My Novel-in-Progress Needed a Soundtrack.  Yours May Too.

music-books

To be honest, it initially struck me as absurd, the thought of creating a soundtrack for a novel, let alone my own novel-in-progress.

After all, a book is, well, a book.  It is static and non-visual beyond the fact of seeing a print or e-book’s typewritten words.

To me, it made little sense trying to apply techniques used in visual arts (most notably motion pictures) to a format that most definitely isn’t a picture (this despite the fact that very good books can indeed succeed in creating vivid pictures in the reader’s mind).

Furthermore, how could I possibly create a musical representation of that which, for a very long time, didn’t fully exist?  That is to say, not only a completed first draft of my historical fiction novel (which in reality spans three separate novels to form a trilogy), but also a clear understanding of what the entire thing is really – really – about.

Still, for years I’d observed that numerous writers that I follow created soundtracks for their novels, both multi-published authors and up-and-coming newbies still hard at work on their first drafts.   These literary playlists would end up posted on the writers’ blogs, and sometimes even on music subscription sites like Spotify.

I just didn’t see how doing so could possibly help me, at least in any sort of novel way (pun intended).

Minor difficulty

itunesMusic already helps my writing every day that I do it.  From my earliest days of working on my WIP trilogy back in 2004, and my incomplete, shelved fantasy novel before that, I’ve always listened to music while writing.

This usually ends up being New Age, instrumental, and movie score music (e.g. Enya, Medwyn Goodall, Yanni, Hanz Zimmer, Future World Music, etc.) – a holdover from my university days and what I found easiest to study and write essays to.

The researching and writing of historical fiction that I do today is little different.

Some writers, I know, want nothing to do with music while they’re working.  They can’t concentrate with that sort of background noise, if any.

Personally can’t not have writing music.  So long as it’s stuff I already know well, it sinks straight beneath my conscious awareness.  It serves as a distraction to my subconscious mind, coaxing it release the ideas and insights it’s been hiding from my conscious mind.

But it’s because of this fact that I wound up with a novel soundtrack in spite of myself – a whole collection of songs I could imagine play in the background were novel made into a movie or TV show.

It happened last year while I was drafting the third book of my trilogy.

The entire process of writing a trilogy felt like it was taking forever.

In a way, it sort of was: I wrote book #1 in just a few months while unemployed and still flush with the joy of new story love in 2005.

I wrote book #2 in a bit over a year while working full time, but not for six years later.  At the time, I wasn’t even aware there would be a book#3 until #2 grew well beyond the bounds of a single volume.

In addition to how much time had passed and how quickly, in spite of all my outlining, I was secretly afraid I wouldn’t actually get to the end of the story.  That what I’d set up would lead to an irredeemable mess.

In other words, my mental game was seriously down for the count.

Music for encouragement

My foray into a novel soundtrack thus began as a means of keeping my spirits up through the long months of finishing book #3.

Because I’d outlined, I had some key scenes in mind that I anticipated someday writing.  I’d often daydream about these scenes, particularly during times when I should have been writing other scenes.

I’d watch these candy scenes like a movie in my head, all the while studying the angles and props and action and imagining how I’d put it into prose when the time finally came to do so.

While doing this, since I was already writing to music, certain songs ended up superimposed atop what I was seeing.

Be it the lyrics (in those songs which had them), the rhythm, the melody, or just the way I felt when I listened to them, certain songs just fit the scene.  Eventually just hearing each song would recall the corresponding images to my mind, no matter what I was doing at the time.

In this way, creating a novel soundtrack can inspire a writer to keep going during the darkest, toughest parts of the writing process.

A novel soundtrack can help get you ready for writing.  You can listen to it as you’re waking if you’re a morning writer, or on your way home from work if you write in the evening.  It can put you in the proper mental state by serving as a portal between this world and the made-up world of your story.

It can also help you even when you’re not planning to write anytime soon.  You can listen to it throughout your day – at work; while on errands – to keep a part of your mind connected to your story even when not fully immersed in it.

The two preceding uses are especially beneficial to those who don’t listen to music while actually writing.  Those who do write to music, however, can of course do so to their music, using the novel soundtrack as a tide to buoy you along to each successive plot point like a sailboat out to sea.

Or, if you’re a bit of an ascetic like me and do well with some temporary deprivation, you can stop listening to certain songs in your soundtrack for a while.

