Music is a significant part of the writing process for many writers. I know that’s true for me. I use it to get in touch with different emotional states, to establish mood, to get a feel for a certain culture or time period, and sometimes, just to keep my energy up during a long session. What I choose to listen to varies from work to work and according to what I’m doing at the time. Like a lot of inspiration, it’s fluid and dynamic. I don’t have a formula. Playing around is part of the fun.
I hesitated to pick this as a topic because it seems so commonplace, so obvious. I envisioned the post:
“I play music when I write,” I say.
“Wow. Me too.”
I’ve heard conversations like that one, and they don’t go anywhere. I started to think about why, and I came up with what is probably another obvious answer. The experience of writing to music is common, but the individual’s connection to the music itself is quite particular and personal. Both stories and the writing experience itself are also highly personal. Connection should be possible, but it is surprisingly difficult in practice.
It makes for an intriguing tangle—just the sort I enjoy gnawing over.
Some of the pitfalls in the topic seem clear now—and, as is often the case, prescription is the enemy.
Skip the next bit if you want, but I’ve got a few things to grumble about before moving on.
The Curmudgeon’s section:
I will not say, “If you want to write, then you need to listen to music.” That’s ridiculous. It’s as ridiculous as proclaiming the converse. I’ve had people tell me I shouldn’t listen to music while writing. I don’t remember the entirety of the objection because I tuned out pretty quickly. There was a lot of “You’ll get distracted. You’ll write derivative stuff. You’ll mix up your words and the lyrics. You’ll taint the art.”
My usual response to this is, “We all have our own process, man.”
I will not say, “This is the best music to listen to while writing,” or “I think you’ll find this inspirational.” I’d probably even hesitate to say, “Listen to this,” unless I know you personally. These sorts of statements are too presumptuous for my comfort. I expect they come from an attempt to share, but fail to take into account different tastes, moments, and experiences. It is an “all about me” disguised as an attempt to connect to a “you.”
So—now I’ve groused about making prescriptive declarations…in a very prescriptive manner. I apologize for that particular bit of hypocrisy.
What, then, do I like?
I'm genuinely interested in knowing what inspires people. I enjoy peeking into process and if music plays a role in it, that’s great. I might check it out to see if I can pick up a mood. I am always happy to learn about odd leaps and connections.
Own it, I say. Personalize it. Let the audience do their part on their own terms. Common ground is there, but it takes at least two to establish it.
Back to our regularly scheduled program…
There are times when silence is the only thing I want, but most of the time I like some kind of noise. Instrumental music is best for me while I write. Voices and lyrics are distracting.
When it comes to prewriting and world building and all that, anything goes.
I’ve written a few of short stories that have close ties to particular songs. I needed a song to wake up to in one, a song to establish time period and atmosphere in another, and a song to represent a certain attitude in a third. I’m not giving particulars here.
One of the first lessons I learned (after making a total rookie mistake AND submitting it) is that you really can’t mess with lyrics. Copyright rules are mostly beyond me and I’ve tried to stay as far from it as I can. I can only hope that I’ve understood correctly, and that it’s okay to name an artist and a song title. I can only hope that my tendency to follow MLA rules for titles won’t create confusion. When I put a song title in quotation marks, I’m not quoting it. I swear.
I’m sympathetic to wanting to keep ownership of your work and with wanting compensation for it, but there’s another part of me that is just aching to be able to use a snippet or two. Music is such an important part of my life and is a powerful tool to connect with readers. I mean, if you’ve read Stephen King, for example, you know how he does it. It’s great.
But I’m not Stephen King. I don’t have the pull and the cash to pony up. I need to be both crafty and respectful.
I’ll hide it in the text and in my process. I’ll listen to singles over and over again to get the mood right. I don’t mind taking a break during writing a short story for a little inspiration.
I usually make a special playlist for longer works. I have a great time doing it and I think it helps me flesh out a world and characters. Spotify is particularly good for this sort of thing because I can access so many different kinds of music.
My first novel length manuscript (alas, unpublished) had a soundtrack filled with a lot of jazz and blues mixed with dollops of hip-hop and punk. I was going for a sort of bent neo-noir and it fit. I had themes picked out for certain characters and moments. I would often listen to selections from the playlist just before writing for the day.
Sometimes, the music moves from the background and is carried into the text itself more directly.
