OK, now that you’re good and worn out from chair dancing, let’s talk about the Grammy Awards, where last Sunday, despite a truckload of radio play, Robin Thicke failed to get an award for his super-mega hit “Blurred Lines,” and instead laid the foundation for a future as a Las Vegas lounge act backed by the guys from Chicago (I’ll get to why I started you off with “Tighten Up” in a moment). Continue reading → Funky Friday Writing Advice: Take What Someone Else Did and Make It Your Own
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Yep, a lot of us still have to work this week. And some (like me) might have some ugly, snarling, drooling deadlines looming over us before the annual celebration of feasting, football and family dysfunction begins in earnest.
So here’s a little something from the badass anime swing jazz noir sci-fi files to get you going and help you grab the workweek by the throat like you, too, are a butt-kicking interplanetary bounty hunter a la Cowboy Bebop.
As an extra-added bonus, check out the FULL (and very hard to find) version of this tune below.
Ever since the 1970s, science fiction and the funk have somehow emerged as two great tastes that taste great together.
I suppose we can credit George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic for the concept of the extraterrestrial visitors who descend to Earth to bring us some form of rump-shaking higher knowledge.
By introducing the Mothership and it’s garishly clad crew of funkateers, Clinton managed to combine the self-determination that arose from the civil rights movement of the 1960s with the idea that maybe something bigger was needed to bring about full acceptance of the African American culture that has informed every bit of American life since the 1600s.
Something like … a full-on alien invasion.
The concept of alien visitors bringing about some kind of funk epiphany was new, but somehow it caught on. The Mothership itself appeared in live P-Funk shows and the massive musical collective worked the extraterrestrial vibe to the hilt (everybody say, “Go Bootsy!“). Their rallying cry was, “Free your mind, and your ass will follow.” Well put.
It could have been a one-time thing had young Prince Rogers Nelson not set upon his own journey of funk/rock fusion and become the performer we now know only as Prince, who counted among his early influences Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown, Earth, Wind & Fire, Miles Davis, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Todd Rundgren and … Parliament-Funkadelic.
Prince seemed to bring everything along for the ride – space, pan-sexuality, end-of-days prophecy, visions of a post-apocalyptic utopia – all packaged in this surreal mix of pop, rock, funk and old-school R&B. When Prince broke big in the 1980s with 1999 and Purple Rain, it really did seem like he’d come from space like a late wave of the invasion that P-Funk initiated.
Plenty of old-timey “classic rock” guys turned up their noses, despite the scorching guitar solos and the obvious tribute to Jimi Hendrix, probably because it was hard for them to get past the fact that the Little Purple One was black.
Meanwhile those of us of a more sci-fi frame of mind more easily got a hold on what Prince was doing – pushing the envelope that had been shrunk ever smaller by obnixious, prefab arena rock and what was left of those trying to capitalize off the disco craze.
Since Prince curtailed his career and output, there have been few willing to step up and bring the sci-fi/funk connection back to the fore. Until now.
Janelle Monae seemed to emerge from much the same science fictional universe as Prince, and brings even more of that delightful future-funk to the world, especially in her videos. “Dance Apocalyptic” brings us the end of the world, complete with zombies, aliens and humanoid apes, but for purposes of today’s blog, it doesn’t really count as funk, per se. It’s still a damn fine song, and you should still give it a listen.
The best example of Monae’ sci-fi/funk fusion is the song – or more specifically the video – below. While the song isn’t science-fictional in itself, it does propose that the world is a better place when everyone’s being him or herself without worrying about the folks who never can quite get the hang of that.
The video, though, is based on the premise that Monae was the leader of a full-on cultural and social revolution, and that her organization has been frozen in suspended animation in a “living museum” for rebels and radicals – until they are once again unleashed.
Which brings us right back around to the P-Funk motto. Let the funk free your mind, and your ass will indeed follow.
Music, much like smell, is a powerful memory trigger. Just as a whiff of a lover’s old cologne or perfume can ignite an encyclopedia of emotions, music carries with it the ability to draw a person back to a particular time, place or emotional state.
Personally, I think everyone has a time during their life when they’re especially susceptible to an imprint tied to music. And because an important key in being an effective writer is being able to tap into real emotions, music can be a tool for that.
For me, one of the first moments I recall music directly tied to emotion was as a pre-teen in the late 1970s. Disco was at its height and somewhere out of my field of vision punk was percolating in New York City and London.
But because I was living in a small town near the coast of South Carolina, my exposure to anything other than what was on the local Top 40 AM station was pretty limited. Consider that the first time I heard the Beatles was around that time period when a friend hoped to cure me of my ABBA fandom with a copy of Revolver. Thankfully it worked.
Still, a few bits of excellence filtered through on the airwaves. And while I, at that age, could have already told you that Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” was an abomination, I was able to pick out some gems that really stuck with me. Part of that is directly related to the fact that I was feeling the first pangs of late-grade school infatuation with members of the opposite sex.
