My mother was a concert pianist.
Well, she actually gave up a scholarship to study, post-college, in Rome. But there were two things that stopped her. 1. She’d met my father who, I do believe — and I’m not just trying to retroactively protect my own existence — was worth at least waffling over and 2. Performing made her want to throw up. Already an anxious human being, my mother would play on the baby grand in our tight living room with our dog — a high-strung dalmatian — who would curl underneath it — having developed a nervous palsy all her own. (Nervousness can be contagious.)
So, my mother would play grand pieces and there are certain classical pieces — brilliant, breathtaking, demanding music — that, if heard today, send one clear message: Your mother is having that kind of day.
During my childhood, while my mother coaxed me to throw around the phrase “My mother is a concert pianist,” she was mainly a piano teacher. And when I came home from school, I heard a lot of counting. “One, two, three, four, and HOLD, two, three four….”
I was also a piano student, bouncing from one teacher to the next, until I was eventually without a teacher. My mother complained to a fellow pianist that all the teachers in town were booked up. And the woman, kindly, told my mother they weren’t.
“No one wants to teach your children piano, Glenda,” she said. We had a bad rep, maybe me especially. I never practiced. I was so wiggly that one teacher suggested dance lessons instead — a smart call actually.
But in any case, I stared at a lot of sheet music, heard a lot of music, AND a lot of counting.
It’s this counting I’d like to apply to the making of a book by way of chapters and narrative point of view.
(Look, if you have actually studied music theory in depth and you’re a writer and you haven’t applied the lessons to writing, you should.)
After I write a novel or mid-novel, I like to hear how it counts out its beats.
So, I make a graph. Not always, but often enough. If it’s a novel with one narrative voice, the X axis is narration, the Y axis is page numbers. By drawing a line, with chapter breaks, I can tell where the novel’s chapters extend — holding a note — where they uptick in tempo and chapters are coming quickly. I can play that against my own ideas on the novel’s pacing — the pacing that exists in my Platonic version of the novel, held solely in my head.
This is a way to make the intangible shape of the novel tangible. (For a break down of how I think of plotting versus the wilderness in connection to brain science, click here.)
IF the novel has many points of view, the juggling of narrative voices is part of pacing — it becomes orchestral.
To see this, the X axis has a list of all characters’ names who have a point of view and/or narrative voice. As I’m not Russian (and lack Russian narrative confidence), my points of view change chapter by chapter, not within a chapter. (I don’t suggest one do this retroactively with TO THE LIGHTHOUSE; you feelin’ me?) So there’s only one line running the Y axis at any given point, but it jumps up and down depending on who’s narrating. In this way, I can see — at a glance — where one voice disappears for too long, where one character dominates, where my main characters go missing… I also see the overall tempo — long, quick-quick-quick, hold and two, hold two three four, and quick quick, etc …
Here’s an example.
Listen, if you want to make a chart, make a chart.
Further, if you hate charts — and I do actually hate charts — don’t make a chart.
There’s a time when you must exist, submerged — alone and drowning — in the world you’ve created. You have to dwell there until the fine silt of your subconscious rises in clouds and you can’t see anything around you. You have to exist by touch and feel. But then there are times when you come up for air. When you are taking those steadying breaths again, and this might be the time to approach your work, chartingly. The craft exists, for me, subconsciously as well as consciously. It rises up from the heart and yet is still an intellectual process too. It’s visual and the reel spins in my head and yet it is an object for me to look at objectively. It’s all these things.
The question is this — are you getting to know your own process? I think this is a very healthy thing.