Everybody dance: we all go wrong before we get it right

Getting a novel right is trial and error, right? Do writers of shorter artforms have this trouble? Songwriters, for instance? I heard an interview this week with musician Nile Rodgers – which suggests his creative process has much in common with that of us long-distance literary creatives. Or my creative process does, anyway.

Finding the core truth

Rodgers talked about looking for the core truth of a song. In Chic, he said, ‘we had to define the deep hidden meaning, a song’s DNA, what it was about. We had to understand its core truth. Once we had that we could arrange it and change it to whatever we want.’

One of the first things I do when starting a novel is search for the core truth in my idea.

My inspiration is usually a character doing something bizarre, which beckons me to look deeper. I’m incubating a couple of these at the moment, searching for this core truth. Until I’m certain of that, I can’t get creative with the story and characters.

My Memories of a Future Life started with one idea – reversing the traditional reincarnation story. Not going to a past life, but a future one. What would happen, I thought? It could be a straightforward adventure, but that was too shallow – this idea bugged me at a profound level. So I quarried and worried and scrunched my hands through my hair, and eventually I hit this: when Carol chooses to fast-forward into a future incarnation, it’s because she can’t see any more life worth living now. That’s what this bizarre quest was – a search for life now. Once I had that core truth, I had a strong centre to build around.

Now freak

You know Le Freak, that joyful bid-biddly foot-itching disco anthem. You might know the story of how it was written. Rodgers and pals trudged through snow to a friend’s party at Studio 54 and the doorman told them to f—- off.

So they went home, picked up their instruments and started improvising. A cheeky guitar twiddle, some lyrics about schlepping across town in the freezing cold, all ending in a rousing cheer of ‘Ahhhh f— off’.

Rodgers’s partner Bernard Edwards said ‘we’ve really got something’. Rodgers said ‘you’re crazy, we can’t call it that’. They tried ‘Freak off’. No, it didn’t work at all. More head-scratching. Rodgers eventually said ‘what about “Freak Out” ’. Edwards said ‘hey my kids do this dance called…’

Okay, it’s no surprise that a song might be assembled with brainstorming. But pay attention to what Rodgers said next in the interview.

‘Do you think I’m smart enough to write “Freak out”? No way. I wrote “f— off” and we changed it. If I was smart enough to write a song about doing a dance I’d be a super-rich brilliant genius. No, I write some weird thing and then figure out what that means and then go back and rewrite. I’ve never been smart enough to get it right first thing. I’m a rewriter.’

First time? No

Writing is rewriting. Ideas don’t come complete. Inspiration is time and sweat and while we’re perspiring we feel we’re struggling and keeping up a facade of being smart. If – as seems inevitable in party season – someone puts this tune on, raise your hands for all of us who aren’t genius enough to get it right first time.

That idea that started weird and took a ton of figuring? It’s called Le Freak.

Thanks for the pic Thomas Faivre-Duboz

Have you got any favourite tales of ideas that needed a ton of figuring? Share in the comments!

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  1. #1 by jennymilch on December 19, 2011 - 1:39 am

    Ooh, that is a great premise! I’m going to look for your novel….

  2. #3 by Nicole Alexander on December 19, 2011 - 2:19 am

    Thanks for this post, Roz. No matter how many times I hear stories of people who didn’t get it right the first time, it always makes me feel better. I’ve never heard one from a song writer before, but it makes sense that writing follows basically the same path regardless of medium.

    I’ve been a Twitter follower, Facebook friend and Goodreads friend of yours for quite some time, but I’m glad to finally be a blog subscriber, too. You are one inspirational lady!

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 19, 2011 - 12:54 pm

      I love learning about other creatives and how they work. It seems there is so much common ground – inspiration and originality are hard for everyone. Thank you for your lovely comment!

  3. #5 by Sally on December 19, 2011 - 2:51 pm

    Hilarious story about Le Freak! Totally agree about needing to find the core truth of the story. It took me years to find mine!

