I grew up playing piano. I didn’t sit down to a piano as a child prodigy, though. I took lessons for years, accompanied by many, many hours of practising what I had learned, playing scales, learning theory, and training my ears. Over the years I became very good and went on to learn guitar and drums and developed in intense love of music. (I also have horrible memories of finding myself subjected to performing on stage while crippled with paralyzing stage fright—but that’s another story.)
I want to talk about the practising part of that piano experience. I have noticed a number of references recently on the benefits of practice. Some have referred to music practice itself, but others to applying the idea of music practice to visual disciplines. Most recently, I found myself listening to one of the designers in the Netflix series Abstract describe applying music practice to drawing.
What about applying a music-based practice regime to writing?
There is no question that one of the strongest pieces of advice given to writers to develop their craft is to write every day. This advice hints at what practising music every day aims to do: get better. But a good musician does not merely play every day. Good music practice touches on several aspects of playing that include technique and improvisation, as well as perfecting pieces of music for performance.
I decided to figure out what applying music practice to writing might look like. I broke a practice session down into three essential parts: technique, improvisation, repertoire. I added a cool-down bit later which I will get to. Usually improv will come after working on the current repertoire pieces, but I decided to switch the order.
For technique, there are abundant sources of writing exercises available. I thought about what I wanted to work on as a writer—expand my vocabulary, control a certain long-windedness, shift from passive verbs to active—and I pooled together a list of 5-minute writing exercises that concentrated on those aspects of the craft. That list may be different for other writers, and it may change for me over time and depending on what I’m working on. For now, I pick two items at random from the list and do them when I sit down to write. It turns out to be more enjoyable than I think it will be when I start. Words!
Improv is easy to apply to writing. Flash fiction comes to mind. Writing in a journal works, too. Working on this blog entry counts. I applied the same idea for an improvisation session that I did for working on technique—I compiled a list of eight or ten writing prompts that speak to me, and when the time comes I pick one at random. There are many prompts that involve random words, sentences, or images, and many random-generating sites that help to start a session. I do really like Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge prompts (a couple of which have resulted in fiction posts here). Because I am striving to finish a first draft at the moment, I have limited my writing prompt list to 10-minute pieces. I want to put most of my time toward working on the manuscript.
Which brings me to my repertoire. My manuscript is my repertoire, the piece that I present to the public and which I strive to perfect before doing so. Working on a little technique and flexing the imagination with a writing prompt help eliminate that ominous blank page syndrome. I like to read the work I’ve done the day before to really get the juices flowing.
I mentioned a wind-down at the beginning of this post. I have a horrible habit of interrupting my work flow with research. I love researching things. I get lost in learning. Sometimes what I read about inspires the scene I’m working on, but most often I catalogue an idea for later. I put research at the end of a writing session as a cool down. That serves a dual purpose. I don’t interrupt myself while I’m writing (instead making a list as I go to research at the end of a session), and what I discover while researching at the end of the day fuels excitement for the next session.
I put the ideas above to work this week, intimidated by the imposition of discipline. The first thing I discovered was that enjoyment vanquishes intimidation.