Recently I’ve had ideas for a novel, that I think could be pretty good… if not down right awesome. The problem is, I don’t know how to write. Actually, I know how to write, I just don’t know how to write a 50,000 word novel. When I originally had the idea, I decided to do a little research about the process of writing a novel.
Composing and Writing
I see composing and writing a novel as somewhat of a parallel type of activity. Both involve a lot of craft, both take many years to “master,” both involve a person seemingly creating new ideas out of “nothing.” The experienced composer, and I suspect the experienced author will probably say, “In fact, you are not creating something from nothing. Everything you’ve ever read, heard, studied, or created in the past all goes into what you are creating now, in some way or another.”
With that being said, one of the things I found most interesting about the writing world are the “systems” that are around to help writers create novels, or develop their ideas. There are exercises for creativity, for clearing your head, for brainstorming… for just about everything they do. The composing world on the other hand seems to view composition as a mysterious dark-ages type thing, in which it is basically magical and unexplainable things going on in the minds of crazy people that lead to the great masterpieces.
Part of the problem I think stems from the over emphasis on theory explaining what is going on, instead of how it is done. There is just not a great many composers that have sat down and tried to write out their process for composing, so that it may be passed on to others. Some have, like Schoenberg, but most don’t. Wouldn’t it be great to have a manual on composition by Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Mahler, Stravinsky, Strauss, and Koji Kondo, all in your book shelf. I would bet they would be pretty popular if they existed.
There are some snippets here and there, but they tend to not be very helpful.
The Snowflake Method
The snowflake method was created by named Randy Ingersmanson. You can check it out here. The gist of the method is basically coming up with the big pieces of your novel first, and then fleshing those out bit by bit.
- Write what your novel is about in one line.
- Expand it to a full summary paragraph.
- Write out one page summaries of all your characters.
- Expand each sentence of your summary paragraph into a paragraph themselves.
- Write out one page descriptions (a little different from a summary) of each of your main characters, and a half-page of subordinate characters.
- Expand the 4-paragraph synopsis of the novel to a 4-page synopsis.
- Expand your character descriptions to full character diagrams with connections, motives, etc.
- Make a spreadsheet of all the scenes in the novel.
- Write a paragraph description of each scene (optional).
- Write your first draft.
- From there, edit, rinse and repeat.
Now I realize that much of this is not really applicable to composers. Can you write a one line summary of your entire, say, symphony? Maybe, maybe not. If you are explicitly trying to creating a mood, or tell a story, then you could actually write a line about the symphony in words, not music. But I would say its a little far fetched to do it in one musical phrase.
But the concept I think is pretty sound, and is very similar to what I used to create my piano sonata 1st movement.
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My Method for Composing a Sonata Form Composition
In my book, Composing in Sonata Form, I follow a very specific process of composing small chunks and expanding them based off of one pattern of sonata form. I don’t really want to get into a debate on what sonata form is and isn’t. Whatever it really is, it’s definitely a great tool for expanding your capabilities. With things like Main themes, transitions, subordinate themes and developments, you can quickly learn all sorts of new techniques for expanding your compositions.
As far as a parallel to the snowflake method, I follow this method:
- Decide the key, time signature and map out generally your composition. For instance, will you have multiple subordinate themes, a introduction or a coda. In the book, as an additional way of learning, I follow a Beethoven Sonata, so we can see exactly how he developed his composition.
- Identify any basic ideas that you will have to compose. If you don’t know what I mean by basic idea, check out my series on musical form and definitely go through the free beginner’s course.
- Turn those basic ideas into your themes. This allows you to compose your themes in an isolated way, and not worry yet about how they connect or develop later on.
- Compose your transition from main theme to subordinate theme.
- Compose your development section.
- Compose your recapitulation.
What occurred to me while following this process, was the realization that the piece started to take care of itself in a way, after I started to make real progress. By real progress, I mean that I had clear, identifiable sections that were like mini goals. As I reached a mini goal, the next piece became a little more tangible and a little less obstructive of the finish line.
And once you have a few ideas on paper, your brain starts to subconsciously mull over it, or compost it, as Randy Ingersmanson would say, and what I am going to talk about in the next article. As it gets composted, you find that more and more will flow out. Finishing at this point is no longer an issue of creativity, but time.
Completing a Large Piece of Music
The problem I have faced in the past, and will inevitable continue to face in the future, is reaching a point of frustration and not finishing. But splitting your piece into definable goals can go a long way to improving your chances of completing. If by the end, you don’t like the music, that’s okay.
[tweetherder]It’s better to have 10 complete compositions that you think are not that great, than 1 incomplete composition that could be pretty good… if you finished it.[tweetherder]