Art

I’ve Got a Theory: musical theatre and writing

 

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You could argue that one of the reasons I’ve neglected the blog so long is because I fell down the “Hamilton Heavy Rotation” hole. Yes, that’s a thing. “Guns and Ships” on my headphones, over and over and over. However, I’m also pretty certain that repeat listening to two of the cleverest musicals out there – in the shape of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s HAMILTON, and Tim Minchin & Dennis Kelly’s MATILDA – has given me some new ideas about writing fiction. (And this, kids, is why musical theatre is dangerous. It Makes People Think.)

I’m not going to be exhaustive, partly because I’m not clever enough and partly because I don’t want to get bogged down in the specifics of each musical – I’ll either spoil them for you or you already know what I’m talking about. And if you don’t know anything about either musical (or have no interest in either) then I’m sorry but you’re probably going to come out of this hating me because I am very musical theatre people. Regardless, I’m going to stick with the two big points I think I’ve found and which I know stand up for me, at least.

The basics: HAMILTON is the unlikely smash inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography of American founding father, Alexander Hamilton. Written, scored & led by Lin-Manuel Miranda, its musical numbers are mostly pop, rap and R&B and its Broadway cast of BAME actors is tremendous. It’s a juggernaut. It’s wonderful – I promise.

MATILDA is, of course, the musical developed by the RSC based on Roald Dahl’s novel – especially notable for the fact its songs & lyrics are by Tim Minchin (which means any actors brave enough to audition for the formidable role of Miss Trunchbull are required to demonstrate absolute precision in their vocal performances).

The most obvious link between these two and writing fiction is that both involve storytellers or writers. Hamilton is concerned with writing his own narrative and that of his new nation; creating a legacy that will outlive him. Words are his weapons and they are both his making and his undoing. It’s also, as my friend Louie Stowell pointed out in a conversation we had, very clearly a musical by a writer – that is, somebody embedded in the specific process of writing, rather than composing. (There’s more to unpack here, but again… not clever enough and I’ll just tie myself up in knots in the process.)

Meanwhile, stories and books are so deeply threaded through MATILDA that you can’t unpick them – however, an important addition to the musical  from the book is a subplot in which Matilda tells a story about an escapologist and an acrobat to her friendly local librarian [shout-out to librarians here] and in the process uncovers the life stories of Miss Honey and Miss Trunchbull.

With me so far, maggots?

74388Jolly good.

There’s definitely enough material for a couple of serious and learned academic essays looking at the way stories are used in the narratives of these musicals (just as Hamilton is obsessed with framing his own story, so Matilda says the stories she tells just come to her: “… these stories delivered to me ready-written” [Quiet] and yet somehow they turn out to be true) that’s another blog post or twelve.

What’s struck me about both Matilda and Hamilton is that both contain lessons for fiction writers.

The first one is theme – or rather, layers of themes. Listen carefully to the cast recording of HAMILTON. Then listen to it again, specifically for repetition. Once you start hearing it, it’s everywhere: a musical phrase dropped in, a line from a song repeated with a different inflection or by a different character. (Because the ensemble pieces can be incredibly dense – in a good way – it’s easiest to pick up in Angelica & Eliza’s parts, their voices and personalities threading through the whole narrative.) It’s used to particularly poignant effect in Hamilton’s last song, too.

Miranda has specifically referred to another musicalLES MISERABLES as having been influential in this, but it’s a technique that easily transfers to fiction. Repeated phrases, images, foreshadowing, callbacks – not just in plot but in character. Think about the way a film score often assigns a musical phrase or theme to a major character, and finds ways to bring the individual themes together in harmony. So does HAMILTON, layering musical phrases and lyrics together to create new patterns with every new interaction.

Yes, it sounds like I’ve lost my mind. I know. Bear with me.

If you take this idea and apply it to fiction, you’re already losing one of the major components: music. However, the same principle still applies. It’s about the words, the phrases, the repetition (both foreshadowing and calling back); even the movements and facial expressions of a character. The pauses. The gaps in what they say. The words associated with them, the mood they create. If each character has their own colour thread in the tapestry – just as HAMILTON’s Angelica Schuyler has “Satisfied”, for example – then it weaves through the whole cloth, sometimes visible, sometimes not… but always identifiable.

Lin-Manuel Miranda might be is a bit of a genius.

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Then there’s the other thing.

Vocabulary.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen and heard author friends complain about their “crutch phrases” during the editing process. We all have them: usually, they’re verbs like “looked” or “turned” or “reached for”. I’m particularly guilty of people grinning and frowning. There’s a lot of grinning and frowning, often done by the same person at opposite ends of a sentence.

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Being in one of my books is AN EMOTIONAL JOURNEY. Often in several directions, all at once.

