Writer Wednesday | Mood Music: The Favorites

When I started “seriously” writing (in high school, no less), I started listening to music as I wrote. There wasn’t a lot of variety in the beginning. A friend burned a few soundtracks  – for the first Harry Potter film and the first two LOTR films – for a group of us, so I mainly relied on those. I slowly branched out, incorporating a lot of the Celtic music to which I’d grown up listening. I even managed to supplement my parents’ collection with some additions of my own discovery. I listen to Celtic music less frequently now; it mostly makes auditory appearances while I’m reading or driving. Soundtracks have become my primary “mood music” for writing. I tend to select music based on the mood I’m trying to capture in my prose, though sometimes I make selections based on how much time I plan to write or which iTunes playlist piques my interest that day. Today, I’ll introduce my favorites.

Dredd: First of all, did you see this movie? It was awesome. And it’s on Netflix Instant Watch (surviving the January 1st purge). I listen to this and I think of grit, tension, and dreamy fantasy. Which, oddly enough, describes a lot of what I end up writing.

Game of Thrones: No surprise here, since I wuv ASOIAF/GOT. The soundtracks for the first three seasons embody a range of characters and settings, and I find myself inspired to delve deeper into motivations and conflict, and perhaps invert/subvert a few tropes while I’m at it. Yeah, they’re pretty effective soundtracks.

Gladiator: I call this my “revenge pick.” It’s great for philosophical or weighty dialogue, and I’m surprised that my scenes don’t end up being a lot of “and I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next” or fields of wheat moments.

Harry Potter “Variety Hour”: I have the soundtracks for each movie, as well as the Prague Orchestra renditions. I could write all day and not make it through this playlist. There’s whimsy and wildness, though I do have to be careful that when I press shuffle I don’t end up hearing Hedwig’s Theme or Harry’s Wondrous World on repeat (yes, it happens).

LOTR: This is basically a nostalgia listen. Sometimes I beat myself up a little too much, and have little confidence in what I am producing. It’s a nice reminder that when I started writing, I did it for fun and to tell a compelling story. I didn’t know a lot then, I know a lot more now, and either way it’s something I love doing.

Pacific Rim: A recent addition, it’s lately been my Dredd substitute so I don’t burn out. It checks similar boxes (grit and tension), but it falls less on the fantasy side.

The Hunger Games: I have both films’ soundtracks in this playlist. When I listen, I hear hope, solitude, love, and disparity. There’s a nice contrast there, and I do love channeling those elements into my writing.

What would be on your bucket list? Why? 

Writer Wednesday | “Their dreams were full of songs and stories, the way hers had been…Sansa pitied them. Sansa envied them.”

Beware, there are spoilers below!

Last week, I wrote about the Red Wedding as a case study for my own personal writing masterclass. One of those lessons was “Tropes can work in your favor.” George R. R. Martin (GRRM) knows his fantasy tropes, and characters avoid feeling clichéd and repetitive because he changes up the narrative. I discussed Robb Stark in my post last week, so let’s give two other Stark kids the trope treatment: tomboy Arya Stark and girly-girl Sansa Stark.

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Now a silly one!

Now a silly one!

Arya Stark is our Action Girl. She hates all the things expected of a woman from a noble family. She hates needlepoint and loves her sword Needle. Her skills come in handy when she survives a brutal and ultimately fruitless “where in Westeros is Catelyn Stark?” quest. Arya starts to become a bit of an anti-hero with her shift from “noble daughter with tomboy tendencies” to “vengeful assassin.” I’m not kidding.

Sansa Stark is a naive “pretty girl.” She’s GRRM’s deconstructed Princess Classic. She wants to “have it all” like the ladies of songs and stories. That…doesn’t happen. Her betrothed Prince Joffrey is cruel, even (in some cases, especially) to Sansa. Her life at court becomes worse and worse, and Sansa eventually realizes that nothing is like the songs and stories. She’s a tragic figure, but she’s shifting from pure damsel in distress to political novice (IMO).

Arya and Sansa are foils for each other. They represent common female characters within fantasy, but GRRM changes the playing field on the reader. Arya descends into darker territory, which is especially evident when she murders someone in an alley. Sansa starts to wise up to the game of thrones after yet another traumatic family development, this time starring Aunt Lysa and political mentor/creeper Littlefinger. GRRM puts his characters in settings with other characters and conflict that force them to choose; over time, those choices deepen the characters and grow the story.

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Being fluent in a language goes beyond subject-verb agreements and conversational translations; it’s knowledge of slang and idioms. GRRM succeeds in transforming tropes through attention to detail: within his genre, within his world, within his timeline, and within his characters.

