Friday, February 04, 2011

Fill the Well Fridays --Even Mozart Practiced His Scales (Sometimes)

Michelle Styles explains how she recently refilled the well by going back to basics.

In one of my favourite books on creativity, The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp talks about how principal dancers are the ones who spend the most time on the basic exercises. They are the ones who stay at the barre the longest. In Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers, he also makes the point that the students in music conservatory who were most likely to be a success were those who practiced the longest. And when you listen to various rock legends talk about how they prepare, what strikes me always is how serious they are about the music, and  how much they practice.

So what does that mean for an author? Particularly if the well is starting to run dry?
 Sometimes ideas come from taking it back to the basics. You may think you know all that there is to know about your sphere of writing, but as John Steinbeck pointed out many years ago, part of the tantalizing mystery of the medium is that it can never be fully mastered. In other words, there is something more to be learnt. Also skills can become rusty and need to be freshened up. But they may not be the skills you think need freshening.

When I say go back to the basics, I don’t necessarily mean reread old craft books. Sometimes that works, particularly if you haven’t read them in a while as a little something might catch your eye. Sometimes though you need to read something new. Or approach things in a new way, for example taking a workshop. Or listening to a podcast.  Or simply talk to someone else about writing. Anything to get you to focus on the basics in a new way and to take a new perspective on your work. Be humble and admit that you might have forgotten something. I find great comfort in John Steinbeck’s words because it means that I can keep learning.

Recently I decided to focus on building characters and so I read what I had but still wasn’t satisfied. (Neither was my editor with my partial) I then read Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint and vistas open before me. Why didn’t I read this before? It was an oversight. Or perhaps I wasn’t ready to understand what it was saying. Sometimes you can hear things a dozen times but one person says it slightly differently. Light bulbs flash and the waters rush in, refilling that well.

So why did Card work for me? Among other things, it explains the basics and the reasons why various mechanics work or don’t work. For example – how do you raise emotional stakes? How do you make the characters’ world seem huge when 90% of the time it is 2 characters on the page? Why are certain characters loveable and others aren’t? How can you make a world seem larger without adding new characters? I then totally rewrote my three chapters, taking out a thread that wasn’t necessary and only served to make the characters less loveable (even if it did potentially increase the tension). My editor was impressed (she still has tweaks but editors are like that). And after reading that book, I find myself waking up thinking about my work, rather than anything but my work.

So sometimes when the frustration builds and the well seems to run dry, it is worth taking a step back and starting again with the basics, particularly if it is an aspect of writing that you'd rather not think about. Even Mozart had to practice his scales. All of them. Not just the ones he liked.
Does anyone else have any good craft books that have recently invigorated them?

Michelle Styles writes historical romance for Harlequin Mills & Boon. Her latest is an Undone -- The Perfect Concubine. You can learn more about Michelle's books on her website

1 comment:

  1. That's such good advice, Michelle. I'll have to check out Twyla Tharp's book--I know several members of my writers group have read and recommended it. THE WAR OF ART is also another popular craft/motivation book members recommend.

    Personally, I love to go to workshops and retreats. Even if the topic or discussion is something I'm familiar with, there's always something new to learn. Even just hearing the same thing explained differently can help refill the creative well.

    Julie Miller