Bad Song! The Art of Sucking On Purpose… Part I

Here’s a fun exercise. Write a bad song. On purpose.


Dull and Humorless Statement of Learning Goals. Carole King said (somewhere) that she had to write about 200 bad songs before she started writing “keepers.” She wasn’t trying to write bad songs. But her experience shows us that even great songwriters build their craft slowly and painfully, by trial and error.

While that’s always true, you can accelerate the process by doing it on purpose!

Pat Pattison compares songwriting to juggling. A great teacher of mine, movement education master Jaimen MacMillan, teaches juggling in an interesting way. He says that when we’re learning to juggle, what we’re most afraid of is dropping the ball. So he has us practice dropping the ball on purpose. We began to recognize those “tensing up” movements we made prior to dropping the ball; our juggling improves quickly through the work of turning the accidental to the intentional.

So with this exercise, we practice intentionally dropping the “songwriting ball.”

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New Writing Insights

Time Yourself! Seventeen Minutes—in Blog Posting and Songwriting

My friend and colleague Pat Pattison and I were sitting around the other day with a couple of other songwriting teachers, eating Pat’s delicious fish soup and a piece of Stilton to die for. (That’s the telling detail that puts you in the room, the descriptive paint that drips down and saturates the rest of this somewhat abstract post with sensory detail and “compelling verisimilitude.” By the way, that metaphor comes from Pat too.) We were discussing object writing, an associative, sensory writing technique Pat discusses in several of his books. He first introduced the technique in Writing Better Lyrics (Writer’s Digest Books, make sure to get the 2nd edition). This single exercise has dramatically transformed the writing practice of probably thousands of songwriters.

I’m know the creative writing world has developed hundreds of writing exercises, games, prompts, etc. I’d always assumed that Pat, having been trained in literary criticism and theory, had adapted some general creative writing techniques and exercises to the world of songwriting with object writing. But he claims it is truly his invention—and was invented specifically for songwriting. In particular, and somewhat to my surprise, he pointed out that timed writing—especially the idea of practicing object writing by writing to different lengths of time (10 minutes, 5 minutes, 1 minute)—an integral part of the technique, is an aspect he developed.

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Sentence Fragments

In ordinary narrative writing, sentence fragments are no-nos. In lyrics we use them all the time. Often lyrics wind up clunky and less rhythmically assured if we assume we need to write in complete sentences.

You can get some practice with lyric “raw material” in sentence fragment form by using sense-based writing tools, like the object writing techniques Pat Pattison has introduced in his books. These involve generating associative streams of words, not yet intended as rhythmically or rhymically shaped lyrics. (Wait—is “rhymically” a word? “Rhymic” apparently is, so why not?) When writers first try such techniques, their prose is often too “journalistic” and correct, as if they were constructing polished short stories or essays. This generally means words are not flowing out fast and loose enough: there’s too much editing going on. To defeat this, some writers try spitting out isolated words in lists. If you’re object writing about an apple, you’ll get: “Red. Sweet. Crunchy.” The sweet spot for the best object writing “flow” is between these extremes: the phrase or sentence fragment is perfect. A series of sentence fragments creates snapshot pictures or other sensory “bursts” for the reader, and potentially for the listener as well. And, while the goal of these techniques is not to arrive directly at extended lyric passages or entire lyric sections, it is possible to lift out isolated gems—an image, metaphor, phrase or line—into song lyrics. These will often take the form of sentence fragments.

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