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What’s Your Song? Part II

Do you ever feel like you’re in the grip, with people telling you what to do and how you should be? I felt that way a lot growing up. Still do sometimes.

What I love about writing is that you can communicate your feelings and thoughts. What are you thinking about? How are you feeling? What makes you mad, sad, happy, or afraid? What do you wish for? Write about it in a song.

Don’t know where to start? Listen to your favorite songs. Write out the lyrics. If you can’t make out all the words, search for them online. When you have the words in front of you, study them. What do you notice? Is there rhyming? What’s the pattern? Notice what is the same and what is different in the songs you like.

Song lyrics are made up of verses and a chorus, the part that gets repeated during the song. Many songs have a bridge, a part that is different than the verses and chorus. It provides more variety to your song. But let’s not concern ourselves with bridges at this point. Let’s keep it simple.

Do you play music? If so, you can start by developing a melody you like and then adding the words to it. Or, you can begin with the lyrics. Select your topic and stick to it as you write. One way to write lyrics is to start with a title. Ask yourself what you want to say about the title. Then, say it in your verses and chorus. Try to create a rhythm in your lines that sounds good when you say them aloud. If you’re using rhymes, make them consistent. Use an online rhyming site to help you.

When you’ve finished, you can add music if you haven’t already done it. If you don’t play an instrument, you can create the melody with you voice. Or, you can find someone who can add the music. That’s what I’ve doing for the past few years. I am very fortunate to have found several different musicians who like my lyrics and have added music to them.

I’ll share an example of lyrics I wrote. What do you think they mean? What feelings do you think they demonstrate?


From the day I was born

They all told me how to be

What to do, where to go

Never disagree


Yeah, I want to want to


I want to want to

Stand up tall

Sit up straight

Don’t talk back

Definitely don’t be late


I want to want to

I want to want to

Yeah, I want to want to


I want to want to

Shine my shoes

Wear a tie

Cut my hair

Don’t ask why


‘Cause I want to want to

I want to want to

Yeah, I want to want to




I want to want to

Get up early

Work for the Man

Hold my tongue

Make a plan


In the end I’ll do my best

And try to make them see

That I could do just what they said

But I wouldn’t be me

No, I wouldn’t be me

Yeah, it wouldn’t be me


‘Cause I want to want to

Yeah, I want to want to

Yeah, I want to want to

Shocked, Not Surprised

I was shocked to hear of the passing of Gregg Sutton today. It was sudden, like a punch in the gut. I am reeling, and struggling for breath.

Gregg was an acclaimed musician. He was an accomplished songwriter, having written for the likes of Joe Cocker, Joe Bonomasso, Percy Sledge, Dolly Parton, Al Green, Tom Jones, Billy Ray Cyrus, and many more. He was an expert guitar and bass player, and spent decades in a variety of bands, including Lone Justice, KGB, and the Pets. He toured as the bassist with Bob Dylan in 1984 and served as musical director for comedian Andy Kaufman, a childhood friend.

Dylan touring band – Gregg top right


Our lives intersected in a round-about way. Having been a writer for thirty-plus years, mostly books for kids, I found myself with lines of words in my head. Lines I couldn’t forget. As I worked with these lines, I realized they were lyrics for a song. The song – The Edge of Goodbye – was about endings: a job, a relationship, a life. I had no idea what music would go with these words, but I had a definite thought about who the song was to be for: Eric Burdon.

I had been a longtime Eric-fan, since my high school days when he was frontman for The Animals. I followed his career over the decades as he worked in different bands and evolved as a singer. On two occasions I had the pleasure of interviewing him for local newspapers when he came to town. He was thoughtful, articulate, and kind. As he neared the end of his 50-plus year career, I thought my lyrics would be a perfect fit for him.

Eric B. – center


But, they obviously weren’t. I sent Eric the lyrics, then waited. And waited. And waited. No response. Having written for so many years, with rejection the norm, I was not deterred. I looked at the liner notes on some of his later CDs and noted the names of people who had written songs with him. Gregg Sutton was one of them.

So, I sent the lyrics to Gregg. His response was quick, and positive. I was thrilled, and couldn’t wait until he created the music to go with the lyrics. Over time, we worked together revising the lyrics, and I waited for him to finish the music. I waited and waited. Six months. A year. 

When the music never appeared, I was disappointed but not discouraged. I just connected with another talented musician who loved the lyrics and created an awesome tune to go with them. Gregg and I stayed in touch. 

