What writers can learn from late, great music man John Carter

In July’s obit section, WORD magazine remembers John Carter, songwriter, producer, and A&R man extraordinaire, who “was instrumental in the careers of and a passionate supporter of Bob Seger, The Motels, Sammy Hagar, Melissa Etheridge, Tori Amos, David and David, and … Tina Turner.”

WORD quotes an interview for industry website Taxi, in which Carter said that “the one thing he had learned was that over 70 percent of hit records have titles containing nouns.”

All kinds of songs become successful, and therefore can be held up as examples to encourage someone that what they’re doing is right, but I think, in general, it’s an English lesson. Lyrics are important It’s about a story. It’s about a great title. The title should have a big noun in it. Some of the best songs are even proper nouns. Nouns, baby, nouns!”

If you think about it, the same principle applies to good writing of any kind. One, “it’s about a story.” And two, it’s specific: proper nouns are nothing if not specific. It’s the very old, very true creative writing 101 lesson: you get to the universal by way of the personal. You reach many by focusing on the struggle of one. It’s easy to find great books with a proper noun in the title:

Ulysses
Lolita
Portnoy’s Complaint
The Great Gatsby
Jane Eyre
Madame Bovary

Okay, you get the picture. Of course, this is not to say it has to be a proper noun. I can think of equally exciting books that have only improper nouns (I don’t think that’s a thing, really, but I like the sound of it) in the title.

To Kill a Mockingbird
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
The Bluest Eye
Things Fall Apart (what can be less specific than things?)
Brave New World

You’ll note, however, that all of the books in the latter category get very specific very quickly, with characters whose personal and unique struggles have a universal quality. Scout moves us not because she’s archetypal, but because she is a very specific child at a very specific time and place, engaged in a universal struggle played out in the tragedy of one man and one town.

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