Lessons Learned from Swimming Blindly Through the Aural Seas

When I write I have some idea of where I’m going. As you can see from my experiment with trying to go free form, I need some structure when I write. Nonetheless, when I write I’m acting with intention and purpose – I see where I want to go and try to get there.

When I make music, it’s almost completely the opposite. Essentially, music comes about in one of two ways. First, I get a flash of inspiration when a riff or rhythm or something pops into my head (and, hopefully, onto the computer). Second, I take whatever winds up on “tape” and fiddle around with it, adding things, taking things away, and generally just figuring out what works. I very rarely come to a song idea with a clear conception of what the end product should be.

In other words, when I write, it’s like setting out to sea in a boat, with charts, a destination, and a plan on how to get there. When I make music, it’s more like diving in head first and seeing where the tide sees fit to deposit me. Swimming blindly, if you will.

That’s not to say that the drifting, searching musical creation doesn’t require making choices. Sometimes, those choices are relevant when it comes to thinking about writing, too.

I’ve been thinking about this lately after finishing a new song with the deviously serious title of “Dummy Tickle” (it’s embedded below). I have no idea where that title came from, because this song, all not-quite-four minutes of it, began five years ago.

Which brings me to lesson number one I’ve learned from making music – creativity takes time.

The DAW I use has a metadata field that lets you put just about anything you want in it. I always put (1) when I started the song; (2) when I finished “writing” it; and (3) when I got it in final form (mixed down, etc.). It’s a very rare thing when a song goes from idea to completion in a week or a month. Usually it takes a while, but not five years.

What was I doing with “Dummy Tickle” for five years? I’d like to say I tried out dozens of different things to try and bring the basic idea (that lazy, bouncy bass line and equally laid back melody) to bigger, better life. Nothing really clicked, nothing seemed right. I let it go for a while, but every time I went back and listened to unfinished tracks I thought “there’s something there” and marked it down as something to finish.

Finally, a few weeks ago, something clicked. I don’t know precisely what or why then – maybe a session of playing with the puppies trigger up some kind of endorphin rush or something. How couldn’t they?

Anyway, the damn burst and I started making progress. It just took some time to get there. Patience really is a virtue, especially when it comes to creative things.

Still, it wasn’t a matter of just banging out a few more notes and being done with things. I was in need of ideas for a transition, a middle section, and started playing around with a couple of chord progressions.

Then I hit on the second lesson I’ve learned from “Dummy Tickle” – sometimes, simpler is better.

I have a sign tacked to the wall in my studio:

Monphonist Pic

I put it up when I realized that a lot of the early electronic music I like – from ethereal Tangerine Dream to the synth-pop of The Human League and OMD – was done by people with access only to monophonic synthesizers (that is, ones that can make only one sound at a time). That is, they can only make one note at a time. By contrast, without even getting into the virtual synths in my arsenal, I can bring to bear 150 voices! At once! I only have 10 fingers, after all.

My point is I tend to think in chords, even thought single notes are often what’s called for. After struggling to find the right sequence for this song, I backed off and gave it a fresh look. And I looked at my sign. The heart of this song was that simple bass line, the simple melody. Don’t mess that up by building it up unnecessarily. Take the simple route. Thus, that middle section was composed entirely of monophonic lines weaving together – as was the rest of the song.

None of this is Earth shattering. Still, as creators sometimes it’s easy to get wrapped up in the vision of more – more words, more notes, more colors – until you disappear up your own backside in search of your next complexity fix. Sometimes you have to step back and think about what works for the song, book, or whatever it is you’re making. Some of them are just simple little things that don’t have airs on being anything more.

“Dummy Tickle” is like that. A little goof of a tune, a good mood wrought by bouncy synths. Enjoy!


Our Dogs Are Nudists

Last year was a transitional one when it came to canines in our house. In late summer we lost our one-eyed Chihuahua mix, Maia, when her constellation of medical conditions finally caught up to her. After a few weeks with an empty house, we worked with a rescue organization in Ohio and adopted a pair of fuzzy little people, Kalindi (l) and Zaria (r).


As you can see, they’re both Chihuahuas and both pretty tiny. To add to thing, Kalindi is short haired. It being winter and everything, the wife pushed almost immediately to get them each a sweater to help keep them warm when they went outside.