I was a loyal follower of his weekly Salvation Sunday shows, during which he performed his iconic songs with the help of his talented musician friends. I learned more about him by listening to his CDs, reading his memoir, and communicating regularly through e-mail. I kept sending him lyrics, too.

Several sets of lyrics later, he connected with some. We revised it back and forth, and he added music, simple chords and a catchy beat. While the finished song was a departure from my original, I was grateful and pleased with the finished product. He made a scratch demo and I had it copyrighted in our names. The title is Happiness, and it accurately reflects my feeling about the opportunity to work with Gregg. He talked about recording the song but, well, that’s out of the question now.

Last spring I set out on a road trip from my home in Oregon to visit the site in New Mexico where my latest book took place. I arranged to stop by L.A. to meet up with Gregg, a first-time meeting. He welcomed me into his home, introduced me to his dog Harry, and then we started down the street to a nearby restaurant for dinner. He walked slowly and appeared fragile. I wondered if maybe I should get my car to drive us, but he waved me off.

Gregg and Harry


We ordered dinner but he barely touched his meal. I asked him questions I had stored up, questions about his songwriting process and about his life. The questions seemed to spark him, and he answered with enthusiasm. He told me music was the only work he ever did, except when he was 17 and worked in a car wash, but only for a day. He shared about his personal challenges, and his declining health. He spoke about his most treasured experience in the music business – touring with Bob Dylan, his hero, and playing alongside Mick Taylor, his favorite guitarist. I asked him why he wasn’t a part of future tours. “I asked Bob for a raise,” he told me. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

After we slowly made our way back to the house, I asked Gregg if we could play the song we had done together. I wanted to make a video. He assented. I set up my phone and we did the song, him singing and playing, me following along on guitar. Not being a musician, it was quite a thrill for me.

That thrill dissolved when I got back to my hotel and realized that I had my video on while setting up, then turned it off when we began the song. Dammit! I slept fitfully that night.

In the morning I checked in with him before continuing my journey. He asked me for a favor: to take him to the bank. Of course. And then I wondered if we could possibly redo the song that I screwed up filming the night before. 

And so our song got videoed, with Gregg gently correcting me when I played a wrong chord along the way. We said our goodbyes and I was soon engulfed in the L.A. traffic, with little time to recount my wondrous experience. That would come later, and continues to this day.

Given the condition of Gregg’s health, I was not surprised when he passed. But, the suddenness and the reality of it was a shock.  

Gregg Sutton was multitudes: magnanimous and profane, sarcastic and gentle, critical and caring, dark and light. He was extremely talented, and very supportive of me in my songwriting journey. I will be forever grateful that our lives intersected, if for only a brief moment.


Let The Journey Begin

I love road trips! Some of my best memories are from traveling by car: my mom and I driving from Florida to New Jersey, high school buddy Tom Powers and I setting out from NJ for the west coast to go to school, Tyler and I on an epic father-son coast to coast trip, Ava and I hitting the road for the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

I’m long overdue for another journey, on which I’ll be soon leaving. First stop will be LA, where I’ll meet up with iconic singer/songwriter Gregg Sutton. Gregg has been in the music biz for more than 50 years. He’s played in a number of bands, toured with Bob Dylan, and was the music director for Andy Kaufman. He’s written songs for everyone from Dolly Parton and Percy Sledge to Eric Burdon, Joe Cocker, and Joe Bonamassa, and he’s collaborated with scores of people, including me. Our song, Happiness, is a clever and upbeat adaptation of lyrics I sent Gregg a while back. He often plays it on the Sunday Salvation show he does every Sunday at noon on his Facebook page. Check it out sometime.

Greg Sutton

From LA, I’ll head south to Murrieta, where Tyler and fam reside. We’ve got two grandsons there I look forward to catching up with. We’ll caravan over to Arizona, pick up Ava from the airport, then drive north to Sedona to spend a few days among the red rocks. Hiking will be a top priority.

At the end of our stay there, Ava and the rest of the clan will head home and I will continue on to New Mexico. In Santa Fe, I’ll meet with David Witt, Ernest Thompson Seton biographer and curator of the Seton Legacy Project. David was very helpful to me when I was researching and writing the Lobo  graphic novel. He endured many questions with patience and aplomb. I am very grateful for his assistance. I’ll try to hit the Georgia O’Keefe museum before leaving town. I have always enjoyed her work, and I’d enjoy seeing it up close and personal.

