Music and lyrics

Music books 2

Last time out I wrote a little about a new project I have fermenting in the deepest recesses of the mind. This novel may or may not get written but I thought it might be interesting to share from whence the idea came.

Picture the scene: I am driving back to my old house to crack on with the let-me-save-some-deposit cleaning. I am nearing the end of a two-hour spell behind the wheel. I have our old favourite radio station on: a steady diet of solid rock, anthems all the way. I may be wearing sunglasses. Don’t hold that against me.

A song comes on. It’s not one I particularly like and I’m not particularly interested; traffic is heavy and there are temporary speed restrictions. A line of lyrics cross my ear and creep up on my higher consciousness. I can’t remember what it is now (I could check but I don’t want to find it was entirely different to what I imagined it to be; I’m happy being ignorant) but it gave me two characters: a woman who does business in bars and the man who pretends to be her boyfriend so she won’t get hassled.*

I don’t know what type of business this woman would be transacting but I suspect something illicit. The song ends. I arrive at my destination. I get to work and turn over possibilities. I’m in no rush: I’ve plenty of other writing to get on with.

And then I bring in another song. Die Trying is about migration: the mix of hope that one day you’ll find a safe harbour and the despair that leads you to make increasingly risky decisions; so you ‘fall right through the world and disappear.’


From the graphic novel ‘Winter’ by Matt Huynh: it seems I’m not the only person inspired by Die Trying

This is a story I want to write.

So let’s push those ideas together: an immigrant couple (not necessarily romantic) who are grifting a way out of the camps and the corruption they meet on both sides of the fence.

This is how I come up with stories. I mishear. I see an ill-considered line – of lyrics, of verse, of fiction – and wonder about what it really means. I see a glimmer in the dirt and stoop for a closer look. Or perhaps I see a dullness in the diamond-pile and feel compelled to take my magnifying glass to it.

The world is full of writing prompts. Sometimes they need to be hunted, trapped and tamed. Sometimes all you have to do is sit back and let them come to you.

My previous (still unwritten) idea came from playing Civilisation: Beyond Earth, reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, and musing about gestalt consciousnesses and the next stages of human development.

Most ideas come to nothing. Most days I’m not receptive enough – too tired, too wired, too monomaniac for this chickenscratch assemblage.

But every discarded fancy takes me closer to finding a pattern that fits, that intrigues enough to make it worth the effort into transforming inspiration into a plot. What I come up with will bear almost no relation to the finished product. That’s just the nature of art.

And it means there’ll be a lot more discarded ideas to rearrange, to break down and build up again, the next time I catch my hunchback reflection in the carnival mirrors of my dreams.

And my dreams are always shaped by music.


*Oh go on then. It’s Chelsea Dagger by The Fratellis. I’m not entirely sure what I heard to twist my mind in that particular way; the whole point of music (and, indeed, all art) is that we all take something different from it.

Visions in the storm

“But you’ve got a vision.”

If a vision was all it took I’d be a rock star by now. All those years writing songs in my head – I had a vision. But I’m still sitting here behind my computer churning out words for a handful of people to read.

Until the software is developed that allows instant transference from brain to world an idea is not enough. Other skills are needed, be they technical (knowing how to play an instrument) or collaborative (knowing people able and willing to do the playing for you).

A story is perhaps the easiest thing to transfer from mind to reality. We are, after all, taught how to write at school. Computers are all around us. The skills required to either hand-write – because you can still pay for people to transcribe a longhand document onto word-processor – or key in a story are basic and more or less universal. Music, on the other hand, is an order of learning higher.

And so is art. This is my vexation. I have another vision: to design the perfect cover for my own work. I have the image. The idea is real, to me; real enough so I can sketch a design, a rough idea. But taking that from outline to finished project is, at present, beyond me.

These days a writer is not just a writer. They also have to be publisher, designer, accountant, publicist. Some of these skills will come easier than others – but they all take practice, application and, most of all, time: time that could be (better?) spent honing the fundamental skill of writing. I am impatient. I want to get on. I want to write. I can’t afford Photoshop, let alone apply myself to going through the tutorials form rank beginner to competent amateur. I don’t need to be a professional, but I need to create the illusion of professionalism.

A vision isn’t just important, it’s essential. Nothing can be achieved without that shining idea of a final outcome. But don’t mistake an idea for the finished product.

Vision + inertia = nothing.

Vision + graft = result.


When Terry Pratchett died in August I fully intended to sit and write a post about how much I loved his work, how he’d filled my life with joys and riches. I never did it. A combination of just having too many words inside me and the flurry of similar pieces that filled the internet put me off.

