GHOSTING

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

Forgive me for repeating myself, but due to time constraints, I’m re-posting a blog I wrote a while back.  I was preparing a new blog about how music has influenced my writing and I just couldn’t get it right, at least not in time for deadline.  This one, however, does the trick.  So, if you haven’t read it before, consider it brand spanking new.  Thanks for the leeway.

Here’s yet another example of how music has influenced the way I think about writing.  There’s a musical term, called “ghosting,” that describes a particular style of jazz improvisation. Let’s say there’s a musical phrase, or “lick,” that stretches over a number of bars.  When a musician “ghosts” that phrase, he whips through the notes, punctuating certain notes while passing over others on his way to the end of the phrase.  He might not even express the notes he passes over, he might merely suggest them by fingering the corresponding keys or allowing a very small amount of air into the instrument (if it is a saxophone or trumpet) in order to give the impression that the note was sounded. 

It’s kind of hard to describe this in words, but if you take a listen to Charlie Parker playing Au Privave, you’ll get the gist.  The music starts off with the melody line, which is repeated once.  Then Charlie improvises, and you can hear how he “ghosts” the musical phrases.

Even though we don’t hear all the notes he’s playing, we sense their existence in the context of the musical phrase.  The notes are felt, even though they might not be audible.

I realized how this concept applied to writing when I was working as a development executive and a writer I knew was having trouble cutting back a long scene.  She was reluctant to let go of the back-story she had written into the scene, thinking the reader would be lost if things weren’t spelled out clearly.

“Cut it,” I said.  “All you need is a word here and there to suggest the extensive back-story you’ve written.  Your dialogue already contains subtle references to it.  The ghost of what you’ve written will remain.”

I was discovering the musical connection even as I was saying it.  Teaching works that way, you don’t know what you know until you try explaining it to others.  She liked the concept and went off to do her rewrites.  When she finished, her script was vastly improved.  It said more, with fewer words.  And she didn’t just cut the back-story, she “ghosted” it.

I started thinking about how ghosting plays a role in other aspects of our lives.  For instance, anyone who has had to deliver a hundred-word bio goes through the process of ghosting.  Take mine, for example, with its emphasis on my development work with Wolfgang Petersen.  That was over ten years ago already, yet it influenced my life in ways that the jobs I held thereafter did not.  What about the “day job” I’m currently in?  It doesn’t show up in the bio, except for the line, “Mr. Schwartz traveled the United States extensively…”  That was for the day job.  The traveling influenced the writer I would become, but the job itself…fuggedaboudit.  Ghost it.

And how many of us have written three or four completely different resumes, each in their own way accurate in their description of our work history, accomplishments and goals?  We present different images of ourselves for different purposes.  The full story of my life exists in the combination of all the resumes, but that would be too much information, and probably too confusing.  Ghost it.

And what about our memories?  Don’t we remember the big events, the things that are really significant in our lives, while letting the less significant ones disappear in a haze of gray?  You can’t tell someone the story of your life without ghosting. 

I used to keep a recording device with me so I could capture every “great” idea that came into my head.  Then one day I was having lunch with another writer and he pulled his own tape-recorder from a hidden pocket, hit the record button, and said something to the effect of, “Note to self:  the protagonist should have a bouquet of flowers in his hands when the gunmen approach.”  Click, he slipped the recording device back into his pocket while turning to me with an innocent, “I’m sorry, you were saying?”

I ditched the tape recorder after that.  I realized that the good thoughts stick around.  Recording them or instantly jotting them down seemed redundant.  If the idea was still in my head after a week I knew it was something worth using.  If I forgot it ten minutes later then it probably wasn’t that important.  Kinda like the time I did shrooms and was absolutely fascinated with a glowing filament encased in a glass capsule, I spent hours marveling at it’s unique, sleek design and the God-inspired wisdom that caused it to come into existence.  The next morning I looked at the device again and said, “Oh yeah, a light bulb.”

But I digress.  We were talking about ghosting. 

So, ghosting in writing could be described as an intentional suppression of information that allows for the seeping through of certain elements of that information in order to suggest the existence of a deeper, fuller background than what is written on the page.

Man, I want a spot on the next Webster’s Dictionary writing gig.

What about unintentional ghosting?  I was having a conversation with a friend recently and he told me about his father’s Alzheimer’s.  It’s in the early stages—the man still remembers his family members and most of the important moments in his life.  But if you ask him what he had for lunch he’ll just make shit up.  He’ll give a whole schpeil about the fictitious dining experience he didn’t have.  Brushing over the fact that he doesn’t remember a thing about it.  Unintentional ghosting?

Does anyone out there in Murderati Land have any cool made-up words that almost make sense?  Or something you’ve taken from a different medium and applied it to writing?