Now I should say I’ve never been a big fan of dressing dogs up. The dogs never really seem to like it and they tend to look silly. And, frankly, it makes it more difficult to rub their bellies. I mean, what’s the point in having dogs if there isn’t copious belly rubbing taking place? Still, our old Min Pin, Uzume, had a couple of sweaters that did seem to keep her warm, so I wasn’t completely opposed to the plan. That the vet suggested it might not be a bad idea certainly decreased my chances of successfully opposing it.

So for Christmas both dogs got sweaters (along with treats and toys – we’re not monsters). After they had been successfully deployed, my wife took a picture.


As it stands, that will prove to be the only photographic evidence that Kalindi and Zaria once had sweaters. That’s because it’s become clear that they don’t particularly care for them. They didn’t protest initially and didn’t provide any resistance when the wife and I put them on. They even wore them around for a while and seemed to be enjoying the extra warmth.

Then the stripping started.

It wasn’t an immediate thing. Indeed, the little beasts seemed to enjoy their sweaters. Then, things started happening. Kalindi is fond of balling up under a blanket (ironically, purchased in Mexico years before I ever thought I’d have Chihuahuas to snuggled under it) and, lo and behold, when she emerged from her slumbers one day her sweater was about halfway off. She didn’t fight to get it the rest of the way off, but you could tell where she was headed.

I don’t even know where and how Zaria got hers off. It just . . . was, as some point.

Naturally, we put them back on. There was no fuss or protest, but a few hours later, both of them were off again. Even after we went outside without them during our recent frigid spell, neither pup seemed interested, although they’re very passive aggressive about it.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that our dogs are nudists and want nothing to do with civilization’s “clothes.” Fine my me – easier to rub bellies!


Thoughts From an Experimental NaNoWriMo

Right – so where were we?

Oh, yeah, National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. Did I have a good month? I’d say I did.


The book I started for NaNo, The Messenger, is different for me in a lot of ways. For one thing, it’s pure space-based science fiction. While I’ve written some near-future sci-fi short stories, I’ve not done anything this long or, well, spacey. For another, I started the project having done very little prep work. So to be past 50k words and looking at another month’s writing (at least) to finish it is making me a little giddy.


Not an actual picture of the author. Think metaphorically, people!

Let me explain why.

Writers generally like to divide themselves into two groups – plotters and pantsers (putting to one side the ones who don’t accept either label). Plotters, as you might imagine, are people who do a lot of work before they actually start writing a first draft. They outline, develop characters, build worlds and all that kind of stuff before ever sitting down to write “it was a dark and stormy night.” (LINK). Pantsers are the complete opposite – they do little prep before writing and are, as the name implies, flying by the seat of their pants. In truth, I think most people are a little of both. Anybody who writes exactly the same book they planned to write or really sits down with a completely empty noggin and pours out a book are few and far between.

I tend to be a plotter. Lots of that is down to writing fantasy and the heavy lifting of world building. I like to get that stuff out of the way so I can let the story develop against a fairly fixed backdrop. Still, things never go precisely as planned, even when (as with The Bay of Sins, my last NaNo project) you lay out all the chapters you think you’ll need from the beginning. I suspect it’s something like attorneys say about oral arguments – there’s the one you plan to make, the one you actually make, and the one you wished you’d made after the fact.

So The Messenger was a very different experience for me. I had about a page of notes, compiled from thinking about the story over the years, but it was lacking lots of important things. Like, for instance, the names of the main characters or any of the names of the planets or alien races they’d encounter along their way. As for the way? I had an idea of how things began, but after that? I decided to let it see where it went. I’m glad I did, because I don’t think I would have come up with some of these things ahead of time.

It’s particularly interesting to do this one right after finishing the first draft of The Orb of Triska. That has a lot of work done on it before I started writing and I always felt like I knew where I was going. I think that first draft is a much better, more coherent final product, but, of course, neither one of them are “finished” after a first draft. It will be interesting to see how the final products compare once they’ve been polished up.

So that’s how I spent my November.

Also, we got new puppies:


Zaria (L) and Kalindi (R) are ready for their album cover.

How you all been?