I claim not to be a writer, but while thinking about what I wanted to say in this post realized that I’ve been stringing words together for mass consumption by the public since 2001. The vast majority of those words have been reviews of one kind or another. That first gig was reviewing music for a website that specialized in what is now called Americana. (For those not familiar with this term imagine a Venn diagram that includes many subgenres of country, bluegrass, a sliver of folk music, “roots” rock, and everything in the cracks between.)
Just like some book genres are more character based while others are more plot based, different musical genres focus more on the musical parts of a song while with others, the lyrics matter most. Americana is squarely in the focus on the words camp. The top reviewers at the site I was associated with paid a lot of attention to lyrics, often looking for the same things your Literature teacher pointed at while studying the classics. Is there symbolism, a subtext, or a “moral to the story”? Is a point being made that isn’t obvious or possibly even at odds with the surface message. (Think Springsteen’s Born in the USA for that last one.)
So one day I was listening to a CD on repeat, trying to articulate in five or six hundred words what I thought of the twelve or so songs on this disc. Did I like them (why or why not)? What are the high and low points? How did this disc compare to what I’ve heard of this act or others like it? And most importantly, how do the songs make me feel. I had a flash of insight that I could learn a lot about how to say what I wanted from the songwriters I was reviewing. The best songwriters can say in a handful of words more than I can by talking all day. I like to use the example of 2 lines, a total of fifteen words, in the song Wichita Lineman (written by Jimmy Webb for trivia buffs) that says more in those two lines than many full-length novels. (Due to copyright issues, I’ll leave it to you to figure out which two lines I meant.)
My theory is that anyone who works with words in one arena can learn from studying, observing, and even participating in other arenas. Encapsulating an immense amount of emotion into a few words, how the rhythm of the language can help delivering your message, and evocative descriptions are a few of the things that can be learned from songwriters.
Several years ago a co-worker convinced me to come with her to a meeting of her Toastmasters Club. I immediately saw how the public speaking and other skills they help develop were a positive career move for anyone, whatever your day job might be. It took a few years to dawn on me that there was a synergy in writing and speaking, with speech preparation putting a focus on structuring a message and cutting out the extraneous words not needed to deliver that message.
As far as that goes, my main writing pursuit of reviewing forces me to go beyond just “this doesn’t work for me,” to figure out why it doesn’t work, which leads to an attempt to identify the better alternatives. I may not write fiction, but reviewing fiction forces me to develop an understanding of fiction writing techniques, which gives me more potential tools for those things I do write. I have a few other suggestions of places to look for ideas and techniques that might be helpful to your writing.
Comedians are the place to look for what makes something funny. The work of advertising copywriters are a tutorial in using logic and emotion to convince your reader of something they aren’t inclined to believe. The work of screenwriters on TV or in movies should be a treasure trove for ideas on dialogue. Then there is the obvious way to improve dialogue and characterization, people watching. My friend Donna Fasano swears by this. She even got the idea for one of her most successful novels through observation and a bit of eavesdropping during a short elevator ride.
I’m sure there are a myriad of examples I’ve missed. If you can think of any, tell us all in the comment section.
25 thoughts on “Words are Words”
Very true. I learned a lot about writing from reading, critiquing and writing academic essays in university. It taught me how to be concise and how to make sure I said exactly what I meant to say so my words could not be misinterpreted. I’ve become wordier in my fiction, though. (grin)
Thanks for the comment, Yvonne. I sometimes (most family and friends would say almost always) have that wordy problem, too. 🙂
Interesting connections, there. I eavesdrop (legally) whenever I get the opportunity, and I’ve picked up some great dialogue that way. Train rides are especially good for that. And people using cell phones in public. They often speak so loudly that I can hardly be faulted for overhearing. All names changed to protect the innocent. As for TV/movie dialogue, I use very little of it as inspiration, because so much is predictable. Although I drive my husband nuts when I go back over recorded scenes in Mad Men and Sherlock to hear the dialogue again.
I agree, Laurie. Thanks for the comment.
Listening to people talk is huge!
I’m a songwriter, and every day, people are giving me titles and lyrics without knowing it. A few years ago, I overheard someone say, “I used to hate the days wasted at school in the fall.” I went home and added “I grew up watching that clock hand crawl…” and ended up with a pretty damn good song.
Stealing is an important part of a writer’s arsenal, as well.
Great story, Kenyon. If I remember the story I read correctly, Harlan Howard (one of the greats of country music songwriters, if not the greatest) liked to sit in the corner of a bar, as unobtrusive as he could be, and listen to those around. He’d pick up a great line or turn of phrase and be off and running, writing a song built around it. I’d say your story has a great pedigree. 🙂
I love music…have always loved music. I am amazed that songwriters can pack so much emotion into so few words.
I survived an anguished youth by losing myself in books. I marvel at how a writer can phrase a sentence and make it sound lyrical, or describe a scene that transports me to another place and time. I always encourage aspiring authors to read across all genres and to learn from each and every book they read. Figuring out why you DON’T like a novel–why it didn’t work for you–is just as important as figuring out why the story keeps drawing you back long after you’ve finished it. Avoid repeating what doesn’t work, and strive to make your writing unforgettable.
My books are character-driven, so people watching is essential to me. How people act, their mannerisms, their personalities, all fodder for my muse. Yes, I am a thief. I steal bits from news stories and magazine articles and internet posts and youtube videos. I can’t help it. I will read or watch something, overhear a conversation, see an interaction between friends/enemies/family/strangers/etc, and I will be struck by an almost magical inspiration–before I know it, my imagination is off and running.
