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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

What I Learned About Writing From Music

In the past, I've written posts about the things I learned about writing from The Avengers and Eragon.  I realized that I've perhaps learned more about writing from something unrelated to fiction--music--than I have from a lot of other books or movies.  I've been playing the piano since second grade, and I've been active in the school band since fifth grade, so it's fair to say I have musical experience.  And when you think about it, writing and music are not so different, and they can learn from one another.

Here is what music has taught me about writing:

(And yes, I am using this as an excuse to post mostly unrelated GIFs of my favorite bands.  Because I can.)
  • You don't experience every genre the same way.  Nor should you try.  Think about it: you can't read Shakespeare the same way you read The Hunger Games.  With Shakespeare, you have to constantly watch for metaphors and double meanings, and expect to reread things in order to understand them.  With The Hunger Games, or most modern fiction, for that matter, you don't have to hunt for meaning (which doesn't make it more or less meaningful), and you can blow through it much faster.  Music is the same way.  I don't listen to Coldplay's album Viva La Vida Or Death and All His Friends like I listen to The Fray's Scars & Stories.  I love both of them, but Viva La Vida begs to be listened to as a whole because of how interconnected everything is and how one song leads into another, where Scars & Stories is less connected (thematically and musically), which makes it easier to separate the songs.  You have to be conscious of these things while writing: what genre do you write in?  How do readers experience this genre?   
  • Sometimes it's a group effort, but mostly, you're on your own.  When you're playing in an ensemble of any kind, it becomes obvious who hasn't practiced.  People say that a team is only as strong as its weakest player, and that's also true in music.  You can't put anything together as a group unless you've put in the time individually to get better.  I'm stretching this to fit with writing, but I'm going to go with it.  When you're writing, you can get feedback and critiques from dozens of people, but if you never work things out on your own, what good does it do you?  If you just wait for everyone else to pull you along, you're never going to get any better.  Feedback can be wonderfully helpful, but ultimately, it's up to the writer to improve their own writing.  
  • You can't do the thing unless you listen to/read other people doing the thing.  If someone tells me they're a writer, but "don't have time to read", they might as well stop talking.  As soon as that phrase comes out, I've already tuned them out.  A writer who doesn't read is no writer at all.  Music, visual art, theater--it all works the same way.  A violinist who never listens to others playing the violin is as good as useless.  Most of what I've learned about writing, I've learned from reading.  Consciously or subconsciously, I've picked up tidbits from each book I've read.  If I read a book and don't like it, it's a lesson in how not to write.  If I read something that I love, I should go get a notebook and jot down everything that works and is awesome, because there's no better way to learn.  (Other than actually writing, of course.)
    Here's a cool band, hanging out in elephant costumes because reasons.
  • It's all art.  Music and writing have a huge amount in common.  If you're composing, you're creating something from nothing.  Well, not from nothing--you're creating something based on all the threads of songs you have ever heard, all the lyrics that have seeped into your brain, every feeling you've ever felt while listening to music.  It's not all that much different from writing.  Writing is also creating, influenced by everything you've experienced.  When done right, both types of art evoke feeling in the recipient of the work.  They create mental images and lasting memories.  
  • You won't do it right the first time.  It's nearly impossible to sight-read a piece of music and play it perfectly (provided that it's at an at least semi-challenging level for you).  You'll make mistakes and get the notes wrong and forget accidentals.  You can't write something perfectly the first time, either.  Even if your work is typo-free, there will still be things that need changing.  Paragraphs will need to be rearranged, adverbs deleted, ideas cut or added.  An imperfect first try, for both writing and music, is part of the process.  If everyone could whip up a perfect novel or song on their first try, you wouldn't really have accomplished anything, would you?
  • Sometimes, you just have to do it 593 times to get it right.  A few years ago, I sat down to learn a piece of piano music called 'Clair de Lune'.  You might have heard it.  It's hard.  It was hard for me, at least.  I struggled through it for months.  I played it over and over and over, and I don't doubt that I've played it over a hundred times at this point.  Eventually, I did learn it, though.  I could play it with no mistakes (or, okay, no noticeable mistakes; I've gotten good at hiding things).  It's one of the pieces I've learned that I'm most proud of, and I wouldn't have as much reason to be proud if I hadn't needed to practice it a zillion times.  Writing works the same way.  If you write a thing once, fine.  If you write another thing, better.  If you keep writing and keep putting things on paper, over and over and over, you'll be getting somewhere.  I'm not going to say "Practice makes perfect", but...well, okay, I did.
    Occasionally, while practicing a song for the 93rd time, you just want to smash something and you might feel slightly...radioactive.
