I am an accidental novelist, an odd statement because this accident required ten dedicated years of my life, rejections too numerous to count, and a tremendous sense of purpose and commitment. Most folks don’t go about having an accident with such pure intention. My point is the younger version of me never envisioned that the older version would one day write books. That’s because the younger version of me knew he’d be a rock ‘n roll star.
These are the names of my various rock ‘n roll bands in chronological order: Grand Theft Auto (my high school band named way before the video game franchise), These Guys, Chameleon, The Killing Room, Stone Circle, The Mighty Swell, and Blare the Hippo. I started playing music around age ten, when my father bought a harmonica to teach me the chord progression of a standard blues song. Since those harmonica playing days in the woods of Falmouth, Massachusetts, I’ve learned to play guitar, have written hundreds of songs, licensed a song to J.Crew, recorded two CDs, and flirted with musical success in the Boston club scene.
When my last band broke up, I went on to do other things, mostly web design and development. It wasn’t until I was thirty that I decided to write a novel. Why? I read HIGH FIDELITY by Nick Hornby and connected with the musical obsession of the novel’s protagonist. To undertake a much longer writing project required a different skill set, one I wasn’t sure I possessed. Before reading HIGH FIDELITY, I had never written anything longer than verse chorus verse (and the occasional bridge). Hornby’s influence inspired me to write romantic comedies from the guy’s point of view, only to discover that women—who tend to buy the majority of romance novels—don’t particularly care about the guy’s point of view. I decided to take a swing at writing suspense novels, which happens to be the genre I love the most. I set off in search of a compelling ‘what if’ question that could be the basis of a thriller.
I was honestly surprised when people took an interest in my work. Was I becoming a writer? Did my earlier endeavors as a songwriter in some way aide my ability to craft a publishable novel? Oh, forget publishable—how about an edge of your seat, hair raising, and wildly fun suspense tale that got a starred review in both Publishers Weekly and Library Journal (note: this is a shameless plug for my latest novel, HELPLESS).
I believe the answer to this question is a resounding, yes. Writers write, and I spent thousands of hours over many years writing songs. It doesn’t matter what form you’re writing for thousands of hours; if you put in that kind of time you’ll get better at it. So, to prove my point, I examined the philosophies of some great songwriters to see if I could draw any parallels to the world of fiction writing. When I say great songwriters I’m talking Paul Simon, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Janis Ian, and Brian Wilson. All of the first source material quoted in this essay comes from the fantastic book, SONGWRITERS ON SONGWRITING by Paul Zollo. Thanks to Mr. Zollo and his otherworldly interview style, I’ve discovered ten reasons songwriting helped make me a novelist.
Reason No. 1: Every song, like every good story, needs a direction.
You can’t write a good book if you don’t know where you’re going. We’ve all read rambling prose before and none of us has enjoyed it. The same is true for songs. Paul Simon explained the importance of direction in songwriting: “A lot of time the whole thought comes, not connected to the thought before it in any appreciable way. And then you say, ‘Well, what will this connection be?’ And by the time you get your choice of the third thought, you’re off in a direction. Because three consecutive thoughts imply direction. They don’t necessarily imply meaning. But they imply direction.”
I didn’t have everything mapped out when I started writing DELIRIOUS, my first published thriller. What I had was a direction—a what if question and a MacGuffin (thank you Mr. Hitchcock) that provided me with some markers to follow. I don’t write until I have my direction, a lesson I learned by writing lots of songs, some with direction and some without.
Reason No. 2: To write, relax.
It’s hard to force a song, just as it’s hard to force a novel or short story. My best writing comes when I’m feeling at peace and relaxed. That’s how the discovery process happens for me. Paul Simon said it best. “I’m not interested in writing something that I thought about. I’m interested in discovering where my mind wants to go, or what object it wants to pick up. It always picks up on something true. You’ll find out much more about what you’re thinking that way than you will if you’re determined to say something. What you’re determined to say is filled with all your rationalizations and your defenses and all of that. What you want to say to the world as opposed to what you’re thinking. And as a lyricist, my job is to find out what it is that I’m thinking. Even if it’s something that I don’t want to be thinking.”
