Tuesday, November 25, 2008


It’s official. I’m a winner!

At midnight this morning – well, last night, staying up to be able to do so – I submitted my word-count to NaNoWriMo, where November is National Novel Writing Month. The goal is for everyone who signs up for it to write 50,000 words toward a novel. If you finish the novel, that’s great, too, but basically it’s just to get 50,000 words down on paper (or in a computer file) that you might otherwise never manage to do, given the realities of the world. I’m not sure why they chose November but for three years, I’d thought about doing it – taking “the challenge” – but didn’t think I’d have the time.

Last year, I was in the midst of composing the song cycle “Evidence of Things Not Seen” and knew if I put the music aside to write a novel, I would probably not get the songs done in time (their goal was to be finished by February, 2008) and quite possibly if I put it aside for a month, I might not be able to get back into them after a month’s hiatus and then they’d never get done. And regardless of everything else in my life, music always comes first.

And this year, well... being among the millions of unemployed Americans out there, I certainly had the time. My primary concern was getting the “Aria and Chaconne” finished before I started and I was so close. Luckily, I completed the first draft of it on Saturday, November 1st and then that evening, began work on “Echoes in and out of Time.” NaNoWriMo had begun!

NaNoWriMo exists because there are many people who enjoy reading novels who often thought they would like to try to write one themselves. It’s not a contest for published authors, though I imagine they could sign up, too. There are no prizes, either – no cash award, no publisher’s contract – beyond the satisfaction of being able to say “I wrote a novel!”

Or at least wrote 50,000 words (which is not exactly chump change, writing that much in a month). There should be no illusions that suddenly fame and fortune are going to come your way, certainly in my case. It’s not like I’m going to give up my day job, if I had one.

But there is a sense of accomplishment – and a creative sense which is different than just getting through the daily routine and its challenges and its deadlines – and I figure after having worked for 18 years in a place where I was never happy doing what I was doing, it was fun to sit down every morning at the computer and work on the novel and to come up with something that, at least on a personal level, I’m proud of. It felt pretty damn good to download their little “you’re a winner” stickers.

The only other award I won during 18 years at the radio station, by the way, was when I wrote a column for the magazine which somebody had decided to call “The Well-Tempered Listener.” It was amusing that some area businessman’s council gave me first place in whatever category my column was eligible for. The winning article “Of Beans and Bruckner” told the story about how two women discussing their recipes for Bean Soup managed to destroy a performance of Anton Bruckner’s mammoth 9th Symphony by talking during the New York Philharmonic concert.

What was especially rewarding about going up to receive this award was walking past the editor/publisher guy who a week or so before had told me I would need to cut the articles from 750 words back to about 400 or less and then, when I declined – “some of my paragraphs are 400 words long” – he then canceled the column. It was not my best article and their recognition meant nothing to me considering I didn’t have it from my editor in the first place, so there was a kind of plangent irony in the whole thing. It was like feeling good about a special program I may have done for broadcast (which I still get compliments about today, 11 years later) only to be told by my boss it “wasn’t good radio.” (Which explains one of the reasons I am no longer in radio today: the music always comes first.)

This award – and NaNoWriMo does offer a printable certificate you can download as a pdf to print, frame and hang – is another one of those feel-good awards whose primary purpose is to boost your self-esteem.

I have a shelf full of compositions that give me the same satisfaction even though only a few people have heard only two of them. The fact I can look at a score I wrote and say “I wrote this” and “I think it’s a good piece” is important to me, knowing that I could have slapped something together in less time, just to have 30 pages of score. If it would be performed, I would like to hear it and say “I did a good job on that one” whether other people liked it or not. It’s not easy to let it go into the world so people can hear it and say “I hate this” or “I’ve heard better.”

You’re not going to put NaNoWriMo’s “sticker” on the front cover of your book if you do get it published because it’s not going to have the same impact that “Winner of the Booker Prize” or “Chosen by Oprah” would have on sales.

Not everybody who signed up is going to automatically win. You still have to write 50,000 words and not everybody had the time, the concentration or the ability to get that much done. With six days to go, some are still only half-way there. One friend of mine is knee-deep in anguish with a dead computer and 23,000 words of his novel trapped inside it and no external back-up.

True, you could write 500 words and then copy-and-paste it 100 times until you hit 50,000 of them, but if you’re going to feel smug about winning, then, you probably have never been caught cheating at solitaire, either.

