When I first started writing I kept calling the chapters of my novels ‘movements’ and the pacing ‘tempo’. I didn’t do this intentionally, those words just slipped out. But I guess it’s easy to see the connection.
What’s perhaps not as easy to see are some of the other parallels I’ve found between writing and playing an instrument:
#1 Practice something and you’ll get better at it.
This was possibly the greatest gift music ever taught me. That if I work on something every day my skill will improve. It’s something I’ve carried over to every other aspect of my life.
The results of practicing are easy to see when you’re learning an instrument. There’s a passage in the piece you’re working on that’s currently beyond you but after days of focused practice it starts to improve. You know you’ve progressed because today you can play that passage and yesterday you couldn’t.
It’s not as easy to see how your writing is getting better. Sometimes the only way is to pull out something you wrote months or years ago and compare it to your current work, but even then it’s all subjective. Still, the one thing that can be guaranteed is you won’t improve if you don’t keep at it.
#2 Patience and determination
When I first got to college (Eastman School of Music) I wasn’t a very good violinist. In fact I was one of the worst ones there. The first week of classes the head of the string department, Millard Taylor, came up to me in the hall and told me (in front of all my new friends) that the only reason I’d been accepted was because the school hadn’t filled its quota of violinists for that year.
My friends were appalled on my behalf. But I eventually came to understand that Taylor did me a tremendous favor. He made me angry. I thought I was pretty hot just getting into a place like Eastman and possibly I would’ve cruised along without really applying myself. Maybe he saw that and said what he did deliberately to help me. In any case he snapped me out it. I started to work like I never had before.
The payoffs didn’t come in the first year. Or the second. And there were many times I was reduced to tears at the sheer frustration of being overlooked and discounted as someone who would never excel. (Another similarity to writing!) But ultimately my efforts paid off.
#3 Talent is over-rated
I didn’t just learn this one at Eastman but from my more than twenty years of teaching violin. So many times I’ve seen kids with little ‘natural’ ability progress well beyond ‘gifted’ ones simply because they practiced harder.
When someone has to struggle and work for every advancement, they end up taking obstacles in their stride. Students to whom things have always come easily, often give up when the going gets tough.
#4 Bouncing back
I remember once getting really depressed about my playing. I thought to myself, ‘No matter how much I practice, no matter how good I get, there will always be someone better than me.’
In the end I found an answer to that one: ‘Just because we can all speak, doesn’t mean we all have the same thing to say.’
I learned it’s not about being ‘the best’, it’s about acquiring the skills to communicate what’s inside you. What you learn when you practice your scales and exercises is the technique of your instrument. You’re learning how to speak the language of music. But once you’ve learned it, you alone decide what you will say.
So it doesn’t matter if someone has a better technique than you. (Or more style than you as a writer.) As long as you are proficient enough to communicate, you can and will say things no-one else can.
Sometimes in my journal I talk to myself. I give myself pep-talks when I’m down, friendly reminders of lessons learned, guidance as though from an outside party when I’m facing a difficult decision or problem.
The following is an entry I wrote back in September 2014 when I was searching for my next novel to write.
You have to know what moves you. What frightens, horrifies, delights and angers you? Put that in your story. What is the worst thing you can imagine living through? Make it happen to one of your characters.
Don’t just assemble plots that ‘work’ with high points here and conflict there. With everything arranged as it should be according to some bestseller formula. Dig deep. Find out what affects you as a person. Those are the things that will affect your readers.
When I wrote Run To Me I explored some of my deepest fears. What would it be like to lose a child? To lose my sanity? To not be believed by anyone? To not even know myself if what I thought was true actually was?
I realize the hold I have on my sanity only exists because life has been kind. What if it hadn’t been? If I’d lived what I put my characters through would I still be here? Would I have found the strength they did? The courage to sacrifice? Would I have had their resilience?
That’s what authors write to find out. And why readers read the stories they’ve written.
I’m a stationery addict and I’ve gone three weeks without buying a notebook.