15 thoughts on “GHOSTING

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I love this post – before and now. Here's another kind of ghosting I've been thinking about lately as I have to sort through all these boxes of my old scripts and notes so I can sell my house! (And let me tell you, what a nightmare…)

    What I'm talking about is thematic ghosts. I think we all have them as writers. I have a script that made a lot of money for me over the years that I've always wanted to turn into a novel, about a female serial killer. But now that project is on the back burner because my new novel – nothing to do with the script – is about a female serial killer. I can't get away from it, thematically. And now I can't develop the old script – not for a while, anyway – because I'd be competing with myself.

    But the new one is a much BIGGER story, a series with broader appeal, which is better for me to be doing now.

    Here's another ghost – the old script will be a ghost in its own way until I can fully realize it. That's an uncomfortable feeling.

    And I just have to let Murderati people know that the new book, HUNTRESS MOON, is free today for Kindle if you want to grab it!

    Here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008G14754

  2. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Alex – the ghosts of stories never told….I have a number of screenplays I wrote before writing my first novel and I have no desire to revisit them as novels. They seem to exist in their own time, in their own form. It's too bad none of them were ever produced, because they will always feel incomplete, almost like school assignments that taught me how to develop character and plot. I'll probably publish some of my early poetry, but I'll do nothing with the later screenplays I labored over for years. Then again, I never wrote a really strong thriller that could be fodder for a novel. If I had, I might have the same dilemma as you.

  3. Eric Stone

    Great post. For me rhythm is one of the most vital aspects of writing. I can pretty much tap my feet to a book that I think is well written. John Fante's "Ask the Dust" is a good example. I try to get that right in my own writing, often changing words for no reason other than the tempo of the sentences. It's one of the few applications I have found for what I learned from poetry as a moony teenager. I know a passage is working well when I can read it out loud and its rhythm is obvious. When that happens, the pace and tone and everything else give everything a forward momentum that doesn't rely on exposition. I suppose it is ghosting.

  4. Jake Nantz

    I just had to compliment you on this line. It's so true. "Teaching works that way, you don’t know what you know until you try explaining it to others." So very true. Kids in my AP class often comment that I don't seem to do as much "real teaching" (read as: lecturing), and that they feel like they're doing all the work when they have to teach stuff. Then they do the actual teaching and realize what I've been telling them all along – students retain about 20% of lectures vs. about 80% when they teach it. The reason is the ghost of what you said…you have to really know your stuff well to teach it to someone else and make it coherent, and often you'll find new things you didn't know you knew until you're teaching them.

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Eric – a well-written sentence or paragraph is syncopated and filled with musical phrasing and eloquence. When my best writing really works, it should sound like a jazz solo. That's something Jack Kerouac would strive for, and I believe, for the most part, he succeeded. You should listen to him reading from On the Road with Steve Allen accompanying him on piano. Friggin' awesome.
    I love John Fante, particularly his novel Brotherhood of the Grape. I think it's his best. A perfect, poignant, humorous look at two generations of Italian-Americans.

  6. David Corbett

    I love this post because I notoriously overwrite, and my revisions almost always involve merciless cutting. And you're right, what you learn is that you unconsciously repeat yourself, emphasize things that were strong enough without it. You have to be alert to those echoes, those ghosts, then pare them back.

    Back story is a great example. We always think it's crucial, but then we look and see how it animates the character's behavior, and realize the behavior tells the tale.

    I'm teaching a class titled Deconstructing Chinatown next week at the Book Passage Mystery Conference, and one of the film's many great lessons is how little we need to know about Jake's past in Chinatown to get fully why it haunts him. In fact, if we knew more, it might diminish the effect.

    (Another recent example of this is the film SHAME, the power of which is almost all in its subtext. We never know what specifically happened between these siblings, but we can guess, and we understand it was shattering.)

    The power of saying less is that it obliges the reader to step further into the story, engage the text in a way they don't have to if everything is explained.

    The risk is that you can confuse the audience. There's a fine line.

    Or, put differently: Less is more, unless it's not enough.

    BTW: Blatant plug: In case anyone's interested in my class on Chinatown (you don't need to attend the conference to sign up for the class): http://bookpassage.com/event/david-corbett-pre-conference-class-deconstructing-chinatown

    Or if anyone's interested in coming to the conference: http://bookpassage.com/mystery-writers-conference

    Thanks, Stephen. I hadn't seen this post before. Even if I had, it bears repeating.

  7. Sarah W

    For the life of me, I can't remember who said that truth is in the spaces between what is said and what is done (anyone?). But Marcel Marceau once wrote that context is everything — and there's no one else I know who could ghost entire worlds as he did, with only a few movements.

