As opposed to starting with a poem or lyrics and crafting a melody and musical composition around these words, the phonetics first method of songwriting prioritizes the melodic idea.
During the phonetics first process, the musician, while playing his or her instrument, might naturally hum or sing a melody that comes to mind. The musician plays the music on the instrument repeatedly, and slowly the melody takes form.
When the melody has arrived at a point of structure, inevitably, so too have certain syllables attached to certain notes that the musician has been humming or singing. These syllabic utterings become the basis for some of the lyrics the musician might pen to the melody.
Famous Artists and the Method
Reggae superstar Bob Marley was allegedly a proponent of the phonetics first method of songwriting, among other methods. Bob is said to have liked rising early to write songs—at least in the later stages of his life—because, in the morning, his voice possessed a gravely tone which Bob preferred when coming up with melodies.
Grunge icon Kurt Cobain was also a phonetics first songwriter. Oftentimes, Kurt would write lyrics in haste just before the recording or performance of a song. However, the melodies of his vocal performance had already been set in stone from his experience humming or singing along to his guitar during the writing of the song.
Bob Dylan—and many folk artists influenced by him—often begin with words first, and craft melody second, which represents the antithesis of the phonetics first method.
Many of the greatest songwriters are not limited to one method or another, but rather experiment with all different forms of songwriting; Marley, Cobain, and Dylan are certainly among this group.
Why Phonetics First?
Many songwriters and music experts believe that the main attractive element to a song is its melody, as opposed to its words or lyrical content. Believers in this melodic attraction might claim that music fans singing along to the words, “We will rock you!” is as much a result of the melody supporting the syllables that make up the words, “we will rock you,” as it is a function of the meaning of those words.
In essence, sound and melody are what matters, not lyrical content, say phonetics first proponents.
In reality, lyrical content is important, and no one has proven whether or not one method of songwriting is more effective than another.
Writing ability is in some ways an exercisable muscle. The more you write in earnest, the better writer you are. Journal writing, in particular, cleanses the pathway between your mind and the paper; writers disciplined in their journal keeping soon stumble upon an increased clarity of writing, and further diary entries ensue.
Organizing Your Mental Room
Journal writing traditionally addresses your innermost, personal thoughts. By communicating your thoughts in an organized and intelligible fashion on the paper, you are also assigning organization and order within your brain, which can become very much a tangled, confusing place.
When you then move outside of the journal or diary medium, your newly organized mental room will benefit you more than you might expect. Mentally “reaching” into your thoughts for an idea or expression, you will have an easier time finding what you are looking for with a newly ordered mind and, as a result, you will have an easier time writing clearly.
The best writers have little fluff between their thoughts and their written words, and yet this requires an astonishing clarity of expression. Many average writers often think of themselves as better writers than they are, because they realize they have so many good ideas which they assume will be easily translatable to the page.
However, ideas only go so far, and writers are judged on the expression of their ideas as much as the ideas themselves. The journey towards clarity of expression is a tremendously difficult one for any writer, and this is one of the most beautiful challenges of the craft, if not its defining challenge. New York City rock poet Lou Reed once wrote the lyric, “Between thought and expression lies a lifetime.”
Address the Elephant
The most important and pressing ideas in our mind are often the very ideas we fail to express, or worse, fail to attempt to express. Journal writing presents an opportunity to work out any “elephant in the room” that is invading your mind; you are able to write in your journal as if you were addressing a close friend or confidante, and there is no risk! Do not take this opportunity lightly, but rather attack your personal issues or confusions with the pen, and you will inevitably discover helpful insights about yourself.
Journal writing is only effective if the writer is honest; otherwise, journal writing is a waste of time. Write honestly, more honestly than you might even speak to a friend, and your writing will be more relatable.
In this way, journal writing is a good habit to keep, just to maintain an honest, convincing voice, and to flex your narrative muscle.
