Posted tagged ‘creativity’

McCartney’s Recovered His Beatles Heart

November 24, 2018

Review of Paul McCartney’s Egypt Station
CD Album
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As a child of the sixties, I’m going to say that McCartney’s new album Egypt Station continues a renaissance for the aging Beatle that began with the album New.

It may have begun before but I don’t have, like, the whole collection, man….

I do have one of the little known (to most) Fireman albums, so I’m that much of a nerd.

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What I hear in this set of 18 new songs is McCartney once more finding that sweet honesty combined with rocking musical intelligence that helped power the Beatles’ creative force, sweeping them to greatness so long ago.

(Of course back then if you add the “can’t give a shit what you think — aren’t you amazed anyway?” creativity of John Lennon, then things cascade upwards, if such a phenomenon exists.)

McCartney, Lennon, and really Harrison and Starr too had uncanny antennae tuned to the world.  They shared that in different ways, as did many who listened to them and who struggled, too, to find the right frequencies.  As their musical journey began to lift into the stratosphere, the four of them seemed to feel the mood behind the moods of the time. It sifted into their music.

Of course, like all of us, they bore, for one reason or another, screwed-up parts of their lives.  Yet they still pursued their dreams, and made art when they could of the old painful places.

Opening Station

The album begins serene and moody, prefaced by a few moments of muted Beatles-style street noise segueing into angels.  It starts the Section called “Opening Station.”

Then the voice comes in on the second track, I Don’t Know.  I’m struck by how much Paul’s life must be sheltered and private to evade spotlights. Yet the old Beatle returns to something of his original heart for songs formed now with maturity sampling the entire life of Paul McCartney.

The next song, Come On to Me, begins the rock out portion of our show.  McCartney is a master of rhythm, and I want to get up and start moving around.  Imagine the horror when Grandpa starts to dance!

The next one, I’m Happy With You, shows McCartney plumbing the ordinary, including our ordinary happiness now and again.  It is as good as that is….

With the introductions made, he starts the creative experimentalism in a rock wrapping with Who Cares.

Fuh You is about what you think, and yet or because, it is stirring.  “I just want to know how you feel.”

The following song Confidante could easily be called Long Lost Anthems, one of its lines.

People Want Peace is straightforward.  And rocks.

Hand in Hand is moving as we recognize those whom we are lucky enough to hold.

Dominos pulses with creative prompting:

“And all the telephones keep calling
Constantly imploring us to come out and play”

The song Back in Brazil combines latin rhythms, “ichiban, ichiban, ichiban,” and something faintly reminiscent of Ob La Dee Ob La Da.

Do It Now reminds me of The Long and Winding Road channeling Henry David Thoreau.

In Caesar Rock, you don’t recognize the voice for a moment before you do, it sounds like Roger Daltry, and the song heats up:

“She got loyalty
Like the royalty

She got symmetry
Anonymity.”

She shoot Coca-Cola….

Despite Repeated Warnings strikes a more ominous tone about human wilfulness and dire stupidity, with urgent political references to You Know Who, given such items as global warming.

In there he’s got a wonderful lilting thing right out of Band on the Run. The song is an extended piece much like on Ram or Abbey Road.

Station II

The section “Station II” starts off with the driving and then moody Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link:

“I’ve been broken in so many places
Put together by a sea of faces
What to make of them
I don’t hardly know
I’ve been naked for so long, so long”

Get Started is a love song that for me hearkens back to the early Beatles with a voice leavened by experience yet still happy and enthusiastic.  And then it rocks out at the very end.

Nothing For Free is a whole different rhythm. It’s coming to be the high point of the album for me, the stern infectious nature of it, the refrain that goes

“I know you need something
You’re talking to me
But you don’t get nothing for free.”

As you can probably tell, I like this album.

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Note: There seem to be two versions of this CD available, one with 16 tracks and one with 18.  I ended up with the 18 one….

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Thinking About Theme in Writing A Novel

October 25, 2018

Quite a few books on the craft of writing advise again and again to formulate the theme for the novel you’re working on.

I always have a tough time with that.  I’ve never been sure with the fiction I’m fighting what “theme” means.

