Killing Me Softly (With This Song) OR How a Songwriter Resurrects Her Darlings


— With thanks to Roberta Flack and Prof. Bob Kalm, for the title.

“Kill your darlings” is a dramatic directive to writers who could stand an edit or two, and it is just as applicable to songwriters as well as anyone else.

But sometimes those murdered babes will come back to haunt you.

What follows is an algorithm for rewriting lyrics to a song with compelling instrumentals when the lyrics seem like retreads of songs past. It includes the original and the “improved” version. For now I’m leaving out the audio and letting the words do the heavy lifting to make this point:

Rewriting (killing the darlings) doesn’t always work, so save those first drafts! There may be more life in them than you were giving yourself credit for. In the lyrics below, the second draft is trite and general, while the original describes an unmet longing that is touching in its simplicity.

So, though it may feel like all the work is killing you, in the end the true best version will emerge, “telling your whole life,” as Roberta Flack would say.

Algorithm

1. Play the new instrumental and sing the lyrics.

2. Admit to self: these lyrics are an old story, the same story outlined in other songs.

3. Keep the instrumental and write new lyrics. Change the first and second person to the third person and tell a story.

Keep some of the good lines.

4. Let it sit for days.

5. Come back to it and realize the new version sucks.

6. Go back to the first version and change a few words that make it truer than it was.

7. Play for friends and get definitive approval: The first version was meant to be. It says something never quite said before, even though it revisits a familiar theme. The second version only pointed out how second-hand fiction is less compelling than the first-person truth.

The Revised Original: “Never”

I went down

We played around

You came to me

I said, “We’ll see.”

Never thinking it could be

A love we both could feel

You stayed away

I didn’t know what to say

You hoped for something more,

But I closed the door.

Never thinking it could be

You still wanting me.

Snow drapes the mountain peak

You long to speak

Wind hushes your voice.

This is not by choice.

Never letting our love show

Take it with you when you go.

We seldom meet

Lost all that heat

You cannot say

Why you look the other way.

Never letting our hearts see

What wasn’t meant to be.

The Supposedly Improved Version

They broke up in spring

He took back her ring

She turned the other way

Left with nothing more to say

What would take them both past this?

A sudden winter kiss

Snow drapes a mountain peak

She longs to speak

Wind hushes her voice

Silence not by choice

Looking out past winter skies

Tomorrow gleams in her eyes

Ice chills his heart

Wind tears his world apart

Clouds obscure these friends’ love

What could they be thinking of?

Just another year gone by

Now it’s time to try

Spring lengthens the days

Summer turns to August haze

They come together again

More, so much more than friends

Joining hands in one embrace

A life they choose now to face

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