Thursday, March 29, 2012

Wrong Place, Right Time: How Dr. John Reminded Me To Study the Masters In Music and Writing

The other day I made a decision to study Dr. John's piano technique. For those of you who don't follow music, Dr. John is the dean of New Orleans-style piano players, and he's well versed in the history of music in his city. Here's a YouTube link if you want to hear him:

I've been familiar with his music for years, but I never took the time to study it closely. I always figured I could approximate the New Orleans style with the skills I had, but lately I've been unhappy with my solo work when playing jobs with my bands, and I decided delve deeper into the New Orleans sound for inspiration.

It was a good thing I did--my idea of New Orleans piano had drifted considerably over the years...I thought I knew the sound and the techniques, but a few minutes of listening showed that I'd been fooling myself. I sounded nothing like Dr. John--and in fact, I was completely wrong in my interpretation of the style. Listen to the video--Dr. John has that distinctive right hand trill in his solos, and I had completely forgotten about it because I'd stopped listening to the music I was attempting to emulate.

I could have rationalized. After all, I was interpreting the style in my own unique way--I could have been satisfied with faking it. I could have continued playing the same old crap and telling myself it was good enough when it really wasn't. I probably would have done that (hell, I did do that!), but I finally got fed up with my same-old, same-old solos that never changed from one week to the next.

I realized that I stopped adding the trills to my solos because they were hard to do. Somewhere over the years they had slipped away from me, and when I started practicing I realized how bad my overall technique was--I'd also stopped practicing between jobs a while back.

Writing and music have a lot in common, and writers must be readers in the same way musicians have to also listen to music. I'm not trying to copy Dr. John anymore than I try to copy Ken Follett or Stephen King.  

But I must understand Dr. John's music in order to play Jeff Currie's style of New Orleans blues. Dr. John has to understand the music of Professor Longhair and Jelly Roll Morton to create the "Dr. John" style. I might not use the right hand trill often, but it needs to be in my bag of tricks, along with other techniques I glean during my piano studies. If nothing else, I'll have that little push I need to get me out of my comfort zone.

Everyone has to have a baseline of knowledge to perfect (or even improve) a skill. Listening to the style and technique of the masters is the first step toward that end for a musician, and reading and studying the work of top writers, is the first step for a writer. In other words, when you find yourself on the right road but you took a wrong turn, get back to basics...

I been in the right place
But it must have been the wrong time
I'd have said the right thing
But I must have used the wrong line
I'd a took the right road
But I must have took a wrong turn
Would have made the right move
But I made it at the wrong time
I been on the right road
But I must have used the wrong car
My head was in a good place
And I wonder what it's bad for...
From "Right Place, Wrong Time", Dr. John

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Writers, Diamonds Are Just Lumps Of Coal That Stuck It Out, and You Can Too!

Sorry about the long delay between blog posts--I caught some sort of virus that bedeviled me all last week.

In my last post I mentioned some of the writers who inspired me, and someone commented on the fact that I was at least partially motivated by the thought that I could do as well as a best-selling author. I guess that was a bit shocking, but I honestly believe many of us started our first book with that exact thought in mind.

I think our favorite books intimidate us a little--and in my case the classic authors (Twain, Lee, Hemingway) still seem unreachable. But I was never intimidated by Clive Cussler, Jeffrey Archer, or Jack Higgins. Perhaps I should have been (and I'll say it again--I have a MUCH greater appreciation for those authors now that I've actually finished my two books). 

You may be searching for another blog to read right now, after reading that horribly arrogant spiel, but hang on a second. That's what it takes to write a book--especially the first one. Writers need self confidence and (dare I say it?) even a touch of arrogance to see the way through a book-length project. Some writers may not show it, but I've never met a successful author who didn't believe in their talent--at least most of the time.

Don't get me wrong--writers have low moments. My best friend could tell you all about that--especially after a phone session devoted to propping me up when I'm going through the sulky-mopeys. All self confident people have moments of doubt, but those moments don't overwhelm successful writers--at least not for very long.

You don't believe me? You're wrong--because here's the deal: successful writers are (or should be) judged by only two things...tenacity, and a willingness to keep educating themselves. That's it.

Nothing else matters--I could care less if a writer is published. A successful writer (the writer who never quits trying and never stops learning) will be published, today, tomorrow, or next year. It's just a matter of time.  Indie authors aren't left out of the party--the same confidence that makes a person a successful writer can make the writer a successful Indie author.  Writing and marketing an Indie book is all about tenacity and continual learning, to gain knowledge about what works and what doesn't.

I was an unsuccessful writer for a long time. Before that I was just a guy who talked a lot about trying to write. I was sure I could write great books, but I never proved it to anyone. Now I've written two books, and I'm still not sure I've proved anything--to me or anyone else. But I'm a successful writer, and I still think I have the ability to write as well as those authors I named--if not now, then someday. My next book will be better.

I really believe everything I just wrote...99% of the time--and my friend will be there for me when I go through my next emotional swoon. 

Find the confidence to believe that you can write at a professional level. Go figure out how to do it--and never stop learning. Have confidence. Fake it if necessary. Fake it until you believe it--and find that special friend who will believe on those days when you feel like a fraud.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Writers Must Be Readers: What Books Inspire Me (You may be surprised!)

I get this question a lot. I gave some general answers in my opening post on this blog back in October, 2011, but I thought it might be interesting to delve into the specifics of why I decided to write a book.

Most writers (and all good ones) love to read, and I'm no exception. I can't remember a time when I didn't enjoy reading, and I don't think I'm exceptional when I admit that I've read my favorite books many times over. If anything, I tend to be a little obsessive about reading the same books over and over, and I have to force myself sometimes to try a new author or genre.

