by Daniel Palmer.
I consider myself an accidental novelist. Of course, this accident took ten dedicated years of my life, rejections too numerous to count, and a tremendous sense of purpose plus commitment to make happen. But the younger version of me never envisioned he would one day write books; he assumed he’d grow up to be a rock ‘n roll star. Here’s the beautiful upside: Several years and various rock bands later, I find the lessons I learned from songwriting have, in a rearview mirror sort of way, greatly informed my approach to writing suspense novels.
I started writing fiction six years after I played my last live show. I had just read High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, and connected with the musical obsession of the novel’s protagonist. I thought what the world needed was a romantic comedy from the guy’s point of view—until I found out that women, who buy the majority of romance novels, don’t particularly care about the guy’s point of view. Still, I’d got the writing bug, so I kept at it, moving into thrillers and suspense since that’s the genre I preferred to read (when I read), and I learned the craft.
To my surprise, I found many principles of songwriting applied to prose writing as well. One of the most important: relaxation. The great songwriter Paul Simon expressed the importance of relaxation to creativity in this way, “I’m not interested in writing something that I thought about. I’m interested in discovering where my mind wants to go, or what object it wants to pick up. It always picks up on something true. You’ll find out much more about what you’re thinking that way than you will if you’re determined to say something. What you’re determined to say is filled with all your rationalizations and your defenses and all of that. What you want to say to the world as opposed to what you’re thinking. And as a lyricist, my job is to find out what it is that I’m thinking. Even if it’s something that I don’t want to be thinking.”
I had instinctively understood this principle when I was songwriting. Some of my best songs were written in just a few minutes if I’d mentally let go. Meanwhile songs that I labored over, intentionally and with great focus, never seemed to take shape. After years of honing my process for songwriting, I found it was equally applicable to writing fiction. When I relax and let the ideas flow, instead of forcing the story, I find I am discovering it. And as it comes out, it is always more vivid and more honest.
Another principle I took from songwriting is that thinking about writing and actually writing are two very different things. It sounds obvious, but many writers lose valuable time thinking and researching and planning instead of just writing down the bones. Sometimes you have to just pick up that guitar and play. Harry Nilsson, when asked to compare his technique for songwriting to that of John Lennon, recalled the time the two collaborated on a project and said, “I don’t think there’s any technique involved. You sit down. There was a little electric piano there and a guitar, and you sit there and do it.”
Here’s a third principle: Succinctness. Randy Newman and Paul Simon are both well known for their succinct style. Newman goes at it by using small words: “but,” “for,” “and.” Even the great George Orwell’s rules for writing mirror this philosophy. Orwell wrote, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” Maybe George was a songwriter at heart.
DANIEL PALMER is the author of four critically acclaimed suspense novels. After receiving his master’s degree from Boston University, he spent a decade as an e-commerce pioneer. A recording artist, accomplished blues harmonica player, and lifelong Red Sox fan, Daniel lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two children where he is currently at work on his next novel. His latest novel, Desperate, comes out April 29th from Kensington.
Cover Image: http://carastewart.com/3d/typewriter-piano/
Paul Simon: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Simon
Harry Nilsson and John Lennon: http://www.briterevolution.com/features/article/youre-missing-harry-nilsson/