May 7th, 2011

Well, the honeymoon is over.

At 42,000 words into THE GROWING YOUNGER MAN I’m back in the familiar panic zone.  Yes, pieces of it work great (I think) but just because some patches in a quilt are antique silk, that doesn’t mean that the rest of it isn’t muslin.

And it certainly doesn’t mean that there’s a coherent organizing principle.

This is the stage of writing at which music becomes essential, as opposed to its being a luxury, as it is in the first fifth of a book.  (Anyone can write the first fifth of a book.)

In the old days, when I wrote to music I was continually being distracted from the page by having to skip a song that was at odds with the scene I was writing.  Now, however, we live in the Age of Infinite Musical Malleability, and I can set up playlists that are specifically designed for writing different kinds of material.  (None of the songs above is on any playlist I’ve ever built.)

And I can access this music on my iPod, my iPhone, my computer, and the cloud.  In three or four years we’ll probably have Apple-approved dentists who can plant your music hardware in a filling. Which, if you attempt to copy any files onto a Microsoft computer, will fall out.

Miaow is a big part of the story in THE GROWING YOUNGER MAN.  During the past three days I wrote a scene in which she and Andrew (the boy she got a crush on when they were both in “The Tempest”), go down to Bangkok’s Little India area to see if they can solve the mystery of who sold a used iPhone Andrew bought from a stolen phone store — in other words, a place that buys stolen phones and resells them.

They’re at a very delicate point in their relationship. They’re both using the mystery of the phone as an excuse to be together.  This is not easy to write.  For one thing, it contains what may be Miaow’s first semi-carnal impulse.  Andrew has been snappish for the first time — he’s from a Vietnamese father-dominated household and he’s not used to the idea that some females naturally take charge — and he really hates that Miaow’s sense of direction is so much better than his.  Finally, after Andrew makes a wrong turn on the way to the store, Miaow works up the courage to confront his mood.  (Remember, folks, this is the firstest of first drafts.)

“Are you mad at me?”

His eyes come to hers, his brows slightly lifted.  “Why would I be mad at you?”

“Because . . . because I’m too bossy?”

Andrew’s gaze falters, and he looks down at his feet. “No,” he says. “I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. I had a fight with my father, and – and it’s not your fault, okay?”

She says, “I’m sorry.”

“No,” Andrew says, “I’m sorry.”

The two of them stand in silence for a moment, both of them looking at his feet. Then he says, “Okay, you know where it is and I don’t. You take me there.”

Miaow says, “It’s just because I’ve been there before.”

“I know,” Andrew says. “So will you take me there?” And he holds out his hand.

Miaow looks down at the hand and then at the print-out that’s in the hand he’s reaching for. “Sure,” she says around the small, hard stone in her throat.  She transfers the print to her other hand and takes his. It’s very smooth and a little damp, and it feels as delicate as a bird’s nest. She wants to squeeze it, but she knows he’ll grab it back if she does, and anyway it seems too fragile to squeeze.

They go back the way they’d come, cross the alley they’d been in before Andrew turned, and start the curve to the left. Miaow can hear Andrew’s breath, and she has a sudden, unexpected urge to lean over and sniff it. The very thought heats her face. “Um,” she says, “what was the fight about?

“It doesn’t matter.”

The air seems to thicken and cool around her.  “Was it about me?”

The entire scene is only about six pages, but it took three days to get a draft.  The playlist I rode on while I wrote it is mostly slow, much of it female: Over the Rhine, Sara Bareilles, selected Tegan and Sara, Shawn Colvin, the new Emmylou Harris, some cuts by The Nationals, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (“Carries On”  — yikes), The Shins, Neko Case, Iron and Wine, Ray La Montagne, Bach cello sonatas, the Debussy string quartet, second movements from some Mozart symphonies and concerti, some Vince Gill, some Mary Gauthier, and about 50 others.  (I’ll suggest specific cuts to anyone who’s curious.)

About 700 words after the end of the bit above, Miaow and Andew will find themselves at the center of the most prolonged and grueling action scene since the murder that opens the book. Miaow inadvertently reveals a very un-upper-class familiarity with back alleys and half-built hotels as she drags herself and Andrew away from someone more dangerous than even the worst men she met when she was on the streets.

