Monday, 5 September 2011

The Next Word?

A thought on the craft of writing today, and structure, with particular reference to that most obvious source of information on it: music theory.

All right, maybe not that obvious, but I do think there is something to be learned. For those who don’t know, I play the guitar. A few years ago, I was really into learning music theory, learning things out of different music instructional books, and picking up lots of different bits and pieces from guitar magazines.

That was great, except that I never seemed to get quite as much out of it as I hoped. I’d pick up the odd lick here, or learn a new mode there, but there always seemed to be something missing. It took me quite a long time to work out what it was. It was my creativity. I was going into these books looking for entirely the wrong thing, because I was looking for someone to tell me what note I should be playing next.

That’s not how it works. Scales, arpeggios and so on are great as far as they go. They give you a quick way of getting a particular sound if that’s what you hear in your head. Yet no one will ever tell you what you should play, because that’s your decision. And when it comes to many of my guitar heroes (notably Carl Verheyen, Guthrie Govan and Paul Gilbert) they have actually gone on record as working the other way round. What’s in their head comes first, and all the massive technique and theoretical knowledge at their disposal is just to aid in getting that out.

I sometimes think, as writers, that we can be caught up in the same trap. We go looking around in books on the craft of writing, not so much to understand what it is we’re doing, as in the hope that someone will tell us what we ought to be writing. We forget that the ideas we have and the natural ways we tell stories sometimes count for more than the rest of it put together. And that’s a shame.

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