Wonderful article, Al. And thank you for the mention!
You’re welcome, Donna. The thing I love about your characters is they always come off as authentic to me. I’ve always attributed that to you paying attention to people, not only how they put things, but a talent in figuring out what makes them tick which comes out in your stories.
Now that I’m thinking about that last statement more, I’m a bit concerned that you might have me figured out just a little too well. 🙂
I love Venn diagrams–so that pulled me to read the whole dang article. I think you nailed it, Big Al. Inspiration is everywhere–in musical lyrics, newspapers, magazines, people watching on a beach or sitting on a park bench. I once was diverted off of a freeway because of wildfires, got lost somewhere on the backroads in Georgia and came upon an old hand-lettered sign leaning against a tree: Fish Camp–with an arrow pointing down a dry dusty road. I followed that arrow and ended up writing a book.
Thanks for the comment, Jackie. That music I was describing with the Venn diagram is especially popular among musicians from your state. In fact (when I stalked your blog to make sure I remembered correctly, that you lived in Texas) one of my favorite Texas singer/songwriters is a guy named Charlie Robison wrote a song called Indianola, which is about a little place on the Gulf Coast you mention in your bio.
Does copyright apply to comment sections? The song you mentioned is an all time favorite, and it contains what I believe to be one of the most haunting lines in pop music: I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time. If I could ever write a book as evocative as that one line, I might quit writing altogether, knowing it couldn’t be topped.
To your more direct point, I find myself “writing” every day scenes in my head now. As I sit in my car, watching someone pump gas in front of me, I think about how I would describe their body language, what their day, or life, has been like up to that point, etc. That all gets filed away in my brain. Eventually, I know I will be stuck for an idea or answer and I will find it there.
Thanks for a thought-provoking article, Al.
I thought the line was “I think I need a small vacation, but it don’t look like rain, and if it snows that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain.”
In songs, often the best lines are the ones that mean something to us, yet we can’t put our finger on what it is. That line says everything to me without my being able to explain it.
Don’t get me started on Galveston!
THanks again for another great post, Big Al
You’re right, it’s the personal context that does it. The line I quoted resonated with me because it’s how I feel about my wife. We all focus so much on the mechanics of our writing (and rightly so) but so much of whether a reader likes our story or not comes from how much of the personal context we hit for them.
I know what you mean, Shawn, about describing things in your mind all the time. Sometimes, while reading, I’ll become struck by a tree branch and spend the next hour describing it in my mind.
Great gig, btw, doing Gene Simmons in a cover band!
It’s a great way to get your aggression out, for sure!
Thanks, Shawn and (again) Kenyon for the great comments.
Shawn wins the (nonexistent) prize for figuring out exactly which line I was referring to. Jimmy Webb songs have a tendency to get recorded with arrangements that are heavy on strings and a lot happening musically that can distract from the lyrics. That line still jumps out at me. But to really appreciate it, I love Johnny Cash’s stripped down version. It’s on one of those discs he did in his final days with Rick Rubin, the same sessions that he recorded his cover of “Hurt.”
Ah, I thought that line was throwaway!
Yup, thought provoking is a good description. I’m a big Margaret Atwood fan. I think one of the things that makes her such a good writer is that she writes in several forms: novels, short stories, poetry, non-fiction. The skill needed in form reinforce the others.
I’m reviewing a manuscript right now for a friend who is also a song writer. The economy and vividness of the imagery is breathtaking at times.
That’s exactly the point I was trying to make, John. That the skills that get exercised and developed because they’re essential in one wordsmithing arena will help make you better in others. Thanks for the comment.
Assuming you’re serious about that being a throwaway line to you, Kenyon, then I guess that tends to prove how personal (and sometimes unexplainable) these kind of things are.
Yes, serious. “I need you more than want you” is a fluff line that goes back to the beginning of time; be it song, 15-year old boy to girlfriend, or Hallmark card.
That line is just one step above “I need a hug.”
Ah, that’s fair, Kenyon. But combined with the next line it strikes me as kind of like taking a cliche and adding a twist.
Good point! Yes, “Need you for all time” resonates.
Now I understand more fully a conversation I had with you in the past about song lyrics Al. Something like, “Why do the good die young, my old friend?”
As for writing crossing over between genres, I started my writing career as a children’s picture book author. It was a tough road – hard to get published, not much money coming in etc etc. same old story. I had a fair share of success and more than my fair share of rejection.
Then someone invented the internet.
I danced for joy, the moment I set eyes on it. YAY! A huge picture book! Limitless.
I immediately taught myself web design and began helping to build the internet. It was exactly like creating picture books – you just had to string words and pictures together so they worked for their purpose, whatever that might be. People paid me for my work. Nobody rejected anything I wrote. I couldn’t understand why everyone else didn’t switch and I think many did.
Why did I stop? I actually haven’t, but I’m trying my best to stop.I still maintain a few websites out there and am still building a couple of new ones.But the reason I stopped is that I am old and want to retire and just write the words without the pictures, because that’s easier. As an artist, I’m a wannabe. My true abilities lie in the words so focusing on that is more relaxing in semi-retirement. So I took up writing novels.Very relaxing. Hah!
BUT the weird thing is, people often ask me, “Why did you give up writing for so long?” They see my web design years as being a GAP in my writing career. Yet during that time, I wrote more than ever.
Thanks for the comment, Tui. I didn’t realize that was your background. Looked at that way, I’ve written more words as program code in a variety of programming languages than everything else combined. 🙂
I suspect the times I was forced to write documentation of some kind might have been a bigger help with other writing though.
Comments are closed.