    I felt that the core of yours was not only that Carol was disillusioned with her own life, but that she had to learn that she was in control of her own destiny. Throughout she looked for external things – her previous lover, Gene, and her ‘future’ – though of the three, the third was obviously introspective and she subconsciously knew that.

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 19, 2011 - 4:43 pm

      Ah, that’s a nice angle on Carol, dear reader! Yes, without giving too many spoilers… the questions of destiny are very significant.

      I simply love that story about Le Freak. I imagine them in their studio, shrieking with mirth.

  4. #7 by Jason Runnels on December 19, 2011 - 3:32 pm

    An artist is an artist. Even that mystical genius Mozart had first drafts of his work. There’s a myth that he composed perfectly the first time, but his wife destroyed all of the evidence to the contrary.

    I know I’ll never have that sort of genius, but it is comforting to know that even the revered Mozart wasn’t perfect. Here’s to writing crappy first drafts. Great post, thanks.

    • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 19, 2011 - 4:44 pm

      Dead right, Jason. Here’s to crappy first drafts, and not freaking out because we don’t get it right first time.

  5. #9 by PatriciaW on December 19, 2011 - 7:34 pm

    Love this story. Finding the core truth. I’ve discovered there’s no way to do that until the first draft is finished. Helps to make the process feel sane.

  6. #11 by Michelle MacEwan on December 19, 2011 - 10:39 pm

    Thank goodness it’s not just me! Writing is a process and I too have to find the core truth of the idea/inspiration before I can really get started. I agree with you Roz, once you have that you have a strong centre to build around. Many years ago now I was working on a screen play with my then mentor, and she made me question the point of what I was writing and why it would be interesting to others. The core truth is what keeps you on track throughout the ordeal.. oops.. the process.. She also helped me to develop my process of writing by constantly throwing something totally unexpected into the mix which would stimulate a turn of events and character development. I realised that once you are in the process anything can happen. That was very freeing. As Rodgers says, once you know the core truth you can arrange it and change it to whatever you want.
    While I was reading this post I was reminded of what Stephen King says in the opening of On Writing in relation to a group of writers he plays music with – that they know they don’t know where the ideas come from. Inspiration can just drop in – and then the hard work begins. Elizabeth Gilbert describes her creative process as turning up everyday and doing her job. Then if the muse doesn’t show up it’s not her fault – she has been doing her part. Thanks as ever Roz, your posts are inspirational and also very reassuring.

    • #12 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 19, 2011 - 11:23 pm

      ‘the ordeal…’ you got it right first time, Michelle! And great point about inspiration, especially with Stephen King and his musicians. Music is somehow a bit unruly, a bit unfettered. It comes in with an unexpected sound or chord and leaves you wondering what just happened.

  7. #13 by kathils on December 22, 2011 - 11:16 am

    Excellent post! I love the quote about writing Le Freak. Brainstorming is such a dynamic way to refine ideas ~ when it works. I tend to brainstorm by myself when writing. Well, me, the dogs, the couch, the plants . . . LOL Even just talking things through out loud sometimes really helps make sense of them.

    • #14 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 22, 2011 - 3:23 pm

      Brainstorming with ourselves… good idea! I sometimes go for a walk with a dictaphone. Having to say something out loud, even if it’s only to the trees, makes me think about whether I can stand up for it.

  8. #15 by Cindy a.k.a. crichardwriter on January 3, 2012 - 4:09 pm

    This is exactly how I work as well. I need to know the theme, the truth, the core question before I can begin. And sometimes that takes drafting, and planning, and trying things out before I find something that really resonates. I like your word “incubating” because I think that is exactly what I do once I have the germ of an idea. Writing three free form pages of morning pages (as suggested by Julia Cameron) has also been extremely helpful with both my personal development and my growth as a writer. If I have a question about something, I just start writing what comes up and usually there is a line or a phrase contained within the writing that answers my question or points me in another direction I need to go. It is all very messy, but it is also fun to explore (if I can get my inner perfectionist to shut up long enough).

    • #16 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 3, 2012 - 4:24 pm

      I love this – the accidental phrase that at last captures what you’re trying to do. Out of mess eventually comes clarity. Thanks, Cindy!

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