The key, of course, is to develop the momentum and creative flow that you can show up on the page and just write. I treated it like the job I don’t have with the same discipline as if I were getting paid to do this and blast my way through the interior editor who tells you “that’s not the right word” or “that’s stupid” or “you really think people are going to buy your book when there are all these great authors out they can read?”

The other key is to avoid going back to edit until you’re actually done – or at least done enough – that you don’t end up spending time on the later stages of writing or throwing things out before you know how useful they’re going to be. I left some things open – writing in “[NAME]” if I didn’t have time to come up with the right name for a passing character – rather than spend time trying to come up with the perfect detail. There was back-story I found myself writing which probably wouldn’t go here but might be useful there (but I hadn’t gotten there yet, or maybe it should go back there, instead).

As of yesterday, I had 52,488 words (according to NaNoWriMo’s word-count verifier application) but that’s 52,488 words of a rough draft, not a completed novel ready to published. You don’t get a final draft of something you’ve never taken the time to write down in the first place. Now, I can do that.

Procrastination, pure and simple, was a big issue. There were times when I found myself writing scenes that required “fact checking.” What do you call this kind of “piece-of-furniture” and would it have been found in a house built in the 1890s? There was a photograph of one of the characters taken with Stravinsky – how old would Stravinsky have been when my character would have been this age; since he was in Chicago at the time, could Stravinsky have been in Chicago around that time? Luckily today, there is Google – and I didn’t have to run into the State Library to track down this information. Not only did I find Stravinsky would have been in Chicago in 1965 – for the world premiere of the “Huxley” Variations, another detail I could add – I also found there’s a crater on Mercury named for him (see right) and it’s a much bigger crater than the one named for Schoenberg.

Since one of my characters is named after his grandfather who was from Luxembourg and had died in World War II, I wanted to verify some facts about the setting. I knew that the Low Countries had been overrun by the Nazis in 1940, but I wasn’t sure what took place specifically in Luxembourg. I found far more information than I needed for my scene – for instance, that Hitler rationalized the unprovoked invasion of the Low Countries in order to ward off the possible invasion by the British and the French who could attack western Germany through Belgium, a move that today we would call a “pre-emptive strike” – but it gave me the confidence to know that, fiction aside, I was not making this up.

There were lists of details to be made about characters and their relationships to each other, making sure a character’s eyes weren’t blue in this scene and brown later on or that their ages were consistent. I caught myself having a major character born at a certain year but then realizing if his mother was born when I made a passing reference to her age at another time, that meant she would have been 11 when her son was born. That sort of thing.

Now, this novel has been on my mind at some level or another off and on for about 30 years. I had started toying with it when I lived in New York City in 1978, some thoughts already surfacing when I was still teaching at UConn. Over the decades, the characters have developed and changed and grown old along with me. What began as a “coming-of-age” novel for a young composer has since become a “coming-of-old-age” novel as a composer approaches retirement and looks back on his career! Many of the main characters are the same but they too have changed and grown older, some became wiser and some of them died. There was, if nothing else, more of a story to tell, now.

The premise is still the same. The young(er) composer, having found himself stuck with a severe case of Writer’s Block, decides he’s going to write a biography of his teacher and mentor who has also, it turned out, stopped composing because of Writer’s Block. In unearthing his teacher’s story, he discovers more about his own.

Originally, it was going to be two simultaneous stories. Actually, the very first idea was that the composers’ stories were superimposed on a parallel short story written in the 1880s by a man who lived in the same house where the old(er) composer lives.

I have long been fascinated by “contrapuntal time” in music. This plan would alternate chapter by chapter. But as I reduced the importance of “writing the biography” to a reliance more on observations, it occurred to me these should be overlapped in more complex ways until it essentially becomes ones story – my narrator becoming barely aware of the difference between his experiences and his observations about his teacher’s.

Then, in 2006 or so, I began working out a way of accomplishing this. I didn’t like the idea of just sitting down and starting on page 1 and hopefully writing straight through to page 342 or whatever. I don’t write music that way any more: I know where it’s going to end, I know exactly how I’m going to get there. So I decided to structure the novel the same way I would structure a piece of music.

I’d also thought my next major work – whether it’s a piano quintet or a symphony (or both) – would be in the usual four or five movements but they would not occur consecutively: they would overlap and sneak in and out of one another and progress in bits and pieces but not in chronological sequence. I wanted to see if this could work in prose, too.

