Gay romance fiction

"Hearing Stories"

 by Damon Suede

Creative process is a personal thing. Every person who makes something out of nothing wrestles with the razors-n-vinegar crises of self-doubt, perfectionism, impatience, procrastination, and myriad other problems that hover like bloodsucking gnats hoping to drain any joy out of the artistic spark.

Facing a blank page is terrifying. Only people who write or draw or draft will understand what I mean, but BOY will they! All that dire bullshit being said, the act of making a world is one of my favorite things. Over 20 years of writing for a living, I've developed an arsenal of tricks and triggers to get me in the zone, to keep sight of what I love about an idea, and to help me stare the page into submission.

When I'm starting any project of any size, my first concern is that I know what world I'm visiting. The more I treat that world on its own terms, the more readily the Muse digs up little treasures. The simplest trick, and one already employed by thousands of artists is the creation of a project specific soundtrack. I just take this "soundtracking" a little further than most.

I LOVE movie scores. Seriously love. Far as I'm concerned, they're the perfect writing music: no distracting lyrics, wide variety, constant evolution, and by definition emotional and charged. I buy more movie scores that any other type of music. I probably own about 1200 scores on CD and MP3, sorted by genre. This collection of tracks is the core of my over-the-top "soundtracking" process.

For everyday use or short writing gigs, I have a couple scores that are so impeccable that they work as a kind of generic soundtrack for any project: American Beauty, V for Vendetta, Code 46, Mansfield Park, Soap Dish, A Fish Called Wanda, Cronenberg's Crash, A Very Long Engagement, Romancing the Stone. But when I'm trying to craft a full world from scratch, I invariably explore and create a "soundtrack" to learn things about my project before it's even begun.

Music is an instinctive form. We respond to it first subconsciously and so it's much more likely to stir the Muse than abstractions or generalities. The soundtrack becomes a way for me to check in with a Muse that might be feeling shy or coquettish or squirmy. Writers always say that the best pieces write themselves, that the Muse just gives them to you fully formed. I completely agree. And bottom line: that kind of writing always trumps the grind-it-out workhouse stuff that always feels shoddy no matter how polished. The goal is to coax the Muse into the light. To get answers to my questions, all I only have to listen.

When I'm kicking off a new assignment the first thing I do is find the sound of the world. Sometimes I'll only have a genre to start: horror or action or suspense or comedy... and I'll rummage around in my collection cherry-picking tracks from scores that seem like likely suspects. Genre is an easy place to start because the musical associations are so powerful: is it suspense or action? Paranormal romance, whodunnit, or a blend of the two? Dark fantasy or erotic thriller? Steampunk or horror? As I spiral in on a type of rhythm or an instrument or era that feels right, these details suggest other artists, other bands, other musical styles. Resonance and consonance.

I try to stay out of my "logical" head avoiding cleverness or anything that feels clichéd. I aim for synesthesia. I ask myself the kinds of figurative questions children pose to their best friends: Is this story loud or soft? What's the tempo and what's the period? What's the color of the story? What's the story afraid of and what does it crave? What's its taste or texture? If it were an animal/plant/dessert/disease which would it be? I cast out a net of subjective and nonliteral probes. The answers will start to suggest tunes, of course. And since I'm the one who has to do the writing and the listening to the soundtrack, my answers are always right! In much the same way that designers will swatch fabric or directors pull paintings or photographs for their cinematographers, I'm looking for a common language that the Muse and I can share. Every world wants to emerge.

Bit by bit I cobble together a huge stew of musical possibilities and (while folding laundry or oiling my boots) listen to the whole bloated mess of possible tracks in one sitting of several hours, paying attention to the yeas and nays, the definites and the vague maybes.... culling tracks as I go. Each one I discard tells me just as much (if not more) than the ones I keep, because I'm always asking myself why something feels discordant, what stuck out, what hit home... The wrong songs just fall out of orbit by the weight of their wrongness. The right songs remain, like a fingerprint of a half-glimpsed world that keeps floating closer.

Sometimes a song will make me think of a scene I know I want to write or a setting. Or perhaps a singer will put me in mind of a character or a prop or a pivotal moment. Track by track the characters' lives will come alive in my ears. Aural mosaic! The order works itself out, certain songs will just flow correctly into each other or inform each other or resonate in the right place; a sequence emerges.

