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July, 2009

"Make it Up as You Go Along"

by Webmaster

This month's AARP magazine has an article by Elmore Leonard, "Making It Up as I Go Along." In it he reveals,

"At the time I begin writing a novel, the last thing I want to do is follow a plot outline. To know too much at the start takes the pleasure out of discovering what the book is about."

He creates characters, sometimes from people he knows or characters in a book. Their attitudes and how they talk define who they are. He is open to putting those characters into situations as they come to him, sometimes from news stories. The nature of the characters he creates determines how they react. That determines the story that happens during the writing process.

I recently read a mystery by Diane Setterfield, "The Thirteenth Tale." There is an interview with the author in the back of the book, in which she reveals,

"...there was no single moment when I thought, Aha! What a great idea! Rather there was a slow and gradual accumulation of numerous small ideas."

She started by thinking about the main character's personality, then added in dreams, references to other novels and ideas as they came to her. She stated that she followed her characters to work out the story.

This concept does not apply only to novels. Last month I wrote about writing story songs. I wrote two that I'm particularly proud of: One Lonely Rider and Red Shoes. One Lonely Rider took two years to write, with help from my co-writer, Founders: Bands, Singers, Songwriters, Solo Performers, Sidemen, Instrumentalists, Performers, Entertainers, Musicians, Places to Hear Acoustic Music, Locations, Venues, Clubs, Festivals, Business and Services Supporting Acoustic Music, Music Stores, Musical Instruments, Music Teachers Ernie Martinez, who put it on his CD, "Where I Make My Home." Red Shoes took about a week to write, and was inspired by the exercises assigned to students in a songwriting class I co-taught with Christy Wessler.

In both cases, I did not know where the story was going to go. I created a setting and characters for each song. I thought about the mood of the song and the emotions I wanted to convey. But, I didn't know the story when I started to write either song.

Since One Lonely Rider was about an old-time cattle drive, I did my homework: I lived on a horse ranch many years ago, but I'd never been part of a cattle drive. I found journals from people who were on cattle drives in the old days. I learned the hazards and the vocabulary. I talked to working cowboys about the story and got their feedback on how the song should end. Gradually these details were added to the song. When I got stuck, Ernie and I got together and he suggested the next line which might lead to the next event in the story. Gradually, the story evolved.

With Red Shoes, I did a blue-sky exercise. I thought about all the different things that red shoes meant to me: the Wizard of Oz, my many trips to Winfield KS, my ex-mother-in-law's search for red shoes while her young son (my future husband) was in the hospital with polio. The character of Justino came from an artist and his painting of a guitar player on a city street. I transplanted Dorothy and put her in his Spanish-seeming city.

I had no plot when I started either song. I just had characters and settings, and I let those characters reveal themselves to me. The endings surprised me when I wrote them. The research, blue-sky, craft of songwriting (appeal to all the senses, passage of time) was the perspiration. The endings were inspiration, and gave me the goose-bump moment that tells me when I've stumbled into something good.

I spent years building computer systems for corporations. We did NOT make it up as we went along. It was absolutely necessary to design well before writing a single line of code.

In many previous columns, I've suggested that visualizing what you want is a great first step toward getting what you want. In some cases, it's not just a nicety: it's a necessity.

But, I discovered the joy of letting a song reveal itself in the writing process. I've even discovered that designing a song before writing, knowing what each verse should say, sometimes makes it harder, maybe impossible, to write the song.

Perhaps creativity requires that unknown element, the serendipity that happens when the right ideas and images come together at the right time.

I hope you discover stories in your songs, and the joy of letting those stories reveal themselves to you.

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