Philip Brewer's Writing Progress


Monday, 02 September 2002

I've fallen way behind in my short fiction reading. Up until I left for Clarion last year, I was making a serious effort to read all the major markets. But since then I've just been reading the odd bit here and there. I have, however, gotten most of the Year's Best read, and have been reading a novel here and there. What with one thing and another, I have read most of the Hugo award winners, including novel, novella, novelette, and short story.

I'm glad not to be completely out of touch.

I saw a posting on the Speculations bulletin board about using (in a story) the name of a well-known song. The posting seemed to indicate that the writer would really have rather used lyrics from the song, but accepted that the permission issues and cost would probably make that impossible. I didn't comment on the bulletin board; the forum is for legal issues, and what I've got to say goes to the story-telling issues rather than the legal ones.

I've seen a lot of bad uses of song lyrics and song references, and only a few good ones. After thinking about it, I've come to the conclusion that just about the only good use of specific songs is to evoke a specific time. (The movie "The Big Chill" used them that way effectively.) But a lot of writers, especially beginning writers, seem to use them to evoke a mood or a feeling, and that doesn't work at all. The feeling that the song evokes in the writer comes not just from the song, but from a whole bunch of connected things, such as the writer's mood the first time he or she heard the song. Things that aren't shared with the reader.

Before deciding to refer to a popular song in a story, the writer should consider what effect is intended. Some fraction of the readers will never have heard of the song. Others will have heard of it, but will have a very different association with it than the writer does. For the writer it may be song that helped him get over a bad brake-up, but for some other reader it might be . . . anything--the song playing during a first kiss or while contemplating suicide or waiting to hear if a loved one is going to be okay. For one reader it might be a powerful song of rebellion, while for another it may be a derivative rehash of stuff that was done way better in the 1960s (or the 1910s).

Can the story hold up if the reader's sense of the song is completely different from the writer's? If so, then you don't really need the song at all--it's not very important. If not, then you can't afford to have the song in there, because a large fraction of the readers are going to have a completely different sense of the song.

So, what do I suggest instead? I suggest that the writer does his or her job. If you want to evoke a mood or a feeling, write prose or poetry that evokes that mood or feeling. It may not be easy, but the song provides an existence proof that it is possible.

We had lunch at Li'l Porgies, a BBQ place within walking distance that we hardly ever eat at, because we get plenty of fat and calories in our diet without need to pump them up that way. After that we went to see "Lilo and Stitch." A great movie, even if it isn't a movie of the writing life.


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