“Libretto” or “Novel Writing: The Musical!”

More “Making of…” memos from my days of drafting “The Ballad of Allyn-a-Dale”, the NaNo novel that seemed to think it was “the text of a dramatic musical work, such as an opera”.

The Making Of…: “Whistle While You Work” or “With a Smile and a Song” or “Some Other Line Pirated from Disney’s Snow White

Even giving my novel the title I did, I somehow originally thought I could get away with not having to actually write a single song.

Yeah. Right. Really should have known better than that.

For one thing, I’ve always been a fairly prolific spontaneous songwriter, frequently singing to myself when I’m feeling happy, or sad, or impatient, or hungry, or simply feel a rhyme coming on; and I often find myself inserting musical interludes into my stories.

For another thing, come on – I did call it “The Ballad of Allyn-a-Dale”. You don’t write a book about the famed bard of Robin Hood’s Merry Men and stick “ballad” in the title and not throw in a ditty or two… or seven original songs and parts of songs written just for the book, as well as part of a song written previously.

So it was bordering on inevitable that I create music for this novel. Once I woke up and realized this (a handful of days before I began writing the book), I figured that a good place to start would be with an actual ballad of Allyn-a-Dale. With a melody in my head decidedly similar to the traditional English ballad “Scarborough Fair”, I composed what ended up being a 23-stanza rhyming summary of the story from Chapter One all the way through the epilogue.

The exercise was time-consuming, by my songwriting standards (read: It took a couple of days), but it ended up being really useful. Firstly, it helped me to solidify my outline, providing a chapter-by-chapter guide of all the action I wished to show and tell. It also gave me something fancier to stick at the beginning of each chapter than just a number. Now, for example, the first chapter is headed:


Hear now the Ballad of Allyn-a-Dale,

Minstrel prince of Carillon land,

Who wandered ‘lone at start of this tale,

Heart-led down the path of the wind.

That’s right, future-readers: You get to look forward to twenty-three of these!

Turns out minstrels like to sing to themselves, too. Go figure.

The next song came about by accident. I got blindsided mid-Chapter One with Allyn’s sudden desire to break into song, and was forced to scramble for some lyrics so I could get the story moving again. Danielle Musical Tip #1: When obliged to write a song on the fly, take care to select rhyming words which give you a lot of options. “Hill” or “trail” (both words utilized as line-enders in Allyn’s wistful wandering song), good. “Orange” or something… wouldn’t recommend it.

Now, following that incident, Allyn and I had a nice little talk about character-to-author courtesy, and it was agreed that I would be given adequate notice before he pulled out his lute again. I knew a couple of chapters in advance, for instance, that there would be a brief battle of the bards between my main minstrel and another balladeer inside of their Renaissance Faire.

Thus prepared, I employed Danielle Musical Tip #2: When appropriate, you might make it easier on your songwriting self by turning to preexisting hits for inspiration. I actually followed this tip twice – once for the “Ballad-Off” songs, which were based off of a little number by Shakespeare, and again for the snippet of a hip-hop song to be heard on a car radio later in the book.

Of course, the term “adequate notice” is up for interpretation. On the five-minute drive home from church one Sunday, I received a last-minute memo from Allyn, requesting a travel song to be sung in the chapter I was slated to write that day. Danielle Musical Tip #3: When half-formed fragments of potential song lyrics float into your head, write ‘em down, stat! Take it from someone who’s written and forgotten at least twice as many songs as she remembers: Those lyrics won’t wait around forever. Record them somewhere, or they’re gone.

I had no idea what I wanted the finished travel song to be, but what few bits and pieces came readily to mind, I jotted down while waiting for my bread to toast and my tea to steam. (Eating breakfast was delay enough; I wasn’t going to waste additional time by waiting to work on the song until after!)

These are the harmonic highlights of my novel. Now that the madness of writing the book in under 30 days is concluded (huzzah, by the way), I plan to eventually take time to transcribe at least some of the songs onto my music-making computer program*, that I and others (e.g. you folks!) might be afforded an auditory taste of the tunes that have helped to make this up-and-coming masterpiece what is today. Keep your ears open!

*For those who care to hear, a couple recordings of the book’s tunes are available for your listening pleasure, here and here.

3 thoughts on ““Libretto” or “Novel Writing: The Musical!”

  1. “It also gave me something fancier to stick at the beginning of each chapter than just a number.”

    How creative! I love this idea. Also, I think “The Naming of Allyn-a-Dale” is my favorite. ^_^ Great lyrics!

    If I had the courage to sing, I would record something for the song I made up in my own novel…but that would be a stretch, lol. Piano-playing? Oh sure. Lyric-singing? Mmm…

    • Somebody say they’re looking for a vocalist? 😀
      Thanks for the props! I don’t always come up with cool stuff to head my chapters; but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.
      And Allyn says “thank you” for liking the lyrics. (As is usual with minstrels, he claims the credit.)

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