Yes, I confess, I love paper in all its forms. I can’t go into an office shop without picking up some new notebook or pad. And at back-to-school time when all the new stationery comes out in shops I’m in absolute heaven!
This love carries over to my travelling as well. Whenever I visit a new place I scour the gift shops for quirky journals and notebooks to bring home. Like souvenirs, each is a reminder of the time and place I bought it – the people I was with, the good times we had – even though I might not write in it until years later.
My only guilt in this obsession is that I love trees as much as paper. For this reason wherever possible I seek out stationery made from recyled materials. And as luck would have it, those wonderful creations with handmade paper, some even made from scraps of cloth, are among the loveliest to write in.
Each type of paper has different qualities and works best with a particular pen I find. A fine-tipped or ball point pen tends to scratch and tear handmade paper. But I love how the ink from a roller ball gel pen soaks into those same felty leaves. Almost like painting the words on the page instead of writing them.
When freewriting, where speed is a factor, nothing beats a gel pen. Though the ink tends to smudge, it glides on so fast and effortlessly my hand never tires.
In my journals with real paper pages I love how a good felt-tipped pen creates such clean neat lettering. (Something we Virgos always find satisfying.) But I don’t like paper with a glossy sheen as it tends to repel the ink, whatever type of pen you use.
As much as I enjoy typing (a sensation akin to playing piano), nothing beats the feel of writing by hand. And perhaps, as Natalie Goldberg says in Writing Down the Bones, we access different parts of ourselves when we write by hand than when using a keyboard.
As obsessions go, I don’t feel too guilty about my love affair with paper. After all, a craftsman should always love their tools.
When I was a college student studying the violin I fell in love with Bach. To this day his set of Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas is my favorite music ever written for the instrument. My one regret – he only wrote six of them.
Back in the days I was learning these pieces I so wished there were more of them, I even tried composing some myself. What would Bach sound like if he were writing today, I asked myself and proceeded to have a go. With limited success I might add.
Fast forward thirty-odd years and here I am doing the same thing with novel writing. Only this time it’s Alfred Hitchcock I’m emulating.
I have every movie Hitch ever made and have lost count of the number of times I’ve watched his classics: Psycho, The Birds, North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, etc.
I so wish Hitch was alive today creating more masterpieces I realize I’ve been unconsciously attempting to satisfy my longing for his work by writing those stories myself.
Whether I succeed by others’ standards I can’t say. But imagining my latest work-in-progress as a Hitchcock movie has become the standard by which I judge its potential, its artistic litmus test.
I try to visualize how Hitch would present my story on screen, right down to the lighting and quirky camera angles. If I get to a scene I think Hitch would have cut, I know I need to change or delete it. But if I know I’d be happy watching the movie, I’m confident people will enjoy reading the story. (Hopefully I have more success at this than I did with Bach.)
Is it wrong to emulate the artists we love? I don’t believe so. Copy, yes; emulate, no. In fact I don’t believe any artist can help but be influenced by those they admire. Everything we take in all becomes part of the unconscious ‘compost heap’ from which our own work grows and flowers.
And for emerging artists testing their creative wings, the shoulders of former masters is a great place to leap from.
What do the following have in common?
Black Jelly Roll
No, it's not a menu for a Halloween party. Believe it or not, these are all common names for mushrooms.
Part of my fascination with fungi (see blog post 9 Oct '15 - Writing Fascinations) is the wildly colorful names they've been given. I know Latin terms are more scientific but for sheer weirdness and chill-worthy imagery how can you go past:
Red Tree Brain
Who thinks up names like these? Someone with a terrific imagination. Can't you just see that Velvet Earth Tongue poking up out of the forest mulch? Or that Trembling Meulius cringing beneath the shadows of a Tortured Willow?
Names like Corpse Finder and Destroying Angel certainly conjure an impression of menace. And the thought of encountering Deadman's Fingers might make you think twice before walking in the woods.
