What Songs Teach Us About Fiction Writing

While most of the songs I listen to don’t merit much analysis—okay, so I admit it, I listen to a lot of artists philosophers aren’t supposed to like…I’m more likely to be listening to Michael Jackson than Arvo Part or Satie—other songs employ solid writing techniques that are worthy of discussion. Point of view (most are in 2nd, for good reason), voice, mood, tension, pacing even. And I’m not even getting into the music, but I suppose in the best songs, the sound must coalesce with the lyrics in the same progression, also telling and reinforcing a story.

Storytelling. I bet a lot of you are thinking, folk songs. But there are some surprises out there. I Heard Love is Blind by Amy Winehouse is an unexpected one. It took me a long time to come around to her. I just didn’t much care for Rehab and so I never bothered to listen to her other tracks. It wasn’t until after she died that I started listening to some songs from her album Frank, which is the strangest mish-mash of styles, all coming together coherently.

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Fiction writers—you’ve heard it. It all starts with voice. Once you’ve got the voice, you just keep writing, go, go, go. No voice, no go. In songs, we often talk about the voice of the vocalist, but rarely about the voice exhibited by the lyrics.

I find most pop lyrics quite expendable, to tell the truth. I wanna rock with you all night. Don’t get me wrong, I love these songs. I’m contemplating doing a cover by James Morrison which has similarly vacuous lyrics (and I love him, that’s not a criticism!) But in these I don’t pay attention to the lyrics, which for the most part can be boiled down to Let’s have sex. 

To be precise, the lyrics of these songs aren’t quite expendable, but they certainly can be replaced with whatever words. Na, na, na…nanananaaaah!

In Winehouse, the voice comes from a solid point of view, a unique perspective on the world that invokes a troubled soul, at once vulnerable and rough. Amy Winehouse, love her or hate her, was a strong character. Besides the character invoked by the lyrics is an entire world of moods and influences that converge in a way very few artists are able to do. She did more than tell a story. She acted that story. The story came from her character, not the other way around, which makes the narrative more compelling. Her persona and stage presence (which was probably very different from the actual Amy Winehouse, despite the real life connection to Rehab) had all the things you want to draw out of your fictional characters, most importantly their spectacular contradictions and imperfections.

So here’s my imperfect cover of I Heard Love is Blind…I’m recording, once again, on my iPod in the kitchen.

One version of her song starts out as a soft jazz tune, evoking something classy, sophisticated. You want to hold a martini and lean against a shiny black grand piano. But the lyrics…oh the lyrics. They tell the story of a ridiculous girl—one would not be off the mark in calling her a stupid ho though I’m reluctant to use that phrase—who cheats on her boyfriend/husband and rationalizes this act in hilarious ways, “I was thinking of you when I came.”

And, from this point of view, it’s her boyfriend’s fault she cheated on him. “What did you expect? You left me here alone.”

What’s working here: There’s a back story, “off the page” so to speak. We suspect her ‘steady’ is not such a savory character himself. The world this ‘protagonist’ inhabits is decidedly low class.

There’s tension. What’s going to be the response from her boyfriend? It will probably involve an equally irrational reply, probably much worse.

There’s excellent pacing. The song title, Love is Blind, comes into the last line as a satisfying conclusion to the story, wrapping up the blindness and rampant irrationality that came before. The mood begins in apologetic explanation, then, perhaps after an ‘off the page’ response, anger. Then to soften the blow, “But he looked like you…”

All of this in the context of soft jazz, a sophistication that has so much ugliness bubbling under the surface.

The music is something we don’t have as fiction writers. But that contrast of the music to the story is something we can learn from. A clashing environment, a stylistic juxtaposition to the content.

What contrasts can you come up with that might help you tell your story in an interesting way? How do songs influence your writing?

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Rejection Letters

Today I got my first rejection letter for a short story, but it’s good news. Here’s why…

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It’s better to receive a crappy one-line personal note than a form letter. It means you stood out in the slush pile. Someone took time out of his or her busy day to send you a personal reply. Here’s mine:

“The focus was a bit lost, but you have the potential for a strong voice, which we like.

Unfortunately this particular piece was not a right fit for One Teen Story, but we were very impressed by your writing. We hope that you will feel encouraged by this short note and send us something else.

We look forward to reading more.

Sincerely,

The Editors of One Teen Story”

Why am I so excited about this? Well first of all, I submitted this story on impulse, forgetting that the protagonist tells a girl to “suck on his cock.” Yes. That’s right. To a YA magazine. After I realized what I had done, I had no expectations whatsoever for this piece. In fact, I had forgotten that I had submitted it.

It’s not clear that they rejected the piece for this reason. Interesting.

Secondly, they took the time to tell me “The focus was a bit lost” which probably means I need to do a lot more editing on the piece. I will admit something I’m very ashamed of—I didn’t submit this to my writing group. No one else read it. That was stupid of me, and I’m not going to make that mistake again.

Thirdly, they think I have the “potential for a strong voice” which means I probably need to work on that too. It was close, though. It caught their attention. I should go through this piece and check for inconsistencies. Workshop it a bit. Cut the fat.

And the best part: “We look forward to reading more.”

See how much you can learn from just a few lines in a rejection letter?

Happy happy joy joy.

Finding Voice

Don’t just stand there. Let’s get to it. Strike a pose. There’s nothing to it.