Today I have awoken to find that the other great constant in my life, David Bowie, has also shuffled off this mortal coil. Now, despite the title of this piece, I can’t say I consider either of these gentlemen to be heroes. To be honest with you I’m not sure I really understand the concept; I can’t think of a single person I’ve ever held up as the acme of humanity. But I spent so much of my life – especially through my teenage years – either reading PTerry or listening to Bowie (often at the same time) that both these people are part of me. And it strikes me that one has been a much bigger inspiration on my writing than the other.

Terry Pratchett is the author I’ve read most in my life. By a mile. Since being introduced to him by a classmate aged twelve or thereabouts I’ve gone through all his books so many times. Truly, I’ve never found so much love, joy and delight in an author’s work. He took me through my depression. His words lifted my soul, his rolling prose contrasted with and underlined his pointed observations about human nature (for what is fantasy but a new way of looking at reality?). It’s writing to admire, to adore, to fall in love with. I will be forever grateful that I was given a chance to live in his world.

But I don’t think he’s shaped my writing at all. It certainly hadn’t; maybe now I’m just beginning to see some of his long undulating sentences twitch into my work. Still, I can’t think of a single idea that has been brought forth from the Discword. Maybe some of his ways of thinking have seeped into me, and maybe someday I’ll learn to allegorise: the way he showed the dangers of internecine religious differences in Thud; the strident anti-exploitation message in Snuff, and the general ‘stop this now, you’re all being terribly silly’-ness that lurk beneath the surface of just about every novel. But for now? Nothing. A love, an undying, unforgettable love for his work, but no ideas.

Bowie, on the other hand, gave me so much. The snaps of lyrics, the agonised yearning, the neverending hope: yes, these are things I’ve learnt all the way back to when I was dancing with my sister in her bedroom, when I was six or seven, not knowing anything about the man or – really – what the lyrics meant at all. But emotion, emotion – I understood that. I understood heartbreak and pain, and I learnt it all through music. Not just Bowie, of course; I still remember lying in bed, listening to The Beatles’ ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’; and being haunted by the key-change into the chorus. But Bowie was the master.

When I was sixteen ‘Candidate’ startled me to the point where I free-wrote a story based on the song as part of my GCSE English exam. I’d already attempted to write a novel based on the visions built by ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’. I’d tried to put a proper story behind Ziggy Stardust. I’d been terrified – in a good way – by that staggering, stuttering intro to ‘Five Years’ and the crazy longing in ‘Lady Stardust’. And lines from ‘Station to Station’ infested my poetry, my lyrics, my life.

I could write thousands of words about this. I’ve written about my distrust of ideas several times on this blog, but today I’m only just realising how different are ideas and inspiration. And my inspiration as a writer comes magnificently and majestically from music. Not just Bowie – of course not just Bowie. REM, Kate Bush, New Model Army, Swervedriver – so many, so many wonderful artists that have touched me so deeply, that have – yes – inspired me. Still I find myself most fruitful when I’m half-asleep in the car, with a CD playing. That’s when the ideas come.

I’m struggling here to conflate two concepts. Half of me wants to eulogise for these wonderful human beings, to extol their virtues, to give more and more examples of how they’ve touched me and shaped who I am. The other half wants to make a serious point about inspiration. Perhaps I’m doing neither justice, and for that I apologise. But what’s really struck me is that I am a writer by accident. It should come as no surprise that many writers started out as musicians; I can site J. Kent Messum, Joolz Denby and all these, and that’s before I even consider descending to Dan Brown/Morrissey levels.

I adore Terry Pratchett. Reading – reading him – is a true delight and I will never fail to find wonder and comfort and wisest, wisest wisdom in his work. But I’m not a writer because of him. I’m not a writer because of any of the amazing books I’ve read, that I wish I’d written. I’m a writer because of music. And whenever I need to top up my well of inspiration it’s not my bookshelf I’ll turn to but my CD rack. David Bowie was my first and my deepest. It’s nothing but fitting that he managed to stage-manage his death so well: and there’s surely a story right there.

Quality and discretion

A few weeks ago I was asked if there was a fundamental difference between taste and quality. A very annoying question it was too. I’ve been mulling ever since, and I have to say that I still have no idea.

It’s really all about how you measure quality. Do you judge on technical ability? The item’s place in time? Or in comparison to other works by that artist? Take The Beatles: they (like Tolkien) were obviously hugely significant for their time but their work hasn’t necessarily stood up over the years. Not all their songs, at least (I’m especially amused by the musically really rather lovely song that seems to suggest a cheerful application of domestic violence). Similarly, many black and white film classics can’t be viewed in the same way now as they were than released. Given the choice would you rather watch From Here to Eternity or Star Wars? The League of Gentlemen or Ocean’s Eleven?

