Sometimes things happen and writers find themselves up against a wall—the words are on the other side but getting past that wall is impossible. Writer’s Block. Everyone has it at some point. What causes it is almost impossible to pin down—it can be a plot point that doesn’t move, a character that has decided to stop talking, an event that comes out of nowhere and just stops everything dead. So, what to do? First things first, set aside that project for a moment. It will wait patiently while you focus on something else. I promise it will wait for you.
Now, let’s dive into an organic writing practice that’s like free-form jazz. A practice session where musicians come together and each take a turn putting together a piece of music. It’s improvised, it’s in the moment, and each relies on the others to move the melodic line forward. Sometimes they go back and find the song, perfecting it and releasing it. Sometimes they don’t. Most importantly, they just let the music flow from piano to drums, guitar to bass, sax to vocals and back again. Each building and weaving the melody together.
So, what does that mean for us as writers? I think there are times when we need this kind of experience as much as those musicians do. It’s a way to challenge ourselves, a way to create something that is completely unexpected—sometimes even out of our comfort zone.
Here is the exercise: find at least one fellow writer—or if you are part of a writing group two or three or more—and decide, very generally, on a story and characters. For the sake of this blog, we will say our story is about a far off world with three suns and ten moons. It’s a place of war for some, extravagance for others. Each person creates a character and gives them a basic personality that all the other writers know—so they can write that character when their point in the musical odyssey comes up. That's the beginning, very rough outline and equally rough character sketches. Once that is done, set a limit on chapter length—between 1,500 and 3,000 words is good.
Now comes the fun, challenging and scary part.
One person starts the story, building in the world (it doesn’t have to be sci fi or fantasy, it can work as well in a historical novel, a romance or anything else depending on participants and inclination). Their character will begin it all, and they can even bring the other characters into the fray. Remember there is a word length and you will be passing the “melodic line” on to the next player. Cliffhangers are fine, but leave a way out—this is collaborative, not competitive.
This can be far more challenging than it seems on the surface. Most writers like to have complete control over their world and their character(s). Leaning back after you’ve written a chapter and waiting for what comes next is hard. Very hard. Especially when the story takes a turn you weren’t expecting—but that is the whole point. It’s a challenge to let yourself just go with the flow of the story in the same way those jazz musicians go with the flow of the music.
I’ve done this several times. In fact, I am always trying to talk someone into doing this with me. I love the it—well, I love it now. At first it was incredibly hard to just let the story happen. I don’t tend to do very hard outlines in stories, but I generally know where they are going. With this kind of exercise, it is impossible to control that “where”. It’s hard, it’s scary, to hand a character you inevitably end up loving over to someone else, but in the end it’s worth it. You can look at the project you were stuck on with new eyes and maybe a path around that wall of Writer’s Block will be visible. And you might just find that in the meantime you (and your fellows) have created a story you all truly love.
To outline or not to outline, that is the question.
It’s a question I am asked a lot. “Do you use an outline?” The answer? Yes and no. I tend to have a very vague outline in my head when I set out to write a story, blog or novel. I have an idea of what points and pieces I want to hit—action, character development, beginning, middle, and ending, but I don’t lay it out on paper. I tend to let the story evolve organically while keeping those points I want in the back of my mind.
I have compared writing to music before, and this is another time I think the comparison is apropos. When a writer begins, like a musician learning an instrument, there is a lot of practice involved. You don’t pick up a violin and magically begin to play Mozart. You practice, you run scales, you learn music by rote, often bar by bar until you have learned an entire piece. Then you set out on another and another, until one day you can sit down and pick up the violin, open music you’ve never seen before and “hear” how it should be played, catch the nuances on the first or second time, then refine from there.
Writing is very much like that, you can’t sit down the first time at a computer and magically produce Pride and Prejudice. It takes time. First the scales—practice pieces focusing on one aspect of writing, character, action, dialogue. Once you are gaining mastery there, it’s time to branch out and open that first piece of “music”—a major project of some kind. A multi-chapter story or novella, perhaps even a novel. The first time, consciously—even physically—outline the work. Sketch out the details (like the bars in a piece of music) then write each as you go.
After working through several stories, you’ll find that the pieces are starting to develop more organically. The outlines will become more and more vague—from spelling out each major point and action to just an idea of where the story will begin and how it will end. The characters won’t need to be fully described before you begin, they will build their own melody as you write.
One of the hardest parts of writing is the idea that you must practice before you can “play” a major piece. It seems so simple, you communicate every day, you write emails, SMS and texts, you might even compose letters as part of your job. You read books and stories, so it is easy to not practice, to not learn the scales, before attempting to write a piece without that hard work in place. But, as easy as it seems, tt’s also not something to ignore. Practice is important, very important. Giving yourself a day or two a week (or month depending on time/how much you write) to write stories that you never intend to publish—ones that are to hone your skills, help you build characters into believable people—is vital. It’s not a waste of time, it’s just like running scales and using practice pieces before working on that performance piece. In music you do it every day, in writing you should as well.
To outline or not to outline? The answer is yes—to both.
I’ve been asked over the years where I find inspiration for technique and style in my writing. Yes, I served time in the trenches so to speak—writing news, features and academic papers, but I try and seek out ideas everywhere I go. In my upcoming blogs I will share some of these. A few are from what might be unexpected sources.
One of the most influential off-the-wall sources has been music. I don’t mean just listening to music as I write, no I mean gaining insight into my writing through the techniques use by musicians. I’ve been lucky enough to attend a great many musical performances of all kinds and I’ve gained a lot of insight.
