Sunday, July 31, 2011

What Fiction Writers Can Teach Us About Songwriting

Hey there 5 followers (and Others)! I hope this post finds you well.

Recently, I came across the audio of science fiction author Cory Doctorow interviewing fellow science fiction author William Gibson.   In fact, you can listen or download the audio from that talk here. At the end of this talk, they open up the floor to questions from the audience. Predictably, someone asks the obligatory "What is your advice for writers that are just starting out?" question. Here's what Gibson says:

Well, I mean, I always go back to this totally annoying advice that Robert A. Heinlein gave, which I still think is the best advice for young writers, and it's that, you know, you have to write, you have to finish what you write, you have to submit what you write for publication. While you're waiting for it to be rejected, you have to write something else. And, you know, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat. If you don't keep doing that over and over, nothing will happen.

I thought that was brilliant, so I scoured the web looking for the actual rules that Heinlein wrote, and here they are:

Robert A. Heinlein's Rules For Writing:

You Must Write

Yep. I guess there's no way around it. If you want to be a writer of any kind, you have to write. I guess I would say that you can't be merely interested in writing, you have to be DISCIPLINED about it. You have to make distraction-free writing your priority. 
You Must Finish What You Write
It's probably not a song until it's finished. How are you going to play it for anyone unless it is finished? Work on it until it is finished. Again with the discipline.
You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except To Editorial Order

Obviously, I vehemently disagree with this one. I feel that in songwriting specifically, rewriting is what makes the song HAPPEN. I've read commentaries on this particular rule, and they all agree that, a) Heinlein rewrote all the time, and that, b) he was probably talking about INCESSANT rewriters that rewrote and rewrote, never believing their novel to be good enough. I can understand that. Sometimes I have problems calling something finished when there are still things that bother me about it.
You Must Put The Work On The Market

We can tell from our modern vantage point, that Heinlein is in the realm of "Traditional Publishing" from this statement. He's talking about sending your manuscript off to publishers with the hope of landing a publishing deal. I think this is still a way to go, but it may not be for much longer. The analogue in the songwriting universe, is much the same: land publishing meetings so you can play several songs for them, with the hope of landing one of the 7 types of publishing deals.
 You Must Keep The Work On The Market Until It Is Sold
Then you collect mountains, great large heaps of rejection letters, until someone finally "gets it" or is tired of being annoyed by your manuscripts littering their mailbox, at which point they offer you a publishing deal. In songwriting, I don't think it works so much like this. It's more like this: the publisher, during those meetings, will most likely hear something in what you wrote that they think is close to something they can sell. They will offer you re-write suggestions and send you on your way.  Then it will be up to you: do you rewrite it to please the publisher, or do you shop it unchanged to other publishers? Maybe both...anyway, you keep working until it is sold. 
...and though not in Heinlein's original list of rules, most people, including me,  agree with Robert J. Sawyer's amendment: 

Start Working On Something Else
This one can sometimes feel like juggling, trying to keep as many balls in the air as you can. After you consider your song "done," get on to the next one. Keep up the discipline. Don't give up. Keep moving forward.

This Week: 

Still working on my "positive song." I have the form together, and a couple of scratch verses that I feel require a kind of heavy rewrite in order for the verses to "lock in" to the sentiment of the chorus. I recorded the whole song, but upon extensive listening, I feel the tempo needs to be a little faster...back to the drawing board.

David Wilcox
The Amazing Rhythm Aces
Gary Nicholson
The Bridge
Darrell Scott
Kent Blazy

The Black Company

I Should Be Writing

...I think I'm gonna start a podcast....but who would listen?

See ya next week.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hell on Earth

Hey there 5 followers!

This week I started re-reading Jimmy Webb's book, TuneSmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting. Here's what he has to say about the difference between professional songwriters and hobbyists:
So what is the primary factor that separates the rejected amateur songwriter from the accepted professional? Probably this: Most amateurs do not regard the writing of songs as serious hard work. Indeed, there are members of my family who believe that worrisome character flaws and much personal ruin have evolved from the fact that I've never had a real job. In reality, however, songwriting is Hell on Earth. If it isn't, you're doing it wrong. 
I get what Mr, Webb is trying to say, that most people think songwriting is easy and believe it's not a big deal to put pen to paper and in an afternoon's writing session, come out with something that's not bad. His point, I believe, is that it almost NEVER happens that way. Making an effective song, not to mention one that has what it takes to become a "hit," requires wading chest deep into the refining and rewriting process, which at times, can make a root canal seem like blessed relief.

Even in my fair city, the capital of songwriting, there are people that think they will get cuts by writing songs that are "just fine the way they are." There are still people that believe that songwriting is easy, and that inspiration is enough to build song out of. So yes, they are hobbyists trying this "songwriting" thing out to see if they can cash in quickly...and then there are the rest of us.

We are song geeks. We are obsessed with well-written songs. We hold ourselves to an extremely high standard. We don't let ourselves use cliche rhymes, we rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. We write songs because we are always thinking about them, because we can't stop.