Arya and Sansa go behind character tropes. To me, Arya and Sansa represent fantasy readers. Through Arya, we seek vengeance; we want to see wrongs righted and villains pay for their crimes (one of Arya’s “catchphrases” is her repetition of names of people she wants to kill). Sansa is our innocent “wouldn’t living in medieval fantasy be such a lark?” escapism voice. Through Sansa, we slowly come to realize that no, it wouldn’t. The way we experience the narrative changes as well.

How can you use tropes to change your narrative, both within your manuscript and for the reader?

Writer Wednesday | “The wine will flow red. The music will play loud. And we’ll put this mess behind us.”

If you’ve managed to avoid spoilers for Game of Thrones S3 and the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), then you must teach me your ways. If you want to continue avoiding spoilers for the show/books, I suggest not reading this post. Seriously, though, teach me your ways before you go.

After the third season of Game of Thrones, many viewers were morose, shocked, or just downright pissed.

3up0hu

Oh, and this was before GreyRobb’s debut, one of the more graphic elements following the Red Wedding.

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I bet George R. R. Martin (GRRM) has the best parties.

The Young Wolf suffered the same fate as some of our other favorite male characters:

His father, Ned Stark

Renly Baratheon

Renly Baratheon

Khal Drogo

Sorry, I couldn't resist. Oh, Viserys.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Oh, Viserys Targaryen.

What was it about the Red Wedding that made it such an emotional event? From a reader’s perspective, the fact that it was experienced through Cat’s eyes (up until her death) made it poignant and heartbreaking: there was this sense of chaos and utter helplessness. Robb was Stark justice made corporeal. When Cat dies, she dies thinking her only living son was betrayed and murdered. GRRM excels at “show, don’t tell” – Robb never gets a POV chapter in any of the books, so we only know his character in relation to others. The relationship we see most often is mother to son. That connection deepens throughout the series as Cat begins to see Robb not just as Ned Stark’s son, but also as Ned Stark’s legacy. Robb also represents Cat’s strongest living tie to her husband, a man we know she truly loved. When Robb and Cat die at the Red Wedding, Cat still believes Bran and Rickon were killed in Winterfell; she doesn’t know where Arya is (alas, she’s right outside the gates). The Red Wedding is a brilliant piece of writing, and it’s a game-changer in A Storm of Swords. Loss or gain, it affects every character in some way because it shifts the balance of power – politically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.

Reading GRRM’s ASOIAF series has taught me a few things about writing, and the Red Wedding represents each of these elements.

  1. Death is essential. Keep in mind, of course, that this doesn’t always mean physical death (though the very small sampling above should indicate that physical death happens frequently in ASOIAF). You can also have professional death (“my career depends on this!”) and psychological death (“without X, I’m just not me!”). These sentiments are echoed in James Scott Bell’s advice, “you must put death on the line so fear can be felt throughout. Fear is a continuum—it can be simple worry or outright terror. You can put it everywhere. And you should.” If you didn’t know before, you definitely know it now: anyone can die.
  2. …however, death is not for shock value. GRRM is the master of meaningful deaths. The Red Wedding is brutal, but Robb and Cat’s deaths add new layers to some of the revenge/loyalty themes. It also creates massive shifts in the balance of power for other key players in Westerosi politics, like the Lannisters and the Boltons. Whether it’s physical, professional, or psychological, death should add depth to the work in some way, not just make the reader’s jaw drop.
  3. Build conflict. Take away what your characters love, need, or value most. GRRM does this in meaningful ways, often blending internal conflict and external pressure. Life is full of hard choices. What happens when your characters have to choose between two things they love most? One of the key events (if not the key event, political and military strategy be damned!) instigating the Red Wedding is Robb Stark’s honor. Will he keep his promise to marry a Frey daughter or will he marry Jeyne Westerling? Robb, erm, took Jeyne’s maidenhood. He either insults her and her family or he insults the Freys. Robb chooses Jeyne; the Freys betray the Starks (and bannermen) at the Red Wedding.
  4. Don’t fear cowardice. When conflict comes, there are those who stand up to challenges and meet them head-on. There are also those who opt for the easy way out – sometimes after plenty of deliberation and internal struggle, sometimes with minimal resistance. Cowardly can be complex, and it can also come from surprising characters. There’s a bit of debate as to whether one of the planners of the Red Wedding (ha), Tywin Lannister, took the “cowardly” out by scheming to slaughter the Starks & Co. Robb proved himself to be an adept military commander, and the Red Wedding was Tywin’s nuclear option to preventing a Lannister/Stark battle.
  5. Tropes can work in your favor. Our Young Wolf is also a Young Conqueror. He’s set up to avenge his father (Joffrey, you idiot). Like his father, Robb is betrayed and beheaded. Hey, it’s not a cliché if you change the narrative…

Next week: A sort-of companion piece that explores tropes in genre fiction through an ASOIAF fan favorite and an ASOIAF oft-unappreciated personal favorite.

What books taught you more about your own writing?