Progress August 18, 2017

This week has been really busy! I’ve been working on a fun short story that I started a while ago and dusted off last Saturday. It’s about a 10-year-old boy who has to stay with his aunt while his parents are overseas working, and then his aunt gets called to Brazil on an archaeological mission.

I’ve also begun working on another “big piece”: a clarinet-viola duet that explores movement and hesitation, sound and silence. I’m attempting a different approach this time. See below: your excerpt this week is a page of my sketch for this piece!

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Planning

This week I was able to start another story, but I didn’t finish it yet and I wasn’t able to get any other writing done. That’s okay though; the next week should be better.

My surprise is stalled but I hope to have it ready to go soon. Just one small hitch in the execution.

Planning is one of the ways I procrastinate. However, it’s a lot of fun and I usually plan things like when to work on which projects.

I put all of my ideas into a Writing Timeline spreadsheet I created in Excel and I track my progress in it. The stats:

242 ideas
49 finished stories and compositions (to final draft)
3 published pieces
167 in first draft
21 in revision
3 in edits
1 waiting to be finalized

It’s a great process for me, and it helps me stay focused when I need to.

How do you organize your ideas and stay focused on your work?

My Process: Composition

I have been working on school things and work things all week, so I haven’t been able to do much in the way of writing. As such, I thought I’d let you into my musical world a little bit.

A big part of my BMus was about finding my voice as a composer. I actually didn’t go to university intending to study composition, but near the end of first year I realized that I was definitely not cut out to be a performance major (I love to play but practicing has always been a challenge). I hated music history and I didn’t want to be a band teacher, but I did enjoy the little bit of composition I’d done as part of my first-year theory courses.

Now, to be clear, I do not think in chords and I am really bad at musical analysis. I can’t easily distinguish parts of musical pieces, though I can create my own harmony line while singing. I can identify instruments and have been known to call out “English horn!” in the middle of a movie (because yes, I can tell the difference between that and an oboe, thank you very much). This is basically why I suck at music history: the listening component killed me because I literally could not tell the difference between similar pieces. When we studied Gregorian chant, my friends told me to listen for the bass line, and I was left wondering what part was the bass line because I couldn’t pick it out at all. I’ve since learned that this is part of how my ADHD affects me: I have difficulty paying attention to the correct auditory information, so listening to things is really hard. (Yet I also recently discovered that I mostly play by ear, so go figure that one out.) Of course, when I was in university we didn’t even suspect that I had ADHD, so there’s no way I could have been accommodated for my difficulties.

Anyway, like I said, I enjoyed writing music. I really liked learning the rules and when and how you could break them, and I loved discovering new sounds and learning different techniques for writing music.

I tend to approach writing music as a more academic activity than a creative one. There are several stages to writing a piece, and I’m going to outline them briefly below. Please note that this is my process, and other composers probably don’t follow my method at all.

The first thing is to figure out what I’m writing. Is it a solo piece? Is there accompaniment? Maybe it’s for a chamber ensemble of some kind. Do I have a particular mood in mind, or an idea that I want to convey, or am I mostly concerned with getting notes on the page?

Next I get my main theme/melody sorted out. Sometimes I do this with an instrument, sometimes I do it in MuseScore on my computer, but mostly I just write notes by hand on manuscript paper. I’ll pick a key and time signature before I start, and depending on the project I might do more than one staff (e.g., for the clarinet quartet piece I’m writing it in four-part harmony by hand and I’ll put it into MuseScore with separate staves when it’s done).

The next stage involves a matrix and little cells with their retrogrades and inversions. Sometimes I do rhythmic matrices as well, because that can be fun. This is all paper work, and I have a notebook that I use to work these things out. I also do some math to figure out how long the piece is supposed to be (assuming there’s a required length), and I’ll sketch out the form of the piece with key changes and so on if it’s got a particular format (e.g., a fugue).

Now I harmonize. For this, I write out all the chords in the key and the basic chord progression (14736251), and I consider all of my options for each measure and each note, as well as each voice. Sometimes I do this on the computer, sometimes I do it by hand. Either way, it’s an academic process for me: what notes go in the chord I want there, and which voices should play which notes?

Once the music is in the computer, I listen to it and assess each chord and measure as I listen. I try different arrangements for sections that don’t work. Eventually I get something that works for me.

And then, finally, I go through and put in articulations and dynamics. Some articulations will have been there from the start, but often I don’t decide where staccatos and slurs go until near the end of the process. Same with dynamics. My secret about dynamics is that I actually don’t worry about them at all and really only put them in where it’s important to me that a particular part be played at a particular volume. I suppose that’s horrible of me, but what it means in practice is that I trust the musicians to interpret the music appropriately, and that if there are dynamics marked they actually matter to the piece.

And that is my basic process for writing music.

My Process: Fiction Writing

I don’t have much writing progress to talk about this week, as I spent most of the week fighting a cold and doing some paid work. So I thought I’d talk a bit about how I choose what to write about.

I have a lot of ideas. They come to me in dreams, in conversations, just out of the blue. I put them in a spreadsheet I developed (which I keep revising, because I love playing with Microsoft Excel) and when I eventually get to them, I develop the idea and start writing.

I try to write character-driven stories, which means that if my idea is a situation, I will develop characters whom I put into the situation and then see what they do to get out of it.

When I was first writing, I would have an idea and start writing, and then just see where the story took me. That method resulted in a fair number of false starts and pointless stories. Yet I wrote with that method for most of my life!

Not anymore. Now, I try to plan the story a bit ahead of time.

For a piece of flash fiction (under 1,000 words, with a goal of 500 as best) I will write down the main problem and three plot points (the last of which is the ending).

For a novel, I try to start with a basic premise and expand it gradually by factors of three until I have what I feel is a solid outline. Then I write the story in short-form, planning one chapter per paragraph, to see where it might take me. I don’t include any dialogue in this story: it’s just the basics.

Short stories (1,000 — 10,000 words) are somewhere in the middle. I don’t plan them as strictly, and I often start out with a question I want to answer, then drop some characters into the situation suggested by the question and see what happens. I find it much easier to cut the excess from a too-long story than to add words to something that’s quite focused.

One of the reasons I write character-driven fiction is that I love to explore characters and learn how their minds work. Holly Lisle likes to say that when you’re writing fiction, you’re writing about what you would do if you were someone else, and that’s what I’m talking about here. If I took a basic plot outline and changed the characters, little things about the story would change, because the characters would make slightly different choices. Imagine The Hunger Games with Tris from Divergent instead of Katniss, and vice versa. How would the stories be different? How would they be the same?

Creating characters and telling their stories is the fun part of writing. Making the story work within word count constraints is the hard part. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it was worth it.