Sunday, 27 July 2014

Writing A Novel vs. Writing Lyrics

I'll be the first to stick my hand up and say I was a late arrival to the novel-writing party.

 I'd certainly tried writing novels in the past - I think the first one was when I was about eighteen or so (for the life of me I can't remember what I called it or what is was about, so it must have been so godawful I've blocked it out.) As the years went by I tried to write several more, many of which still languish in tatty old notebooks in a dingy cupboard somewhere or in the Story Graveyard Folder on my computer. So yeah... novels? Something I was more than a bit crap at, judging by the evidence (or rather, my consistent lack of it.)

Lyrics for songs, on the other hand...

I'd been writing lyrics since my early teens - and unlike novels, I did finish the majority of them. I wrote them for myself (although I was way too shy to sing in public, so god knows what I thought I was ever going to do with them) I wrote a few for some singers in local bands (no formal copyright stuff, just gave 'em away - hey, it was in the hippie-chick-ing, doing-it-for-the-karma-man period of my life...) And, in my mid-twenties, I collaborated with Stephen W. Rodgers, an American composer, to write the lyrics for two stage musicals - Cinderella and Peter the Great. Both were performed publicly and received good reviews from theatre critics. And ever since then I've continued to write lyrics; 'straight' ones geared towards the mainstream music scene, comedy ones and parodies of existing songs a' la Weird Al Yankovich. (I've written over 100 parody songs alone.)

Lyrics were always things I could write pretty easily - and finish pretty easily. Novels... not so much. And yet every time I started a novel I wanted to finish it - but somehow, for years, never could. Eventually, after stumbling upon Chuck Wendig's excellent blog and being inspired by his advice (the most important bit of all being "finish your shit") I began to wonder why. What was it about writing lyrics that I found easy - and writing novels that I found hard?

The most obvious theory is of course to do with length (said the actress to the bishop...) The average song is designed to last somewhere between three and seven minutes, while the average novel  is designed to last... um - flippin' ages - well, a lot longer than a song, anyway. Aha,  it seems I've found the answer - when it comes to writing I clearly have the attention span of a goldfish!

Except that doesn't really hold water when it comes to writing lyrics for stage musicals - particularly in the case of the second one, Peter the Great. There were no previous stage productions - musical or otherwise - that I could read to 'get an idea' of the story; it hadn't been done before. Instead, Stephen and I had to research his life using academic and historical textbooks, pulling out the parts we felt would be interesting and structuring them into a coherent plot. In other words, using the same process used for outlining a novel. And while it's true to say that in place of chapters containing scenes in a book we had scenes containing songs on a stage, the commitment to a cohesive story as a whole was just as important. So no, it wasn't simply that I was only capable of creating five-minute-long stories.

However, when I started breaking down the structure of stage lyrics compared with the structure of novel chapters, some key differences emerged. Particularly when I compared my strengths as a lyricist to my weaknesses as a novelist.

 Description, for example, has always been my weak point in my novels. Like an over-geeked George Lucas, I tend to dump my characters in front of little more than green screens a lot of the time, with this vague idea that the awesome CGI-o-vision that's rocking in my head will somehow magically translate to the readers without me having to paint anything in myself at all. This is a direct result of writing lyrics, of course. In a song on a stage you've already got the set doing the work - and since you've only got a few minutes to tell the audience what's going on plot-wise (about 20-30 lines of lyrics) you can't waste them bibbling on about the view and the ambiance. Being good at describing scenery was something that I not only didn't have to learn as a lyricist, but would even have been a handicap to the process - so in a sense, I almost had to train myself not to be good at it.

Another key difference is the speed at which plot is given. In a novel the pacing ebbs and flows; some parts are more emotional and therefore more at a slower pace, while the more action-packed parts move faster. Either way, the pace still feels 'natural' to the reader, even when there are jumps forward in time. Stage lyrics, on the other hand, because they're also songs as well as chunks of story, tend to fall into one of two categories. On the one hand, you can have an entire song for one small, special moment (rare, but usually saved for the 'memorable songs' - y'know, the ones you envisage being the 'favourites,' that wannabe actors will pick for their 'audition pieces' in years to come.) Or, on the flipside, one song can whoosh through a whole chain of events like a high-speed train. "Peter needs a wife! We must invite tons of women to the palace! Oh look, here they all are - why, they all seem to want to marry the rich and powerful tsar-in-waiting! Not her, she's too fat! Not her, she's not classy enough! Not her, she looks like a horse! Oh wait - this miserable-looking one looks like she'll be a proper doormat, so let's have her! Well, that's quite a random choice, mother, but hey - you're the boss I suppose..." (Those aren't the actual lyrics to the particular Peter the Great song in question, but it does give some idea of how quickly the events zip past.)

And then there's the whole 'rhythm and rhyming thing' that you have with song lyrics. They've gotta fit the tune they're going to be sung to, and, while they don't have to rhyme, audiences do seem to prefer it when they do. Obviously, doing all of that and still making it sound like normal, naturalistic speech is next to impossible, so, in exchange for all of that lyricists - like poets - are granted huge amounts of creative license when it comes to proper use of grammar and sentence structure. And cliches too. Cliches are the invention of Satan in novels - but can be almost comforting in song lyrics. Basically, in their quest to Make Stuff Rhyme And Fit, lyricists can do things with the English language that would make Strunk and White cry like babies.

All of the above traits have helped me write lyrics over the years, because lyrics are compact and fairly abstract boxes, where getting your point across involves packing as much as you can into the small amount of space you have to work with. By comparison, the landscape of a novel is a vast, open wilderness; you must still choose your words carefully and not waste them, but that doesn't mean applying the same principles as for lyric-writing and then simply scattering the results over a bigger area. That, I've come to realise, is where and why all my previous attempts at novels failed.

So... it's been Back to Writing School for me while writing The Renegades, metaphorically speaking. I've been reading tons of writing how-to books to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, along with following the blogs and online tutorials of various authors who know their stuff. I've focused mainly on improving my outlining and plot structuring skills, and learning how to incorporate descriptions without resorting to cliches. It'll be a long, hard road I'm sure - but I'll stay on it for however long it takes to make The Renegades the best it can be.

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