Now that NaNo is upon us, we’ve been flooded with a ton of advice, tips, and tricks. One of the most common ones (and sometimes the first suggestion I see on lists) is
Make a playlist
Darlings, for me…? That is just the beginning.
Since my first days of taping stuff off the radio as an eight-year-old, frustrated with final products where I belatedly realized that certain songs didn’t sound right together, I have been obsessed with the right combination of music, with pairing that music to activities. I had favorite records (yes, shut up, I am old) to listen to when playing Barbies or other games of pretend, depending on the narratives I was spinning out at the time. After all, one was not going to listen to the Peer Gynt Suites or Swan Lake when the tensions of the plot called for the Star Wars soundtrack or some funky, rousing disco tunes. And disco certainly wouldn’t work when my Barbies’ shoebox/covered wagon was journeying across the prairies.
There are certain songs that immediately snap my mind back to summer days setting up Barbie Cabins in the back yard, or to evenings staging galas in the Dream House. I spent many a Saturday listening to Casey Kasem’s Weekly Top 40 while huddled in my tree fort, pretending to be a runaway orphan. Even my record player stand had a space underneath that made a perfect Death Star detention cell for hapless Barbies. And every so often, I’d hear a song that seemed to lend itself to one of my doll-character’s personalities or situations.
(Confession: one of those songs was Frankie Avalon’s “Venus,” which appeared on a K-Tel album at the time in a disco version. My mom hooked me up with one of her old albums with the dreamy original version, and pointed out the movies with that adorable Mouseketeer from my mom’s own youth. This means when Frankie showed up as Teen Angel in Grease, I was WAY more impressed than the average pre-adolescent should have been.)
(Oh, and an important aside: of COURSE I’ve made playlists based off those old K-Tel albums, too. And have playlists with a TON of Annette Funicello.)
So for me, music + making up stories are intrinsically linked.
I also just have a ton of music. One of the worst things another person can say to me is “I don’t really listen to music much” or “I don’t have a favorite band.” It would be like saying “I don’t like food” or “No, I don’t have a favorite color” or “I guess breathing is okay.”
A lot of my academic work involves music, looking at intertextual references in favorite children’s books or works of literature, seeing how they inform us about the world in which the texts originated. I have thousands of songs relevant to American expats in Jazz Age Paris. James Joyce worked in a massive ton of contemporary music, including silly songs and jingles and bawdy tunes, that make his works less intimidating when you know about it. Series like Little House and Betsy-Tacy include dozens and dozens of songs and song lyrics, important parts of the stories as well as setting the historical scene for readers of different eras. And you can’t teach Jazz poetry without a comprehensive collection of recordings of old “race records,” which is the history of American music and pop culture right there.
But music is also just part of my everyday life. I get up, I turn on music. I switch tasks, and I switch music. One of my favorite games to play with friends or during a writing group is to issue the challenge “Pick a year” or “Pick an era,” and I’ll find something weird, interesting, cool, annoying, or awesome. I can attempt to select music based on a situation, so whether it’s a 1930s sorority tea, a day walking around London circa 1968, or The History of Protest Music, I got you. Beatles’ Background? Easy. MTV in the 80s? Done. 1906-1907? Sure, but do you want London, New York, Chicago, LA, or New Orleans?
Some friends call my passionate and unironic love of boy bands silly, but I know better.
So music and writing for me go together like rama-lama-lam-
I don’t just “make a playlist” for writing… I make multiple playlists, for different reasons, different writing circumstances. I have playlists to get into the mood to write. Or to immerse in their world. Leave my own. I have things to shift my own moods when I need to write something with specific emotional intensity.
Or, you know, a whole lot of fucking.
So some of the kinds of playlists I make that may or may not be useful to you include:
Soundtrack for the WIP
You can do this literally, and pick a dozen songs and put them in order to essentially score the action of your book. It’s a good exercise to think about pacing, too. You can feel the energy drag, or sense when you need a break. You can get a feel for the overall mood of the story, and figure out what the tone is at the beginning, middle, and ending.
Or you can just pile a hundred appropriate songs onto a playlist and hit “shuffle” and see how it all feels. All of these are relevant and useful.
Soundtrack for you the writer
Pre- or during writing. Upbeat or mellow. This actually grew out of my adolescent practice of writing in my diary at the end of the day, usually during sunset, pouring my thoughts and observations into an innocuous-looking notebook that hid in place sight on my desk in the ways that no cute DIARY blank book could. I had a regular rotation of songs that just somehow put me in the right mood… made me feel like the most ME me. Back then, I called those dreamy writing-and-thinking times “mellow sessions.”
It was a wondrous day when I got an all-in-one record player/tape deck, and could make my first mixtapes, and “mellow sessions” evolved into an ever-growing mix that I made at least six versions of, called “Misc.” The mixtape turned into mix CDs, and then a multi-CD set, until it became the glorious 400+ song playlist I have today. A significant number of the original songs and artists have remained even as I added new artists, new recordings, live versions. And yes, if I just need to feel like that slightly melancholy, all-in-my-head-and-feelings writerly self, “Misc.” does the trick.