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Copy—steal—abscond with striking characters you read out of magazines and newspapers. Vogue, for instance. Or that loud opinionated guy sitting behind you on the bus. Or that lisping girl working the register at Walmart who won’t bother to smile, not even at your funny jokes. Or your friend’s friend who says “literally” literally all the time. Yeah, that guy. Get that voice in your head and write. Pick someone you don’t like…even better. The best. In fact, the crucial point here is write someone you don’t like.

It’s a way to get out of a rut. Just try on a new character the way you would if you were at a thrift store looking for a cheap and clever Halloween costume. Don’t worry about the audience. Think: It’s a one night stand! What do I care? Don’t worry about getting it published. Just get in that persona as best you can.

I realized that I haven’t shared any of my fiction with you, so here’s something. This is an excerpt from a short story I wrote which was inspired by a newspaper article about a sign flipper (those guys who stand on the street corner in funny costumes to advertise for nearby businesses). It was his life story from drug dealer to prison to Christian:

I Saw the Sign

When I walked in Ginger said hi to me all normal like I hadn’t been missing in action a good chunk of her life. She took me out back for a smoke.

“When did you get out of jail, hm?” She thumped out one of her menthol GPCs from the soft pack. Tell you what. If I’m gonna buy a Generic Pack of Cigarettes, I’ll be getting the hard pack so at least I don’t have to smoke my chemicals all bent and broken. And not menthol either. But women like those menthols for some reason. She gave me one which I took cause my po ass was doing rollies.

“Didn’t you used to be all fancy smoking those Marlboros?” I said, popping one in my mouth. She lit it. I tried not to make a stank face at the mintyness of it.

“Used to. Now I’ve got my daddy’s inheritance.”

“Oh, you mean a whole lot of nothing?”

“Yeah,” she said, putting her hand on her spicy hip like those raccoon-eye bitches on MTV. That wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear, but she wasn’t gonna lie. That she did inherit from me. “So answer me. When did you get out?”

“Couple days ago.” I started getting misty-eyed. “Haven’t seen you in a long time.” Here she was looking like a hoochie mama and I was remembering her picking a dandelion and handing it to me, her little diaper butt swishing around like a garbage bag full of leaves.

“I know.” Like she don’t give a flying fuck. She took that smoke in her lungs hard and didn’t seem to want to let go. Probably because it was her first break in a long while or something. Gotta let that nicotine get in the head and swish it around for awhile before spitting it out.

Damn alley kept farting out little pockets of nasty all up in the air. I was glad the smoke was covering it a little. Ginger pinched her nose. “Pee-ew,” she said. “That’s narsty! Did you do that?”

I smiled. There was my little girl. Come back to dad. “Me? Hell no. I thought that was you.”
She was almost smiling.

She stopped almost smiling, remembering she hated my fucking guts. “You keeping out of trouble?” I asked her just to keep her talking about her and not me.

“What does it look like.”

“I see you’ve got yourself a legit job.” You know you got a legit job when you’re stuck smoking your cigarettes in a alley fearing for your life which you only get to smoke every so often so you have to suck it in like it’s your last.

“I’ve always got myself a legit job.”

“You know it. So how old are you now?” I asked only to see what she’d say and to move some air.

“So how long are you gonna stay out of trouble?” she asked, knowing my bullshitting game pretty well by now.

“I’m sleeping behind the church over by the university. Pastor up there’s got me a tent and I’m hooked up to the church’s electricity and got a little space heater. Pretty posh for a grubby fuck—sorry—guy, like me. How’s it going with you? Got yourself a man?” I was trying not to drop the F-bomb every five seconds because I knew I sounded like a low class motherfucker.

“Yeah.”

“What’s his name?”

“What difference does it make? By the time you remember his name I’ll have a new one anyway.”

“I can’t help it if my frain is bried, darling. Give your old man a break.”

“Norman,” she said.

Our cigarettes were done. She threw hers down like it was the most repulsive thing she ever touched. I squashed it out for her with my Converse. She headed back in.

“Spice girl?”

“What?”

“We’ll be seeing each other, right?”

She turned like she was gonna leave my miserable ass hanging, but then I heard, just barely, “K.” Almost like she’d rather be hocking a big fat loogie in my face.

This thing is long, so I’m not posting all of it.

I had the hardest time with this piece. A lot of people read it and they kept saying the voice was inconsistent. “Would he really say boobies instead of tits? How does he know about Freud? He sounds professorial here.” Ugh. just kept creeping in. Get out! I told myself. It required a lot of effort to keep this voice sustained, a million rewrites, but it was worthwhile for me to get into a mindset utterly different from my own. Cursing like a meth head felt uncomfortable. Purposely messing up the grammar felt even more uncomfortable. My character is not someone I want to meet. I really hate him, if you want to know the truth. But being able to jump into this mindset helped me to acquire skills I wouldn’t otherwise have. It required a lot more attention to detail: vernacular, syntax, punctuation. It’s part of growing as a writer.

They say you should have sympathetic characters. Maybe so. But if you take on a voice you really dislike and make your audience care about him or her, then you’re really doing something clever and great. Why not take on the challenge?

So if you don’t know what to write or you feel things are getting boring, maybe it’s time to get uncomfortable. Keep an open mind next time you’re at the doctor’s office thumbing through a stupid magazine or stuck at a dinner party with someone annoying. You never know.