Sunday, February 28, 2010

How Writing is like Playing Handbells

I think the Winter Driving post showed that a raven can be like a writing desk, with the proper exploration. And it was such fun that another set of random thoughts struck me about comparisons while I was at handbell rehearsal comparing that hobby to my writing pursuits.

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?

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