Sunday 10 July 2022

Songs and Stories - Alan McClure


I have a wee summer resolution, which is to get back to writing songs, poetry and short stories, and to leave the novels until they’re positively shrieking at me to be written. Most of us know the value of playing with different forms as a means of extending stylistic skills, sidestepping writer’s block and just generally remembering to have fun with words.

By the time I left school I’d already been persuaded that writing was A Thing I Could Do, chiefly through feedback from assignments: I could turn in a decent essay, hazard a poem - you know the type of thing.  But the first writing I did without being asked, purely out of compulsion, was song-writing. I got my first guitar at seventeen and wrote my first song after learning my second chord, and that was my obsession for the next couple of decades. I’ve played alone and in bands, recorded sixteen albums (no, you won’t have heard of them!) and written commissioned pieces for various shows and projects. It was, and remains, one the chief joys in my life and, when all’s going well, is pretty effortless. If I’ve put my 10,000 hours into anything, it’s this, and I still feel there are infinite possibilities ahead.

I’ve been wondering whether song-writing has informed my approach to children’s writing and I thought I’d share some of the tips that have occurred to me. There’s a link to some of my songs at the bottom of this post, so you can check and see whether you think I’m someone whose tips could be of use to you!


1)      Language is inherently oral and musical. For me, songs are neither lyrics first nor music first – the lyrics should contain the music and be accepted specifically for their rhythm and singability. The corollary in a children’s novel seems to be, ‘if this reads well out loud you’re probably onto something’. There are so many levels to communication, but asking yourself ‘is this musical?’ will seldom lead you astray.

2)      Write for its own sake. Creating something through sheer delight in the process is always worthwhile. You may be able to make use of it in future and you may not, but the simple act of doing it strengthens your foundation every single time.

3)      Be inspired by all forms and traditions. The world of music exemplifies the value of creative cross-pollination – it would be hard to name a contemporary genre that doesn’t owe its roots to a whole number of different traditions. When you get in deep enough, the question ‘what sort of music do you play?’ becomes a bit meaningless and you feel as if you’re part of an indescribable whole. Easy genre definition is good for marketing but not, I suspect, for creative freedom – that pertains in the world of novel writing as well as songs, I think. On a similar note:

4)      Try a different instrument now and then. I’ve written most of my songs on guitar, but now and again that can feel like a bit of a rut and I fancy a crack at something different. Musical instruments just fascinate me and there’s not been one invented that I wouldn’t like a go on. As soon as I can get some kind of a melody on something it morphs into a song (that having been my habit for so long) – I’ve written songs on the piano, banjo, concertina, saxophone, glockenspiel, and they’re always notably different from the guitary ones. This compares to using different voices in fiction, whether narrative or character – a different voice should tell us something only it can tell, and the voices we use should have the capacity to surprise us.

5)      A simple idea can be framed beautifully, and a beautiful idea can be framed simply. It’s very possible to get bogged down in ornamentation and clever arrangement, and the results may be worth it, especially if the basic material is a little thin – however, there’s a particular joy in speaking to the most people possible, and that generally involves clarity and simplicity. The faster you get your ideas down, the more time there is to have new ideas: it’ll be up to you to decide which ones merit the polish and which ones have arrived fully formed.


I’ve no doubt most of these sound like no-brainers to most of you, but I do hope you’ll consider your creative go-to space when the long form is outside your grasp. Do you write a poem? Draw a picture? Play a round of golf? And how does it make its way onto your novels?

 Happy writing everyone, and may your procrastination be as productive as your hard work!

 You can hear a few of my songs here, if you have a notion to do so!


Joan Lennon said...

Wise words - I particularly like number 4. Thanks for this, Alan!

Alan McClure said...

Thanks Joan! x

Anonymous said...

Fine sharing Alan as music and stories are, thank you.

Sue Purkiss said...

This is really interesting. Am specially keen on writing/making music for the joy of it!

Galiana1 said...

I think that Summer is a perfect time for some of the ideas you wrote, and 'remembering to have fun with words' is maybe the one that I love most. I must admit that I have read out loud some lines of 'Callum and the Mountain' during an English lesson, so I quite understand that 'if it reads well out loud you' re probably into something '. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and words. 🙂