But Hell on Earth? Really? I remember an NPR interview with Randy Newman, where he said something along these lines (I'm paraphrasing from a rusty memory, so take it for what it is): "You know, it's real easy for people in the entertainment industry to whine about how difficult their jobs are, but let's face it: it beats laying pipe."

I think it's sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. There are some people who can walk right past a half-finished jigsaw puzzle that's laying there on the dining room table and never give it a second thought the whole rest of the day. Then there are those that walk into the dining room, look at the puzzle, pick up a few pieces, try to fit them in, maybe even put some of the puzzle together, but they reach a point when they reach their frustration threshold, and they walk away, claiming to have done "enough." Finally, there are those that, upon seeing the puzzle laying there in the table, will not get up until it is finished, or they pass out from exhaustion.

So would jigsaw puzzle people say that being obsessed with finishing a jigsaw puzzle is Hell on Earth? I doubt it. Probably most people would say that because both songwriting and jigsaw puzzle solving are voluntary acts they cannot be Hell on Earth. Whereas, to use Randy Newman's example, there are probably very few people who have an obsession with laying pipe (insert your own joke here). Most people who find themselves doing that job are doing it because they HAVE to (read: because an outside force is MAKING them: an ecomonic force, a matrimonial force, the force of obligation), making it exponentially closer to Hell on Earth.

So to Jimmy Webb, I say, "Relax!!!! You are one of the few to have a career in songwriting!" It may be brain-straining, mentally challenging, frustrating work, but it isn't Hell on Earth.

Write songs because you are internally driven to do so. Not because you think you should, or think you can.

This Week:

I finished my new song!  It's probably playing right now! It's called "Checkin' Out." If it isn't playing, click on it in the player at the upper right-hand corner of your screen! Let me know what you think. Both of you.

I'm also having problem with Google right now, as they have pulled my AdSense Account and refunded all of their advertisers their money. Apparently you aren't allowed to tell people to click on their ads...a fact which you will not find explicitly stated in their user agreement. From perusing the complaints Google has received about this, it looks remarkably like they are using the "guilty until proven innocent" philosophy...just like the Chinese Government they fight so heavily against. I guess to Google, freedom is fine as long as it helps and does not hurt our business model....So here's the deal: not only do I explicitly advise readers of this blog not to click on ANY Google AdSense text ads, EVER on ANY webpage they may visit, but I also encourage you to use a search engine that does not gather information about you so they can exploit your search history to try and sell you things, like And watch this space for further changes, since blogger and blogspot are owned by Google, such as a migration of this blog to a WordPress domain. Stay tuned.

If you want to help me out, I guess the best way would be to donate using the Google(doh!) Checkout button underneath the music player (I like how they let you get signed up to Google Everything before they pull the terrible business practices).  But maybe I'll start sending out cds to those that donate, what do you think?

David Wilcox
Marc Cohn
Kris Kristofferson, still
James McMurtry
The Amazing Rhythm Aces
Todd Snider

...and if you don't have it yet, you should really buy Jodi Ann's latest album, "A Brief Moment in Time." I co-produced, edited, arranged, mixed, and played all the instruments. You can download the digital version, or you can email her to purchase a physical cd:

You repair guitars?

Monday, July 18, 2011


Hey 5 followers (and other, more stealthy, under-the-radar types)!

This week, I've been listening to Kris Kristofferson a lot, and I discovered something I'd never considered about a song I've listened to since I was about 5 years old.

The song is from an album called "Jesus Was A Capricorn" from 1972, and it's called "Out of Mind. Out of Sight." I had never really considered the alliteration present in this song--you remember alliteration, don't you? Let's go back to our 5th grade English class for a second:

Alliteration is the repetition of the first consonant sound  in a group of words.

The classic examples of alliteration adhere rigidly to these constraints. In Shakespeare, you get things like this:

"whereat with blade, with bloody blameful blade he bravely broached his bloody boiling breast"
- A Midsummer Night's Dream

I think most modern interpretations would include stressed syllables in the definition.

So, I had just been blithely singing along and not thinking about the lyrical structure of this Kris Kristofferson song for 30 years, so I figured it was as good a time as any to start thinking about something. Here's what I noticed: the "Refrain" (for lack of a better term) in this song goes like this:

Buddy, tip your bottle back and climb aboard the bus
join your brothers in the band
if you ain't bombed in Birmingham, then you ain't one of us
we don't really give a damn.

So the alliteration becomes glaringly apparent when you see it written out.

Let's make it unmissable:

Buddy tip your bottle back and climb aboard the bus
join your brothers in the band
if you ain't bombed in Birmingham, then you ain't one of us
we don't really give a damn.
Nine stressed "B" syllables in four lines, not bad.

The danger, of course, is to use alliteration just to be alliterative, without saying anything. Sure it's easy to make up something like:

lately life loses its lightness
when laughing loud listening to Lou
and lovingly lilting to Lennon
is as close as I get to the blues

Right? ...but it probably requires more effort to come to this:
they paved paradise, and put up parking lot

So try that. Skillful use of alliteration, along with skillful internal rhymes, is what separates the ams from the pros.

There ya go. A late short one. But clearer. And less rambling.

This Week:

Almost finished recording my newest song, just need my amp to start behaving, and it'll be finished!