In a way writing is more like music than anything else. Writers, like musicians, must practice our craft. If a writer or musician takes a class, that does not excuse them from practice. There is never improvement without practice. I’ve heard it mentioned time and time again that this is particularly true for those musician (and writers!) that are gifted. It is easy to fall back on that gift and not push into a place that is more challenging, and in order to improve, to embrace writing, you must. Musicians do scales, we write small pieces that no one sees, but challenge some part of our skill. A character study, a scene, something small, to warm up before we attempt a larger piece. Once the larger pieces become part of out repertoire, then it’s time to push and try something new. A different style, a new point of view, a new genre.
It’s from musicians I’ve gotten some of the inspiration for my own style as well. I have a passion for polyphony—that magnificent music that showcases the human voice in all its glory. More complex than Gregorian chant, it reached its peak with the genius of Palestrina. For me, I find the Fourteenth Century master Machaut amazing.
A few years ago, I not only had the chance to hear the Tallis Scholars perform, but managed to attend a lecture beforehand. It was an eye-opening experience. One of the things I found most interesting was the discussion of vibrato. Most modern singers (opera/choral) use vibrato when they sing, but in order to sing polyphony you can’t. The notes are designed to be steady, held pure on that single note and any vibration will “muddy” (his word) the sound.
Now, what does that mean for writing? How does a writer use vibrato? For me, I think this is the tendency to use that extra word that’s really not needed. What I love about polyphony is the purity of the music. Writing should be the same. Even with a very complex sentence, paragraph or idea, there is no need to “muddy” the waters with that extra “vibration” that could very well ruin the purity of the thought.
On 21-April 2010, I had the privilege to audit a master class with the classical guitarist David Russell. It was an amazing experience, hearing a master speaking about his art and craft. As I was listening, it occurred to me that so much of what he was saying applies not just to the guitar—or music in general—it also applies to writing and other arts. I came back from the master class as inspired as the guitarists who were there, and excited to apply Russell’s lessons to writing. I thought I would share some of these with my ideas on what they meant to me.
The greatest connection you have with your audience is your rhythm. Writing does have a rhythm. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been talking about a book or story and said “I love their rhythm” or “their story is good, but I don’t like the rhythm.” It is something that writers tend to forget, that our words have an ebb and a flow, a musicality, even if they are not intended as the spoken word. We need to be aware of those things and think, when we are writing, about the things that affect our rhythm.
Don’t let them hear your difficulty. The reader can sense that, when a writer fights their story. We have to learn to keep on going. Move on through the scene, then if it is still rough, return to it, but let the story go on.
When you are always dark, you lose the sparkle. This is so true! Unrelenting darkness can really make or break a story. Think about those books or TV shows or movies that are completely without a “lightness”. It takes away from the “real” feeling of the story and lessens the dark moment when you need it most.
Find places where we [the audience] can breathe with you. Taking a moment to pause, even in the middle of an intense action scene, lets the reader appreciate what is going on, lets them catch up and latch onto what is happening. A moment of comfort, a laugh, even a short description to set a scene up, it is part of the rhythm of the words.
The idea is that even though you are under pressure you can make beautiful phrases. Writing isperformance on a public scale, just like getting on a stage and playing a Bach Concerto. I know that sometimes I get so caught up in the nerves of “performing” or the pressure to finish a chapter, an article or even a book, I lose track of what I am writing and focus only on the race to wrap it up.
Don’t let the accompaniment overpower the top note [melody]. This might be one of the biggest failings of writers, getting so caught up in everything else that is going on that we lose sight of our storyline. Descriptive phrases, adjectives and adverbs are all wonderful in their place, but staying aware of our melody is the most important thing, without a clear melody [storyline], all the accompaniment in the world will accomplish nothing.
[Speed, volume] are like a weapon, if we use them too often they become too much, if we always use them the same way our opponent, or audience, will know what is coming. Another one of those huge problems writers have. Instead of speed or volume, it can be a particular turn of phrase, a certain word or setting. Used every so often they can be wonderful, but all the time and they become either overwhelming or banal.
Let the resolution be the resolution. When you reach the end, there is no need to draw it out, when you find that moment of closure, let it be, don’t keep poking at it until the moment is lost.
Little intervals have meaning to our subconscious. How many times have you read something and one small moment struck you and stayed with you? It is something that we need to be aware of as writers, but we also need to remember that the “little interval” is not always one of our choosing, we need to be aware of the totality of a piece as well as the rhythm of the small parts.
We fight so long to get legato we forget staccato. As a writer, I looked at this as the fight for vocabulary. As our vocabulary improves, the tendency to want to use the ever increasingly complex words—and hence sentences—can become overwhelming, maybe even intoxicating. Take a pause and look at a piece and think does that word really work? Or that sentence? Or could I convey what I want in simpler terms and keep the rhythm of my piece?
Don’t let the feeling be lost in the struggle. I think sometimes we can lose the awareness of our story, fighting so hard to create a chapter or a paragraph we forget the feeling and emotions we want to convey.
Don’t sacrifice the beauty of the phrase for the beauty of a moment. That happens sometimes, doesn’t it? Reading along and all of a sudden we, the writer, get so caught up in describing a single moment the that other moments around it are lost.
I find it’s an idea I return to again and again. Writer as musician. I’m not sure if it’s because of my own early training in music, or because of my vast love of both disciplines, but to me, they are to tied together that if you follow the rules of one, you will find a resonance in the other.
I have been a writing all my life and have been published in newspapers, magazines and books. Recently, I have started working with writers helping them to learn to love their writing, and how we, as writers can learn from musicians and their techniques.