Sunday, February 28, 2010
For those not familiar, a handbell choir is composed of individuals ringers playing bells, and each bell plays one note, like one key on a piano. It's kind of like a belltower or carillon except that the bells are handheld and there is a greater range of flexibility for the depth and complexity of the music because of that. In fact (historical note) this is how handbells originated--they were miniatures of the bells in towers that could be used for practice so that the ringers didn't have to hang out in a drafy tower and bug the neighborhood for hours on end. Those sets were generally only six to twelve handbells--for comparison, our mid-to-large sized choir uses five octaves (eight notes an octave plus their accidentals--usually at least 40 bells being played at a time).
This is the piece we're currently working on, played very well by a church in Taiwan:
So, ravens, writing desks, and bells:
1) Timing is everything. In bells choirs, reading music perfectly isn't that big of a deal. You're following, generally, only a couple of notes, so if you know where your notes are you don't need to pay attention to everyone else's (though it helps as you get more proficient). We have a range of musicianship skills in our choir from graduate students pursuing advanced music degrees to grandmas who haven't checked out sheet music since sitting through piano fifty years ago. What you do have to get is counting. Sounds easy. Actually kind of confusing if you don't have much music training already. Developing an internal metronome is vital; you'll often see beginners mouthing numbers to themselves, which is fine (actually speaking them during performance, less so). You work into a second nature over practice of keeping time so that you're playing the right thing in the right spot. I've found through trial and lots of error how vital this is to plotting, as well. It doesn't matter how lovely your piece of description, how punchy your dialogue, how surprising your plot twist--if it comes at the wrong time, it's like one of those bells at the end of the video above randomly shaking in the middle of the piece. And that is jarring. I've heard it.
2) Don't get too comfortable with your note. Many bell players (not all) get very possessive of their spots. It gets to the point that an experienced bell choir director will probably call or email you before moving you to make sure it's ok. Getting moved is challenging--there are different skills used in different octaves, plus the fact that you get very used to watching for your notes and have to readjust when you move up or down the staff. But it's the best way to grow in your musicianship. You don't get how the other areas work and appreciate what they add to the piece until you've played their parts. The comparison here is easy--if you're good at dialogue, it's easy to rely on dialogue. If you're good at description, you find a lot of it cropping up in your work. But you need to get all the elements to make a really good story, so you have to move outside what you're comfortable with. Yes, it takes more work and you'll make more mistakes at first, but the overall improvement is worth it. Take it even further--try writing in a different genre or voice or style to see what you learn. You might find that you prefer where you were (I moved from my original A and B above middle C spot to middle C for a few months--was glad to move back as I found the music there less interesting and my wrists hated the heavy bells, but I'm glad I tried it) or you might find you're not too shabby (just got moved another octave up--it's fun!).
3) It isn't just you. I'm sure this happens in other kinds of ensembles, too, but since we're all playing the same instrument it feels even more pronounced in bell choir. You're ringing along, and a section or a key change or a weird rhythm or whatever just isn't working for you. You keep screwing it up. And it throws you off and you feel like you've thrown the people around you off, too, because now they're all ringing at the wrong time and missing notes. Then you realize--it's not you. It's everyone. Everyone struggles with the difficult stuff. I think in writing we often look around and see others not struggling, so feel we're the only ones with issues. Your issues might be different from someone else's--but everyone runs into trouble, whether it's with writing the first draft or editing or query letters or getting to publication or writing the second book or all of the above. Or with a nasty key change that some sheet music printer felt was best placed directly after a page turn.
In case you've finished the first video and want a second--this piece is more complicated and less "sentimental" than the one above. The recording is also a bit too dominated by the high bells--a common bell choir problem, actually. We've been working on this piece recently, as well--it's one of my favorites that we've done. Again, not our choir featured.
