A very good friend of mine from the US - the writer William McCall - forwarded this excellent article to me today. It relates specifically to songwriting, but William made the point that it connects with writing literature just as well in many ways, and I agree with him completely.
So here it is - The Three H's by Darrell Brown
I had no idea I was going to turn out to be a songwriter. I would bet my next year’s royalty checks that when I was getting slapped on the butt and crying out my first melodies as a newborn, my parents were not dreaming of the day that their youngest baby boy would grow up to become a songwriter. The family business was an air freight trucking company. So God bless my parents for knowing by my second year in grade school that music was my first love and it wasn’t going to be me driving around in the hot Arizona sun at 18 in an Econoline van full of freight to deliver. So with everything I have in me, I thank my mom and dad for letting me follow my intuition.
I loved performing but I found out quickly that singing disco cover songs on the “amazing ascending and descending” Coca Cola Tomorrowland Terrace stage at Disneyland six nights a week would pay the bills but it would not bring the likes of Clive Davis or Ahmet Ertegun down to check out the “credo” artist shaking his booty in an orange and purple polyester jumpsuit singing “Le Freak” by Chic — especially when I was singing the back-up vocal (“Aaaahhhhhh, freak out!). So after a year and a half at Mickey and Minnie’s house, I saved up enough money and quit. I immediately went out and rented an upright piano from Hollywood Piano Store and started trying to write songs. It was a good move. It worked.
These many years later I usually find myself in Nashville, Los Angeles, New York, London or some other city, sitting at a piano with my laptop computer, No. 2 pencil and pad with another songwriter or artist. We then proceed to vent and hash out our thoughts and feelings, our anger and frustrations, our longings and hopes and try to gently coax them into the shape of a song. And that song must have the three H’s in it: Honesty. Humanity. And hooks.
First, honesty, because I believe that people will only put up with a lie for so long and I want my songs to last forever. For me, finding out if a song is honest or not is a gut thing. An honest song will show innocence, vulnerability and strength all at the same time: “I Can’t Make You Love Me” sung by Bonnie Raitt and written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” or “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding and Steve Cropper or Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Songs that rise above the songwriter and performer and have a life of their own.
Then, it has to be full of humanity, and by that I mean the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual sides of humanity. The big themes — the brokenness and the triumph of it all. So people can relate to what I am writing and singing about.
Then, finally — and this is extremely important to a song — it has to be filled with hooks, basically because I don’t want to bore people to death with all the honesty and humanity I am parading about. Hooks, as most of you know, are an absolute staple of pop music, bits and pieces of rhyming syllables or words, rhythmic chords and melodies chiming in and out and strung together in some fresh way so they never leave your brain, so you can’t stop thinking about or humming that song wherever you go. No hooks? Then it is not a great song and never will be.
Examples of great hooks? There are so many, but here are a few that come to mind. The chorus of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears (“Take a good look at my face….”). The refrain of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” (“I can’t get no…”). The very first line of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” or of “Killing Me Softly With His Song” sung by (but not written by) Roberta Flack.
I also know this from experience: Not all of the songs I write will be good ones. Actually, a lot of them will be ridiculously bad (experience has also taught me not to show those songs to anyone for obvious reasons). But when an honest, four-dimensional, hook-filled piece of humanity is finally born, there is a clue to recognizing its timelessness. There is a peaceful, non-judgmental appreciation that falls over me when I hear it, a feeling — or even a knowledge — that we songwriters really had nothing to do with its creation in the first place. It’s as if we were archaeologists at a dig and all we had to do was chip away the stone and brush away the sand that hid it from view. We were just lucky enough to be in the room that day when it showed up to sing to us.
So that's that. As an afterthought, where Darrell speaks of 'hooks' in songs, there are obviously 'hooks' in books, though they take a slightly different form than those you find in music.
But you get the picture, right?
Sure you do.
Take care, speak soon.