Monday, April 29, 2013

Better Fiction through Songwriting: Kacey Musgraves

I was hanging out with a dear friend recently, helping her pick out a couch for her apartment (this is the one way in the world in which I am useful to my friends, unlike my friend the veterinarian or my friend the chef), and she played me some songs by great new country artist Kacey Musgraves. "You're going to love her," my friend said. "I just saw an interview with her where she said one of her favorite artists is John Prine."

And boy, can you tell. Not just from the song whose chorus goes, "my idea of heaven is to burn one with John Prine"--although, yes, Kacey, I agree with you--but in her incisive portrait of small town claustrophobia, "Merry Go 'Round:"

If you ain't got two kids by 21,
You're probably gonna die alone
At least that's what tradition told you.
And it don't matter if you don't believe,
Come Sunday morning you best be there
In the front row, like you're s'posed to.
Same hurt in every heart.
Same trailer, different park.

Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay
Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane
And Daddy's hooked on Mary two doors down.
Mary Mary quite contrary,
We get bored so we get married
And just like dust we settle in this town.
On this broken merry go 'round and 'round and 'round we go,
Where it stops nobody knows...
And it ain't slowin' down, this merry go 'round...

We think the first time's good enough,
So we hold on to high school love,
Say we won't end up like our parents.
Tiny little boxes in a row,
Ain't what you want it's what you know,
Just happy in the shoes you're wearin'.
Same checks we're always cashin',
To buy a little more distraction.


Mary Mary quite contrary,
We're so bored until we're buried.
And just like dust we settle in this town.
On this broken merry go 'round...
Merry go 'round...

Jack and Jill went up the hill,
Jack burned out on booze and pills,
And Mary had a little lamb,
Mary just don't give a damn no more.

One thing I love in particular about this song is the repetition of the three "hooked" lines: two short lines, rhyming, same rhythmic pattern, then punctuated by the longer, non-rhyming line that drives home the saddest idea of all three. I think rhythm is one of the most important things we can pay attention to, as writers. You often see the advice to read your writing aloud, and while that's partly to help you make sure nothing sounds stilted or awkward, it's also encouraging you to be aware of the flow you can create through the rhythm of your words. The pauses and beats within a sentence, and the variation between long sentences and short ones. The rhythmic structure of well-written songs can be a great tool to help train yourself to be even more aware of that.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

I Haz Agent! Wheeeeeee!!!

the Gato loves spring.

So, friends, it's official: I have accepted representation with the charming and brilliant Meredith Kaffel of DeFiore & Co. Things actually turned out so that I had the extraordinary privilege of receiving offers from three excellent agents, but the nature of the beast demanded that I choose only one, and I am utterly thrilled to be working with Meredith.

It's such a relief to have the agent-hunt process over with. There are a lot of things I'm looking forward to doing again, now that I've unbuckled my seatbelt and stumbled, dizzy, out of my seat on the old query roller coaster:
  1. Going for a run outside in the sunshine--I might even do it without sunscreen, seeing as my doctor just discovered I have the vitamin D level of an Icelandic vampire
  2. Exercising, period
  3. Cooking a real dinner instead of inhaling my usual helping of Chipotle and self-loathing
  4. Contributing to cleaning my apartment in a more meaningful way than just placing a wine glass in the dishwasher
  5. Being willing to get up early enough to spend a few minutes spackling concealer onto my under-eye circles
  6. Buying drinks for all my friends and family who endured two months of my mood veering madly between despondence and euphoria
  7. Buying them all MORE drinks... and chocolate, and Valium, and unnecessarily expensive body lotion, to bribe them into continuing to put up with me while the book is out on submission
  8. Planning a weekend visit to the location of my second book: a research trip on which my girlfriends *just happen* to be joining me
  9. And, of course, pre-submission revisions. But revisions don't stress me out--it's just writing. Making the book even better. Revisions are a bubble massage in a Turkish hammam compared to querying.
So, it's going to be a great spring, and a great summer. Signing with Meredith is certainly more of a first step than a last one, but it's a BIG first one, and I couldn't have gotten here without the support and patience of everybody I love. You know who you are--thank you, and I love you.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Better Fiction through Songwriting: John Prine and the Vietnam War

D.R. Howe treats the wounds of Private First Class D. A. Crum

I've been reading a great deal of advice about writing craft lately, and one of the most important points I see over and over again is to make every word matter. Choose specific, powerful words, and make every single one of them work hard for its place on your page. All of the fuzz, anything that isn't serving a deliberate purpose, gets cut out. (Chuck Wendig compares this to a dentist picking away at every particle of accumulated gunk on a set of gleaming chompers.)

