Writing Excuses 5.39: Filking and Writing Music with Tom Smith


It sounds like a bad word.

Okay, what it actually sounds like, provided you’ve fallen in among actual filkers, is AWESOME. It’s music named after a typo, and sung around subjects near and dear to genre fans.

Tom Smith, filker extraordinaire and musician magnifique, joins Brandon and Howard at Penguicon to talk about writing music, and to talk about the Filk genre in particular.

Our only episode with actual music in it, this is the last episode of Season 5, and Tom Smith sends us home with a brilliant little song he made up using requests from those in attendance. Tom, we expect an eventual epic song-cycle centering around “The Wizard of Wheat.”

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett, narrated by Stephen Briggs.

Writing Prompt: Tom ended up singing his response to our writing prompt. What can you do with the words “wizard” and “bakery?”

Additional References for Filk: The FuMP, Filk resources on the Internet, and (per Tom’s suggestion) a YouTube search for Filk.

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23 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.39: Filking and Writing Music with Tom Smith”

  1. Wonderful! Music in books is one of my favorite things about fantasy, but I can imagine it’s hard to pull off. I’m glad there was a podcast on it.

  2. Ooh, music! Thanks for this podcast, guys. I’d love to hear more podcasts like this one but I’m probably in the minority of people who actually write music?

    As for finding filk, here’s a gathering of quite a few from The Virtual Filk Sing:

    (Thanks to Peter, Brandon’s assistant, who pointed me to that ages ago.)

    And of course a lot (though certainly not all) of Jonathan Coulton’s music is filk.

    Finally, it has to be said: I thought you were going to make US write music for the writing prompt, but Howard’s idea was infinitely better. Tom, my hat is off to you. I was just about crying with laughter by the time you finished.

  3. Personally, when I read a book with anything that resembles verse, I tend to skim those parts. It’s nothing against lyrics, but since I have no idea what rhythm or tune to sing the song in, why bother with reading it unless it’s plot-relevant?

    That being said, I think this podcast was awesome and I loved the writing prompt.

  4. I have the opposite problem of @Klimpaloon. Whenever I see song lyrics printed in a fantasy book, I automatically come up with a melody to sing it to. It’s usually not a melody I’ve ever heard before. The notes just fall into place. And I can’t move on to the next prose part of the book until I’m sure my melody “feels” correct. I had the hardest time reading the Lord of the Rings, especially for the songs that were entirely in Elvish.

  5. Wow, I’ve been filking all these years and never knew it. Thanks guys!

  6. Great podcast. :-) I’m an old fan of Tom Smith – one of my favorite memories was seeing him live at a WorldCon many years ago singing A Boy and His Frog (I dare anyone to sing along and not start to cry). I am delighted he’s been able to make a living at filking.

    Nightwatch is my very favorite Pratchett, too – it’s the fan fave, last time I saw a poll. Though I don’t think it would be as powerful if you aren’t already familiar with the Guards characters, so I recommend people read some other Guards books first. Stephen Briggs does an amazing job of reading, as well.

  7. I laughed so hard at the end of this…

    I actually loved the poetry in both LotR and the Redwall books — as a kid I’d make up riddles based on Redwall riddles, and I still have many LotR poems memorized…including one in Sindarian…(it’s pretty, and if you just pronounce it all a lot like Middle English, the flow is just gorgeous).

    I can’t name any books I’ve read lately that have done this, though, to any large extent. It seems it’s become less popular?

  8. Nick, you can rest easy knowing that Tom Smith did a much better job with “wizard” and “bakery” than Adult Swim did. MUCH better. That video was pretty lame.

  9. I wish there had been more talk of music in books. The part about Cave Men and Roman music was very promising, then it just devolved into a drawn out definition of filk.

  10. Tom Smith was still cool though. And I’ll never look at keebler elves the same way again!

  11. This was totally fun. I didn’t really know about filk… and now if I ever get the chance to hang out when filkers are filking and listen I will JUMP at it.

    Absolutely amazing improv song! He thought about that for what, ten seconds first?!?

    So I left you guys a podcast suggestion a few weeks ago and reflecting on it afterwards I thought, for Pete’s sake, they must have a million ideas for podcasts, they don’t need one from a total stranger. But… I just can’t resist. I can’t! So here’s another. Podcast title: Revealing Character. (An aspect of characterization–how to get your characterization across to your reader, rather than how to build your character.)

    I am re-reading the Hunger Games, and I read the first page of the first book and was just really struck with what Collins is doing there. She spends the first paragraph, six lines, on the immediate situation: Katniss is waking up on a (mysteriously) important day. The next paragraph, seven lines, is the description & visual characterization of Katniss’ still-sleeping mother and sister. The third paragraph, fourteen lines–longer than the first two put together–is all about the cat.

    The cat???

    She’s doing something amazing here. The cat was a perfect choice–because it’s a perfect opportunity to reveal character. The paragraph tells a story: Prim brought home the flea-and-worm-ridden kitten, Katniss just couldn’t take on another mouth to feed and tried to drown it in a bucket… Prim pleaded, Katniss relented. Their mother got rid of the vermin and now he’s a good mouser so Katniss accepts him and sometimes gives him entrails “when I clean a kill.” And he has stopped hissing at her. The story is rounded off with a following two-line paragraph that’s the most masterful part of all this: “Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we will ever come to love.”

    In this one paragraph about the cat, we learn everything important about Katniss’ life. She’s the main actor in the drama–her mom is there, but does nothing but de-worm–plus she is the one thinking “mouths to feed”; we see she’s her family’s primary breadwinner, the weight is on her shoulders. We see her desperation and ruthless practicality together in the drowning of the kitten… and we see Prim’s naivete and compassion… and we see how much Prim means to Katniss, when she relents. Finally, we’re introduced to the fact that she hunts–but look at how it’s done: “when I clean a kill.” That’s our first clue that she does anything of the kind, and the fact that she tosses it off so casually, along with the use of the word “kill”, tells you–in five words–not only that she hunts, but that she hunts for food, habitually and effectively and basically as a way of life.

    And then that last paragraph. “Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we will ever come to love.” I can’t even explain how this does what it does, but it seems to me to foreshadow and explain everything that comes later in terms of Katniss’ behavior to others (at least in books 1 and 2). I think that what this paragraph really translates to is: “I am far too focused on survival to be able to afford to think about love.”

    Well… sorry to leave a long unrelated comment… but that just got me excited and I had to share, and suggest… wouldn’t it be cool to sit down with a few paragraphs like that from really excellent authors, and take apart how they reveal character, for your listeners’ benefit?

    Just an idea…

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