That’s me, doing a three-minute rap where I namecheck 64 science fiction and fantasy books. Because I felt like it, OK.
I’m an author, first and foremost, but rapping is still something I get a lot of pleasure out of. Believe me, even if you’re never going to do it as a career, spitting raps is the best fun.
Along the way, it’s taught me how write better fiction.
I’m talking a lot better. As in, I truly don’t believe my debut novel TRACER would have been published without me knowing how to spit bars. Songwriting, even if it’s not hip-hop, can be a fantastic way to train yourself as a writer. Here’s what you learn doing it:
1. Work with constraints
The enemy of the fiction writer? Choice. The most frustrating thing is not knowing what to do with a character or plot point, because there a million different directions they could go in. I’ve found that one of the best ways to kickstart things when I’m having a slow day is to give myself constraints – to put limits on what my characters can and can’t do. It forces them to choose, and it forces me to choose.
That impulse comes from writing rap songs. Their very concept relies on constraints – the length of a bar, the rhythm, the song construction – all of which demand that the writer focus, and write not just to what’s in their head, but to the track. And by the way, unless you’re doing a twelve-minute-super-indulgent-Kendrick-Lamar-style song, you’ve got about four minutes.
Writing a song demands paying attention to structure, and learning how to do it can make you a better writer.
2. Learn how words sound, not just what they look like on the page
One of the things that annoys me the most about a lot of fiction?
Repeated words. ‘But’ is a particular culprit, used repeatedly where it breaks up the rhythm of the sentence, but it can (and frequently does) happen with any word. It’s a sign that the writer hasn’t paid too much attention to sentence structure, or how the words unspool in the reader’s mind.
Learning to write songs helped me remove this particularly pernicious habit. When you write lyrics, you very quickly spot words which are repeated, or which sound similar, and change them. It becomes second nature. And you wouldn’t believe how much it improves your prose writing – it makes everything cleaner, more assured, less clumsy.
3. Get ’em from the start
You think the first line of a story is important? Try the first five seconds of a song. When there are more songs available for streaming than there will ever be books, the attention of a listener is down to those five seconds. You grab them right away, or you don’t grab them at all.
You learn what works. You learn that the first five seconds of the beat, or the first line or two of your verse, is what’s going to work.
Let’s do a quick compare and contrast, shall we?
Here’s Jadakiss – one of the undisputed masters of the opening line:
Fuck the frail shit
Cause when my coke come in
They gotta use the scale that they weigh the whales with
I mean, daaaamn. He’s got you. Because he knows, you see – he knows that the listener is looking to be taken from that very first line. And Jada is known for always catching you with the first one or two bars, which is probably why he’s still – probably a little unfairly – rated as one of the best rappers recording right now.
Because every rap fan alive can quote those first two bars of We Gonna Make It – and very few can remember the rest of the verse. Same with fiction. First lines stick with you, so work on them.
That being said: the song has one of the worst videos ever.
4. Mixing = editing
Every song needs mixing. That is an absolute. There’s no song on the planet that doesn’t require an hour or two (or ten) at the mixing board, at least if it’s intended for release. A badly-mixed song sticks out immediately, and will send the listener scrambling for the Next Track button.
OK, so mixing and editing aren’t exactly the same. But learning how to mix my own songs taught me how to look at my own work critically. Usually, when I’m mixing a track, I’ll go through seven or eight different mixes, changing things and making decisions on what works best. It’s taught me how to approach my fiction writing: when I’m in first-draft mode, anything goes, but rewrites have to be approached with complete dispassion.
You wanna hear a really, really well-written rap tune? Like oh-my-fuck-this-is-mindblowing good? Try this one.