Friday, June 09, 2006

Literary Spiritualism

Every novel should have a soul.

You know what I mean? Something about it. The atmosphere. The feel of the characters. A life born from nothing but ink and paper. The soul of novel is what buries deep and can't be easily pried out of you.

Music is like that. But more direct. More tidal. It rises and overwhelms you before you even know you're drowning. Then, just as quickly, it drains away. Books conquer you more slowly.

I try very hard to create a soul in my writing. Without it, all you have is a plot, an expanded outline. A soulless novel is one that Dr. Frankenstein never hit with a lightning bolt. It never climbs off table. Even disfigured, it's your very own creation and more than capable of terrorizing the countryside.

As I scoured my mental graveyard for bits and pieces to build my own Frankenstein, The Backwards Path, I realized there is a power in using music and image to help hold onto that soul, which can be awfully slippery sometimes.

I found a song and a video which I think capture a similar vibe to what I'm creating. I've given you a link below, which will open a video player at Even if you are biased against the group or song, give it a fair shake with an open mind.

Video Link: Matchbox 20, "3:00 a.m."

Question: What song/video best captures the vibe of your own (or favorite) novel?


Alex S said...

I'm getting too sleepy to actually think hard enough to answer that, but I nonetheless find the question a great one.!

Melissa Amateis said...

Ooh...hard questions, Jason. I love Loreena McKennit's "The Mummer's Dance" - it was the "soundtrack" for my last novel. Every single song really touched a chord in me.

anne said...

It's funny because I love music and I love reading, but I can't really do both at the same time.
So I'd have to think really really long to come up with an answer.
And we know what happens when I think really really long.

Bernita said...

"Stranger on the Shore" - that alto sax instrumental.
There's an ancient ballad I can't find the name of immediately - used for a Highlander episode.

Flood said...

Jason, what a fun question. 3am is a great song.

I've been listening to a lot of Black Tape For A Blue Girl in my current project.

You may be on to something here. Do you think music videos for books would ever catch on?

Anonymous said...

Alexandra, I know what you mean. I'm constantly trying to fit too much into my day. Sleep gets sacrificed. I'm surprised I can function at all. ;)

Melissa, soundtrack for a novel...I like that! You know I'm a Loreena fan, so I bet I'd love the atmosphere in your novel.

Anne, I can't write and listen to music at the same time anymore. I used to, but then I realized I spent more time staring off into space than writing. However, I love listening to music to brainstorm. The right song puts me exactly where I need to be mentally.

Bernita, when I think of Highlander, all I can hear is Queen. Hopefully I can catch the movie again soon so I can refresh my recollection on the ballad. Do you know whether "Stranger on the Shore" is available on the internet anywhere?

Flood, thanks! Actually the discussions on your blog and Bernita's inspired me to write on a writing issue for a change. ** Black Tape for a Blue Girl...I'll have to look for that. I would love for music/book videos to catch on. The problem is expense, I think. Doing them well isn't cheap. I don't know if profit margins will support them. I'll make a confession though. Quirky humor is also a big part of The Backwards Path. I've fantasied about shooting a video depicting the beginning of the book to Men Without Hats, "Safety Dance."

Scott said...

I don't have a project right now, but when I do, I'll be sure to find some kind of inspiration like this.

Enjoyed the post. I'm thinking the soul of the novel is the underlying theme, the premise that you are setting out to prove. It's the well that your characters are always dipping from.

Bernita said...

Don't know, Jason.
As I remember about the ballad, it goes by the name of "Bonnie Portnoy" or something similar. Used in the TV series, I believe, where his first love dies.
Must ask a child of mine.

Flood said...

You've seen my 'videos' Haha. I'd be willing to make a music video for your book for free. Heck, I'd pay you to let me do it.

The change is nice, and with youknowwhat acting youknowhow, shaking thing up a bit is fun.

Bernita said...

Jason, "Bonnie Portmore."

jackt said...

Very well put, Jason. I always had that inkling of a thought along these lines but was never clear about it in my mind. I don't have songs in my head though, so it's hard for me to identify reading material with songs.

Rene said...

I'm not really that in tune to music with my writing. I did write a book and "My Immortal" by Evanessence really captured the mood. Now if I hear the song I feel like tearing my hair out because I'm so tired of it. I generally listen to new agey celtic music, it has a mysterious quality I like that influences my books.

Anonymous said...

Scott, for me the soul of a novel is like the soul of a place. For example, walking along the beach evokes a vastly different feeling and experience than walking in a northern forest in winter. It's a combination of so many perceptions and expectations. But the combined effect is tremendously powerful.

Bonnie, Melissa Marsh mentioned Loreena McKennitt. If you're not already familiar with her (she is Canadian, by the way), you would probably appreciate her music. She did a version of Bonnie Portmore on one of her albums. I think it was "The Visit."

Flood, that would be a blast! Copyright infringement really worries me, though. Folks borrow music and images all the time, but I think putting it in commerce ups the ante. I'm sure buying a license to use "Safety Dance" wouldn't be cheap.

Jackt, thanks! As a reader, I probably don't have book-related song choices either. The process of writing, however, is very different. For me, it takes a lot of effort to work for a year or more and built a strong, coherent pace/mood/outlook. Music helps me maintain a focus over long stretches.

Rene, new age Celtic (and traditional) music is very rich. I draw on its nature/spiritual overtones myself. Good point about over-playing, though! ** Just by mentioning "My Immortal," I have a stong sense of what to expect in your novel. I like that shorthand way of communicating something so complex.

mermaid said...

Hey, I love 3am, but never saw the video. Thanks!

