I am still reveling in the publication of “Dissonance” (and if you haven’t read it, go do so, now), and since it’s relevant, I wanted to take some time to talk about music in writing. If you didn’t know this already, music is very important to me. I’ve played the clarinet since I was eleven, and I enjoy singing (though usually in the shower). So it stands to reason that music works its way into almost everything I write. But for me, music in writing is a two-fold concept, and I’m going to talk about both aspects here.
First for the obvious part, literally writing about music. I’m not talking about stories that are solely about music—though I do have several of those kicking around. I’m talking about the role music may play in a story. When you think about it, music is a huge part of our culture. You can’t go anywhere without hearing it, and it affects you. You have favorite songs and songs you like but don’t want to admit you like and songs that oh my God if you hear them again you are going to yank your ears off. Why shouldn’t it be the same in your writing?
I have stories where the entire world’s magic system is based on music—like “Dissonance”—and I have a novel series I’m working on where the main character’s magic operates through music. But it doesn’t have to be so big and grand at all. In almost all my other stories, my characters have songs that hold special meaning for them, and beyond that, music is always part of the world—whether fantastic or real. It is played on street corners or in restaurants and stores or over the radio in the car. People sing, hum, or whistle, or they tap their toes in fingers in time with whatever song is going in their head. It is music’s all-encompassing presence that I try to incorporate into my stories, even the stories that aren’t about music at all (though it’s considerably less encompassing for those).
This is all well and good, you might say, but how can you pull it off without being obnoxious? No one likes it when authors include singing in their stories. Before I read Lord of the Rings, I never understood this viewpoint. I liked songs in writing. Then I read Lord of the Rings, and I got it completely. I was less than a quarter of the way through the book when I was like, “oh God, if there is one more song, someone’s gonna die!” My trick is to keep it short—no more than six lines at a time. If I have a longer song, I break it up with description of what the characters are doing or thinking or feeling. If there’s a chorus, I intimate that it will repeat, but don’t actually write it out. I also make sure that it is relevant—to the story, to the character, to the setting, something—relevant in a way that can’t be accomplished just by describing the music.
The point is, music is a huge part of our world and our culture, so I try to make it part of the worlds and cultures I create in my stories. But believe it or not, I’m not always writing about music, which leads me to the other aspect of music in writing I want to talk about, because even then, there is music in my writing.
I’ve seen a lot of writing advice given about finding your voice as a writer, and I never really got that, honestly, because I try to develop a different voice and style for each story I write. What’s important to me is finding the musicality in the writing—the rhythm of the sentences and the lyricism in the words you choose. This is why I believe that reading out loud is such a fundamental part of the editing process, because it springboards your words off the page and into life. It doesn’t just show you places where your prose need smoothing, it lets you hear the music of your words, which are the heartbeat of your story. If you can manage it, read out loud to other people, because they might spot something you don’t.
I don’t believe there’s one right rhythm for sentences (in fact one of my friends and I always seem to have just slightly different ideas of what sounds good to us). I don’t believe that only certain styles produce lyrical prose. I don’t even believe that lyrical prose is always called for. But I do believe that music and writing are not separate entities. I believe that they are, in fact, so tightly entangled in each other that it would be difficult to separate them. Even if you aren’t writing about music, the music is in the writing.