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September 14, 2010

Two For Tuesday: Your Manuscript As Music

Kate Hart
What is it? Post two of anything: book reviews, pictures, quotes, poems, songs, videos, rants, shout outs, whatever floats your boat. Just connect them somehow. That's it.

Today: Books and music

Originally this was going to be a post about how obsessed I've become with Florence + the Machine. Then I remembered how disappointing I found the So You Think You Can Dance routines set to "Drumming Song" and "Cosmic Love." The dancing is incredible, but it's all just a little... floppy. Out of sync. It didn't hit the beats I wanted it to. It leaves me feeling like something is off.

I often feel that way after closing a book, too.

Both Florence numbers would, I'm sure, have been awesome if Wade Robson had choreographed them. Wade's works always hits the right beats and always leaves a lasting impression, whether you like it or not. For example, "Ramalama" was way back in season two, before the current zombie craze really began, and it's still one of my favorites:

Sara and Jose's "Cabaret Hoover" number was also an early one. I think what resonates with me in this one is called "musicality."

Books also have a certain musicality. At the level of language, you could compare it to poetry. But musicality is also created on a larger scale: by which scenes we see and which happen off-page, which words the characters say and which they don't, which parts of the characters' environment they interact with and which gestures they make.

Think of your chapters as songs, or as individual performances set to music. What beats do you want to hit? How fast should this flow? What move should the character make here, and should s/he make it alone? In sync with others? Completely against everyone else's movement? Is there harmony or discordance? Is it loud or soft? Gritty or ethereal? What about the end-- does it finish with a bang? A cacophony? Fade out? Everyone jumping into the air, or collapsing to the ground?

They say there are no new ideas, only new presentations, and that's your job as an author: to find a unique presentation. Wade excels at it. His staging and costumes are sometimes complex, sometimes simple, but always incredible. He combines old and new to create an feel that's original and speaks to me in its creativity. For example, his "Ruby Blue" for Brandon and Janine takes a modern song, combined with quirky costumes, a stark set, and choreography that meshes all sorts of eras and styles, to create something completely unique:

Last season's "Comanche," a song I know from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, has complex everything: style, set, color, movement, lighting. The camera highlights certain elements at just the right time, and the routine finishes at exactly the right point.

Books are the same way. We get too many details, or too few. The story ends too quickly, or drags on. There's too much old and not enough new-- or sometimes, too much trying to be new and failing. Sometimes a dance is set to a song I just don't like. Sometimes a book is set in a world I just don't like.

Like this one. I'm just not a fan.

But Wade's routines usually create a little world I'd like to explore, often by adding a touch of bizarre to something normal. Writers do the same thing: the English mountains of Hogwarts, the foggy town of Forks, the brutal ruins of the Hunger Games' Appalachia, the frostbitten forests of Mercy Falls-- they all take something familiar, add a sense of mystery, and result in a world readers want to wallow around in.

Your world doesn't have to be fantastical, though. Jandy Nelson's main character in The Sky is Everywhere forces us to see the world through her poetic lens. John Green's characters frame it with humor. Courtney Summers makes us see it starkly, and Laurie Halse Anderson forces us to break down the very words we use to describe it. That feeling of "wow, I've never seen it this way before" is what resonates.

A writing playlist can help with all of this. It can also hinder. Sometimes song lyrics are inspiring and perfect and wonderful. But sometimes, they make it easy to fall into the same 'ole thing: love scenes to a ballad, fight scenes to heavy metal, and a nice instrumental interlude for the saggy middle. Try interspersing your playlist with songs whose lyrics don't fit your book at all, but whose beat drives the feeling you're trying to accomplish. Find an instrumental song whose mood you love and free associate words or lines of poetry with it. Picture it as a foreign movie-- what songs would accompany the scene if you couldn't understand the words? (The aforementioned Maggie Steifvater has a great post on music and mood, too.)

Of course there's another writing lesson to be learned here. Remember the "what happens on the internet stays on the internet" advice? Or "it's a long road to success, don't give up, keep trying"? Turns out that's true for choreographers as well. Here's a very young Wade with Paula Abdul:

Annnnd an older Wade showing us "The Spongebob Shuffle."

Here's hoping our work hits the right beats-- and that our own debuts are less embarrassing in twenty years. :)


  1. Awesome freakin post Kate!!!

    Great analogy and way to tie music in to writing. I whole heartedly agree. Wade Robinson is a genius at taking what already exists (the dance moves) and turning into something unlike anything you've seen. I so enjoyed reliving those videos, especially Ramalama (this song is actually on my MP3 player and my 4 year old daughters LOVE it). I think Sonya Tayeh is also another from that show that has a very unique quality that always delivers something amazing and beautiful, and ugly and quirky and intense, time and time again. Thanks for this enjoyable post!

  2. I love this idea! Especially the suggestion about shaking up the playlist to get new perspective on a scene. I suspect my playlist will also reveal some saggy pacing in the middle...too much of one band. :)

    Awesome post!

  3. This was a great post. I think sometimes we're so into getting it down on paper, that we forget the flow.

    And I have a confession: I can't watch So You Think You Can Dance. I want to, but that judge - Mary Murphy I think? - bothers me. I can't stand her yell/scream thing. I want to get past that, but I can't. Any suggestions for that is welcome because I do love the choreography.

  4. Alicia, Mary's gone! They replaced her with judges who were even more annoying, sadly.

    I loooooooove "Comanche"! Most of my favorite routines from that show tend to be (gulp) Mia's.

    I use music as a tool for mood all the time. Each playlist is as unique as its respective book!

  5. Awesome post. Loved all the comparisons you made.

    Re: SYTYCD -- I haven't watched it since season 4. Wade Robson and his choreography, however, continues to make me all swoony. (Ramalama is my favorite piece he did for the show)

  6. Very cool post, but I'm cringing here... Not at you, at me.


    Well, awesomeness of the post aside, thank you for introducing me to a TV show I really should know about.



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