Posted on June 20, 2010
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At Balitcon 44, I participated in a panel that was one of the most fun things I’ve ever been a part of at any SF or comic convention in my 25+ years of attending them. The panel was called “How to Write a Kick-Ass Song About Anything.” I went thinking it was going to be songwriters at the front of the room talking about writing songs but in fact, the brilliantly cracked minds of the organizers had something bigger in mind. Instead, people were gathered at the front of the room with instruments and they laid out the plan: We’d take 5 minutes to brainstorm a theme, 5 minutes for a chord structure, 10 minutes to write a chorus and then split up into smaller groups to write the verses.
The panel was officiated by James Durham, with Norm Sherman, Kim Fortuner and Mattie Brahen serving as the more experienced guides. I am proud to say that one of the early bits of input that steered the whole experience was mine. In response to “What will this song be about?” I threw in “Everyone seems to love the steampunk nowadays. How about something steampunkish?” As more suggestions piled up, we added ornithopters and dragons to the mix.The (metaphorical) gears engaged after that, and the panel decided it would be bluesy so we needed a reason why a dragon and an ornithopter would be down in the mouth. The group decided that the dragon had lost its flame and somewhere in there that the dragon powers the ornithopters and the loss of flame meant that the protagonist was now losing the war. This lead to the chorus “Like a toothless gear, like an empty flagon, there is nothing more pathetic than a smokeless dragon.” Rock on!
From there, we split up into two groups. I’m not sure how the other group worked, but ours had a lot of fun writing the first verse. There were definitely people in the room who were kind of watching in bemusement, but for the people who were engaged and throwing out suggestions, every single person had an idea or word or phrase that ended up in the final song. By and large, people worked together quite good. I can tell you that every point at which someone revised something I had suggested, the revision was better than the original. For example, I suggested “broken gear” in the chorus, and later on, someone else pointed out that “toothless gear” worked better with the dragon theme, which is absolutely true. I told James later on that the only thing I would have changed is to change the ground rules such that no one can ever tell anyone else “No” to any suggestion. The only possibility is to come up with alternatives that people feel are superior. It’s kind of a dick move to say “Your input isn’t good enough”, and I think it is much better with less stress to just put in something else. The mode of operation should always be to take the best suggestion on the table, and if you don’t like it then improve it .
With that said, it was all good. The two groups exchanged just enough information so that we could keep the narratives making sense. With no real coordination our group set the stage with a first verse and the other one resolved a lot of stuff. It was kind of freaky how well the two independent verses worked when we put them together. The musicians played and the room sang the song through a few times, then we performed it to record a few times and we were done. Holy moley was the whole thing fun, beginning to end. It was funny how Mattie Brahen, an old school filker and the only panelist not in our new media subscene, started out really skeptical and eventually really got into it. I talked to her in the hall afterwards and she admitted that at the beginning she was pretty sure we were all crazy. She may have been right.
I stand by my belief that this is in the top five SF con moments I’ve ever had. It demystified a lot of the creative process and showed how the songs weren’t these perfect gems that popped into being but something you work and work and work until it becomes what you want from it. The talent of the musicians and the very tight constraints helped a lot. We had 50 minutes total before we had to leave the room, so the song had to be written and recorded with no room for spinning wheels. If they ever do this again at a Balticon, I highly recommend you try to be in that room.