Monday, February 8, 2010

Guest Post: Rebecca Carlson on Getting Past Level One

This is blog vacation week! And to celebrate, I've got a series of guest posts for this week...and a chance to win tons of free books! Today we're welcoming Rebecca Carlson, a long-time friend and critique partner. Thank you for posting, Rebecca!

Getting Past Level One

I teach my music students that there are four levels of performance:

1. Technical Accuracy - hit every note on the page, don't make any mistakes.

2. Interpretation - understand what the music means. Think about the emotions or images the music should create.

3. Expression - communicate your interpretation to the listener. The listener sees what you see, feels what you feel.

4. Power - something deep and true comes out of the music. Hearts are touched. Lives are changed. Spiritual communion through sound.

This is adapted from Clayne W. Robison's book, Beautiful Singing. It helps me get my students past banging out notes on the piano and on to making music. It brings wonderful moments, like my son finishing a Strauss waltz and calling out, "Could you see the roses, mom?"

Level one is a good foundation. No one wants to listen to a performance full of mistakes. But that's only the beginning. The performer should know what the music means, what it is trying to say. That’s level two. And then the performer needs to communicate that meaning to the audience, which is a different skill from both understanding the music and playing the notes correctly. Level three is being a good actor.

Level four? No one can make that happen. If it comes, it comes. It is like a gift. Get the first three levels going, and sometimes the fourth comes pouring in, leaving everyone in tears.

Thinking about these levels of performance can help me as a writer too. How often do I write at level one and never get beyond that? Oh, these sentences are all clear and easy to read, but am I feeling anything? Am I really seeing it in my own head?

And do those emotions and images come across to the reader?

And is there any power in it?

Technical accuracy is absolutely essential for a writer. Mistakes in the prose can kick a reader right out of the story. But even if the prose is perfect, if the writer has nothing to say then the reader won’t want to keep reading.

Interpretation is a matter of imagination. Get in deep. Touch it, taste it, feel it. Become your characters, see through their eyes. Know what it was like to be there.

Then turn it into words—communicate! This is the hard part, and you won’t know if you’ve done it until you talk to someone else who read what you wrote. It takes lots of hard work, plus some trial and error, to learn to take what’s in your head and put it down on the page so that someone else can understand it.

But keep trying, because if you can do it, then somewhere, someday, someone will be sitting there with your book in their lap, dripping tears onto the page, because they feel how you felt when you wrote those words, and the power is coming through.

Bio: Rebecca writes science fiction and fantasy, reviews books for young readers every Monday at, and posts on Tuesdays at
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