Saturday, 9 January 2016

Writing is like being in a band

 I recently started drumming with an original band, as opposed to the cover bands I've been in before. It got me thinking about all the parallels we can draw between creating music and writing fiction.

It's crucial to understand your influences.

When I auditioned for my band, right off the bat I was asked about my influences. The guitarist and main songwriter loves Black Sabbath while I come from the Slayer branch of metal titans, though we both have Megadeath and Pantera in common. What do I mostly listen to? What do I practice to? How does my jazz training alter my approach? And so on.

Bands are music crowdsourced. Each member brings in their own string of influences and, to make unity, you have to agree on who the key influences are.

This involves being fully aware of your own influences, which is harder than it sounds. And it's just as crucial with writing as with being in a band. What genres do you love, which specific writers? Even if they're outside your genre, the writers that you absorb and think about every day will change your approach to storytelling.

It would be cool to say that you're completely original and spinning pure fiction out of the air. But in the real world that doesn't work. As a writer you're a reader and everything you read influences you. All your passions and hobbies, your friends and family (and the kind of things they talk about and stories they tell) will influence your writing.

It's vital to know your influences so you don't accidentally plagiarize, but also so you're aware of the kind of novel you want to create – and to understand where the heck your novel came from once you've created it.

 Some people have more talent than others but practice matters.

If you start off great, you'll get better with practice. If you start off rubbish, you'll still get better with practice (provided you're not just repeating the same mistakes again and again, which is easier to spot in music than in writing).

The thing that I have to remind myself a lot is that your output matters. You can be the best band in the world and no one will know if you don't leave the garage. If you never finish that beloved manuscript, no one else can ever enjoy it.

This sounds obvious but I have to remind myself of it every day when I want to keep doing rewrite after rewrite on a romance novel that's taken me years.

 When it's done right, it looks effortless.

I've always wanted to read a first draft of my favorite authors because I find it impossible to even imagine how their novels could have been different, they are so superbly well-crafted and complete.

Of course there were many decisions made along the way, many possible ways the story could have gone, countless drafts and revisions and edits.

With stories you work it through on your own then get input from friends and beta readers and eventually editors. With a band, quite often you're composing your songs as a team so you get the input right up front.

But either way, you're looking at an immense amount of work and complex decisions which boil down to one finished product. If you've created that story or that track correctly, it's going to sound natural and completely effortless.

Which sounds depressing, until you consider the alternative...

 If you get it wrong, everyone's a critic.

Doesn't matter that they're not a musician or a writer, just like it doesn't matter that most people yelling at sports teams would get steamrollered if they walked onto that field. Whether you're in a band or writing a book, you'll meet plenty of criticism.

 No one can see the hours you put in to get there.

Other writers can acknowledge the effort it takes and can understand the months or years put into something that might be read in a few hours or a day. But a lot of non-writers have trouble seeing it.
In a band, nothing matters but the minutes on stage. That's all the audience can see: your finished product, a few minutes to show for the hours of practice, not to mention the years of learning your instrument.

It's the same with a book. Unless you wow the reader with the book they pick up (or the first pages of the book, or the blurb...) then they won't know or care how long it took you to write it. 

 It doesn't matter how much work you put in if it's not someone's cup of tea.

People won't be fans of your band just because you practice all the time. People probably aren't going to like your novel any better just because it took a long time to write.

And, like anything else, even if you love it then it's no guarantee anyone else will. Everybody's different. I think my band are awesome, but if you don't like 80's heavy metal then you probably won't like us. I think Pride And Prejudice is pretty near perfect but that doesn't mean my thriller-loving neighbor will.

 We do it because we love it.

Sure, it's possible my band will be the new Metallica. It's possible your novel will be a bestseller. It's possible we'll get recognition and money.

Possible, but not probable.

Luckily that's not why we do it. We don't join garage bands or write novels solely because we want to get rich. Maybe some people do, and that's cool for them. But the problem with money as a motive is that when there isn't money, there's no motivation. Statistically your first novel won't be a success – it won't get published, and if you self-publish it won't make more than $500. Your band won't get talent spotted and signed on the first night.

It takes work to keep writing books and keep practicing music. If you're lucky then that work might lead to financial success, but that's a lot of what if's and slim chances.

For most of us, we're doing this because we love it. Not every minute of it, sure. There are days I have to force my hands onto my computer keyboard and days I struggle not to just drop my drum sticks and walk away.

Often, if I push through it, those bad days will get better when I let go of the world and get invested in the flow of story or rhythm. But still, it's not easy to keep at it day after day after day. A lot of kids learn instruments, but how many keep playing as adults? That's because it's hard to keep at it.

But what gets us through is the end goal. All of this practicing and writing will mean that the song or the novel will slot together as a finished whole, something of which to be proud.

And, sure, we'd all like to be famous and successful. Not necessarily for the money, but because we believe in the product. Our novel will add something to literature, our band has good songs that might get stuck in your head and, at the least, will contribute to the local scene.

What we're creating is something we believe in. It's worth the effort.

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