My first manuscript opens in a strip-club. Music is a key facet to the experience of that setting. I wanted to try to engage a reader’s senses and I wanted to experiment with ways to reveal character. I decided that a dancer’s choice of music could be personal. As a bonus side effect, I discovered that focusing on the music helped me to get through the descriptions of movement and dance—something I’m less comfortable doing.
Here’s a passage:
The dancer was a lovely albino. The only color on her was the pink of her eyes, and the rosy gloss on her lips. She let the audience get their fill—her mouth lifted up slowly into a knowing little smile. She stood motionless and commanding, until her music began.
As the first few notes of "Incense and Peppermints" hit his ear, she began to dance. He wondered if the choice of song had anything to do with the band performing it: Strawberry Alarm Clock. He hoped so, deciding to take it as a positive sign.
She lifted her arms skyward, and twisted her whole body to the music. The action lifted her breasts up and down. The grinding motion of her hips was in harmony with the rest of her movement.
She dipped down low; her thigh muscles engaged, creating a beautiful concave line. Jack found himself intently watching her inner thighs. His eyes remained fixed on their smoothing planes as she drew herself back up. Every movement she made commanded the audience. She led them like a master conductor.
She whirled around, revealing a prominent photorealistic tattoo of a strawberry nestled in the small of her back. It was the size of a man's open hand, and was so vibrant, so red against her pale skin that it shocked the eye. Jack found himself wondering what it would taste like.
I hoped that the primary images would be visual with the potential for an auditory element. If a reader knew the song the music might play on a mental soundtrack. If a reader was unfamiliar with the music, they could check it out or skip it entirely. In a pinch I could cut it, but I also liked weaving Strawberry into the choice. It is the kind of play that the dancer, Yelena (aka The Strawberry), would enjoy.
I tried to get variety in the scene by approaching the music in slightly different ways. I needed to buy my protagonist a little time and I wanted to show another facet of character. Here’s another excerpt:
The music changed once again, and the stage lighting cooled to blue. Jack went still. The selection was actually one of his all-time favorites. He never thought he'd hear it in a strip club.
The song was, "Fishermen, Strawberry and Devil Crab" from the Miles Davis, Gil Evans reinvention of Porgy and Bess.
He’d recognized it from the very first notes of the alto-flute. The music was, as always, haunting and slow, romantic. It spoke of longing. Yearning. Sadness. The sound of Davis' trumpet pierced him as it always did. Jack closed his eyes for just a moment, letting the sound wash over him.
When he opened them he was captivated. The Strawberry danced, and he felt as if they were the only two people in the room. She projected no awareness of being on stage, did not give even the slightest hint of acknowledgement to the audience. Her movements were sensual, liquid, and spoke of deep reserves of strength and control.
I tried to convey a clearer sense of mood and sound. It makes sense on a basic level because the piece is an instrumental. I also figured it would be a slightly more obscure choice so it would need a nudge. (I listened to that whole album obsessively while I wrote that manuscript. It is still a favorite of mine.). Music keeps appearing throughout the story, but is strongest in that section.
All of it might be exactly the kind of thing an editor would cut. It may slow down action or stand in the way. It may be self-indulgent. I don’t know. I do know that it helped me get through the scene and that it felt good at the time.
I think it set a kind of precedent for me.
I’m working on my second novel-length manuscript right now. I began as I have before with creating the playlist. This one is filled with traditional Irish music, modern Irish and Celtic bands, Calypso, Rapso, Soca, Reggae, and punk. What can I say? I love punk. It has been all about getting in touch with the first of my main point of view characters. I expect when I get into the second section and my other main POV, I’ll be developing another list.
It’s all part of the plan.
What I hadn’t anticipated was the turn I took because of music. I had one of those sudden bolts of inspiration. I realized that music, or more specifically the rhythmic elements of music, were going to be key to the magic. It changed the flavor of my original idea, but it was just the AHA! I needed. It opened up the story in a cool and unexpected way.
Now I have to keep that music under tight control. I need to watch for drag, for namedropping, for excess. I need to make the beat hit.
It's should be great fun.
There you have it. That’s just one glimpse into one part of my process.
I’m going to continue to play with music. I’m going to build my playlists. I’m going to peer at my friends’ lists when they share them. I’m going to be excited to read the great stories that come from them.
I’m going to hit PLAY.
Thanks, as always, for reading!
(Also, hopefully it is all clear, but I too am interested in retaining rights to my stuff. All the writing and the stories on this blog are mine. Copyright invoked, etc. and so on.)