I have half a dozen music gigs this month. Which in itself is not a big deal. (When I was younger there were times when I’d play five nights a week for months on end.) What’s different is these gigs are spread out over five different bands.
Two of them are my “home” bands—one a larger, full-service group, and one a smaller, semi-unplugged thing that shares personnel and songs with the larger group. With both those bands I generally know the material to the point where I can listen to the other performers, observe the crowd (always the writer, right?) and just enjoy the music and the vibe.
But three of them are groups where I’m not the regular drummer and don’t necessarily know the material, and with two of those bands I get only one rehearsal each before going into the gigs. Which means I need to use some pretty ruthless triage during rehearsal, because there’s no way to discuss/chart/rehearse forty-plus songs in a couple of hours. (My method is basically: Nail the big stuff and don’t stress over the small stuff. To that end I limit myself to one line of scrawled notes after each song’s title on the set list.) During these “cram before the test” rehearsals (which typically consist of us playing through the intro and a few bars of the verse, and if everything’s cool I stop and ask to move on to the next one, because triage), a well-intentioned musician may sometimes tell me, in some detail, about the little accents he or she’s playing during the third verse or the bridge or whatever. At which point I politely explain that the #1 thing I care about is having the right feel for the song. If the groove of the song feels good—to the other band members and to the audience—then the little stuff doesn’t matter so much. However, if I nail all the little fiddly bits but the feel is wrong, it’s still a complete fail from where I sit. And the #2 thing is the fundamental arrangement, especially the intro and ending. Beyond that, we just have to trust experience, skill, and intuition.
So for me the fundamentals boil down to (1) Soul (i.e. the groove, which includes feel, tempo, and dynamics) and (2) Substance (i.e. major arrangement elements, including starting, stopping, and any big changes along the way). All else is secondary. If not tertiary. I wouldn’t think any of this is privileged information, but you’ll still occasionally see musicians playing with their nose buried in a chart—trying to hit all the little finicky bits they were told are somehow important—but they’re not really playing the music… they’re not engaged in the performance or what the other players are doing, and thus they’re likely not engaging the listeners. (Which is sort of the whole point of playing music in public, right?)
I think the same thing applies to any creative endeavor, including (you guessed it) writing.
Regarding writing, I think of these two fundamental attributes as follows…
SOUL: When I think of stories that have resonated with me, what I recall is the feeling I had upon reading them (and—for the really good ones—the feeling that lingered for quite a while after). But almost never the clever little plot events, at least not in any great number. I can remember stories that moved me to tears. But… I can’t really recall all the specifics of what happened. Nor do I need to. Sure, the basic outline is there, but what’s really there are the characters and the way they made me feel.
SUBSTANCE: The other thing that comes to mind when thinking about a specific story is: Did it hang together as a story? If so, good. If not, not so good. And a lot of this has to do with how artfully the author brought us into the story and released us from it, and handled the major transitions in between. (More on ‘Sticking the Landing’ here.)
I’ve said before that for me, the soul of a story—especially early in the process—is the vibe of it more than anything else. I get a certain feeling in my brain, and I attempt to convey that feeling to the reader. (Similar to how with a slow bluesy number, you might want the listener to feel longing or loss or desperation. But if you play it too fast… boom—that’s feeling’s gone. And nothing else you might do or say or play will make up for the loss of the essential mood of the song.)
I see aspiring writers arguing online about whether or not this or that “content” is “allowable” in this or that genre or age range, or what the specific word count of a middle grade should be vs. YA vs. adult literary, etc. I just want to mash the Godphone button and shout, “You’re missing the point—none of that matters as long as the story’s good. If we believe in your characters and give a shit about what happens to them, we’ll buy it!” And this is demonstrably true. By far the most popular books in recent history are a series ostensibly written for school-age children, yet the books average 150,000 words (600 pages) each. (And as I write this, the current overall #1 best-selling book in the country—according to Publishers Weekly—is the new illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire… almost twenty years after its initial publication.)
So I guess the lesson here is don’t worry so much about the fiddly bits—the word count or genre constraints or the edginess quotient of the so-called “content.” Sure, you should be aware of current conventions (mostly because if you aren’t, you’re not paying enough attention to your chosen art form). But if you nail the all the “conventional wisdom” aspects and still have a weak story, it’s likely not going anywhere. On the other hand, if you have an amazing, unique, fascinating story which—although well-constructed—might be a little outside the box, you may find yourself with an agent/editor/publisher who also feels engaged with the Soul & Substance of your story, and subsequently a contingent of the reading public who are likewise engaged in your work.
Keep on rocking, keep on writing!
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.