Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da: Writing Lessons from Songwriting


I love to write in a variety of formats, but one of my favorites is songwriting. I love the process, and I get really excited about the way people respond to songs. The addition of music strengthens the connection people feel to the words, so you can really get to a person’s heart. And while novel writing and songwriting are different in many ways, there are lessons to be learned from the making of music that can be applied to the writing of books. Let’s explore a few of them.

Make Every Word Count: A novel (or even a short story) obviously requires many more words than a song. The story is more complex, there’s a larger cast of characters, and you have to sustain interest over hours of a reader’s time, not minutes like you do with a song. But the brevity of a song has really taught me the power of choosing my words wisely. When you have just three and a half minutes—two verses, a chorus, and a bridge—to tell your whole story, you can’t include any fluff. To get your message across, you have to distill it down to its core. And while you have more room in a novel to tell readers what they need to know, you should still be trying to find that core. Only include backstory that impacts how your characters relate to the plot. Don’t introduce characters that aren’t vital to advancing the plot or teaching readers something vital about your protagonist. Leave out unnecessary stage direction (“He got up off the couch, walked to the door, turned the doorknob, and opened the door.”). Just because you can write as many words as you want doesn’t mean you should. Ensure they are all imperative to the telling of your story.

Plan, But Allow for Changes: When I write a song, I usually sketch out the ideas I want to cover in each of the verses, the chorus, and the bridge. Not specific lines, just the gist of what I want to convey. Then I go back and write the actual lines, following the “outline” I’ve set up. This ensures that I stay on track with telling the story I want to tell while making every word count and saves me from Second Verse Syndrome (a form of writer’s block where you finish writing the chorus and then stare blankly at the page with no idea how to move the story forward from there). But sometimes I get into a song and realize that I really want to evoke a slightly different emotion than I first thought. Or maybe I decide there’s a stronger way to tell the story. I might delete the first verse and move verse two into its place, then write a new second verse that better fits the new direction. Creativity can be messy like that. When it comes to writing a novel, a similar approach can work well. Call it a hybrid plotter/pantser method. You start with a general idea of the story you want to tell and the way you want to tell it to help keep you focused, but you leave room for midstream changes that will make things stronger. And for that main character who just won’t listen when you tell them what to do. You have a skeleton, but you allow the creative process to adjust how you flesh it out as you write.

Make Sure It Sings: I was a lyricist before I started writing melodies and playing the guitar, so my songs always start with a lyric. Once I have that down, I go back and add the melody. But sometimes I’ll write something that sounds great when read, but when I put it to music, it just doesn’t sing well. Maybe the words don’t flow well when sung or they’re hard to fit into a melody or they sound harsh when the song is mellow. For whatever reason, they fall flat when sung. I’ll go back to the lyric at that point and find a way to convey the same idea in words that trip off the tongue better. While you won’t actually be singing your novel (though don’t let me stop you!), the way the words “sound” still matters. There needs to be a flow to them. The words you use should pair well with the mood and emotion you want the book to convey in the same way my lyrics need to match up with the melody. Now, that’s not to say that all novels should be written in a lyrical style. A gritty crime novel written in poetic prose might be a bit odd. But whatever style you’re going for, make sure the flow of the words matches that mood. And do whatever it takes to up the level of your writing craft so that the words you’re writing don’t just lay out the story, they make it sing.

Lyrics Alone Aren’t a Song: As I mentioned above, I always start my songs with a lyric. But even after I have the words perfect, I don’t have a song. I just have lyrics. I still have to add a melody that supports the story and emotion of the words. After that, I need to add chords behind it and pick a strumming or picking pattern that conveys the right energy for the song. When that’s done, I might send the song to a demo studio for a produced demo, where they’ll add additional instruments and backing vocals. Now I finally have something I can pitch to music publishers. Writing a novel seems like a totally different process, but the principles are the same. You might have a great idea for a story, just like I had a great lyric. But that’s not enough. You’ll also need great writing at the sentence and paragraph level. You’ll need a plot structure that supports the story and emotion of the words and pacing that conveys the right energy for the book. When you’re done writing, you’ll benefit from outside help (beta readers, editors) to take your book to the next level. Then you’ll finally be ready to pitch to agents and publishers (or self-publish, if that’s the route you are going). A great story idea is absolutely vital, but it alone isn’t enough. Make sure all aspects of your novel are strong before you send it out into the world.

While songs and books are very different types of creative products, there are basic ideas behind the writing that apply to both. What types of creative activity do you engage in other than writing books? Can you share any lessons you have learned from those endeavors that make you a better writer?

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