There are several advantages to this process:

  • It can be used to hone in on a slippery idea or a character that won't stand in the light. Identifying the things that do or do not help the world you might want to build narrows the focus and sharpens your eye.

  • Collaging an overview with nonverbal elements (music, paintings, objects) keeps you from getting stuck in concepts or cleverness. This guarantees that the Muse will feel free to play without the infernal judgment of the Critic.

  • Before I've written a word, sometimes before I've written a pitch or an outline, I learn what is and is not germane to the story I'm telling. I know its boundaries and topography. I always end the soundtrack exercise knowing my world and my characters more deeply and specifically than I did at the beginning.

  • In a non-wanky way, the process is an extended meditation on the world and its inhabitants using my subconscious mind which is inevitably less formulaic and mechanical. The conscious mind doesn't get in the way and the inventiveness reflects that freedom.

  • My "soundtrack" acts as a perfect lens during the rough-drafting. Outside noise and muddle are less distracting when your fictional world is literally filling the space around you.  Family and friends are less likely to interrupt or burst in because your "soundtrack" makes it clear that you are somewhere else.

  • I wind up with a perfect trigger that (again) is largely subconscious and inspiring. The moment you play one of my "soundtracks" I'm immediately transported to the world of that project. Music conveys scale, period, pace, tone. I can feel it in my bones: the palette, the smells, the textures, the timbre of the voices... just from hearing certain songs juxtaposed. Adios, so-called writer's block.

  • if I'm jumping between several projects because of deadlines or rewrites or even a note from my agent, I can drop into the world in about 2 minutes flat. Music's on and I'm inside.

I take the "soundtrack" creation so far that sometimes projects have a soundtrack for the writing and another leaner collection for the revision, tweaked for things I learned along the journey. The moment that revision "soundtrack" is on, I know that I'm not just in the world, I'm editing it! If I want o go back and redraft, the full "soundtrack" can do the heavy lifting.

Suite for HOT HEAD

Recent example... no idea if this will be helpful for anyone else but specifics are always the best explanation. This soundtrack was for my contemporary erotic gay romance: HOT HEAD.

Before I started drafting, I took about a week to identify my "soundtrack" that felt like the world of Dante and Griff, macho firefighters in love. Of course back then they didn't even have names or a setting or a plot; I had to find them first and their neighborhood. I had the barest sense of the story, one sentence about forbidden romance in the FDNY after 9/11, but I tracked my quarry with the tenacity of a bloodhound.

Starting from the base of "gay romance" I needed to get specific if I wanted to get underway. Subgenre can push a "soundtrack" in surprising directions... Hybrids require clarity. A blank page is powerful and paralyzing. What did this particular gay story feel like before I had plot or characters or even a working title? A simple sweet love story? A violent homoerotic soap opera? A steampunk zipper ripper? A dark raunchy BDSM manlove fantasy with an adventure subplot? At first, all I knew was the New York firefighter germ. Rummaging through my mp3s, my CDs, everything I had... I kept one ear cocked, listening for the wisps of the world.

Sure enough, there it was... snapping its fingers and sauntering towards me.

The music is how I found out that HOT HEAD is set in old-school Brooklyn where the Rat Pack still has devoted fans. Those songs are wallpaper in parts of New York. Then I noticed this indie-rock vibe too, because the firefighter protagonists are by definition so young and so social. Stirring homosexual desire into the crazy drama and traditionalism in any fire department meant I needed period, but a spin on the standards. I knew instantly what songs belonged in the world of the book and with these characters. The more specific I got, the more I thought about my reasoning, the more loudly the characters spoke to me, the clearer the view.

Just listening from my gut, I ended up with about 60 or 70 songs in a folder on my computer desktop, took one night and then just "felt" through them a song at a time until I'd cut the list in half. I knew that bluesy vocal standards were part of it. So for whatever weird reason, this soundtrack needed a lot of lyrics; I tried to figure out why... Brooklyn was part of it and gossip... Small neighborhoods and no privacy; everyone knowing each other's business and mired in the past. Love songs of the working joe. Right! These people were fast-talkers but not educated.