I’ve always remembered a review I once read of Megadeth’s Cryptic Writings. I should say that I’ve never heard the music, but the review criticised the album for being nothing new. But why should it be new? I’m sure that Dave Mustaine and friends tried to write the best songs they could, that the music was shaped by their lives and experiences. It wasn’t one of those ‘experimental’ albums so I found myself unable to work out in what way it could fail to be better than their old stuff. Maybe that’s naive, or over-simplistic, but if they’d released albums in a different order how different would perceptions be? Fashion and quality are being confused; after all, AC/DC have made a career out of sounding the same year in, year out.

Is there a fundamental difference between Quality and Taste? To some extent there must be; purely on a technical level there must be. How well you can write is – well, if it’s not an absolute then it’s something that can be measured on an appropriate scale. Similarly music contains technical aspects that can be scored. But the arts are mostly about emotional impact. There are some people who think Shakespeare’s works contain the entirety the human condition and are pre-eminent in literature. But many find more to be gained from Dan Brown. Why should we be snobbish? People want different things from different works, and there’s no reason you can’t enjoy both on different levels.

The oddest thing is the way horror, erotica, sci-fi and fantasy are written off as escapism, the least ‘real’ of genres when they are almost be definition the closest examiners of the psyche. Take horror; what can be more worthy that to really explore human fear and greed and response to the unfamiliar than that? The transformation of the hero/heroine in horror is often the most profound in literature – why is that not held up as the most worthy of genres? Speculative fiction often deals with the development of the species under possible future circumstances. Why is that less important than tragedies of past wars?

These are, of course, generalisations. Some books of all genres are there for nothing more than a cheap release. And there’s nothing wrong with that either. We read primarily for pleasure and sometimes we don’t want to be stimulated or challenged – so we take up something we’ve read before and it’s like greeting an old friend.

I suspect that whether we enjoy something changes with our moods and experiences. Someone who grew up with The Spice Girls might well think them better than The Monkees. We judge media in different ways and can quite easily admire a book for its technical excellence, its profundity or its readability at the same time and to differing degrees.

Which is all a very complicated way of saying that I don’t think the question is answerable. It’s something that can’t be quantified because not only to we have to build a workable ‘scale’ or formula by which to measure but our opinions are constantly changing.

So don’t trust reviews and always draw your own conclusions, because the only critic that really matters is you.

The fine art of procrastination

So, you’re there at your keyboard, picking away at the letters, frowning at the screen and generally struggling with an aspect of the plot. Your mind wanders. It’s hard to keep focussed for a long period, especially when the human brain seems designed to be lazy. You fancy a cup of tea, or a cigarette, or whatever your poison may be. But no, you tell yourself, this is my writing time. I can’t prevaricate, must go on, on, on.

I’ll let you into a little secret. In some writing sessions I spend almost as much time in something entirely unrelated. A classic for me is choosing music; the amount of time I‘ve wasted staring aimlessly at my CD collection is frankly ridiculous. Another is doing the washing up or putting the laundry on. Cigarettes are out for me: I’m quitting. But I do drink an obscene amount of coffee.

But this isn’t wasted time. By no means. Repetitive manual tasks especially are when your subconscious is working hardest. Novels grow in the dark. That’s what JD Salinger said. I take that to mean that the problems are solved when you’re not thinking about them. Indeed, not thinking can trump mental effort – sometimes, in some ways.

Don’t think this is an excuse for not getting down to it: on the contrary. There are times for slog, for grinding on and there are times to give your brain a break. It’s not always easy to know the difference. But I always get (mildly) annoyed by articles ‘teaching’ you how to be more productive. Temporarily disabling the internet, taking the phone off the hook, setting up a timer and saying, ‘right, no breaks for half an hour’.

Sometimes the words come easy. When you know where you’re going, when you understand your characters and all you have to do is set down the story, then you can fly. At times like this distractions don’t even enter the brain and you’re amazed when you glance at the clock and realise an hour has passed.

But most writing – and certainly most editing – isn’t like this. It’s a puzzle. A constant search for the right twist, the proper angle, a viable future. You’ve got the ass up the minaret and can’t, for love nor money, work out how to talk it back down. This is where I think advice to steam on, steam on, don’t ever veer away, is at best unhelpful and at worse the cause of abandonment.

