I recently watched a YouTube video by Gingerreadslainey where she talked about how she makes a playlist for her writing. I suggest you check that out here. It got me thinking about the way I use music in my own writing.
Music can slip its way through my ear, up to my brain, and into my fingertips to guide the words that go click clacking across my keyboard. It sets a tone that can be irresistible to my imagination. That’s why I have to be careful what I’m playing when I’m writing or even brainstorming. Music is all well and good when it’s inspiring the correct tone, but it can just as easily inspire the wrong one. I do use music, but I am generally purposeful about it.
First, when I’m brainstorming an idea, I will often put on Pandora, or just shuffle my own music, and let the ideas come. This is something I like to do when I’m cleaning around the house because, not only can I get more done while also working on writing, but I find that the activity often helps my brain function. When a song hits, and I start to envision a scene for my story, I grab a notecard to jot down the song and anything that I can think of about the scene. Later I shuffle these notecards around to make a full story and ta-da! I’ve got myself an easy outline. I also have a playlist all ordered and ready to go.
The added benefit of this is that often when I hear those same songs again later, I get shoved right back into the story. This is particularly helpful when I need to go back for revision after a long break from the story. I have a tendency to want to move on to the newest, shiniest project. I may have forgotten why I ever liked that old story in the first place. And then I hear the playlist and it all rushes back.
On a side note, this is how I made up stories before I even started writing. When I was a kid, I loved to think up new stories that happened to characters from my favorite movies and tv shows. Yes, fanfiction would become a major thing for me in the coming years, but even before I knew what fanfiction was, I would make mix tapes and play them over and over again while picturing the story in detail in my head. That was how I would go to sleep every night—like telling myself my own bedtime stories.
You would think that it would have been a straight path from doing this method naturally as a child, to using it as an adult, but not so much. It actually took me a shockingly long time after I started writing novels to figure out that this could work for outlining. Like an embarrassingly long time. Like, I’m 33 now and it’s only been a couple of years that I’ve been outlining this way.
Some paths aren’t straight, okay? Some roads are winding with detours and roundabouts, and I personally take a lot of bad turns. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I get lost easily.
I do something similar when I’m developing character’s backstories, though I generally am not doing chores. Instead I have a notebook or a computer out in front of me and stare at the wall (or out a window or at the cat, etc.) until a song gives me some inspiration and then I just start writing. I keep hitting repeat as long as I need to. I’m grateful for headphones, because I’m sure my husband would get real annoyed hearing the same song a dozen times in a row. I certainly would if I wasn’t completely focused on my story.
I like to write little vignettes about events in my characters’ pasts. They don’t have to be long. They don’t have to be well written. They don’t even have to be complete. These aren’t for anyone else, just me. Writing these snippets of backstory helps me to learn more about my characters in a way that feels organic. I don’t feel like I’m sitting there making things up, even though in actuality that’s exactly what I’m doing. But it feels like the stories are just wafting toward me on a summer breeze. All I have to do is reach out my hand and catch them. That’s what true inspiration feels like to me. The surest way for me to get there is through music.
There are times when I haven’t made a specific playlist for my story, that’s okay, too. I mean it’s not quite as good, but it’s fine. Instead what I do is I will typically pick a Pandora station that has music similar to what I might want for my story and just let it play. It’s not tailored to each scene, but it still helps me get into the story. For example, in 2017 I wrote a novel about pirates and I used a station based on the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack. I ended up listening to a lot of epic/adventure type scores for movies and tv shows that were exactly the vibe I wanted for that book.
Currently I’m writing a series of novellas that are set both in modern times and in the 1920s, so I’ve been listening to a lot of Postmodern Jukebox. Which, if you don’t know is a band that plays modern songs in an older style. I would say the styles vary from 20s to 40s, but I’m not knowledgeable enough about music eras to really be able to say “Hey! This sounds like the 40s! It’s no good for my story.” It all pretty much works for me.
So that’s how I use music. Sometimes I curate a playlist; Sometimes I don’t. Either way, I almost always have music playing in the background.
Do you use music in your writing? How do you build a playlist? Or are you someone who needs complete silence in order to work? Or maybe you prefer ambient noises instead? Let me know down in the comments!
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