  • It doesn't mean anything if it's the only thing you ever do.  You need to practice writing and music, if that's what you want to do.  But you can't let it crowd out everything else, either.  You still need to live.  You need to keep experiencing new things.  If you hole up somewhere practicing/writing, you're not adding to your stock of experiences.  You're not gaining any new thoughts, words, or sounds.  You're just depleting yourself without replenishing your creativity.  If you balance your art with the rest of your life, though, you'll have something to draw from.
  • Know when something just isn't working that day.  I'm a strong advocate for just barreling through, in music or writing.  Writer's block?  In my mind, it doesn't exist if you just keep shoving your way through it.  That difficult arpeggio isn't going to get any easier unless you keep going at it.  However, there are times when I'm trying to practice a song on the piano, and for whatever reason, on that particular day it just isn't working, and I'm getting more frustrated than is worth it.  You have to learn to distinguish between an off day and a this-is-hard-I-don't-feel-like-doing-it day.
  • Just because you're technically good doesn't mean you're truly good.  You can pick up a piece of music, practice it, and then play it with every note correct, every articulation perfect, and the rhythm exact.  Good for you.  This doesn't necessary mean you played it musically.  Even if you're technically good, you still have to put feeling into it, somehow.  You have to take it to the next level, turning it from a collection of notes into a song.  It's a hard concept to grasp, but if you compared a technically good performance to a musically good one, you'd know the difference right away.  For writing, there are things that make you technically good.  You can have perfect sentence structure, flawless grammar, and a solid, concrete structure for your book, but that means nothing by itself.  If your readers can connect to your characters, immerse themselves in your world, feel emotion, and even forget they're reading, then you've accomplished something.  
  • You can't ignore the little things.  I just got done saying that technical skill isn't everything.  That doesn't mean it isn't important.  If you can't hit all the right notes in tune with all the correct articulations, there's no way you're going to play the song musically well.  If you can't structure your story or don't know how to use grammar, you can't create the type of book that will be engaging for readers.  If musicality/compellingness is the meat of a sandwich, technicalities are the bread.  If you have just meat, you don't have a sandwich--it's just meat.  If you only have bread, it's not a sandwich, either.  If you put them together, though, then you have something.  The meat is the juicy part; the bread holds it together.
  • onerepublic counting star light
    Only the coolest band that exists.  No big deal or anything.
  • Learn about things.  Learn all you can about music/writing.  Soak up information about it.  Read online articles and listen to people talk about it.  You don't need to teach yourself everything, on your own.  Much of the writing advice I pass on through this blog, I first learned from reading other writing blogs.  And never think that you know everything about your craft, either--because you don't.  
  • Know when to back off and take a break for a few days.  This goes hand-in-hand with knowing when something isn't working on any particular day.  Sometimes, you just manage to suck all the creativity out of yourself.  It happens.  It's not permanent.  Just give yourself a day or so off, and chances are, you'll be fine when you return to it.  Again, though, be careful with this.  Don't use it as an excuse to be lazy.
  • Start slow and work your way up.  I've played many fast, difficult songs that took a lot of practice to learn.  As soon as you start trying to play them, it  becomes obvious that you'll never be able to learn it at the actual tempo.  First, you have to slow down and take it one note at a time.  As soon as you get that down, you can start increasing the speed gradually, until you can play it at full speed.  With writing, if you're just beginning, don't start out with a goal of writing 2,000 words per day.  Start with something more comfortable for wherever you're at.  There's no shame in having a goal of 200, or even fewer, words per day.  If you keep at it, though, you'll probably get faster at it, and you'll find that you're able to increase your daily goal.  I wrote my first novella, which had around 20,000 words, in about year (in middle school).  I started my current work-in-progress in June, and I've written almost 45,000 words.  I've definitely gotten faster, but I started slow.
  • Know what you like.  If you were the reader/listener, what would you want?  Are you providing this?  A crucial thing to remember when writing is that, first and foremost, you're writing for you.  You're telling this story for yourself, because it is your story to tell.  You know what you want to read, when you pick up a book, and you have to make sure you're giving this to your readers.  If your book is full of things you don't like to read, I can guarantee it won't be a good book.  When you're playing music, you have to think the same way.  If you were the listener, what would you want to hear?  Should there be a pause here, a change in dynamics here, a ritardando there?  If you're creating a song that pleases your ears, there's a good chance it'll please everyone else's ears as well.  Books are no different.  If your book is full of the things you love to read, you'll have a much easier time getting others to like it as well.

[insert "these Irish musicians are cooler than Niall What's-his-name" joke here]

Have you learned anything from music that can be applied to writing?  What would you add to the list?  
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