Prince (1958 – 2016)
has been my favorite musician and entertainer since I was nine years old and first heard “Delirious” and “Little Red Corvette”. I’ve never heard another artist seamlessly blend rock, pop, funk, soul, R&B, and occasionally hip-hop, into such an eclectic and often surprising mix of delectable ear candy. And yes, the purple prose in that last sentence was intentional (smile).
I loved Prince. My heart wept when I heard he passed away last week. I never met him personally, but I knew I’d lost a kindred spirit; a fellow poet and artist for whom words held meaning. Prince wrote songs that addressed every existing emotional experience. Love (Adore). Hate (I Hate U). Envy (White Mansion). Remorse (In This Bed I Scream). Desire (Insatiable). Pure humor (Movie Star). Devotion to God (God, The Cross, The Word). Statements about society (Money Don’t Matter Tonight). Wonderful, crazy fun with friends (It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night). Rebuttals to critics (Hello). The list goes on and on. His songs could help you come to terms with the love you lost, the love you have, the God you worship, and the fun you wish you were having.
Watching and listening to Prince taught me a great deal about art, writing, and persistence. Here are seven author takeaways from the artist who will forever be known as Prince:
BRAND YOURSELF WELL
Prince’s brand was established and identifiable long before sales and marketing gurus started talking about the need to create a brand. When you hear the name Prince, you think purple and symbol, and sometimes purple symbol. The purple and the symbol make you think of his eclectic music, and sometimes muse about a certain movie containing horrible acting and electrifying concert sequences.
WRITE, WRITE, WRITE
Write as much as you can. Some of it will be great. Some of it will be crap. Don’t worry if anyone will like it. Just write. According to reports from his friends and former band members, Prince wrote songs and played music daily. He won American Music Awards, Grammys, and critical acclaim for the music he created that was brilliant. The not-so-good stuff? Locked in a vault somewhere in Minneapolis. You get the point here. Just write. Participate a critique group where other writers will help you separate the good stuff from the crap. Save the crap in a file because you may revisit an idea later. Publish the good stuff.
BE WHO YOU ARE
Prince was Prince. Period. He was inspired by musicians who came before him, and he acknowledged this. James Brown, Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, even Joni Mitchell…they all influenced his work. Inspiration is one thing. Copying is another. When anyone tells me they want to write, I always want to know who they are reading. But if anyone says they want to be the next Stephen King, Anne Rice, John Grisham, or Terry MacMillan, I just walk away. Why? You can only be you. Your originality must shine through in your artwork. You should study good writing, but when you touch the keyboard, you gotta be like Prince stepping to the mic. You might push the mic stand down and pull it up slow like James Brown, but turning around and jumping off of a piano in high heels? That should be all you, baby!
EXPERIMENT WHEN THE MOOD HITS YOU
Prince was not a jellyfish, chicken, or wimp. He loved all music so he experimented constantly. If he felt like rocking out, he rocked out. If he wanted to get funky, he got funky. Time for a power ballad? He was all in. Here’s my point, if you’ve written a novel, but you feel like pulling together non-fiction or poetry for your next project, go for it. Don’t limit yourself. Agents and professional folk may try to gear you toward a genre, but I’ve seen surprising and delightful work from people who break out of the genre trap and do something different. My favorite Stephen King book is actually On Writing; I love his non-fiction voice. Anne Rice wrote Interview With a Vampire but she also wrote erotica in Exit to Eden. Maya Angelou wrote songs, poetry, autobiographical books, and even cookbooks.
USE RHYTHM AND BEATS IN YOUR WRITING
When Prince wrote Sign of the Times, he could have written this as a lyric:
“This past fall my cousin smoked marijuana and now it’s summertime and he’s doing heroin.”
But no. He had rhythm in his writing and the lyric became:
“September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time. Now he’s doing horse. It’s June.”
Do you feel the difference. Good writing has rhythm. So when you write your prose, don’t just tell the reader what happened, design the sentence so the words have maximum impact. And the last line of your chapter? It better sound like you just dropped the mic.
GIVE YOUR CHARACTERS DISTINCT VOICES
The Kid. Camille. Victor. Gemini. Christopher Tracy. Jamie Starr. Prince fans know these names. These are the names of various personas…characters that Prince created. These characters would show up on certain albums and sing songs. The Camille character, a female persona, had a distinct voice. When you heard the voice, you knew the character. These were NOT Prince, he was just the author.
When you write, make sure that the dialogue you create matches the character for the story. It’s called voice, and it’s hard to do. Study the writers who’ve done voice well. When you create your characters, besides knowing if they are male or female, make sure you spend time getting to know them. Don’t just get stuck on appearance (tall, female, fashionable, etc.). Write the internal character (has lots of fears, won’t take risks, whines a great deal, does not talk on the phone), and that way, the character will determine for his/herself what they will say or do in a scene. Add some distinguishing marks to the WAY they say things and you can grasp voice.
LET YOUR LOVE OF GOD SHOW
Prince loved God. He believed in Jesus Christ. You can hear this clearly in quite a few of his songs. For a rock/pop/funk musician, he would often get criticized for being too religious. Luckily, if you write books, you can pretty much do what you want. If you are a Christian writer, showing your heart for the Lord is easy. But let’s say you are a mystery, romance, or crime novelist. What do you do? You assign faith to one of your key characters and you let your faith channel through that character. Do all of your characters have to believe? No. They actually shouldn’t because that’s not the world we live in. But you can show the glory of God in your art unapologetically.
Great writing takes risk. Sometimes you’ll have to write what you need to write and forget the naysayers and the critics. That’s not a pass to write junk. Write your best material, but after that, publish it and move on. Then keep moving. Prince in 2016 was not the Prince from 1985, he kept his art fresh and new. When he died, his fan base was so large, he didn’t need radio hits anymore – he still played to sold out stadiums.
Rest in peace, Prince Rogers Nelson.