Literary Pet Peeve #26 by Tom Pitts

So, if you write songs it should be easy peasy to write stories…right? Not so, says Piggyback (Snubnose Press) author–and musician–Tom Pitts, not even close. Sit back and allow Tom to vent a little about one of his literary pet peeves, why don’t you?

Tom PittsWhen 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.

Tom PittsRegarding 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.

Tom Pitts received his education on the streets of San Francisco. He remains there, working, writing, and trying to survive. You can learn more about Tom and his work by visiting his website.
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11 Comments

  • Trailer / Rock ’n’ Roll | Joe Clifford

    November 8, 2016 - 11:54 am

    […] Tom Pitts, has an evocative piece up over at Elizabeth A. White’s place. You can read it here. But if you’re too fucking lazy to click on a link, I can surmise it for you. Basically […]

  • pete moss

    February 1, 2013 - 8:04 am

    You right Chuck P is over rated. But Emile Zola could get away with repetitiveness.

  • Dyer Wilk

    January 31, 2013 - 10:58 pm

    Very well said, Tom. Like so many other people, I was also in a band years ago, and I was the sap with the mic who spouted profound bullshit. Writing fiction is a totally different art and, in my opinion, far more rewarding. Good call on the titles. Every airport bookstore and supermarket is packed with thrillers sporting nursery rhyme titles like “They All Fall Down” and “Give a Dog a Bone.” As for word repetition, I’m a stickler. Steinbeck could pull it off, but when writers like Richard Laymon do it, it just looks sloppy. Example: “She walked to the door. She paused at the door.” That kind of crap should be eliminated by the second draft.

    My only qualm is that you said John Lennon sang “I want to be a paperback writer.” Actually it was Paul doing the lead vocal. John was backup, singing a few repetitions of “paperback writer” along with plenty of harmonized “ahhhs.”

  • Chris

    January 31, 2013 - 9:27 pm

    Nice essay.

    I have an additional problem with people who call themselves “songwriters.” What is a song? If you just cranked out a couple paragraphs and a refrain in your precious little composition book, you didn’t really write a fucking song. You wrote some lyrics, at best, that MIGHT become a song. These jack-offs who brag about writing “three songs a day” but don’t come up with melody or music . . . eh, it fills me with rage. My idea of a “song” is the whole fucking package. It’s like saying, “I’ve written a series of novels that encompass a three-book cycle of rise, crash, and redemption on the mean streets of Levittown” when in reality you have two pages of outline and five pages of sex scenes you’ve pre-written for your character to engage in.

    One dude who gets both things right though is Willy Vlautin. He’s the main man for Richmond Fontaine and also writes fantastic novels. I dig that guy. . . .

  • sabrina ogden

    January 31, 2013 - 11:58 am

    I find myself rewording things if words sound too alike within a sentence… guy, by. I think reading aloud works well, but I do catch some books where lines have been repeated later, almost like they’ve meant to omit it from one section to be used elsewhere and then forgot and used the line again later, causing a repeat.

    I love this… “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.”

    Great post.

    • Tom PItts

      January 31, 2013 - 12:07 pm

      Thanks, Sabrina. I’ve definitely done that with a sentence I didn’t want to let go of. Then I have to repeat to myself that ol’ writer’s mantra: Kill your darlings, kill your darlings.

  • Mike Monson

    January 31, 2013 - 11:09 am

    I’m pretty sure that if I write the words “he cocked the trigger” one more time I’ll shoot myself with my fictional Glock 31.

    • Tom PItts

      January 31, 2013 - 12:09 pm

      Freud may have an interpretation of your constant need to use this phrase.

  • Elizabeth A. White

    January 31, 2013 - 10:57 am

    I agree; repeated use of a word in the same paragraph (hell, same page even) really annoys me. If the word or phrase is unique enough, it even stands out if it’s used more than once in the course of an entire book. Definitely have to be on guard for authors’ pet words/phrases when I’m editing and point it out to them.

  • Mike Monson

    January 31, 2013 - 10:48 am

    Yes. I’m a failed songwriter. Tried for years. People would laugh. Sample:

    Hey, baby, your love is a lie
    Hey, Baybay, oh yeah, your love is a lie
    It’s three in the morning, and all I can do is cry
    It’s three in the morning, and all I can do is cry.

    Anyway, Mr. Pitts, good column. I agree. I do NOT like seeing repeated words or cliches. It’s painful to look at, especially when I do it.

    • Elizabeth A. White

      January 31, 2013 - 11:00 am

      It seems as though authors often have blinders on to the fact they are even doing this; they honestly don’t realize they have “pet” words or phrases. Especially, I suppose, when pieces of a manuscript get written over a period of time and one may not even be conscious of the fact it’s being done.

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