How to Write a Song: The Personal Guide to your Inner Songwriting Self
This book belongs to: Percival McGee, but everyone calls me Percy. I know you’re laughing; and you can’t see it right now, but I’m flipping you off.
Congratulations! You bought this book so that you could learn how to write a great song! The following is a series of simple instructions on how to write said song. To start, think of one of the worst experiences you’ve ever had. What is it?
My hamster died yesterday. Then the other hamster ate him…I’m scarred for life.
Great! (I’m sorry that happened, but pain makes for a good lyric). If you could title a song after this experience, what would it be?
C’mon, you can be more original than that…
Really? It’s not everyday someone sings a song about a hamster that eats another hamster’s decomposing carcass…
Wonderful! Now try to come up with a central theme that you will repeat throughout the song.
I should have gotten a cat. In fact, I think I will get one now, so that it may rid my house of the miniature beast. Do not be fooled by hamsters—turns out they are vile creatures. Maybe I’ll give the cannibal to my sister.
Now put that song on hold for a second. We’re going to do an exercise we call FLASH POINT, in which you just list words that come into your head based on the question asked. They will appear throughout this book to jog your brain. Now: name seven objects having to do with hospitals.
White, doctor, nurse, Jell-O, heart monitor, catheter, needle.
Super! Now try writing a verse to a song with the words you just listed.
What the hell.
A doctor sees a nurse eating her strawberry Jell-O
Something about her in all that white makes him go say hello…
This sucks. But I’m probably smiling like a maniac right now because I’m in the kitchen and my mom is watching me. She got me this book.
Wow, you’re really getting the hang of this! You’re on your way. Now let’s get to know you. Tell us about yourself.
My mom wants me to go to college, which is probably a good idea. I like music, so she got me this book hoping that it’ll help me get into a good music school. My dad wouldn’t like it. He hates spending money, especially on me (apparently I’m a lazy ass) and my sister (around whom he fakes love). I’m pretty sure he married my mom because he knocked her up with me. They fight all the time. My dad thinks my mom is crazy.
Anyway, I’m a junior in high school. I have brown hair and brown eyes. I’m so pale I could be a vampire. I hear girls like vampires.
I get okay grades and I’ve got friends, and I decided to join show choir. Haven’t decided if I like it yet. I just hope I don’t get my ass kicked. My best friend is Rory Sullivan. He’s a musical junkie and he’s in show choir with me, but he’s much better than I am; I’m more of a music writer than performer. I want to write something no one’s ever heard before. Hence, I am actually sort of trying at this book.
Now we’re going to ask you to look deep into your heart: is there anyone you’re in love with? Crushing on? Maybe you’re engaged, married, divorced? Tell us about it.
It’s funny that you ask that. I am currently sitting in AP Chemistry with a direct view of the lovely Hope Davidson, my lab partner. She’s hot as HELLFIRE (light brown-gold hair, blue eyes, looks like an American Eagle model), a total brain, super nice, and a dancer.
I met her when I accidentally bumped into our football team’s oversized linebacker. He wanted to pound me into oblivion (and I probably said something manly, like Face me if you dare, fiend…), but Hope stepped in. She told him that he should put a condom on his head because if he was gonna act like a dick he might as well dress like one. She glowed like some mythical goddess, enchanting passersby with a single gaze… I am a hopeless romantic. Utterly Hope-less.
I think my parents are getting a divorce.
My teacher thinks I’m taking notes. Little does she know I think her class is absolute mind-fuckery. I only signed up because Hope signed up, and I guess I figured that we’d start hanging out outside of class at some point…that hasn’t happened so far…but we talk during labs, and she smiles so I think she likes me.
She just looked back at me. I hope she thinks I’m taking notes…
Next—you guessed it!—try writing a song verse about this person.
Beautiful angel of song, sing to me all of my days
And when the daytime is gone, sing of the stars far away…
Hope talked to me after class! She walked with me to show choir because she’s thinking about joining. Wait, she’s about to sing for us.
She has the most angelic voice I’ve ever heard. I should just stop writing—no words would do her justice—Mrs. Glover says “absolutely yes!” Rory has just punched me in the shoulder because I seem to have been drooling.
In other news, I’ve decided I like show choir.
Now we’re going to go back. Remember writing about your worst experience? Think deeper about how that made you feel, and try writing another verse.
Man in the mirror, why can’t you see her, tell me how you sleep at night?
Is this your confession, to leave your impression, and then leave it all behind?
Why even bother with all the lies?
I woke up in the middle of the night to shouting. I just stood in the hallway to listen while my parents argued in the kitchen. My dad called my mom a “raging psychopath,” which I personally think is a strong phrase, and then he just stormed out of the kitchen. He had a suitcase waiting by the front door and he just left. Asshole.
