Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Music and the Writer

In my bio, I refer to myself as a media junkie. I am, truly, a bit of a junkie when it comes to many forms of media: movies, television, books, magazines, but the one form of media that truly lives like a monkey on my back is music.

I listen to music every day. So naturally, I must listen to music when I write.

If you are one of those writers who must have absolute silence while writing, or for whom music is too much of a distraction, then feel free to skip this blog post and move on with your life.

Still with me? Fantastic.

Headphones or Background Noise?

Depends on the location.

If I'm working at home, I will play music in the background, either on the big stereo (when I'm downstairs) or through my laptop's speakers if I'm in my office.

If I'm working at a coffee shop or some other location far from home, I wear headphones and use my iPod. (I'm not much of an Apple fan, but I do love my iPod Nano.) I also use headphones when I'm not alone at home, to block out the sounds of my kids and whatever they're doing. (Otherwise, I slip out of writer-mode and into Mom-mode.)

Blues, Rock, Classical, Dubstep?

Depends on the project and genre. Music most definitely sets the tone when I'm writing, so I need the tone to match the mood of the place I am immersing myself in for the current story.

When I write Horror, I usually listen to dark bands like Staind, Soundgarden, and Audioslave, or slip into either blues or heavy rock.

When I write Science Fiction (especially if I'm writing cyberpunk), I tend to listen to Dubstep and Electro House mainly from Skrillex, Deadmou5, and Klapex. Though I have been known to slip into some rap or dance music, but I won't publicly admit which bands here. (If you know me, you know which songs I like, because I play them all the time.)

When I write Fantasy, I often turn to classical music (mostly Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven), but if that doesn't get the juices flowing, I go with whatever I've most recently downloaded to my iPod. Generally, I never go more than two months without buying new music.

Isn't the Music Distracting?


As a matter of fact, I can concentrate significantly better when I'm listening to music. Having music in my head makes me feel at home, as though everything is right with the world.

Routine Trigger

In his book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer Bruce Holland Rogers talks about using the same routine before you sit down to write. In his case, he lights a few candles and then sits down at his computer. In my case, I choose my playlist, pop in the headphones, and that is my cue to get to work.

Just like one of Pavlov's Dogs I have been conditioned to believe that headphones-in-ears means work-must-commence. Remarkably, it also works when I begin a task like gardening, or going for a run or a bike ride -- once I choose the right tunes and put in my headphones, I generally get to work.

The Playlist Matters

What is this playlist thing? For those of you who might be new to MP3/iPod lingo, a playlist is a list of songs that are a subset of the giant list of songs in your portable music storage device. Essentially, it's like putting your own personal album together, with all the songs you want to listen to today. Put in "old fashioned" terms, it's like making a great cassette tape of your favourite vinyl record songs. (Yes, I am that old.)

When I'm working on my novel, I tend to make a long playlist and whenever I work on that novel, I listen to that playlist. It's a way that I keep my head in the same space, even if it's been days (or weeks, or months) since I worked on that project. Hearing that collection of songs puts me back in the place I need to be. It's remarkable how quickly and easily this transition happens for me.

Every year when I begin NaNoWriMo, I will create a new playlist, and that will become a working playlist for the new novel I intend to work on. Often, that playlist sticks with that project for years after.

You're Starting to Sound a Bit Obsessive, Suzanne


Structure makes human beings comfortable. That's why newborns need to be on a schedule, why school classrooms run on scheduled time slots for subjects, and why most people follow the same routine every morning to get themselves out the door and off to work. For me, music is a key component in my daily routine, and my keep-projects-on-track routine.

I know I'm going to have a bad writing day when I forget my iPod in the car, and am a slave to whatever songs the coffee shop happens to play over their speakers. In those cases, I'm almost better off eavesdropping on the conversations of patrons, so that I might get some dialogue ideas or story nuggets, because I'm going to struggle with my ability to focus on writing.

Please Share the Magic Write-a-Bestseller Playlist!

Young padawan, you must discover this elusive list on your own.

Sorry, to those of you who were hoping I would spell it all out for you.

Try to imagine your current story as a movie. If you were sitting in the theatre, watching the story unfold, what sort of music would be playing during this scene? Something suspenseful? Romantic? Energetic? Poignant?

That is the music you might want to listen to while you're writing the scene.

Isn't it expensive buying all of these CDs/iTunes songs?

I consider it an essential cost of doing business. Besides, a song costs what? Ninety-nine cents, or maybe $1.29?

I buy most of my CDs at second-hand store, The Beat Goes On. They have a fantastic system, where you can add the CD (or DVD or video game) you want to your "wish list." They will email you when this CD arrives at one of their stores and you can then order it and have it shipped to your house (or if you're lucky, like me, you can pick it up at the nearest location.) Cool, eh?

They totally rock, I kid you not.

If you've been having trouble focusing when you write, try a little music on for size. The stimulation might double your output.

Do it now
Design three playlists:
- one of songs that get your blood pumping, for action scenes that drive the plot forward
- one of sad songs that make you cry every time you hear them, perfect for killing off a beloved character
- one of a third category, more specific to your genre (Romantic? Horrific? Scientific?)

Now write a scene while listening to one of these playlists and magic might just happen for you!

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