Storytelling by Music

When it comes to the arts of voice and instrument, I am not the most gifted of individuals. I can carry a tune as long as the range isn’t too extreme, and I can play a few simple melodies on the piano; however, for the most part, I rely upon more talented men and women to delight the world with song. I’ve always loved music, but it became even more special to me when I realized how important it can be to the writing process.

I still remember the first time, in a brief but life-altering moment, it came to me that I could imagine stories to go along with songs.. I was a little girl, sitting in the passenger seat of my dad’s car, and we were enjoying a local station that played classical music when this thought entered my head. Of course, the thought that music is good not only for listening pleasure, but also inspiration, seems obvious to me, now, but at the time, I was wonder-struck. Suddenly, music wasn’t just beautiful – there was a kind of magic to it. Ever since then, songs have made both me and my imagination dance.

For me, story-telling is about characters. I love the fantasy genre, but if the characters who run around being wizards and fighting dragons and saving the day aren’t compelling or interesting or if they do things for the sake of the plot rather then for the sake of themselves – I just don’t care. Because of this, when I use music for inspiration, I focus on using it to try to learn more about my characters. I find songs that remind me of them: how they think, feel, and behave in certain situations. I don’t feel I really know a character until I start finding songs for them. From there, I find songs that help me visualize the places my characters will be, the atmosphere of the worlds that belong to the story. Sometimes, songs bring to life scenes of action or moments of romance. I never know what will grow out of a song once I touch my story to it, or, what will grow out of my story once I give it a song.

When I begin to brainstorm a story, sometimes all I have in mind is one person, or a general feeling I want to communicate. I listen to songs that remind me of that one person, or communicate the feeling I want to capture with my words. I know I’m getting close to being ready to write a story when I can make a kind of soundtrack for it: a mish-mash of songs, some with words, some without; some for the characters, and some for the action, and some for the stream threading through forested mountain valleys or sunrise-touched farms.

Most writers want their words to sing, one way or another. Seems to make sense that music be part of the writing itself.

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Rough Drafts

Am I the only one here who likes rough drafts? I am sure this is not the case, but, sometimes, when I talk with other writers, or read about them and how they work, it seems they regard rough drafts as despicable things: useful as a stepping-stone, but to be destroyed as quickly as possible. I don’t know how many times I’ve had conversations that go like this:

Me (to fellow-writer-person, most likely a younger sister or cousin): “Can I look at so-and-so? You said I could look at it when you finished.”

Cousin: “So-and-so? Oh, I gave up on that. It’s just not working.”

Me: “Oh.” (awkward pause) “Well, can I look at what you DID finish?”

Cousin: “I don’t think so. I threw it away.”

Me: (tearing hair out, gnashing teeth, rending my clothes) “WHYYYYY????”

I don’t like having these conversations. I mean, I understand the urge. When you write something that basically stinks, you want to erase all evidence that it ever existed. Who needs that constant reminder that neither you nor your writing is perfect? The rough draft is a necessary evil – something you have to put on paper in order to make the final product. Once that final product is finished, the rough draft ought to be burned, right?

Well . . . no. At least, not in my mind. While rough drafts and pieces of stories that could never be finished are indeed reminders that your writing is not perfect, they are reminders of a few other important things.

First off, they remind you that, in spite of all obstacles, you have improved as a writer. I began writing at a young age, and, as can be expected, wrote some pretty darn awful stories. For example, I wrote one about this thirteen-year-old girl who goes for a walk in the woods, but becomes hopelessly lost (and I mean hopelessly) simply because she gets caught in a rainstorm and runs off the path. She spends years in the forest, hundreds of miles from the nearest human being, makes friends with lots of animals, and generally has a jolly old time before finally working her way back to her house. Now, I worked on this story for a long time, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I got to a certain age and realized that the concept was fundamentally flawed. I gave up on it, but although it may have been tempting to burn the pages and dance on the ashes, I didn’t. I kept that little book and now have solid proof sitting on my shelf that I am now a better writer.

