Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Mixing it up

Too bad revising fiction isn’t as easy as clicking buttons and twisting knobs

It’s starting to look like I’ll have a new novel on offer this fall. Indie, of course, since I seem to be persona non grata in the world of literary agents. C’est la vie.

I have another project I’m going to query agents on later in the year, but that’s probably my last shot at the Big Time, I’m afraid. I’ve thrown my best stuff at them and they ain’t biting. A bloke gets weary you know, and a bloke gets cranky too, so I doubt that I’ll have the emotional wherewithal to go the agent route for future work after that one.

But this forthcoming indie book is perfect for self-publishing because it’s timely, it’s political, it’s unorthodox (in some ways at least), and it probably wouldn’t stand a chance in New York. I’ve already designed a cover for it, and I’m diving into what I hope will be the final revision right now.

This process of revision, which I’ve never enjoyed very much, has me thinking about ways to approach it that aren’t so aggravating. For one thing, I really hate rewriting. Especially when it requires reimagining whole pieces of a book. My method, if you can call it that, makes the first draft pretty close to what I want the thing to be, so when a beta reader or editor (say, my wife) has thoughts that are going to require both reimagining and rewriting, I get cranky. (This notwithstanding the fact that my wife is usually right.)

Lately I’ve been working on two new songs as well, and the editing/revising process on those makes me wish that writing was a little more like music.

In recording music, your basic tracks (bass, drums, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, percussion) are comparable to the first draft of a book. You’ve blocked out the structure, you’ve done the best you can with a few takes, you’ve added some things as you go along and deleted some things that didn’t sound quite the way you hoped. But it’s in decent shape overall, and aside from a few lyric changes and maybe another crack at that solo, you’re ready to edit the sumbitch.

In music it’s called mixing and mastering, and this is the part I wish I could somehow apply to revising a novel. Why? Because in recording it’s actually fun. If I could think of revising my novel as fun, I’d be all over that thing instead of feeling around the edges and procrastinating.

You know how it is. After the first draft of a novel you pretty much have to force yourself through the thing looking for errors in logic, inconsistencies, unsuccessful scenes, coincidences, plot holes—in other words failures. In music, you almost welcome the problems (or at least I do) because you get to come up with creative ways to fix them.

For instance, here’s one fun thing I do in mixing all the time. Maybe I’ve played a guitar solo almost perfectly. Almost. There’s one tiny error right in the middle of it cause by a clunky pick attack or something, and it’s noticeable. To redo the solo (yet again) will probably introduce other errors, and to silence the error out will probably cause an audible gap in the track that will sound like a mistake. Instead of messing around with that stuff, I can always add a sound. A cymbal clash? A vibraslap? A couple of voices going “oooooh”? It’s easy to try them and see what works.

Or you can play with the panning so that the artifact gets washed out in the mix. Or you can go to the EQ panel and find the frequency of the problem sound and reduce it.

When I’m revising a novel, though, I usually have a deep crease in the middle of my forehead from all the un-fun thinking I have to do. Say a protagonist has made a false move that undermines her whole persona, yet that move is crucial to the plot. What to do about it?

If only I could insert a vibraslap right there and distract the reader long enough to get away with it …

Here’s one more trick in music production that I wish we could use as writers. When the recording is done and you’ve mixed the project to your liking, it’s time to master the whole thing, which you do by adding a series of filters to the stereo output. I use reverb, EQ, compression, a limiter, a multipressor, and sometimes a stereo-field effect. With the touch of just a few buttons, the song gains dimension, detail, and presence, and boom, it’s finished.

Imagine if you could take your .doc file, press a couple of buttons, and polish that puppy to a gleaming gem.

I’ll say it again: If only revising a novel were more like mixing and mastering a song.

13 comments on “Mixing it up

  1. kingmidget
    July 16, 2019

    Revising and editing – the worst part of writing. But like you, my writing process leads to a first draft that is pretty close to my idea of a final draft. It’s why I can’t do things like NaNoWriMo. Way too much tinkering and pondering along the way for me to spew out 50,000 words in a month.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 16, 2019

      Yeah, I do so much adapting as I write that the idea of unraveling all of it in revision is pretty annoying. As for NaNoWriMo, it must produce a lot of pretty bad first drafts. Plus, 50K words does not a novel make.

  2. christineplouvier
    July 16, 2019

    Reblogged this on IRISH FIREBRANDS: A Novel ~ and Other Works by Christine Plouvier, Indie Author and commented:
    What we’re doing when we write and revise fiction is what composers had to do before the digital age made push-button music possible. Yes, if they’d had the electronic tools today’s musicians have, they’d have used them. But think of what the great maestros like Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner accomplished back then, with only their brains. Like them, novelists are orchestrating complicated pieces with many players to communicate messages, although the cognitive aspect of our form of communication is as significant as its emotional impact (see my post, “It’s All In The Family,” https://wp.me/p30cCH-1xh).

    It’s no coincidence that many songs tell stories, because musical and lexical art have much in common. So when you write and revise a story, let its internal song help guide your efforts to communicate.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 16, 2019

      Thanks for reblogging, Christine, and that’s such an apt point about the classical composers. So true that writing does have musical elements and that these are important to emphasize. Rhythm, melody, pacing, color. It’s all there!

  3. Audrey Driscoll
    July 16, 2019

    Something that might work in situations of apparent logic lapse is to have someone in the novel acknowledge that. A character might say something like, “Hey, that doesn’t make sense! She’d never do that; it’s just not her.” Then there could be some conversation around that. You don’t want to do this more than once, though, and there are plot holes this device can’t fix, obviously.
    I actually enjoy polishing up a piece of writing, but having to re-imagine sections of it is painful. I think that’s because we use different parts of our brain for imagining and editing, and it’s almost impossible to do both at once.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 17, 2019

      Hey, that’s a great idea to neutralize an error in logic! I might just try it on for size …

      You’re right about the different parts of the brain too. When you’re in editing mode, it’s super-hard to dive deep enough to recast scenes or imagine new backstory for a character. Then again, nobody ever said this was supposed to be easy!

  4. Marie A Bailey
    July 21, 2019

    Me: “If I could think of revising my novel as fun, I’d be all over that thing instead of feeling around the edges and procrastinating.” Audrey’s advice is spot-on, though, as she says, you wouldn’t want to riddle your novel with these little fixes. I feel like crying every time I sit down to work on Clemency because I am adding stuff but it all feels disjointed but it might not be but then … wahhhh!

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 21, 2019

      I hear you on the “wahhhh” part. Every line I change makes me wonder if I’m introducing a new problem, yet I can’t ignore the need for the change. A lot of revision is heading readers off at the pass to avoid their recognizing a flaw, but a lot of the time the solutions don’t feel “organic,” for want of a better word.

      All part of the process though. Now back to my songs … 🎶🤘😜

      • Marie A Bailey
        July 21, 2019

        And that’s why beta readers and editors are SO important.

  5. Marie A Bailey
    July 21, 2019

    Oh, and looking forward to your next novel 🙂

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 21, 2019

      It’s quite a departure for me … kind of a political thriller! We’ll see how it turns out …

      • Marie A Bailey
        July 21, 2019

        oooh, you are a man of many genres!

      • Kevin Brennan
        July 21, 2019

        You never know what you’re gonna get! I’m the Forrest Gump of novelists. 😉

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This entry was posted on July 16, 2019 by in Music and tagged , , , .
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