I walked into the kitchen as my mom threw a World’s Greatest Dad mug on the ground. Personally, I was glad to see that thing go. I picked up the pieces and threw them out while she stood there watching me. When I left she was staring at a bottle of prescription pills, and when I got up she was cleaning the house like mad. She cleans when she’s upset. It smells like Mr. Clean barfed up a fruit basket and decided to wipe it up with his bald, lemony fresh head.
But I understand that she has to take her pain out on something. I’ll just have to make sure I lock the door to my room.
Brilliant! You’re doing so well! Now try writing a chorus (remember your central theme).
You’re a deadbeat, you wouldn’t stay
You threw it all away
Now she’s broken inside
I hope your lies keep you warm at night.
My mom is going to have to tell my sister what happened. Great.
It’s just before show choir and I’m thinking I don’t wanna go home after this. I’m afraid my dad will be there. I’m afraid he won’t. I see Hope talking to Mrs. Glover, and automatically feel better. Rory has just come in—he’ll want to know what’s up. I’ll replay the conversation:
Rory: What’s wrong with you? You look like a professional blind date.
Me: He finally did it.
Rory: Your father? What has he done?
Me: How do you know I mean my dad? No, he left.
Rory: Because he’s the only he you ever really talk about. It could be worse you know.
Me: I guess.
Rory: You guess? You could be raised by two con artist innkeepers in France, starving, longing for a castle on a cloud.
Me: Thanks man. I needed to hear that.
Rory: Wanna come over after Show? Your house is probably in quarantine.
Me: You know me so well. It reeks like lemon zest disease.
Lemon zest disease sounds like a good song title.
How do you feel about your chorus? I bet you could make it even better! Try revising it.
Well I’m feeling just dandy, thanks for asking!
You’re a deadbeat, dead to me and I
Promise I won’t cry
But she’s broken inside
I hope your lies keep you warm at night.
Gahhhhhh. Nope. I liked it better the other way.
Telling Rory my new worst experience bummed me out, and it must have shown because Hope sat down next to me and asked if I’m okay. I was so shocked I couldn’t say anything; she asked me if I needed a hug. A hug? Who asks that? Hope does, you insensitive pricks.
I told her about my dad storming out.
Hope: I’m sorry Percy. That was a dick move your dad pulled.
Me: Can’t say I didn’t see it coming.
Hope: Well, hey, it can only get better from here, right?
Rory: The hills are alive, Percy.
Hope: Exactly. Let the sound of music cleanse your soul. You know what you need?
Hope: You need to dance.
She grabbed both my hands and pulled me up, starting to dance around me. I protested that there was no music so Rory starting singing ‘Singin’ In the Rain.’ Hope was graceful and I’m sure I looked like a clumsy idiot, but she led, and before I knew it I was smiling even though people were staring.
Terrific! Tell us just how confident you are in how well this song is coming together.
I’d say pretty confident. I auditioned for the male solo in the next song we’re working on, and I didn’t even think about the fact that she’d never heard me sing until after I auditioned. Thank God I didn’t screw up. Before Rory and I left she told me good job and gave me a hug after all.
I put timid arms around her and she rubbed my back. She smelled like vanilla and her skin felt like velvet. It was actually a sort of long hug. Feel better, Percy, she said. Tell your mother I can bake her something if she wants.
I stood there after she left, basking in her afterglow.
FLASH POINT!! Name the first five words that pop into your head after hearing the word banana.
Bread, monkey, cartoons, tripping, chickens.
Now try writing a song verse using those words, but only give yourself five minutes. And…Go!
And…you’re way too excited about this!
Monkey, monkey, in the tree, stop crying, you’re annoying me. Go watch cartoons, or eat some bread, or maybe trip a chicken instead…
So my mom told my sister. I’m trying to be nice to her, but she won’t leave me alone. She ended up falling asleep in my bed after crying for a few hours straight (my pillow is now drenched in little girl snot and tears), so I’m sitting up at one o’clock. Couldn’t sleep anyway. I think I’ll give her the hamster now.
What is the meaning of life to you? Audiences love to hear about things that relate to them. Try to write about it.
The hell if I know. I’m pretty sure everyone just wants to be happy. Like no matter what happens people are always looking for ways to be happy. Like my mom and her cleaning, my sister and her crying. Me and music. Little things.
What would really make me happy is if I asked Hope out and she said yes. Although I don’t know why she would. I can just imagine it:
Me: Would you like to go out sometime?
Hope: I would rather gouge my own eyes out with a fork. Have a nice day!
My imagination is probably a little too strong, though.
Great thinking! How philosophical of you! Now look deep inside yourself, think even harder, and add to your love song.
