Words and Music: The Good Listening Guide to Better Writing

Life is like playing a violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.

— Samuel Butler, English writer

Music…is just another way of saying this is a big, beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is.

— John Coltrane

Dedicated to San Francisco Writer’s Conference Advisory Board member and benefactor Harvey Pawl, whose generosity helped inspire it

Someone once said that a book should have no extra words just as a song should have no extra notes. My favorite rule from The Elements of Style is the ultimate rule of writing: “Omit Needless words.” If you eliminate needless words, the only words you have left are the ones you need.

For me, any work that strives for artistry must have beauty, craft, vitality, delicacy, form, balance, completeness, unity, integrity, contrast, harmony, humanity, ornament, impact, inevitability, timelessness, and universality. Music must have lyricism; classical music, spirituality; art and architecture must have color.

Classical Music

The instrumental music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart capture a beauty that enables you to experience an absolute that transcends time and space–one of the greatest achievements to which art can aspire. I have found the qualities listed above in the music of Bach and Mozart more than any other music.


Bach was the greatest swinger of all time.  His music has a drive and dazzling technique that makes you want to tap your foot to it. Bach had two wives and sixteen children, but he lived and loved to compose. His music is the voice of eros, the life force that sings the joys and possibilities of being alive.  Recordings to start with:

* The Goldberg Variations is the greatest work for solo piano and the greatest jazz composition. I hope you’ll like it enough to enjoy the illuminating contrast between Glen Gould’s dashing, headlong 1955 recording of it, which made him famous, and the more lyrical, mature 1981 version.

* The Brandenburg Concertos, the Marlboro Music Festival version, or another version with piano. It’s the ultimate Dixieland concert.

* Bach’s other work for the piano: the concertos–the slow movements are exquisite–the partitas, and the French Suites. Gould is my favorite pianist, but Murray Perahia recorded more of the concertos.

* The violin and oboe concertos

* The Suites

* A Musical Offering

* His other instrumental music for solo instruments, chamber groups, and orchestra

* Apart from The Magnificat, which is splendid, I don’t know Bach’s choral work, so I can’t offer other examples.

* One sign of the love that Bach’s music inspires is that it has been transcribed for other instruments more than the work of any other composer. Transcriptions of his work will delight you as will jazz versions of his music, including those by The Swingle Singers (Johann Sebastian Bach, Vol. 1), and pianist Jacques Loussier (Play Bach)

A huge treasure trove of other baroque music has the virtues listed above. A lifetime’s worth of other baroque composers awaits you, including members of the Bach family, Thomas Albinoni, Franz Danzi, George Friedrich Handel, Benedetto Marcello—the slow movement of his oboe concerto is soul food–Johann Pachelbel, Carl Stamitz, George Telemann, and Antonio Vivaldi.


Mozart’s melodic gift, the size and diversity of his legacy, and his lifelong ability to create irresistible beauty within a precise structure make him the greatest of all composers. He creates absolute beauty as if he were taking dictation from another realm of existence to which art is the portal.  Portals to Mozart’s gifts:

* The Clarinet Concerto–the slow movement is as sublime as it is simple–and the clarinet quintet. Mozart only had two years to compose for the clarinet. Based on these works, his future work for the instrument would have been unimaginably beautiful.

* The piano concertos, especially the last seven, and all of the slow movements. Collectively, these concertos are the greatest creative act of western art. What music needs more than anything is more Mozart piano concertos. Beethoven’s first two piano concertos sound like concertos that Mozart who, in classical music’s greatest tragedy, died at 35, in 1791, never got a chance to write.

* Serenade Gran Partita. In the great movie Amadeus, the composer Salieri calls the opening notes of the third movement “the voice of God.”

* The Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola & Orchestra and the divertimenti

* Other work for woodwinds–concertos and chamber groups

* Piano sonatas and other piano pieces, solos and for chamber groups, especially the quintet

* I don’t know Mozart’s operas or choral music well enough to recommend them.

Just as publishers help sustain writers, Bach and Mozart were dependent on employers, commissions, and performing to make a living, then as now, not a path to wealth. Oscar Wilde’s last words were. “I‘m dying beyond means.” Mozart lived beyond his means and was buried in an umarked grave.

A lifetime of listening will only increase your love for the glorious work of these two giants.  An online search by a composer’s name will lead you to free music online.


Jazz makes you feel good and makes you want to tap your foot. The four most lyrical improvisers at slow and medium tempos and my favorite musicians:

Bill Evans, a pianist whose way with a ballad is incomparable. The high notes in his ballads, like those in the slow movements of Bach and Mozart, are constellations of stars. Combined with the surpassing beauty of their melodies, they are irresistible. (Essential Standards: Bill Evans)

Miles Davis, a trumpeter whose work spanned five decades. His recordings with John Coltrane, culminating in Kind of Blue, one of the best jazz albums ever, and Miles Ahead orchestrated by Gil Evans.

