My guest this week has a novel that spans several lifetimes and puts a new spin on reincarnation – she blends thriller with romance and the supernatural with her story of neuroscientists who have unlocked the secret of reincarnation. She used music to conjure her kaleidoscope of time periods, from ancient China to the modern day, and some of her selections are astoundingly haunting – I’m astonished to discover the 1970s album recorded in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid. Those among you who are reincarnation aficionados will have spotted the reference in the title of this post to the 1980s movie Somewhere In Time, and that was on her Soundtrack too. She is Gwendolyn Womack and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
‘Hidden forms that tell a story’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Stephen Weinstock
You can’t read much about writing advice before you trip over an essay about story structure, and how it works invisible magic on the reader. My guest this week has used sophisticated musical structures as the skeleton of his fantasy series, a series of nested reincarnation tales inspired by The Thousand and One Nights – and his influences range from Alban Berg to Frank Zappa. For him, music does not so much conjure up a scene or a character as an entire shape, of how an idea moves into a story and where it eventually goes. He is uniquely qualified to do so, as he is a composer, pianist and dance accompanist for musical theatre with (though he has not yet said if he is reincarnated). Stephen Weinstock is on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
SHORT BREAK I’ll be taking a short break from blogging but will be back with a post on 30 November.
‘The moment of making the first sound or writing the first word is special’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Pete Lockett
My guest this week is a percussionist who has worked with an astonishing list of world-class musicians, a list to make any music fan giddy – Bjork, Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, Dido, Bill Bruford, Jeff Beck, Ustad Zakir Hussain, The Verve, Texas, Trans-Global Underground, Nelly Furtado, Lee Scratch Perry, Primal Scream, Damien Rice, Dave Weckl, Thomas Lang, Jarvis Cocker, Craig Armstrong – and more. Trust me, at some point you’ve had him in your headphones. He found that his music fuelled a desire to write a novel, and after a good gig he would rush back to his hotel room, eager to pour out the next chapter. He says he wanted to take a simple starting point and construct an epic journey that ventured outside the normal – bringing together birth, death, the afterlife, reincarnation and immortality into new coherence, and echoing the journey he takes when working with musicians. The result is A Survivor’s Guide to Eternity; he is Pete Lockett and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack. Pinch me, someone.
Is my book paranormal or literary? And which age group is it for? How to categorise your novel
I’ve had this question from Alexandra:
I’m not sure which category my story would fit into. I had originally intended it to be for 9-13-year-olds (my protagonist is 13), but realised I was dumbing down my language in an attempt to suit the reading level. So I decided to write without thinking about age groups or categories. But now I’m close to the end, I still don’t know how to categorise it. Is it young adult with no sex or violence? Literary? Teen? Paranormal?
Let’s break this down.
Age of protagonist
Readers in any non-adult genre are fussy about the age of their protagonist. They usually like them to be at the top end of the range or a little older. But a 13-year-old main character doesn’t mean you’re writing a book for 13-year-olds. You might easily have a child point of view in a book for adults (Henry James’s What Maisie Knew; Michael Frayn’s Spies).
Certainly the language for child readers has to be appropriate for their age. If you’re feeling hamstrung and frustrated by this, it might be a sign that you won’t be able to keep it up for the whole book. But good writers for children won’t feel they’re dumbing down. They’ll find ways to get variety and style into their sentences so that it sounds natural.
Not just language and age
But age ranges aren’t just about language or the age of the protagonist. The real difference is the emotional development and interests of the audience. So pre-teens are interested in different things from teenagers and YA, and books for adults are different again.
Stories for pre-teens will be more adventure based, whereas stories for teens will be about the trials of that very turbulent time of life. You could even take one story event and make entirely different books out of it, depending on the age you write it for.
Take Geraldine McCaughrean’s White Darkness, which is about an expedition to the Antarctic with a mad, exciting uncle. If it was written for pre-teens, the biggest issues would be the survival situation. But the most compelling trials are emotional – disillusionment with a family member, learning who you are, dealing with relationships. Really, it’s a story of growing up, not of polar exploration. That’s what makes it a teen book.
So to work out your age range, identify the most significant trials the characters go through.
And so to the second half of the question. Oh my, you’ve come to the right place! My debut novel, My Memories of a Future Life, has paranormal ingredients – regression to other lives – but it isn’t paranormal. This is because the paranormal elements are not my main focus. My curiosities in the story are despair, hope, how we live, how we heal and scare each other. I’m using ideas of reincarnation to create unusual pressures in the lives of my characters, but reincarnation is not my subject. My subject is the people and how these experiences are the making of them. Indeed, the paranormal element might even be psychological.
