I’m learning to play guitar, trying to cook up killer riffs and screaming melodies on the cold steel strings of both an acoustic and electric guitar. But there is one key ingredient both musical dishes require when fretting, picking and strumming: I must have relaxed hands.
Turns out, there’s a lot going under the surface with my hands and in my mind that controls them. I’ve tried crunching out speed licks on a Jackson Dinky or plowing through chord strums on a Taylor Academy with a stiff right wrist and arm and left-hand fingers that bore holes into the fretboard. It all ends up sounding like a thud and buzz. Yeah, crap.
So I stepped away from my suffering guitars, relieving them of my oafish hands that inflict musical pain. I’m going to slow down. Relax. Start by playing simple chords. Loosen up my picking hand. Relax some more. My fretting fingers will learn to touch the strings just enough. My playing will begin to sound better even if it’s just do-re-G on a major scale.
Not Playing the Blues, Yet
Learning the guitar has also taught me something about fiction writing. Under the surface of guitar playing is a secret sauce that is slowly cooked within me. It has to be developed before I rush out some Rush and boom chuck Johnny Cash.
It’s just like writing. Don’t misunderstand me: I do think an author should write fast, especially a commercial or indie author. The more books in your catalog equals more returns. Time is money, after all. But if one crap book is cranked out again and again… Yeah, thud and buzz. The final story suffers.
So what do I do to improve my fiction? I slow down, learn something new, internalize it, and then build up speed.
Trying to Give Love a Bad Name
If you search out guitar advice on the internet, you’ll be overwhelmed by the amount of information. And nobody seems to agree on the right way to play. In some ways, it’s true with writing fiction, too.
But there are some rule of thumbs that commercial writers often use that I agree with:
- Don’t waste time constantly revising and editing, especially when you are first working a draft.
- Don’t get hung up on outlines. If this way works for you, fine. But don’t sweat it. Just write.
On the surface, this advice sounds so simple, like listening to Eric Clapton strum our emotional heartstrings with “Layla.” But we probably know that something more is going on below the printed text on the page. Or we wouldn’t read a novel if it couldn’t hold our attention beyond a few paragraphs.
A good work of fiction is more than flat information that thuds out a linear plot. A setting can move us in a way that makes us feel what a character feels about some time and place. Concrete images show us what the character identifies with. Their actions contradict and reveal what’s internal. Or, an image may be used as a tag that builds the plot. A good author can create all of this quickly.
But this must be learned. And that means slowing down, first.
No Sleep Till Brooklyn?
Fiction publishing is changing. A lot. The old business models for the big houses may not be working so well, anymore.
Indie writers have a lot more options to publish and distribute books. Huge sales numbers based only on a few months of book ship-through and returns may not be attractive to a skilled indie who can sell a book for years. I guess the moral of the story is this: Don’t get hung up on outdated advice about having to constantly revise your work until it’s beyond bricks of golden Hemingway. You may only complete one book before submitting to an agent and your masterpiece may not be picked up. Remember, you have options.
But you may not want to slap out a crap ebook every week that reads no better than, The sun is out. The trees are green. She walks in the park, but she’s sad. There are better ways to do this. Consider first slowing down, learning the craft and art, consider taking your time to build up your abilities and understanding. As you practice, your speed will follow. Let it come to you over time, not the other way around.
Despite interruptions from learning the guitar, I’m still finding time to learn the art and craft of writing fiction. My first attempts at stories were styling genres like sci-fi and fantasy with only a gut feel for both literary and commercial fiction technique.
I’ve slowed way down.
For months now I’ve studied literary technique. In a month or so, I’ll finally release an anthology of literary flash shorts that don’t really follow a tried-and-true pulp fiction form. But I am slowly working my way back towards commercial technique.
It’s not that all of this literary effort applies to commercial fiction. For example, commercial writers may avoid first person narration mostly because they consider it a distancing technique. Literary critics may counter that it’s the word choice that distances the reader, not the choice of narrator. By studying both literary and commercial, I consider first person narration to be a memoir. There may even be a commercial audience that enjoys this type of book.
But to come to this conclusion, I really did have to slow down and learn technique. Now, I don’t feel so conflicted and I have more confidence with that first person short story as it starts out on the page. I’ll start to write faster, not always looking over my shoulder at the past two sentences. And with enough practice, even my own guitar might gently weep.