Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Work-in-Progress Wednesday: Music as Muse

If you've read my books, BALLADS OF SUBURBIA and I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, you know that music plays a huge role in my writing. Music drives and inspires Emily. It gives Kara a much-needed emotional outlet. It does both of those things for me. When I listen to a song, I see a story. IWBYJR is a prime example of that. In the song that I named the book after, Sleater-Kinney sings of a girl who wants to be the queen of rock 'n' roll. I wrote that girl's story as I saw it. Many people ask if I am a musician. I'm not, but I've often daydreamed of it. Emily is the girl I wanted to be. Kara from BALLADS is the girl I was. I spent most of my teenage years surrounded my music, whether it be shut in my room with the stereo up as loud as I could get away, walking around with headphones in, driving around with music blasting, or going to shows. The songs I loved tapped into my emotions on such a deep level. They knew me better than I knew myself. They helped me release pent-up anger or sadness.

Now, as a writer, songs help me tap into the emotions of a story: themes, characters, a particular scene. When I was an angsty goth girl writing horrible short stories, I used to have this routine where I had to write with The Cure's Disintegration album on. Oh and there was also candlelight. You can laugh, it's okay. I do when I think back about it. Oddly enough after that I could rarely listen to music while I was writing though, especially not in the early stages of the first draft. Usually music provides inspiration before I sit down to write or keeps me connected to the story when I'm not writing.

While I'm shaping my story, I'm on the lookout for songs that remind me of my characters, story, or particular scenes. When I find them, I add them to a playlist. I tend to arrange that playlist to match the story, so if a song speaks to the overall theme or in some cases is going to be one I quote at the beginning of the book, it goes first. For example, if you look at my IWBYJR playlist here, it starts with the song "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" by Sleater-Kinney. Then I put the songs that match up with particular scenes or emotional moments for a character in the order that they happen in the story. My playlists are literally like soundtracks. They follow the story arc. For example if you look at the BALLADS soundtrack here, toward the end you'll see "Down In A Hole" by Alice In Chains. That is my song for Kara's OD. (And this is not a spoiler because you know from reading the back of the book that Kara ODs.) I actually added that song to playlist pretty late in the game when I was doing my final revisions on the book, but I listened to that song over and over again as I tried to nail that moment. So, for me, playlists are usually a work-in-progress that grows with the book. Though it may seem like procrastination, sometimes when I'm stuck I do play with the order of the songs in my playlist because it's like playing with the structure of my story and it can give me insights.

As I said, I don't usually listen to these playlists while I'm writing. I use them much the same way I did when an album or band became an emotional crutch for me in high school. They are on my iPod and they go with me when I drive or run or ride the train. I play them when I clean the house or right before I sit down to write. Sometimes when I'm dealing with a particularly difficult scene, I listen to a certain song or part of the playlist repeatedly until I get into the zone.

There does eventually come a certain point when I am able to listen to music and write at the same time. Usually in the early stages this is a huge distraction, but once I know the characters so well that certain songs and bands no longer belong to me, but to them, I can listen to music while I'm writing, though I generally only tend to do this during certain scenes or when I'm on a writing retreat and need to either tune out the noise that people writing around me are making or the silence of an unfamiliar place. Even then, I don't tend to listen to a playlist, but a particular album or artist over and over again. When I was writing BALLADS, the artists were PJ Harvey, Screaming Trees, and Johnny Cash. While I was at work on the Bartender Book, it varied by which character I was writing. When I was writing Ivy, the still-stuck-in-the-eighties-goth-scene mom, I listened to Siouxsie & The Banshees early albums on repeart. When I was writing her punk daughter Zoe, it was The Gaslight Anthem and The Loved Ones.

It's also worth noting that my playlists have grown over the years. Perhaps music has played more and more of a role, perhaps I've just gotten more into iTunes and my iPod or perhaps it shows which books I've struggled with more, but the IWBYJR playlist on my computer (which is different from what I posted online because Project Playlist only had certain songs) is 22 songs, BALLADS is 36, and right now the Bartender Book is 40.

Last week I blogged about how my current WIP (The Modern Myth YA as I'm calling it) is a completely different animal because I've actually been plotting it and using Scrivener. My relationship with music while I'm writing has been completely different, too. Not only am I listening to my playlist while I'm driving or cleaning. I'm listening to it while I'm writing, too. This started out of necessity because I was on a writing retreat in November, but when I got home, it continued. I don't know if it's because I'm struggling harder than usual to get the book going and the music really helps me connect or because a lot of it is a different sort of music than I usually listen to or what, but my playlist which I've been listening to mostly on Spotify is up to 104 tracks and it is on CONSTANTLY.

