Month: January 2015

How Writing About Boring Stuff Made Me a Better Writer – and Rich

When I graduated from college with a Master’s Degree in Writing I was ready to write the Great American Novel, a few cover stories for Rolling Stone Magazine, and probably an Oscar-Winning independent film.

Looking back at my hubris, I can only shake my head. There isn’t anything wrong with wanting those things. In fact, it’s important to have long-term goals.

In my case however, I thought I should have all of these things immediately. When immediately turned into a year, two years, a couple babies, and a divorce later, I became panicky. My empty bank account let me in on the sad truth that in order to make a living I was going to have to write about *gasp* boring things.

Omigosh, boring things. healthcare, computers, vitamins, exercise, insurance, you know, boring things. Things my parents did.

I did not get to write about rockers with hot tattoos, or moody declarative statements about the world, or the Cannes Film Festival, or the tiny house movement, or if I did, it cost me more to research the article than I ever made from it.

What was I supposed to say about boring things? Yay, insurance. You pay too much and it’s boring. Vitamins: Healthy people take them. Boring. Fish oil and male enhancement supplements, eww (and boring).

I was a writer, a real writerly writer. I had deep stuff to say, epic stories to tell. But noooooooo, I had to sit at a desk and write about boring things.

I kept this attitude up for a year. Okay, three.

Then something happened. I dug in and started understanding and researching. Not the products themselves, but the stories. What the products did and how they made people feel. I stopped phoning it in and imagined life being better. Conflict. Resolution. Concrete words. Stories.

Suddenly the stuff I was writing wasn’t boring anymore. Not because insurance, vitamins, exercise, or missile technology is any more inherently interesting, but because I can make them interesting.

missile

I didn’t ramble on and on, stating the same idea three times. Sentences were leaner due to the strict editors and creative directors with whom I worked, even though in the beginning I hated these boring people just like the boring things. But with their patience and insight they got me to the point where I could make toothpaste sound like a chapter in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. For that I will always be grateful.

Then the money came. Well, the numbers came first, as in people were responding to the copy in a way that made the analytics guy smile, so I got a raise. You know, that whole corporate, measurable results thing. That’s real if you actually have results to show.

MORAL: There’s no such thing as boring stuff, just bad writers.

HOMEWORK: If you want to be a better writer, pay your dues and, if you can, spend a few years writing about “boring stuff.”

In the process you will:

  • Make more money
  • Learn to employ more effective storytelling techniques
  • Become a better editor
  • Become a better researcher
  • Write tighter copy
  • Learn humility**
  • Act less entitled**

*What I am would not be considered rich to some people. But I’m a writer and I pay my bills, so there’s that.

** I think the last two were more of a gift for the people around me, as these qualities made me more likable as a teammate, friend, mother, wife, adult, person, human being.

3 Top Music Career Killers

There are three reasons that I am not a successful musician. For twenty years I have created music but three key choices have absolutely destroyed any chance of making it my profession.

After working for an indie record label, interviewing successful artists for magazines, making films with touring bands, and being a fledgling, sometimes, half-ass musician myself, I have learned what does actually need to be done in order to have a shot at making a living as an artist these days. I’ve hired consultants. I’ve drilled down into statistics and data. I have pondered music as a career path several times over the years but it was already too late.

open-mic

So without further ado, here are the top three mistakes that sealed my fate as a writer (someone who is not a successful musician).

  1. I went to college.

Out of the 10 top-grossing musical artists of all time – exactly zero have a college degree. Okay, a couple guys in Pink Floyd did part of a semester before dropping out, but otherwise no successful artist went to college.

As a young person, you are presented with two different, and mutually exclusive paths: Music or College. You can’t do both because of student loan debt. You need to be able to withstand years of making very little money. That’s not possible when you’re paying off loans.

Plus, all the time spent studying, you’re not writing songs. You’re not touring. You’re not “being a musician.” Nobody in the music business is going to take a chance on investing in an artist or band that can’t make them money. Managers, labels, and the like need to have you out there working in order for them to take a cut and make their living. That’s how it works. If you’re in college, you’re spending money, not making it.

If you choose college, you’ve chosen college. Music is your hobby and it probably always will be.

