Playlists for Plotting: How music helps me write #amwriting #writing #mondayblogs

Similar to lots of jobs

Sorry if I’m shattering any illusions here, but being a writer is hard work. In lots of ways it’s a job like many others.

You have to turn up at your post. You have to put in the hours. You have to produce some sort of result.

Sometimes it can be tiring, frustrating and nerve-wracking.

At other times it’s invigorating, rewarding and morale-boosting.

And as long as there are more of those good times than the not so good then you’re motivated to keep going.

A different way of working

But working as a novel writer also has some unique aspects to it – or if not unique then they’re shared by only a few other professions.

Firstly, it’s a job where you have to work on your own. Even if you work in collaboration with another author, it’s still only you who can write your contribution.  You can’t share or delegate.

Secondly, you’re the boss. You’re answerable to you – and so it’s easy to let yourself off the hook. ‘Not in the mood? Don’t feel writing several thousand words today? Rather wash the windows, sort your sock drawer, play around on social media? That’s okay. You’ll easily catch up when you’re in the mood.’ But of course you won’t. You’re procrastinating and the novel won’t write itself.

And thirdly, even when the spirit is willing and you’re at the desk and keen to get going, it can be hard to know how to proceed, hard to shut out the world and hard to stay in the zone.

The magic of music

And that’s where music comes in. I find that background music really helps me both get in the writing zone and helps me stay there. I don’t necessarily even hear or at least actively pay attention to it as I’m writing, but if my concentration does go then it’s the music that brings me back on task.

The plot playlist

That’s why I compile a playlist for each of my books. And it’s amazing how just hearing that first track gets my brain where it needs to be and the fact the tunes continue to play in the background helps to keep the real world at bay.

So, today I thought I’d share a sample of five tracks from each of the playlists I used for the first two books in my Skye series of novels as well as some from the one I’m currently using as I write the third book in that series.

Displacement Playlist

And I love you so – Don McLean

Lon-dubh (Blackbird) – Julie Fowlis

Meadowlarks – Fleet Foxes

You are the best thing – Ray LaMontagne

I’m gonna do it all – Karine Polwart

 

Settlement Playlist

Mad World – Michael Andrews

I still care for you – Ray LaMontagne

Your Ghost – Greg Laswell

Wherever you are – Military Wives

The sound of silence – Disturbed

 

Fulfilment Playlist

Wicked Game – Chris Isaak

It’s always been you – Ray LaMontagne

I could never say goodbye – Enya

Fuel to fire – Agnes Obel

In our tears – Secret Garden

 

All the tracks on my playlists are atmospheric, evocative and appropriate for the feelings, moods and ideas I write about. These are just some of them.

If you click on a song title you’ll be taken to the track on Youtube where you can listen to the song for yourself and see what you think.

Do you find music helpful when you want to concentrate on something? Or is it distracting – if so what does help you focus?

 

Theme Tunes for Writing

Music to make masterpieces by…

 

Since my youth, and yes, I know that’s going back a bit, I’ve always preferred a bit of background noise when trying to concentrate. And when I say noise, I mean music.

Music has always helped my brain get, and remain, focussed on any task requiring the use of what passes for my intellect. I don’t always hear every note or lyric. Indeed a whole album can play out and all I’ve consciously heard is the first few bars of the first track. But just having it playing away in the background has maintained my concentration. I know if there’d been complete silence while I worked, my mind would have wandered.

I contributed a guest post on this topic on writer, Roz Morris’s, blog back in 2014 and this is a more in-depth look at the subject.

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The ancient past

When I was studying for exams, both as a high school pupil, and as a university student, my *portable record player would be belting out my latest *LP. By the time my final exams loomed, my *hi-fi-stereo-cassette player would be doing the job. It would play *compilation tapes consisting of favourite tracks from several LPs (or from Radio 1’s Sunday night Top Twenty in the *Hit Parade show) as I tried to commit to memory the names, facts and figures I’d be required to regurgitate in the exams. Thank you Beatles, Stones, Bowie, Pink Floyd, 10cc, Carole King, Janis Ian, Simon & Garfunkel – to name only a few.

