When my beautiful friend and talented writer, Susan Gregg Gilmore, sent me an advance copy of her new novel, “The Funeral Dress,” I already knew I was going to be writing a song for the book. As I mentioned in my last post, Susan and I had talked about what a cool thing it could be, and we had heard her publisher was on board to use it to promote the book.
I admit that this is a totally fun project for me as a songwriter. I’m a great supporter of novelists, and this is a neat way for me to add to (hopefully) the promotion of one. I believe in the power of music, and I definitely love that music could be used to further Susan’s work. I thought you might be interested in hearing the song, “I Believe in You,” and knowing a little about how the song came together for me. Listen to it, and then read on for some insight into my writing process.
I broke my process down into Five Basic Steps so you could follow me. (I.Need.Structure.)
1. What I Didn’t Want
First, I decided right away what I didn’t want. I figured that if I took a few things off the table at the start, then I could get a better focus. The one thing I knew right away that I didn’t want was for the song to be a slow, sad ballad. With a title like, “The Funeral Dress,” I knew I wanted to stay away from writing a funeral dirge. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) So, slow songs were out.
For the sake of melodrama, I also decided not to use a minor key. (Musicians, can I get an ‘amen?’)
Finally, I didn’t want to write the book title, “The Funeral Dress,” as a song title. I know me, and I can’t be trusted to write that closely to another writer’s title. I inevitably would have made up my own story for the title, and then the lyric wouldn’t have served Susan’s novel.
2. What I Did Want
With #1 in mind, I took some time to think about what I DID want. Right away I wanted the lyric and music to be hopeful. I suppose it is the commercial writer in me, but I thought a lot about the reader/buyer. Again, considering the novel’s title, if I were a potential buyer, I would want to have some feeling that I wasn’t signing up for a totally gut wrenching read. (I prefer to be tricked into those.)
I wanted a musical ‘feel’ that seemed inspiring. While I hadn’t read the book yet, I wanted to go into the reading of it with some sort of ‘soundtrack’ that would lift me up. So, I played around with music till I landed on something that I made me feel positive. Okay, I guess that’s just an instinctual thing, but in the end, if I’m writing it and I like it, then it’s all good, right?
3. The Easy Part
Once I had the musical soundtrack playing in my head, I finally read the novel. (Oh yeah…THAT.)
I didn’t take notes, and I didn’t worry about finding a lyric in it. I didn’t even try to remember facts or names or anything. I just read it at my own pace and when I was finished, I took a few days to see what bubbled to the top. All along, though, I did keep the ‘soundtrack’ in mind.
4. Got Questions?
After a few days of sitting with the story, some very specific questions began to form for me. So, I spent time answering my own questions.
- What moments kept coming back to me?
- What characters did I want to know more about?
- What about the observers? The people in the town who weren’t mentioned in the book, but who were watching?
- What did I think the real story here was? Was it the same story I guessed Susan intended to write?
- What is my personal response to that story?
5. Enough Already
Finally, I started writing. I’m not going to talk about the scenes and moments (yet) that shaped the song because it might ruin your read. However, I will tell you about the small moment in the book, the moment you may not even notice, that got the whole lyric started.
Susan describes a scene when Emmalee, a new employee, is sitting at her freshly assigned sewing machine in the factory.
“From behind Emmalee, a woman half stood over the top of her machine and introduced herself as Wilma Minton. She had full cheeks and bright pink lips and eyebrows drawn on her face. The tail of her left eyebrow was smudged, and Emmalee held her hand to her mouth, careful not to snicker.”
For whatever reason, that passing moment in the novel never left me. My mind went off into a million directions when I read that small part–wonder who Wilma Minton is at home? Do I know a ‘Wilma Minton?’ Is Wilma lonely? Is she kind? Is she a gossip? …and before I read too many more pages in the story, I decided I was going to like Wilma till she proved me wrong. And the lines in the pre-chorus of my song, “Life can break your heart, that’s the hardest part,” are totally, 100% from my first decision about Wilma Minton.
Gang, I wrote this song based on how The Funeral Dress made me feel. The overall story and not just one character or one moment.
It’s not a song for Emmalee or Kelley Faye, nor is it a song for Leona or Wilma or Easter, or any of the characters. Rather, it’s a song for all of them.
And, I suppose if I’m being honest, it’s a song for each of us who needs our own community, however disjointed or flawed or unlikely a community it is, to hold us up, too.
The Funeral Dress is available at your local bookstore, or on Amazon.com. I hope you’ll join me in supporting a fellow writer. Also, please share this post with your particular online universe–facebook, twitter, youtube, etc. However you communicate with the outside, let’s be the people who talk about art.