The Incrementalists

I’m a big proponent of starting songs from distinct “seeds”—fragments of lyric, melody, rhythm, or just strong ideas for songs. This approach is pretty much the unspoken “go to” technique pro writers use to jumpstart their writing process on a regular, even daily basis. I describe a more intentional and disciplined approach to the practice in the first chapter of my new book, Songwriting Strategies: A 360º Approach.

One of the best sources I know for lyric seeds in particular is reading. One nice perk in catching seeds from reading: You flake out on the couch all afternoon reading your latest young adult, SF or mystery guilty pleasure. When you find a good phrase on page 237, you can say to yourself, in virtuous, only slightly defensive tones: “Well, actually I’ve been working all afternoon. This is research!” (Your spouse may not buy the argument.)

Recently I was reading a cool new book— The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White—that combines a bit of time travel (my favorite) with a bit of Dan Brown-ish secret society thriller, along with quite a droll tone. In one bit of dialogue, a main character says something like, “I was never good at good, I always believed in better…” That was my seed.

One of my guidelines for song seed catching is: when you catch a seed, you lift it out of its original context, and may wind up framing it in an entirely different way. In this case, though, the seed resonated with something I loved about the book as a whole: the notion that a secret society of semi-immortals might do their work with small, minor tweaks rather than big interventions. It’s kind of dour and optimistic at the same time—often the mood I’m in when I write my more reflective songs. Anyway, I found myself trying to capture a bit of that spirit and outlook in the lyric. You can certainly appreciate the song without the back story that it’s being sung by a semi-immortal living in Las Vegas. In fact you might say being a good songwriter is all about being an incrementalist: – not settling for good, believing in better, and trusting that small delicate interventions can have large and global effects. Now here’s the lyric!

The Incrementalist ©2014 Mark Simos/Devachan Music (BMI)                                                                                                                                                                              (inspired by the novel The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White) V1 – 15 June 2014  

I was never good at good

I always believed in better

I somehow understood

The spirit lives in the letter

If there are devils in the details

There are angels dancing too

There in the tiny circle

Of the work that is given us to do  


Oh I dread each morning’s news

Of our latest stupid cock-up

Sometimes this unholy world

Seems but a prototype or mockup

Yet the deepest of my blues

In their bitter azure measure

Hold some seed of mercy furled

Never rendered unto Caesar  


Grand solutions I suspect I

‘m a cautious incrementalist

Reciter of Confucian analect

And if I could just invent a list

Of all the tragic endingsI would change

Pursuing sources and not side-effects

You know, it’s funny—funny strange—

But I’m not quite sure what I’d do next  


And so I take things day by day

Asking only—is it better thus?

And thereby I avoid the ricochet

Of hope’s more ambitious blunderbuss

For it’s when we reach too far

And let the drama get the best of us

That we lose where and who we are

Still the stars have not yet seen the last of us

In good “networked creative” fashion I’ve sent the lyric to one of the authors, Steven Brust, who was kind enough to post it on his own blog: Go check it out, and check out the book!

Now, since I have what I call a “dry lyric” — I think my next step will be working the Songwriting Compass “pathways” to complete the song. Stay tuned for the time-lapse, stop-action photography video!

Your Challenge: The next “lounging on the couch” book you’re reading, when you’re definitely “off duty”’—stay alert for a song seed. Catch it. Write it into a song. You don’t need to invoke the overall context of the source book, as my lyric does here. Almost better if it doesn’t.

This song turns out to be a good example of a genre of “songs inspired by literature.” In fact, an organization called Artists For Literacy initiated a project called “Songs Inspired By Literature,” where songwriters contribute proceeds from songs inspired by literary sources to support literacy programs. A worthy cause:  


One thought on “The Incrementalists

  1. thank you, mark. i’m quite the seed gatherer. it’s the work of finding the story that makes my brain explode. but this is helpful. you say “dry lyric” — you wrote this with no music in mind?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s