Nonverbal Communication In Writing…?

Note — this was supposed to go up yesterday, but…err…well…I screwed up.  I load and schedule these posts in advance (usually).  When I loaded this one I…ahem…selected the wrong date.  D’oh.

I’m a music guy.  I love music, and I don’t mean just one or two styles — I love, and can appreciate, the talent and appeal of all kinds of music.  I don’t think there is a style I won’t listen to, if the artist has talent and commitment.

Music, in fact, plays a huge role in my writing.  I’ve mentioned before that I have to have the right “soundtrack” playing in order to really get the most out of a scene.  Not just the message of the music, but also the beat, the tone, the character…they all help create the environment I need to write effectively.

Well, when it comes to the actual stories we write, those things matter, too.  We don’t talk about them enough, in fact.  Oh, folks love to talk about the tone and “color” of a scene.  “Pacing” generally gets in there, too.  But we talk about those things like they are discreet and separate.

They aren’t.

I mentioned music to open this because the rhythm and beat of a song underlies everything, is the structure on which the whole song is built.  Think back to some of your favorite music.  Better yet, think back to those songs that moved you emotionally, either to joy or to tears.  Think about the rhythms and beats they used, as much as the notes and words, and how those changed and adjusted to shape the message.

That applies to writing, as well.  The beat and rhythm of a story is important, as important as the words themselves.  Unfortunately, we far too often mistake “pacing” for that necessary rhythm.  Now, don’t get me wrong: all stories need the right pacing for their contents.  But that pacing is a “big picture” concept, is the flow of the story as a whole.

The rhythm of the story?  That’s different.  That’s granular, and intimate, and needs to change and adjust to reflect what is happening at any particular point.  It is needed, also, to build and reinforce the emotions and feelings you want your reader to feel.

Scenes long and languid, full of description and character development…

Scenes short and staccato, with just a few words to paint each picture and action…

Scenes with the slow, smoldering intensity of emotion (whether love or hate)…

I could go on, but I think the point is made.  A good story needs all of these…all of these, and more.  If you want to be more visual, you can come it from the perspective of movies (another passion of mine):

The slow panning of an establishing shot: peasants in the fields.  Verdant green against the deep blue sky.  A gentle breeze bending the young grain.  Slow and stately…a mood is created.

Then erratic, staccato jump-cuts as black-clad raiders thunder through on horseback.  The flash of a sword.  A bit of red to mar the green.  Fire.  Screams.  Hints of faces, of horror and savagery.  But never does the camera linger long enough to truly focus on any one thing.  The horror, and the emotion, comes from those flickering flashes of disturbing images.

The raiders leave, sated…and the rhythm changes again, communicates something different: a long, lingering shot that lets you see the bodies.  Men who died badly.  Women sobbing.  A young boy, the sword in his hand nearly as big as he, lying in his own blood.  A slow, painful zoom onto another child, clutching in horrified, wide-eyed silence at one of those bodies…

The scene is easy enough to imagine, and to write…but it is the changes in rhythm of the movie’s editing — and the changes in the soundtrack from slow and pastoral to brassy and loud, and finally to the minor key of mourning and death — that creates the emotion of the whole thing.

Short, choppy sentences.  Dynamic, strong words.  One detail on which to focus…one detail to carry the message of the whole scene.

Or sentences of depth and complexity.  Sentences that tell the reader he or she is safe, can linger a bit over the words and concepts.  Words that carry emotion and description.  Words and sentences that are gentle, even, and convey all the detail of your characters and your world.

Too many stories use one structure, and one rhythm, throughout.  Too many stories worry about the pacing of the plot, without thinking a bit about the rhythm and pacing of the scenes, or the actual words.  I well-and-truly love me my Tolkien and my Asimov (to provide just two examples), but have you gone back and really read them recently?

They are, to put it gently, dry and monotone.  Tolkien’s battle scenes read like the narration of a history professor centuries removed from the conflict…and Asimov?  His (small) handful of battles read like they are in the stories because they are required, not because they actually belong.

And both use one rhythm, and one limited emotional range.

This is, by the way, why I listen to music of such variety…and why I watch — and try to learn from — so many movies: to find other rhythms, to find other ways to communicate emotion and meaning.  The ultimate writing challenge, for me, is to study and learn, and to find ways to communicate in words the nonverbal emotions that have so much meaning in those two far-different mediums.*

*One of the coolest lessons from my linguistics days involved nonverbal communication: we watched a horror movie with the soundtrack and effects removed.  There was just dialogue to carry and convey all of the information and emotion. It didn’t work…at all.  That lesson stuck with me…

A Reminder That We’re All Broken

Okay, so I’ve mentioned before just how much I love music. Well, more than that, just how much music affects and informs my writing. Yes, there is a soundtrack in my head to the scenes I write. And, yes, I need music in order to write…especially, music that fits the mood and tone of what I’m writing.

I’m not going to go back and link to the posts where I’ve talked before about that – but it is something I’ve talked about before. And will talk about again, I might add.

But…sometimes the songs take on more power. Sometimes they connect, far deeper than they should. Sometimes they speak to me as much as they do my characters and my story.

An example of that: “C’mon Kid” by Dave Hause. This is not really a song that applies directly to Connor & Oz, in either of the two books. No, rather, it is a song that helps to define my own feelings toward the boys…the feelings and thoughts (from other parts of my life) that gave “life” to these particular ghosts.

