Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Tuesday Thoughts

As a writer, I think of the lyrics in music as a specific kind of form poetry.  Beyond the requirements of rhyme, lyrics have to follow melodic flow, with emphasis and syllables laid out appropriately to the rhythm and beat.  That's the challenge and reward of lyrics:  to bring out the message in a very specific structure.  I have little patience for musicians whose lyrics either don't rhyme (I'm old-school:  songs are supposed to rhyme!) or whose later verses make a hash of the melody / rhythm to smash a certain amount of syllables into a line.

Ideally, lyrics tell a story.  Within these limits, it's a story implied or even written the listener, but there is a sense, not just of the "now" moment of the song, but things coming before and/or after.  To be successful, lyrics usually have to be universal; to be interesting, they have to strike an unusual chord (all musical pun intended).  For me, certain song lines jump out and stick with me.  I've been on a bit of a self-improvement kick of late, so my current picks tend to show that:

No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from -- "Life Uncommon" by Jewel

As if my luck and hope had found each other -- "I Believe" by Sophie-Ellis Bextor

I'm dealing with the changes, this complicated strangeness of seeing life this way -- "This Is Me" by Faith Hill

The things I write are only light extemporanea.  I won't put politics on paper, it's a mania!  So I refuse to use the pen in Pennsylvania.  -- "But Mr. Adams" from the 1776 soundtrack   (This whole soundtrack is filled with brilliance.  It's particularly awesome that some direct quotes from the historical figures are actually *woven into the songs.*  "Is Anybody There?" includes the line, "Through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory" which was actually written by John Adams in a letter to his wife.)

(But I digress.)

I've been down and for too long forgotten; on occasion, I'll stay there for days.  And I'll act like a clown, and I'll tear myself down, just for someone to fill me with praise -- "I'd Rather Be Alone" by Helen Reddy

Of course, musicals have a bit of an advantage in that the story context has already been provided, so their lyrics can fill in the specifics.  That said, my favorite lyrics probably do come from musicals:  1776, Wicked, Camelot, Into The Woods.

Of course, the music is not only equally important, the mood and instrumentation should augment the lyrics, increasing their power.  Some examples:

He Never Mentioned Love by Kirsty MacColl -- I have loved this song for a long time, and I can still put it on loop with great pleasure.  The beauty of it is the first listen (or a casual listen) tells one story, and a deeper listen to the lyrics brings the realization that the story is actually the opposite of the singer's claims.  The bouncy, chipper instrumentation and melody are something of a contrast, which works beautifully here.  Kirsty tends to do a fair amount of this - another one to check out is "Children of the Revolution," which sounds so happy until you pay attention to the words ...

What Is This Feeling? from Wicked -- I adore these lyrics.  The whole song is a near-parody of upbeat, triumphant love songs, and the lush, overwrought Disney-esque ensemble arrangement is the icing on the cake.  (Please excuse some of the typos in this version - I grabbed the first one I could find with the words.)

Chasing The Sun by Sara Bareilles - all right, so I know Bareilles is very mainstream, so I'm not exactly saying anything unique, but for my money, this song is the standout of The Blessed Unrest.  It blows the continuously clipped "Brave" out of the water.  Just the line "Skyscrapers' little tombstone brothers" sticks in my mind and won't leave.  Here there is some of the "cramming in syllables," but it's done in such a consistent way that it creates a rhythm of its own.  I also love that unusual pitch she hits on the word "sun" - it brings your awareness back to the gorgeous melody with that moment of surprise.

So that's my (way more than) two cents on the writing of lyrics.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Tuesday Thoughts

In working on my editing marks for Who Wants To Be A Hero? I've been reminded that humor has distinct pacing.  For me, I'm seeing three separate speeds, dependent on the type of humor ... and of course, timing is everything.  A mismatch drains the funny out of even the most clever setup.

1.  Quick hit.  A snappy remark, terrible pun, etc.  Setup for this needs to be subtle; it loses punch if one can see it coming.  On the other side, if the characters respond too much or drag out the logical conclusions of the joke, it becomes diluted - unless the follow-up is also comic in nature, of course.  This is probably the one I have the most trouble with, and a lot of my editing marks involve paring away the ungainly train behind the joke.

