Friday, May 6, 2011

Process Talk: Shoegaze Fantasy

In recent posts, I've shared some of the music and imagery that inspires me just for a bit of a glimpse into my process - what gets the old neurons firing - when I'm writing. In fact, some of you may be sick of that by now. And if that's the case, you'll just have to hang on for another post - this is one that's been bubbling in the back of my head since back in early October last year. Again, my thinking is that if I continue to find things to post - and go back to and finish posts intended to be finished and posted months ago - I will eventually finish clearing out the remaining mental cobwebs.

The big twist, of course, is that behind the cobwebs lies nothing.

At any rate, let's get on with it. Music. More of that. A subject I've wanted to write more about from my perspective for some time now - not so much in the cheesy, banal music-journalism sense as to explore the places that music can take you, what exactly sound can inspire. By my understanding, it's pretty common for writers to listen to music while plugging away on their current projects, and I'm certainly no different. Music can be vital to setting a tone, creating a mood. When I find a new band that I like, the phrase, 'music I can write to' reverberates through my head quite a bit. I like to create soundtracks to my novels, and there's no question that I'm not the only one doing that. I like the idea of someday being able to create original scores or pieces of music to accompany my work as well - whether or not I'll ever manage that at some point in the future is impossible to say at this point, though.

My current and ongoing second novel project, Project Princess, is arguably a work of fantasy. Yes, that's an appropriately pretentious, clunky way to begin this paragraph. I say 'arguably' because my focus is on the writing of distinctly literary fiction, which is itself a nebulous, complex, and often horribly pretentious concept. Once you establish yourself as trying to write literary fiction as opposed to mainstream commercial or genre fiction, you're pretty much slapping the 'You think you're better than me!?' crosshairs on your forehead, and can come off as if just by your focus and process, you're insulting all the commercial and genre fiction authors out there. To backpedal a bit, that isn't exactly my intent, but it's more of a matter of that literary fiction writers are focused on something different from commercial and genre fiction authors. Yes, we would like to make money on what we're doing, but we don't expect to make much - to generally make much less than commercial and genre fiction writers.

As the linked Wikipedia article details, as subjective as the definition of 'literature' is, what separates literary fiction from commercial and genre fiction is in its focus on style, psychological depth, and character over narrative and plot. The mainstream commercial fiction reader might find literary fiction to be meandering or frustrating, because it takes a lot longer to get where it's going, and more than the journey or destination, the story is really about the complex characters presented. Personally, I like to liken literary fiction to the written word equivalent of cinema's art house, and poetry to abstract short film. In literature, we have the likes of J.D. Salinger and Haruki Murakami alongside the likes of film's Jim Jarmusch and Sofia Coppola, as opposed to mainstream commercial fiction's Tom Clancy and Stephenie Meyer to Hollywood's Michael Bay and James Cameron. The narrow versus the broad - the niche versus the mainstream.

To get back to what I was saying before, Project Princess is arguably a work of fantasy, and technically speaking, my first novel - Project 27 Days - could be considered at least partially fantasy as well. Both of these novels are written in the setting I've sought to define myself by as I've developed as a writer - 'somewhere both familiar and unfamiliar.' Project 27 Days follows confused, muddled, and deeply conflicted people from the world as we know it through a near-month in a bizarre, surreal setting and set of circumstances. And the book itself is written in a very slice-of-life manner, each chapter following a day from its beginning to its end, with plenty of variation, twists, and turns as the story calls for it. It's a slow-paced, entirely character-driven story that those not into that sort of writing would find meandering and frustrating. Most of the action takes the form of conversations revealing of the characters, sometimes in a straightforward manner, and sometimes with calculated subtlety. It's unquestionably a very direct effort at an odd piece of literary fiction targeting a particular audience that enjoys that sort of writing. The book was even written with the idea that readers might spend a near-month reading it themselves, pacing their experience with the book to a chapter a day, to really drink in and savor the plot and moody setting, and go through the story with the characters on a more real-time level. Of course, readers could probably inhale the entire book in a day or two if they really tried, too - and I certainly wouldn't complain if anyone enjoyed it that much. That said, character is the center of my writing, far above plot.