  1. I do not live in NYC, LA, or Nashville and I have no plans to move there.

Most deals are done in music towns. Labels are based in these towns and the people who work in the industry have spouses and kids and a life in these towns.

Everyone goes to SXSW, and there are a few decent labels in Chicago and other markets, but to conduct business (and be seen initially) it’s easier if you’re around. It also shows that you’re serious and labels like serious. They like sure things. They like easy. They go to the same clubs every week. They like to see you again and again, and hear your name many, many times.

See: Return on Investment (ROI)

See: Low-hanging fruit

  1. I’m not going to videotape myself singing hundreds of cover songs and put them on YouTube.

If you’re not going to do #2 right away (because you’re a child), you can potentially do #3. You’ll show up on something called Next Big Sound and industry people will begin to take note.

This is only the case if you have hundreds of thousands of page views. For some reason people really like to listen to random people sing cover songs. I don’t understand this phenomenon, but it’s real – and it’s how a lot of artists get discovered these days. Think of it as Internet Karaoke.

Be aware that everyone is doing this and they are hardcore. People post every single day. Themselves. Singing a cover song.

At a time when most people are trying to get out of the music business, I still know a lot of people trying to get in. If you haven’t made the same mistakes that I have, you probably have a shot.

Hear what music from an unsuccessful artist sounds like (it doesn’t sound like money, but I think it’s cool). Download my band Delavan’s newest track, “Love Shine.”

http://www.delavanband.com

Disclaimer: Some real and actual musicians and industry folk contributed to the making of “Love Shine,” but I wasn’t one of them. And it’s my blog.

Fast Feet

School clothes shopping is a yearly tradition for many American children. Every August, exhausted parents hit the mall with about a quarter of their paychecks while kids choose apparel that won’t get them kicked, punched, spit at, or given wedgies. Optimal gear elicits pangs of envy from the kids who frequently do get kicked, punched, spit at, or given wedgies. The third grade is particularly rough, as I recall.

It was the year Grandma bought my gym shoes.

“I have a picture of the shoes I want,” I announced, flipping through the catalog to locate the same black Converse All-Stars worn by my cousin Debbie.

Fast_Feet

Debbie was three years older than me. She had a cassette tape collection. The summer before, she and my other cousin Jenny told me the meanings of all the bad words they knew. I told my sister one of them and got my mouth washed out with soap.

“Mmmhmm,” Grandma nodded, barely glancing in my direction. She crushed out her Winston and picked up a bright pink tube of lipstick.

Grandma lived in a house with powder-blue asbestos siding that featured its own special smoking room. It was in that room that I cornered her, insistent upon getting the shoes that would assist in my leap to third grade stardom and mega-popularity. I held up the catalog once again, pointing to the black Converse footwear with the Chuck Taylor signature that I had circled three times with a pen.

She scanned the page.

“Okay. Go play,” she said.

I grinned and ran off, encouraged by the fact that my request was approved quickly.

Two weeks later my shoes arrived.

I was just getting off the bus when I saw the enormous blue Ford parked in the driveway. It was all I could do not to turn around and sneer at Jason Carlson who had been poking me in the head with a permanent marker. I had black dots on my scalp. They would wash off but my cool teenager shoes would last forever.

“I hope they’re the right size,” said Grandma as she handed them over. “You kids’ feet grow so fast.”

The box looked funny.

I flipped open the top and peered inside.

The brightness of hot pink and teal canvas stung my eyes. “Fast Feet,” it said on the outside of each shoe. There was no white circle and no blue star.

Grandma poured herself a glass of brandy.

“They had them at Kmart,” she said. “Now you’re all set.”

I was all set – to die of embarrassment.

I was all set to run across the gym floor and not be able to stop because the soles of my shoes were hard white plastic. They also made terrible skidding, shrieking sounds. I don’t know how many times I ran into the wall doing relays. I was picked last for every game, and I can’t even talk about dodge ball.

I still have the scar. On my soul.

“Thank you,” I whispered, clutching the box to my chest, as if there was an animal inside trying to escape.

I slipped silently back to my bedroom and closed the door.

Story Behind the Song – Love Shine

The original idea for the song Love Shine came about while I was in the midst of a home brewing project. For anyone who has attempted to brew beer at home, you understand what a long process it is. There is a lot of boiling, and timing, and waiting. The mind tends to wander.

