Mark Terry

Friday, July 30, 2010

Practicing Your Attack

July 30, 2010
I had a chaperone meeting for the upcoming marching band camp last night (oh yay, I say with much enthusiasm) and my wife and a couple friends hit a local Mexican restaurant afterward to, er, have adult beverages. We were later joined by one of the band directors and his wife (and 3-year-old daughter, because she really, really wanted a Margarita).

At one point in the conversation with the band director, we were talking about a student we both know rather well who is a very, very gifted musician but kind of a dick. And since I have musicians in the family, we got to talking about the significant challenges involved in being a professional musician. The band director told me a story he heard from a friend who went to Julliard at the same time as Wynton Marsalis. His friend said he was walking around the rehearsal areas and he heard Marsalis practicing his attack on a certain note. Meaning, for the non-trumpet players among you, that he would repeatedly play the same note. He went off and three hours later came by and heard Marsalis practicing the same damn attack on the same damned note.

Which is probably why he's Wynton Marsalis.

Another story I heard, perhaps true, perhaps not, was that Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending of For Whom The Bell Tolls over 20 times to get it right.

I don't know that I've rewritten anything 20 times, but I do believe that I try to regularly raise the level of my game and increase the intensity of how I approach things, to really get good and picky about those commas, word choice, etc., to not accept "good enough" or even "good." I think you have to.



Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Brilliant post. Brilliant!

Funny . . . I loaded up a Kindle sample of a self-pubbed book that is selling pretty well (not that I think you can ever know what those numbers really mean). In the opening three paragraphs, I was stunned by how much passive language was in there--just "sloppy." No active verbs. Just not edited, clearly. Typos? No. But just not A-game (or maybe for this writer it is A-game, who knows). But I just thought . . . it's about really relentlessly pursuing your prose.

7:54 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Interesting story. I know nothing about music though. Is getting a note "right" as subjective as getting a word "right"?

I agree that very often the first thing that comes to mind isn't always the best, that writing decently requires more than a cursory effort. The problem is to decide at what point you try to become too perfect, try to overreach yourself so that paralysis sets in.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I'm sure there are writers and readers who can't imagine why a writer might obsess over whether or not to write: "the green cord hung from the ceiling" versus "the green rope hung from the ceiling" versus "the spruce-colored cord dangled from the ceiling" etc. Pick one and move on. But I can imagine it. I don't know, was it Robert Frost or John Updike that said that a writer's life was spending the morning deciding whether to take out a comma and spending the afternoon deciding whether to put it back in.

I suspect that with the note Marsallis was working on, most people wouldn't know the difference, but Marsallis did.

In making-of materials on The Lord of the Rings DVDs, there's one scene in the third movie (I think) where Gandalf and Aragorn are discussing whether there's any hope that Frodo and Sam might succeed on their quest. Peter Jackson shot the scene 18 times before he decided it was right. They showed a bunch of them and I couldn't tell the difference. In between takes they asked Viggo Mortensen, who played Aragorn, what he thought Jackson was looking for and he said, "I don't know, but he'll let us know when he sees it."

And it's hard for me to argue about the final result.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

I am big on repetition. When something isn't writing well and it's just not good enough, I'll keep re-writing it. My current WIP is... I'm not sure what's up. But man, I have re-read, edited and/or re-written parts of the first 10,000 words every day for the last two weeks.

Repetition is definitely my trump card.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Barbara Martin said...

As I used to play the piano I understand on working on notes until it's right. This analogy works the same way with my own writing which is why my first manuscript hasn't really been sent out anywhere. There are places that aren't quite right that need fixing or removal. It must be my Virgo rising that's making me so picky about my work.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Linda Pendleton said...

Mark, I like your response to Eric... that's good :-)

I don't know if it was Frost or Updike, but seems I've been there, done that. LOL

2:59 PM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks, said...

I have a book I've rewritten possibly 20 times. And I'm contemplating a 21st. :)

I just saw a thing on Bret Michaels of Poison. When he was a teenager, he dropped out of school and played guitar all day. Then he went to LA and spent two years living and breathing the music scene with his band. And became Poison, obviously.

It's work, man. Work.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Jon VanZile said...

Yes and yes.

I don't think I've ever approached any two books the same way, but each time, there's always a ghost of what I learned from previous books. And I'm a relentless rewriter. I've definitely rewritten something 20 times, and I've cut tens of thousands of words at a clip.

6:36 AM  

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