The other day, I was listening to David Arkenstone’s “The Painted Seals” on my iPod, when I looked up and said to my parents, “If I ever have a book that gets made into a movie, I want this guy to do the score.” This struck my parents as an unusual thing to say, until I pointed out that many of my writer friends pick out their ideal casts for the possible movie of their books. Having an ideal cast for your novel does a lot of things. It gives you visuals for your characters, and it can also help you narrow down some basics about your characters’ personalities—if you pick an actor who always plays a certain type of character or a certain role in a movie, then you’re saying something about your character. But creating an ideal cast for the hypothetical movie of my novel has never really worked for me: Besides the fact that I can never remember actors’ names, the visualization is sort of a problem, but that’s an entirely different topic.
So I work with music. I create soundtracks and scores for my projects, and I listen to them while I’m writing.
I’m a very musical person: I sing in my college’s community choir, I’ve played clarinet for twelve years, and before that, I played piano for ten. I also come from a very musical family. Everyone in my family can play an instrument and sing. My older brother was the lead in all the musicals in high school, and don’t even get me started on my cello prodigy younger brother.
But being a musical person and coming from a musical family is only part of it. Yes, I identify with music as a tool to help me focus my writing, but I’m certainly not the only one. This Writer’s Digest post about writing routines that work talks about using music as inspiration and focus. There are projects like David Arkenstone’s album Music Inspired by Middle Earth or The Hunger Games Music Project. And most of my friends make playlists of some kind or another to listen to as they write.
What interests me is that there doesn’t seem to be one tried and true method for this. What sort of music inspires you really depends on who you are and also on what sort of project you’re working on. I know people who have playlists for specific characters, and I know other people who have playlists of songs that capture moods, themes, or specific moments in stories. Some of my friends use solely instrumental music, or don’t use instrumental music at all, or use a mix.
What I do honestly depends on what I’m writing. At first, I thought that I always did the same thing for each project, but I’m starting to realize that’s not true. My playlist for the memory wiping academy novel is a mix of instrumental songs and songs with words, while there are no strictly instrumental songs in my playlist for the small child wizard novel. For both playlists, I have arranged the songs in such a way that for me they tell the story. I never shuffle these playlists and always listen to them in order.
For the World War II Italy novel, on the other hand, I have a giant collection of all the Italian music on my iPod in one playlist, including Italian pop and light rock, Italian Disney songs, the soundtrack to Life Is Beautiful, and two albums of fascist marches—oh, the glory of what you can find on iTunes! I almost always shuffle this playlist, and I listen to it more for the mood than for specific plot points. This might be because my outline for this project is still pretty sketchy, and maybe I’ll go through and make a more coherent playlist as I flesh out my outline and start to write, but right now, this works.
There are so many good things about using music when you’re writing. For me, songs contain little stories and moments in themselves. Specific songs that I associate with specific points in my work can help me focus in on what I’m trying to accomplish. What is the ultimate mood or arc of this chapter or scene or even this moment? What are the characters doing or thinking or feeling here? What part of the ultimate theme should come through?
It’s hard to describe exactly, but on a larger scale, I feel like my playlists for my two fantasy novels have a sort of continuity in the type of music and the feel of the music, and if a song jumps out as not quite fitting with that, maybe that says something about what I’m trying to do at that point in the novel. I’ve even discovered repetition of earlier themes in my playlists that I hadn’t noticed before and decided to play up in the actual writing. For example, in the small child wizard novel, the first song in the playlist is “One Jump Ahead” from Aladdin, and later, its reprise represents another character’s point of view. Beyond helping me focus in on parts of the story I already know occur, I’ve sometimes even been inspired by songs. I included “Do You Hear the People Sing” on my memory wiping academy novel’s playlist because that specific song and a joke someone made about the implications of my characters going caroling ultimately helped me figure out how my climax will play out when I get there.
I don’t want this to come across like I rely on music exclusively for these things. I don’t. I do visualize scenes like a movie in my head. I’ve tried drawing my characters, which hasn’t gone very well. I’ve considered writing a chapter in script form to see how it would be different—though I haven’t actually done this. I did once translate the first few paragraphs of a story into Italian, which was a really interesting exploration of words and what words mean and the ultimate meaning I wanted to get out of the beginning of my story. Most of the time, if I have a problem, I find myself talking my way through it rather than turning to my music. On the other hand, listening to my playlists while I’m writing helps put me in the right mood and get ready to crank some words out and have fun doing it, which is ultimately the reason I write.
(Title Quote: “I’ve Got a Theory/Bunnies/If We’re Together”)