Secondly, rough drafts, even really, REALLY rough drafts, remind you of the spirit in which you began writing. I have stories that have been through at least four different drafts, but I still have the first few fragments I wrote while trying to visualize the piece. The fragments aren’t very good, and I don’t think I used any of them in even the first rough draft, but I kept them because they hold some of my story’s essence: its color and smell and the characters who would see the story through. They remind me how I first saw the story and what I first wanted the story to be.

Finally, I believe that in those rough drafts or stories-never-finished, there exists at least one thing worth keeping. A line from a failed poem might serve as the opening to a new novel. The title of a ridiculous short story could be the perfect last line of a memoir. I keep my old bits and pieces, my rough drafts and incompletes, because not only are they part of me and part of my writing, but, someday, I might find a use for them. A character here, a description there, a plot point way over there. I don’t know. I never know. So, I keep it just in case.

It’s kind of like baking, I suppose. When you make chocolate-chip cookies, you make a mess of flour and sugar and eggs and vanilla flavoring and chocolate-chips in order to get the final product. You don’t share the mess with your friends and family – you share the cookies. But you don’t throw away the mess, either. You lick the spoon, you eat a little brown sugar, and then you put the spilled flour and chocolate chips back into their containers.

You’ll need them for next time.

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Readers

They say that giving your writing to family members to read/critique is a really, really stupid idea. Supposedly, your family members will look at your writing and will either love everything or hate everything – neither extreme being good for you and your hopes of improving. I can understand this; however, I think each writer’s situation and family is unique. Sometimes, a family member who likes to read is the best person to look at your writing because he/she cares about you and will make an attempt to be honest but encouraging at the same time. I for one find my sisters and cousins invaluable once I’ve finished a rough draft for a number of reasons.

First off, they like to read what I like to write. I write fantasy, and they read fantasy for pleasure. I don’t think there’s much point in giving your writing to someone if that someone doesn’t understand and love what it is you’re trying to do (C.S. Lewis made this point in an essay called On Criticism, and it made SO MUCH sense to me. I’ve cherished the notion ever since). As lovers of fantasy stories, my relatives have a good sense of what is best in the genre and what is devilishly irritating. I can trust them to respond to my work as readers: I can ask them to tell me whether or not they enjoyed the book overall.

Secondly, my family knows me pretty darn well. They know how to criticize me without making me cry. They know how to compliment me without letting me puff up too much. They also want my writing to be the best it can be, because hey – my writing reflects not only on me and my supposed talent but on the general clan and what they let me show the world.

It’s not a perfect system, to be sure, but it helps me get going on my revisions. I write long stories, and sometimes I get overwhelmed by all there is to go through. Before I start, I want someone else to tell me whether or not the thing is even worth it. Sure, I like it, but I’m not the only person in the world and I don’t know everything. My sister can read through my stuff and say, “Yeah, I liked it.” 

Sometimes, that’s all I need. Suddenly I’m not the only one who thinks it’s worth it. Now, I can move on to more specifics. I get my cousins in on things – I ask them about plot twists and humor and whether or not my writing is coming off the way I want it to. Were you bored during all that walking in the woods? Were the witches scary? Does the magic-use work? I look for chuckles in the right places – more focus on the page where my writing was intended to be suspenseful. Simple questions, but important. Knowing the answers directs my revisions – tells me what to concentrate my efforts on and what to let go – call good enough. 

Because, even in the rough draft, there’s something beautiful. A setting description. A bit of dialogue. A brilliantly terrifying scene. A great idea slipping through a character’s thoughts. Your readers, family or otherwise, ought to be able to see those shining pieces the same as you do when you read back over your work. That’s good, they’ll tell you. Make sure you keep that

 Family is important. Writing is not a completely solitary process. Let them participate. It might be just the thing you and your writing needs. 

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Noooooo!

Well, I finished writing a novel a few months ago. Back in mid-July. And, yes, it was epic. I was epic. It was all epic all around. Page 673, THE END! Whoo-hoo! However, finishing a rough draft is only the beginning. At some point, I have to revise.

Sigh.

Whenever I finish a story, a kind of heavenly glow is cast over everything – not just on the words I’ve crafted, but on the clouds overhead, the dust floating in my bedroom, and the faces of complete strangers. The world is a beautiful place, filled with laughing children and singing birds and sweet-smelling flowers. I set my work aside with the confidence that it’s pretty much perfect apart from a few technical troubles that can be smoothed out in a pass or two.

