Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Little Extra Tech

If you've been following me for any length of time, you know that I do the bulk of my writing using Evernote. It allows me to write wherever I happen to be, as long as I have my phone, or access to a computer.

Or, now that Christmas has come and gone, my new Kindle Fire HD 6. I'm enjoying the bigger screen and keyboard. Not that my ever-present iPhone won't play a major role in capturing ideas on the go, but for longer bouts of writing away from the computer keyboard, the Fire will be a great tool.

And, of course, it's a great way to read Kindle books. Including mine.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

In the Song Swing

Funny how I write. I have been trying to finish my unfinished song When the Kids Are Gone for a couple of weeks now. I thought I was writing She Works So Hard, but then suddenly some lines from the former song came into my head and wouldn’t leave me alone, and I thought I could just switch over, spend a few hours working the lines, and then get back to what I was doing.

But I just couldn’t get the last line to come. Actually, as it turned out, it was two lines that were thwarting me: the missing line, and the one before it that just had the most awful word at the end to rhyme with. I ended up writing the missing line, and that gave me the change for the line that preceded it.

Now, my usual method of working would have me sitting at my desk or the kitchen table poring over my thesaurus and the rhyming dictionary to come up with a bunch of combinations that might fit. But, every once in awhile, something happens, and When the Kids Are Gone just seems to be one of those songs. Having already written the chorus while driving to the laundromat (and now our washer is fixed—I hope that doesn’t kill my creativity), I filled in the final lines while watching my youngest son at basketball practice.

It was another one of those times when I thanked all the creative people who gave me my iPhone, and Evernote.

Now I can get back to work on She Works So Hard. And I hope it comes together soon, because I sort of wanted to give it to my wife as an extra Christmas present.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Writing Songs

I’m not a professional songwriter. Not yet, anyway. But there are people who are starting to think that I am a good songwriter, and so I though there might be some interest in my process for writing songs. Some of this is adapted from the work of Pat Pattison, and I can highly recommend his books if you want to improve your lyric writing. And if you have the chance to take the online songwriting course that he offers for free through the Berklee College of Music, via Coursera, jump on it.

I also learned a lot earlier in my life from the work of Sheila Davis. I’ll link to some books below.

So, how I go about writing a song. I’m a “lyrics first” songwriter, for the most part. At least, I start with a portion of a lyric, based on an idea, and write a verse and, when appropriate, a chorus. I’ll usually try to get the music together for those once I have them, so that the other verses can be written with the music in mind, and so that I don’t have to tweak too much to make things fit smoothly.

But I don’t just sit down and start writing full-blown lyrics. I start with an outline, based on Pat Pattison’s “box model,” which gives me an idea of how the song progresses from beginning to end, “gaining weight” (as Pattison says) as it goes to maintain interest and move the listener close and closer to the main idea of the song. Most of my songs are stories, so the progression is often a time progression, or a change in perspective (but not in point-of-view).

Then, with this outline, I write my whole song out in prose. I just lay down the ideas I’m trying to convey conversationally. So, for example, in the song I’m working on now, She Works So Hard, I have a section in the second verse that’s written like this:

She cuddles close
I barely stir but still I know she’s there
Almost when her head hits the pillow
She’s dreaming of the life that could have been

There’s no rhyme, no rhythm, and only a hint of the structure, but it’s the gist of what I want to say. Since I’ve already written the first verse (and two lines of the second), I know the exact rhythm and rhyme scheme I have to match. Here’s the first verse:

At ten o’clock she stumbles in
Too late to say goodnight to me or to the kids
She sits alone to watch TV
To settle down enough to go to sleep
Trying to grab a moment for herself
Because she always has to live and work for someone else.

The first two lines of the second verse are:

She comes upstairs, where I’m in bed
With dreams of fame and fortune dancing in my head.