    I ghost, I think, over many of my fighting scenes — mostly because I'm no ZoΓ« Sharp, but also because it feels right to me to only detail the actions that will impact (pun intended) the aftermath for the characters. Color commentary instead of play-by-play, I suppose.

    As for the last question, about applying things from a different medium, I've recently started singing lessons, and the things I've learned absolutely apply to writing. Even the breathing. Can't wait for your music post!

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Jake is right, this is brilliantly true: "Teaching works that way, you don’t know what you know until you try explaining it to others."

    And OH, do you learn your craft when you have to teach it! My dancing improved exponentially the first year I taught it. I hope the writing did, too!

    Great discussion!

  9. Darla

    I had not read this post before so thoroughly enjoyed it – thanks! And I loved the synchronicity that you began with music, while my contemplative writing this morning was titled Song of the World Through Flowers. And the term "ghosting" is great — because of the now-mental connection between music and the concept of ghosting for writing, I will hopefully be more easily able to keep it in mind as I continue revising and re-writing my manuscript.

    And I like how you said "If the idea was still in my head after a week I knew it was something worth using. If I forgot it ten minutes later then it probably wasn’t that important." which reminded me of advice I received a few months ago. A friend was telling me that she no longer kept a dream-journal; that if the dream was truly pertinent to something she needed to work out, then she would remember the dream. She simply had faith.

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Darla, I agree with that in principle – actually, I agree with that for writing ideas! But dreams are such subtle things, and there seems to me to be a trickster element in the dream that will hide the dream meaning from you if you DON'T write it down.

    I often wake from a dream thinking, "Oh, I'll surely remember THIS," but when I write it down anyway, and look at it later, I am BLOWN AWAY by the actual significance of it.

    I don't know, but dreams… you kind of have to capture them while you remember.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Darla, I agree with that in principle – actually, I agree with that for writing ideas! But dreams are such subtle things, and there seems to me to be a trickster element in the dream that will hide the dream meaning from you if you DON'T write it down.

    I often wake from a dream thinking, "Oh, I'll surely remember THIS", but when I write it down anyway, and look at it later, I am BLOWN AWAY by the actual significance of it.

    I don't know, but dreams… you kind of have to capture them while you remember.

  12. David Corbett

    Anyone who remarks, "If it's truly important, I'll remember it," clearly hasn't reached the age of 45.

    if this were true, I'd have to admit that the names of 90% of the people in my life are utterly unimportant, especially when I bump into them at Bouchercon or some other conference after having not seen them in a year at least. Among about two billion other examples i could give — if I could remember them.

  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Jake – I had a teacher in college who was being reviewed by some special board of trustees for a "teacher of the year" award – I remember these individuals watching her in awe as she engaged and challenged her class. I was in the class and I, too, was amazed. She made the students dig into the material and teach others in the class, who, in turn had to turn around and teach other elements to their "teachers." It was difficult and somewhat intimidating at first, but we all loved it, and we learned so much more than what we learned in our other college courses. Which was amazing, because the subject in itself was difficult to comprehend: Japanese Literature, Politics and Religion.

  14. Darla

    Alex, yes, dreams are subtle and illusive, but I have to admit that having opened to this recent approach, I remember more dreams, not less … and clearer, longer, than before. But that's just me. πŸ˜‰

    David, I had to laugh! I'm over 50 and have had a poor memory since childhood. My family despairs of me for not remembering events, names, places, faces, etc. And yet, it doesn't bother me; I love that I can meet someone 'fresh' who I knew long ago, and can read a favorite book repeatedly as if it was new, yet knowing on a sub-level that I loved it if not why or recalling specifics. However, that said, a good memory would be quite helpful while trying to write a novel! LOL

    If I want to remember something … I have to write it down. πŸ™‚

  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    David –

    I read and re-read your following lines, then read them to my wife. It's good stuff

    "Back story is a great example. We always think it's crucial, but then we look and see how it animates the character's behavior, and realize the behavior tells the tale."

    I love the idea that a character's behaviors reveal his "untold" back story. And that this is really, truly enough. It goes back to your comment on subjective writing in my blog about point of view.

    "The power of saying less is that it obliges the reader to step further into the story, engage the text in a way they don't have to if everything is explained. The risk is that you can confuse the audience. There's a fine line. Or, put differently: Less is more, unless it's not enough."

    God, I'm totally with you on this. I just never thought to word it that way. The story is more engaging if the reader has to do a little work to retrieve the message. The reader must be invested. It makes reading an active experience, instead of a passive one.

    And thank you for assuming that I haven't reached the age of 45. I'll always remember that. Until my memory goes.

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