2.  Continuous buildup.  One quip or moment of humor builds on another, builds on the next, builds on the next ... in this kind of sequence, the length adds to the humor.  This kind of back-and-forth can still be ruined by going on too long, and if it's too short, it may never get off the ground.  The "level" of the jokes needs to move upwards - save the best for last.  I like to do this with pun sequences or a barrage of phrases in the same vein; the first one or two, you may not even notice.

3.  Anticipation.  This is usually character-based humor, but not always.  Here, it's all about the setup and laying out the joke in such a way that the reader knows what is coming and looks forward to it - and their expectations are met perfectly or even exceeded.

I certainly don't claim to be a master humorist, but I enjoy writing humor, and I've published a few stories in a comedic vein.  This is actually the second humorous novel I've written:  the first, Miss Understanding, involved a group of female adventurers from a fantasy world being dropped into our reality and having to participate in a beauty pageant to win their means home - maybe I'll rewrite it some day.  I've learned a lot from Who Wants To Be A Hero? and hopefully, the pay-out of that joke will be publication.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Tuesday Thoughts

I meant to write this post on Mother's Day, but since I was working, I only had enough free time to call my mother, watch Game of Thrones, and then pass out.  Still, I definitely feel the need to discuss what my mother gave me as a writer.

Despite having devoured The Lord of the Rings books so voraciously that my father (reputedly) said he'd have to grow hair on his hands and feet to get any attention, my mother is not generally a fantasy reader.  She tried to help me out with critiquing some of my early fiction, but about the time she wondered, "Why are all their names so strange?" I realized she might not be my best choice of first reader.

But she always challenged me to think of things in a different way.  My earliest stories involved a flock of rainbow sheep (... I don't even know where that came from), and when my second story had the same plotline as the first, she encouraged me to think of something new.  She always modeled for me the ideal of marching to the tune of your own drummer, including homeschooling me at a time when this was a radical notion and most people had no idea what homeschooling even was.  I can't even begin to estimate the impact this had on my ability, freedom and inclination to explore new ideas.

My mother never tried to fit a dodecahedral peg into a round hole.  She let me practice cursive by writing a guide to a medieval castle, the surrounding town, and its people.  And I learned parts of speech in a way I think provided me with a solid foundation:  she put together cards with sequins, each shape / color representing a different part of speech, and had me invent sentences that matched the pattern.  It was fun, it was concrete, and it got my imagination turning.

Then there was the word graveyard.  "Here Lies (X) - Died of Overuse," the paper headstones read, with X being a bland, simple word, "Replaced by ..."  It was my job to list as many synonyms, alternatives and replacements as I could think of.

As I grew older, she was (and still is) my cheerleader, even if my subject matter seemed foreign and bizarre to her.  She's had confidence in me even when I don't (which, if I'm being honest, is more often than not).  Then, of course, there was the moment when she read "Precious Cargo" from Space Sirens and raved about the story.  But that was really just a bonus, a final footnote to the foundation and secure footing she gave me.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Tuesday Thoughts

I have a peculiar quirk as a reader:  except in the case of nail-biting, gasp-worthy cliff-hangers, when I finish a book in a series, I don't immediately reach for the next.  Instead, I reach for another author, often something as different as possible.  It may be (in fact, usually is) months before I meander back for book #2 or #3.  This is nothing against the books:  I do this even with authors I adore.  After deep immersion and acquaintance with a world and group of characters, I feel the need for new fictional surroundings.

This tendency filters into my writing as well.  While most of my novels leave threads untied and possibilities open for future volumes, I typically don't feel the need to start working on those.  I don't have many story sets, where multiple short stories involve the same world or characters - probably my longest arc is the Ishene and Kemel stories, and those were written out of sequence.  The new path to a major publisher which has sometimes been touted - write short stories in the setting, get them published in pro magazines / anthologies, then write a novel - pretty much seems like a nightmare to me.   I feel for every author who's said they're tired of writing "another X novel."

I need variety - I need to periodically switch it up and do something different.  It's why I'm typically working on two or three projects at once, but of different sorts or in different stages.  Right now, that's writing Unnatural Causes - a high fantasy mystery / intrigue novel with a sometimes snarky non-human first person narrator - and editing Who Wants To Be A Hero? - a humorous fantasy novel involving multiple narrator viewpoints and a mix of third person and first.  I'm also pondering tackling my zombie novella.  I have what I hope is an unusual take on the idea, and it's so athwart what I usually do that I thought it would be a fun escape.

And isn't that what reading and writing are about - escape from the normal?