Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Writing songs vs writing fiction. Compare and contrast.
I have to think that different parts of the brain are involved in the two processes.
Usually, I’ll start a piece of fiction with the germ of an idea, a set-up, or a conceit. Sometimes it’s as simple as a one-liner like: “A man is visited by his future self.” Then I’ll begin sketching the background the characters are going to be moving around in. Names, locations, relationships. I’ll start improvising the opening, and at the same time I’ll probably write some notes about how the plot might develop. And, day by day, the thing will take shape and begin to gel.
With a song like “Never Is Forever,” above, it’s a completely different scenario. Most often the song gets going with a chord progression. Here, I was messing around one day with the rhythmic hook Pete Townshend uses in The Who’s version of “Summertime Blues,” from Live At Leeds. Gradually I worked in a different set of chords and began to play with some melodic ideas over them.
It stayed that way for weeks.
Partly I had to learn how to play my own song. I was nowhere near ready to try recording it. For one thing, it didn’t have a chorus or middle eight yet, and it had no lyrics. Plus, at that point, I had no idea what the song would be about, though its tempo and basic feel suggested something offbeat and humorous.
With fiction, though, it’s hard to separate out one element that would be equivalent to a chord progression in a song and work it out before moving on to other elements. Maybe hammering out the entire plot before writing a word would be similar, but when I’ve tried that in the past I’ve found it easy to become detached from my characters. A novel, for me, gets made more organically, a sentence at a time.
Once I was comfortable with the chords and structure of “Never Is Forever,” which was still untitled, I recorded the rhythm guitar part to a drum loop. This established the final tempo and length and gave me a good framework to play with for the overall sound of the track. I added a bass line with my MIDI keyboard, choosing a muted rock-style bass sound, and then I tried some ideas for a lead guitar solo. In this case, I decided to keep it short and sweet, and ultimately I’d put some vocals over the lead section too. Since I’d based the song on “Summertime Blues,” I went with a lead built around the A minor pentatonic scale, which is a typical rock and roll sound a la Chuck Berry.
The novel I’m working on now, in contrast, has me feeling my way forward like a mole digging a fresh tunnel. I have a general sense of where I want to go, I think I understand my protagonist pretty well, and I’ve settled into a tone that feels right for the material. In the back of my mind I have a few plot points as markers ahead, knowing in the loosest way where they should take place in the word count. But compared to songwriting, this is much more a leap of faith and I always risk the possibility that I’ll have to start over if I hit a major obstacle. Sometimes you can’t see as far ahead as you need to, only to stumble upon an impassable canyon in your path.
But “Never Is Forever” started to cohere when I went to my lyrics notebook and saw the title, which I’d written down months ago. What could that possibly mean? Never is forever. I’d recently read one of those books about what we know about the universe (I think it might have been The Big Picture by Sean Carroll), so the meaning of time was probably swimming around in my head. When you think about it, “never” is a backwards version of “forever.” Something that never happens fails to happen forever. I was developing a vocabulary to use in my song. Then I thought it would be fun and funny to have the song’s persona talk about these ideas rather than sing them, like he’s just trying to work out the concepts and talk them through. It’s SCIENCE!
Then came the phrase: “We’ll be looking at our future through the rearview mirror,” and I went, Yes!
Once I had the conceit of the song down pat, I could mess around with its color, so I picked a couple of interesting synthesizer models to give it a spacy feel. I also found a laser beam sound on GarageBand to throw in at the end. After all the recording was done, I could do the mixing and tweak the sound of the individual tracks, then master it to the best of my limited abilities and send it on to the online app that does a final mastering much better than I can.
As for my novel in progress? I wish it were as easy to wrap up as the song. I wish there were technical tools that help writers tweak and repair and hide flaws and punch up weaknesses, but all we have as writers is that part of the brain that does the heavy lifting.
Imagination and creativity are at work in both endeavors. A song takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to bring to fruition, but a lot of the time it feels like a novel is never really finished. Even after it’s published. Scary business.
But, like the song says, Whenever I feel afraid … I whistle a happy tune. Or write one, anyway.