Kris Kristofferson, apparently.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Jonathan Coulton
Lyle Lovett
Marc Cohn
James McMurtry

Jeep FC-150?

...and if you don't have it yet, you should really buy Jodi Ann's latest album, "A Brief Moment in Time." I co-produced, edited, arranged, mixed, and played all the instruments. You can download the digital version, or you can email her to purchase a physical cd:

Happy Birthday Dad!

...try this one:

Take responsibility for your own awesomeness.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


Hey 5 followers!

I hope all is well with you.

This week, while in the middle of all manner of financial crises, I've been writing two songs. These songs are making me think a lot about perspective.

Most of the time, I find myself writing in first person. You all remember this from your 5th grade English Class: the narrator uses I to describe things that happen to them. Using first person makes for an intimate, no nonsense kind of feeling.

This week, I've been writing a song in second person, as another exercise to force myself out of the rut I've been in for months. If you remember your 5th grade class again, second person is using the pronoun "you" to advance the storytelling. Naturally, I've been scouring my songwriting library to see what people a lot smarter than me have to say about second person.

Pat Pattison has a lot to say about it in Writing Better Lyrics. Buy it. Read it.

Second person is trickier than you would think. Simply re-writing a first person song in second person introduces certain problems.

Take this example:

I remember when I met you
I was sitting on the stairs
I was finishing my homework
holding my pencil in my hair

If you were to just sort of transpose this into second person, you would get something like this:

You remember when you met her
You were sitting on the stairs
You were finishing your homework
Holding your pencil in your hair's Ok, but it suffers from a logical disconnect--the "You" that you are speaking to already knows all this a lot of the time, in second person songs, you need to introduce some kind of literary device, or twist, to make the obvious exposition make sense in context. So, you'd have to make the "you" have amnesia in this instance, or something to justify telling them things they already know.

This also introduces another problem: as a listener to the second person song, you are always looking for the twist, as if you're watching some terrible M. Night Shyamalan movie-- you're always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

A lot of problems with second person can be fixed with a simple third person rewrite. As you will recall, third person is written from the outsider's point of view:

She remembers when she met him
she was sitting on the stairs
She was finishing her homework
holding a pencil in her hair

Second person is inherently difficult to write, because a lot of the problems that second person can introduce can be fixed by rewriting in third person.

Try it. Try writing in second person so that it sounds the best that way--so that if you rewrite it in third person, it DESTROYS the meaning. It's hard, but fun!

This Week

Lyle Lovett
John Hiatt
James McMurtry
Gretchen Peters

....and looking for a job....still.....

...and if you don't have it yet, you should really buy Jodi Ann's latest album, "A Brief Moment in Time." I co-produced, edited, arranged, mixed, and played all the instruments. You can download the digital version, or you can email her to purchase a physical cd:

...12 years, eh?

Doesn't seem so long when I'm with you...seems like only yesterday you were smiling at me over fajitas!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A REALLY Quick One

Hey there five followers!

This week's blog post is going to be short and sweet, seeing as how it's a holiday weekend.

What do you do when you get frustrated by the process?

As I start to work on a song, I have an idea of where I want the song to go, and I even have a pretty clear picture of the imagery I want to use and the feeling...but as I continue through the writing process, it usually gets WORSE! I then have to go through the song and re-write it using the process I described last week.

For me, this is the most frustrating part of the whole thing: trying to re-capture the picture I have in my mind.

As I've stated before, sometimes I put the half-finished song away for while--years sometimes, while I let the idea crystallize and solidify and become more clear...or more likely, I give up in frustration and banish the half-a-song to the wood pile, only to try and salvage it later.

Here's the reason I bring this up: I found a song contest I want to enter (don't worry, one that has no entry fee), there are no real requirements for the song, the theme just has to be positive, like things are looking up, or things are turning around.

So rather than having to create something from scratch, I remembered a song I abandoned years ago out of frustration, and went scrounging through the wood pile...and the frustration was born again!

I think writing is about learning to deal with your frustration...working through it, trying not to be beaten by it, learning to turn it around.

Maybe people who aren't very good at writing songs are just the ones that settle for "good enough" or get lazy and just go with their first impulsive inspiration...or maybe they meet their frustration threshold and can't step beyond it.

On the other hand, maybe constantly demanding perfection and measuring yourself against your heroes CAUSES frustration.

...anyway, I don't know what the point was, if I ever had one. I don't have any answers, either. These are just some things I was thinking about this morning as I sat down to re-write the positive song for the tenth time...and reaching my frustration threshold.

This Week

I've been working on two songs, writing guitar-related articles, editing things in Audacity, reading and listening to lots of things.

I think I should get the new book by the founder of cdbaby...but I have no means right now....

Oh! Here's something I made up this week (if I had a twitter account, I would've tweeted it):

The longer you are unemployed, the more likely you are to become a self-help guru.

Jonathan Coulton

Lyle Lovett

John Hiatt

...and if you don't have it yet, you should really buy Jodi Ann's latest album, "A Brief Moment in Time." I co-produced, edited, arranged, mixed, and played all the instruments. You can download the digital version, or you can email her to purchase a physical cd:

See you next week!