Tell me how are you so beautiful? Do you see in me what I see in you?
Tell me do I even stand a chance? Is it possible that you could want me too?
Every time I look into your eyes, my heart grows wings and begins to fly…
Hope came to my house after Show. With Rory and me. And brought cookies. Which my mother loved. I was glad to see her so happy, especially since the doctor officially diagnosed her with generalized anxiety disorder. So we all sat there eating cookies and talking.
Hope said she wants to dance at NYU, which Rory seconded because he wants to major in theatre there. After Rory left, Hope and I did our AP Chem homework together.
My sister wanted to join us which was annoying, but Hope was nice about it as usual. Must be a girl thing because she said Lily was cute and wished she had siblings.
Me: Wanna take her home with you?
Hope has a nice laugh. We talked about our favorite movies, even books, and how we were liking Show so far.
Being with Hope is easy.
Now we’re going to step it up a notch—finish your worst experience song.
Well that shouldn’t be too hard.
Man in the mirror, it’s suddenly clearer, you never meant to say goodbye.
Was that your intention, or should I not mention ever trying to make it right?
My dad came by yesterday to get some stuff. My mom wasn’t home; I think she was at the pharmacy getting her anxiety meds. I actually had to answer the door since he no longer has a key, and I was so shocked I just stared at him, the door wide open.
Dad: Hey, Percy.
Lily: (thumping madly down the stairs in my old Spiderman t-shirt) Daddy!!!!
Dad: Hello, Sweetheart!
He stepped past me to scoop her up in a hug without me saying he could come in. I shut the door and went into the kitchen to make some spaghetti.
I was eating my spaghetti half an hour later when my dad set a few boxes down near the door, then came into the kitchen and eyeballed me.
Dad: I know you’re disappointed in me. Probably confused, too.
I slurped up a noodle really loudly for emphasis.
Dad: I’ve explained to your sister that it’s not your fault…
Me: Why would it be our fault?
Dad: I don’t know, some kids think that when their parents split up.
Me: Did you ever love her?
He took a sudden interest in the floor.
Me: That’s what I thought.
Dad: (gets angry and points at me) Now listen here—
I slammed my fork onto the table out of nowhere. It sounded like a gunshot.
Me: Why don’t you listen for a change? You don’t give a shit about any of us. Mom tried to make you happy and you just spit in her face!
I was yelling and he was totally still, clenching his jaw.
Dad: Son, your mother is…
Me: What, crazy? She needed your help! You’re a coward.
I could tell he wanted to say something, but I didn’t let him.
Me: You broke her. She’s sick because of you, and you don’t even have the balls to help.
Me: Get out. Get the fuck out of my house.
He turned and left. I watched him carry his boxes to his car and only turned back once he was gone. Lily was sitting there on the stairs, eyes wet, nose dripping. I suddenly felt like an asshole because I didn’t even think about her. She just looked at me and sobbed, and I went and sat with her on the stairs, holding her until she stopped. I told her she could have the rest of my spaghetti.
Wow! That’s going to rise through the charts fast! Try writing something by experimenting with this question: If you were a super hero what powers would you have, and what would your hero name be?
I’m at Show, so I think I’ll ask Rory.
Rory says he would be the misunderstood villain with the tortured soul, or more specifically, the phantom from Phantom of the Opera. He says his power would be to hypnotize people with his voice.
I asked Hope too, and she said botanokinesis, which is the power to control plants, or plantbending. She thinks she should be called Demeter, after the Greek goddess of the harvest.
Well there’s already a musical about the Phantom, and I don’t know much about Greek mythology…
Yeah I might be a weirdo
But I promise I’m not a zero
If you need milk on your cheerios
I’ll be your superhero.
Here’s another challenge: finish your love song.
Have I told you that you’re always on my mind? I haven’t felt this real in a very long time.
Only your smile can bring me back, when I’m losing track, and all I wanna do is hide.
I used to be hopeless, I hope you know this; you changed everything, everything…
I told Hope and Rory about my dad before Show, and Hope squeezed my hand. Her hand was so smooth I had to resist the urge to hold it to my face.
Rory: All hail the man of the house!
Me: (Smiling) Asshat.
Hope: Have you talked to your mom? About how she’s doing?
Hope: You and your sister should spend some time with her this weekend.
Me: Yeah, we’ve got some stuff to figure out.
Rory got the solo, but I’m happy for him. When Mrs. Glover announced it, he stood up and bowed a few times. Hope and I cheered the loudest while everyone laughed. When rehearsal was over, Hope went to ask Mrs. Glover a question, and I told Rory my plan to ask her to homecoming. He slapped me on the back. He said it’s about damn time, and make sure I don’t talk about my old girlfriends. I said yeah right.