Having read Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” (or “Remembrances of Things Past” as it had been translated for most of the last century) and also a few novels of Virginia Woolf, the stream of consciousness fascinated me but not as much as what I jokingly called the “stream of unconsciousness.” When we sit and reminisce, the story we remember sometimes begins in the middle and, if there’s a point in common with another memory, we’re off in a tangent and sometimes we never do get to the end of the original memory.

Memory is not neat and well-packaged like a chronological story. And since I had come up with my working title “Echoes in and out of Time” back in the early-‘80s when I had read Thomas Wolfe’s “Of Time and the River” – and heard George Crumb’s orchestral piece “Echoes of Time and the River” (long before there was ever a radio station in my life which airs a New Age program that still grates against my brain), it seemed more and more logical to let the 1st Person Narrator’s memories slip back and forth between the different stages of his life and those he has observed of his teacher’s life like a series of echoes.

In one passage I wrote the other day, the teacher explained to the narrator how our minds work when we hear snippets of music that just pop into our heads, “like an old juke-box only when you put the quarter in, you don’t know what’s going to drop down and play.” There may be a pattern in one tune that reminds you of a pattern in another and suddenly you find yourself off in a different piece of music all together. And the same things work for memories.

Being a structuralist with my music carefully mapped out bar by bar, I decided to work out a plan that’s similar to chaos theory where you look for a scientific explanation for randomness.

I had a copy of Georges Perec’s “Life: A User’s Manual” in which there are 100 chapters. It’s set in an apartment building in Paris and each chapter is about a different room in the building, its tenants and its guests. There’s a randomness to the order and technically you could read them in any order you want by just opening the book and starting a chapter – a very I Ching-like approach – or by following the numbers the author lists in which they would happen in a room-to-room sequence. Even though each chapter may involve different times in the lives of those tenants and their individual stories, the basic story takes place all at the same minute – the moment when the central character dies.

Perec mapped out his 100 rooms and found his pattern by superimposing on it “a knight’s tour” (see left). In other words, placing a knight from a chess board on one block and then letting it follow its normal pattern this way and that across the board until all 100 blocks have been covered without repeating any of them. This is not as easy as it sounds, so when I tried this with 100 episodes for my Echoes, I ended up just using Perec’s pattern. If Beethoven and Brahms both used “sonata-allegro form,” why should I try to create a completely original way of using the same recognizable features as the basis for my underlying skeleton?

Perec also imposed other restrictions on his 100 blocks. Each one would have certain elements that would pre-determine the subject matter or the way its presented. I chose to imply the Narrator’s Age, different times of year and times of the day. By arranging it so the starting point will take place on the same day at the same age as the final one, I then rearranged them to match the order my “knight’s tour” had created.

These ages were a little broad, encompassing a period of the Narrator’s life – a student in college, a man on the verge of retirement – so an episode from his childhood may follow something that happened to him when he was in his mid-40s. By the time we reach the end, we will have had his entire life-story but not always told in order by “major events” – though those do occur at significant structural points along the way. Many of these events might seem too insignificant for a biography but they are the things we ourselves remember – like Citizen Kane and the importance of “Rosebud.”

I further divided these 100 episodes into five sections – movements, like a symphony. In fact, the opening (consisting of the first 23 episodes) is very much a sonata-allegro form with an exposition of two themes, a development section, a recapitulation and a coda. The first theme is made up of memories about himself and the other main characters in his life – his wife, his teacher, his parents and his best friend from childhood. The second theme deals with “creativity” – how he met his teacher and why he wanted to study with him; discussing “finding your voice” with a student of his own whose name he could not remember; a visit to his teacher’s home, now that they are both middle-aged and just friends; making the transition from being a college student to a graduate student with a more specific professional path opening up to him. In the development section, these ideas interact or conflict: an idyllic scene on his friend’s farm one summer afternoon after college graduation followed by the flare-up with his freshman comp teacher over matters of integrity; how his dreams of being a composer impact his personal life and so on. In the recapitulation, which I haven’t worked out yet, these same characters and conflicts recur at different stages in his life and therefore from different viewpoints.

The other parts are more vague: it would be difficult to have 37 episodes be the equivalent of a slow movement (theme and variations). So it occurred to me, if the episodes themselves are non-chronological, why should the movements of the symphony be? And so I am working out another “restriction” on the remaining episodes that mean this one (from his childhood) would be humorous, followed by that one (from his first college teaching job) would be dramatic followed by a description of his idyllic stay at a writer’s colony where the only thing he had to do, day in and day out, was compose. This might lead to an episode dealing with his divorce or remembering from his childhood a neighbor’s suicide. I’m still working on how I might take that original chronological ordering and convert it into “slow (idyllic) movement” or “scherzo” or “finale” (and what constitutes, in this sense, a finale, anyway?).