4) Don't put difficult key changes directly after a page turn. In the piece being played above, another piece we're working on, there's a terribly difficult key change within a run of notes that happens--you guessed it--first measure of a new page. Sure, good ringers will figure out how to deal, but it makes things rougher. And here's your writing tidbit--your readers are right when they say you've made something more difficult--or easier--than it needs to be. You're writing for them, just like that music is written for the ringers. If something isn't working for any of your readers (and this is subjective, but you know when it's not just one person not liking it but everyone saying it just isn't jibing) it needs to be changed. That's what beta readers are for--they catch stuff you never would have seen because you're too close to it and don't have to read it for the first time with fresh eyes. I've had this happen so often--I know exactly what I mean, so at first someone says they don't get it and I want to explain it to them. No, I need to make it clearer so the reader doesn't have to ask. I need to rework it so that vital but difficult time-signature change doesn't come during a page turn. Hear me, bell music composers and printers of music?
5) It's all about the layers. You might have noticed that in each of the two pieces above, there is a simple melody line that begins the piece, but then layers form above and below them to add interest. The emphasis shifts from higher bells to lower bells and back, the rhythms change up now and again, different techniques are used in different sections by different bells (notice the suspended malletting in piece #1?). This may verge into my opinion, but I think good writing it like that, too. Very few measures in music do only one thing--they have melody and harmony weaving together into something greater than either by itself. So, too, with writing--each paragraph, plot point, dialogue, sometimes even each word should be doing more than one thing. Your conversation between two characters moves the plot along, but it also reveals their personalities. Your description of your protagonist's house sets up necessary info for a plot twist later, lets us know about her through her choice of surroundings, and showcases some lovely language. Nothing is superfluous--the language might be beautiful, but it's doing something, too. This is a hard one for me--I love words, I'm happy reading and writing beautiful, striking usage of language. Most people aren't, and even those who do lose patience eventually. Embrace the layers.
And I hope you haven't yet lost patience with me seeing pithy aphorisms for writing in everything! Where do you learn about writing away from your computer and books?
Thursday, February 25, 2010
Ancient up through Medieval--lots to enjoy in antiquity! (37%)
The Renaissance--brocades, velvets, allure... (0%)
Exploration, Colonization, Revolution--so much happening in such fabulous clothes! (37%)
Regency, Victorian, Edwardian--delicate flower-women, romantic men, an undercurrent of smoldering je ne sais quoi... (25%)
The Twentieth Century--tragedy of the Great War, excess of the Roaring Twenties, glamour of Old Hollywood and the conflict and romance of WWII (0%)
I have to admit--I was a bit surprised not to find any Renaissance-ophiles. Less surprised that the Twentieth Century didn't get much love--after all, many of us remember a decent chunk of it!
As for me, my favorite is the same as one of the high scorers--Exploration, Colonization, Revolution. Honestly, I can take or leave Exploration--I'm an eighteenth-century nut, all around, fascinated by the intellectual, sartorial, political, cultural, and domestic history of the period. Can you tell?
That's me hauling a box! It wouldn't be fun except it's an eighteenth-century styled box and I'm wearing stays! So it's fun! I'm also freezing because it's 40-odd degrees out and I couldn't wear a coat around the cannon for safety reasons! But it's still fun!
I also have a fondness for the early twentieth century, from WWI through WWII and all the dissonance and struggle in between. So many good stories, and unlike other periods of history, we still have a few folks around who can recount those stories from their own memories. This is another reason this era fascinates me--it's one of the first eras that's been properly studied through interviews and recollections of those who were there. We have the primary sources; they're still breathing. And, of course, I'm also fascinated by the complications of combining the study of history with memory. That's another post entirely.Surprised? Want to make a last-ditch plea for why your favorite era is the bestest? Want to tell me I'm a goof for thinking it's fun to haul a box around? Hit the comments!
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Friday, February 19, 2010
I also made a silk version for my mother, of the pleasantest periwinkle tafetta, and a heavier brocade for a friend's daughter. This one was, by the way, my most proud finished caraco because I managed to match the stripes along the back in a delightful chevron pattern--unfortunately, I have no pictures of that accomplishment.
Differences this time: I plan to try an alternate method of attaching the stomacher this time so that it's wider and lays flatter than in the phot above, and will be using boning to stiffen the front. I've not had to do this in the past given that the fabric I used was heavy, but as I intend this garment to be a summer piece I wanted to use a very lightweight cotton.