Sigh.

This is ridiculous vision, and deep down, I know it. However, as long as I leave my story alone, I can continue to delude myself about its lack of flaws. Finishing a rough draft is, in some sense, the easy part. Pulling it out for revisions is admitting that it needs work. Maybe even (gulp) a lot of work.

I’ve got to be honest with you, revising terrifies me. I remember trying to revise my first story (a novella sort of thing), and, at first, I was really excited about it. I loved my story and wanted it to be better, so . . . revising was my best friend, right? I reread and made notes and reevaluated my characters and rearranged scenes and and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote and –

Wait a minute.

Yeah. I looked up one day and realized that I didn’t know what I was doing anymore. I had four different versions of the story and didn’t know which one, if any, was better than the other. I felt like I was simply changing the story rather than making it better. All that revising, and where had it gotten me? I’m still trying to figure that out.

Anyways, with this most recent story, I’m a little nervous at the thought of trying to “fix” it. What if I mess up again? What if I make it worse? What if . . . I get tired of it and give up?

It’s fears like these that can get to a writer. That can keep him writing stacks of rough drafts and never really finishing any of them.

Which brings us to something writers ought to fear more, and that’s letting a job well-begun remain half done. Writer need to stay realistic about their work, but hey! It’s fun to dream, and a writer’s got to believe in her work because really, who else will? And believing in a story means dusting it off and reworking it where it needs to be reworked.

That’s why I’ve got to get going on this thing. I care about it. I care about its meandering plot and my weird collection of characters and the bizarre settings they wander through. So, I guess here goes. Yay revision!

Sigh.

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Distractions . . .

Yeah . . .

There are many of them. Writers must be wary of them at all – and I mean all – times. Otherwise, you turn out like me, and wake up to find that three months have gone by since your last blog post. (Sigh.)

Distractions come in many forms. In your friends. In your significant other. In your work or your school or both. In the fact that you have to clean sometimes. And do laundry. And cook. And watch television. (Yes, sometimes, you just need to sit in front of the television and let your brains turn into mush and fall out of your ears.)

And, to some extent, this is okay. Distractions are part of life. They’re always going to be there. What you can’t do is let them overwhelm your writing life.

Unfortunately, sometimes they do. Sometimes you get so swamped by all the distractions pushing you around, that your writing goes by the wayside. For days. For weeks. For months. Maybe even years. And while this is hardly the ideal, it’s not the end of the world – or your writing life.

If you look up one day and discover that you haven’t written in . . . way too long, you are then faced with a choice. You can shrug your shoulders, say oh, well, and go back to the distractions. Or, you can slap yourself in the forehead, say, oh, my GOSH! and then hustle yourself to the nearest means of writing and get at it – even if it’s only for a few minutes.

Writing is not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s a journey that you’ve begun. And you can, at any time, wander off the path to dance with a boy or girl, or help someone fix their fence, or go searching for dragons. Sometimes, it’s the thing to do. Just remember that you can also, at any time, return to your original quest – the quest for words, for stories, for truth.

Enjoy your wanderings, fellow writers. But come back, someday, to tell the rest of us about all that happened . . .

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On Jealousy

There are many reasons writers don’t write. Boyfriend (or girlfriend). Children (or YOUNGER SIBLINGS). College classes. The lawn. The in-laws. A job. But these are normal obstacles. They can be overcome by getting your boyfriend to give you feedback on your work, staying up an extra hour after the children go to bed, skipping a homework assignment or two, letting the lawn grow into a beautiful tangle of oxygen-producing green stuff, and so on and so forth.

There are other obstacles, more . . . intangible obstacles that sometimes take a great deal more to overcome. Obstacles like fear ‘n trembling (what if I’m no good? what if I can’t think of any ideas?), general despair (what if I should just quit and go dig ditches? maybe that’s my real calling!), and smoldering jealousy.

It is this last one I would like to speak of in detail. Because if you let it, it can lead to the other two. If you don’t let it, then it may do you some good.

