A Music Lesson For Indie AuthorsPosted: July 25, 2012
I have written lots of songs over the years, not professionally. My skill at it can be debated on several levels, but the songs all follow a standard convention that includes some combination of verse, chorus, bridge, tag, break, etc. The style is usually in the neighborhood of Americana/Country, perhaps something in between. It is the “in between” issue that can be both frustrating and freeing.
Fiction writing and songwriting follow certain conventions that pertain to structure and commercial viability. Certain features of writing are measured against a commercial standard for publication. A thriller must maintain a certain pace and level of suspense; science fiction must maintain a plausible suspension of disbelief, etc. It is the same with music styles. Country music contains features that identify it as such, just as bluegrass has its own recognizable qualities. The difference between songs and writing is that those who professionally evaluate writing seem less flexible, less accepting when it comes to the “in between.”
Bluegrass has a rich American tradition built partially on a foundation of Celtic music. Newgrass is a relatively recent offshoot, a progressive version of traditional bluegrass. Another variation is called gypsygrass, which sounds more east European than Celtic. Folk music‘s counterpart is aptly called alternative folk. I would say these are “in between” styles. Even some of the new country songs have very obvious rock elements–a wide pendulum arc from the old rockabilly of the 1950’s. These each borrow from two or more styles to create something a bit different but closely related. The resulting variations develop their own following. Many of these new music genres are the result of persistent self-promotion, internet exposure, and word of mouth. The commercial music industry is not typically their path to success, though mainstream producers sometimes jump on the bandwagon after a measure of individual success. In that regard, music and writing are evolving in the same direction. I believe music has a bit of a head start.
So what if I write a novel that strays outside the bounds of the commercially acceptable structure of a genre? Self-promoting (self-publishing) it may be the only way I can ever find out if it will find a following. I do not mean to minimize the importance of high quality writing and story telling nor the benefits that can be found in traditional publication. One has to know the rules before one can bend them. But as with music, there are readers out there who will embrace good writing that falls outside the current publishing norm, something that adds to or subtracts from the expected formula, something in between. It has to be good, but it has to be seen, too.
I approach songwriting much as I approach story writing. I begin with what I know to be the fundamental structure of a good song, but from there it always takes me where it wants to go. Whether I write songs or stories, my first audience is myself, but the inherent motivation in both songwriting and storytelling is to appeal to a broader audience. Feedback from that audience (especially from strangers) will help confirm if the writer is off in a promising direction or simply a little off. If the writing or song isn’t available to the public, however, there can be little response to build on.
New sounds are emerging in the music industry every day–independent, “in between” sounds that bend the standard formula. Self-publishing can make the same recognition possible for writers who bend the genre formula. More and more, as the engines of information evolve, independent authors and independent musicians seem to be finding a similar path.
I strum out songs that I’ve scratched down
And let the words float on the tune
And as the story comes around
I watch the eyes across the room
When I sit down and play this old guitar.
(from Old Guitar by Dutch Vanderpool)
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