From Santa Fe, I will aim my trusty Prius northeast to the Currumpaw Valley, where the Lobo story actually took place back in the fall and winter of 1893-94. I’ll visit the Scouting Museum outside Cimarron, which contains Seton artifacts as well as a memorial library. Why would they have stuff of Seton’s? Good question! The answer is simple: Seton was one of the founders of the Boy Scouts.

From the northeast corner of NM, I’ll enter Colorado, then head due west toward Utah. I hope to visit Mesa Verde along the way. It was the topic of one of my books back in the 90s (A Personal Tour of Mesa Verde), and it’ll always have a special place in my heart. There are several cliff dwellings in the national park, but I like Balcony House the best, because you have to access it either by climbing a ladder or crawling through a tunnel.

File:Approaching the Top of the Ladder to Balcony House, Mesa Verde  National Park (4851976994).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Then it’s on to Utah, and another of my favorite places: Moab. More red rocks and more hiking opportunities among the amazing arches, beautiful gifts from nature. Top arch to hike to is Delicate Arch, which stands nearly 50 feet all and is the arch that is featured on the Utah license plate.

6,700+ Delicate Arch Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free ...

When I’m all hiked out, I’ll hightail it north to Idaho to visit with good friends from high school. Actually, I’ve known these guys from elementary school days, as early as second grade. I feel so fortunate to have such longstanding friends. When we get together, the years just peel away.

And then it will be time to return to Oregon, the place I call home. 3,000 miles weary, and hopefully 3,000 miles wiser…


Retirement Rocks!

What’s to love about retirement? Where do I start? Get up when you want. Go where you want. Do what you want, whenever you feel like it.

I get up early, because I want to. I meditate, and I work on my music lyrics ’cause I love doing both. I also volunteer at a local school. Roosevelt Elementary, named after the earlier Roosevelt president: Theodore.

I work in a fourth grade classroom, home to Ed Steiger and his stalwart students. They are a friendly bunch, and I always feel welcomed there. I’ve been helping Ed support his students with their writing. He doesn’t need much help, as he’s really good at engaging the kids as well as modeling good writing habits.

One of my favorite activities is teaching young writers the “language” of writing. This involves six traits that characterize effective writing: Ideas/Content, Organization, Voice, Sentence Fluency, Word Choice, and Conventions. We introduce the traits, discuss the elements of each of them, show examples, do activities, and the students then use the knowledge gained to enhance both their own writing and their abilities to edit others’.

I am really impressed at how the class is taking to the editing process, something they have not previously experienced. It is really enjoyable to watch the kids grow as writers.

Zoey and Abby created a poster to highlight the trait of Conventions. (periods are like stop signs.)

32 And Counting!


32 years. That’s how long I’ve been visiting schools and doing author visits. I’ve done them as near as my local school and as far as Buenos Aires, Argentina. What began as a presentation about chewing gum and my first book evolved over the years as my bibliography grew to 28 books. Having so many books has provided me the opportunity to feature many different topics, from Teddy bears to atomic bombs, from sneakers to wolves. Despite the varied topics, three common threads have always been an integral part of my presentations:

  • the importance of writing
  • curiosity
  • revision

Over the past several years I have been exploring different forms of writing, including graphic novels, screenwriting, and song lyrics. Recently, I’ve been able to incorporate the latter into my presentations to offer kids another writing outlet.

G.T. Albright, a longtime music pro, has been taking the lyrics I create, adding music, and making them into songs. We have copyrighted 20 so far and are poised to add 10 more before we start recording the best ones in the spring.

During the presentations, I still focus on the writing threads as well as some of my books, but then I segue into lyrics and then bring on G.T. to demonstrate how he does his magic. More magic follows as he takes lyrics the kids have written and creates music to go with them. We are all amazed and enthralled!

Last week we had the honor of working with Todd Grassman’s fifth grade class at Pleasant Hill (OR) Elementary. We had such a great time, it was hard leaving. Hopefully, Todd’s students will be inspired to share their thoughts and feelings through lyrics. They (and others) can even post them in the Comments section here to share and get feedback from others.

G.T. and lyric writer


What’s In A Title?

You might notice that the title for our Lobo book as been revised. Originally, it was “Lobo: The Wolf That Changed the Man Who Changed America.” Quite a mouthful, huh? Quite lengthy, but them it really summed up what the story was about.

The trouble was, we got feedback from some folks who are planning a major motion picture on the project. They reminded us that a while back, there was a BBC broadcast on the topic with a similar name. That means that people who search our project will be linked to that broadcast rather than the movie they will be making.

Good point. So, we brainstormed several possibilities and came up with “Lobo: The Hunted and the Hunter.” Much more succinct and it still provides a taste of the story, and even adds a little mystery.