Song by song, I winnowed. Saxophone and piano was definite, but not Depression-era. I needed more snap and sass... late 50s and early 60s, the glory days of Brooklyn. Also HOT HEAD unfolds a decade after the fall of the Twin Towers so it needed a strained, modern quality too in a couple places. Scars without sentiment. The common thread in all this was a sort of dreamy solo throb in the bassline, men and women with husky tenors suffering in style, alone.

All that seemed right, but after a few hours, something still felt hollow, like I'd missed an important detail. The 16 or 17 songs I'd found were just a little too hip and jazzy and upbeat. I had this image stuck in my head, of my main character (not even named Griff yet) in a condemned brownstone looking down at his best friend in a November garden. I could see it so specifically. Not sentimental, but somber. None of the music I'd found fit that, so I went hunting, listening for that solo bassline heartbeat and the tenor moan. It took two hours and three tracks from Reznor's new Social Network score nailed it. Those pieces held a kind of sexy desolation that needed to slither through the HOT HEAD underbrush. Simultaneously I had stumbled onto a strange plaintive sadness that would arise in the story because my soundtracking had made it clear why my two heroes were so scarred by 9/11. With that last element, the strands braided together for the music and the book I was ready to write.

This is the soundtrack that resulted:

  • Mack the Knife - Tony Bennett

  • Why Don't You Do Right? - Amy Irving as Jessica Rabbit

  • Penetration - Social Network score

  • Fever - Peggy Lee

  • This Ruined Puzzle - Dashboard Confessional

  • Same Mistake - James Blunt

  • Making Whoopee - L.A. Confidential score

  • Hey There - Rosemary Clooney

  • Mack the Knife - Ella Fitzgerald

  • Why Don't You Do Right? - Peggy Lee

  • Hand Covers Bruise - Social Network score

  • Out of the Rain - L.A. Confidential score

  • Sailors & Saints - Dashboard Confessional

  • Black Coffee - Peggy Lee

  • You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You - Dean Martin

  • The Victor - L.A. Confidential score

  • I've Got the World on a String - Peggy Lee

  • Hand Covers Bruise reprise - Social Network score

  • They Can't Take that Away from Me - Frank Sinatra

  • Kisses and Cake - PS I Love You score

Way more vocal music than I'd usually use. No idea why. Why the two "Mack the Knifes"? You got me! Ditto the two "Why Don't You Do Rights" I chose. They just belonged there, something about the contrast. It felt right. Not the most complex or subtle "soundtrack" I've ever made. Didn't matter. I have no idea if anyone who reads the actual book would even feel the book in this music. But if I hear these songs, the gay romantic angst wells up around me, I'm in HOT HEAD again, back in Brooklyn at (fictitious) Engine 333/Ladder 181 with Griff and Dante. This music took me along for a ride in the rig. Listening to it all the way through the first time, I wrote the outline in one sitting.

For reasons I cannot explain certain songs became pivotal: "Same Mistake", "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You", the Jessica Rabbit "Why Don't You Do Right?", "Kisses and Cake", "Making Whoopee", and the breathtaking "Hand Covers Bruise" tracks from the score of The Social Network... If you played just those songs over and over for a week I'd probably just write the whole book over again. When I was writing the last chapter, I listened to "Hand Covers Bruise" on repeat for two days straight.

Music is only one of the tools I use, but it is one of the simplest and most effective. Whenever I feel vague or unspecific, I know it's time to look at the story sideways... I've gone so far as to change the soap in my shower so that a scent will become associated with a project. I'll change my sleep schedule even the location of my computer so that the Muse knows it's time to play. If every story is different, then I want to meet each on its own terms.

I know what my next gay romance project is, the genre at least. I don't know the names, the particulars, the hook, even the barebone plot. I just have a couple phenomenal images and a pile of 70+ songs that I've gathered this past few weeks as I wrapped another assignment. It's definitely more of a zipper ripper, which is wild and exciting and unfamiliar. The music is already starting to tell me about the plot, the characters, and the set-pieces though; in the next few days I'll whittle 70 down to 20 and then be dragged under, by hook or crook.

I'll let you know how it turns out... I know one thing: it already sounds like a great story.