Monday, June 14, 2010

The Lost Chord: Finishing the Rough Draft

UPDATE: You can now read the novel as it's serialized on this blog.

Yesterday, I finished the rough draft of “The Lost Chord,” my musical parody of Dan Brown's “The Lost Chord” – a total of 473 pages and 183,365 words. Officially, I started writing it on November 1st, 2009, and finished 64,038 words as part of the NaNoWriMo Challenge, to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November, National Novel Writing Month. I kept going for a couple more days and then put it aside to get back to work on the song cycle I was composing at the time, “The Other Side of Air.” When that was finished on March 1st, I decided to return to the novel and, with any luck, finish it but without the daily tally of words working toward a monthly goal. Working fairly steadily on it, though sometimes reaching a speed bump here, a brick wall there, sometimes taking a day or three off to allow things to gestate, I managed to complete the first step of the process of writing a novel yesterday morning.

Now that the rough draft is done, it's time to go back and do a few re-writes – filling in a couple of sections where I left minor details go or where, as things tend to evolve when characters begin to develop more on their own, going back to correct some details or clarify some back-story. Then of course there's the issue of simple editing – finding a better word, tightening up a phrase, fleshing out one thing or trimming the fat off another, making sure the characters' names are spelled the same way, the eyes haven't changed color and that verbs agree with nouns.

Soon, I will start posting it on-line at Thoughts on a Train where it will be accessible through a special link, a page that will include just the installments of the novel. There will also be “continued from” and “continued to” links in each post for ease of navigation so if you miss a couple of posts, it will be fairly painless to catch up.

There are 24 chapters in all but some of them are quite long. I'd like to keep the posts between 2,000 to 5,000 words each, so the chapters will be broken up into more convenient post-sized segments.

And what if you haven't read Dan Brown's “The Lost Symbol”?

Never fear – I tried to make my story complete in itself so that you can still follow it as a story on its own. Of course, the element of parody – and not just with Brown's novel – is very strong throughout, so if you have read it, you will enjoy another element of it beyond the surface level of the story.

The Schoenberg Code,” my serial novel in 12 chapters about a serial killer inspired by a secret message found in a score by a serial composer, was a parody of Brown's earlier “The Da Vinci Code,” the element of parody was more broad: his story suggested a parallel story that loosely followed the original plot. That parody – only about 45,000 words – was written differently, as well: the first chapter (originally all I had intended) was a spoof of the novel's opening scene and the movie's trailer, but several people enjoyed it so much they said I should do the whole story. So over the course of the remaining weeks before the movie came out, I wrote the rest of it on the installment plan, reading a few chapters and then turning that into my parody of it, posting each chapter as I went along. So basically, I had no idea how the novel would end until I got there.

With “The Lost Symbol,” I read the whole book – got it the day it was released and finished it in less than four days – then started outlining it, chapter by chapter (and there are 133 short chapters plus a prologue and epilogue, a challenge to keep track of but convenient for short attention spans and for converting into a film script). However, I was busy working on the songs at the time and didn't want to put that aside until I could safely take a break, and that coincided with National Novel Writing Month which began on November 1st. The curious thing, the story takes place on November 4th, so there were details I would need to know which hadn't happened yet. Of course, now, seven months later, I'm trying not to include details that have happened since then – nothing topical either in the arts or in the current news – because, looking back on the day it took place, all that would be in the future.

As I was reading the book, I took some notes, jotted down some ideas, came up with some plot points and character names. Though all the main characters are fictional, I knew once I got to the chapters with the old, blind Dean of the National Cathedral, a very key figure in the unwinding of the plot, I would make an exception. While almost everybody and everything in Brown's novel would have its “musical equivalent” in my version of the story, and instead of Masons and masonic mysteries I would be dealing with composers and musical secrets, the elder Mason at the cathedral would become senior composer Elliott Carter who, a month later, would be celebrating his 101st birthday. The scenes with him involve two new compositions he was working on at the time- the wind quintet “Nine by Five” which was eventually premiered in February of 2010 and the song cycle “What Are Years” which will be premiered later this summer. At the time I was writing the scene with him, the quintet had just been premiered and while I knew the song cycle was being premiered, I didn't know when it was written. As it turned out, I found a reference to it that he was working on it in November and December, so I went back and altered a detail that involved a flash of inspiration that was originally to go into the quintet but now became something “for a new song cycle.”

And of course, I didn't want to put words in Mr. Carter's mouth where the conversation around the plot-points focused on composition and creativity, so I adapted ideas and lines found in numerous interviews – of which there were many during his Centennial Year – and found additional details about the setting from Frank Scheffer's wonderful documentary on the composer, “A Labyrinth of Time.”