Pictures of the finished product forthcoming!
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Monday, February 15, 2010
I particularly admire Bennetts' work for its dedication to historical accuracy while maintaining the highest literary form. This is a rare treat for those of us who are history geeks and lit nerds--so rarely does an author combine the facts with the fiction so flawlessly and loose nothing of either in the transcription.
Plus--June is giving away an autographed copy of the book. Read the interview, leave a comment, you buys your ticket and you takes your chance.
Friday, February 12, 2010
Anyway, thought I'd share the five things I'm most excited about packing up and heading out with:
1) A friend. While I do enjoy the occasional solitary car trip (great time for reflection and for singing along embarassingly badly with the radio), four hours of dull scenery is also a fabulous time to reconnect with a good friend. And, in this case, still sing along very loudly with the music. Which happens to be....
2) Music. I don't recommend relying on the radio in the booneys. Though you can find some really amazing programming (like the time my husband and I found the old-timey country music hour and bopped along to Patsy Cline and her ilk until the station fuzzed out), it's hit or miss. Mostly miss. My travel buddy and I have a set of must-haves with us on all car trips, most of which are sing-along-able. Included are the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, the best of the Andrews Sisters (in which the classic "I Love You Much Too Much" became, inexplicably, "I Love Your Butt Too Much" in my car), and some Loreena McKennit for contemplative moments.
3) Coffee. Or other hot drink. Or soda. Except not too much soda because one time we were rear-ended on the highway and it took the police forever to show up to make the report and things were getting a bit desperate toward the end.
4) Printed copy of WIP. Last time we headed up north, I was at about this stage in my first project, and just sitting with it in the coffeeshop while one friend read, another graded, and we all sipped delightfully named specialty drinks was so beneficial. I started to really make connections and forge the overarching structure more solidly. Plus--sidenote--wow, I printed out what I've done so far and I didn't realize how far I'd already come on December (working title for WIP)! Sixty-four scrunched up single-spaced pages! Yay.
5) Those bento boxes. Ok, I'm not packing those. They'll be there when we go out for lunch. And here's the thing--it's not just the incredible spicy tuna roll that I'm psyched about (though, yeah, I'm psyched. And for the inari). It's that we're forming a tradition together, my grown-up friends and I, of not letting our friendship go flat just because we aren't in college living in a cardboard shack of a rental house together.
Looking forward to a relaxing, yet productive weekend in which I don't check my email a single time and the thought of queries or agents doesn't enter my mind. Because we all need a break once in a while, right?
Please feel free to share your road-trip essentials!
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Sunday, February 7, 2010
Thursday, February 4, 2010
After reading these ladies' entries, I thought I would give it a whirl myself. Do you want to know what page 99 of my currently-being-queried project is? The big reveal, the grand test of quality for the whole novel? In my formatted manuscript, it is:
..."and acknowledged, 'I, as well.' "
Yes, that's right. Page 99 is one of those awkward spillover pages before a new chapter starts. Five lines of acquiescence, and that's it.
It doesn't exactly make me want to read more. Unless the font was a really good one.
But to play fair, and post something worthwhile, and bare my literary soul to anyone willing to read, let's take a look at page 98, shall we? (Setting--Charleston, 1780 for those unfamiliar.)
The Reverend began the prayer to close the service, and though Anna bowed her head, she did not think of prayer, but of the feeble magnolia leaf overflowing in the wake of the much stronger rain and of her own helplessness. It was not only her physical inability to escape the conflict that was no longer a distant war belonging to men leagues away, she realized as the Lord’s Prayer rose on a hundred voices around her. What provoked her was her was her inability to own her place in the rising tides. Her brother was a part of the war, as was Benjamin--they forged their own places within it. Yet it was only happening around her, changing her reality as a flood changes the course of a riverbed.
Anna realized that the women had begun to rise from the benches and gather their children, while the men had broken ranks to retrieve their hats. The mistress of the house, whom Anna heard called Mrs. MacIntyre, emerged in the midst of the women as they moved toward the steps.
