Saturday, March 26, 2011

Quoth The Ravin'

I'm finalizing a manuscript I started writing many years ago. It's a novel set in 1982, a murder mystery that takes place in a town remarkably similar to Santa Cruz, California. The main character's best friend is the lead singer, bass player and songwriter in a rock band called "Bertha's Attic." The band would love to play only their own original tunes, but they are still at that stage in their musical careers where they are often forced to play cover tunes. Music, in general, is an important element in the tale.

Which brings up the tricky deal of quoting song lyrics in a novel. If you search "quoting song lyrics in a novel" on the internet, you will find some people say no (actually, it's more like NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!) and some people say maybe. Both sorts like to throw around phrases like "fair use" and "public domain." Not to mention "lawsuits." Some folks seem to think it's OK to quote as long as it's not more than seven words and some people say that's horse puckey.

I (like you, Dear Reader) have read many novels where song lyrics were quoted. Sometimes I see the song title, composer and publisher listed in the tiny print up front. Sometimes not. Maybe the publisher paid the song's owner big bucks for the use of the quote. Maybe not. The first two hundred and ninety three drafts of HEAVENLY MOVES included a dazzling array of sparkling song quotes, mostly from '80s rock tunes. They were witty or romantic or incisive - perfect for that moment in the story. If you know me at all, you know that I love music and I love rock'n'roll. (Wait - that's simply my honest opinion there, I'm NOT quoting Joan Jett! And if I were, it would be something about buying me a roast... whew, this quote stuff is tricky! And please don't call Edgar Allan Poe's estate either - that's an "i", not an "e" in the title of this blog post.) So, back to those song quotes I had in my novel - they were wonderful, relevant and really added to the story. Unfortunately, they weren't my words. Somebody else wrote them. Somebody else owns them. Somebody else might get all huffy and sue me if I use them without their permission. And permission might involve a fee.

What a drag! So, draft #294 proceeded without the quotes, unless the lyrics were written by me. Music still pervades the story, though. It's fine to mention the song titles and the artists when you're writing a novel - just not so fine to quote the lyrics. There are even ways to evoke the lyrics without literally quoting them. As I refine my manuscript, that's actually become sort of a fun challenge, to MAKE those lyrics pop into your brain even though I can't put them on the page. (while not annoying readers who aren't familiar with the tune)

A sort of related piece o' trivia: did you know you can't copyright titles? That's why you'll come across books, songs, movies with the same titles that are totally different in every other regard. HEAVENLY MOVES was originally titled THE LUCKY STIFF until I realized there was a published novel (by someone else, obviously) with almost the same title (sans THE) in the exact same genre! A genre that is a teeny tiny little slice of the publishing world. What are the odds?! Well, I could still call it THE LUCKY STIFF since the other author doesn't have exclusive dibs to that title, but that might end up being confusing for all of us. Hmmm... eventually I came to the conclusion that HEAVENLY MOVES would be a better title anyhow for the first book in a possible series about my protagonist, whose name is Heavenly Wilcox. Plus, in the meantime, I'd started thinking about the sequel to SHADOW POINT which I want to call LUCKY. So, a non-lucky, heavenly title seemed like the better choice. (see... always thinking! :-))

So, to recap:


  • Huffiness, lawsuits, horse puckey, talking birds that bring up your old girlfriends - BAD

  • Random Jane Eyre references, creativity, Joan Jett, roast beef - GOOD

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