One of the first authors who grabbed me was Alistair MacLean. He was the preeminent writer of thrillers back in the 1960's, and I'm always amazed at the number of name authors who credit him for being a molding force in their work. I'm not a name author, but he was a huge influence on me. There's a reason Eb has the same last name (I decided early on to use a lower-case "L" for Eb, just to make his last name a bit different).

Alistair MacLean instilled a love of mystery and intrigue in me that remains, and I was very sad to see how he declined toward the end as age and alcoholism took the wind out of his sails...his last books were barely readable. I never read those books--I don't want to remember him that way.

MacLean was the first writer who hooked me on the idea of telling a great story, but another writer made the idea of writing exciting because he used language in such a telling way. Reading his prose was (and still is) like watching water flow in a fast-moving stream, and I still grab one of his books when I need inspiration. Nothing else in print gets me charged up to write like his work. So who is this guy? One of the masters? Hemingway? Faulkner?

Not even close.

His name was Colin Fletcher, and the book that so moved me was a book on...walking. Not only a book on walking, but a how-to book, describing the practical and technical aspects of backpacking.

Make no mistake--"The Complete Walker" is every bit of a how-to book, still regarded as definitive by many (there were several editions, revised and updated over the years), but it is so much more. Colin Fletcher never let the jargon get in the way of his real mission. He was simply a master at inspiring the reader to walk, to think about walking, and to think about the "feel-how" of loving the outdoors and experiencing nature to its fullest. Alistair MacLean inspired me to think about storytelling, but Colin Fletcher made me love writing.

"In the desert you rediscover, every time you go back, the cleanness that exists in spite of the dust, the complexity that under-lies the apparent openness, and the intricate web of life that stretches over the apparent barrenness; but above all you rediscover the echoing silence that you had thought you would never forget." - Colin Fletcher 

There are many other books that inspire me, but the real reason I decided to write a book was because I read all of Jack Higgins's books. I'm not always sure why I like his books, and I get infuriated when he uses the same plot devices over and over. He's a writer (his real name is Harry Patterson, and some of his work was published under that name) who writes to a specific formula, so the characters are eerily similar from one book to the next; Sean Dillon is basically the same character as Liam Devlin--not only in mannerisms, but right down to the physical description of the two characters. Hell, forget "basically the same"... they could be clones. It may infuriate me, but Jack (or more accurately, Harry) is laughing all the way to the bank. There must be something about his formula that grabs me, because he's still writing, and I still buy his books.

But the big thing is this--Jack Higgins made me believe I could write, and that infuriating formulaic style of his convinced me that I could write just as well as he could. Hell, I was absolutely sure I could do better! (From a bank balance standpoint I still have a ways to go before I catch him--and of course now, after trying it myself, I see that writing is a bit tougher than I first assumed.)
I always wonder if other writers started out with the same mindset that I had. I know some of you did.

There are other writers who inspired me, but the truth is that I was sure I had a book in me, and I was able to learn enough to get by from reading.
Reading is the key--and every book, good or bad, has something to teach me. I read Janet Evanovich because her writing helps me understand how to write from scene-to-scene, and I read Ken Follet because I love how he can make his good characters flawed while also making his evil characters human. I marvel at Hemmingway's short stories because he understood human nature so well (I must say it didn't help him much--or worse, it might have been the root of all his problems).
I've been haunted by water ever since reading Norman Maclean, and Louise Dickinson Rich made me love the Maine woods. John A. Murray and Rick Bass helped me become fascinated by grizzly bears, and Bruce Catton made the Civil War real. Harper Lee made me idolize Gregory Peck...and Gregory Peck made me marvel at the genius of Harper Lee. I can honestly say that I've read all of her books--every single one.

The real reason I write books is because they grab me...and they always have and always will. I write books that I would want to read, and I know I haven't done well enough on a particular book when I want to run away from reading it after writing it. I knew "Judgment Tramp" was good because I read it over and over once it was finished--and that's quite a thing for a writer to say after going through the torture of writing a book!

What books have inspired you and why? Any surprises?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Writing with a partner

I've always worked by myself, but lately I've been thinking about doing some freelance magazine article work with another writer. This would be a big change for me--for one thing, I would have to give up some control (yikes!!).

That would be tough (even though it would be healthy...), but lately I've been thinking the time has come to give this idea a try. Obviously, a writing partner should be someone who can put up with me...and that rules out a good percentage of humans on the planet. The ideal partner would laugh at my lousy jokes, fix my horrible grammar and spelling habits, do all of the research, and most of all, he or she would tone down my semi-witty, bitingly sarcastic prose (you haven't seen it--I've really tried to behave while posting) when I've got a proverbial bug stuck up my chuff.

You might be thinking that I want someone who will do all of the work while I take the credit and cash the checks, but that isn't true. It isn' mean it; that's not what I'm looking for (would somebody actually do that?).

There is a delicate balance of personalities involved when thinking about working with another writer. Two people would have to think in similar ways, but they also have to bring different strengths to the table, and most of all, both participants have to learn to give a little.

I do research for my novels, and I enjoy most of it, but it isn't the all-important purpose of my life, or even in the top twenty of pleasurable pursuits in J.D. Currie Land. I know some writers who get so involved with research that they only grudgingly stop googling just long enough to pound out a few quick pages on the computer keyboard before re-immersing themselves into the history of adult sanitary diapers, or studying the history of the twisty-tie. See, I told you I could be sarcastic....

I'm very interested to hear how writing teams work together--the "nuts and bolts" of the actual process of joint-authoring a book or article. How does the process work--does each writer work on a chapter or article independently, or do the two writers sit side-by-side from start to finish? I can see problems and advantages with both methods....

I'd love to hear your comments on this topic--have you ever thought about collaborating on a project with another writer?