Three Ways Recording a CD is Like Working on a Manuscript

The arts in my life have been known to overlap, and this past weekend was no different. I recorded my first Christmas album with the band I play in so that it would be ready in time for the holidays, and other than the unpleasant if thematically appropriate snow that was a good experience. It was one of the times that I’ve most felt like a professional musician and it was a long, satisfying day of work that I really love doing.  What does this have to do with my writing? A lot, it turns out.

Even though every experience is unique, the steps toward making a finished product in writing and music seem about the same to me, and it made me think about things that I’d been doing and could improve on in my career. Without further ado, here are three of the most important things that I noticed:

 

You need more than one take, no matter how good you are.

Writers can be an impatient bunch, especially us younger ones. Why take that advice to write one more draft than I think I need when I don’t think I need any more? This is why self-published books get the bad reputation they do: the temptation to publish or submit it rather than give it one last look (or let someone else take a look, for that matter) is really strong. This has actually come back to bite me fairly recently: I thought I looked everything over a personal essay, but it turns out that one of the paragraphs was cloned from a previous one and didn’t even end in a complete sentence. Somehow. I’m still not sure how that happened, because two different people looked over that one.

In any case, it’s interesting when this mindset comes into conflict with my musician one, which relishes practice and rehearsal and acknowledges that every performance will be imperfect in a totally new way. You can get pretty close to perfect, but you’re never going to achieve it. This is especially the case with this particular group, where we have pieces that get rehearsed and played live at multiple different events: the pieces are never cases of “one and done” because there will always be a next time.

Even in recording, where, like in writing, you’re working toward a concrete final product, you still need more than one draft. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best player in the world or you think your manuscript is flawless, you need to run through it again. Sometimes there’s a really grating howling noise in the pipes that won’t go away and you need to make sure that you can still get usable sound. Sometimes someone has a nasty cold and coughs into the microphone. Sometimes that one note just doesn’t come out of your instrument. Sometimes there’s something that, while it’s not bad, could be done just a bit better if you gave it another look. Sometimes files just get corrupted and you need something to work with because it’s better than nothing. There’s a lot that can happen in writing or in music, and it’s better to be way too prepared than not prepared at all.

 

You can edit a lot, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your best work.

One of the things that I learned from recording is that sound engineering these days is amazing. There are of course limits to what you can do and still sound like a live musical ensemble, but there’s a lot of tweaking that can be done with things that I didn’t think were possible. If you don’t like this note in this recording, you can substitute it with a note from another recording. Tempo can be sped up or slowed down if necessary. Pitch can be tweaked. Volume is no object. Entire parts and extraneous noises can be cut out completely. Having never sat on the other side of the sound equipment, it all sounds a bit unbelievable, but I trust the engineers to know better than I do.

This doesn’t mean that I was able to be lazy because “they can fix it later.” I still needed to concentrate on what I was doing and play the best that I could. The only real difference between playing live and playing for a recording that affected how I approached the performances was that I played a little louder than I normally would when I try to balance with the other parts more carefully so that my microphone could pick me up. So too with writing: I need to get something down so that it can be worked with later. Early stages of the writing don’t even need to be perfect because I’m the only one that’s going to be looking at it. “Not perfect” doesn’t mean “sloppy,” though. What I put on the page still needs to have some merit as an idea and still be constructed well enough that it looks like a readable narrative, and what comes out of my instrument still needs to have a good sound. Sure, existing is better than not existing, but just because it’s going to get cleaned up later doesn’t mean that I don’t have to care about how it looks or sounds.

 

Sometimes, you just need to fold.

Some darlings need to be killed. It’s an unpleasant idea that every artist, no matter their discipline, needs to face at some point: that idea might be the best thing that you’ve ever come up with, but if it doesn’t work, it needs to either change substantially or go. You might have performed that song very well, and it might even be your favorite one to listen to or play, but sometimes the piece itself doesn’t gel quite in the way it needs to in order to make it onto the recording. There could be a lot of reasons for it, but once you know that the benefits of including something pale in comparison to the disproportionate amount of work and effort that will go into making it great, you need to be able to cut your losses and focus on those things that you can do well. Sure, it feels lousy to know that despite your best efforts you couldn’t make something work for the recording, the manuscript, or whatever it is that you’re working on, but all of us would rather do a great job on fewer things than a mediocre one on all of them.

It’s this point that got me really thinking about the way I’ve been approaching writing and submitting. I realized that I have too many eggs in one basket in holding out hope that Heroes & Villains would be my breakout novel. As anyone in this business knows, though, the first manuscript you finish and send out is rarely, if ever, the one that lands you the book deal. I’m nowhere near the threshold of rejections where I need to consider scrapping it completely, and while I still have it floating in a few places, I’m not going to actively pursue traditional leads for it for the foreseeable future. I’m not going to self-publish, either, at least not until I’ve had a good, long think about it. In the meantime, I’m going to focus my efforts on finishing and polishing Familiaris, which I’ve come to realize has much more potential as a story because of its clearer audience and genre, among other things that set it apart. I’ll probably dedicate the time I spent researching publishers to working on and getting out shorter pieces as well. Once all of that is done, maybe I can come back to Heroes & Villains with a clearer understanding of it as a piece and me as a writer. Maybe it’s the musician in me finally showing up in my writing and striving for the closest thing to perfection I can get, in which case, I welcome the change.

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