The Craft: Song Lyrics

Many writers advise new writers to read as much as possible. I agree, though I suspect that for most writers that’s taking coals to Newcastle. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t love to read. It would be more than passing strange if I ever did. However, LyricsI think listening to music can be an even more crucial part of learning the writing craft. Think about it, as a novelist I have approximately 300 pages or so to get my point across. Song lyricists have four minutes at the most. Their phrases have to be dead on with no dead wood to distract from the point. Since I’m always trying to make my writing as spare as possible, I listen to song lyrics a lot. 

Billy Joel is one who has stuck with me all my life. He introduced a phrase into the lexicon that people are still arguing over: real estate novelist. Isn’t that amazing? I mean, in his song Piano Man he could have simply referred to a real estate agent who wanted to be a writer. But think about all the dead wood in such a description. Real estate novelist pares it to the bone, yet paints an evocative picture that still resonates thirty-five years later.

Prince is another lyricists who enchants me. “She had a pocket full of horses, Trojans, some of them used.” Again, he could’ve simply said the girl had been around, instead with twelve words he gives you a biography. Prince can also be almost cryptic in his sparseness. “In September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time. Now he’s doing horse, it’s June.” The casual nature of the phrase ‘it’s June’ has more impact than if he’d engaged in all manner of histrionics. It’s a simple statement of fact, and it hits you harder all for it. 

Sting is an absolute master with his turns of phrase. “Of a thousand rainy days since we first met,” is simply a beautiful lyric that just oozes romance. (Apparently so much so that John Mayer lifted it. I have no idea if he gave Sting credit or not.) 

I like to listen to lyrics and remake the phrases into my own. For instance, Gordon Lightfoot’s “Superior sings in the rooms of her ice water mansions.” Damn, could it get any better than that? Little wonder that a thirty year old song about a ship wreck has become such a classic! (Yeah, I really do get excited about song lyrics.) Anyway, last night I was playing with this one, “His brows arched into fiery castles on his otherwise immobile face.” Is ‘fiery castles’ as good as ‘ice water mansions?’ Of course not, but then Gordon Lightfoot was a lyrical genius. I do think the phrase is much better than ‘he raised his brows.’ 

I have no idea where I’ll use this one, or if I’ll use it at all. I like to do this as exercise, even if I never actually use them. Man, if I could come up with something like that ‘Little Red Corvette’ line. Wow!

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