Writing and Music: a Not-So-Odd Coupling

From Writer Unboxed:

As some of you may already know, in addition to being a highly sought-after shirtless model for romance novel covers, I am also a longtime professional musician, having earned my first money for playing drums at the ripe old age of 14. In fact, music was my fulltime profession until my late 30s. And I didn’t start seriously writing fiction (inasmuch as anything I write could be considered “serious”) until I turned 40. (So you might say that as a writer, I was a 40-year-old virgin. But I digress…)

Coming into a new-to-me art form with a lengthy background in another, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how many parallels I’ve encountered between the two creative paths. It has also been interesting to note the very different experience of learning one art form as a child, and learning another as an adult (inasmuch as a person like me could ever be considered an “adult”).

But I’ll leave the exploration of the whole young-versus-old-artist rabbit hole for some other day. Today, I want to explore five similarities I’ve found in pursuing two art forms – writing and music – at the professional level. I’ll start with the one I think is most important:

1. It’s a business.

Thus far I’ve been calling them art forms, but when you start actively seeking a paying audience for your work – whether written or musical – you quickly become aware that you are dealing with a business, which brings with it numerous rules, obstacles and rites of passage, many of which are not clearly stated or even openly acknowledged. Yeah, it’s fun like that. Trust me: You’re gonna want to wear a helmet.

In each case, because it’s a business, many decisions that will affect your success are A) based on money, and B) out of your hands.

As a musician, this could come down to who is willing to hire you, or to pay to see you perform, or to publish your music (an area that used to be where the money was in songwriting), or to finance your recording and/or tour, or to buy your recordings. Bottom line: It’s about who will spend their money on this thing you chose to do. As the artist, all you can do is make whatever product or service you’re offering as appealing – and as competitive in terms of financial value – as possible.

Writers are in a similar position. Whether you’re pursuing the traditional publishing route, or self-publishing, or trying to get a piece of your dramatic work produced either on stage or screen, somebody else has to decide that what you’re doing (or promising to do) is worth their money.

In both cases, as an artist, you are free to express yourself in any way you see fit. But as an artist who wants to be paid for that art, it quickly becomes obvious that some pathways lead a bit more directly to potential revenue generation than others. Hence my next observation:

2. Genre matters.

For example, a thrilling 70,000-word whodunit with a strong, confident protagonist stands a better chance of selling some copies than a 600-page second-person diatribe exploring the modernist paradigm of discourse that forces the reader to choose between subcapitalist situationism and the dialectic paradigm of consensus. (Incidentally, I have no earthly idea what that means. I got it from the oh-so-useful Postmodernism BS Generator. You’re welcome.)

Similarly, a catchy three-chord pop song performed by an attractive singer whose only formal dance training clearly involved a pole is likely to get far more airplay than say, one of Conlon Nancarrow’s experimental pieces for player piano. (Warning: cannot be un-heard.)

While my examples above focused on some artistic endeavors being more accessible and/or commercially viable than others, genre is about more than simply what happens to be popular. Probably even more important is the way that genre establishes expectation. Genre helps promise an experience to the consumer, sometimes without them needing to read a word or hear a note. When you see one of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels in a bookstore, you know what you’re getting. Ditto when you see a recording by AC/DC, or a poster for an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Like it or not, fitting neatly into a genre makes it MUCH easier to package your work. But that doesn’t eliminate your challenges, because of the next fact I’ll bring up:

3. There’s no “right” way.

If simply checking off some genre boxes was a foolproof formula for success, everybody reading this column would already be a bestselling author. Just because Lee Child earned more money while you read this paragraph than I did in a year, doesn’t mean I can simply write a “Zack Preacher” series of thrillers that will sell equally well. There’s still some magic, mojo and luck involved, along with things like talent, confidence and savvy. And don’t forget determination – most of the “overnight successes” we hear about were years in the making.

But the lack of a “right” way extends beyond genre. There’s more than one route to successful publication, from traditional to self-published, or combinations of both. There are plotters and pantsers sharing space on the NYT Bestsellers list. There are Hero’s Journey writers and Cat-Saving authors and people who’ve never heard of either, all selling beaucoup books. Which is French for “a crapload of,” if I’m not mistaken.

The same goes for music: There are classically trained virtuosos, and self-taught musicians who can’t read a note. There are incredibly polished performers, with seemingly supernatural abilities and machine-like consistency; there are unpredictable punk rockers who can’t be bothered to learn to play or sing, and who may or may not commit a felony during the course of a performance – and that’s if they even bother to show up.

Hell, just among us drummers, there are those who hold their sticks in that rather fancy-looking way you see in Revolutionary War paintings, and those who grip them like a pair of hammers – and an age-old schism between the two schools that can rapidly go off the rails in ways you’d never believe, in the consequence-free verbal-cage-match environment of an internet discussion forum.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed