Thursday, November 10, 2022

Writing That Sings

 By Johnny D. Boggs

This week finds me in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the annual International Western Music Association convention. What makes a writer of prose want to hang out with songwriters, poets and performers?

After all, my key is “out of;” a meter is something I feed to keep from getting a parking ticket; and notes are what I owe the bank or my scribbling that I can’t read three hours later.

But when I was sloppily writing short stories as a kid, sometimes I would decide: This needs a theme song. I’d pen dreadful lyrics, which I would imagine Frankie Laine singing.

That said, my friend Micki Fuhrman and I co-wrote a song that placed second – out of 116 entries – in the IWMA’s songwriting competition this year. Micki, who also writes fiction, won a Spur Award and finalist honors this year for Western Writers of America’s Best Western Song and is nominated for four IWMA awards this year, including Songwriter of the Year.

Jim Jones, a multiwinner of IWMA awards, also writes Western novels, so I asked him how writing songs helps him with his fiction, and vice versa.

“For me, a song is in some ways a synopsis for a novel,” he said. “If you write a song, you have a synopsis. And if you have a storyline, it gives you tons of songs to write.”

Jones mentioned Mike Blakely, a Spur Award winner for Western novels and Western songs. “Mike has transformed many characters from his novels into songs.”

The song Micki and I cowrote came about when we were talking about the placement of words. I said something like, “Take signing a letter ‘Yours Truly.’ What if you flipped the words to ‘Truly Yours?’” Next thing I know, we have a song titled “Yours Truly, Truly Yours.”

Micki’s album Westbound, nominated for IWMA’s Traditional Western Album of the Year, includes a song I wrote – “Loving County,” inspired from Elmer Kelton’s classic Texana novel of the 1950s drought, The Time It Never Rained.

Studying great songwriting helps when I’m writing prose. There are beats to dialogue, action scenes, descriptions. Sentences need a rhythm.

“I came into fiction writing as a professional songwriter,” Micki told me, “and I believe the skills I learned composing songs shaped the way I write stories.

“With a song, I have about three minutes to set up a scenario with a beginning, middle and end. Every word has to work hard, and the more ‘picture words,’ the better, since I see the lines of a song as movie frames.

“Now, as I write a short story or a novel, I subconsciously follow the tenets of songwriting: rhythm, pacing, fluidity of words, alliteration, color and emotion.”

Thank goodness, I don’t try to sing while writing pros. But when I’m looking over a draft, I will often think back to lyrical styles of songwriters I’ve long admired – John Prine, Guy Clark, Johnny Cash, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Pete Seger, Jimmy Webb, Carole King, Count Basie, Townes Van Zandt, Loretta Lynn, Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, Jon Chandler, Rosanne Cash, Woody Guthrie, Bob McDill, Johnny Mercer, Joni Mitchell, Tom T. Hall, Bob Seger, Mickey Newberry, Bruce Springsteen and, yes, Blakely, Jones and Fuhrman – and incorporate some of that into my prose.

It might not always sing, but every now and then I’ll hit the right note.

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