This sequence will be about 6000 words long, and I think of it as being in three movements.  I finished a rough-rough of the first movement last night, with deeply needed help from Dylan, Arcade Fire,  Delbert McClinton, James McMurtry, Franz Ferdinand, more Franz Ferdinand, The Fratellis, K.T. Tunstall, old Kinks, The Libertines, Springsteen, early Elvis Costello, The Foo Fighters, The Bodeans (America’s most underrated heartland band — garage music from a farm with no garage), Le Sacre du Printemps, some Ravel, the Stones, Flaming Lips, Babyshambles, and on and on.

At this point in the writing of the book, music gives me an access point to the emotions in the scene and the rhythmic energy I need to get them down.  I can’t claim the dedication of Fra Angelico, who painted on his knees, but the right music is a kind of prayer for the book to continue to arrive, and it often works.

I don’t think I could get through the middle third of any book without it.

9 Responses to “Praylists”

  1. Bonnie Says:

    It’s funny; I listen to music at work pretty much all day, and of course I’m writing for a good part of that time. I cannot listen to anything with lyrics in a language I understand while writing, so that would rule out a big part of your playlist. Wonder if there’s a way to get in the “zone” where you hear it as sound and not as words?

    The only thing that struck me false in your excerpt was Miaow asking Andrew about the fight with his father, and especially asking if it was about her. When I was her age the last thing I would dare to do when conversing with a boy I had a crush on would be to even slightly hint that he might be thinking about me when I’m not there. And she’s such a private person in so many ways. That’s what you get from beta readers: beta opinions. 🙂 I’m so happy your are writing more Poke and Rose and Miaow. That is the main thing.

  2. micael hallinan Says:

    I don’t know if I should comment on the writing or the role music plays in it. But here goes. The social awkwardness of the the kids is both touching and realistic and as far as I know never really goes away. For all I know life is one long first date full of uncomfortable silences followed by long winded rambles (most of which you would take back if you could) I hated dating; my wife only married me to get me to quit staring at her. As far as the music goes, I can vouch for the fact that it locks you into your art and makes you less aware of the work aspect. And no one had commented on Tim’s blog and the zero comments looked to lonely to leave alone

  3. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Bonnie — Lyrics don’t bother me. There is a sort of threshold, though, for music I can write to – it has to be just familiar enough not to yank me out of the book and not so familiar that it’s boring. Something I sort of know and like, but no “Hotel Californias.”

    As to your issue with the scene, one of the problems with posting an excerpt is that a reader has no way of knowing what’s gone before — for example, that Andrew’s father’s attitude toward Miaow is already a problem in the book (and will be a much bigger one, I think). If I explained everything, the explanation would be longer than the excerpt. Trust me, she has reason to worry about this.

    Mikey, nice to have you back. The music does lock you into the work somehow and also makes it feel less like work. It seems to open something up, and it adds an element of fun, too.

    Bonnie’s point about lyrics is interesting because you’re working in color and image and I’m working in words — it would seem to me that the words might distract me more than they do you. But they very rarely distract me at all, and when they do it’s often because I suddenly catch a phrase that seems to be almost magically parallel to the scene or emotion I’m writing.

    Thanks for taking pity on me. The blog had only been up for about ten minutes when you commented on it.

    And, and Munyin just reminded me, you’ve neve stopped staring at your wife. How many times have you painted her?

  4. Vena Says:

    I thought I’d swing by to see what was new and — wow, Tim. You put this up.

    My firstest impression is that your knowledge of music is as extensive as your vocabulary (I’ve never mentioned it before, your command of the good Queen’s English, but it’s something I admire because I always learn something new by reading you).

    My thoughts on just the excerpt you’ve shared with us are A) Thank you for this. Thank you. and B) I immediately see two kids who are trying to (all at the same time) figure out & respect one other’s boundaries, and establish that special trust that’s supposed to be there for one’s boyfriend/girlfriend. Past that, there are about six or seven more peels on this onion that I’m still savoring. The layers and textures that you create in a scene are really sublime, Tim.

    Miaow’s such an old soul and you gave her a chance to be a real, regular girl when she introduced Andrew to her parents (I absolutely LOVED that she finally called Rose and Poke “Mom and Dad” at that particular moment). I’m anxious to see what happens now that you’ve given us this teaser.

    Keep on rockin’, Tim. Music can be such a deeply personal thing for people; thanks for giving props in your Author’s Notes sections to the artists who get you through the mid to latter parts of your novels.

