Sunday, March 28, 2010

Writerly Stuff: When a Book is Like a Song

Have you noticed that one thing many avid readers have in common is a love of music? Authors will often cite favorite musical influences during interviews, even to the point of referencing the type of music they listen to when writing a certain type of scene.

My writing background includes a stint as a lyricist. Having had the experience of tailoring a song lyric to fit a melody, it occurred to me that there are some similarities between a well crafted song and a well written novel.

Take, for example, “the hook.” In a novel, the hook refers to those critical beginning pages designed to engage your reader and keep him or her turning pages. In a song, “the hook” can refer to any element that grabs the listener’s attention and makes the song memorable. Some songs hook the listener immediately with their opening bars. Remember the first time you heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen or “Stairway to Heaven?” In some cases the hook is a repetitive instrumental figure or lyrical phrase, but it’s what you remember long after the song has ended.

There are “light” content songs just like there are “light” content novels. Think of any novelty song that made you laugh, such as the Elmer Fudd version of “Blue Christmas” that gets dusted off and played every Christmas. Compare the novelty song to a classic like “Unchained Melody” and a difference in depth and tone will emerge. Both types of songs have value because most listeners like to vary what they listen to based to their mood, just as readers don’t necessarily want to stick to reading in one genre all the time.

Trends affect both the music and book publishing industries. Careers rise and fall on the whim of “what’s hot and what’s not” although it could be argued that it’s easier for a novelist to switch genres than it is for musical artists to reinvent themselves. Author Mary may switch from writing chick lit to paranormals while Pop Artist Mary might try pumping new life into a stale pop music career by switching to country.

Another similarity between books and music is imitation, (or outright plagiarism in some cases). Most writers find a formula and stick to it. There are classic themes in literature, and it’s generally agreed that little new territory is being carved out these days. The challenge is in finding fresh ways to explore universal themes. In music, artists “sample” each other’s work or acknowledge borrowing from each other, such as the bass line from “Ice, Ice, Baby” that sounds eerily similar to Queen’s “Under Pressure.”

Whether you’ve written a novel or a song lyric, success is measured by whether or not your work has resonated with your intended audience. In the case of a song, you’ll want to have left your listener humming the tune or remembering a bit of the lyric. As a novelist, you’ll want your reader to re-read favorite bits of dialogue or narrative.

And novelists take heart: a song has only minutes to make an impression. You have a few hundred pages. Make the most of them.

Lisa Marie

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