In Which I Take On A Different Kind of Writing

This post originally appeared on my Patreon in 2017. It’s the time of year when I’m writing visuals for marching band again, and I’m still learning.

It’s that time of year.

In addition to writing novels, editing novels, and doing assorted other things related to novels, I also coach colorguard (and winterguard) at a local high school. And, as every band nerd in the country knows, that means I also lose my mind around the end of July and don’t begin to reacquaint myself with its contents until mid-November.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been making little progress on Nahara and none on anything else, in order to put together choreography and to collaborate on drill and visual design for this year’s fall marching show. Creating a show is alternately called “composing” or “arranging” (if we’re talking music), “writing” (if we’re talking drill), “choreographing” (if we’re talking about the auxiliary, or anyone’s body movements that do not involve marching or making noises in an instrument), or “designing” (if we’re talking to make ourselves feel better about the fact that $200,000 got sunk into the football field this year but the school won’t give us $500 to get a few horns fixed).

What you may not know, even if you’ve marched, is that writing a marching show takes work. The best groups in the country (including the corps of DCI and competitive high school band programs like Avon and Tarpon Springs) have a half-dozen or so staff members devoted just to the writing, plus a dozen more dedicated to making the designers’ dreams happen in reality. A small program like ours has two people: the band director and me. And I’m a volunteer.

It’s not quite the same amount of work as writing a novel, but it is equivalent to, say, editing a fiction anthology.

Here’s what I’ve learned about writing from writing something completely different:

1. Sometimes you just have to see it on the page.

Neither my novel scenes nor the show make much sense to me until I see them on the page. For writing, it’s the words; I actually need to see things written out before I can put them together, connect them to other scenes, or segue into the next big thing. Sometimes, I don’t know where my own plot is going until I see it in black and white on the page.

Writing for marching bands is similar for me, only the other way round: I can listen to the music and noodle around with choreography all I want, but until I see the music written out on the page, I often don’t understand what it’s doing or what shape it’s making. This is why I write all my notes into the musical score. All of them.

This makes me weird among guard instructors. Many can’t read music at all, let alone read every instrumental part at once. But it works for me.

2. You can’t care more than they do.

One of the biggest hurdles I’ve faced in writing Nahara so far has been trying to shove my characters through plot points that either don’t fit the pace of the novel or that don’t make sense to them. One of the biggest hurdles I faced in my early years as a guard instructor was trying to shove my performers into choreography that didn’t fit their skill set or didn’t make sense to them.

Both are a recipe for failure.

Whether it’s your characters or your students, you can’t care more than they do. You can set them up for success (or, in the case of fictional characters, repeated setbacks). You can cheer them on. You can perform the occasional last-minute save. But they have to perform. It’s on them, not you.

3. It’s okay to be an asshole.

Writers love to joke that we’re in this business because we love torturing people—specifically, our characters. But what I’ve come to learn as a designer and coach is that it’s okay and even necessary for me to be the bad cop.

The show (and the novel) aren’t about me. They’re both pieces of art that exist on some level because of me, but that must be able to operate on their own in order to be successful. And to do that, they need to be internally coherent. A novel has to make sense within its own structure, plot, and worldbuilding; members of a marching band have to be able to rely on one another on the field. If I have to chop scenes ruthlessly, or dress down one of my students for letting their team members down, then that’s not only okay, it may be essential to the survival of the work as a whole.

Next week is band camp. So apart from putting this show together and making sure my cats don’t die, I haven’t been doing much else. I have been playing a lot of Fallout 4. I’m mindful of The Oatmeal’s advice about breathing in. I’m also mindful of the fact that, having written this thing, I now have to go teach a group of teenagers how to execute it.

Breathe in. Mind the Radscorpions.

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