Honestly, there ain’t many songs that break that 4th wall, and “cross the streams”.

But another one came up…and, hooh boy, is it a doozy.

It cuts to the core of the stories I am writing, and – more importantly – why I am writing them.

I’ve talked before about the ghosts of stories & characters in the back of my head. I’ve also talked of my own experience with death, and with suicide…and that Oz is, for me, the “face” of that particular demon.

I’ve written before about some of the deaths in my life (one here and the other here), but two have special power: two friends I lost to suicide….two seventeen year old boys who had everything ahead of them.

Two boys who lost their way, and their hope…and, in the end, everything else.

And so did those of us left behind.

I will not tell their stories here – they are not my stories to tell. But I feel those stories, still. And the loss. You didn’t know Mike or Trevor…and you never will. And that is the worst of it all.

Hindsight, to those who have lived through suicide, is the biggest bitch in the universe. All the things you should have said…all the things you could have done.

What if someone – anyone – had said the right thing at the right time?

Why the fuck didn’t I?

The problems were there to see…and the inevitable result if those problems were not addressed. And that, my friends, is what survivor’s guilt is all about: why the hell couldn’t I save them?

I do my best to give time and money to charity, and to various causes.  But there is one that really matters to me: suicide prevention.

Both of these boys, separated by twenty years as they were, shared the same problems…and the same despair. I don’t go hat-in-hand often, but if you want to understand, and to help, go spend some time with the “You Can Play” and “It Gets Better” projects.

Those weren’t around to help those I lost, but they very well could be that one right voice at the right time for someone else…

 

The song that generated this post?  “Missing You” by All Time Low.

An excerpt for you:

I heard that you’ve been
Self-medicating in the quiet of your room
Your sweet suburban tomb
And if you need a friend
I’ll help you stitch up your wounds

I heard that you’ve been
Having some trouble finding your place in the world
I know how much that hurts
But if you need a friend
Then please just say the word

You’ve come this far
You’re all cleaned up
You’ve made a mess again
There’s no more trying time
To sort yourself out

Hold on tight
This ride is a wild one
Make no mistake
The day will come when you can’t cover up what you’ve done
Now don’t lose your fight, kid
It only takes a little push to pull on through
With so much left to do
You’ll be missing out
And we’ll be missing you

The Dangers of Music

Since I just recently made the changes to this blog to reflect my interest in music (yes, as well as booze), I decided I should do a post on music itself.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not a music blog. This is not going to be a music blog. Quite simply, I have neither the access nor the knowledge to pull off something like that.

Nope, this is still a blog about writing. Specifically, a place for me to (kinda-sorta) trace the process of writing a novel. One specific novel: The Silence That Never Comes.

But…

But music is important to me, and to my writing. It is a key part of the environment and atmosphere I need in order to write. Just as much as I need a place with life around me (coffee place, taproom, etc…), I need to have the right music playing (blaring) in my ears.

Now, to the point: there is danger in music. Great danger. {queue the Yoda-music}

At least for me.

There is always the danger of losing myself in the music I’m listening to. If I can’t lose myself in it, why the hell am I listening?

I’ve written stories in the past that were not based so completely on emotion…not based, to be honest, on characters and ideas that are so overwhelmingly emotional to me. Those stories sucked.

It took Connor and Oz – okay, let’s be honest, it took Oz! – to make me write stories that truly mattered to me, and truly reflected my own emotions and perceptions.

And that made everything better.

But…

But those stories have a lot of music at their heart. When I listen to songs and albums that are important to me, I have two real choices: I either write, or I sit in silent contemplation like some crazy freakin’ monk and let the music take me (and my mind) away.

A great deal of the time it is the second, by the way.

Especially if I’m drinking…sorry, but that’s just plain reality. I know, I know, I get in trouble for “glorifying” booze, but the simple fact is that it is a part of life.img_0139 Yes, Ben Franklin was right: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

The same lowering-of-inhibitions that makes me the most attractive human in the bar, however, also makes me throw myself into the emotion and meaning of the songs with which I have surrounded myself.

In the end, it comes down to a simple choice: focus on the music, or focus on the writing.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat there, pen in hand and paper at the ready*, but my mind lost in the music…and in the imagery it brings.

*Remember, I use different ways to write for different things: hand-writing for background and supporting material, typing for the story itself (and for these posts).

When I am writing scenes this is, thankfully, less of a problem. I obsess about my characters, and about my stories. Very little has the power to pull me away from writing them. The other, supporting stuff however? That’s a different story.

God forbid I start talking (or thinking) about editing….

Talking about editing is, in my mind, like talking about burying the dead. It’s necessary – vital, even – but I really don’t want to do it myself.

I should probably point out: I am writing this particular post at this particular time because I was sitting there on the patio, enjoying the sun and trying to write, and I got too deep into the music…

Maybe 600 words I wrote. Even handwriting, I should do double or triple that in a single sitting. If I’m typing, it’s more like 3,000 words…

That’s the big challenge in my life*: using the music to help me write, but not letting it take control. If I ever figure out that balance, I’ll be fucking gold.

*Bills? Failed romances? Pshaw…child’s play! I can ignore those and pretend they don’t exist. Music, on the other hand, not so much…