Include the Unexpected in Your Writing

Saturday, April 22, 2023
Music moves us, physically and emotionally. It gets our toes tapping, our fingers snapping, and our hair flipping (if we’re channeling Beyoncé, that is). 

As writers, some of us rely on a trusted playlist in the background, to coax the muse. Others prefer silence. I fall somewhere in the middle, listening to songs only to warm me up. And by warming up, I don’t mean my pipes. I mean, to get my fingers on keyboard, ‘cuz trust me, no one wants to hear me butcher a melody. After listening to several songs, I turn off the music and find that I’m ready to write (in silence, my preferred way to coalesce my thoughts). 

I often put my iPhone music library in shuffle mode before I write, to surprise myself with songs I may not have listened to in months, sometimes years. The other day, my shuffle mode served up “40 Dogs” by Bob Schneider. YouTube Music includes the song’s lyrics. I took a screen shot of the tab where you can find lyrics (red box, upper right, as well as the play button, lower left). 

Bet you ten bucks that Bob studied poetry at some point, but then again, who knows? I clearly don’t know the guy—but would love to meet him, if only to tell him that his lyrics are clever as hell and that his melody turned into a major earworm for me. 

I love the unexpected ways he uses color in his lyrics to precisely describe not only an action (his example of a cop’s sideways glance), but the resulting feeling his companion’s company stirs in him. The connection he makes is unique, completely unexpected, and memorable. 

Take a minute and pull up his lyrics from the YouTube Music page. Listen to his song. Then tell me if you did as I did: tried to visualize the way comic book cops throw sidelong glances. Think of the exaggerated drawings and facial expressions. The “POW!” and “BAM!” that always shows up in speech bubbles. 

Are you visualizing the cop? The set of his jaw? The question in his eyes? Has someone you’ve known, maybe not a cop but a friend, ever thrown a glance at you like that? For what reason? How does that memory make you feel? 

Bob goes on to compare his companion to “The Wizard of Oz” movie. Remember that part, when Dorothy crosses the door threshold from her sepia toned house into the colorful, magical land of Oz? It’s another unexpected gem that makes Bob’s lyrics memorable. Poetic. 

He goes on to write about the color of a fight. Umm … more, please! He urges his companion to go out with him, presumably on the town, to let loose. He mashes careful and crazy behavior together, and man, I want to be riding shotgun! And, I want to write poetic fragments like that. We all do, as writers. 

I took a poetry workshop two years ago—my first attempt at writing poems—and the instructor suggested I try assigning color to actions and feelings. Listening to “40 Dogs” again the other day, it renewed yet again my appreciation for when writers (songwriters, too!) introduce unexpected phrasings into a piece. The result is often a song chart-topper (or, in our writerly corner of the world, gets an immediate Yes from a literary journal or mainstream publication). 

You can “meet” the poetry workshop instructor who offered me that advice (leading to several of my poems getting published that use color in unexpected ways). I recently interviewed Claire Oleson for the WOW! Markets newsletter to celebrate National Poetry Month in April. 

What unexpected things have you tried with your writing lately? I’d love to hear about it in the comments! 

Ann Kathryn Kelly writes from New Hampshire's Seacoast region.



Angela Mackintosh said...

Great post, Ann! :) When I think of the most superior art form out there, it's music. Like you said, it can become a major ear worm! It also pairs well with writing. I often listen to a "theme song" on repeat when working on a piece.

As far as unexpected things I've tried lately, one was a writing exercise to tell a story where the reader knows more than the protagonist does. Basically, you give the reader all the hints, and they solve the mystery before the protagonist, which is supposed to give the reader a good feeling. But it's harder than it sounds!

The other one is doing the dishes or taking a shower before I start writing. Something about the water helps me work out story problems and I snap back into the writing zone. :)

Ann Kathryn Kelly said...

Ang, that exercise angle sounds intriguing! The reader, as omniscient. Cool! Is it a somewhat similar concept to books that let readers choose their own ending?

Kelly Sgroi said...

Music is such a great writing tool. It inspires, motivates, and readies me to write too! I listen to different types of playlists depending on what I'm writing, and I've created a playlist for every one of my manuscripts to compliment the mood of my stories and reflect my characters. Thanks for reminding me how music impacts my writing!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I can only listen to instrumental music when I write because I'll sing with anything and everything. Perhaps not well, but I'm unstoppable! When I photo edit or do other graphic work, I often listen to rock and roll or rockabilly. And, yes, I'm singing while I work.

That sounds like an incredibly difficult kind of story to write!

Ann Kathryn Kelly said...

Kelly, love manuscript playlists! I didn't do a playlist for my memoir manuscript, but one song does have a pretty big feature in a chapter. Of course, I had to paraphrase the lyrics, but I think it definitely sets the mood for that one scene.

Ann Kathryn Kelly said...

SueBE, I hear ya. I can only listen to songs before I write, but never while I write. The lyrics compete with my own thoughts, and I don't get anything done. Also agree that for most other pursuits, I can -- and do! -- have music on.

Angela Mackintosh said...

SueBE and Ann, I hear you, too! I can only listen to instrumental music when I write, so I listen to movie soundtracks mostly. I took a workshop with the talented Naomi Kimbell, and one of our exercises was to write a piece to music using one of the songs on her list, which were all instrumental - stuff like Brian Eno. I chose "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," by Blind Willie Johnson. That song is so evocative, you can't help but create strong visual imagery. I wrote about a tough time in my early 20s when I lived in Venice and was about to be evicted and felt like the world was crashing down around me. The exercise works well for short pieces! You might try it for your prose poems, Ann. :)

The fiction writing exercise isn't like Choose Your Own Adventure - it's easier than that, but harder than it sounds. It just involves making your protagonist naive, but since you're in her head and POV, all your readers can experience is what you show them. So the key is to feed the reader exterior clues that your protag doesn't pick up on. You might try it in your cozy, Sue! For the reader it's fun and exciting--kind of like watching a game show, where you shout out the answer and you're sure it's correct, but you still keep watching to find out if you're right because you have a stake in the game.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Ok, I see what you mean about creating a naive character. I read a story years ago where the character wasn't naive but self-deluded. She wouldn't let herself believe that her brother had committed suicide and was intent on solving his murder. Excellent unreliable narrator.

Ann Kathryn Kelly said...

Ang, I remember now, hearing you talk about Naomi's workshop. Something that had Towns in the title, maybe? I recall that you loved the exercises. No surprise. The two classes I took with her have been my favorites, by far!

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