This shows the composer at work at his desk with frequent glances out the windows of the apartment he'd lived in since the mid-1940s with its skyline view including the World Trade Center and then, later, somewhat ominously, without it. In terms of what a composer's work-space would look like, there was factual documentation. In terms of a realistic location, I didn't want to give away Carter's actual address, of course – unlike Brown who sets up his novels with the accuracy of a tour-guide, down to the street addresses (the unnamed building which later becomes an important plot-point is introduced on page 1 as a “colossal edifice, located at 1733 Sixteenth Street NW in Washington D.C.”) – but I knew about where it might be located from information in the DVD or in other sources that referenced it on-line. I only needed some vague mention of neighborhoods and subway lines that would get my characters within a few blocks of it.

While the premise of my parody is often comedic – with sub-parodies from the Marx Brothers' film, 'A Night at the Opera' or a reworking of Abbott & Costello's “Who's on First” routine, not to mention most of the characters' names – it also gets into a serious story, discussing creativity and how composers might compose. As Brown gives many historical details about the ideas or buildings involved in his story, there are many details about mine that make it reasonable for someone who enjoys classical music to gain some insights into this whole mystery of creativity. Some of it is told with the same obfuscatory sense of mumbo-jumbo Brown sometimes employs but also, hopefully, with some illumination behind it so a reader might actually, well... appreciate the music a little more.

And if not, all is not lost: the names might appear kind of silly, but not understanding them doesn't mean you wouldn't get what's going on. I'm not a fan of the kind of “pop culture reference” – especially the dated ones – where names or facts are tossed off and if you don't get it, you're like “what the hell was that all about?”

Oh, and speaking of “what the hell,” thats' one of Brown's vastly overused locutions throughout the book. Some critics also complained about his use of italics which they seem to think was meant for emphasis but which anyone reading with half a brain (preferably their right brain) would realize were un-voiced thoughts. I mean, what the hell did they really think was going on, here?

One of the parodies, of course, is my hero. Since “The Schoenberg Code” was a kind of “Dr. Dick Mystery” where Brown's symbologist Robert Langdon was turned into my “altered ego,” Dr. Dick, I ended up continuing the role in the newer novel. In a way, the Dr. Dick in these novels is a caricature of myself, the know-it-all fact-dropping pseudo-intellectual 'expert' that began life when I was a grad-assistant at the Eastman School of Music and developed further while I was teaching at the University of Connecticut, long before it was turned into my on-air persona when I worked for the local public broadcasting station here in Central Pennsylvania. Curiously, he never actually succeeds in accomplishing anything during the course of “The Lost Chord,” much less actually in solving the mystery, but then much the same could be said for Don Giovanni in Mozart's opera, but I digress...

In Brown's novel, Robert Langdon quipped to a student that “googling was not the same as research,” so naturally I used Google and plundered Wikipedia for practically every detail in my story that was not based on personal memory or first-hand knowledge. This involved what was going on in New York the night the story takes place – everything from the Yankees winning the World Series to watching video scenes from 'The Barber of Seville' or 'A Night at the Opera,' to checking maps and looking at google-cams for street views around Lincoln Center. Considering my experience in New York City since I lived there between 1978 and 1980 was limited to a very few visits since then (and other than the occasional concert run-in, so to speak, only one extended visit since 2001), I needed not only to refresh my memory but also to up-date it with what a current visitor in the city might see. At one point, I referenced a building in the Columbus Circle area that I remembered well, having walked past it frequently before, only to discover in an article about something else completely that the building in question had been torn down some 25 years ago...

On May 15th, I made another of those quick in-and-out day-trips, this time a locally organized on-your-own bus-trip that happily coincided with a performance of Alban Berg's “Lulu” I wanted to see at the Metropolitan Opera House. I met my friend Dan who guided me around Lincoln Center in the brief time we had before and after the performance, who pointed out what was new and different in the on-going restorations there but also remembering “this wasn't open in November” or “I think that was already done by early November.”

We checked out the block where I'd originally planned on locating the villain's brownstone but once I saw it, I realized there were so few of them there, it would almost be like giving the address – not that I would expect fans taking “The Lost Chord Tour” would be bothering people who lived in the only brownstone on that block. But, in walking back to Broadway, we checked out a block of W.69th Street. Here were a whole bunch of brownstones including a few that were not brown but gray which prompted Dan to say “so you could call it a flintstone instead” – perfect, considering one of my villain's many disguises was the composer Dr. Iobba Dhabbodhú!

Since the street-cams always showed details I needed covered by a passing city bus or a parked moving van, there were things I had to check personally. One of those was Verdi Square which I didn't even know had been Verdi Square all those times I walked past it at 72nd & Broadway! Looking at the map, I had assumed there was an entrance to the park on the southeast corner, so there was a very major clue that I set up with that in mind. Well, I was very disappointed that the park itself is actually so small, it's just a plot of green (more daffodil leaves than grass) completely fenced in by a wrought-iron railing so the whole idea of having someone going in to walk around the park and the Verdi statue was impossible.

