Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Muse is a Musician

<J. Leigh sneaks in, stage right…>

Ahem.  Well, I’ve been a bad SisterMuse for….well…a really long time now.  So here’s a little post to hopefully catapult me back into Responsible Blogging….

“Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son, Agamemnon…” (The Iliad)

“In the beginning Eru, the One, who in the Elvish tongue is named Ilúvatar, made the Ainur of his thought; and they made a great Music before him.  In this Music the World was begun…” (The Silmarillion)

The ancient poets had it right.  The muse of story-telling is a singer.  She’s a musician.

For Tolkien, the very story of the cosmos springs from music, when the Ainur sang all things into being.

And while Mendelssohn may have figured out that you can have “A Song Without Words,” I don’t know that you can have “Words Without A Song.”

Well, that sounds very nice…but what do I mean by it?  Is poetry only poetic when it is sung?  Is prose only proper when it has rhythm and melody?  No.  Not really.  Of course, for much of human history, I’d wager, story-telling was done through the medium of song.  The bards and skalds and scops and jongleurs of old knew that if they wanted to impress their stories into their listeners’ minds, the surest way was to sing them.  Something about music stirs a deeper part of the soul than words alone.

When I was younger, I briefly met a profoundly gifted cellist.  He was a wild child, spirited, with a startling naivete and a baffling, intense passion for his music.  Minutes before taking the stage to perform, I found him hanging from a tree, tie loose, pant-legs rolled up, long dark curls all in a mess.  Seemingly out of nowhere he said, “Did you ever notice how when you finish reading a book, the music stops?”

I’ve never forgotten those words.   Because they’re true — but also because I’d never even realized it.

I don’t really know what gives some books that music.  I definitely know that not every book has it…and I also know that the books that lack it leave me strangely dissatisfied.  I don’t know if it’s the mediocre plot, the dull, flat characters, or the bland scenery that drives away the music, or if it’s the lack of the music in the first place that makes a story so lifeless, but either way I find silent stories are bloodless, tired, bereft of inner light…. Dead.

I was going to write about ways we can think about music in story…but I think I’ll stop here for now, and come back to that idea later.  🙂


Okay, as we’re getting ready for NaNoWriMo (it’s just days away, folks!), it seems timely to talk about invention for a minute.

What is invention, after all?

Let’s blow the dust off an old Latin text by Horace (from the Ars Poetica):

Either follow tradition or invent what is self-consistent. … If it is an untried theme you entrust to the stage, and if you boldly fashion a fresh character, have it kept to the end even as it came forth at the first, and have it self-consistent. (Horace, Ars Poetica, 119-127, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough)

Let’s consider first why Horace suggests to his readers that they “follow tradition.”  That’s not invention! you say.  For us blessed moderns, we scoff at this notion of invention.  But let’s take a closer look.

We have to recognize that for the classical Latin poets as well as for poets of the Middle Ages, invention largely meant revisiting and refreshing old stories.  Think of the blind bard in the tavern, who spins his lays and amplifies and alters as he travels from town to town.  And think of the bards who succeed him, taking his tales, adding their own spice and flavor.  That, for Horace and the medieval poets, is the very heart of invention.  As Geoffrey Chaucer would put it, it’s tilling old fields and growing new corn.  It’s re-imagining.

And, given that Those Who Know tell us that there are really only like 7 plots in the entire known universe of language and literature, there really may be something to what Horace has to say.

Let’s take an example.

Lady meets Gentleman at a party.  Lady likes Gentleman, but Gentleman scorns her for being a country bumpkin.  Gentleman’s BFF likes Lady’s Sister.  Gentleman thinks Sister isn’t giving BFF the time of day and tells him to find a new love.  Lady is totally enraged, so when Gentleman discovers that, lo and behold, he loves Lady, she rejects him with scorn.  Gentleman sets out to win Lady’s heart by kindnesses, even helping to save Lady’s other sister Floozy from a disgraceful situation.  In the end, Lady is won over and marries Gentleman, Sister marries BFF, and Floozy and Dude move away…far away…much to the relief of all.

It’s Pride and Prejudice, right?

Ye-es…but it doesn’t have to be.  We could take this skeleton of a situation and bones of a plot and write any number of riffs on it.  What if we set the story in the year 2050?  What if we set it in 1920s Boston?  What if the well-beloved forms of Elizabeth, Darcy, Jane, and Bingley (not to mention Lydia and Wickham) were replaced with fully modern individuals with similar character traits but different situations and struggles?  In making these changes, do we not have the makings of a new story, which has all the more depth and interest because it hearkens back to the story that gave it its beginning?

It’s a legitimate form of invention, this “following tradition” business.  Don’t sneeze at it too hastily…you may cheat yourself out of a fantastic treasure trove of inspiration.

But what about Horace’s other directive, the one to those who choose to blaze their own literary trail?  He charges said trail-blazers with the responsibility of self-consistency.  What does that mean, exactly?

It does not mean that your character cannot have an arc.

Characters who don’t change, adapt, and overcome in relation to their circumstances are paper dolls.  You can change their outfits, but they still have that stupid grin on their flat face no matter what.

Ugh.  No.