Paul Desmond, because of his silken tone on the alto sax and his amazing work with the Dave Brubeck quartet. My favorite: Jazz at Oberlin. Hemingway once wrote that: “For a long time now, I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can.” For alto sax player Desmond, this college concert was one of those days. His solo on “Balcony Rock” on Jazz Goes to College is on a par with it. He was the most lyrical improviser at fast tempos. He also did outstanding work without the quartet (Glad to be Unhappy).

Milt Jackson, whose vibraphone was the heart of the great Modern Jazz Quartet. My favorites are the early recordings, Django, Concorde, and Fontessa, although the most enduring group in jazz made a library of wonderful recordings. He did other excellent work as well, my favorite being Milt Jackson Quartet

Other favorite musicians—with albums you may want to start listening to them with– include saxophonists Cannonball Adderley (Somethin’ Else), early John Coltrane (The Gentle Side of John Coltrane), Stan Getz (The Essential Stan Getz), Gerry Mulligan (Gerry Mulligan & Chet Baker Quartet); Charlie Parker (Charlie Parker with Strings: The Master Takes), Art Pepper (The Best of Art Pepper), Bud Shank (Bud Shank/Bill Perkins) and Zoot Sims (Zoot Sims and the Gershwin Brothers); trumpeters Art Farmer (What is There to Say? under Gerry Mulligan’s name), Dizzy Gillespie (Dizzy Gillespie, Ken Burns Jazz) and Shorty Rogers (Shorty Rogers and His Giants).

The most tasteful and creative drummer, Shelly Manne (Shelly Manne and His Friends, a collaboration with one of my favorite pianists, Andre Previn; other pianists: Bill Charlap (Somewhere: The Music of Leonard Bernstein), Red Garland (The Best of the Red Garland Trios), Errol Garner (Concert by the Sea), Fred Hersch (Fred Hersch Plays Rodgers and Hammerstein), Oscar Peterson (My Favorite Instrument), Marcus Roberts (If I Could Be with You), George Shearing (Verve Jazz Masters: George Shearing), and Horace Silver (The Best of Horace Silver, Vol. 1).

* I rarely listen to singers, but jazz has a long tradition of great chanteuses, including Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, as well as jazz/pop singers such as Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra.

These musicians drew much of their inspiration from Broadway musicals and the Great American Songbook, composers such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter.  In addition to freebies online and trying the recordings I suggest, you can check online by the musician’s name for the All Music ratings. You can also use the brilliant Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings and/or The Penguin Jazz Guide. If you’re in a store–Amoeba in San Francisco, Berkeley, or Los Angeles is the best–look on the back of CDs for reviews.

In Amadeus, Salieri looks at Mozart’s scores and says “To change a note would be diminishment.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of the childrens classic, The Little Prince, wrote that, “A designer knows he has achieved perfection, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

No two music or book lovers list of favorites would be identical. They are subjective, and they evolve over time as our tastes evolve, and we discover new books and music. But music and writing, like life, require the art of holding on and letting go. Listening to music with no extra notes will help you separate the essential from the extraneous in your writing and your life, which should also have the virtues of art. Happy listening!


The goal of the blog is to help us both understand writing and publishing.

Questions and comments most welcome.

The 11th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community 

February 13-16, 2014 / www.sfwriters.org / sfwriterscon@aol.com / Mike’s blog: http://sfwriters.info/blog @SFWC / www.facebook.com/SanFranciscoWritersConference

Keynoters:  Chitra Divakaruni and Barry Eisler

www.sfwritersu.com / sfwritersu@gmail.com / @SFWritersU  

The 6th San Francisco Writing for Change Conference / Changing the World One Book at a Time

San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / free classes /

September, 6th, 2014 / www.sfwritingforchange.org / sfwriterscon@aol.com / Keynoter:

Michael Larsen-Elizabeth Pomada Literary Agents / Helping Writers Launch Careers Since 1972

larsenpoma@aol.com / www.larsenpomada.com / 415-673-0939 /1029 Jones Street / SF, 94109



The Perfect Pitch for a Nonfiction Book: 11 Ways to Excite Me About Reading Your Proposal

The role of the writer is to make bouillon cubes out of chicken soup.

–Susan Sontag

Whether you’re talking about your book to a friend or an editor, the content of your book has to be scalable: You have to be able to capture the essence of it about it in a tweet, a one-paragraph pitch, a one-page query letter, and a proposal.