Everyone falls back on crutch phrases – whether we’re writing or not. They’re the deeper grooves worn in our brain; the easy grab when we need to explain something. We’re all human; we all do it. And we know it.

Do me a quick favour: have a quick listen to “The Smell of Rebellion” from MATILDA.

Go on.

I’ll wait.

Done?

Not only is that quite possibly the most Tim Minchin-y Tim Minchin song (see where the “precision” thing comes in?) but the range of vocabulary is astonishing. Alright, so some of it would be a bit… iffy in the middle of a sentence: “Charlie caught a whiff of the odour of toast” might be a stretch – the rule about singing in musicals is, after all, that characters reach a level of emotion which cannot be contained by mere speech (or a glass case) leaving them no choice but to break into song – but you listen to that and tell me you honestly can’t think of another word for “looked”.

There’s a lot more to be said, I think, in terms of lessons fiction writers can learn from musicals – but I also think there’s very little worse than someone standing there with their hands on their hips and their glasses halfway down their nose, declaiming their writing tips to live by. All I’m saying is that it’s very easy to give into the temptation to put “fiction” in one box and “musical theatre” (as an example) in another, and never think to look elsewhere for tools we can use. Writing is stealing borrowing, so borrow from everywhere, if there’s something that sets your mind and soul alight. Cross-pollination is what art is about, and it makes us all richer.

Maybe you’ve read this and thought “Well, duh…” because all this was desperately obvious to you already. In that case, awesome, wow; you’re ahead of me, so good on you. But to me, this clicking into place was a revelation (not a revolution) and I’m hoping I can hang onto it.

Maybe it’s all just bunnies after all – but who knows: maybe musical theatre might even make me a better writer?

I could certainly drink to that.

Toast

Vincent Chong mini-Q&A

Fresh from his recent World Fantasy Award win and just in time for Christmas, Vincent Chong – one of my favourite artists – has announced he’s releasing limited-edition prints of some of his work, including the art he did for editions of The Shining and Dr Sleep.

Vincent Chong illustration for “The Shining” limited edition

Even if those don’t take your fancy, his art is gorgeous (I have a ridiculous amount of it around the house, including a print of his “Fallen Angel” – natch – in my kitchen) and he has a huge portfolio of work available as standard prints too.

And because he’s not just a fabulous artist but a lovely guy, he’s also popped by the blog to answer a few questions. Like he had a choice…

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Q: Who are your favourite artists (or what are your favourite works of art)?

A: At the moment one of my favourite artists is Shaun Tan. His illustrated story books are simply beautiful and I love all the imagination and touches of surrealism that go into each one.

Q: Who or what do you think has inspired you the most?

A: Dave McKean‘s work has probably been the single biggest inspiration to me; it was seeing his covers for the Sandman comics (in the The Sandman Dust Covers collection) that first opened my eyes to the possibilities of combining digital techniques with traditional ones and what you could achieve by blending the two. It played a big part in shaping the style I developed and the techniques I’ve ended up using for my own work since.

Q: Is digital art more democratic than, for instance, a watercolour?

A: I’ve always liked the idea of anyone being able to own a copy of the artwork that isn’t seen as ‘less-than’ the original in some way, rather than there being one original that only a few could enjoy.

 Q: If you could illustrate any book, what would it be?

A: Nothing in particular springs to mind right now… I used to think I’d quite like to do my own reinterpretation of classic children’s books such as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But having illustrated so many authors’ books over the years, I guess what I’d really like to do is come up with my own story to illustrate.

Q: What interests you as an artist? Do you find yourself coming back to the same kind of themes or ideas?

A: I like creating imagery that has various layers to it, and perhaps could be interpreted in different ways, or contain small details that people pick up on repeated viewings. I also love interesting textures so I continue to incorporate a lot of them into my work. Overall, I think my approach is more about building atmosphere and emotion in my art rather than producing images that are overly polished.

Q: What’s the last book you read, and the last film you saw?

A: The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave and Thor: The Dark World.

 Q: What are the best and worst things about your job?

A: Some of the best things…being able to get up whenever I want! And also not having to work alongside people I don’t like or becoming embroiled in inevitable office politics. And some of the worst things…getting a bit stir crazy working on my own at home and not having anyone around to have a natter with when I want!

Q: Finally… tell us a secret?

A: My biggest secret is that % &@?’£ ^&$**@ $*%^!!!

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Vincent Chong is an award-winning freelance illustrator and designer.  Since 2004 he has brought his creative vision and distinctive visual style to a wide range of projects for both print and the web.  Currently living and working in the UK, his art and design has been published internationally and can be seen on book covers, magazines, CD packaging, websites, flash games and book trailers.  He has worked for clients around the world including HarperCollins and Little, Brown and has illustrated the works of  authors such as Ray Bradbury and Stephen King.