It does mean that the arc your character follows needs to be consistent with his nature, personality, and traits with which you endow him at the story’s outset.  It needs to make sense.  J. Leigh alluded to this in her marvelous post on Wrangling Runaway Stories.  To use her example, you can’t have Bob, heretofore an ordinary soul, suddenly have the ability to wield MIGHTY MAGICKS in face of almost certain destruction.  (BTW, if you haven’t read that post, go do it right now and then come back.  It’s hilarious…and very instructive!)  Bob needs to find a way out of the conflict that is consistent with his established character.

Bottom line?  Plot and character are absolutely intertwined.  Underestimate their intimate connection at your own peril!  This also means that whatever character elements you establish on page 1 had better either still be there on page THE END or change in a believable way.  This is what Horace means by self-consistency.

So, where does this brief consideration of invention leave us as we contemplate our NaNoWriMo paths?

Story material is all around you.  You can make a story from scratch, or you can reimagine a favorite story or myth in a totally new way, making it all your own.  Either way, you’re on your way to NaNoWriMo success!

Happy inventing!

Preparing for NaNoWriMo

Ahhh, it’s that time of year again.

The leaves are beginning to turn, the night air is crisp, stews and hot cocoa are back on the menu, and writers everywhere are gearing up for the plunge we affectionately call NaNoWriMo.

Here at SisterMuses, J. Leigh and I are both preparing for what promises to be a totally awesome NaNoWriMo, and we hope you’ll join us as we blog about the trials and joys of pounding out a novel in a month.  Whether you are a fellow writer or just want to chuckle at us from the sidelines, please sign up to follow us and leave your comments!  There will be some fun giveaways and other exciting stuff coming your way!

So, now that you are signed up and ready to go, let’s get on to the topic of today’s post, which is on preparing for NaNoWriMo.  Over the next couple of weeks, we will have more detailed posts on planning, plotting, and scheduling your NaNoWriMo project.  This general overview is meant to inspire you to start thinking through these things and considering how you will accomplish your NaNoWriMo goals.

Step 1: Get yourself registered!  

No, not just for the SisterMuses blog.  Head over to NaNoWriMo’s official site and register.  Now you’re ready to track your progress and enjoy the company of fellow crazy passionate writers (see Step 5)!

Step 2: Figure out what you’re writing.

For this year’s NaNoWriMo, J. Leigh is working on a fabulous new book called Ethereal.  I’m working on The Lords of Askalon, the sequel to Silesia: The Outwordler.  Our choices were fairly obvious.  Well, except for J. Leigh’s.  (J. Leigh!  Where did that come from?  So exciting!).  Anyway.  If you are new to the whole novel writing thing, or if you haven’t worked on a new project in a while, this is a great time to contemplate the inner chambers of your imagination.  Dust those cobwebs out of the corners.  Open a window and let in the sunshine!

What genre would you like to work in?  Who is your main character?  What’s the conflict?  Do you need to do some research (if you’re writing historical fiction of any kind, you’d better be nodding your head right now!)?

This is probably the hardest part of the process, unless you already have a seedling project in mind.  Mapping out a project takes time. That’s why we’re starting now, when there are still a couple of weeks before the starting pistol fires.

Step 3: Get a basic plot outline together.

If you’re going to write a novel in a month — NaNoWriMo’s official word count is 50,000 (approx. 200 pages) — then you really do need a plan, even if you’re not really a planner.  Your outline doesn’t have to be extensive, but it should include major plot points and perhaps a subplot or two.  If you start visualizing scenes as you work on your outline, then write them out and keep them!  If nothing else, they get your mind onto the right story track and prime those creative juices.

You should also try to pin down your main characters.  Get their physical characteristics straight, figure out who they were before the world of the story happened to them.  A story that moves well through plot points but has dismally shallow characters might get you to the word count, but is that really your only goal here?  (Maybe it is…the thrill of writing 50K words might just be too much to resist).  But for those of you who, like J. Leigh and I, are using NaNoWriMo to improve your craft and make serious progress on some projects, then take your preparatory work seriously.

Step 4: Check your schedule.

50K words doesn’t happen overnight.  Okay.  50K coherent words doesn’t happen overnight.  In order to meet this goal, you’ll need to be deliberate about your writing time.  Take a look at your schedule and find a way to block out some consistent writing time — maybe 20-30 minutes a day.  Figure out what kind of progress you need to make in each writing session, and realize that not every session will be uniform in productivity.  You might sit down one day and write 10 pages before you blink.  Other days, the evil cursor might blink at you from the blank page…for your entire allotted time.  It happens.

Step 5: Find a writing buddy or join the NaNoWriMo community forums.

Having a writing buddy is very encouraging.  I love working with J. Leigh, and we have a great time sharing our ideas, helping each other solve plot problems, or listening with sympathy when characters don’t do what they’re told.  For something as intense as NaNoWriMo, it helps to have encouragement from another writer who is doing the same thing.  And who knows?  You might network with some pretty fantastic fellow authors and build a working relationship that extends beyond this coming month of madness.

There you have it!  A roadmap to November 1, 2011.

Are you ready?

We are!

(P.S. Don’t forget to subscribe!!!)