The bonus to this kind of structure was having a three-page map divided into rows with all of these different restrictions regarding age (which implied setting) and time of year (which could imply mood or event) written down. Most of them have something written in, more specific than the usual name-rank-serial number. It was like writing 100 short stories: if I got stuck with where one was going or what the next one would be like, I could look at my map, find something on the next page, 52 episodes away, and say “I feel like writing this one today.” Or I want something that could take place in the winter when he's in his 50s: what episode would fit that? Like my chess piece, I was jumping around a lot over the last three weeks – even the nine consecutive episodes already completed from Part 1 were not written in successive order.

There was a time when I had also worked out the proportions of everything according to the Golden Section. The main structural points were determined by the same ratios and proportions I was using in my music. I think I went too far with it in the novel, though, because each episode’s length became pre-determined: this episode would be 2,139 words followed by one of 1,327 words – give or take. I even wrote the first sentence strictly according to the Golden Section with key words at the main structural points. This led to each sentence evolving into a similar proportion which became ridiculous after a while because the last sentence of each episode would have to be only a few words long and so that much of the plan was scrapped. But the opening episode, reflected in the much shorter final episode – essentially the mirror of the opening – would include those same key words at the same structural points. I might still do that, not that anyone would notice that from reading it, the same way no one would be aware of it in my music or even of other technical applications of music theory to what you are listening to, aspects that do not have to be appreciated to be enjoyed. The trick is to make it enjoyable first and allow its substructure to make it work on a deeper level.

Another thing: the first episode takes place as the Narrator is getting ready to go to a concert. The last one takes place as the Narrator is going home after the concert. Everything in between is like a memory that occurs to him during the course of the evening – perhaps sparked by the music he’s hearing or the people he sees or the friends in the audience he runs into. The main work on the program is Mahler’s 6th Symphony and my idea was to incorporate certain aspects of this rather terrifying piece into the novel, including the three hammer-blows in the final movement that, to Mahler, represented the blows of fate that affected his musical hero, the third of which “fells him like a tree.” In fact, Mahler became so superstitious about these hammer-blows – after the death of his daughter and the diagnosis of the heart condition which eventually killed him at the age of 50 – he removed the third hammer-blow from the score whenever he’d conduct it.

At the main structural point (phi) of my novel, I incorporated one of these musical juke-box moments when he’d hear something from Mahler’s 6th in his head. What happened at the “main structural point” of Mahler’s symphony, not that he was necessarily thinking in those terms when he wrote it? It also depends on how you’d figure it out: by the number of measures or by the amount of time that’s passing (which varies from performance to performance). By using both methods, it comes up very close to the introduction of the weirdest, most disturbing music in Mahler’s score, this perverse chorale in low clarinets and bassoons. Usually we think of chorales as up-lifting and spiritual but this sounds completely evil and negative. And curiously, it would correspond to a very evil and negative aspect of the story in my novel: perfect! I also realized, incidentally, no matter how many times I’ve heard Mahler’s 6th (never live, though), that it is the polar opposite of the victory expressed in Brahms’ 1st Symphony! The openings with their measured treads, the use of chorales, the ever-sweeping hope and aspiration that in Brahms becomes affirmative but in Mahler is defeated and destroyed, so many parallels but like looking at the negative of a photograph, not at the photograph itself.

And so that is how I spent my last month: turning 30 years of thoughts into a novel.

Now, just because I’ve reached the 50,000 word goal – wow, over the goal and ahead of schedule (is there a big bonus in this for me? LOL) - doesn’t mean the novel is finished or that I’m done writing it. In fact, so far, I only have 18 of those 100 episodes written (most of the major ones, though). I can still work till November 30th to get as much done as I can – that’s NaNoWriMo gravy on this turkey – but it also means that, in the future, when I’m not working on a composition or when I’m having a bad day with the music, maybe I can pick up my map and say “let’s work on Episode 23 today” (it beats watching TV) and gradually get a little further until, perhaps someday, it will be finished.

And who knows – I might be able to do that now. But if the future is anything like the last 30 years, chances would be good I’d never even get it started if I hadn’t taken the NaNoWriMo Challenge. In that sense, I certainly do feel like a winner!

(Another 4,147 words down the hatch...)

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