Next…

220px-Magnolia_albumIt looks as though The Sky So Heavy will be released at the end of July. I have relinquished it for good and it’s strange to think that I won’t be working on it anymore, it has felt like a member of my family for the past four years. I won’t see it again until it is an actual book in my hands, by which time it will be far too late to make any changes. In the meantime I am in a strange land where I must decide which story to turn to next. I have a half-finished manuscript that I have been tinkering with off and on for the past seven (eek!) years. I feel it has so many faults and weak parts and needs so much work that I don’t know if it’s worth spending my little scraps of writing time on. But I’m not sure I can give up on it.

In the meantime I will try and tap into my main source of inspiration, music. I was listening to Aimee Mann’s Bachelor No.2  this morning and was reminded of how Paul Thomas Anderson used it as his inspiration for his film, Magnolia. It will probably sound terribly naive, but I’m not aware of many other writers who have used singular albums or songs as the reference point for a story. (Do let me know in the comments if you know of any.) For me The Sky So Heavy grew, to a large extent, out of Radiohead’s The Gloaming. The mental image of a gloaming – a sort of murky twilight – combined with the words ‘Your alarm bells, they should be ringing’ was incredibly powerful to me. Now as the prospect of the dreaded ‘second book’ looms, I find myself feeling around for something new with enough potency to get the ball rolling.

A few weeks ago I heard The Smashing Pumpkins’ iconic track 1979 on the radio for the first time in ages. There is something effervescent about that tingling guitar riff (Is that what it’s called? If I’m going to write about this stuff I should find out.) and those opening lines ‘Shakedown, 1979/ Cool kids never have the time’. I am toying with a story set in the mid nineties and have a sketched out a character who listens to Pumpkins obsessively on her Discman. So we will see where that goes. I have found in the past, and I’m sure I’ve blogged about it before, that sometimes the key to understanding a character, for me, is getting a grip on what kind of music they would listen to, and then listen to it over and over again while I write. It’s not neccesarily music that I would chose to listen to, either. If that manuscript that I mentioned earlier on ever sees publication, you will find in it a character called Kate who I didn’t know well enough until I figured out that she would have listened to a lot of Lana Del Ray.

While all of that is going on, I will keep listening to The National’s new album, Trouble Will Find Me. It feels more adult than young adult, though. So you never know, a genre change may eventuate…

Writing and music and radioactive snow

I once read that Peter Carey needs complete uninterrupted silence for eight hours a day to write. My first thought was: what luxury, the second was that he needs to harden up. (Actually, he probably has enough cash that he doesn’t.) I must clarify that this was a while ago and maybe it wasn’t Peter Carey, maybe it was Tim Winton. (But I am more inclined to believe it of Carey than Winton, because I am a Winton fan.) Either way, if this was the case for most writers, especially those with children, it’s difficult to imagine that any books would get written at all.

My writing windows at the moment are one and a half hours max, twice a day if I’m lucky, three days a week. (Those three days are preschool days, and an hour and a half is the longest my baby will nap for.) This means I don’t have the luxury of staring into space picking lint off my sleeves for two hours before I get down to the business of writing actually words. (That’s what I used to do, before children. Interestingly, I wrote hardly anything, but had noticably lint-free jumper)

So what does one do, when time for accessing that very definite headspace needed to write fiction is so limited? My trick, as I wrote last post, is to listen to particular songs over and over while I write. The brain’s uncanny powers of memory and association kick in, and I can slip into the world I need to. Most of the time. Because the setting for The Sky So Heavy was so important to the story, this technique was crucial. It may surprise you, but i don’t in fact live in a icy tundra where radioactive snow falls from the sky. For some reason Radiohead’s Codex was my track of choice for conjuring such an environment in my headIMG_1242. When I hear the opening piano chords I automatically see a darkened highway, smothered in grey snow, illuminated by a single set of headlights. In my gut I can feel the twist of fear my protagonist feels as he steers the car through the alien landscape. His mouth dries as he passes the twisted carcasses of cars that have tried to make the same journey that he is attempting.

I’ve also found that music can be really useful in helping me nut out other aspects of my stories, characters in particular. Six years ago I started work on the story which will hopefully be my second novel. Unlike TSSH the protagonist is a teenage girl. Hannah is jaded in a way that only a fifteen year-old can be, although she is hurting in a way which far exceeds the experience of most people. She is also a smart arse. Hannah is trying to deal with a recent family tragedy, certainly unlike anything I have ever faced and I had difficulty tapping into the emotions that she was experiencing beyond the obvious cliches of grief and guilt.

I have completely redrafted the manuscript twice (which is fortunate because its earliest incarnations were pretty woeful) and it wasn’t until after leaving it in a drawer for two years, and then revisiting it briefly every three months or so for two years after that, that I was able to get to the core of the character. It was a song that got me there, Beach House’s Walk in the Park. I wasn’t even working on the story at the time, I was on the train listening to Beach House. But the lyrics, simple as they were, crystallised the character for me.

So now, as The Sky So Heavy is back with the editors and I wait, I will pull Hannah’s story out again for perhaps the hundredth read-through. I will listen to that song. And I will see if she has anything else to tell me.