Now I get out my two most valuable books. I’m not talking about the songwriting books; I rarely reference those during the actual process. No, it’s my thesaurus and my rhyming dictionary. I’ve linked the ones I use below, but both are a matter of personal taste, and you need to try on some different ones to find out what fits your style. I use the thesaurus to come up with a lot of different words I could use to express my ideas, because the first ones I come up with might not have any usable rhymes. Then the rhyming dictionary will give me a good list of rhyming words to choose from.

After that, it’s a matter of playing around with the words. For example, in this song, I like the line “I barely stir but still I know she’s there.” It expresses my thoughts precisely, with the right rhythm and the emphasis in all the right places for the existing music. There’s only one problem: all of the rhymes for “there” that I can come up with result in clumsy, forced ideas for the preceding line. That’s what I get for choosing a word that ends with an “r” sound. There are no good substitutes for the “r” sound, and so you’re pretty much stuck with perfect rhymes or consonant rhymes (for more on rhyme types, see Pattison’s Writing Better Lyrics).

So, although it will hurt, I will probably have to rewrite that line.

I go through like this, moving from section to section, not in order, but as I find ideas for the different sections, turing my prose into lyrics, until the last line falls into place. Then I record a rough version of the song, celebrate briefly, and go on to the next song.

There’s always a next song. I have far more ideas than time. You probably do, too, if you think about it, because ideas are all around you. Just make sure that any time you hear or see or feel or think something that would make a good song, that you capture it. In this day of smartphones, you always have a tool available to do that. I use Evernote for writing things down, and the built-in voice memo recorder on my phone to hum musical ideas. Before I had a smartphone, I has scraps of paper. Sometimes they got lost. Sometimes I found them years later, and they became a song. That’s what happened with I Guess I'll Learn To Live Without You. And Wake Up Call.

There’s something romantic, I guess, about digging up an old idea and giving it new life. But then I think of all the ideas that I probably wrote somewhere and never found. I like my new way better.

Here are links for some of the stuff I've mentioned:

Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison

The Craft of Lyric Writing by Sheila Davis

The Modern Rhyming Dictionary by Gene Lees

Roget's Super Thesaurus by Marc McCutcheon

I Guess I'll Learn To Live Without You on Soundcloud

Wake Up Call on SoundCloud

And an update: Pat Pattison's songwriting course, offered by Berklee College of Music through Coursera,  has a session coming up in February 2015. If you have any interest at all in songwriting, do this. Sign up now. Here's the link: Songwriting

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Life Interrupts Art

I thought that today would be the perfect day to catch up on a lot of writing. Oh sure, I had plans to pick up some lumber to shore up a temporary shed damaged by the recent snowstorm in this part of the country, but I wasn’t planning to do the actual repair until Thursday, in the sunshine, with warmer temperatures.

Then I saw the weather report. We’re expecting another storm tonight. Not like the last one, but still a few inches of icy snow followed by rain, enough to make me nervous about the shed, which houses my wife’s pet art project, a teardrop camping trailer that she and I have been building for nearly two years.

So, not so much writing today. Not that I won’t be writing at all, but it won’t be the marathon I originally pictured.

Perhaps Thursday. When there will be sunshine, and warmer temperatures. Assuming the forecast holds.

Monday, December 1, 2014


As I approach the end of the year, I am looking over the totality of my Web presence and considering a major reorganization.

That sounds so corporate. What I'm really trying to do is a combination of simplifying my life—an important task at my age—and attracting more attention to my work.

So, some changes are afoot. I can't really say what they are yet, mostly because I don't know, but you can expect that fewer alter-egos (and the various online accounts that go with them) will be part of the equation.

If you only follow me in one place, that means you'll be seeing more sides of my personality. And you may have to re-find me on another Twitter account or blog (although this blog is not going anywhere, but a name change might be in order). Of course, there’s always my Web site. That’s not going anywhere.

I might lose followers along the way, but that's a risk I'm willing to take. It's all one big experiment anyway, and if something isn't working, it's likely best to try something else.

See you on the other side!