Names are especially important for writers. What we choose to call our characters can convey an immediate sense of who they are. And specifically naming the things in our stories makes our scenes come alive in the minds of readers.
Dogwood or spruce instead of tree.
Deadly Nightshade instead of plant.
Cleftfoot Amanita instead of mushroom.
When I first started thinking about writing a blog I had strong reservations. Would I stick with it? Could I think of enough things to say? Would it take up too much of my novel-writing time? I decided the only way I could know was to give it a try for a year and see how I went.
On this, the anniversary of my second year of blogging, I’m pleased to report I am truly loving it. It seems there’s no end to the things I can find to say about books, reading, and the craft I love.
In these last two years I’ve let my blog evolve organically. Looking back now, I can see that most of my 53 posts were possibly aimed more toward writers than readers. But since writing is my greatest passion I’m not sure there’s much I can do about that. Or even if I want to.
One of the first books on writing I ever read was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones. No book I’ve read, before or since, has so instilled me with the love of the craft.
Any time I’m feeling blocked or discouraged, I go back and re-read my dog-eared copy. When writing starts to feel too complicated, when I start putting too much pressure on myself, Natalie’s book reminds me of the simple joy of putting words on a page.
Over these last 2 years I’ve come to realize that this is part of what I hope to accomplish with my blog. With these short discussions of various aspects of the craft, I hope to get others as fired up about writing as I am. If I can impart to others a fraction of the joy Natalie’s book has given me, I’ll feel I’ve succeeded.
What I would love is some feedback from readers. If you’ve been a regular visitor to My Writing Room please tell me what you think and what you’d like to see more of in my future posts – more talks about writing and the writing life, more book reviews, personal stories, or maybe something I haven’t even tried yet.
With your input I might just keep blogging for another two years!
In keeping with a creepy Halloween theme, I'm writing about one of my favorite hobbies.
I've long had a fascination for strange life forms, among them mushrooms, lichen and slime. (Whenever I tell people this I feel like Egon in Ghost Busters who confessed his hobby was 'spores, molds and fungus'.)
The substance in the photo above is Tapioca Slime, a type of slime mold. This stuff oozes up out of the ground almost every spring somewhere in my garden, sometimes in small patches, occasionally in huge clumps.
The first time I saw it I thought a head a cauliflower was somehow pushing directly up out of the soil. It was pure white with a curd-like surface, but when I touched it, I found it more liquid than solid, softer than whipped cream in fact.
Now here is the truly amazing thing and why this organism tops my list of fascinating life forms. For the first 24 hours after it emerges, slime has no cell walls and can move.
That's right, move. Not just spread by growing in a certain direction but actually ooze along the ground.
It does this by a process called protoplasmic streaming, (even the name is cool!) the same way amoebas get around. After 24 hours however a crust forms over the top of the mass putting an end to its travels.
Fascinations can be great things to write about. I always wanted to write a story drawing on my fascination for fungi but every time I dismissed the idea - who would want to read about that. Then Dean Koontz (a true kindred spirit) came out with his novel, The Taking, in which he did exactly that.
1. Trust your creative urges even when you can't see where they will lead you. You don't have to know why something resonates for you, the simple fact it does means there's something there to explore. At the very least you'll enjoy yourself.
And 2: It's not the idea, it's what you do with it.
In 2010 I was at a crossroads with my writing and wondering if it was worth traveling all the way from South Australia to Portland Oregon to attend the Willamette Writers Conference.
A host of opportunities awaited me there, among them my first ever chance to pitch one of my novels to an editor or agent. Several in fact. Coming from overseas, however, such a trip would be double the usual cost. Could I justify the expense?
One night, at the height of this internal debate, I went to bed and found on the wall above my pillow, the moth pictured in the photo above. I'd never seen this species before and was intrigued by its beautiful satiny sheen. (It's called the Satin Acacia moth)
I very carefully slipped it onto a tissue, carried it outside and released it.