Jealousy can be a significant problem for many writers. Because, let’s face it, unless you are in fact the GREATEST WRITER IN THE WHOLE WORLD (GWWW), there’s always going to be someone or several someones out there who write better than you write. Sometimes you read their books or their blogs or you watch their movies or hear them explain their latest story-idea to you. And you feel your eyes blaze green and your heart pound loud and fast as you are torn between two desires: the desire to sock Mr. or Mrs. Brilliant Writer-Person in the nose, and the desire to fall at her/his feet begging him/her to lay hands upon you and bestow wisdom.

The first desire – the one that involves violence to the other person’s face – is one that will eat you up. First you are jealous. Nasty jealous. You are angry and spiteful and obsessive. Then, after all your energy has been sapped, you feel despair. You decide you will never be as interesting/clever/funny/awesome as so-and-so. So why try? You drag yourself to your place of writing, sag in your chair, and doodle pictures of yourself huddled somewhere in the gutter. Your inability to draw anything but stick figures only makes things worse. Finally, along with the despair, comes the fear ‘n trembling. You’re scared now – scared to write anything because you’re not sure you’re any good and you figure nobody will ever read your work because why would they when they could be reading so-and-so?

But jealousy doesn’t necessarily have to take you down this path. Sometimes jealousy lights a fire in your soul that, rather than consuming you, causes you to feel a fierce kind of admiration for so-and-so’s work. You aspire to write like so-and-so and maybe you compete with so-and-so in your head. You work harder. You write more. And, after a time, you write better.

So you’re not the GWWW. So what? Only one person can be – one person out of 7 billion. Do you actually want to write better than almost 7 billion people? Think about the pressure! Be thankful. And write.

At least, that’s what I tell myself. 🙂

 

P.S. Grass produces oxygen, right? It’s not just trees?

P.P.S. I don’t know . . . maybe I’m the only one who gets bitten by the green-eyed monster. Anyone else? Can you think of writers that drive you a little crazy because they’re SO GOOD and you just want to be like them? Let me know! We’ll commiserate.

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The Dreadful Question

There are several general rules that must be followed if you want to feel productive. One of them is to get up before eight a.m. Another is to make your bed first thing. Also, if your room looks like a mild sort of twister blazed through sometime during the night, you should straighten up a bit.

Then, if you are a writer, you should write. Because for a writer, the ultimate way to feel awesome/confident/productive is to write. This is despite the fact that most other people who stumble across you, The Writer, sitting cross-legged on the floor of your bedroom, still in your pajamas and scribbling seeming-nonsense on a whole mess of paper, will probably be like, “Woman! What are you doing with your life? It’s eight o’clock and you’re still in your pajamas!”

To which you, The Writer (looking up with glazed eyes), respond with, “I made my bed.”

You’re still in your pajamas.”

“Well, yeah. But I’m writing.”

“Oh.” (This is the slightly confused I-get-it-but-I-really-don’t-get-it Oh of the non-writer, God bless ’em.) “So what are you writing?”

This is a terrible question. I don’t mean that it is an inherently bad question, or a question that should not be asked; I just mean that, for a writer, this question can be horrifying to the soul. It is the moment where you are supposed to sum up your Enormous Project of Great Worth in a few simple sentences. And of course, the trouble is not that you can’t reduce your story to a few simple sentences (because this can be done to any story in the world – try it sometime; it’s fun); it’s that, in that moment, you feel you are facing judgement.

The question, “So what are you writing?” is probably just that – a question about your writing. The other person is merely curious about what you’re working on. The trouble is that you, The Writer, hear several questions lurking in the undercurrents of the whatareyouwriting question. You hear whatareyouwriting AND, you also hear “Is it any good? Would I want to read it? Why are you spending so much time on it? Are you wasting your life? Are you going to publish it? Why are you taking so long to answer my Very Simple Question? You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?”

Because you hear all of these questions, you try to answer all of these questions. With a few simple sentences. But you cannot answer all of those questions with a few simple sentences, and so end up either driving the other person crazy by talking too much OR you overheat your brain and can’t write for a week.

So. My advice. To myself and anyone else like me (if that’s the case, I’m sorry). Just answer the one question and stop fretting.

“High-schoolers. Lost in another universe. Magical explosions. Some romance. I’ll mention you in the acknowledgments if you go away and let me work.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“Okay.”

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