It occurred to me that one of the best possible examples of this idea--and of its equally often-repeated cousin, "show don't tell"--can be found in songwriting. When you have a whole book, or a whole story, it can be easy to let yourself get a little lazy; but the brevity and strict rhythmic pattern demanded by a song forces an economy of words that, in the hands of a gifted artist, can create a truly astonishing result.

Bob Dylan is often cited as one of the best songwriters of all time, and rightfully so--but one thing he wasn't always, was concise. Plenty of his songs ramble through a few too many verses. My own personal favorite songwriter is a contemporary of Dylan's, who never achieved the same level of commercial success, but who has a body of work that comprises some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, insightful songs I've ever heard: John Prine. This is particularly true of the songs, and even a few individual lyrics, in which he references the Vietnam War--plenty of despairing, angry people wrote music about that war, but nobody did it quite like Prine. Especially when combined with his simple melodies and spare guitar chords, the power of those perfectly-chosen words is marvel.

First you have "Donald and Lydia:"

Bunk beds, shaved heads, Saturday night,
A warehouse of strangers with sixty watt lights.
Staring through the ceiling, just wanting to be
Lay one of too many, a young PFC: Donald

There were spaces between Donald and whatever he said

Strangers had forced him to live in his head
He envisioned the details of romantic scenes
After midnight in the stillness of the barracks latrine.

Two short verses, and you have an indictment of the war machine that endlessly and greedily devoured young men; a compelling snapshot of the isolation and displacement of a fairly new recruit (he doesn't say soldier, he says "PFC," emphasizing that Donald is a junior enlisted, most likely drafted); and a deft characterization of a lonely dreamer who was never cut out for Army life in the first place. It's incredibly masterful.

Then the chorus of "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You into HeavenAnymore," with its barbed commentary on brainless knee-jerk jingoism:

But your flag decal won't get you
Into Heaven any more.
They're already overcrowded
From your dirty little war.
Now Jesus don't like killin'
No matter what the reason's for,
And your flag decal won't get you
Into Heaven any more. 

Then, in its entirety, "Sam Stone," which I've been listening to for a good 15 years, and which still gives me chills every time: the anger, the compassion, the grief for all those pointlessly ruined lives, that went into these words.

Sam Stone came home to his wife and family
After serving in the conflict overseas
And the time that he served had shattered all his nerves
And left a little shrapnel in his knee
But the morphine eased the pain
And the grass grew round his brain
And gave him all the confidence he lacked
With a purple heart and a monkey on his back

There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes
Jesus Christ died for nothin' I suppose
Little pitchers have big ears, don't stop to count the years
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios

Sam Stone's welcome home didn't last too long
He went to work when he'd spent his last dime
And Sammy took to stealing when he got that empty feeling
For a hundred dollar habit without overtime
And the gold rolled through his veins
Like a thousand railroad trains
And eased his mind in the hours that he chose
While the kids ran around wearin' other peoples' clothes


Sam Stone was alone when he popped his last balloon
Climbing walls while sitting in a chair
Well, he played his last request while the room smelled just like death
With an overdose hovering in the air
But life had lost its fun
And there was nothing to be done
But trade his house that he bought on the G. I. Bill
For a flag draped casket on a local heroes' hill


It's simply one of the best-written songs I've ever heard. Every line is spare, restrained, with a handful of evocative words. But it's the last two lines of the last verse that are the most powerful for me: the deliberate pairing of the G.I. Bill, with its promise of prosperity and stability for veterans, against the image of the flag-draped casket. The brutal bait-and-switch of military life for so many young men of that era. Prine is a master. I've loved him since I was a teenager but now, as I refine my own writing skill, his work is relevant for me in a whole new way--and I'm looking forward to listening again, from that perspective.