Going back to one of my first inspirations for how to write a novel, which never quite worked for me, the book Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript by Robert Meredith and John Fitzgerald  (1972) says:

“All traditional novels demonstrate that certain people have had certain experiences,  and these experiences comment on life, leaving the reader with some conclusion about the nature of existence that can be factually verified.  This conclusion is the theme of the novel.”

The Delphic nature of theme

Clear?  Not for me.  What does all this abstract vague stuff mean?  “Factually verified?” It’s kind of an amorphous cloud that gives me no hint about how to write and incorporate theme, if indeed it is important.  If I am baffled by what the theme is, how can I allude to it?  I just want to write a story that moves people.

A more recent book, Plot Perfect: Building Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene, by Paula Munier (2014) bases its entire method on you knowing what the theme is of what you’re writing.  “Chapter One, The Power of Theme.”

She tries to simplify the problem (she seems to recognize that there is one, especially for such as me).

“Theme is simply what your story is really all about.”  (My emphasis.)  She gives the examples of Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games. Their themes are about power.  That is nicely clear.  For what I write though in the novel I’m revising — it doesn’t seem to fall into one easy classification.  (And maybe that’s a problem.  But let’s assume for now that clarity on this may be possible if I can just wake up to it….)

Munier acknowledges that there may be more than one theme.

“Themes speak to the universal; they address the human condition.”

She also advises: “Try writing your first and last lines now, whether you’ve finished your story or not, and make sure they embody your theme.”  This begins the process of embedding the theme in your writing.

Sounds like good advice, except I still haven’t been sure what my theme really is!

Theme as armature

In the writing craft book Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate,  by Brian McDonald (2010), he uses “armature” to make the concept of theme more accessible.

He describes armature as the internal framework upon which a sculptor supports his work.  In the wider sense, the armature provides the same kind of focus that makes jokes work.

McDonald says he uses jokes as an instructional tool. “Just as all elements of a joke support the punch line, so should every element of your story support its armature.”

That helps a little with my understanding but I’m not completely out of the woods yet.

And then there’s the advice from a craft book and author I respect, Steven James in his book, Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction (2014) .  (These books always promise you the unforgettable moon.)

“So stop trying to define your theme.  Write a story to tell the truth about human nature or our relationship to eternity and the divine, and your story will say more than any theme statement ever could.”

Okay!  I don’t have to spell out a “theme.”  Yet somehow I’m still not satisfied.

My go-to book for general writing inspiration (and not for its method so much), The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt (2010) says:

“Once we begin to develop a sense of the world of our story, we can begin to inquire into the structure questions…. But as we continue to inquire into the structure questions, and we hold our story loosely, it becomes more specific.”

He is saying when we ask universal questions, which is another way to discuss theme I think (nowhere does Watt talk about that subject directly), over time the framework of a story emerges.  Images reveal themselves to us.

I’m working on the second draft of a novel, in part waiting for beta-readers to finish having their say.  It seems to me, with my very limited experience, that it is difficult to know what the theme of a work is exactly at the start.  The resonance isn’t there until you discover what you’ve written.

At the beginning, trying to come up with meaningful theme statements for this novel, I know now that such ideas were only partial, and a distance removed from any deep feeling of mine.

Revenge and justice

At the beginning of the science fiction novel I’m writing, I thought I could say the themes were about revenge and justice.  A young man suffers the murderous intention of a ruthless ambitious man, and is dispossessed of his family, his wealth and his future.  The story chronicles within the context of a future failing earth his commitment to exacting that revenge, and how that turns out to be insufficient for the meaning of his life.

But it was something else that Alan Watt wrote that I read a while back now that twigged me to a theme I can get my heart around.  After all that.

“Many of us are writing stories of freedom, but struggle to imagine what that might look like for our hero.”

The stars aligned, the moon came over the bow, the seagulls flew over me screeching, and tonight I finally realized what the damn theme of this novel is.  It’s a story about freedom.

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Rock CDs (and a DVD) I Just Had to Buy

July 26, 2018

Now that I’m retired, music I love is taking up more of my time.  I’m trying to play more, and learn more, in my lower intermediate rock guitar student way.  I’m listening more, especially to bands I neglected in the past (or think the wider culture has neglected).