We even like it better than the original. Collaboration is good. So is mutual support. The movie makers are on board with us and will help spread the word about our project. As we will do for them.

Coming Soon…

Here’s a blog post from my collaborator on the Lobo project. He continues to amaze with his artwork:


In my book Friends of the Wolf I make a case for preserving and protecting wolves. I use reasoning and evidence to help make my case. I include an opposing viewpoint, and address it. My goal in writing this was to get readers to accept my viewpoint, not necessarily to agree or to do anything about it (although I did include practical suggestions for what they can do if they do agree).

Writing that uses reasoning and evidence for the purpose of having readers accept a viewpoint is known as Argument writing. I call it Make A Case writing. Persuasive writing is a close cousin, but it uses more opinion and emotion and its goal is to have readers actively agree with the viewpoint or to do something.

What is a view that you have for which you could make a case? Here are some examples:

We should not have to wear masks in school.

Everyone should be vaccinated. 

Football is dangerous and should not be played in high school.

I should be able to stay up later at night. 

We should be able to chew gum in class.

Math is the best subject.

Dogs (or cats or rabbits or ???) make the best pets.

I invite you to click on the Comments tab above and write a statement for which you could make a case. Extra points *** for those who actually make their cases here. It’s a great way to get your writing out for others to see. Remember, reasoning and evidence.

I will be reading a responding to all. Have fun!





The Graphic Novel Journey

Once I decided on the story I wanted to tell, I had to decide the medium for telling it. The story was too limited for a regular novel and too violent for a picture book. Graphic novel, a combo of the two, seemed like the best option. I settled on that.

Trouble was, I had never written a graphic novel before and I had no idea how to do it. So, I went to the library and started reading all that I could find, especially true stories (which are not that common). Doing this was very helpful from a story standpoint, but I still needed help in how to actually format the writing, since it involves illustration descriptions, captions, and dialog.

Searching online for formatting guidance helped somewhat, but the suggestions were often at odds. I needed some real-world help. Fortunately, a writer friend (Kurt Cyrus – check out his books, they’re great!) introduced me to one of his friends, Mark Fearing, another awesome writer. Mark has had great success creating graphic novels as well as picture books, and he was very generous in sharing his experience and insights with me. Many writers are like that, and I am so grateful.

Then came the researching, the writing, and the rewriting. Weeks, months, a year shaping the story, pacing, attending to details, checking them out with knowledgeable sources. David Witt, curator of the Seton Legacy Project, was a shining light. So was Julie Seton, the granddaughter of Ernest Thompson Seton.

Once the manuscript was ready, I started sending queries to publishers. And waited. And waited some more. Most of them I never heard from. No response – that’s how they reject these days. The few I heard from said I needed to send artwork with the manuscript. Ugh!

Now, the journey changed from finding an interested publisher to finding a talented (and willing) artist. Easier said than done. Every artist I spoke with wanted upfront payment. That’s understandable, but it wasn’t something I was willing to do, especially given that I didn’t have a deal with a publisher. I wanted to find an artist who believed in the project enough to do some work (not the whole book!) to show prospective publishers.

After a year of searching, I found my artist: Daniel Becker. I found him through Kickstarter, in which Daniel successfully raised money for a graphic novel project. It clearly demonstrated his entrepreneurial spirit and motivation. And, it showcased his artwork, which is excellent.

Although Daniel lives in Australia, he’s from New Mexico, where the Seton story takes place. He connected with the story right away and began drawing in earnest. Here’s some of his early sketches:

Next post I’ll show you the finished work that we sent out, and share updates on the project.



Take a Sample

Dear Teachers,

It’s the start to another school year and there’s lots to do, but I hope you won’t forget to get a writing sample from your students. It’s an excellent way to discover their level of writing skill as well as to use as a benchmark.

It doesn’t have to be a big deal with a lot of set-up. Keep it simple.

Offer a prompt. One of my favorites is: “Tell me something you did this summer, or something you would have liked to have done.” Or: “What are you looking forward to this school year?”

Take your samples early, the sooner, the better. Look them over to see general and specific strengths and weaknesses. File the papers and use them throughout the year to view students’ progress.

Would you like to know more about the kids you’ll be working with for the next nine months? Ask them! Offer this writing prompt: “We will be working together this year. What would you like me to know about you?” Model a response, writing a draft telling about you (how you like to teach, personal quirks, preferences, etc.). Share your writing, then let them loose.

Have a great writing year!