Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Give That Drummer Something to Do

Driving in my (Awesome) Jeep yesterday, my daughter got all disgruntled with the song on the radio.

Gracie: This song is terrible. The drummer has to be bored to death.

Me: What are you talking about?

Gracie: The drummer. (Looking at me like I have two heads and one of them’s picking its nose) The drum beat, can’t you hear that?

Me: No. I hear the music and the lyrics.

Exasperated by my obvious musical stupidity, Gracie grabs two straws and starts playing air drums in the car, tapping out the beat (she was right, it was ridiculously slow) on the dash.

Gracie: (still playing, and rolling her eyes) See, that’s what the drummer is doing. That’s ALL the drummer is doing. B-o-o-o-r-i-i-n-g… I mean the words are okay. Eh, but man, you’ve gotta give that drummer something to do. When I have my rock band, we’re never going to play anything that the drummer doesn’t have fun with.

She switched the radio, screamed “This is better” and started rocking out on air drums the rest of the way home… driving with the kids is getting to be more fun as they get older, I have to say… but that’s beside the point.

With music, I don’t hear that stuff. I actually focus on the lyrics (gee, ya think?) and I can hear the beat, but I don’t break it down to different instruments. I hear music like a listener, not like a musician. But the thing is, if it’s off to the musician, it’s going to be off to the listener, we just won’t know exactly why we don’t like it. Same thing, I think, with writing.

A reader will know they don’t like something. An astute reader might even break it down into why, but they generally won’t know the fix – just the problem. And when she said this, said it was the drummer, I broke that down into characters.

For me, good fiction is character driven. That’s a lot of hoo ha, everyone says that. But the truth is, the characters can’t be different extensions of one writer. They have to be individuals that come together with their own complexity to bring you the full arc of an overall story. If any of them are “off” it compromises the whole. There are a lot of balls to juggle, or beats to hit if we’re staying with the drum analogy.

With the novel I’m currently working on, the one affectionately known as The WIP What Killed Me, I have a character I didn’t know was going to be as important, or as ass kickingly cool as she is, when I started… I knew she was there. She was in the original outline. But man, it wasn’t until I met her that I totally got her. The thing I’m struggling with in writing her wasn’t obvious to me. It just read wrong, rang wrong, didn’t quite hit that honest note I wanted it to. It was good. It lacked great. And she was great, I was just missing the mark with it.

And then I got it. With an offhanded music tutorial from the daughter type person. I’m not giving the drummer something to do.

Annabelle is blending in to the speech patterns and mannerisms of my main character. And in life, that happens. You adopt things from the people around you and they slightly change how you come across – your people leave their mark on you, the same way you’ll leave a mark on them. But in fiction, you can’t do that. Your reader won’t get that she’s adapting to her environment, they’ll read everyone as one voice. I had to give her back her own pattern and keep it separate from my mc.

So re-work, again… just slightly. As soon as it hit, I could see it everywhere I’d done it… everywhere her dialogue came out a little too neighborhood… everywhere she was more lax than she is… I love those dawning light moments, though. Because in all honesty, I knew there was something. But until you figure out what it is, the best you can hope for is that it’s good enough. And I don’t want good enough.

How about you guys? Have you given your drummer something to do? And what have you learned in life that translated to an aha moment in your writing?


Travis Erwin said...

Great post.

I feel like my drummer is back there banging away but for whatever reason no one can hear him.

Merry Monteleone said...

Take the pillow out of the bass drum and pull the oven mitts off the damn drumsticks travis... then go to town. We all know you have the voice. Go make some fucking noise with it.

jjdebenedictis said...

What a great analogy! And yeah, don't you love it when you get a little flash of enlightenment--"Oh yeah, that's what's going on here."

Good luck with making that character shine. :)

Merry Monteleone said...

Thanks, JJ =)

How goes your submissions?

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

I have a drummer in my house. Trust me, I hear every nuance of the drum beat in songs.

But cool analogy. Have you given your drummer something to do? Or, better, is your drummer having fun yet?


Peter Dudley said...

I've been a drummer, but not in a rock band. I was in school band, and believe me the percussion kids have NOTHING to do. I also marched with a fife & drum corps, and there the drummers had plenty to do. It was way more fun.

Anyway, it is a terrific analogy. Years ago I heard someone refer to one of my secondary characters as a prop. Essentially a cardboard cutout put in because I didn't think there were enough people in the scene.

Not long after that, I tried my hand at writing a one-act play. There's literally no room for cardboard cutouts in a one-act play. No room for drummers who don't do anything. It is indeed a terrific analogy.

And, I live for those lightbulb moments.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hey SS&S,

Yeah, I think sometimes we spend so much time on our MC, we forget to give the sides enough of a story of their own... it's not enough to hear the frontman, not if you want to keep the intense reader in the story...

I swear I learn more from my drummer than I do from seasoned experts.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hey Pete,

OMG, my daughter is in love with drumline... she's also digging on bells, which who knew they were such a major instrument.

But yeah, lightbulb moments are awesome... for some reason, all the hardwork and forethought on the planet can't bring you where fate and providence and lead you in a second.

angelawd said...

I love the analogy...definitely gives me something to think about in my novel, too. Bang away.

Demon Hunter said...

I used to love to watch the drummers do their thing. :-D

Where you been? You know I'm giving away a book, right? ;-)

pacatrue said...

Good post indeed. Both great music and prose are compositions in all senses of those words. (Well, perhaps not all; I should be careful.)