Even if your novel has a contemporary setting, you will need to create the world in which your characters exist. World building involves creating the general and detailed settings in which the novel’s characters live. Even when your novel has everyday settings, you need to give your readers a sense of place. Reward your readers by giving them a world that engrosses them in the story.
Why World Building Matters
World building is necessary because your characters need a setting, even if the world is much like your own. Settings can enhance the tension of the story as well, such as aboard a doomed ship or airplane, or a building on fire, or a car careening on the highway, or some other tension-inducing setting.
The world in which your characters live is almost like another character in the tale. It will have its own environment and a life of its own. Yet, it will provide the background for your characters’ scenes. If you are a pantser and plotting is not your style, then write notes as you create your story. This will help you when you need to edit your draft later.
Unleash Your Creativity in World Building
You have lots of freedom in creating your world, even if your novel is not set in a fantasy world. Details count in making scenes realistic for the readers. The quality of your details will affect its believability; and your intimacy with it will be reflected in the vividness of the story you tell.
Making Realistic Settings
Even in a place as mundane as the protagonist’s home, you need to make it realistic. What kind of a home is it? Does it match the protagonist’s income level? If it is more luxurious, explain why it is affordable. Describe the location, layout and style of the premises. For your own purposes, a more detailed description and/or floor plan can be useful in plotting scenes.
Creating a Whole New World for Your Fantasy Novel
World building is especially important for historical and fantasy writers. If you are writing a fantasy novel, your world will be more realistic the more defined it is. Create the full spectrum of your fantasy world, including its geography, mythology, governing system and other aspects. The more depth there is in the world your characters inhabit, the more engaging your story will become for your readers.
Keep it real at all times. Do not make jarring mistakes by putting your characters into awkward settings, for instance by putting modern details in a different time period. No matter how deeply engrossed you become in creating your characters’ world, remember to keep the balance. Your world should help your story move along, instead of bogging it down.
Outlines work for many authors as a source of guidance that keeps them from getting stuck. For authors that use outlines, they are useful tools that are not carved in stone. Instead, they signify a source of guidance they can change at will as they develop their storyline.
However, among authors that use outlines, some have found a way to speed up the writing process by focusing on specific aspects of the novel’s outline. They have found this method keeps the writing coherent and avoids wasting time. This approach may work for you.
Building the Outline by Focusing on the Protagonist
Focus on the character’s motivations, goals, and conflict. Great novels can be created with this focus, such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Most stories have common plot points: the initial situation, the conflict, a complication, the climax, suspense, denouement, and the conclusion. Great writers like Dostoyevsky mix up the ingredients and sprinkle some added spice.
Flesh Out Characters with Some Research
Once you know your characters’ motivations, you can start bringing them to life with some research about their personality, history, etc. Why would this person have these motivations? The clearer the character’s profile, the easier it will be to create the plot points—the major events in the story that move the story forward.
Create the Plot Points for Each Protagonist
Plot points are the key milestones of the storyline. If your novel has more than one protagonist, you will need to create each protagonist’s plot points and other scenes. You need to figure out how many scenes you need to complete your book—the ballpark number of pages you want the story to contain.
You may already have a sense of what you need, if you have researched the normal page count for the genre in which you are writing. Divide the number of total pages by the pages per scene to determine your scene count. How long will those scenes be? Check out other works in the genre, if you do not know how long your scenes should be.
Create the Scenes, Beginning with the Major Turning Points
You may want to create each scene’s outline. After you have pinned down the key scenes, you will just have to fill in the scenes that link the plot points—the major turning points of the story.
This approach will help you think through scenes, plots points, and character development. As you evolve the storyline, you can add to or prune your outline as needed. Less time will be wasted during the writing process when the weaknesses are weeded out before the process begins. By laying the foundation of the storyline this way, you will be less likely to get stuck, or to go off course during the writing process. And, of course, it is easier to change the outline rather than the completed manuscript!