“So what are you going to do?” my colleagues asked me when I took a buyout from the Los Angeles Times.
“I’m going to become a songwriter,” I said to several of them — the ones I knew would be sympathetic enough to answer with a nod of encouragement and without a roll of their eyes.
“That’s a pretty big stretch from newswriting,” one of them said.
My experience (from which I have yet to earn a dime) has been that most of the structural values reporters bring to newswriting apply to songwriting, too. You have to (1) grab the listener’s attention immediately, (2) establish context, (3) develop your thesis and (4) construct an ending that resonates back to your lead.
Let’s take a song I wrote about a guy who is so lovesick, he writes to the DMV asking for a handicapped parking permit on grounds of a broken heart. At first I tried to write this song as though I were talking to the audience, but it took too long to make clear what our hero wanted. I thought I could get to the point quicker by having him read his own thoughts from a letter:
Dear Secretary of the DMV
Please send me one of those “Handicapped” plaques
Cuz ‘til I get my baby back I’m handicapped
Okay, we’ve got our lead — he’s hurting. The second graf — or, verse — needs to illustrate how much he’s hurting. I knew I was going to write a bridge stuffed with a lot of absurd details, the way you write a litany of examples that follows your nut graf. So I kept the second verse a bit more specific than the first but simpler than what was to come.
Can’t stand up for falling down
I lost a hundred points off my credit score, so
How can you ignore
Now it was time for fun: The bridge, where a songwriter can expand with more detail and depth. In the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” two simple sentences put us in the singer’s shoes: Why she had to go I don’t know, she wouldn’t say. I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday. My bridge would have no such discipline because this was an absurd song. I wanted my character to overwhelm the DMV secretary. Time was not a problem; the song would be only about two and a half minutes. I produced a litany of six tiny arguments my hero made in his appeal for “handicapped” parking:
I need that special aisle at the ol’ ballgame
I should qualify for Medicare for all the new black clothing that I’ll have to wear
I need to get me a walking cane so I can climb by myself up Lovers’ Lane
I should undergo speech therapy so I can tell the truth about her and me
I need early boarding on my airline flight where I pray the jet explodes tonight
The comedic length of the bridge created another challenge: steering the listener to an ending that underscored the theme of the lead. I did this by having the protagonist repeat the general plea of the song as a crude prayer.
Cuz I’m handicapped…
In the same way that reporters occasionally run into a good story idea in their private lives, so do lyrics trickle out of your subconsciousness. I found it cathartic to write about my sleep disorder in the song “I Dream I Have Insomnia.” Again, a simplified lead verse, more detailed second verse:
And it’s funny, cuz it seems that there’s nothing
Nothing wrong with me until I begin to dream
There’s a black, jagged pit of dreams rubbed raw
And a man whose body aches
So tormented by some nameless phobia
That he thinks he’s still awake
I found that it was rewarding to spend time on diverse rhyme schemes. It’s boring to make all the rhymes come at the end of each line; sometimes you can use an internal rhyme, as in this self-pitying, I-Got-Dumped song, “Sorta … Kinda.” Watch how the underlined words rhyme in the second verse:
Baby, is it something I did? Why did you throw me in the moat?
Listen to your favorite songs and you’ll be able to break down the strategies the lyricist used to draw you in and keep you emotionally engaged. Then you can try to translate that effect into your literal-world writing. Meanwhile, I’ll be trying to make that first dime.