Tuesday, January 31, 2012

14-1/2 tips on writing fast and not getting bogged down

For those of you participating in this year's February Album Writing Month Challenge, watch this blog for a series of tips on how to write quickly and avoid getting bogged down in indecision.

And if you're not a FAWM participant, these tips might still be helpful. Writing fast is the way to come up with your best and freshest material. If you have to throw quality out the window during your quick-writing sessions, you can pull it back in later, and spend as much time as you need on revising and refining your songs. Even if you take an extravagant amount of time in the cleanup phase, you still save time overall by using the quick-and-dirty approach to writing your first draft.

Tip #1 arrives on February 1!

While you're waiting, here are Robin Frederick's helpful tips on writer's block.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Seven ways to start verse 1

Do you sometimes get stuck trying to write the first line of lyrics for verse 1? You want to make a good first impression, so these few words carry extra weight. But don't let the pressure weigh you down while you're writing! Just try something and see how it works out.

Here are a few suggestions to help you get your pen moving:

1. Start with the title. Go straight to the main idea (and hook) of the song. Maybe you don't even need a chorus.
London calling to the faraway towns...
Let's dance. Put on your red shoes and dance the blues...

2. Describe a scene. Use descriptive imagery that sets up the song's emotional tone.
If you see a faded sign by the side of the road...
Steve walks warily down the street, his brim pulled way down low...

3. Introduce a person, place, or thing.
Just a small-town girl living in a lonely world...
There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold...

4. Issue an admonition, a command, a plea, a threat, or an accusation. The focus shifts to the character your narrator is talking to.
Hey Jude, don't make it bad...
Don't pull your love out on me, baby...

5. Ask a question. The listener immediately wonders about how you might answer the question.
If there's something strange in your neighborhood, who ya gonna call?
Did we fly to the moon too soon?

6. Make a startling suggestion or an outrageous claim. It grabs the listener's attention; they think, "Wait a minute, that can't be right." They'll tune in to see where you're going with this.
Imagine there's no heaven...
In your mind you have abilities you know/ To telepath messages through the vast unknown...

7. Start out with a paradox or contradiction, or two elements that don't seem to go together. The listener will follow along to see whether you can make sense out of the contradiction.
I am he as you are he as you are me...
Oranges on apple trees/ Birds that mate with bumblebees...

Need some more ideas and examples? Pick a favorite album, and take a look at its lyric sheet. How did they start verse 1? And did that first line help draw you into the song?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

How to frame your new songs before you write them

My last several posts have described what you can do in general to get ready to write a lot of songs in a short time. But you can also start working on individual songs, without actually starting to write them. I call this work framing a song, because it's kind of like putting together a picture frame before you start painting a picture.

Framing means getting a clear idea of what you want a song to accomplish. Creating the frame, in a way, is like formulating a question, and the song itself, when you finally write it, is the answer to the question.

Framing can take many different forms. You might have a song title in mind. You might have an experience or emotion that you want to convey in the form of a song. You might have a technical musical goal, such as writing in a musical style that you've never worked in before. You might gather a few pictures and create a little collage that conveys a mood that you want to translate into a song. Or you might have a specific song that you like, or a group of songs, that you want to try to imitate without copying directly.

Ideally, framing means gathering together your best inspiration, love, and enthusiasm into an organized space where you can use its energy to help forge your newest creation.

If you've decided to pursue the FAWM 2012 goal of writing 15 songs, here's an example of how you could start framing your songs now so you'll be ready to start writing on February 1.
  1. Count out 15 sheets of blank paper. (If you use them up, you can add more sheets later.)
  2. On each sheet of paper, try to write down at least one idea or goal that could serve as the starting point of a new song.
  3. Look through the sheets of paper a few times over the next several days, and see if you can add ideas, words, images, or musical strategies to flesh out each song frame. (To stick with the rules of FAWM, don't start writing actual lyrics or music until 2/1.)
I know that some people find it hard to start with blank paper. If it's easier, you can start with these three forms. These are PDFs that you can download, print, and fill in:
Of course, these PDF forms cover just three out of many possible approaches to framing your songs. You might find that you can invent your own forms that are better suited to your own musical goals.

If you've fully framed a song before you start to write it, the music and lyrics often fall into place very quickly. In practice, the framing — getting clear on what you want to write — usually take more time than the writing itself. That's true whether you do it formally on paper or whether you just muddle through it while you're trying to write the song.

February 1 is just a few weeks away, so it's not likely that you'll get 15 songs fully framed by then. It's okay if you don't — the point of this exercise is just to give you a head start.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Get ready for FAWM: Do a dry run

Suppose you've gotten all of your tools together and prepared your space for the FAWM songwriting challenge. How do you know if you're really ready for February 1? You do a dry run.

A dry run means that you send the plane up in the air and drop an empty bombshell on a sample target. You run through all the scene changes and lighting cues, start to finish, in an empty theater. In songwriting, a dry run means that you go through all the motions of songwriting and create a little sample song.

Your sample song doesn't have to be any good, and it can be very short. For example, you could write one 8-bar verse and a 4-bar chorus, just a little fragment of a song. The point isn't the song itself, it's proving that you can go through all of the steps of picking an idea, writing lyrics, writing a melody, writing chords, and, if recording is part of your process, recording the completed song.

