Hey, I wrote a novel. It’s called Hangman’s Jam, and it’s awesome, probably the best book ever written, and definitely the best book you will ever read.
It’s packed with love, sex, death, murder, music, mayhem, and cosmic monsters. Check it out for yourself.
But first, let me tell you what blows about my debut novel.
Hangman’s Jam is a rock ‘n roll horror novel about a haunted song that gets passed along through the musical generations. It winds up in the hands of a New Jersey bar band, which rides it to worldwide success…and global destruction.
Hangman’s Jam may not be my greatest creative achievement, but it’s certainly one I’ve put a lot of time and effort into.
But it could’ve been better.
Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind
Since my novel is about music, specifically rock music, I incorporated many classic rock lyrics into the text. This gave the work an extra credibility, like my haunted song had always existed alongside these classic tunes. It showcased how music and life are interwoven. I packed my novel with all sorts of musical quotes, some subtle, some overt. I polished that draft until it was pretty good. I polished it until it sang.
Then I began researching the legal ramifications of using song lyrics in literary works, and quickly realized I was in deep doo-doo.
You can use song titles as much as you like, but using lyrics without permission and compensation is a big legal no-no.
A friend of mine was writing a follow-up to her bestselling cat story (Homer’s Odyssey by Gwen Cooper). Her cat is named Prudence, and one of her characters invites the stray tabby to “come out and play.”
What Cooper found when she ran her manuscript by the Beatles estate was it would cost a couple thousand dollars to use two lines from “Dear Prudence,” plus three cents per copy sold in perpetuity.
I’m sure Paul and Ringo don’t need to make a few hundred dollars off a struggling writer. But evidently their lawyers think otherwise, as do the majority of music publishing attorneys.
Lawyers Can’t Dance
As a songwriter, I understand the reason for this legal protection. You can’t have people stealing your lyrics.
But all art builds on the art that came before it. Why can’t I use a piece of another artist’s creation to illustrate my own? Hip-hop producers do it all the time!
If I wrote a book called Attack Of The 50-Foot Steve Buscemi, Steve Buscemi could rightfully say I was using his name and likeness for financial gain. Still, somehow Being John Malkovich got made. It’s possible, but in the case of my work—a novel that was liberally sprinkled with musical quotations—it wasn’t financially feasible to get all the rights and permissions I needed to write the book I wanted to write.
So I rewrote the novel, and took all the musical quotes out.
It irritates me. Why can’t one confused character say to another, “There will be an answer. Let it be”? Well, you might get away with it in a mystery or romance novel, but in the context of musical fiction it’s asking for legal trouble. As a result, my characters now say, “We’ll let the music speak for itself,” instead of, “We’ll let the music do the talkin'” for fear of being sued by Aerosmith’s attorneys.
The final published draft of Hangman’s Jam is still pretty strong. I hope you’ll check it out and see for yourself (you can find both print and digital editions on Amazon, Barnes&Noble.com, iTunes, etc.) Maybe if enough people buy it, I’ll have the means to publish a revised edition with the music put back in.
Until then, jam on!
Originally published in Wayne TODAY, January 2013