Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Art of the Mix Tape

Today, I woke up with one hell of a sinus headache. Between that and the drugs I'm taking to combat it, I feel like I'm smuggling a brick of heroin in my sinuses, only without the economic upside. Dopey as I am, the logical thing to do is avoid all manner of social media, so as to not make an ass of myself in public. Which, initially, was my plan, but as I took the sick-day opportunity to load some CDs onto my sorely undermusiced (undermusicked?) new computer, inspiration and/or allergy-med-induced-delusion struck. So instead, here I am, rambling on about mix tapes and outlines.

Anybody who follows my Twitter feed (or, for that matter, has talked to me for more than five minutes) knows I'm a huge music geek. (Also, a classic crime fic geek, a grammar geek, a science geek, and a recovering Star Wars geek, but hands off, ladies, I'm taken.) And as such, I miss the classic mix tape. I'm not talking some drag-and-drop CDR bullshit you could whip up during a commercial break; I'm talking a spread all your CDs out on the floor, one hand on the manual fade, listen to the end of every damn track a dozen times to find the song that just fits next, serious time commitment mix tape. The kind of mix tape that when you start it, you have no effing idea where it's gonna take you -- just that it's gonna be epic. Okay, sure, you know you're gonna kick it off with a little Elvis Costello, and maybe finish with The Afghan Whigs' Faded, and there's that Guided by Voices tune you just can't get out of your head (which should tell you, for the record, when I last made a mix tape)(did I just say "for the record"? Geez; I had no idea accidental puns were a side-effect of allergy meds), but as for how you're gonna connect the dots? That, you have no idea. And that journey of discovery is where the fun lies.

Contrast that with the CD mixes today. You go in knowing every beat, every song you want to include. You make a play list, maybe move some stuff around a bit, and bam, you're done. Not as organic, and certainly not as satisfying, but on the other hand, you know before you start that every song's a winner.

That, to me, is the difference between writing an outline versus writing by the seat of your pants. (CDR is, in this example, the outline, and yeah, I know I reversed them relative to my metaphor above, which is bad form, but I'm loopy here, so cut me a break.) In an outlined book, you can control the pace, dole out plot at your leisure, and if you're lucky, you wind up with something taut and lean and paced within an inch of its life (unlike, say, this blog post). That's how I wrote The Angels' Share, and I'm glad of it; I needed the safety net of an outline my first time out, and I think the end product is pretty darn good. But the drawback is, you may wind up with something that is exactly the sum of its parts; no alarms and no surprises.

If it's the thrill of the unexpected you're looking for (as a writer, and in your readers), then it's a seat-of-your-pants mix-tape method for you. That's how I wrote Dead Harvest, and how I'm writing The Wrong Goodbye. Yeah, I know a few big beats going in (usually beginning, ending, and a couple major plot points/set pieces in the middle), but to get there, I just write and write and write, always asking what next? or how'm I gonna top that? The drawback to this method is wandering too far afield of the story you're trying to tell. The benefit is unpredictability, surprise, and, if you're really lucky, a spark of life you're never gonna get from an outline.

So which is right? Neither. Both. Any mixture of the two. Heck, it's your mix tape; the whole point is you decide how it's supposed to go.

Now if you'll excuse me, I think it's time for another dose. I'd hate to start making sense...