    I found the quote below and, while I believe Mr Ferry meant something more towards lyrics, I think it applies to what you’re saying here.

    But when you get music and words together, that can be a very powerful thing.
    –Bryan Ferry

  5. Vena Says:

    “And, and Munyin just reminded me, you’ve neve stopped staring at your wife. How many times have you painted her?”

    How beautiful is that? Hi, Micael, who still stares at his wife 🙂

  6. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    In my experience, music takes me into a different zone, and all the cliches become true. I like your portrayal of Miaow, and your explanation helps flesh out the relationship. I think it is so ironic that, as a typical youngster, she is “bored to tears” by her parents, and way too cool for them. Yet she is awkward and shy about Andrew and her self awareness around him. I do think you are a bit of a magician with words. Nice work.

  7. Beth Says:

    I realize that you may have already incorporated this into the story – girls Miaow’s age have very combustible relationships with their mothers. My two girls have very different personalities so their responses to me were different.

    On would cry and yell, “you hate me.” The other would cry and yell, “I hate you.” A boyfriend at her age would like lead to more than a few fiery scenes with Rose. Poke, on the other hand, will have to deal with Miaow’s conviction that he is absolutely clueless about everything in the world and that he exists only to embarrass her.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Vena, and thanks for all the amazingly nice things you said. Yesterday I wrote another 1500 words or so of the big action scene involving Miaow and Andrew and it was kind of startling to see that everything — even how fast each of them runs, how each reacts to the challenge of having to crawl through a relatively small enclosed space — not only seems to come directly from their characters but is also colored by their relationship. They really seem to be THERE, on the page, and they really seem to be together. This is the kind of thing that happens to me when characters are in danger of taking over a book (it’s what happened with Rose’s story in QUEEN) and I have to be careful with it. What I mean by that is that it’s miles away from the direction I anticipated taking — but still, when something like this arrives, my responsibility is to say, “Thanks” and write it, and then worry later about how it fits in.

    And I’ve been a music freak my entire life. Back when I was barely in my 20s I wrote Dick Clark’s radio show for a couple of years because I never had to look anything up — everyone else was paging through ROLLING STONE or whatever for a tidbit, and I pretty much remembered everything about every band that mattered, at least to that audience. Easiest money I ever made.

    I hope Miceal comes back and reads your comment (and Mun’s).

    Hi, Lil — it’s true, music opens something up, and different kinds of music open up different things. I will never hear Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand again without thinking of Rose in the water in QUEEN because pretty much the whole thing — the longest action sequence I’ve ever attempted — was written to that music, which is all dark water and sudden reversals, with a jagged rhythm pulsing through it. I think, sometimes, that writing to the right music takes me places within the emotional spectrum of a scene that I might not discover otherwise — and as miceal says, it does alter the work-to-fun ratio in the direction of fun. It’s odd, but even the darkest, most awful passages are still fun to write. When they’re coming, I mean. When they’re not coming, they’re as much of a pain as everything else.

    Hi, Beth — Miaow is having ENORMOUS problems with both her parents because there’s a baby on the way — to her mind, their “real” baby — and her whole life feels tremendously precarious. (That’s one reason she goes straight to the idea that Andrew’s argument with her father was over her — she’s keenly aware of any kind of family rejection.) She’s also going through some incipient physical changes, and until she learns about Rose being pregnant, they’ve actually been pushing her closer to Rose than to Poke, who’s been kind of hurt about it.

    I love this family. I could write about them forever.

  9. Larissa Says:

    Hey there stranger. I’m excited to see that things are rolling. I really want to see how their relationship develops-for a first draft you never dissappoint. I have a random thought about the characters but I haven’t read the latest book so I should probably just wait because I’m sure it’s all been answered and makes perfect sense. You know your characters (c:

    I paint to music almost compulsively. I have to have the right mood or I can’t get into the groove-there are occassions in which I have painted or created in silence but it’s rare. Depends on the piece.

    Thanks for all of the great song insertions too-methinks I’ll be updating a playlist here and there (c:

    I hope all is well. I’ve been wanting to see what you’ve been up to but have been slammed with new artsy stuff. BTW-we got the fundraiser as of yesterday (c: with 36 dollars extra! w00t.

Leave a Reply