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What Novelists can Teach Songwriters

The British writer Somerset Maugham once said “there are three rules for writing the novel....unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

It can often feel that way in songwriting too. You have all the golden rules – melody, lyrics, verse, chorus, dynamics – and yet, the act of putting them together in the right way sometimes feels like solving the Rubik’s Cube from hell. Even more frustratingly, it’s often the songwriters who break the rules that make the classics (‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ clocks in at around 6 choruses, R.E.M’s ‘Losing My Religion’ dispenses with one altogether).

Whether you’re manipulating the clay of words on a blank page, or trying to meld music, melody and lyrics, one thing is certain; there is no one definitive prescription for the creative act. But, perhaps, songwriters could learn a few lessons from their wordsmith cousins about crafting a great musical narrative. Here are a few pointers that we think writers have to offer the workers of song.

Write bad drafts
When he advises songwriters, screenwriting legend Pat Pattison begins with this invitation: “I hereby grant you permission to write crap. The more the better. Remember, crap makes the best fertilizer.”

In Bird by Bird, her brilliant handbook for writers, novelist Anne Lamott writes about embracing the awful first draft (here’s some more on that).

In his book Outliers, journalist Malcolm Gladwell estimates that expertise comes with a 10,000-hour price tag.

All of this to say, don’t let high expectations cause creative immobilisation. It goes without saying that not every song you write is going to be a hit, so make peace with the duds and allow yourself to learn from them. Momentum is king; keep moving – write through the confusion, learn from your failures. Like that terrible first draft, a bad song has something to teach you, and it’s a better way to spend your time than banging your head against the studio wall waiting for the muse to come knocking.

Are you a Planner or a Pantser?
Wordsmiths often make a distinction between two types of writers: Planners, who take a more explicit, structured approach to writing, and Pantsers, people who hit the blank page and wait to see what unravels. As a songwriter, it can be helpful to know which camp you sit in. While some people might agree with author Ray Bradbury that “thinking is the enemy of creativity”, you might operate better with a more formula-driven, forward-thinking approach when it comes to songwriting. Either way, getting comfortable with your preferred method will bring clarity to your process – and switching it up might unlock a new way of working. Are you a very meticulous, conscious planner when you write a tune? Try hitting record and see what your subconscious has to say sometime.

Write a story instead
Writers are huge believers in the power of words to set a scene. In a piece of writing, the paragraphs do the heavy lifting, portraying a sense of place, emotion and urgency. Songwriters have a little extra help by way of soaring musical themes, evocative key changes, tempo and timbre. Unfortunately, this means a lot of songwriters leave the music to do all the heavy lifting, relegating lyrics to placeholders.

Next time you sit down to write lyrics to a song, consider instead that you’re writing the first chapter of an important story. Follow author Anne Allen’s advice; introduce us to a hero, a journey, a tone, a villain. Throw away the limitations of syllables and melody lines for 30 minutes and instead write a first chapter. Chances are, you’ll end up with a rich mini-narrative that will make a perfect breeding ground for a powerful set of lyrics.  

Songwriters may not be crafting the great American novel, but in a way, they have an different challenge – a journey summed up in three short minutes, winding its way through structure and free flow, with rules to be broken, and words to be reinvented. Perhaps the next time you’re struggling to complete the perfect song, you might find the answer in the pages of a good book.

Luke Oram