“Please, if you will consider sewing a few shirts for the army, or providing old linens for bandages?” She grasped hands fervently and nodded in encouragement as women offered their time and fabric. “I’ll host a little sewing circle here tomorrow afternoon, if anyone would like to work at their shirts here.”
“Marjory, why don’t we come?” Anna found herself saying before she had thought through the proposal herself.
Marjory seemed taken aback by the idea. “I suppose we could,” she conceded, “though I don’t know the first thing about sewing shirts.” She raised a single, delicately arched eyebrow at Anna.
“I don’t either,” Anna laughed. She grew more serious as she added, “But to think that they might aid our brothers, or some other boy--man--gives me some comfort.”
Marjory did not balk at Anna’s frank words, but merely nodded and acknowledged, “I, as well.”
A couple comments:
- Funny, because this isn't intended to be a Christian inspirational novel, and this is the only church scene in it. I wonder--would a reader judge the entirety of the book as having a Christian overtone from this page? My intention was more to acknowledge the active role of religion in the lives of eighteenth century individuals and in the American Revolution--on both sides, actually. Though this is a preacher with Patriot sympathies, Anglican ministers prayed with their congregations each week for the health and victory of King George.
- Strangely, most of the main characters actually do get mention here. And one rather extraneous character, too.
- This is probably one of my favorite scenes, atmospherically speaking, in the MS--it's a Sunday church service gathering on the porch of a fancy house during a rainstorm. I love it because I actually attended church service at a reenactment on the porch of a fancy plantation house during a light drizzle--there are images neatly lifted from that experience. There are others I did not include, namely having ones' nose run profusely during the sermon because of the chill.
What do you think of the Page 99 Test? How do you test out books before buying or picking at the library?
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Yes, this does carry shades of "How is a raven like a writing desk?" But stick with me. When driving in wintry conditions, a few bits of advice:
- Avoid the well-travelled roads. At least until the plows get out. It's counterintuitive, but driving on the snow-covered roads is a lot easier than driving on the roads that have been milled into slush by every passing motorist. That greyish sludge of frequent travel gives much worse traction than fresh snow. And so it is with writing--if you do the same thing as everyone else, it's going to be harder to gain a foothold. Don't do the stuff that's already been done to death--sure, it might be hot now, but what's going to let you shine is something original.
- If you find yourself sliding, no sudden movements. That includes slamming on the brakes. You might need to let up on the gas a little, but you'll only make problems worse--in your manuscript or on the road--if you try to correct with a major overhaul all at once. On the road, if you slide, let up on the gas, steer slowly out of the slide, but don't crank the wheel or overcorrect or hit the brakes hard. In your writing, when you notice a proble--plot gap, character hole, whatever the case may be--slow down a little, but gain perspective before hacking things to bits.
- Try to avoid stopping whenever possible. Dirty little secret of driving in snow--don't stop. Don't stop at stop signs, don't stop at red lights. Clearly, don't run them--slow down to a crawl. Sometimes you do have to stop. But when you can keep moving, however slowly, you run much less chance of losing traction and spinning your wheels. Same goes with writing. It's much harder to get started again when you come to a complete stop, at least in my experience.
- Practice, and make your mistakes where it doesn't matter. A colleague at work who recently moved from California asked what she should do about learning to drive in snow. I told her to wait for the next snowstorm, then go to a big, open parking lot and drive. A lot. Do stupid things like those outlined in number 2 above, especially slamming on the brakes. See what it takes to make the car slide, and how to correct yourself when that happens. Think of first drafts and to an even greater extent writing prompts and creative writing exercises like the big open parking lot of perfecting your skill. You can screw up here and no one cares. You can whip a complete literary donut and if the piece careens out of control, it's ok--you're not going to hit anything. And if you can learn to spot the mistakes here--and how to fix them--you can do so when you're writing out on the open road.
Safe travels, everyone! How do you feel about a longer winter--enjoying every snowy moment or ready for the crocuses to spring?
Monday, February 1, 2010
(Highly scientific selection process including your names written on paper scraps and my husband choosing two involved...must employ one of those online randomizers next time!)