There were also things that were completely inaccurate, due to lack of on-line information: the maps I found about the “concourse” level of Lincoln Center still baffle me since I think there were references to the Lincoln Center corporate offices being located under the fountain and there were blocks underneath the various buildings that were either basements of those buildings or a whole underground system of storage rooms (one article mentioned a Met rehearsal room on the third basement level). So I created this whole subterranean network of storage pods and scene shops that, if they didn't exist, should have.

When I found mention that the actual scene-building shop was on the fourth floor above the Met stage, I had to convert the shop I'd created underneath the Met lobby area into a scene storage room where already completed sets for up-coming productions were held until they were needed. So it will take a little bit of rewriting to bring it closer in line with what might be reality. There wasn't time to take a back-stage tour to get the official lay-of-the-land but I figured, what the hell – some things would be more visible as verisimilitude and others, less important, could be fictionalized. Considering what was going to be happening in this story, how likely was it someone would say “this couldn't have happened” because there were no storage facilities or empty space for LauraLynn's research lab underneath the Met?

And I didn't really want to start e-mailing the information desk at the public library next to the Met, asking about things like “is there access to the Met's roof” (where a violinist had been murdered back in 1980, so obviously, yes there was, but how would one get there?) or “would it be possible to knock out part of the Met's back wall along Amsterdam Avenue using a small bomb exploding in the basement?” Even if I tried to explain what I was doing, how long do you think it would take for the FBI to show up on my doorstep?

As it was, after I took a quick walk through the first floor of the library there, I said to Dan as we left through the lobby, “great – they even have a freight elevator right there” but which could, I imagine, have been misunderstood by the security guard standing behind me. Fortunately, I hadn't added something like “to get the body down from the roof”...

Now, I'm sure Dan Brown spent lots of time doing research – perhaps even had a staff of researchers running down such details for him – but part of the fun of writing this was finding all the information I needed on-line. It was also interesting to realize, even though I'm not writing historical fiction which ought to have some semblance of factuality in its locations, how much I really should have been paying attention to such things when I was walking around there. It would be so much easier just to create an entirely fictional city as I'd tried to do in an early and still unfinished novel.

Still, having read Brown's book through once and then rereading each chapter as I was preparing my parody, I still wasn't sure how the story would actually end – I mean, what the musical equivalent would be of this segment or that idea.

At one point, though it had no parallel in Brown's story, I interpolated a scene that was parodied from James Joyce's “Ulysses.” This may seem a far stretch, considering the pop culture references or the general populist nature of Brown's books. But as I had already turned one climactic scene into a parody combining the interview between the Devil and the fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann's “Dr. Faustus” along with the famous chess game with Death in Bergman's “The Seventh Seal,” at some point I needed something to be going through the villain's mind as he was preparing for the high-point of the story, the dastardly deed itself (so to speak) but which, in an interesting turn, could be considered a mash-up of things going through three different characters' minds at the same time. The line in Brown was a Latin phrase – “Verbum significatium, verbum omnificum” – but what popped into my head, needing something musical, was actually a line from James Joyce – “the ineluctable modality of the visible” – which I turned into “the ineluctable tonality of the audible.” This famous line begins what is actually the 'third chapter' of “Ulysses” called 'Proteus' by editors pointing out the parallels between Homer's “Odyssey” and Joyce's day-in-the-life of Dublin, June 16th 1904.

Now, as it turned out, Proteus is a shape-shifter, the Old Man of the Sea in Greek mythology. Considering all the transformations the villain undergoes in Brown's story, a reference to Proteus seemed rather apt though not something I'd care to over-do. (Another coincidence: my villain is also known as Tr'iTone after the musical interval often called 'The Devil in Music' and Proteus is related to the Tritons of Greek myths.)

More importantly, one of the final moments involves Langdon's epiphany with the phrase, “E pluribus unum.” Even as I started writing that chapter, I still had no idea how I would parallel this line. Eventually, I brought back the ineluctable tonality of the audible, turning “tonality” into a term that was usually misunderstood from its original meaning (however specious it might be in my instance), as Brown had pointed out with both “apocalypse” and “atonement.”

Another crucial elusion – that is, something that continued to elude me up to the very last minute – was Brown's “The secret is knowing how to die” which figures not only in a key scene between the villain and his chief victim, but is actually the opening line of “The Lost Symbol.”

I think I had taken a two-day hiatus from writing “The Lost Chord” while I tried to figure this out before I could move ahead. In the midst of something else entirely, it occurred to me how the 19th Century imagined the “suffering artist” – Beethoven going deaf, Schubert dying at an early age – when I realized my line should be “the secret is knowing how to suffer.”

Having now gotten over several log-jams blocking the ending of the book, I was finally able to finish the epilogue – which still took several days because, as a summary of many of the philosophical aspects concerning creativity in my book, it was trying to turn itself into a summary of Alex Ross's “The Rest Is Noise” – and then go back to write the brief prologue.

And so it has come full circle.

And today I'm sitting here realizing "I just finished writing a novel!" What the hell...?

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