Let’s talk about writer’s block. Have you ever felt all of the creativity that once flowed freely just stop? I’m not talking about hitting a wall on a particular song that you can’t seem to move past, until you clear your head and go back to it the next week. I’m talking about, straight up “I don’t think I can create any more” type of phase? It happened to me once.
As soon as I started to “shop” my songs to real life projects; movies, music publishers, A&R reps at labels, artists, etc., I got feedback from some of those nice folks. It usually sounded something like, “these lyrics suck”. Or…”the sounds are dated”. Or…”These songs sound like they should be in a musical.” To say that this hurt would be an understatement. This negative feedback convinced that prideful part of my brain that perhaps I wasn’t really a songwriter after all. Therefore, if I tried to write a song, the hurt, scared, proud side of my brain convinced that creative, hopeful, vulnerable side of my brain that it was NOT a writer. So just stop trying. Give it up.
I honestly believed that you either instinctively knew how to write a song, or you didn’t. No one had ever told me that you could “learn” to write a song, or develop better songwriting skills. But it turns out you can! Someone suggested that I read some books. So I did.
One of them called "The Songwriters Idea Book" by Sheila Davis planted this new idea in my head that has become a fundamental part of my songwriting tool bag. That is creating a list of titles to start writing a song from. When I read this book (I think this was in 2004 or so) I started my title list. I still have that list. I cross off titles I use and I add to it now and again. Here’s even a pic!
Yeah, it’s tattered and torn but I’ve been carrying it around for 12 years! What do you expect?
This amazing book has a variety of exercises in it to get your title list going. I went through a bunch of the exercises which ultimately broke me out of my writer's block. These are my favorites. So get out your pen and notebook and start writing!
...and click on the link below so you can buy the book ;-)
1. Colors: (Purple Rain, Yellow Taxi, Lady in Red) Draw a line down the middle of a blank piece of paper. Now, look around the room. Notice small things and pay attention to the detail of each item. On the left make a list of nouns that you see. Be specific. Not just “the clock” but “the hour hand”, for example. On the right side of the paper, list every color you can think of. Now brainstorm different ways to combine the nouns and the colors.
2. Places - cities, states, countries, streets: (Hotel California, Georgia on my Mind) In the middle of a blank piece of paper, list any city, state or country that comes to mind. Having trouble pulling them out of thin air? Get out an atlas or globe, cover your eyes and point to a location. Now, create a title using each of the locations. Don’t forget to use alliteration!
3. When - day of the week, month, time reference: (Monday, Monday, Remembering Sunday, See You in September, Five Minutes More, A New York Afternoon) In the middle of a blank piece of paper, list some days of the week, months or times of the day. Try to create a title out of each word. Use alliteration!
4. Name: (Hey there, Delilah, Gloria, Sweet Caroline) Use the personal approach. Think of the significant people you’ve known in your life. Say their names out loud. Does their name “sing”? If so, write it down. Once you’ve compiled a list of names, consider each name and the person it belongs to. Maybe their story or personality would make a great song. It need not be factual. You can create a work of fiction if you’d like. Also, add a descriptive word that compliments the name to make for a more interesting title.
5. Book or movie title: Browse through your favorite books or movies. If a certain title strikes you, write it down. Brainstorm ways of tweaking the title to make it unique.
6. Questions: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How: (How do I Live Without You, Who’s That Girl) At the top of a blank piece of paper, write down “who” and then below it, write any and every question you can think of that would start with “who”. Do the same thing with “what”, “when”, “where”, “why” and “how”. You’ll be amazed at how many compelling titles you can come up with.
7. A Phone Call: (I Just Called to Say I Love You) We’ve all had to make a dreaded phone call at some time in our life. The “break-up” phone call, the “don’t-be-a-jerk” phone call, etc. Before dialing, we spend a minute or two contemplating exactly how to open the conversation (hopefully!) Imagine a scenario you’d like to write about and then do just that. Write as many different ways to start the conversation as you can. One of these could be a great title, or just a great way to start the first verse.
8. A Letter: Think of this in the same terms as the phone call. What is the first thing you’d like to say in your letter or email?
9. Articles of Clothing: (Buttons, You Look Good in my Shirt) Make a list of anything that has to do with clothing that you can think of. Think small (buttons, lace, stitches) or big (suit, dress). After you’ve compiled a list, choose one or two that are intriguing. Freely write descriptive words or complimentary phrases. Alliteration!
10. Browse a magazine, newspaper or book: Simply browse and look for a great “one-liner”. Write it down in your notebook and then brainstorm.
11. Personal statement: (I Wanna Know What Love Is, Don’t Stop Believing) What do you wanna say to the world? Say it!
12. Conditional: (When a Man Loves a Woman, I Just Can’t Stop Loving You) There are a collection of words that can be added to a title to give it a twist. Words like “if, can’t, don’t, then, just, when, because, from, after” can turn something from boring “Don’t Leave Me” to intriguing “If You Leave Me Now”. Experiment with your existing titles or even with titles of existing songs. Try to twist the meaning or add intrigue by plugging in a conditional word.
13. Verbs: (Running with the Night) In the middle of a blank piece of paper, make a list of random verbs. Turn each one into a title by adding a noun or a word from the “random word list”. Remember to use adjectives and alliteration!
14. Metaphors: A Metaphor is comparing two objects or ideas that are unrelated and unites them using “is” or “are”. On a blank piece of paper, list some items you’re interested in writing about such as “love”, “loneliness”, “heartbreak” or “cars”. Next to the word, write “is” or “are” and a word you can compare it to. Love is…Loneliness is…Cars are…, etc.
15. Cliché: Write down any cliché you can think of. Use a reference such as http://www.westegg.com/cliche/ or a book such as “The Dictionary of Clichés” by James Rogers (see resource list for info). Sometimes the cliché itself can be a cool title, but brainstorm some ways of putting a different twist on it. For example, the cliché “coming up for air” could be changed to “coming up for you”.
16. Opposites: (Fire and Rain, With or Without You) A good place to start is to use the list of random words provided. Find a word that has an obvious opposite such as “black”. Write the word and its opposite on a blank piece of paper. Now brainstorm ways to turn those words into a title.