And I just finished reading This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of A Human Obsession, by Daniel Levitin.  One of the saving graces of human beings as a species is music, in all its forms.  The book describes how humans are hard-wired for music.  We should be grateful for that.

I’ve got shelves of CDs already, and I really don’t need to add to them, but I couldn’t resist buying a few recently.

From Amazon, which has become a major resource, I picked up the first new CD in 20 years from the New Riders of the Purple Sage.  It has songs with lyrics by Robert Hunter, famous for his contributions to the Grateful Dead.  I’ve never had a CD of theirs or even listened (to my knowledge) to the New Riders, although I know they’ve been around for a long time, but the Robert Hunter connection made me want to check them out.

Another from Amazon is Janis Joplin Live at Winterland ’68 with Big Brother and the Holding Co.  This was fairly early in Joplin’s short career, and the band, Big Brother, also shows what it is capable of as one of the original psychedelic outfits.  I love Janis in live performance, the rawness and sheer over-the-top passion – I’m thinking now of the Festival Express DVD where she bowls everyone over with her astonishing performances.

And my third CD from the ubiquitous retailer is the Zombies’ Still Got That Hunger. The Zombies, an English band, are famous for their songs from the 60s like Time of the Season and She’s Not There.  Pretty long in the tooth, these guys, but I want to hear what they sound like now with new material in this CD from 2015.

The Disappearing CD

It’s harder and harder of course to find CDs at any local storefronts in the Greater Vancouver area.  And CDs themselves are apparently slowly on the way out, given the tendency to buy single tunes online or obtain through file-sharing.

But in the little fishing village becoming gentrified that is Steveston (a hamlet within Richmond, BC, home to the Vancouver Airport), there is a small bricks-and-mortar shop called Beatmerchant, where CDs are still sold.

The owner, Frankie Neilson, actually knows a lot about most of the music I love.   He worked in the music industry in the UK with Polydor in the 1970s.  He relocated to Vancouver in the 1990s after spending some time in Toronto.  He started his physical store in 2005.

Wishbone Ash Argus

So from Frankie this week I bought Argus by Wishbone Ash.  I have it on an LP but since I almost never get around to hand-cranking my old Kenwood turntable and listening to any of the old long-plays, I decided to get the CD.  (You probably don’t know about Kenwood’s series of hand-cranked turntables which required considerable strength just to get going, like a Model T….  OK, just kidding.)

Argus was Wishbone Ash’s biggest album and rose to #3 in Britain in 1972.  They were a band playing progressive rock I guess you could say, with folk and classical influences.

Also from Beatmerchant is the 2 CD compilation The Essential Paul Revere & The Raiders. You never hear them now even on so-called classic rock stations, but Paul Revere & The Raiders were big when I was growing up during high school and into the early 1970s.  My brothers and I listened to them a lot on our battery-powered Phillips phonograph (since we didn’t have electricity for many years – not kidding).

Some of their early hits include Kicks and Good Thing.   They were Columbia Records top-selling rock band of 1967.  Later, they shortened their name to The Raiders and had hits with Indian Reservation and Birds of a Feather.

They often liked to wear Revolutionary War costumes….

And finally, Beatmerchant had a DVD I didn’t know existed: Stephen Stills & Manassas – The Lost Broadcasts. Manassas was a band that Stephen Stills formed with some other heavy weights of the time such as Chris Hillman and Al Perkins.  Their primary release was a self-titled 2-disc LP in 1972 (mentioned in this post).  The group only lasted a couple of years, but I’ve been a fan ever since.

This DVD apparently shows the band performing a number of songs on German television.  The YouTube video of It Doesn’t Matter gives you an idea of the band.

So the next step is for me to listen to all this good stuff!

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Plodding Through the Sucking Swamp of First Draft Novel Revision

April 27, 2018

OK, it’s not quite as bad as that.  Almost just about, though, sometimes.

I’ve written a lengthy first draft, and since I’m pretty new to this whole cool, impressive novel thing, I’ve dithered about buckling down to revision.  (If you’re curious, it’s a science fiction revenge and redemption novel, with alien contact.)

I did take a number of months hiatus after finishing the first draft.  I found that easy to do.  (I did keep jotting down ideas and advice to myself, so showing some good instincts there, I hope.)