You can follow his blog here.

Gravestones to die for

snow churchyardI was puttering around the internet this morning doing some research on the proper names for different types of gravestone (because that’s the cheery sort of person I am). I didn’t necessarily get very far, but I’ve come back with all sorts of eye-opening bits and pieces.

Like this…

How’s this for trivia: the sticky-outy bit on older, traditionally shaped stones are called the “shoulders” – or occasionally, the “wings”. How did I not already know that?

Trivia 2: “taphophilia” is a love of funerals or the funereal, including “tombstone tourism”. (So many thoughts, right there…)

Anyway, I also came across a few links that I thought were kind of cool, so.

– There’s the Urbanist’s piece on 10 Types of Tombstone to Die For… (just look at the Knights of Malta one!)
– CNN’s Most Scenic Cemeteries piece; and Departful’s take on the same idea
– How to read a gravestone using a mirror
– Twelve unusual tombs

And, if you’ve the good fortune to not have suffered through my ramblings for very long, there’s always the Resurrection Cheese

 

Asylum Architecture

To get away from anything angel-related for a bit, I came across this fascinating article on asylum architecture yesterday.

I’ve mentioned it before, but because I’m interested in urbex, and stumbled across that fantastic photograph of the hall of Hellingly asylum which I now have on my wall, I’m completely enthralled by the idea of “institutional architecture”: that it has set constructs and conceits and can be used both for good and for ill.

I can’t remember where I read it now, so you’ll have to take my word for it – but recently I read that the passageway from the former condemned cell at Old Bailey was a series of archways, each narrower than the last. Anyone walking to their execution would have their already (justified) sense of impending doom heightened by the deliberate and increasingly claustrophobic effect.

Brrr.

Featherbomb

What’s Pye Parr up to now…?

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By the way, if you’re interested in reading a bit more about how Pye works, and how the first BLOOD AND FEATHERS cover evolved, there’s a really detailed interview with him over on the Shewolf reads site, including his mock-ups for concepts which didn’t quite make the cut…

The Nice List

My WordPress dashboard is snowing. That can only mean one thing: it must be nearly Christmas.

Look, I can’t help it – and if you think that’s a bad way of judging the start of the holiday season, you should meet Other Half. He declares it to be officially Christmas when one of his online forums puts up the twinkly fairy lights gif around the border of the page. So, you know…

Anyway. Christmas is rolling towards us like a tinsel-strewn juggernaut, and this means it’s prime festive shopping season. Ever helpful, I’ve come up with a couple of suggestions for gifts for those really difficult people to buy for. I warn you: these are, largely, Things What My Friends Have Made – but you shouldn’t let their questionable judgement in hanging around with me put you off. Everything on this list is awesome, and would make an amazing present – and frankly, if you can’t plug your mates’ stuff on your blog, then where can you do it?

So, without further ado, I present (see what I did there?)…

THE NICE LIST

(for the sake of simplicity, the majority of these links are Amazon physical ones. Feel free to sub in the physical / ebook retailer of your choice….)

 – For action junkies:

SHIFT – Kim Curran

DEPARTMENT 19: THE RISING – Will Hill

Scott Tyler and Jamie Carpenter are, between them, as average as your average teenage boy gets. Except they aren’t… because as you soon discover if you pick up either of these two books, Scott has the power to change any decision he’s ever made and Jamie’s a vampire hunter with a secret government department. Gory, gripping and action-packed, these books are brilliantly paced and plotted. And if you can’t choose between them… why not pick both?

 

 – For Doomsday Preppers:

THE TESTIMONY – James Smythe

Let me tell you a story about this book (in which a blast of static is heard by almost everyone on the planet, followed by a voice. Is it God? Is it aliens? Is it a mass hallucination..?). I took this on holiday with me earlier this year, and it was the last book I read before heading home. I was sitting in the airport at the Seychelles, which is a tiny little thing, at around midnight, waiting for my flight to be called and reading the last couple of chapters of THE TESTIMONY. There were one or two people already in the departure hall, but we were the last flight out for the night so it was pretty quiet.

And then someone, somewhere, leaned on a button and switched on the PA. There was a burst of deafening white noise… and nothing else.

Not that it mattered, because by that time I had dropped my book and hidden under the departure lounge seating.

That’s how good this book is.

It’s complicated, twisty… and utterly terrifying.

