Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why Don't Writers Get to Make Album Cuts?

by
Scott D. Parker

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” has a couple. Genesis, The Black Keys, Radiohead, and Diana Krall have a few. KISS has them all over the place. And, yes (sigh), I’ll even admit that Chicago and Bruce Springsteen have a few.

What am I talking about? Album cuts. Those throwaway songs musicians create whose sole purpose is to fill out an otherwise anemic album. Don’t get me wrong: these album cuts have passionate fans. If you dig deep into the fandom of any particular musical act--especially one that has a long career--you will find those folks who so very much want their favorite band to play the random, obscure song from the third LP back when there were such a thing as LPs.

But, at the time, the artists are looking at a roster of five great tunes they know will make it big on the radio. If they release five songs, that’s an EP. They can’t get away with that. They need to release a LP, a long playing album, charge more, and make lots more money.

Take “Thriller” for example. It’s staggering to realize that seven(!) tracks made it to the radio, all of which went to the top 10. If a song was released as a single from that LP, it did well. Little does the casual listener realize that there are nine tracks on the album. Can anyone name either song?

Didn’t think so.

How does this link up with writing? Simple. Why do musicians get to bloat their output and writers don’t?

Or do they?

Writers can’t simply create a sub-thread just for the heck of it. Think about it: imagine “Mystic River” with a subplot involving the daily life of the batboy at Fenway Park or “The Da Vinci Code” with a cameo by Langdon’s graduate assistant. The simple fact with a book is that the author can’t insert anything that isn’t cogent to the plot. Even the most bloated novel has to stick to the point.

I’ll grant you that some authors suffer from Research-itis. This is a common malady where, simply because in the course of research for a book the author learned a fact, he feels compelled to “share” with his readers this little nugget even if it doesn’t apply to the plot. Michael Crichton, for all of his bravado with fast-paced plots, dumped a ton of information on the reader. I remember reading his books and seeing lots of white space on a page. Cool. Dialogue and action. Then, after a page turn, there’d be wall-to-wall text. Great. Here comes the lecture. But, even if we skip over the lecture parts, the information is probably germane to the story. Thus, to me, it falls out of the realm of “album cut.”

What do you think? Are we writers allowed, in some form or fashion, to have album cuts in our books?

Drink of the Week: Hot Dr. Pepper
Winter finally hit here in Houston. We had temperatures in the upper 20s and lower 30s. That’s serious down here. And what better way to warm up the insides than hot Dr. Pepper. Don’t screw up your face. Give it a go. The official Dr. Pepper website has the simple recipe: DP and lemon and a heat source. It’s better than you might think.

5 comments:

Jay Stringer said...

I think it depends. The idea of "filler" issues is something thats crept into comics as a criticism; if there's an issue that diverges from the main story line it's written off as "filler."

But sometimes "filler" = character.

A novelist should avoid throwing in padding -as much as I worship The Replacements, a writer can't get away with album tracks like "Gary's got a boner" or "Tommy gets his tonsils out."

However, many album tracks are the character, the glue that makes the album work. We all know the biggies off BORN TO RUN, the great anthems of escape and hope. But the glue that holds the album together is a small album cut buried away in the middle; "Meeting across the river," gives us a character piece that turns the hope and escape into a something carrying a sense of doom and desperation.

And in that sense, the album cuts are a writers stock in trade. The little nuggets of character that flesh out the story.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I don't even care for the less interesting subplots a lot of TV dramas feel compelled to show. I think this might have started with CSI or perhaps before, but I like one narrative to follow. I don't like to keep remember the facts of a less interesting one. And they are seldom of equal quality. Now if a subplot enriches the main plot, then I don't mind. It's when they run on entirely different "tracks" that I get bored with it.

Michael Malone said...

with a novel everything has to be there for a reason. Filler is the bits we skip

John McFetridge said...

Interesting post. Sometimes I think, just like musicians, we can't tell what's a single and what isn't.

A lot of bands recorded an album and had no idea which song would become the single and an awful lot of throwaway songs added quickly to fill out albums have become many a bands' signature song.

For myself I have many (according to reviewers, way too many) sub-plots and charactes and I'm often surprised which parts of my books people pick out as the parts they like or hate. And which charactes people like or hate.

If I didn't have all those sub-plots I'd be writing only short stories. But I feel all those sub-plots add up to something bigger, even they don't all drive the plot relentlessly forward like some Foriegn Legion march;)

Years ago I remember an interview with Alice Cooper who said he liked it better when it was all hit and miss, "Before we had consultants pick out the singles."

I do think that's something that e-books and online publishing offers writers, though, the chance to release a single from a novel.

Scott Parker said...

Jay - Good points, although I'm going to make a counter argument. With Born to Run, I think Springsteen was attempting to write a "novel," where every song led to the same point. In that sense, there was a complete whole thing from which singles emerged. Ditto with Sgt. Peppers to name another. But I'll agree that, for many artists, album cuts are where their heart truly lives.

Patti - Reminds me of one of Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing where he said skip the boring parts.

Michael - Agreed. Those Crichton sections I glossed over. Same with those times where an author leaves a character hanging on a cliff only to have the next five pages be a diatribe about some subplot. Who the heck cares. Get the hero off the cliff.

John - That's the beauty of novels with many subplots: certain plots can ring true with different readers. Probably why Dickens was so popular. And that's a great Alice Cooper quote. Speaks to all of us writers who strive to guess what the next trend will be instead of just writing what we want and figure out the details later. Thanks.