Reason No. 3: Don’t be afraid to steal from the good stuff (so long as you make it your own).
When I was writing songs, I listened to a lot of music. I dissected the tunes, the interplay between melody and lyrics, chord progressions, arrangements. I was searching for that elusive thing that made the song work. When I switched to writing fiction, I began reading a whole lot more. I analyzed the books I read, looking for the magical something that made them work. This is why it’s important to study the craft and why Stephen King, in his incomparable ode the craft, ON WRITING, implores all writers to do two things: read and write. I’m not endorsing plagiarism here, but Microsoft came to be by borrowing from DOS, and Apple got its vision for fonts from calligraphy. We all borrow from what we experience. By reading a lot, I became a better writer.
I’ll hanker a guess you’ve heard the song, “Everybody’s Talking,” from the film, Midnight Cowboy. The song was made famous by Harry Nilsson, the guy who The Beatles called their favorite band (he was just a guy). Nilsson, however, didn’t write the song. It was written by Fred Neil. For some reason, the film’s producers didn’t want to use Neil’s song as the theme. Instead, they asked Nilsson to steal his song; write something with a similar feel without “pinching it.” The result was Nilsson’s classic tune, “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City.” If you listen to the two songs back-to-back the similarities are unmistakable because it was intentional. The producers later decided to have Nilsson do a cover of “Everybody’s Talking,” which went on to be a huge hit. Fun factoid, they also asked Bob Dylan to try and write the theme song for the movie. He ended up penning “Lay Lady Lay.” That didn’t make the cut either, obviously.
If I didn’t read a lot, didn’t learn what the greats did to make themselves great, didn’t take the time to study the craft with an analyst’s eye, my own writing would be flatter than an out-of-tune piano.
Reason No. 4: Writers write.
I think of writing genre fiction in terms of crafting a bowl. We all have an understanding of what a bowl looks like (same as we understand that a book is a mystery or a thriller), but what differentiates each writer is their unique interpretation of that metaphorical bowl. It takes time and practice to develop a style and voice. To refine your craft and define yourself as a craftsperson, you’ve just to got to do it. You’ve got to make bowls. Nilsson, when asked to compare his technique for songwriting to that of John Lennon, recalled the time the two collaborated on a project and said, “I don’t think there’s any technique involved. You sit down. There was a little electric piano there and a guitar, and you sit there and do it.”
Reason No. 5: First lines matter.
The first line in a novel, or chapter for that matter, is just as important as the first line of a song. It gets you going and sets the stage for all things to come. You can’t take these lines willy-nilly. Paul Simon described the first line as an audience, settling into their seats, their concentration not yet there. That’s why he gives them easy words and easy thoughts so their mind can get into the groove of what’s to come.
A man walks down the street,
He says, Why am I soft in the middle now?
When I started writing fiction, I found myself really concentrating on first lines. I didn’t realize the reason why until Paul Simon reminded me that it’s part of the songwriting craft.
Reason No. 6: It’s okay to exaggerate a bit.
Songwriter extraordinaire Randy Newman described the characters in his songs as follows: “I think the people in my songs are generally exaggerations. They’re worse and stupider than people actually are.” Songwriting is often times an exaggeration of emotions. We frequently need these exaggerations to give context to the emotions simply because we don’t have a long history with these people. We need a quick way to label them. Exaggeration is a tool for bringing a story to life—be it in song form or something longer.
Reason No. 7: Get to the point.
Succinctness is important in songwriting. Newman and Simon are well known for their succinct style. Newman goes at it by using small words: but, for, and. One of George Orwell’s rules for writing mirrors this philosophy. He wrote, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” Maybe George was a songwriter at heart.