So I walked Hope to her car.
Me: So…good rehearsal.
Hope: Yeah. Hey I meant to ask, what’s with the shirt?
Me: (looking down at my Rise Against t-shirt) What? This is my favorite band t-shirt. No—my Beatles shirt is pretty awesome—this is my second favorite band t-shirt!
Hope: Oh, I’m not criticizing. It’s cool. And the Beatles are epic.
Me: You listen to the Beatles?
Hope: They’re a musical revelation.
Me: I know right! But some people don’t like them.
Hope: Well those people are uncultured fascists. Hey I kind of had a thought, and I know this is sort of last minute, but would you want to go to homecoming with me?
I’m pretty sure I forgot to breathe for a second.
Me: HELL YES. I mean, yes I would. Absolutely.
Hope: Great! I’ll, um, see you tomorrow.
Me: Yeah…Hey, Hope? Why me?
She actually blushed, her flawless skin kissed by a rose, and she smiled all shy-like.
Hope: I really like talking to you. Is that weird?
Me: No, I feel the same way.
Good, she said, and smiled even bigger. I wanted to kiss her soft lips really badly, but I was too afraid of ruining the moment. It’s okay though—Best. Day. Ever.
FLASH POINT! List eight things having to do with movie theatres.
Ducks, marbles, foot lotion, Mona Lisa, bathtub, Narnia, stapler, ficus tree.
You should know what comes next…write a song using the words you’ve listed!
They have nothing to do with movie theatres you idiot. Except maybe Narnia. Whatever, you’ve caught me on a good day.
I found a duck in my bathtub, no idea how he got there
He was eating my mom’s foot lotion, he looked at me and he stared
Next thing I know I’m giving him a name.
I’ve got a duck named Narnia, we have adventures together
We’ll go to France and see the Mona Lisa, and we’ll be best friends forever
Life will never be the same.
Christ that’s awful. Maybe I’ll dedicate this song to Lily.
HERE’S THE BEST PART! Try writing a song about the first thing you feel.
Life will always have its ups and downs, somewhere along the way you’ll get lost in the void
But she’s always there to chase away my frown, I’ll admit I’m a bit of a mamma’s boy.
Me: How are you, Mom?
Mom: (Busying herself) Good, Hun, how’s your song writing?
Me: It’s weird. But seriously, how are you really?
Mom: (Pauses) I don’t think I really know.
Me: Can I do anything to help?
Mom: (giving me a sad smile) Tell me about your day. It was good, wasn’t it?
I tell her that I’m going to homecoming with Hope and she visibly brightens up. We talk about how much I like Hope, and I can tell she’s genuinely interested. Her children make her happy. I also tell her I don’t think I’m a good performer or songwriter.
Mom: Well don’t try too hard, Sweetie. It won’t turn out the way you want it to.
She gives better advice than you, Notebook. I might have to let you go.
We talk about school, and college. She says college will be about figuring out who I am. She notices that I keep writing in this Notebook and asks what I’m writing.
I tell her I’ve also been jotting down my thought process, how I feel about the stuff that’s happened recently. I guess you sort of came in handy that way, even though I haven’t actually learned anything about songwriting.
She smiles. She says if I really want to write a good song, it should come from what I know, what I see. Music is about connection, she says.
Why couldn’t you have told me that?
I tell her to forget about Dad, he’s not worth the thought. He’s the crazy one for not appreciating what he had and we’re better off without him. She agrees, but her smile is sad. Time, she says.
Lily has just come in and announced that she has renamed the hamster Beauford. I tell her I’m going to get a cat so Beauford better watch his back.
Well done! You’ve made it through this entire book! You know what that means? YOU’RE A SONGWRITER! Congratulations!—you better thank us when you win a Grammy. Just kidding! Now go write a song about whatever you want! Go ahead, there’s plenty of space…
You know what I realized? This is a stupid book, and you are full of shit. But that’s okay. I don’t need to have it all figured out yet. And rest assured—I will tell people to never buy this book I’m going to go call Hope now. Sincerely, Percy
I hope your soul goes straight to hamster Hell
I’ll get a cat to get you back
He’ll eat your ass and vengeance will be swell
You spastic little monster I freakin hate you
You’ve scarred my innocent eyes forevermore
The image of your whiskers covered in blood
Is burned inside my brain, now this means war
Repeat chorus twice
Oh I hope your ass goes straight to hamster Hell
Devin Gackle recently graduated with honors from Loras College with a bachelor’s in Media Studies, a bachelor’s in English Creative Writing, and a minor in Greek and Roman studies. She loves reading, sarcasm, writing and performing songs, making movies, making up words, and wearing socks that don’t match. Also, she’s sort of addicted to caffeine.