Monday, June 11, 2018

Practice Makes (Closer Approximations To) Perfect by Nola Passmore


I got my first guitar when I was seven, and I couldn’t wait to play like Keith and Bruce. Not Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen. I’m talking about those spunk muffins of the sixties—Keith Potger and Bruce Woodley. Together with Judith Durham and Athol Guy, they formed the fab folkie foursome The Seekers. I was sure it would only take a few lessons and I’d be singing and playing along like my favourite group. It didn’t quite work out that way.


In the first lesson, my music teacher gave me a crash course in theory, taught me the notes on two strings, and sent me home with some exercises to practise. The next couple of weeks were still spent plucking those two strings, but I was at least given some songs to play—the toe-tapping ‘Skip to My Lou’ and the chorus of ‘Cielito Lindo’. Viva Mexico! Months passed before I learned the notes on all six strings, but things were looking up. Now that I’d mastered everything there was to know about the guitar, I would surely get some Seekers’ songs to play. Then I found out there were sharps, flats, dotted rhythms, chords, strumming, finger-picking—the list went on. It was about three and a half years before I could confidently sing and play guitar at the same time, though I did manage to get my picture in the newspaper with Judith Durham along the way J


So what does all of this have to do with writing? In other disciplines like music and sport, we understand that practice is an important part of skill-building. Sometimes I wonder if we really understand this as writers. We learn the basics of writing at school—grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, spelling. By the time we’re adults, we’ve written essays, reports, letters, and sizzling diary entries declaring our love for David Cassidy and the Osmonds. (Oops – that may have been my diary.) But have we really spent time practising our craft? Here are some reasons why we should value the good ol’ art of practice.

1. Practice helps us improve.

If you practise your writing skills regularly, you’ll start to see an improvement. A pianist plays thousands of scales in order to master different key signatures. A footballer kicks thousands of balls in order to make that Grand Final goal when their team needs it most. Why should writing be any different? In between your larger projects, try some exercises. Set a timer and write for ten minutes without stopping. You’ll be amazed where random thoughts might take you. Next time you’re at a coffee shop, spend a few minutes writing unique descriptions of passers-by or catch a snatch of overheard dialogue and use it to prompt a story idea. Go to an art gallery and write a poem or devotion inspired by one of the paintings. If you’re stuck for ideas, there are lots of web sites that give suggestions. For example, try some of the writing prompts from the ThinkWritten site or exercises by Mary Jaksch.

There is a caveat though. At some point, you need feedback so that you know you’re on the right track. Just as a music teacher will correct your hand positions, a more experienced writer can give you tips to help you polish your prose. If you don’t know anyone who can help, think about joining an online critique group. For example, FaithWriters has regular writing challenges where you can submit work and receive feedback from others.

  
2. If we don’t practise in our weaker areas, our writing will stagnate.

While any kind of practice will keep the creative juices flowing, we need to especially practise in our weaker areas. When my music teacher introduced me to all of those rascally sharps and flats, it was tempting to neglect the piece I was supposed to be practising and go back and play the easier songs. The longer we avoid those difficult areas, though, the longer it will take us to reach the next level. My weak areas in writing include body language, setting and description. There are only so many times my heroine can push a strand of hair behind her ear, or my hero can stroke his chin, before readers get bored. I’ve bought a couple of books on setting and description to help me, so I’d better get cracking. What are your weak areas? What can you do to improve on those things? Also try writing in different genres to expand your creative tool kit. If you usually write nonfiction, try your hand at poetry or skits. If you usually write fantasy, try a contemporary romance or mystery. The techniques you learn can cross-pollinate your other writing endeavours.





3. Even if we’ve mastered higher-level skills, we have to maintain the basics.

It may be true that you never forget how to ride a bicycle, but the same isn’t always true of other skills. Guitar is my main instrument, but I can also play basic keyboard. I hadn’t played my keyboard for years, except for the odd Christmas carol. I dug it out recently to work on some songs, and I discovered that even some of my basic skills had eroded. I kept hitting the wrong keys and had to consult a chord chart to refresh my memory. It’s going to take a lot of practice to get back to my previous level and then improve from there. The same is true of writing. Every now and then, we need to revisit the basics. Have we remembered to show rather than tell? Is our dialogue realistic? Could our sentences flow better?

If I’d spent more time practising the guitar when I was young, I would have been singing and playing those Seekers’ songs sooner. Maybe the group would have ‘discovered’ me and I could have joined their ranks, stopped Judith Durham from leaving, and spared the world from a 24-year drought until the group’s first reunion tour. (And of course I was in the audience for that one.)

How about you? What writing exercises have you found useful? What areas would you like to improve in? Are there any writing craft books you can recommend? I’d love to hear your thoughts.



Nola Passmore has had more than 150 short pieces published, including fiction, poetry, devotions, true stories, magazine articles, and academic papers. Her debut novel 'Scattered' will be published by Breath of Fresh Air Press in 2019. She and her husband Tim run a freelance writing and editing business called The Write Flourish.  You can find her occasional writing tips blog on their website. She still has The Seekers' Songbook she got for her 8th birthday. 


Twitter:        https://twitter.com/NolaPassmore




16 comments:

  1. I've often considered how learning a musical instrument and playing as part of a group is similar to our Christian walk. But I hadn't considered how the same parallels apply to our writing. Thanks for the tips!