I had just stirred in the first batch of hops (Cascade) and started singing about the steps involved.

The parallels between being drunk and being in the early stages of love abound. Feelings of warmth, excitement, and the awareness that you’re probably a bit out of your mind are all similar between the two. Since I was no stranger to either states of being, I had a lot of material.

I recorded lyrics and melody as a voice memo on my phone and promised myself that I would come back to it as soon as I had pitched the yeast and the beer was safely in the fermenter.

Get the free single – Love Shine

Love Shine Album Cover Single

Advice from a Hit Writer

After playing the first version of the song numerous times with my band, Delavan, I signed up for the Barbara Cloyd Songwriting Workshop at the Bluebird Café in Nashville. Barbara penned the 1993 hit “I Guess You Had to Be There,” by Lorrie Morgan and I asked her for some advice on how to improve the track.

The gist of her comments were that the current lyrics were too abstract, and it was hard to understand what was going on. To tell you the truth, I hadn’t worked out what was going on myself, other than loosely relating being drunk to being in love. Then there was the title, Love Shine (instead of Moonshine). I thought that was a fun twist on the whole “drunk on you” concept.

As a result of the initial feedback from Barbara, I worked harder on crafting a story and submitted the rewrite for publishers.

Some of the changes were as follows:

Original lyric –

I met you, we were growing wild

Playing breezy like a child

Come together and falling fast

Down in the pot with a boiling mash

Rewritten lyric –

I met you, we were going wild

Waking all the neighbors in a country mile

Lately all they hear is fighting

Time to bring out a jar of mama’s white lightning

Spit and Polish

As a writer, I spent a lot of time focusing on creative turns of phrase and apt titles. I didn’t try to have a cohesive, trackable story. Sometimes that works, and it can be fun to analyze abstract lyrics. I have an appreciation for that kind of music, but my goal is to challenge myself to write in a variety of genres so that I can choose the direction that’s right for the song – and for me.

The Delavan release of Love Shine was recorded at Real Phonic Studio in Minneapolis by Erik Koskinen. Vero played bass, and Mark Larson played drums. There were a few guitars. One’s me playing acoustic. James Gould plays throughout, and Erik laid another track or two on top.

David Feeny at the Tempermill in Detroit did the mastering. I always like to throw that out there because he played on Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose record with Jack White. That was a big record for me personally, and I’ve always been a fan of Lynn’s – and White’s for that matter. Being able to work with people whom you admire is a very satisfying personal and professional experience.

One of the publishers at the workshop likened the finished version of Love Shine to country artist Ashley Monroe. He also said that traditional country songs like this one are a tougher sell in the current commercial country market (Summer of ’14). Tastes change, and only time will tell if traditional country will make it back on the radio. I hope so, not just for my own work, but because I really enjoy it.

Oh, PS – The beer turned out good too.

Hear It Now

I’ll keep writing. In the meantime, you can get the free single for Love Shine.

Full Lyrics

I met you, we were going wild

Waking all the neighbors in a country mile

Lately all they hear is fighting

Time to bring out a jar of mama’s white lightning

<chorus>

Stir it up, baby just listen

Won’t be long ’til we get to kissin’

Little bit dizzy but I’m feeling fine

Pour me a cup of that love shine

<verse2>

I like it strong, ’bout a hundred proof

Feel the warm rush seeping through

Tell me baby what I got to do

So we get drunk off of me and you

<chorus2>

Stir it up, baby just listen

Won’t be long ’til we get to kissin’

Little bit dizzy but I’m feeling fine

Can’t get enough of your love shine

<bridge>

Lock the windows and steam the pane

Drive the fire like a union train

Getting tipsy when you hold me tight

It’s the kind of buzz that’s gonna last all night

<chorus>

Stir it up, baby just listen

Won’t be long ’til we get to kissin’

Little bit dizzy but I’m feeling fine

Can’t get enough of your love shine

<instrumental>

Stir it up, baby just listen

Won’t be long ’til we get to kissin’

Little bit dizzy but I’m feeling fine

Can’t get enough of your love shine

Need a little more of your love shine

You got to give me that love shine