Project Princess has significantly more of a concrete plot for the characters to follow than Project 27 Days, where the characters alone are the plot. Still, in its scope and ambition, the characters are still the center of Project Princess, too - it's just that they have more of a directed plot to follow, a literal path laid out, enemies to defeat both within and outside in the external world, and unlike Project 27 Days, there's extremely little sitting around. As opposed to Project 27 Days' gauzy, surreal setting, Project Princess's is a literal frozen apocalypse wherein those who stop moving for too long face the risk of dying before too long. The world of Project Princess, unlike Project 27 Days, is not our Earth - the characters are human, and many of the initially available themes and icons in the narrative are comfortably recognizable from the lexicon of the fantasy genre. If you've enjoyed the works of Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, or George R.R. Martin - I'm going on what I've seen of Game of Thrones so far, based on the latter's A Song of Ice and Fire series - you'll feel right at home with easing into the world of Project Princess. There's kingdoms with complex histories and political relationships, princes and princesses, castles and common rabble, swords and sorcery, trials and tribulations, monsters and more. The chief difference here is that the world is fanciful in different ways from the aforementioned works - or rather, it was, as the novel takes place in a world that has largely become a frigid husk of its former self. Extinction is an inescapable image.

In such a dreary world, you would expect a despondent tone on every front. But that's not quite the case in terms of the music that's inspired me. Heavy metal music has been associated with fantasy for decades, and so the concept of 'metal fantasy,' in all its associated violence, is hardly an unfamiliar one. In the past, metal has even come under fire for its lyrical themes labeled from merely juvenile to misogynistic and otherwise at times too occult-heavy for more conservative parents of the 1980s. While on one hand, I can certainly see the appeal of metal, I feel neither pride nor shame in saying that it's not particularly music that suits my tastes. Rather, where metal has been the music of choice for many a headbanging teenager for decades, my tastes and musical influences are a little bit less mainstream. Rather than 'metal fantasy,' what I seek to explore with the world and tone of Project Princess is something I like to think of as 'shoegaze fantasy,' drawing on my favorite subgenre of alternative rock - shoegaze.

Where metal fantasy is dark, gritty, and violent, 'shoegaze fantasy' is surreal, emotional, and dreamy, with a focus on profound melancholy avoiding melodrama. Where metal fantasy is a well-explored concept with a cult following, fantasy associated in particular with other musical tones in its inspiration is much less so. And in general, shoegaze tends to have a much smaller following than metal, which is comparatively mainstream. Metal has never 'died,' while shoegaze is a subgenre that is considered to have died and been at least partially reborn in more recent years, and even the genre name itself wasn't exactly conceived to be complimentary.

Where metal is intense, aggressive, and very, very extroverted, shoegaze is deeply introverted - it's music for the cerebral daydreamers, with a certain sort of sultry, heady sex appeal in many cases as well, entirely lacking the violence and energy of metal. Shoegaze is, at heart, a special brand of rock for navel-gazing introverts - speaking as one of those myself, they're certainly a big part of the inevitably intended audience for my work, just as a natural product of my own mental processes. In a world where there is metal fantasy, but little thought considered for fantasy influenced by and tied with other genres of rock, my intention is to find out if there's an audience for shoegaze fantasy. And the intended end result is, rather than something gritty and violent, a work of literary fiction set entirely within a constructed fantasy world: a story where there can be considerable violence, but the worst of it is emotional, rather than visceral.

With that, I'm going to take you on a brief walkthrough of the musical evolution of Project Princess. Where we begin, funnily enough, is not actually shoegaze. Rather, when I first began the initial - and eventually abandoned for rebooting - draft of the novel as I began to lay out Project Princess' skeletal structure back in March of 2006, I was listening to British indie electronic pop artist Imogen Heap's latest album, Speak for Yourself. Its opening track, 'Headlock,' sounded to me like the ideal opening tune for a complex work of alternative fantasy, the lyrics conveying a mixture of thoughts and emotions that put my mind to work on trying to establish exactly what the novel's central characters' relationships were and how exactly they were going to play out over the course of the story - in particular, the protagonist and heroine, as so far, a young man and woman are usually the core of my novels.