Pitching your book will take less than thirty seconds. How can you generate maximum excitement for your book in as few words as possible? Without being self-serving, the perfect pitch describes the essence of your book, why it will excite book buyers, and what’s most impressive about your platform, promotion plan, and credentials.

Six of the eleven parts of a pitch are optional; you may not need them. A pitch for a narrative nonfiction book, such as a memoir, will need two or three sentence about the setting, the subject, and the story.

Platform and promotion won’t be as important for certain kinds of books such as reference books, or for small or for midsize houses outside of New York. Here are eleven possible parts of a pitch that will excite me because it will arouse the interest of  editors in the Big Apple:

1. A sentence with the title and the selling handle for the book, up to fifteen words that show why it’s unique or commercial.

2. The model(s) for your book: One or two books, movies, or authors–“It’s The Tipping Point meets The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”

3. (Optional) The length of your proposal. Proposals have an overview about the book and author, an outline, and sample text, usually about ten percent of the manuscript. They usually range between 35 and 50 pages. The right time to pitch your book is when your proposal is ready to sell. But if you have the chance to pitch your book before your proposal is ready, take advantage of it.

4. (Optional) The length of your manuscript, if it’s ready to submit.

5. (Optional) The names of people who will provide a foreword and cover quotes, if they’re impressive.

6. (Optional) Mention if you’re proposing a series.

7. (Optional) Information about a self-published edition that will help sell it.

8. The most important thing about your platform: what you are doing to give yourself continuing visibility on the subject, online or off, with potential book buyers, and if the number is impressive, how many of them. Wrong: “I give talks.” Right: “I give X talks a year to Y people.”

9. The most effective thing you will do to promote your book, online or off, and if the number is impressive and appropriate, how many of them. Wrong: “I will sell books.” Right: “I will sell X books a year.” Your promotion plan must be a believable extension of your platform.

10. What is most impressive about your credentials: your track record; experience in your field; years of research; prizes; contests; awards in your field.

11. (Optional) Anything else that will convince agents or editors to ask for your proposal.

For another approach to pitches, read agent Katharine Sands’ excellent book, Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye. Elizabeth and I have chapters in it. Katharine will be doing a breakout session on pitching, and a two-hour intensive, open to the public, at the San Francisco Writers Conference, February 16-20, www.sfwriters.org. There’s more about platform, promotion, and proposals in the fourth edition of How to Write a Book Proposal.

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community
February 16-20, 2012 / www.sfwriters.org / sfwriterscon@aol.com / Mike’s blog: http://sfwriters.org/blog @SFWC / www.facebook.com/SanFranciscoWritersConference
San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean / free classes / www.sfwritersu.com / sfwritersu@gmail.com / @SFWritersU


Reading Good Memoirs So You Can Write One

Many thanks to author and teacher Laura Davis for this great advice for memoirists:

If you want to write a memoir, it’s essential that you read good ones. Become a student of the genre. What I ask my students to do is to learn to read as a writer, not as a reader. This means studying a book, not just being entertained by it.  I ask my students to read books twice—once to fully inhabit the story, to experience it as a “naïve reader.” And the second time to read beyond the story—to look at the choices the author made and analyze why he/she made those choices.

Some of the questions you can ask yourself when you’re studying a memoir are:

       1. Why did this author start the story where she did? Why did she end it where she ended it?

       2. Does this writer have empathy for all the characters in the book? Why or why not?

       3. What do you think was left out?

       4. How is the memoir structured? Why?

       5. What did the author choose to reveal about herself? Not reveal?

 Here’s a list of some of my favorites, just to get you started:

      1.    Road Song by Natalie Kusz

      2.   Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

      3.   Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

      4.   Half the House by Richard Hoffman

      5.   I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

      6.   Jarhead by Anthony Swofford

      7.   Expecting Adam by Martha Beck

       8.  The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber

       9.   Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxemburg

       10. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

       11.  Farm City by Novella Carpenter

       12.  Madness by Marya Hornbacher

 Laura Davis is the author of seven bestselling books including The Courage to Heal, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, and I Thought We’d Never Speak Again. She teaches writing in Santa Cruz and around the country. There are still a few spaces left in her upcoming Memory to Memoir Retreat at a beautiful retreat center above Santa Cruz, on the weekend of November 4th-6th.

Laura Davis: http://www.lauradavis.net

Memory to Memoir Retreat: http://lauradavis.net/roadmap/?page_id=302

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 16-20, 2012 / www.sfwriters.org / sfwriterscon@aol.com / 415-673-0939 / http://sfwriters.org/blog / @SFWC / http://www.facebook.com/pages/San-Francisco-Writers-Conference/112732798786104 / 1029 Jones St. / San Francisco, CA 94109 / San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean / free classes / www.sfwritersu.com / sfwritersu@gmail.com / @SFWritersU