Thursday, July 31, 2008

Boot camp

Occasionally, after I finish editing and making sure I've adhered to writing rules--you know, show not tell/use active verbs/vary sentence structures/don't use cliches/engage all senses etc--I end up with passages that present no real problems, yet don't sound terribly exciting either. Ho-hum, 's alright.

When I was a youngster studying traditional
Western music harmony, I found voice-leading rules unfriendly and restrictive: by the time I followed all the rules, the resulting music would always sound deadly boring.

Later, I started analyzing harmonies written by "real" composers, Bach and Mozart and Brahms, and discovered they had all broken the rules at some point. Much later, I realized that nobody had sat down to design a set of rules for writing music. Rules came about because people wanted to codify what made music sound good. The music came first, then the rules.

Rules are the attempts of mortal humans trying to figure out the divine. While very handy, they remain servants to the actual music. In writing, we have our set as well. I am not advocating that we throw them out. Every writer should know what these are and work within their constraints before following a higher truth. Just like every artist should know about lines and perspectives, light and shadow before venturing onto something totally off the wall. Take a look at the early works or sketches of artists--Picasso, Cezanne, Rembrandt--and see how much care goes into the basics of the craft side of things.

The problem is that it is never super-clear when a higher truth is in fact a higher truth and not just an excuse for sloppiness or desire to be different or just plain bad taste. Instincts are important, and in the end, perhaps the only thing we do have, but uninformed instincts can lead us astray.

It seems to me that the only real thing we can do as writers is to hone our instincts. Read books on how to write. Do the exercises at the end of the chapters. Read. Lots and lots. Analyze. Compare. Then take the eyes and gut that have gone through these experiences to our own work and see what happens.

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