On Writing, Revision, and Recording Music

[Note: I posted this at my LJ back in September 2013, and thought it would be worth reposting here.  Enjoy!]

A short time ago I tweeted something that came to me about the writing and revising processes, and partly how I was finally able to understand what I needed to improve my writing, and also made me understand just how to write and record a song correctly. This came to me while I was doing my Blogging the Beatles posts a few weekends ago, and I’d like to expand on it a bit here.

In short, it occurred to me that revision, for the most part, is very much like how many rock bands record their music. The listener–and with books, the reader–are only given the finished piece: the end result of a long process of composing, noodling, demoing, recording, overdubbing, and final mixing. What the public often does not hear/see is all that work as it unfolds. You don’t hear/see the alternate words, the alternate melodies/plots, the mistakes and the other bits and bobs. And if all this is done correctly, you hardly notice all the tiny flourishes as separate entities of the whole, because you’re not supposed to; they’re supposed to be part of the entire, much larger experience.

For the longest time–probably up until the last two years or so–my writing process has been extremely slipshod and make-it-up-as-I-go-along, and giving myself subconscious reminders for things that would need revising later. I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to remember the story arcs and the random plot twists that I would need to expand on later on in the story, and I’ve made copious notes on the esoterica of my created world. I may have crowed about outlines in the past, but I’ve used them, or at least planned out the plot a few chapters ahead of where I was at that time. Still, after all these years, I’ve come to the realization that while this process may work, it’s time consuming and unorganized.

In the last few years, I’ve been working primarily on the revision of the Bridgetown Trilogy, rarely writing anything completely new. That’s not to say I’m not writing anything at all; there are several passages in this revision project that are either total rewrites of older scenes, or are brand new scenes that replace old ones that don’t work. I’ve been writing a few other things here and there, outtakes for Walk in Silence, posts for Blogging the Beatles, and making notes for both new and old ideas. It may look like I’m getting nothing done, but trust me–I’m doing all the background work right now.

Again–it’s like recording a song.

Over the course of the Blogging the Beatles posts, I’ve done a lot of reading of Mark Lewisohn’s book The Beatles Recording Sessions, which goes into fascinating detail as to when, how, and where their songs were recorded. I’ve read this book countless times in the past, but in the context of my blog series I’ve begun appreciating the crafting of the music, listening to the songs and trying to understand exactly what they did to make it sound that way. In the end it’s also made me think more about my own creative processes, both in writing and music.

The beginning always starts with an idea. It might be something obtuse: John Lennon came up with the vocal melody for “I Am the Walrus” from the up-down tones of police sirens as they passed by his home. It might be something coming from out of nowhere: Paul McCartney was convinced he’d copped the melody to “Yesterday” from somewhere, but it was his own creation. It might be inspired by life: George Harrison wrote “Savoy Truffle” about Eric Clapton’s addiction to sweets. The point being: this is where the idea takes hold. I’ve mentioned in the past that my trilogy came from watching the Gall Force animes.

The next step is the rough draft, the demo. Here’s where a band gets together at someone’s house and hashes out a few ideas that have been brewing over the last few weeks. The Beatles did this in early 1968 when they came back from India, gathering at George’s house for a few days and hammering out a few rough drafts of songs that would eventually show up on The Beatles (aka The White Album), as well as Abbey Road. In writing, this is where you’re writing longhand, maybe doing a bit of outlining and/or plotting, drawing maps, putting up that wall of Post-Its. In essence: here’s where you sit down and riff it, build on that one idea (or multiple ideas) and see what unfolds.

Next is the first draft, Take 1. It’s going to be rough, there are going to be dozens of mistakes and wrong notes and flubbed lyrics. If the demo contains enough ideas that you can continue fleshing out, this is where you start adding a few things here and there, perhaps fleshing out a melody or two that you found captivating. You may even find that a bit that worked in the demo sounds horribly out of place here, and you drop that. Now, unless you’ve been practicing and rehearsing that one demo for quite a long time, you have to remember that this first take is going to sound like crap, no matter what you may think. Rarely does one get a complete finished song at this point. In writing? Same exact points. You’ve got the idea, now it’s time to start molding and shaping it into something better.

Next is the following drafts, the continuous takes. However long it takes to get that one passage right, to fix that lyric or bum note that’s been bugging you all this time. You may even resort to outside influence–your bandmates/your writing group–and ask them to take a listen/read and see if they find something you’ve overlooked. This is the longest and the most frustrating part, because you’re focusing mostly on building the song/plot. You may even drop it for a time and work on something else so you can return to it later, listen/read it with a clear mind.

Eventually, you’ll hit that last draft, that last take of the song. There will be a point, if you’re paying attention, where everything will just click. The song might not be the most perfect one in existence, but it’s exactly how you want it to sound. You’ve fixed those bum notes, you’ve cleaned up the lyrics. You’re at a point where you’re happy with it, maybe even a bit proud of it. In writing, this is where you’ve pretty much tied up all the loose ends of the plots, fixed the grammar and spelling mistakes, gotten it to the point where it looks clean.

This, of course, is not the final result. Not yet. And this is where, for years, I’d stop. I thought I’d be done with the book and send it out to agents and publishers, thinking I had a good shot at getting accepted. This is where I’d also get rejected, of course. There are many and countless reasons for that, which I won’t go into at this time. The point is, it’s not quite finished yet.

This is where the overdubs, the final mixing, and the running order come in. There’s that one point in the middle-eight that sounds just a bit too sparse, so you decide to throw a bit of horns or a solo in there. The vocals are weak here, so you overdub yourself to punch up the strength of the sound. This song sounds quite out of place as the third track on the album, but would sound so much better as the second-to-last track. Translated: this is the final read-through, the point where you pick up the novel as a whole, read it as you would a potential reader instead of its author. This is where you pay attention to how you react to the story. This is where you notice that one character needs more description or action. Where you notice that this subplot leads nowhere. Where you feel that Chapter 5 would make so much more sense chronologically as Chapter 8 instead. Where you threw a deus ex machina or something in there out of laziness, or as an “I’ll fix it later” and promptly forgot about it.

THIS is the final draft: this is where you make the song sound seamless, like you and the band recorded it in one go, without a single blemish. This is where your audience will not see the work you put into it, but only the end result.

Once you hit that point, then it’s time to send it out to the agent and/or publisher.

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