Tempted to take a break? Take one. Leave your work prominent on the screen, or proud upon your writing table, and do the vacuuming. Your subconscious will be picking over the problem even as you fight with your flex-length (a problem that mostly affects men) and worry whether the bag needs emptying. And when you’ve finished, get back to the writing. You’ll find that the problem won’t have vanished, but you’ll be able to get a few more words down, a few paragraphs, maybe, and before you know it you’ll be on the next problem. Well, it was just about time for a coffee anyway.

And, unusually for something I’ve written, there’s actually proper scientific evidence to back this up. My lovely fiancée, having met me, put the sent the following article in my direction: Its conclusion is that “engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving.”

But that’s enough from me today. I’ve got a novel to edit: no time for such flim-flammery.

So what music will we have on today..?

Waxing lyrical

I sit here writing this with music on in the background. Laura Marling, if you must know, which isn’t the best choice as the lyrics are too good. Rather, they’re too much in the forefront of the song and don’t do their job as background to deeper mind processes.

I always write to music. It’s usually a lot quieter than silence, which has a deep sucking sound as the background is vacuumed into your soul. Music provides a sort of creative bubble around you, the rhythms strumming your creative core in a way that nothing else can. Not for everyone, sure – how much of a theme of this blog is that? – but that’s how its always been for me. It’s really no surprise that my writing really springs from the same creative well as all these songs.

I got into words via music. Caught up with depression and a stupid misdirected urge to create, I dreamt up hundreds of songs when I was – what, 16 – 22? Never heard outside my head, I became a prolific writer of lyrics; I still have most of them, now sadly shorn of context – hundreds of scraps of paper all carefully stored away in the spare room, too poor, too painful to be re-examined but too personal to be thrown away.

Slowly, after many, many trials and more errors than you can possibly imagine, these lyrics slowly became less attempts at poetry and more what they should have been all along; accompaniments for music. Some of these, I maintain, are pretty good. I’ve always been pretty cocky at my ability to write a good lyric. I’m certainly more confident about that than I am about my full-length writing. What infuses both, however, is rhythm. I can never measure it, but there’s a rhythm to novels, a pacing, and I think total immersion in a head-bubble of sound can really help bring that to life.

For me, music and words are almost the same thing. The mood that’s created in both can be totally detached from the actual ‘story’; the same plot can be given a totally different feel by the way it’s told (compare Neil Gaiman’s American Gods with his Anansi Boys: both set in the same world and with the potential to create the same emotions – but one’s an adventure filled with a sense of anxiety and foreboding, the other almost a comedy). Whereas in music the same lyrics can be given a totally different feel by the arrangement behind it.

Anyway, here’s some song lyrics for you to mock. I remember the first stanza of the first work as being the first thing I ever wrote. In my mind I was still a child but I’m imperfect: could’ve been anywhere from eight to fifteen. It came to me so complete and so perfect rhythmically – the nursery rhyme-ness of the measure – that I’ve never been entirely sure that I haven’t stolen it from somewhere, some half-buried memory from my earliest days – but if so I’ve never tracked it down. So I’m claiming it.

The second one remains almost mystical, magical to me. It’s the sort of thing you can get away with in lyrics that you can’t with poems and certainly not with prose. A sense (to me) of personal truth that transcends the actual words. I don’t exactly – not quite, not 100% – know what it means. It just felt right; again the first stanza coming to me in one big chunk in university halls, and then at a later date (on a train between Belfast and Bangor, I remember that) the second verse falling from the stars and striking me right between the eyes.

Both of these have actually been performed live with bands, which just goes to show.


When I was young I’d often sit and wonder who I’d be
But now that I’ve grown up I’ve come to find that I am me
But who am I and what am I and who am I to say
I won’t wake up to find I’m someone else another day

When I was young I’d often sit and wonder what to say
But now that I’ve grown up these feelings should have gone away
Timing isn’t everything, but when you’ve lost your voice
These isolations multiply and soon you’ve got no choice

When I was young I’d often sit and try hard not cry
And wish that I was older so I wouldn’t have to lie
But tears come and fears go and tears still abide
And everything that I once was is carried deep inside


And a force to crush me sweeps across
And a memory of what I lost
And who I was; but that’s all gone
You were here but time moves on

And seismic shifts in prose and poetry

And this does not mean the world to me
And who was there to wash me clean?
Gravity: my cruel machine
And here comes the rain

And to touch the truth; the story dies
And so we rip out future cries
And all that’s been will come again
You were here to ease the pain
And here comes the rain

And a force to crush me sweeps across
And all that I once was is lost
And here and now; you and me
The weight is gone and we are free
And here comes the rain

And a force to crush me sweeps across
And a memory
Of what I lost…

This article has been brought to you by Laura Marling and Scheer and edited in association with the Levellers, Metallica and Richard Thompson