The three questions all authors must ask before starting

It’s amazing how many writing lessons I find in music. When I was a kid and learning music, there was an attitude that rock musicians were musical Neanderthals who could strum a few chords while making animal noises. ‘Proper’ music was ‘classical’, around which the Royal Schools grade courses I was doing was framed.

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.
The panel of one of my analog synths… dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable. Actually, these weren’t regarded as proper instruments when I was learning music, either…

The criteria for being a ‘proper’ musician, in short, wasn’t whether the performer provoked an emotional response in stadium-sized audiences and became a shaping force in western culture – but an ability to play 200-year old dinner muzak penned by Mozart, all built around diatonic chord progression – Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C No. 16, K. 545, for instance, uses chords running in descending fifths (vi-ii-V-I). The fact that ‘classical’ structure was a very narrow form of music – as Stockhausen, Cage, Varese and others revealed – didn’t enter into it.

The kicker? Rock music also uses diatonic chord progression – the usual string is I – V – vi – IV (try it, then sing Beatles ‘Let It Be’, Toto ‘Africa’, John Denver ‘Take Me Home’, etc). What’s more, the musicians who made it knew very well what they were doing. Some – like Rick Wakeman – were classically trained. When Ken Russell wanted to make a movie mashing rock music with Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, Wakeman did the adaptations.

Today? The genre ‘made it’, to my mind, when astrophysicist and Total Rock God Brian May played ‘God Save The Queen’, on electric guitar, on the roof of Buckingham Palace. By invitation. Awesome! Music is music, ‘classical’ is but one corner; and the people who get ahead have got the chops. Here’s Dutch singer Floor Jansen with ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ from Puccini’s 1918 comic opera Gianni Schicchi. Typical ‘classical’ singing – you know, when they didn’t have microphones and had to be heard over the orchestra.

And here’s Jansen again, with her band ReVamp:

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)
Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

What does this have to do with writing? Attitudes of elitism are true of writing, too. Here in New Zealand, for instance, the academic community – on my experience – take the attitude that authors writing on their subjects for a popular market are not going to innovate – that these authors are ignorant of intellectual technique and not academically capable.  I used to get it all the time when I wrote history commercially – a supposition that work had to be judged solely against the narrow criteria demanded of the academy. I was simply an intruding Neanderthal who, presumably, would be better off leaving the territory to the real experts who filled their material with incomprehensible but ego-boosting sentences with the word ‘discourse’ in them. The fact that books written to academic criteria often don’t innovate – and are virtually unreadable, even to other academics, doesn’t enter the calculation.

The reality – and this is where the rock music lesson comes in – is that most people who can write competently know exactly what they are doing, and can also innovate. It’s part of the territory. What’s more, many have the same qualifications as the academics who diss them. I do, for instance. But I don’t work for a university – or see the need to validate myself in the narrow terms academics use to assert status to each other.

All of it comes down to the basic questions all authors must ask themselves before putting pen to paper (well, finger to keyboard, these days):

1. What is the purpose of this piece of writing?
2. Who is the audience?
3. Why will they want to read this particular piece?

Everything else follows – the pitch, the tone, and the content. Intellectual rigour applies, whichever way the ideas are expressed. And it seems to me that the widest audience won’t be the one that likes reading the word ‘discourse’ when ‘conversation’ means the same thing.

Hemingway summed it up. Why use the ‘ten dollar’ words when there are other and better words that do the same thing?

Quite right, too. And that, I think, is true of all writing whatever the subject or genre.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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8 thoughts on “The three questions all authors must ask before starting

  1. I see this quite a lot. While going through school, plenty of English teachers poopooed Science Fiction as “children’s literature.” Yes, I’ve actually heard that description. They point to other authors such as Steinbeck and point out his novels were studies in the human condition and thus that’s why they are “adult fiction.” It seemed and still seems they were blithely ignorant of the works of Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, and many others. When one becomes elitist, it closes down the mind and prevents exploration, and even innovation.

    I love that the two videos show very different sides of the same artist. I think that illustrated your point perfectly. Here’s to knowing your audience!

    1. I agree. I’d actually put Heinlein up there with Steinbeck and Hemingway – a classic American writer by any measure. Kids literature? To the extent that Heinlein wrote his ‘juveniles’ – but they speak to all ages; and his adult stuff was cutting-edge by any standards of mid-twentieth century American literature. Ray Bradbury was another one. It’s perhaps irksome that science fiction is looked on as ‘kids stuff’ by the snootier among the literati, but of course they won’t read it – their loss, and they don’t know what they’re missing!

  2. Interesting choice of music. Floor now sings with Nightwish, a symphonic metal band who must have all the classical music purists chewing their own heads off. (Look on Youtube for Ghost Love Score with Tarja Turunen on vocals to hear how ‘neanderthal’ modern rock is supposed to be.)

    ‘Popular’ doesn’t have to be second class. There is room for Foucault’s Pendulum alongside The Da Vinci Code. An entertaining book that is also intelligent can happen in any genre. Some of the most thought provoking stories have come from graphic novels, and look at the contempt that genre draws from the purists.

    1. Nightwish are excellent – I own the ‘End of an Era’ album that the YouTube clip came from. Interesting to compare that with Jansen’s interpretation. You’re right, too – ‘popular’ and ‘quality’ can – and do – go together in writing. In regard to graphic novels, I was blown away by ‘Watchmen’ – which also made Time’s Top 100 novels of all time…speaks for itself, really.

  3. What a fantastic analogy you’ve drawn between music and writing, Matthew — I’d never considered the two disciplines from this perspective before. I especially loved your thoughts about academic writing, which tends to be so bloated and pompous that it’s virtually incomprehensible. I’m glad there are a few folks like you out there who are advocating for clarity and simplicity. Keep up the good fight!

    Speaking of good fights, I hope it’s not too spammy to attach a URL, but I thought of you and your interest in history yesterday as I was writing this post: http://hmunro.wordpress.com/2014/09/27/a-world-war-ii-hero-comes-home/

    Anyway, cheers to you, and thanks again for yet another wonderfully thought-provoking post.

    1. Thank you. To me, music and writing are really the same thing; expressions of concepts and ideas which allow the writer (composer) to transfer meaning and emotion to a recipient – who might, in their own way, also respond with an emotion of their own. Academia tends to be quite insular and self-indulgent in this sense.

      I checked out link – wow, an extraordinary story!

  4. You and I have discussed music and writing previously but this post really makes the point. Floor Jansen has a remarkable voice–such range–good for her for exploring every note she can. That’s what writing does–explore–even the familiar can become unique in the capable hands of writer not defined by academia or any box. My years with academe were nothing I had them to be and have never regretted leaving those halls. I know that academics have given you a terrible time, and I have to admit that from time to time, I hear the old criticism from those years. When? Every time I writing outside the box. Again, such a thoughtful post on writing for ALL writers. Thanks, Matthew.
    Karen

    1. I agree – the onus is on writers to push the limits of the box. One of the reasons why criticism seems to follow from doing so, I suspect, is that writing is often viewed as secondary to subject. I keep finding myself classified by the media in terms of whatever my last book was – I am ‘a historian’ or, usually, ‘aviation historian’, ‘local historian’ or whatever. Actually, I think of myself as a writer. Yes, subject expertise is needed – but any subject is amenable to study. It came up again with my new science book – my first media interview for it, ten days or so ago, posed the question: ‘How does a historian get his head around the physics?’ I had to explain that for me the question wasn’t how a historian can understand physics. It’s how somebody who started off with the sciences ever got involved writing history…

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