And then, around twenty years after that, whilst studying for my Masters, it was my *CD-Walkman that provided the background music. Yes, it was mainly The Verve and The Lighthouse Family who got me through the writing of my thesis on Early Literacy and How Children Learn to Read.

*if the asterisked terms mean nothing to you, ask your parents or grandparents for an explanation. They refer to music related artefacts from the electronic Stone Age of the twentieth century, many years B.I.(Before Internet).

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The present day

And nowadays, music still has an important role in getting me started and keeping me on task when at my writing desk. Now of course it’s played from the music folder on my PC. And I have playlists dedicated to my writing.

Unlike in the past when music aided my learning and studying, it now gets me in the writing zone and keeps me there––and it also inspires me.

For each of the three novels I’ve written to date and for the one I’m currently working on there’s a specific set of tunes.

So no matter how heavily procrastination, self-doubt, or lack of inspiration are weighing on me, just those first few notes of the first track of the relevant playlist gets me started. It transports me instantly into the atmosphere of the story or the head of a particular character. And although, just as it was when I was studying, I don’t consciously hear every note or track the music in the background keeps me in the writing zone. Indeed, at times when my concentration lapses and attention strays, it is focussing on the music that gets me back to composing those sentences. And even more than that it can be a part of a lyric or a musical theme that actually provides inspiration. For example it might clarify for me what motivates a particular character, or how they might be feeling. It might also help me set the tone or describe the mood or setting for a particular scene.

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How I think it works for me

The background music isn’t acting like a tone poem or movie soundtrack in reverse; that is where the music is written in direct response to a story or a movie in order to enhance it or reinforce its depiction.

It’s not that I hear a character and their story in a song and then write a longer novel version about that character. And neither am I transcribing and interpreting an entire instrumental piece into a chapter or novel. (The copyright issues alone would put me off, quite apart from it being quite beyond me and it not being what I’m using the music for).

No, it’s more subtle than that – or maybe subtle isn’t the right word. It’s probably, at least partly, something as simple as a Pavlovian response. It’s about how the music makes me feel, it’s about the psychological effect, a sort of conditioning almost. So when I hear that song, I really can’t help but be transported right into the heart of the work-in-progress. And then maybe we’re into more subtle psychological territory with the background melodies, harmonies, cadences and rhythms keeping the brainwaves synced––or something–– and maintaining the concentration.

Do you find music helps or hinders you when you’re working?

 

My Musical Muses

Below I’ve included a few examples of the many tracks that have helped me to get my three novels written and to maintain progress on the new one.

Change of Life

My first novel had a fifteen track playlist and included:

This Woman’s Work by Greg Laswell

Wilderness by Bat for Lashes

Gossip in the Grain by Ray LaMontagne

Lay Lady Lay by Bob Dylan

And I love you so by Don McLean

Displacement

When writing my second novel I sometimes used the Change of Life playlist as well as the dedicated fifteen track set which included:

Man of the World by Fleetwood Mac

Fix You by the Military Wives

It’s Getting better by Mama Cass

Not Ready to Love by Rufus Wainwright

Home by Zero 7

The Silver Locket

For my novel for children, it was a twelve track list and if you thought the others were eclectic, this set is a very weird mixture.

On Battleship Hill by P J Harvey

Even the Ravens Mourn Over You by Peter Ostroushko http://www.peterostroushko.com/

Gortoz A Ran by Denez Prigent

Michaelswood by Catriona McKay & Chris Stout

Baba Yetu by Lucas Richman, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra & Soweto Gospel Choir

Settlement

And for the work-in-progress, which is a sequel to Displacement,  there’s the biggest yet playlist of twenty-one tracks which includes:

I Still Care For You by Ray LaMontagne

Everything I Own by Bread

Make You Feel My Love by The Military Wives

Nocturne by Secret Garden

The Ashkovan Farewell by Ungar & Mason