A “desert island” track, for sure
Immersion in their world
These are my favorite playlists to make. This, really, is one of the things that writing is all about. These are some of the details that make fictional worlds believable. You’ve seen a few of them here, and it’s an important activity for me, whether it’s a historical or a contemporary, although it may be more necessary with the historicals. It’s even a peeve of mine when I read a historical, and there are only a couple of the most obvious, banal pop culture references to set the historical scene: “He swung her across the dance floor to the tune of ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’” “‘I just saw that new band from England, The Beatles, on the Ed Sullivan show,’ she said.” “The earl frowned and adjusted his periwig. ‘This Mozart fellow is a bit of an upstart, don’t you think? He’ll never last, mark my words.’”
Often, it will end up informing the characters and affecting the plot in unexpected ways. For example, when I started my first draft of A Scandalous Reputation, I knew that Margaret would be fond of “low culture” music, and that would have certain implications for a lady of her time and age and station. But as I compiled classical and popular music, hearing it together, thinking about which composers Margaret would have liked, how it was related to the art and the literature she preferred… it all gave me new insights to her as a character. Once she started actually playing the piano, not just listening but participating and creating, something in her character changed. “Piano thumping” was her secret rebellion, and, later, I inverted the oh-so-tired “brooding hero plays Chopin in the moonlight because he’s soooo deep and angsty” thing by having Margaret play classical pieces for Hal.
Playlists from the characters’ POV
This can be a beneficial exercise, too, and one that helped me a lot with my first YA novel when I returned to writing many years ago: make a playlist from one of your character’s perspectives. What would they listen to? How do MC1’s selections differ from MC2’s? Would they like each other’s music? What would they listen to while thinking about each other? You really get to know your characters when you interrogate them this way, try to think with their heads, discern their tastes and feelings.
This can lead to songfic, which can go multiple ways. Eleanor and Park can be read as a “songfic,” for sure.
One component of character/novel-based playlists is finding…
A lot of our fictional couples have “their song,” and sometimes the characters and story are even initially inspired by a song that becomes “their song.” At the last RWA regional meeting another writer told us that she listens her couples’ “their song” before she settles down to writing, in order to put her in their space, to focus on their relationship, what they love about each other, or what obstacles they’re struggling to overcome together. So yes, a lot of our couples have a “their song,” but I really like the idea of using it as writing prep.
My NaNo WIP is the YA/NA, not one of my Romance ones, so my MC has a “her song” or theme song or whatever you want to call it, and I need to try this trick as writing prep for this work, too.
Teen girl angst?
I have a couple of these playlists, one just children’s lit, and one more “in general.” (Fodder for upcoming blogs?) Basically, if a song references, is inspired by, or is titled based on a work of literature, onto this playlist it goes, and I’ll use it as source material for smaller, more comprehensive playlists. I’ve also scored stuff to use with my students; comparing the written poem “Richard Cory” with Simon & Garfunkel’s version is an easy compare-contrast essay topic, and leads to great discussions about fanfic, parallel versions, and adaptation in general.
Warning: there is a LOT of heavy metal music about Tolkien.
Timing for a sprint
I have several pieces that lend themselves perfectly to a 25 minute Pomodoro writing sprint for our IRL writing groups. Usually two Chopin pieces will get the job done, but I’ve got some Dvorak and Beethoven ones that work great, too. It doesn’t have to be classical, obviously. But the point is, pick out 25 minutes of music, put it on, and write until it stops. Ta da!
What about if you don’t like to write with music, though? One of my best writing group pals finds it impossible to concentrate with music. I’ve also had a few writer-friends that can’t write if the music includes vocals, though instrumental stuff is okay. Heck, I sometimes go through moods where music is distracting, and I need to change it up a little.
If you want to try a playlist or some kind of aural input, but don’t want to use music, here are some options:
Sound effects: Ocean waves. Raindrops. A cat purring. Gusty winds, birdsongs, a running river. There are entire YouTube channels dedicated to sound effects for background noise. Sometimes if I’m working on my YA, most of it taking place during a Nebraska winter in 1899, I’ll put on an hours-long loop of blizzard winds.
New Age “chillout” music: from lush fairy-and-elf arrangements to stripped-down pieces with little more than wind chimes and the occasional synth chord, it’s all there, some of it composed specifically to aid with creativity. Depending on where your story is set, you can pick Eastern or Western, contemporary or archaic, or inspired by ancient mythology or some futuristic space age.
Ambient mixers: Admittedly, the Hogwarts Common Room mixes have become cult classics in my academic circle. I have several ambient soundtracks set up for my novels: a winter storm on the prairie, or a walk to school through a railroad town … a rainy night in an English cottage, or a countryside ramble through the forest with a dog. I also have several writing-related ones, like a 1960s office with clacking typewriters, or a variety of cafe scenarios, from 1910 to now, Paris, Tokyo, New York, London.
What about you, darlings? Whatcha got?