The problem is I have no idea of what good revision means, in an operational sort of way.  This is similar to my problem about writing a story.  I had no idea what a story really is.  I am still not entirely clear.

And my first response to the revision problem was, just as for story, to find and read as many books as possible on the subject.  You’d be surprised at how many there are, although I didn’t buy all of them.

I’ve read quite a few by now.  I can recommend a couple that will end up probably helping me:

Layer Your Novel, by C.S. Lakin, and Rock Your Revisions by Cathy Yardley.

Although I’m definitely getting to grips with revision now, I still plan to read Blueprint Your Bestseller (uh-huh) by Stuart Horwitz which promises a way to “organize and revise any manuscript.”  We’ll see.

One of the big things dragging me down has been perhaps an over-sensitive appreciation of the problem of structure.  How do I see the structure in what I wrote?  How do I make the story big, better?  One starts to get bogged down in the theory.  But I have found some approaches that make sense in starting to get an overview.

Peering Through the Thickets

When I was thinking about starting the novel,  I wrote kind of a scene by scene treatment where I wanted to go, which inevitably in the doing went down unforeseen and different paths.

So my first step, after reading the whole thing once, was to complete a list of all my scenes, along with the necessary scene questions.  This was good advice from Cathy Yardley.

By going through all the scenes, I’ve read the draft a second time.  The second time around, it was as if I was reading it for the first time.  I found so much that I hadn’t caught at all.

For some background, I wrote the first draft without going back and editing anything.  Just get it down and worry about all the rest later.  Sometimes the sequences are disjointed and out of kilter because I was still discovering what the story was.

Most recently I’ve been working on a list of every character in the book, along with penetrating questions about the main ones.  But every character, even the most minor, has a visual, or if not, I make one up.

I worked on characters quite a lot before starting writing, but only after writing the first draft am I able to see possible connections and oppositions between the characters I didn’t before.

I’ve only now really started to get a sense of the characters.  They were thin specters in a haze previously.  This is not to say that they’re somehow completely clear and real in my mind – there’s still much fog wafting about.

Up until now, I’ve put off any line-by-line editing because of my structural concerns and worry about where to best add or delete new scenes (and/or sequels).

But even so today, for the very first time, I did some line editing of the first chapter.  That’s going to be fun, improving and making the words come alive.  (I would like to think.)

It really requires getting in the scene with characters, as if in some battle arena where you, incorporeal, closely observe the goings on without fear of a knife in the ribs.  One or two specific true-to-life descriptions in the scene can do so much, I’ve found, and being imaginatively in the scene with the characters facilitates that.

I’m sure I’ve got much, much more to learn about it.

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A note about a couple of useful tools in revision – for me anyway.

My favorite thesaurus, online or offline: Power Thesaurus.

This customizable random name generator is my favorite.  Still using it in revision, after forgetting to put in names of minor characters…. Behind the Name .

The End of the Novel First Draft

November 13, 2017

“A man who is not born with the novel-writing gift has a troublesome time of it when he tries to build a novel. I know this from experience. He has no clear idea of his story; in fact he has no story. He merely has some people in his mind, and an incident or two, also a locality, and he trusts he can plunge those people into those incidents with interesting results. ”      — Mark Twain

Well, I did it.  Finished the first draft of a science fiction murder thriller alien contact novel set in the far future.  Lot going on there.

I’m now in the recommended fallow period after finishing a first draft.  Let it sit, compost itself.  How long?  Some say this rest period should be at least a couple of months, others say it’s been so long since that first chapter got built, one can begin again on it almost right away.

I feel like I should wait two or three weeks, at least, and probably more.  Get some distance or perspective on the whole concept of the novel.   Be able to start reading the thing almost as if I’m encountering it for the first time, at least to get started.  I made it a point during the writing of the first draft not to go back and do any changes at all.  Or even to re-read critically what I’d written.

But I haven’t stopped working on it really.  I am going through C.S. Lakin’s The Twelve Key Pillars of Novel Construction to see what I can do to improve broad story structure when the time comes to dig in.  I quite like her approach to writing, and I think this will be helpful for the revision.

The whole question of revision is daunting.  I’ve got a book on that subject to go through as well: Manuscript Makeover by professional editor and author Elizabeth Lyon, which appears to be highly recommended.  One of her purposes is to help the writer develop his or her own revision style, which tipped me towards thinking her guidance will be helpful.  It’s not a one-size-fits-all cook book.