I'd have to say Paula Cole, "Me" or Mission UK's "Butterfly on a Wheel." I think you'd like the 2nd song.

Jeff said...

Jason, it's a good question, but kind of hard for me to answer. I enjoy listening to such a variety of music (depending on my mood) that I'm not sure I can narrow it down to one particular song that best reflects my favorite novel/novels or my own writing.
I'll have to think about it some more. :)

Mom of All Seasons said...

"Little Less Conversation, Little More Action" by Elvis Presley. It's such a "get to it" song and the non-fiction book I'm reading right now just makes me want to DO everything that has ever sounded like fun - right now!!!

Bernita said...

Woman of a thousand names...

Anonymous said...

I like to listen to Papa Roach's "Getting Away with Murder" before I start writing. Both of the novels I'm working on right now involve past murders, so it fits.

As for the novel having a soul, absolutely. If the characters can't slip off the page and into your readers' heads, your story is lost.

Sandra Ruttan said...

This is part of the reason I love the Rebus series - great musical references.

I haven't found exactly the song that symbolizes my book. I think there are only two musical references in the whole thing, actually, now that I've done the rewrite.

So, it's Bruce Cockburn and Shawn Colvin vying for that spot...

Terri said...

I love Matchbox20 & I believe I have all their albums.
I like to listen to classical music when I'm writing, but as soon as I become absorbed in the writing, I no longer even hear the music. But it blocks out other noises and allows me to stay focussed, because unfortunately I'm very easily distracted.

I don't know if there's any one song that would capture the novel I'm trying to write, although something like the big ballads groups from the 80's - the Eagles, or REO Speedwagon - would probably run like a soundtrack in the background.

Joanne said...

Love the first sentence of your post. "Every novel should have a soul." I totally agree. Been a while since I've been online, so I'll have to give the question some thought. You know, do a little soul searching. hehe. Have to get back to you on this one. ;)

Chemical Billy said...

This is lighting up a lot of things in my head, Jason. For my (just completed) novel, I made an iPod playlist for my "soundtrack" while writing. Because much of the book takes place in the early '80's, that's what most of the songs were. The Clash's "Guns of Brixton" started it off, and that would get me into the right frame of mind.

But it was while I was thrashing with the ending that I heard a Johnny Cash song - I don't remember the title right now - about a guy just before being executed. Even though you might not see the link, reading the novel, that's what finally made the ending click into place for me.

Maybe that's why the new one is being so tough right now - no soundtrack!

And...I went to high school with the guy who wrote House of Leaves, and also with his sister, who is the singer Poe. She made a whole album - and a video - to go with the book.

Anonymous said...

Mermaid, the video also struck me. Very well done. Rob Thomas is probably around the same age as my main character. ** Do have a link to the song you mentioned?

Jeff, let me know when you start a novel (if you haven't already). ;) The need to hold course is so much stronger in longer length writing.

Mom of All Seasons, that's a great one! Yes, I can hear the motivation when I imagine the tune.

Bernita, yikes, sorry about that one, Mom! We were driving up to the mountains Friday night, and my wife said, "oh, do you know you called Bernita "Bonnie" in your comments today?" Forehead-slapping moment.

Deborah, if I'm out of the zone, I'll do the same thing. I'll pick a song that puts me in a similar moment as the scene I'm writing.

Anonymous said...

Sandra, that's a great point! The authors who include (and can afford!) song lyrics at the beginning of a novel are giving us that quick path to an emotion.

Terri, I loved REO Speedwagon in the early 80's! Some of that new wave stuff was amazing too. It still is, actually. ** I know what you mean about classical music covering background noise. I use that trick on the train often. :D

Joanne, it's great to see you back! I've stopped by a few times on your blog too. Let me know what your soul searching comes up with. ;)

Chemical Billy, I like that soundtrack concept. It's a wonderful motivator for bringing memories right up to the surface. Perfect for plucking. Would you say that Johnny Cash song nailed the common theme of the book? ** Holy cow, you went to school with the author of House of Leaves!? The core of that novel was so chilling. A bit got lost in the double layer of footnotes, but overall, a powerful experience. Very cool!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Jason, it doesn't always cost. I got permission from Corb Lund to use lyrics from one of his songs in the Canadian book without charge. Just asked for me to send him a few copies when it was published - no problem! Totally cool of him to give me the okay on that.

Anonymous said...

Sandra, that's awesome! Glad to hear it's not always about money. He sounds like a good guy.

mermaid said...

I tried searching for a link to the 'Butterfly on a Wheel' video. N0 luck:( I'll keep searching.

Chemical Billy said...

Yeah, he (House of Leaves author) was pretty intense in high school, too. Their father was a Polish camp survivor from WWII, and he was my mentor in college. Both of the kids, Anne (Poe) and Mark, were so much more sophisticated than the rest of us hicks. I knew Anne much better (being closer to her in age), but Mark & I were in a play together, Once Upon a Mattress. He was the Prince, of course. I played a bird. In an old owl suit from a previous play, minus the head.

As for the Johnny Cash song - it caught a moment, more than a theme. But a moment that, I hope, helped to light up the theme.

Anonymous said...

Chemical Billy, love the sound of that play. Sounds like a hoot! (Sorry, couldn't resist. I hope the owl head didn't come to a unpleasant end.)

I understand what you mean about needing a moment in your novel. A strong moment. Sometimes a little lightning is the only way to get it done.

Anonymous said...

Mermaid, thanks for the link by email. So far, I've watched the Butterfly on a Wheel video. Interesting song. It reminds me of the 80's style. The other link didn't open for me the first time. I'll try again.