This is what ultimately got me to the end of book #3.  Rather than have my soundtrack convey me along in the narrative, I used each song a reward I could only have after its corresponding scene was complete.

When it came to the song that represented the story’s big reveal, for example, I literally stopped listening to it for almost a year.  I X’ed it out of my iTunes master playlist to ensure it would never play on its own, even if I listened to every other song from the same album.

Thus by the time I finally started writing the scene, I really wanted to hear that song again.  It was my desire to do so all along that carried to me the precise moment when I finally could.

Music for visualization and inspiration

A soundtrack can also help a writer better envision a story or a scene by providing the blueprint for an arc of emotions.

Composers of movie scores and soundtracks know all too well that music makes it easier to perceive emotional cues in a motion picture.  A writer can use this to his/her advantage as well.

Every song tells a story, even if it’s only three minutes or less in duration.  As such, letting music guide your visualization of your own story can help you hit the various highs and lows of action and reaction, of victory and defeat, particularly if you start with the right song.

A few months ago, I dreamt about being captured as a slave in an ancient desert kingdom and winding up literally in the middle of a violent slave rebellion.

This dream has really stuck with me due to both its visual clarity (which is very unusual for my dreams) and because I want to know the rest of the story and have been struggling to figure it out.

Recently, hearing this song by Future World Music has been helping me visualize a bit more of it.

I find instrumental music particularly helpful in this regard, for there are no words to impose a given meaning to the melody, which better allows you to make it your own.

(I clearly did this with the above song, even though it already lacks lyrics.  The cover of the album, also titled Behold, depicts a futuristic space theme.  Yet the moment I heard the song, I immediately saw deserts and sandstorms).

But really, any music will do so long as it inspires and conjure something meaningful in you.

Do you listen to music when you write?  Do certain songs represent certain scenes or events in your novel?  If so, consider posting a song link in the comments.

(Image source #1 and #2 – J.G. Noelle)

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11 thoughts on “My Novel-in-Progress Needed a Soundtrack.  Yours May Too.

  1. I read a long time ago that the music for the film Conan the Barbarian (1982) was written and recorded prior to principle photography, which is far from the norm (a film usually isn’t scored until after a fairly complete cut exists). Supposedly, director John Milius played composer Basil Poledouris’s score as he filmed scenes the music would later be placed over so the actors could synchronize their movements to it.

    Conan is far from a brilliant film (it’s pretty silly most of the time), but one thing that works brilliantly is the marriage of action, movements, and face expressions to the music. If nothing else, it’s one of the best movie scores ever recorded.

    I don’t know what this has to do with your post exactly, or if I have a point, other than to say that music and storytelling have a strong relationship.

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    • I haven’t seen that version of Conan but what you write makes me want to. Or at least listen to the score. I have a great love sci-fi/fantasy movie scores – especially when the composer manages to do something a bit different from the usual – and some of the crappiest movies often have great accompanying music (the first live-action Transformers movie; the movie The Host, based on Stephenie Meyer’s novel; Oblivion).

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  2. I must have the silence of the tomb.

    What little available brin I have is brought to a complete halt if there is music to listen to – ergo, no writing.

    Enjoy your music – lots of writers do what you’re doing, and find it helpful, possibly assists creativity.

    I don’t get to listen to music at all, unless I’m just listening to music – and that is usually while I’m doing something completely mechanical like cutting up dried fruit for the chinchilla or filling pill boxes.

    Two neurons: one for breathing, the other for everything else – listening, writing…

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    • I must have the silence of the tomb.
      How did I know you were going say that? lol

      Gotta do what you gotta do, though. In truth, I listen to music all day long – different types for different tasks. But again, it generally has to be stuff I know well while doing things that require my concentration. This is why I find podcasts difficult to listen to, even though there are so many great ones out there. I can’t do anything else but listen, and I’m almost never not doing something else.

      By far, my favourite place to listen to music is in the car. I like to sing as well. Loud.

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  3. I’m finding it increasingly harder to write battle scenes without corresponding music. Sometimes there’s lyrics, sometimes not. I’m always picking apart rpg soundtracks for this, they’ve the best fighting music.
    But when it comes to dialogue, I need the music low or off.

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    • You definitely want something dynamic to write battle scenes to. I used to go either way when it comes to lyrics while I was writing my first draft. Now that I’m revising and actively working on the structure and rhythm of my sentences, I’m finding lyrics too much of a distraction, Right now, only instrumental will do.

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