This isn’t the first novel I’ve completed.  I wrote one many years ago in a frustrated flurry of determination, often overwhelmed by how badly the process seemed to go.  But I did finish the first draft and the second too.  I should really dig it out again, if for nothing else but to see who I was trying to be and what I managed to write thirty-five years ago.

This time around, I kept up a writing schedule (and a light number of words per day as a preemptive strike against my innate restlessness) which in the end produced a lot of words over a year and a half.  I did a lot of work in story preparation before I began the writing — I put together, with the guide of John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story, a story treatment that was very helpful to get me started and to keep me going.

But for about the last half of the first draft, I put that treatment aside and tried to follow instead where the story was leading me.  Alan Watt’s advice in his book The 90-Day Novel — although it took me a lot longer than his prescribed time — meant a lot to me with words of wisdom such as:

“It’s liberating to know that we don’t know our whole story.  When a seemingly mad idea pops up, we must follow it in our minds for a moment to see where it wants to take us.  In the first draft, we can not assume with total precision the direction our story is heading.  By exploring the opposite direction, we may discover it is a temporary detour that offers a more fully realized conclusion.”

What have I learned?

First off, I’ve learned that I have no idea whether this effort will amount to anything in the end, although I have hopes.  But I intend to persevere until it gets into a near-publishable state, and see what happens.

I’ve realized that a lot of what makes satisfactory writing is developing emotional resonances for the characters and for the meaning of the story.  I have a long way to go with this in the revision.

I’ve learned the gratification of keeping to a schedule and watching the words pile up, and giving myself the freedom of putting off the whole notion of whether they’re really good words.

I’ve come to understand how obsessed with story I am, just like everyone else in the world as we distract ourselves through film and music and books.  Occasionally we discover real meaning through story.  For us who want to write creatively, this obsession becomes more conscious, and in its compelling way, comes to capture our thoughts. We want to make stories that can speak in the same way that others, at the height of the best story-telling, have moved us.

Even as I take a pause on my science-fiction extravaganza, I find myself mulling over a character, two actually, and a situation, and certain conflicts and back-story for a down-on-his-luck private investigator in present day Vancouver.  It’s starting to form itself like this science-fiction story did, similar to Mark Twain’s quote above.  Maybe there will be more than one first draft to revise down the road….

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The White Album

November 20, 2016

For most of my life, or at least for the greater two-thirds of it, if somebody mentioned “The White Album,” everyone knew immediately what was meant.

It had to mean the only double LP the Beatles released during their existence as a band, in November 1968.  I was in the 12th grade in the very small town of Smithers, in north central British Columbia.

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band” had been released the year before.  That album exploded into public consciousness.  I remember reading Time Magazine praising it at the time (in the issue that had the Beatles on the cover in September, 1967).  That was unheard of for a mainstream publication to pay such attention to the evanescent and juvenile world of rock music.  My mother was even impressed, who typically preferred Broadway musicals and Louis Armstrong.

We played Sgt. Pepper’s over and over again on on the little battery record player in our log cabin.

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And the album “Abbey Road,” which is my favorite of the Beatles’ works, arrived a year after The White Album, in September, 1969, just after I graduated high school.

It would be hard now for anyone not of that time to understand how important the music of the counterculture, and especially the Beatles’ music, was to many of my generation.  It wasn’t just music to us multitudes who were affected.  It was promise and hope and an undercurrent of something profound stirring.

The Beatles themselves were even caught up in it:  the self-referential lyrics, mysteries associated with Paul, obscure ideas about the egg man….  I think John Lennon’s vehement rejection of the Beatles’ mythology after the band fell apart was mostly because he had been captured by the force of that mythology as much or more than anyone else.

But back in the fall of 1968, the Beatles’ creative power was still flowering and on display in The White Album.

The summer and fall of ’68

That summer I had worked hard with my younger brothers and with the similar aged sons and daughters of a neighbouring prosperous farmer on his large spread.  Us kids (teenagers now) all went to school together.  Hired for a few bucks an hour, we labored long into the hot summer nights putting up hay bales in a number of barns, sweating, covered with chaff, falling about with the bales as we stacked them.

