Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Writing and Jazz

The other morning, I heard a TV critic being interviewed on the radio, and the topic drifted to Lost and whether or not the critic believed the producers'/writers' claims that they've known, from the beginning, how it all ends and that everything that has gone on ties in to the overall story.

I found the critic's reply to be insightful and it made me think more about writing a series of novels, or even a single novel.

The critic said writing a TV series was a bit like jazz improvisation.

"Yes!" thought I. You know the basic melody when you start, you know where you think you want it to end, you know some of the high and low points you want to reach, you know the notes you'll play most often and which phrases, themes will get repeated, BUT you have no idea when your song will get cut off or how long the piece will last or where it might go along the way. At any moment, the audience might start throwing tomatoes, (gumming up your trumpet and forcing you off the stage) or might start cheering just as you were planning to end, and caught up in the glory, you might decide to play some more.

I think writing a series of books is like that, too. (Says the girl just starting the second of what she hopes will be a 4-6 book series.)

When I saw J.R. Ward talk last fall, she said that she had ten books in her Brotherhood series all mapped out in her mind before she started. At first, this freaked me out. But as she continued her talk, and after reading her "Secrets of the Brotherhood..." book, I came to believe she saw them all, in the same way the makers of Lost saw their series from the beginning. Loosely, with no idea how long the story would be. Ward had no way of knowing how many of the books she'd get to write and how quickly she'd have to tie up all the loose ends and how many unexpected twists and journeys she might make along the way that came out of the writing process.

I think the key is to have an overall plan, but to make it scalable and flexible... both to take advantage of the amazing magic that is sometimes writing -- discovering better and great ideas along the way -- and also to hedge your bets in terms of how many of these books you're going to get to write.

I guess I'm not really saying anything new, or revolutionary, here. I just liked the jazz improv analogy.

Off to tune my trumpet.

(And the Lost writers had better come up with a good explanation for that smoke monster! Methinks they were playing a little off key when they added that.)


Kimber Chin said...

This is brilliant
and so true.
I roughly know where my characters are going,
but have no idea what detours they'll make along the way.

You know what is funny?
A reader told me today
why Maeve, my character in Invisible, calls herself Maeve.
I wondered why (it is a strange name) but had no idea.

Of course, I nodded my head and said yes, yes, yes
so I didn't look like an idiot.

I think I need a shrink
to explain my own writing to me.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Ha! I like the thin line between brilliance and crash and freaking true.

Maureen McGowan said...

I think that's exactly why I like the analogy, Molly...

Great jazz can be brilliant, magic -- but it's not to far from brilliance to a big ol mess.

Planning, skill, instincts, practice, experience, the ability to recover, cut your losses and get back on track when you go off the rails...

All so important. :-)

Sinead M said...

I'm exhausted right not just thinking about plotting out ten books..
Especially when in the execution things change so much..
I wonder if extensive plotting of a large series really works. Has anyone actually done it?

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