So it should come as no surprise that a couple of standout songs from that period were “Is She Really Going Out With Him” by Joe Jackson and “Cruel to be Kind” by Nick Lowe. Both spoke volumes to what I felt was a cargo ship full of unrequited love I was going through at the time. Now, when I need to tap youthful heartbreak, it helps to cast my mind back to how those particular songs seemed to capture everything my much less cynical younger self felt.
Much like a Method actor, who uses real-life experience to tap into what emotions a character in a film or on stage might be feeling, as writers we are called to do the same things with our stories. Think about the songs during your life that have coincided with highly emotional events or have somehow captured the way you’ve felt about a person or situation and don’t be afraid to use them (and the feelings they recall) in creating genuine, rich and layered emotions for your characters.
One of my favorite new media tools for book promotion is the book trailer, which takes all the fun and splash of a motion picture trailer you might see on TV or in the theater and translates it to the world of literature. I recently pulled this one together for Immaculate Deception. Hope you dig it.
Commercial motion pictures didn’t exist until the 20th century, and it’s a pretty safe bet that since then it’s been tough for writers of prose to ply their craft without those pesky images from a darkened movie theater encroaching on their work.
I know that in my brain there’s an ongoing battle between what I imagine is original and what’s already been done. There’s a scrawny hipster of the old video store variety living up there who’s constantly second-guessing my creative choices as derivative hackery cobbled together from43 years of pop-culture immersion and ravenous movie watching.
But in retrospect, writing “cinematically” – that is, while imagining the events played out on the page as a running visual narrative in one’s mind’s eye – was likely happening long before putting images to celluloid was even considered. After all, the primary element of our human capacity to imagine is to see things in our heads, whether through dreaming or conscious effort, as if they were really happening. Plus, acting out stories onstage predated film by thousands of years, so the art of rendering a story with actors playing established parts had plenty of precedent.
However, I’m sure some artists who consider themselves more pure of heart would argue that our 21st century immersion in cinema (and TV and videogames) has somehow negatively altered the writer’s art. I could see how this might be the case if all the writers out there were somehow taking everything they learned from the Transformer movies and translating blind action and idiotic dialog to the page. (Actually, that does happen quite a lot in movies, but that’s a conversation for another time).
But long before there were movies, bad prose still made it into print. During the Victorian Age, when the novel as we know it now first emerged, there was plenty of crap being written throughout Europe and America, and no one had the luxury of blaming it on Michael Bay and giant robots randomly blowing stuff up.
Great books are often defined by their standout lines of narrative or dialog. So are films. So who’s to say that “Call me Ishmael,” or “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” can’t be ranked right up there with “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” or “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker”?
As for being derivative, no less a writer than William Shakespeare was accused by his contemporaries of the very same thing. Sure, he used tried and true plot devices and narratives that had already been a part of folklore and wandering minstrel storytelling for years, but when he took them into his own hands, he added his own unique pathos, wit and social satire to create something wholly new, immensely popular in its time, and brilliant enough to be repeatedly performed over the subsequent five centuries.
In short, intelligent and talented writers take what they learn from personal experience, personal experience, established story structures and – yes, other art forms and media – and cleverly fold them into what they are doing on their own.
In my own case, I can tell you outright that my writing is highly influenced by films I’ve seen throughout my life, the books I’ve read and the TV shows I’ve watched. But perhaps most of all, it’s influenced in rhythm, pacing and atmosphere by the music I listen to.
The idea for SHAG, the terrorist organization made up of youth-obsessed octogenarians in Immaculate Deception, emerged directly from my experiences with the Baby Boomers of Florence, S.C., who grew up dancing the shag to Stax and Motown R&B on the jukeboxes in Myrtle Beach nightclubs.
So in crafting the story itself, these songs stuck in my head and I imagined them playing along with certain scenes in the novel. The same went for the character of Eli, who at least appears as an elderly Rastafarian surfer. That necessitated some reggae.
So in my mind, along with imagining the scenes of the novel as if they were playing out onscreen, I also had musical accompaniment. What resulted was a full “soundtrack” for the entire work, from opening title sequence (Matthew Sweet’s “Divine Intervention”) to classic reggae (“Rivers of Babylon,” by the Melodians) to beach music legends (“Give Me Just Lil’ More Time” by Chairmen of the Board). For the full cinematic experience, you can listen to the complete soundtrack here.
It’s not only a great extra element for me as the author, but it serves the readers in much the same ways as book trailers or audio books do. A novel soundtrack – born from an author’s head and laid down in electrons like a globally connected mix tape – is a way for readers to add an extra dimension to their reading experience and perhaps build upon their enjoyment of the novel itself.
Lots of folks have been very kind in suggesting that Immaculate Deception would make a great (even blockbuster!) movie, and I’d be lying to you if I said I hadn’t imagined that it someday would make it to film. But in the meantime, the novel itself will have to do – with a little bit of appropriately cinematic music thrown in.