With the summer’s efforts over, my brothers, mother and I visited the farm family one evening that November.  My mother and the mother of this large brood of earthy children were friends who made wine and canned meat together.

The oldest son of the family was a renegade.  I think he dropped out of high school several years before, and supposedly was working in a local mill, but he had a reputation for being involved with drugs and local criminals.  He drove a flash pick-up.  He always seemed to consider us younger ones, including his siblings, as beneath his notice.

But I remember his long greasy hair in a red handkerchief bandana as he beckoned us unexpectedly and excitedly up the stairs of the farmhouse to his room on that evening visit. Young and old, the kids of his family and my brothers and I hurried up.   He had The White Album!  In his large bedroom there was a fancy turntable all ready to go.  He was eager to play the first LP for us.  The barriers among us of age and attitudes fell away a little.  And that was the first time I heard The White Album.  We were all amazed by it.  It was an event. “Listen to this!”

I’ve recently found a  remastered CD version of the album, after a long time of it being completely unavailable in that format. After the excitement of the album’s reception that long-ago winter, I never played it nearly as often as Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. Even the Beatles’ last album (in terms of release) of “Let It Be” was listened to more often.

So it’s been a pleasure listening and rediscovering it again.

the-beatles-pr-608x408From what I’ve read, most of the songs came from a period when the Beatles went to India to follow the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Transcendental Meditation.  The band had come out of a period of ingesting LSD and smoking a lot of pot, and decided they wanted to get away from that experimentation and play it (mostly) straight.

But they eventually became disillusioned with the Maharishi, apparently in part due to rumours of the holy man’s sexual escapades, and returned to the studio with a wealth of songwriting material instead of enlightenment.  Unfortunately, there was often great tension between the members of the band, and the sessions were often difficult.

There is a lot of material online (for instance at the Beatles Bible) about every song that the Beatles ever did, including those on this album, so I won’t repeat that.

But I would like to note the songs that appeal to me and make a few observations.

The Ukraine girls really knock me out

Of course the opening song on Side 1, Back in the USSR, remains a complete rocking pleasure with its Beach Boy borrowings (apparently Mike Love of that band was in India with the Maharishi at the same time as the Beatles) and “the Ukraine girls really knock me out.”

Dear Prudence, the next song, is apparently John Lennon’s plea to the sister of Mia Farrow, who also was in India with the Maharishi, to come out of her cabin where she isolated herself while she meditated furiously in hope of some kind of swift awakening.

There are quite a few songs on the two discs with female names as their inspiration, and every one has its own personality.  They aren’t bland love songs, possibly because they are not always about what you might think.  For instance, the Martha in Martha, My Dear, was Paul McCartney’s old English sheepdog.

And the Julia in Julia, is about John Lennon’s mother who had left him as a boy and reconnected with him when he turned 17, only to die sometime later in a car crash.

One of the dominant impressions of listening to the entire work now is how astoundingly diverse and creative it is.  The moods shift from joy and celebration (Birthday) to deep depression (Yer Blues) to domestic bliss (Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da) to Why Don’t We Do It In the Road.

I’ve grown to prefer the swinging doo-wop tempo of Revolution here rather than the faster rockier version that came out as a side on a single with Hey Jude (not on this album).

Quite a few songs, even back in the day, were rarely or never heard on the radio.  I’m thinking of Rocky Raccoon, The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, and Cry, Baby, Cry (which really sticks with me now).

And of course there are the songs of greatness: Blackbird, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Revolution, Back in the USSR, perhaps I Will; and I’m sure others might have different candidates for that status.

I still don’t get why Helter-Skelter, which was written to prove the band could rock as hard as The Who, should have appealed to the demented, murderous, and failed songwriter Charles Manson so greatly.  He probably could have twisted around any song to fit his predilections.

Number 9, Number 9, Number 9

And then there is the track Revolution No. 9, a sound collage, which as teenagers we were impressed by, but couldn’t be bothered to pay any attention to.  It was mainly famous for the voice intoning, “Number 9. Number 9. Number 9.”