 

 – For Western fans & short story addicts: 

A TOWN CALLED PANDEMONIUM – Jurassic Press

I’ve been involved in the Pandemonium project (one of my stories appeared in the apocalypse-themed anthology, now out of print) but this one’s a different animal altogether. A shared-world, weird Western anthology with some of my favourite writers involved, it will transport you to a town with secrets, tragedies and horrors. So what are you waiting for? Saddle up…

 

For urban explorers:

THE CITY’S SON – Tom Pollock

Urban explorers know that cities have a life of their own – and London is no exception. But you’ve never imagined it quite like this. Tom Pollock gives you a version of London where street lights come to life, where the ghosts of trains ride the rails and where the building sites scarring the surface of the city lay the foundations for something sinister…

One part urban fantasy, one part New Weird, one part utterly itself, read this and you’ll never look at the city in the same way again.

 

 – For art buffs:

Vincent Chong prints

Nominated for a World Fantasy Award last year, Vincent Chong has produced book covers for Stephen King, Joe Hill and China Mieville among others, as well as illustrating collector’s editions of some incredible novels (I have a copy of THE CLUB DUMAS, which is one of my favourite books and is probably the most expensive copy of a novel I’ve ever bought!). I have a bunch of his prints, including one (predictably, I guess) of a fallen angel, and they’re beautiful.  Also, I have this as my desktop right now, because I love it.

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So there you go. Yes, they’re all my friends – and I’m utterly unapologetic about recommending their work, because every single one of them is immensely talented. You won’t go wrong with any of them.

 

The Rough Guide to Hell

I hadn’t intended to (a) pop back on here quite so quickly, or (b) turn this into an unofficial “Hell Tourist Information Week” (which sounds so Screwtape-y that I refuse to believe Lewis didn’t already do it), but sometimes you find stuff that’s just a bit too cool to leave out.

So, following yesterday’s video of the door to hell, I now give you your map.

The Topography of Hell.

They say there’s a different version of hell for every soul who ever lived, and that may well be true. Medieval artists sure liked their representations of hell, but I certainly don’t think I’ve ever seen two that looked exactly the same as one another… especially not in the case of Jake & Dinos Chapman’s “Hell”, which I remember seeing as part of the Sensation exhibition years ago.

When I was coming up with mine, I went back to Dante, mostly. There were a few other places I looked for inspiration, but more of that another time: if anyone’s interested, I can do a separate post about hell in BLOOD AND FEATHERS….

Another post on the same site as the topography one poses the question “What does hell sound like?” – and that’s an interesting thought. Again, in my own version, it’s very, very quiet for the most part… but if you could record it, what do you think you’d get? (First person to say “Rebecca Black” gets a very stern look and has to go sit at the back of the class for the rest of the day).

I’m rather fond of the “Field Recordings from the Edge of Hell” album by way of answer.

Well.

I say “album”. What I actually mean is 8 hours‘ worth of ambient music and sound which ranges from mildly unsettling to really quite alarming by way of absolutely stunning… but is altogether genius. You can stream it, or download it for $1… but I’d recommend the streaming option wherever possible. Mostly because you’re looking at over a GIG of space…

So. Your own personal hell. If you were Dante, and could take a guided tour, what would you expect to see (or hear)?

Pinned Down

Because I simply don’t have enough things filling my time (insert mildly hysterical laugh *here*) I’ve now joined Pinterest, and you can find my boards here.

They’re still very much a work in progress – again with the whole “time” thing – but if you’re on there, do swing by and take a peek. I’m building up a nice collection of angels in the wild, and am always looking for more to add. If you see any, give me a shout so I can add them. What’s particularly interesting to me is how many turn up in street art at the moment, so those are always extra-welcome.

There’s also the slightly mysterious one labelled “Faces“. Because that couldn’t possibly be connected to anything.

Speaking of pretty pictures, by the way, this month sees BLOOD AND FEATHERS’s turn in the Cover Wars at the Qwillery site. There’s some very pretty books on there this time around, but I know where my heart lies. If you’re thus inclined and want to go and show Pye’s gorgeous artwork some love (and of course you do) then head over and vote.

And one more thing. There’s a few more character notes gone up on the Characters page on the B&F site, including one of my favourites, Brieus.

“We’re talking about the Fallen. Of course they’re stupid.” Brieus peered into the eye-socket of a skull. “This guy must’ve been a looker; just get a load of those cheekbones.”

“That’s a woman’s skull, Brieus.”

“Even better. Hellooo.”

That guy just can’t help himself…

Best blog comment *ever*

So you’ll remember the other week, I was bemoaning the general lack of letters we send to each other these days?

Well. Look what landed on my doormat.

It’s a postcard from Chris Roberts (better known as Dead Clown Art) who’s a US-based artist specialising in mixed-media and found-object pieces. I met him at last year’s World Horror Convention in Texas, and he’s an incredibly talented guy – as well as a real sweetie.  And not a little nuts, given the comment on the back: “Not electronic. Go ahead… put your tongue on it. No shock!”

See? It takes a true artist to point out that the real problem with e-mails is that you can’t lick them…