This approach would probably annoy a fan of paranormal fiction. They want to lose themselves in a story that uses the paranormal events as the main fascination. That doesn’t mean they don’t want well-drawn characters with compelling arcs, or good writing, or innovative twists. But they want to see their liking for paranormal ingredients to be given due respect.
Here’s another example. I’ve just been editing a novel set in a historical conflict, but it’s literary, not historical. Why? The emphasis is more on the themes and the people than on the historical period; the period is merely a set of circumstances that give the characters their challenges. Why is The Time Machine science fiction, but The Time Traveller’s Wife is not?
Could a novel be both literary and genre? In a sense, we are all on a line, and some authors fold the line over to touch. Like Ray Bradbury. He writes science fiction, but his stories are metaphors that also unwrap the human condition. Just when you thought it was clear.
Which are you?
So if you’re still puzzled, how do you tell which category and age group you belong in? By reading good examples of the genre.
It’s all a question of how the material is treated.
To sort out the literary/genre question, read books in the genre. Then read some literary or contemporary fiction that uses elements of that genre. If you’re wavering between children’s, teen or adult, read books for different age groups. Which treatments and approach pushed your buttons, gave you the most satisfaction? The odds are, that’s what you’ll strive to write.
Thanks for the pic LouisaThomson
More about characters, including child characters and teen characters, in Writing Characters to Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.
Have you had trouble working out where to categorise your novels? Any advice to add? Let’s discuss in the comments!
‘The perfect song for my characters to flourish’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Candace Austin
My guest this week says she can ignore just about any distraction and write – except if she can hear music. But she also can’t write a character until she has found the perfect song as a vehicle for their personality, back story and secrets. Her debut novel fits rather well with this blog for another reason too – it’s the story of the world’s most reincarnated man, with all the troubles – past and present – that that implies. She is Candace Austin and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
‘Music to unite and reunite’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Denise Kahn
I first discovered this week’s guest when a Google fairy revealed she’d written a novel about reincarnation and music. I had to try to recruit her. She turned out to be even more suitable for the series than I could have guessed. Her mother was an opera singer. She wrote her first novel to help her son understand the stories of his ancestors in China through connections to music. Her second novel deals with ideas of past lives and ethnomusicology. Her name is Denise Kahn and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Reincarnation, future lives and ghostwriting – a couple of guest apparitions
I’ve got a couple of slightly apparitional guest spots around the web today. I’m at Candace Austin’s Tumblr blog, Past Life Ponderings. Her novel is about past lives and she collects other authors who play with those ideas. She’s also keen to know about our own claims to former lives … come this way…
Still with the theme of shadows, I’m also at The Write Life Magazine. This time I’m talking about ghostwriting – how I started, what it takes to do the job and how you might break in. The Write Life is an online magazine, downloadable as an app or on PDF. There is a sign-up form but don’t be put off – it’s free and you also get essays about writers’ life-changing experiences, an interview with New York Times Bestseller Ingrid Ricks and a Q&A with memoirist Susan Shapiro. And it’s very pretty…
‘The song epitomised Titanic, its beauty and its loss’ – Ellie Stevenson, The Undercover Soundtrack
My guest this week has a haunting tale with two timelines, one in the present and one aboard the magnificently doomed RMS Titanic. She first had the idea from a water effect in a Madonna album track, and when research turned up a song in the White Star Line orchestra repertoire, that piece became a signature for the characters and their loss. She is Ellie Stevenson and she’s on the Red Blog talking about the Undercover Soundtrack for Ship of Haunts: The Other Titanic Story.
Underwater music and understanding a character’s passion – interview at Underground Book Reviews
How did I develop the underwater world of the Soothesayers for My Memories of a Future Life? What experience did I draw on to create the musician narrator Carol? Did I start my blog to plug my writing book (a timely question considering this week’s post)? What’s this Life Form 3 novel I mention from time to time?
My Memories of a Future Life was reviewed yesterday at Underground Book Reviews, and today they’re in interview mode, digging for answers… including how do I prove I ghostwrote those bestsellers? And will my career as a movie extra ever amount to anything? Come and delve…
If you have tackled any of the questions I was asked about – including creating worlds or understanding a character’s passion, share in the comments!
Music as a form of spiritual possession… and other matters
Over at the red home of My Memories of a Future Life I’ve been a bit more active than I anticipated. I’ve been writing material to put up nearer to my novel’s release, but people have already been asking me questions – which can only be answered in posts. In case you’re curious, here are the first three posts:
The blood-red piano – music as spiritual possession
I don’t believe in reincarnation