I had the impression back then that the track was quite short, perhaps a minute or two.  Maybe that’s how fast I tuned out when it came up.   I’ve realized now, it goes on for over eight minutes.  And, surprise, it’s quite interesting to try to understand what’s going on in it.  There’s everything from orchestral remnants of “A Day in the Life” to honking, conversation scraps, sport chants, and even Yoko Ono’s voice (I know now) quietly saying “You become naked.”

It used to be that following up anyone’s chance statement about a number 9, by saying “Number 9. Number 9.” was immediately recognized as a reference to the White Album and that infamous track.  Not any more.  I did that the other day at work, and the young man looked at me quite blankly, and seemed bewildered about what I could possibly be going on about.

It’s amazing to me to realize that the White Album is almost 50 years old now.  Back in 1968, a similar look back would have made music from 1918 or so of interest, which it didn’t seem to be, even for those who could have remembered it at that time.

It does become bittersweet that all the music I grew up with, and which brought meaning to my younger years, is headed towards the mists of history in the same way, although it’s taking a little longer.

The Beatles.  They were a force.

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World Building and the Brink of Novel Writing

May 16, 2015

After a false start or two (or was it three?), I’m poised to take the plunge into the first draft of a science fiction novel.

I’ve been trying to sort out how much world building is really necessary before I start.  I’ve got an entire personal wiki and a moleskin notebook or two filled with info about this world of mine.  But it’s not well-organized, or even well thought out, and it’s daunting to burst out onto an unknown plain, bare sun bright overhead, and populate it with every geological feature, weather system, religious artefact, industrial process, scientific advance and weirdly consistent culture it should have.

I keep telling myself, this is the first draft.  It’s supposed to be exploratory and not fully formed in some ways.  I will be discovering much in the process of writing it.  I don’t have to know everything about the novel world before I start. In the immortal words of terriblemind’s Chuck Wendig, “you’re not writing a fucking encyclopedia.”

(He also goes on to say in a post on “25 Things You Should Know About Worldbuilding”: “If you’re lazy (like me!) and don’t feel like you can commit to writing a glacier-sized world bible, hey, you know what? Build it as you go. As you write, introduce details relevant to the story, the plot, the characters, the theme, and to the chapter at hand. This’ll probably require work on the back-end….”)

worldbuildingI’ve even made notes of counsel to myself in the same vein:

“Write just enough setting detail to get in the scene with the character.”

“Describing one thing vividly can be more effective than describing an entire room.  Or civilization.”

How Much World Building is Enough?

But I am yet filled with trepidation about how much world building preparation is enough.  It is another way I use to procrastinate, I’m sure, these fears about starting the writing.  (There’s an interesting aspect of these fears that I will touch on at the end of this.)

But as a way to calm and reassure myself, or alternatively, cause myself much anxiety at how much I haven’t done in preparation, I thought I would look at some of the more useful links on world building that I’ve found.

Some of them are of the school that you need to have every detail of your world thought-out before you start, but there are some thoughtful recommendations never the less.  I think to myself, I have to find a way to make the world-building fun and creative, or I’m really barking up the wrong tree with this science fiction ambition.

And also I realize that I’m unbelievably fortunate to live in the time of the Internet, where I can research almost anything with the touch of a few keys.  The possibilities for creative combination and variation of what’s out there are many.

Some World Building Links

World-Building_concept1. Writer Ava Jae in a blog post on Writability lists 15 details to remember.  She lists climate, social structure, measurements (I hadn’t thought of that one but of course), food, and ethnicities among them.  For instance, on ethnicities, she asks:

Is your world monoethnic? Are there several ethnicities, and if so, where did they come from? Is it location-based? Are certain ethnicities considered more desirable than others? Are any ethnicities persecuted or worshipped?”

2. Prolific author S. Andrew Swann provides a post/essay on “Worldbuilding: Constructing a SF Universe.” He counsels us to understand how the fictional world is different from our own.  Your world must have its own rules.

“… A reader will allow a writer to alter anything about the universe, as long as the writer explains why what we thought we knew is wrong. You’re job is to convince the reader that you know what you’re doing, and to never allow the reader to believe you wrote something out of ignorance or carelessness.”

