Sunday, 1 July 2012

Finding a state of grace

One of my all too infrequent blogs on the craft of writing. I don't really feel it's my place to lecture other writers on what's right and wrong about crafting a novel. If someone wants to write a book it's a given that they have a reasonable grasp of English and an imagination, and that's really all you need, apart from stamina. Still, this came to mind through the week and I thought it was worth sharing.

Many years ago a lovely little sprite of a man called Jock Hume tried to teach me the rudiments of the bagpipes. I'd go up to the wee room he used at the top of his tenement townhouse opposite the grammar school and spend fruitless hours working on the scales on the chanter (the bit of the pipes that has the holes in it). It wasn't long before we both knew that he was working with someone who had not the slightest semblance of musical ear, but Jock was a trier, so we persevered.

Sometimes he would try to enthuse me by talking about the great pipers who turned what is a relatively simple musical instrument into a thing of mystical power. One of the ways they did it was with grace notes.

A grace note (and my mate Jimi the Piper will wreak terrible vengeance on me if I've got this wrong) is the musical embellishment, the twirl or the skirl, that an experienced piper uses to enhance a tune. A great piper can transform a reel or a jig to something wonderful that is only vaguely recognisable as the original, with the help of self-made notes he's slipped into the music.

It was when I was writing the other day that I realised that grace notes are just as important to an author.

For a writer, a grace note is the little piece of poetry at the end of a chapter that draws you in to the next one; it is the beautiful sentence that makes the author proud and the reader gasp; the wonderful piece of description that makes a character become a real, living breathing human being.

The grace notes can be the difference between an ordinary book and a great book.

But the important thing about grace notes is that they are embellishments. A lot of wonderful books probably don't get written because the writers agonise over every word, every sentence and every paragraph in the search for perfection, and never finish the first draft. But for me the first draft is purely and simply the foundation of the book, and as long as the building blocks of plot, narrative and character are in there, all that matters is to push on so that the story becomes a book. The important thing is that those foundations are solid and complete.

A first draft can only be improved and it's how often you're prepared to improve it that makes the difference between the book it is and the book it has the potential to be. Every time I read a manuscript I see little gaps where a tiny grace note can make a huge difference. When the gaps are filled - and that can be after the sixth or seventh rewrite - it's time to move on.

So the message is get that book written. The genius can come later.


Martin Lake said...

I think you are so right about this, Doug. I love the concept of grace notes. I'll store this one away.

Elaine S Moxon said...


I am so disappointed my original comment failed to register from my 'phone (that'll teach me to trust technology!). Here's hoping I can remember what I wanted to say :)

I had never thought about Grace Notes and am so glad you mentioned this. I have been going through my first book again and a statement ending a chapter brought a tear to my eye. It was a magic moment as I was unable to believe it was my own work having the effect. I'm so happy to Jock for highlighting this to you and for you to share it with the rest of us.

Many, many thanks,

Doug said...

Thanks Elaine. One of the nicest things about being a writer is reading something and thinking, 'bloody hell, did I do that?'