Reason No. 8: It’s harder to be clear than abstract.
I don’t want my readers to struggle to understand what I’m trying to say. I never wanted them to struggle to understand my lyrics either. I wanted listeners to get the message of my song quickly, without really having to work for it. I didn’t, however, want those messages delivered with the elegance of a sledgehammer. What I sought were clever ways of expressing complex ideas.
Here are some of my song lyrics. You’ll see they’re not very hard to understand.
1) Sometimes it’s gonna rain; sometimes it shines
2) We’re all walking strides in time, crawling to collapsing, singing the same song
3) You can look for answers, but sometimes there are none, just remember, you’re strong baby, strong
What I think they do well is to express the ideas without being overly obvious and thereby, dull. The ideas are pretty straightforward. 1) Good thing and bad things will happen in your life. 2) We’re all just human. 3) You’ll get through this. What’s more interesting, my lyrics or the direct interpretation? It took me a lot longer to write those lyrics than it did express their direct meaning. I think good genre fiction writers make their ideas clear while keeping them interesting, maybe not every line, or even every page, but enough times so that you take notice of the craft.
Janis Ian, (famous for the songs “At Seventeen,” “Stars,” and “Jesse”) said, “When you write a verse that is abstract, and I think this is a lesson from country music, the chorus better make it clear. And when the chorus is abstract, you need a very basic verse. Depends some on your goals. Mine is to reach the maximum amount of people because I think we’re touching on some real import subject matters that people tend not to write songs about, and that are hard to get an audience to hear.”
Reason No. 9: Ideas come from within.
Songwriting taught me that creativity is like a muscle that needs constant exercise. Ideas don’t come from the ether. They come from within. But if you’re not tuned to hear them, they come quickly and they go just as quick. Nilsson shares my view. He said, “I think, if you really want to get down to it, you have a file, in your mind, for every sound you ever heard. It happens so quickly it happens without you being aware of it, that’s why it seems like it’s coming from a different place. It’s actually coming from the same place every time. It’s just a bunch of electricity and chemicals up there. But somehow, creative people’s mindset is somewhere in creating something.”
Janis Ian agrees. “I think it’s being in touch with yourself and being in touch with the world.” Ian also said, “I think part of being a good writer is that you have to be literate . . . absorb a lot and be in touch with yourself.” Brian Wilson, of Beach Boys fame, said, “Do it out of your own inspiration and the song will come more naturally.” Wilson also notes that good music comes out of hard work. “It’s play because it’s fun, it’s music. But most of it comes out of work. For some reason, it all comes out work.”
Speaking of hard work . . .
Reason No. 10: Work on your craft.
This is probably the single most important fiction writing lesson from songwriting. It’s fun, for sure, but it’s also a heck of a lot of work. And it’s serious business. It doesn’t matter if nobody hears my songs. I’m going to craft them to the best of my ability because I care. It’s that simple. And once you do this enough, when you’ve got enough repetitions under your belt, instinct takes over, guiding your every word.
Janis Ian said, “Once you reach a certain level as a songwriter, the craft is always there talking to you in the back of your head.” She calls it a little Geiger counter inside her head. It’s that thing that tells you when its time to go to the chorus, when it s time to rhyme. Real basic craft. “And the nice thing about having enough craft is that you can go on instinct,” Ian said, “because it’s second nature.” This takes work and years of practice, which is probably why I knew it was going to take a lot of hard work to become a published fiction writer. And that’s exactly what it took.
Now, I don’t intend for this essay to imply that all songwriters can become genre fiction writers with a snap of the fingers or a crinkle of the nose. What it did, without my realizing it, was to fill my writer’s toolbox with some essential tools. Perhaps I would have acquired these tools without having first been a songwriter, but it might have taken me twenty years instead of ten to get published. Those tools gave me the confidence I needed to believe I could one day learn the craft. They fueled my perseverance, which is why songwriting helped make me an accidental novelist.