I liked these thoughts on the necessary historicity to imply the complexity of your invented world:

“Every fictional universe has a past, if only an implied one. You, as the universe’s creator, need to know enough of this past to give the reader a sense that this world existed before the story began, and will continue to exist (barring catastrophe) long afterwards. Also, remember that the past is different things to different people. You’re in a position to know the “real” historical events of your world, but your characters are at the whim of memory, historians, propaganda, and official records. When someone in a story has a different view of history than the reader does, the reader will gain some insight into that character’s personality and culture.”

3. Young Adult sci-fi author Shallee McArthur provides a framework to think about the culture of your made-up world in a post “Worldbuilding — How to Develop the Culture of Your Novel.”

She offers a diagram to think about what makes up a culture — values, rituals, heroes, symbols, and the practices that bind together the latter three.  Practices could include gender roles and politics for instance.

Of rituals, for example, she writes:

“Maybe your high school crowd has a hazing ceremony for kids coming into a certain club. Maybe there’s a certain greeting people exchange, like the hand-shake-while-snapping-fingers-together that I learned in Ghana.”

4. Author Berley Kerr gives guidance on science fiction and fantasy in the post “Berley’s Top 10 World Building Tips for Sci-Fi and/or Fantasy.”

He writes about factors such as Dominant Technology, Transportation, and Currency.  About currency he writes:

“Money tells the reader what kind of world it is. If they’re bartering, chances are the place your character lives in is poor or the population is scattered with no centralized government.”

Of course, if we could make a bartering society high-tech somehow, that could be an interesting take….

5. In quite a thoughtful post, sci-fi author Malinda Lo writes about “Five Foundations of World-building.”

She says things I like about how much world building to do:

“But I don’t think you need to get bogged down in answering 100 questions about the economics and politics and plant life of your world. I suggest you focus on five main issues that will serve as the foundation for your world. All those other details — even the shape of eating tables — can emerge after you’ve established this foundation. Often those details emerge right out of the writing itself.”

WbMLThe five main issues she lists are: 1) Rules, 2) Rituals, 3) Power, 4) Place and 5) Food.

About food:

“This is one of my very favorite elements of world building because I love to eat! But food does more than just taste good. In fiction, it can tell a complicated story involving ritual, power, and place, which makes food an excellent short-hand for world building.”

6. Charlie Jane Anders posted on io9 an essay on “The Difference Between Good Worldbuilding and Great Worldbuilding.”
After obsessing, she says, about world building for quite a while, she concludes that:

Good world building shows you the stuff your characters see every day, and the things that they notice about their environment.

Great world building shows you the stuff your characters don’t see, either because they take it for granted, or because they’ve trained themselves not to notice something unpleasant.”

She goes on:

“Because when it comes to a rich, complicated world, a lot of the most important or telling details are going to be the things that people overlook.”

She mentions George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame as a master of allowing the reader to see what the character fails to notice.

7. And finally for the world building links there is this advice from author CJ Lyons, “World Building: Don’t Do It.”

It starts from the understanding that every novel, of whatever genre, is an exercise in world building.  She advises to create the world through the point of view of our characters:

worldbuilding-2“Talk their talk, walk their walk. Live their world through their eyes and your reader will feel transported. Every choice your characters make, from what clothes they wear to the car they drive, helps to create this alternative universe for your readers.”

Since I’m on the starting-to-write-the-novel topic, here’s one more link, to the effectively crude Chuck Wendig: “How to Push Past the Bullshit and Write That Goddamn Novel: A Very Simple No-Fuckery Writing Plan to Get Shit Done.”

Use Fear to Connect

And finally, I’d like to mention a great way to creatively use all one’s fears about writing which I found in the book The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt.

He calls it The Fear Exercise.  You must write as quickly as possible for five or so minutes completing the sentence “I’m afraid to write this story because….”  Make a list of every fear from the trivial to the forbidden.  Then use all these fears to connect to your main character.  He or she has many of the same fears, of failure, of ridiculousness.

Watt writes: “I encourage you to get excited by your fears.  Make friends with them.  They offer clues, and direct access to your story.”

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Notes on image sources, from top down.

1) From yet another page on world building by Veronica Sicoe.
2) From a post by author J.S. Morin also on worldbuilding.
3) From a University of Southern California site on interactive media.
4) From a column by Rajan Khanna on Lit Reactor, which is interesting on the styles of worldbuilding.