When I was young I was in a band. I know, I know, who wasn’t? I was the guy by the microphone stand, hitting A-chords and holding my right hand up in the air while I shouted the lyrics. The glory-whore in need of endless attention. I was also the principal songwriter in the group. It was supposedly my forte (‘cause God knows I could barely play that guitar.) Back then, people always said, “You’d make a great writer. Your songs can really tell a story.” Some of the time I believed them. Now, people say, “Com’on, Tom. You were a songwriter; it’s got to easy to write a book.”
I’m not sure why people have always assumed such a connection between the two. It’s a little like saying, “Hey, you’re a painter, you’ve got to be good a making pastries.” The two are mutually exclusive. There is a fundamental difference in how one approaches either task.
Music, lyrically speaking, is made up of word-play. Catchy phrasing that sounds somehow familiar to the ear. Lyrics that, when shadowed with a double entendre, can take a commonplace idiom and twist it to give it a profound relevance. Need examples? Look no further than any country song. Country music is rife with puns and word-play. Them good ol’ boys take it to the extreme. Thank you George Jones for lines like, “I’ve learned to stand on my own two knees,” or Charlie Pride’s more subtle, “She’s too good to be true.” You know who else is masterful at that stuff? Elvis Costello, a craftsman whose examples are too many to list. (Okay, just one, “I’d step on the brakes to get out of her clutches.”) Don’t get me started on puns for album names either, from Rubber Soul to Aladdin Sane, the examples are endless.
Writing, on the other hand, teaches us to avoid the familiar, to abstain from repetition. Even using the same word twice in a paragraph can leave a bad taste in the mouth. (Sorry Chuck Palahniuk, I know the repetition is meant to give your work a poetic rhythm, but I got it already. I got it by the end of the second chapter.) When you compose prose, you want to stay away from tired old sayings, from phrases that sound borrowed, and from, the worst of all, overused metaphors. Cute as a button? Sick as a dog? Not on this page, thank you. Innocuous phrases like “the task at hand” and “at the end of the day” are pure poison.
Regarding novels, the one exception I can think of for the rule of familiar phrases is the title. Hemingway immediately comes to mind. To Have and Have Not, For Whom the Bell Tolls? That guy could pick a title. Picking a good title is an art. Mailer was pretty good at picking them, too. The Naked and the Dead. Classic. You have to pick it up, it calls to you.
We love these murky phrases that sound vaguely familiar. Like a déjà vu. Where did he get that title? Shakespeare, no. Tennyson? Hmmn. There are a lot of titles that emote a timeless feel. Even the simple ones pulled from nursery rhymes. Who knew All the Kings Men could sound so, well, grown up? They sometimes trick us into believing the content is somehow part of that great lineage we can’t quite put our finger on. That’s the game. If Hemingway used a title like, The Spoiled Gossip-Hounds of Paris, would he have scored? No, The Sun Also Rises definitely gives off a more classy air.
Back to my original point, songwriting and being a novelist are two separate entities. That’s why Keith Richards had someone ghost-write his book and why Stephen King’s band is still struggling. Just because one comes naturally, it doesn’t mean the other will. After all, John Lennon sang, “I want to be a paperback writer.” He didn’t say he was one. (We’re still trying to forgive him for A Spaniard in the Works.) So if you’re a writer who occasionally wets himself with rock star envy, don’t fret, it is decidedly more difficult to create a 100k-word original work than it is to come up with four stanzas of borrowed word-play that may or may not have something to do with having sex in the back of a car.