed in all things 40s.
Once the story was done, I had to switch music as soon as possible so I wouldn’t develop a mental gag reflex to “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
A few months later, when I was ready to work on major revisions, I switched to that same playlist, played a few computer games while listening to the music, and I was back into the spirit of the book, having picking up the narrative voice where I’d left off. After that, editing within the same narrative voice was a breeze.
When I wrote and edited Judge Not, I had a different playlist, comprised almost entirely of John Denver, Eddie Rabbit and Anne Murray, with cameo appearances by Juice Newton and Heart. While I like them, they’re not the artists I hanker for; but their songs helped me to evoke a decade of AM Radio that I don’t remember except through music; come for the music, stay for the collars, tight pants and wavy hair. A late-70s playlist kept the narrative consistent from one page to the next, and it kept the mood distinct from The Fog and Helix.
When I work on Helix, that’s another playlist, with songs by U2, Queen, The Rolling Stones, Meat Loaf, Evanescence, Jason Mraz, Bryan Adams, and a gazillion one-hit wonders. Most of those songs are from 2000 forward, so there is no cross-contamination with Judge Not or The Fog. And I know, it’s a grab bag of artists – if you only look at the names. But if you listen to the playlist, you’ll hear that the selected songs speak to the same themes of loss and comfort. (“Love for a Child” is deeply embedded in this soundtrack, as is Joe Henry’s “Death to the Storm“).
For high fantasy, it’s Celtic music or nothing. For Lady Butcher, Renaissance and Medieval music. Heaven help me, if I come up with another series, I’ll have to buy twenty more hours of music from some other genre.
Now, ordinarily, I would play the relevant playlist during the editing phase as well as when I’m writing. For major revisions (first pass, adding or deleting scenes, filling in dialogue, etc.), that’s all well and good; I can adjust whole scenes without breaking narrative voice. But after a while, my brain simply stops editing, and my eyes skip over trouble spots, and I can no longer proofread.
I discovered this when readers pointed out that in Judge Not, there weren’t so many misspelled words as there were words missing altogether. That’s when I began to wonder if I was humming along to a subliminal soundtrack and that I was coasting past words that weren’t there.
So I’m trying a two-part experiment with The Fog.
First, during the proofreading phase, I’m switching playlists – playing the Helix soundtrack while proofreading The Fog, for example. I’m listening to music that will clash with memory. It means I can’t get into the flow of the story. It’s like trying to remember the lyrics to “Away in a Manger” while listening to “Rocket Man“. It forces you to focus and concentrate.
And to further disrupt the flow, I’m now working backwards. I’ve started at the last page, and I’m working from the last paragraph to the second-to-last to the third-to-last. Sentences are now read out of context, so every word is out of context; I can now look at the structure of a sentence and see the words that are there – or aren’t.
So far, going backwards seems to be working. Words are no longer hiding in my blind spots. I can make sure Cause makes sense by seeing Effect first. I’ve been able to take out sections of a protagonist’s internal monologue, which are later repeated in someone else’s dialogue – and kept the dialogue.
But by changing the musical mood, I’m changing my whole mindset, switching gears from “creating consistently” to “proofreading what’s there.”
Like I said, it’s only an experiment, but it should be interesting to hear from one of my beta readers, once this round of editing is done. I want to see if I’ve honed my proofreading skills.
And if this experiment doesn’t work, I’ll record myself reading aloud. If that doesn’t scare me into doing it right the first time, nothing else will.