I am in the process of developing a musical edition of my novel Beyond the Will of God. Like many of my stories, this psychedelic mystery is at least partially about music. References to everything from bootleg Grateful Dead songs to free-form jazz to The Doors “Riders on the Storm,” and Elvis’s first hit, “That’s All Right” pop up in the book all over the place. Part of the meat of the plot is concerned with the transcendent power of improvisational music. Unstated, more or less, is the urge at least some musicians have to create new sound and new combinations of melody, beat, atmosphere, and lyrics.
My vision for this Music Edition, then, is more or less to include an integrated soundtrack to my book in digital form. This should be doable if I find the proper application for an iPad or KindleFire reader. But as I move forward with this effort, I find I’m confronted with a problem that all writers are having to face when they try to get cute with technology: the purity of words can get very sullied when you begin to take a multi-media approach to storytelling.
Writing a novel is not making a movie. Traditionally, a writer sits in a room by him or herself in front of a blank medium (now usually a screen attached to a keyboard and storage system) and makes up a story using nothing but words. It’s an astoundingly archaic activity, time consuming as hell, and very frustrating. Words are in one sense capable of being highly charged and dramatic (or funny), but they’re also ridiculously limiting. For both reader and writer they require a great deal of intellectual sense-making effort. Even genre fiction, which can be more absorbed than read, demands attention. The act of building a world and a plot in the head is a complicated process. Characters in stories, too, require the reader and writer to bring a certain poetic imagination to bear on simple statements like “her eyes were a deep blue” or “he made a fist and his hand slowly turned red.”
This is the challenge of books — nothing but words to conjure up worlds and sensations and emotions and ideas. Great books are great because they do this so well. Think of the impact on the reader’s life of books like Invisible Man or Catcher in the Rye or On the Road. Nothing but words strung together on a series of pages with an intriguing cover and you are tranformed as a human being forever ….
The loneliness of the writer is still one of the more romantic examples of the rugged improvisational individual that we have. Every time a writer sits down to work on their latest novel they are in many ways the last of the great explorers. The biographies of pioneers, frontiersmen, discoverers, astronauts, deep-sea adventurers, and worl-trekkers have all been written. But each writer creates a new world and clones new aliens. Each story is a mirror of real life — but it’s inside the mirror. You can’t just walk in and look around. You have to read your way in. You have to allow the author access to your head. Stories, especially well-written ones, are this strange, looking-glass phenomenon that only works when the telepathy between author and reader is activated.
There’s a purity to all of this, a hypnosis of verisimilitude. Our best writers today are probably all writing scripts and screenplays for TV and film, but that’s a can of worms I don’t want to drink from here. Suffice it to say that this extreme romantic vision of the lonely writer plugging away at improvising out of their dense imagination, using nothing but words to tell a story, is one of the few pure individualistic themes we have left in this culture.
And yet, now we have digital technology. I can add a soundtrack to my books. My ultimate vision is that you can opt to listen to music (recording permissions all taken care of) by clicking a button at the beginning of every chapter. Or, maybe I use something like Spotify. Ss long as you’re a subscriber, any song referenced in the story has a link to the Spotify system (Spotify says they pay copyright holders every time their songs are listened to). I don’t just talk about “Riders on the Storm,” you can listen to it as you read my words about it.
By now, you’ve seen book offerings that allow the reader to choose different scenarios. They call this interactive fiction. Beginning in the 1980s, network technology also made group writing games possible. I write a sentence, then someone else does, and someone else, etc. Bam! The end of the lonely author (of course, this kind of thing was going on just by passing around a sheet of paper or five dozen in creative writing classes and writers’ salons for decades before).
The multi-media element is now upon us with the power of iPads and KindleFires. Audio, visual, hotlink, and interactive stories are all being experimented with. Some writers, and they’re all probably over 30, feel this is a bastardization of what it means to be an author. It’s inevitable, of course, that these old fogies will die off soon enough. Maybe the simple concatenation of words as an art form will become so archaic that eventually no one will be able to develop the talent to create interesting word combinations and play with irony and tragedy on a purely linguistic level.
Over the past few weeks I worked on a video book trailer for my novel. Book trailers are all the rage in marketing for authors these days. Just google “book trailer.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re an indie author or you’ve signed on with a publishing house, to be competitive, and for your book to get noticed, you need a video. The problem is that many of these videos are like movie trailers. If you didn’t know you were looking at a book trailer, you’d be making plans to go out on a Friday night movie date after watching these extended advertisements with their beautiful actors and their Dolby sound effects and heavy beat music.
I don’t have the money, expertise, or patience to make a live-action video for my book. But I’m glad about that. A lot of authors are in my boat. We use a soundtrack of some sort and then slide in images as slides along with short text to tease and entice the viewer. My trailer (you can access it on the front page of this website) is probably a minute and a half too long at 2:40, but I love it anyway. The images are cool and unique (especially Tim Williams’ paintings), and the music is provocative and extremely original percussion work. I got permission to use it from the members of Global Illage, the band, and I know that virtually no one has ever heard it (I did pay a little for the public domain insect sounds).
I’m quite proud of what I created just using my little old Mac and getting permission from artists and musicians I admire. But I worry that all those higher end, live-action, pseudo movie trailers for novels have already muddled the standard for book trailers. I worry, in fact, that simply getting into the swing of things by creating my own trailer is contributing to a muddling of what authorship is supposed to mean.
As an example, if you watch my trailer, you will find slides picturing people depicting two of the main characters in my story. If you watch the trailer, then buy the book, those two images will possibly stick in your mind when you encounter both of these characters. My words will lose much of the magic of implication.
This phenomenon already exists, of course, because of cover-art, but you get the drift. There’s a slippery slope in all of this. My concern is that writers should at least be aware of what they’re doing and the perils of beginning to slide down that slippery slope.
I worked hard with my trailer to make it a hybrid promo piece but a bit poetic as well. Early versions were even funny at points and a bit off-color. The whole process was an experiment. My hope was that the creation of a video using words as originally and effectively as I could gave me the opportunity to produce something new and artistic. I’m still evaluating the result.
The same will be true for Beyond the Will of God: The Music Edition. Because of copyright issues, I will be using esoteric music. I may even make my own. I don’t have the resources yet to commission a score per se. But, as my wife says (and she is so much smarter than me), “What if people don’t like your choice of music?” Or, maybe more importantly, what if the music I work with creates the wrong kind of emotion? What if the reader is distracted, or just too influenced by what the music is saying?
The answer, of course, is to make sure there’s an On-Off button of some sort. It will also be necessary to include a preface of explanation and a suggestion to try this new idea, but to also be aware that you can just do what you’ve always done when you’re reading, which is to listen to your own music either on the stereo or through your ear-buds…or sit in silence if you are so inclined.
Some may feel I’m over-thinking the power of word purity here. I certainly don’t intend this as a judgement of what other writers want to commit to with new multi-media opportunities. Each of us will make our own decisions. And readers/audiences will render their judgements with reviews online, the power of their pocketbooks, and word-of-mouth.
It’s just that we’re at play out here on the frontier and no one really knows what makes sense anymore in the book world. Everything is open-ended and possible. At the same time, the act of using words and words alone is still a beguiling challenge, one that no one should take for granted.