Following the inspiration I drew from the fantasy qualities in Imogen Heap's sound, I fell in love with New Yorkers Blonde Redhead. They aren't 100% shoegaze either, but the shoegaze sound - the gauze, the ethereal - is certainly a notable element in many of their songs. When I heard them perform the title track from their 2007 album, 23, on Late Night with Conan O'Brien shortly after I moved home from college for the last time that May - reflecting on how many years have passed since then and that I'm still living at home now, it's hard not to have mixed feelings - they were a band that immediately struck me as 'music I can write to.' And between that album and their latest - their 2010 release, Penny Sparkle - they've only further cemented themselves as the band driving Project Princess and defining it with their sound, while Project 27 Days was a mix of Feist, various classic rock songs, and Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton. Stars and M83 have both had strong influences on both of my novels so far as well, but where Emily Haines' Knives Don't Have Your Back is the definitive album of Project 27 Days, Blonde Redhead's 23 is the definitive album of Project Princess.

23. The age of the lead characters in Project Princess. Desolate, dreamy music that defines perfectly the tone I want the novel to breathe - the quiet aching, the hopelessness, the inescapable destruction, the flickering final dreams. The definitive song of the novel. As the wall of sound consumes you, so to do I seek to consume my readers with the endless frozen melancholy of the novel.

Dr. Strangeluv. Pure yearning. A song of journey, something to accompany the damaged protagonist as he seeks out the lost princess. A song of solitude and isolation, of deep-seated loneliness. A song of someone with no one. The protagonist. Can he save anyone?

Silently. A lighter-toned song. Subtext. The protagonist and the heroine. Persistent past tense. The lightest song associated with this novel. The feeling of letting go.

SW. The journey continues. The reflections continue. The crushing melody gradually wears you down, as signs of hope continue to fade away into the endlessly gray horizon. Everything is unclear. There are no certain answers. Spiraling.

Here Sometimes. From last year's Penny Sparkle album. A detached existence, a detached mind, a life lived in dreams. A tone that sounds very suitable for fantasy to me, like the rest of the songs shared.

Everything is Wrong. Another Penny Sparkle song. Continued spiraling. The world losing and the world lost. Resignation.

Not Getting There. A final song from Penny Sparkle. After 23, perhaps the song that in its simplicity, next captures the tone and feel of the novel. Near-definitive.

Also worth noting is that Blonde Redhead scored the 2008 Dungeons & Dragons documentary, The Dungeon Masters. That right there only further confirms that I'm not the only one who gets a very particular 'fantasy' vibe from the band, but that it's even intentional on their part.

And now, to wrap, two more tracks by bands that have also made a significant impact on Project Princess and my writing in general.

Danish shoegaze-influenced self-proclaimed "pretentious art rockers" Mew's White Lips Kissed, from the album, 'And the Glass Handed Kites.' They make some of the most wintry music I've ever heard, and this particular song got a lot of play time when I was working on Project 27 Days - it's getting quite a bit with Project Princess too. Both novels are set in completely snowbound settings, after all. (The third novel will not be - to break the trend.) Like many songs I love, you'll notice that this is a song that can absolutely consume the listener. Its lyrics connect a bit more with Project 27 Days than Project Princess, though both novels share some thematic commonalities, and some fairly dark themes will be recurring in my novels - hopefully not redundantly.

And lastly, while I can't embed this particular upload, the music video for UK electronic pop group Ladytron's Destroy Everything You Touch is a huge source of influence on Project Princess, the song itself effectively being a sort of co-definitive musical theme alongside Blonde Redhead's 23, and the snowbound fantasy music video being a source of inspiration in my writing of the novel's setting. Double whammy. For all my talk of metal fantasy and proposed shoegaze fantasy here? A music video representation of New Wave electronic pop fantasy.

In a world where a western can have a rocking Neil Young soundtrack, there has to be room for a new kind of fantasy. There always has to be.

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