(This song can't count towards your FAWM total, so don't use one of your best ideas. Use a throwaway idea.)

Along the way, everything works. You don't freeze up when you have to pick a rhyme. Your musical instrument works, there's ink in the pen, the recording software capture audio correctly. If something needs a little troubleshooting, it's better that you're doing it now, when the official clock isn't ticking.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Get ready for FAWM: Get your stuff together

If you're planning to sign up for February Album Writing Month (http://fawm.org), or if you have some other reason to write a whole pile of songs, you can prepare by getting your stuff together. This might include finding tools, preparing equipment, clearing a workspace, and gathering other resources.

Different songwriters' work habits vary, so there is no single checklist of songwriting tools. Use these question to help you think of what you might need to get ready:
  • Will you write down lyrics with a pen or pencil, or on a computer? Do you have a good pen at hand? Where is the pencil sharpener? Do you need to clear some table space for your laptop?
  • Will you record yourself as part of the writing process? If you'll use recording software, does it need to be updated? Do you need to pick a microphone, set up a mic stand, or find a mic cable? If you'll use a handheld recorder, where will you place it while you're recording? Do you have a spare battery? Do you have headphones handy?
  • Will you use music paper to write down your melody? Do you need a clipboard?
  • Where are your notebooks of song ideas? What fragments of lyrics do you have sitting around?
  • Will you use a rhyming dictionary?
  • Have you signed up for FAWM? Have you bookmarked the fawm.org website? Have you bookmarked this blog? What other websites might be handy to have at hand during your songwriting process?
  • What musical instruments will you use for songwriting and for recording demos? Are your instruments all set up and ready to go?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Get ready for FAWM: Picture yourself writing a song

Suppose you sign up for February Album Writing Month 2012 (http://fawm.org). The rules say that you can't start writing your songs until February 1. Does that mean you're stuck twiddling your thumbs until then? Not at all! There's a lot you do to get ready. Without writing a single line of lyrics or a note of melody, you can get yourself super-prepared to write a pile of songs.

What happens if you don't do any preparation ahead of time? In most cases you end up doing the preparation anyway, while the clock ticks through the hours that you thought you would spend writing.

Some FAWMers will spend the evening of February 1, in their first songwriting session, getting the guitar tuned, finding a cord that works, clearing piles of papers off the desk, looking for their old notebook of song ideas, updating their recording software, and finally thinking about what they want to write their first song about. But none of those chores involve any actual writing, so you could just as well do them on January 31... or on January 11, for that matter.

Start tonight with this short mental exercise. Close your eyes and imagine your first songwriting session. Imagine it in vivid detail. The session is extremely productive, and you write a brilliant song, of course, but that's not the point of this exercise.

Think through the tiny practical details of your songwriting session. What room are you in? What distractions do you face? What do you do first? Where do you sit? What pen do you use? Which guitar pick? How do you decide what to write about? Spend at least a full minute letting your imagination run through things with this level of detail.

Odds are that you'll see at least six different ways that you're not fully ready for your first songwriting session. You have tools to prepare, stuff to clear out of the way, and some thinking to do about what you might write your song about.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Get ready for FAWM: Set your expectations aside

This advice is geared towards people planning to participate in FAWM 2012 (http://fawm.org), but the same principles apply to any creative effort.

Perhaps the biggest thing that would keep people from writing 15 songs in a month is that they're trying to do too good a job. In general, probably the #1 thing that keeps would-be artists paralyzed is the misguided worry about whether their work is "good enough."

It's perfectly understandable that you want to create something good (or even great). But there's a problem: your mind can't be in creating-something-new mode and in worrying-about-quality mode at the same time. At any given moment, you have to choose one or the other.

Many songwriters find that writing song is a slow, tortured process. For them, it takes a long time to write a song! But in fact they're spending only about 10% of that time in productive writing. The other 90% of their time is lost to worrying. This means that you can write up to ten times faster if you're willing to temporarily forget about whether your songs are good or not. You can write up to ten times as many songs in the same length of time.

So plan on writing 15 quick songs in February, and just know that some of them will be better and some will be worse. And that's fine. Your job isn't to make them come out good. Your job, if you choose to do it, is to write 15 songs by February 29.

Trust your creative process. It will always create the best results that it can, without any need for you to micromanage things.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Get ready for FAWM 2012

February Album Writing Month (http://fawm.org) is coming in a few weeks. This year's challenge is to write a 14-1/2 song "album" in only 29 days.

(What's a half of a song? To avoid splitting hairs, I'm rounding up the goal to 15 songs.)

For songwriters who can spare the time, I recommend participating in FAWM. It provides a structure and a deadline to force you to produce something. Along the way, you'll blast through the creative barriers that often stop you from writing.

If you think it would be pretty cool to write 15 new songs, but you're not sure you can do it in one month, watch this blog for tips and suggestions. I hope to help you get off to a quick start, avoid the common creative pitfalls, and get songs finished faster than ever before.

And if you're gearing up to write and record a real album instead of a FAWM "album," the same advice applies -- you just have more at stake in the results. Stay tuned!