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    1. Thanks Iola. I must admit I need to do a lot more of this myself. Now I've finished the draft of the novel, I'll be getting out the Margie notes and brushing up on all of that. So much to learn, but there are so many resources out there. Thanks for commenting :)

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  2. Enjoyed your post Nola. Like you, I loved playing music when growing up. I learnt to play the piano and violin - also played the guitar as a teenager and composed reams of songs. Music's fun isn't it? But I rarely play any of those instruments these days alas so my playing is pretty basic now. Yep! Practice makes perfect. Loved the pic of you with Judith Durham. Wow! How did that happen? How very exciting for you. As for writing, it has been a huge 12 months for me with a lot happening so even getting my fortnightly blog in was a challenge. I'm thankful that at last the busy spell is coming to an end, so I can get more organised. Really looking forward to spending more time learning to write and writing. I've even got the perfect writer's room to do it in. Thank you God! Thanks Nola for a great reminder of what's basic to doing anything well. Let's do it! :)

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    1. Thanks Anusha. I didn't know you'd written heaps of songs. Have you done something with them? I bet they're great. The reason I've dragged my keyboard out lately, is that I'm working on the sheet music for some of my old songs.

      I met Judith Durham thanks to my Mum. Not long after The Seekers broke up in 1968, we heard that Judith was coming to Brisbane for a command performance. Mum rang up someone to see what plane she'd be on. I'm not sure if it was the newspaper or the airport, but they couldn't tell her because of security. When she mentioned she had a seven-year-old daughter who was a huge fan, the person said something along the lines of 'I'd turn up to the airport at such and such a time if I were you'.

      While we were waiting, there was a news photographer standing by. Mum barrelled up to him and asked if this was where Judith Durham was coming because I had a bunch of carnations to give her. He must have thought that would make a cute photo, because when she arrived, they took me out to the tarmac and took the photo. That was in the good old days when you had to walk down the steps of the plane and across the tarmac to get into the terminal. At the time, Judith Durham was the world's greatest superstar in my mind, so it was a priceless moment.

      Looking forward to seeing all the fantastic things you'll write now you have the perfect writers' room. Thanks for commenting :)

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    2. Wow Nola. Your Mum did very well to ask if you could say Hello to Judith Durham. And - Judith D would have been very touched to see a cute 7 year old fan with a posy for her. Top marks to Mum. And what a cutie you were! (And are! :) ) Love the picture.

      As for my songs - I used to sing at functions playing my guitar - mainly at Youth for Christ programs. I can't write the music for them alas - I used to have them in my head as I composed them - with the help of my guitar playing. I have the songs with the words and guitar chords in a book somewhere but probably have forgotten a lot of the tunes. Now that you asked... I might have a hunt for the book and try to sing some of them! :)

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  3. Judith Durham - yes. David Cassidy - maybeeee. The Osmonds - really??? I was more into Creedence Clearwater Revival ;). But seriously, I loved the analogy between learning a musical instrument and learning to write. My problem was that I had to teach myself guitar and so I failed. Was it because I had no talent? Maybe. Or maybe it was because I tried to do it alone? All my brothers were good for was laughing at me. We all need help if we are to grow. Great post!

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    1. Thanks Sue. And yes, the Osmonds!! Believe it or not, I saw them at Brisbane Festival Hall in 1974. I've always wanted to go on RocKwiz so that when Julia Zemiro asks me about my first concert, I can say The Osmonds :)

      That's a shame about your guitar playing. I'm sure you have talent. You're so artistic and creative in other ways. Always hard to learn by yourself. I bet if you had a few lessons, you'd pick it up easily. Maybe you, Anusha and I can be the next biggest girl band. Look out Spice Girls and Destiny's Child. We'll be unstoppable.

      Thanks for commenting :)

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    2. LOL. Does that make us the Old Spice Girls?

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    3. LOL Sue. I think I'd rather be the Old Supremes than the Old Spice :)

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  4. Thanks for these wise reminders and parallels with learning to play an instrument, Nola. I can resonate with it all--even to the extent of still owning that same copy of 'The Carnival is Over'I can see in that first photo! In this past year, I have had to resurrect my piano playing, in order to accompany the choir in the Village setting where we now live, which has been both a challenge and a delight--and I suspect that will be the case with my next novel too, as I try to remind myself how to write novels and also try different techniques I didn't know when I wrote my first six!

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    1. Thanks Jo. Good on you for resurrecting those piano playing skills. I'm sure that choir appreciates it. I wish I had learned to play piano when I was younger. I had some lessons on one of those old Yahama organs with two tiers. That organ is still down at Mum and Dad's, but I have a cheaper keyboard in Toowoomba that I bought at K-mart. My keyboard skills are fairly basic, so I usually play my guitar. It's all a learning curve, isn't it? Will be great to see what you come up with in your next novel.

      Thanks for commenting :)

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  5. What a wonderful experience, and message. Good reminder to keep going which keeps the rust at bay too.

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    1. Thanks Mazzy. It certainly does help. I've written a couple of shorter pieces lately which has helped keep the momentum going. Need lots more practice on setting and description though. Maybe it's time for another writing excursion. Thanks for commenting :)

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  6. Thanks 4 that, Nola.
    I was debating whether I'd enter this week's FW challenge or not
    I think your article gave me the kick-in-the-butt that I needed, although I am rather taken up with my sequel to "Wings...." at present.
    Good analogy.

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  7. Thanks for sharing Nola! As a muso and songwriter, these musical concepts make a lot of sense to me. I especially appreciate your point about stagnation; I find my music can get into a rut just like my writing. The challenge to branch out and take risks with new ideas is an ongoing one for me!

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  8. Great analogy, Nola. Loved the photo of you with Judith Durham. Wow!

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