Even in my musical heyday, I was never a rock star. Although my career as a bassist took me from cover bands to some pretty cool gigs at places like the Rat and CBGB’s, I never achieved the level of fame that Gal, the protagonist of my new psychological suspense, Hold Me Down, once did.
But all those years in sweaty basement practice spaces and even sweatier clubs did teach me a few things about the creative process – and about working in a creative community. I don’t get paid in beer anymore. But that mix of improvisation and craft? That’ll keep me humming forever. Maybe you, too.
Equipment doesn’t matter
Writers, like musicians, can be gearheads. We’re always talking about the best programs to help us plot or outline, edit and revise. Should we use screenwriting software or voice-recognition to best capture those fleeting moments of inspiration? Trade out our old Macs for an ergonometric keyboard at last?
But if the DIY ethos of punk rock taught us anything, it’s that none of that matters. Those brash young musicians remade the industry by stripping the sound down to its basics and playing with what they had – and it was brilliant!
So, no, you don’t need that new computer, tablet, or program. You need to sit your butt down and get to work.
Practice pays off
Back in my high school garage band days, we wanted to cover a tune with a particularly intricate bassline – one way beyond my skill level. “Just play every other note,” the guitarist told me. No way. I went home and played that line over and over, until my fingers knew automatically where to go – and at our next practice, I like to think I blew my bandmates away. (In reality, they probably knew how I’d respond to the challenge before I did.)
Writing isn’t dependent on muscle memory quite the same way, but there are similarities. If you can get in the habit of pounding out 500 words or a 1,000 every day, it will become easier. If you’re afraid you won’t know how to unspool your plot – how to hide your clues and disguise your motives – writing regularly will give you the confidence to figure it out. Will you feel blocked sometimes? Sure. But knowing you’re going to get back at it no matter what, you’ll find the words will start to flow.
Listen to your peers
When you’re in a band, this part is obvious. As a bassist, I had to listen to the drummer or I’d never get the tempo. If the guitarist and I weren’t keyed in, neither of us would know when to solo – or how to find our way back to the bridge if we got lost.
Writing is a solitary profession, so it’s easy to forget that this holds true for us too. We crime fiction authors are part of a community. We read each other (and gather and trade stories) because it keeps us going through the lonely days, and we thrive on the mutual support of our peers. But our community benefits our craft as well, because the best way to learn what’s going on out there is by reading other writers – new ones, the folks who are publishing now.
Listen to yourself
Ever hear of “the tape of only Linda”? This bootleg from a soundboard captured the late Linda McCartney singing harmony in Wings and, well, let’s just say her vocals bore little relationship with any melody or harmony.
Writing can be the same way. We start with a wonderful three-dimensional scene in our heads, characters complex and motivations subtle. But is that what gets on the page? Reading yourself aloud – ideally after giving your manuscript a rest – will show you all the off notes. The places where you thought you had fleshed something out but hadn’t. Only if you listen to what you’ve actually written can you start the hard work of getting the story in your head onto the page.
Let the moment take you
I used to suffer from stage fright. Really paralyzing fear. But sometimes, when I’d practiced enough that brain freeze didn’t swamp me and I could hear what my bandmates were doing, it all came together. My fingers found the notes, my bass anchored the guitar and then came up with its own counterpoint – a melodic and rhythmic interplay I never could have planned. Those moments were magic, what keep musicians going through all the bad gigs, the long drives, the bad – or nonexistent – pay, and stale beer.
Writing can be the same way. If we’ve done the work – learned the craft and put in the time –we have moments when writing doesn’t feel like we’re making up some story but channeling it as our characters come to life on the page. Once you’ve let the moment take you, you’ll have hard days, sure. But you’ll know there’s magic to be had, and you’ll commit yourself to finding the beat, again and again.
Have you learned anything about your writing from music? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page!
A former journalist, Clea Simon is the Boston Globe-bestselling author of three nonfiction books and 29 mysteries. While most of these (like her recent A Cat on the Case) are cat cozies/amateur sleuth series, she also writes darker standalone crime fiction, like the rock and roll psychological suspense World Enough, named a “must read” by the Massachusetts Book Awards. Her October 19 psychological suspense Hold Me Down returns to the music world, focusing on the connections and abuses in this tight-knit community, as well as love in all its forms. Find her at www.CleaSimon.com, @Clea_Simon (Twitter), and @cleasimon_author (IG).