The following morning I got up, dressed and went to the kitchen to have breakfast. Seated at the table I happened to look down and there, on the floor, was either the very same moth (if so, how did it get back in the house?) or another of the exact same species (which I'd never seen once in the twenty years I'd been living in the area).
The moth above my bed the previous night had had its wings folded down close to its body. This time, however, the moth's wings were spread, revealing a pattern on its under wings. A pattern that looked for all the world as though someone had taken a magic marker and written a 'W' on each wing.
It was then I noticed the same two letters patterned in red on the moth's upper wings:
I still get a chill when I think of that moment. You could almost convince me that, having failed to get through to me the night before, the cosmos was presenting its message a second time. In a form even I couldn't miss.
I ended up going to the conference and there met an editor. And though he didn't accept the novel I pitched to him, he gave me some brilliant suggestions for changes, which I did, and a year later Random House accepted the revised manuscript.
So what do you think? A sign from beyond or mere coincidence? If the latter, it was truly a long shot - I have not seen this moth again since that night.
I keep a notebook of my favorite sentences, phrases from the books I read that I can look back over again and again and hopefully learn from.
What impresses me about some of these sentences is the author’s skill in creating a mood appropriate to the story’s genre.
Like these lines from Dean Koontz’s horror novel, The Darkest Evening of The Year:
Her daughter glided at her side, as firmly attached as a remora to a large fish.
Amy had the feeling that something more than the man himself lived in Brockman’s body, as though he had opened a door to a night visitor that made of his heart a lair.
The hooded eyes looked sleepy, but the reptilian mind behind them might be acrawl with calculation.
Every time a read those words, ‘acrawl with calculation’ I literally get goose bumps. What power words can have!
As you may have guessed, Koontz is one of my favorite authors. Check out the imagery in these lines from his novel The Taking:
The room had the deep-fathom ambience of an oceanic trench forever beyond the reach of the sun but dimly revealed by radiant anemones and luminous jellyfish.
The nape of her neck prickled as though a ghost lover had pressed his ectoplasmic lips to her skin.
As effectively as a leech taking blood, fear suckled on Molly’s hope.
As much as I love a brilliant metaphor, often it’s just the sheer magic of the words that captivates me. Like these lines from The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis
On the street that was as much a part of him as the face he saw reflected in the store windows, he felt his sense of isolation burrowing deeper.
It was a broken, hallucinatory night of sleep. In the wind, the shack that stood on stilts shook like a houseboat tossed on mercurial seas.
What impresses me most however is that these authors conjure their special magic using only the simplest words. Words every writer worth his ink has at their disposal.
Most authors I talk to say they were avid readers as children and that’s where their desire to write came from. Many had written their first 'books' while still in grade school.
Sadly, ADHD made reading difficult for me so I didn’t do it much as a child. I didn’t discover the joy of reading until well into high school and the thought of writing a book never entered my head until decades later.
My earliest taste of story-telling came through a completely different medium.
As an only child I had to entertain myself a fair bit. My parents, both classical musicians, had given me my own record player with a collection of records.
These were all big ‘cinematic’ pieces – Nutcracker Suite, Rite Of Spring, Night On Bald Mountain, Fire Bird, Pictures At An Exhibition, etc.
As I listened to these works alone in my room, I used my stuffed animals to act out stories that the music inspired.
These pieces have such wonderfully ‘visual’ elements, such heroic highs and desperate lows, such dramatic escalations and release of tension and I learned to shape my stories accordingly.
I created these plays for my own amusement. But I remember one day some friends came around and, with nothing else to do, I put on a record and performed one of my stories for them.
Perched on my bed with my audience seated on the floor before me, I acted out the story I’d invented to go with The Fire Bird Suite.
I vividly remember the looks on their faces, their changing expressions as my story unfolded. And what a thrill I felt knowing my efforts had been responsible.
Though it took some time to emerge, I believe it was this early experience that years later grew into a joy of writing novels.
With a beginning like that it’s not surprising many readers have commented that Run To Me, my debut thriller, was very cinematic in its treatment.