Like I said the music itself is a lot different this time around. Many times my books draw from what I'm currently listening to or from old favorites. IWBYJR is primarily the punk and riot grrrl music I grew up on. BALLADS is punk and grunge. I was obsessed with The Gaslight Anthem when I started writing the Bartender Book, so that music fed it along with more punk and me reaching back to my own goth/new wave phase to tap into Ivy's character.

The Modern Myth YA is more complicated. At first I saw mainly the anger in my character, so I went to two artists that have fed most of my books: The Distillers and Hole. When I was first reimagining the book (as I believe I mentioned, I wrote a partial of it, but it was Not Quite Right), I listened to this Distillers song in particular over and over:

It worked, but as I kept writing I realized I was missing something. My character was more haunted than angry. Hers is a world that everyone thinks of is bright (Hollywood), but she lives in the shadows. I went back once again to my goth phase, but the darker side of it than I went to when I was writing the Bartender Book. These songs were really speaking to me.

Peter Murphy "Cuts You Up" relates to both my main character and her sister and is now at the very beginning of my playlist:

Switchblade Symphony "Clown" fits the end of the book:

And I found myself listening to Faith and the Muse over and over:

I felt like I needed more of this kind of music. It's something I loved, but hadn't really been in touch with since the late 90s. But I knew my critique partner Tara Kelly knew the kind of music I wanted well and since she'd been a brainstorming buddy, she knew the story, too. So when I went on my retreat and got super stuck, I emailed her begging for music. This is how I ended up using Spotify because she sent me 45 songs on there. They are perfect. So, so perfect. They transport me instantly to that world. Here are a few of my favorites:

I've also gotten really into Adam Hurst thanks to Melissa Marr.

And I've incorporated a few songs from my own music archives like these:

"City of Angels" by The Distillers especially because it pretty much sums up the L.A. that my main character is living in.

But yeah, all together I'm up to 104 songs on Spotify now, though I find Spotify mildly annoying for two reasons. One problem is that it doesn't want import some of my music even though it is in a compatible format, but the bigger issue is the commercials. Right now I have a free month of premium, but I can't really afford 10$ a month to be commercial-free and the commercials obviously really break my concentration. So I guess I'll be buying all the songs that Tara shared with me on Amazon or iTunes and going back to iTunes as my main playlist source unless you guys have some suggestions.

Do you make writing playlists? Do you listen to them while you write or do you find it distracting like I usually do? What song or songs are really speaking to you about your current project right now. I'm actually not sharing a WIP snippet this week because with all of those songs I almost feel like I told you the whole story. Seriously that's how deep my music and writing ties go!


miaohdeux said...

I love this post so much. Music has been a major inspiration to my writing - my first attempt at a novel (which is so horrible, but I'll always be proud of because it's how I learned and improved) was inspired by Ben Folds and Rufus Wainwright, as well as the soundtrack to Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella (because I'm a nerd).

My last three projects, however, have definitely had playlists and/or specific bands. One (which I'm now querying) had indie bands like Stars and Slow Club, with a little Stevie Wonder thrown in. The next (just starting to revise) was inspired by 60's and 70's groups like Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Beach Boys and the Kinks - though it takes place in the present, the main character's father is a DJ at an oldies radio station, so that's the music the MC grew up with.

I did NaNoWriMo in November and had a specific playlist for it. The story takes place in the mid-1990's, so I used a lot of 90's pop rock type stuff like They Might Be Giants and Green Day. Also, like your playlists, this was progressive - I made a copy for my friend and when we were driving downstate together at Thanksgiving I explained why I'd included each song and what was happening in the story right then. It definitely helped me stay motivated as I was banging out the first draft.

Like you, I don't always listen to music when writing - sometimes I will when I'm on a deadline for a freelance article, but I usually put on something I can tune out (if that makes sense). Also like you, the music that inspires me is playing constantly when I'm NOT writing, during the time that I'm writing the story.

I love hearing about the music that inspires people and their art!

Linda said...

Great post. I make writing playlists. It's part of my outlining process and I generally listen to music while I write. Sometimes if I find it too distracting, I might listen to instrumental music instead. My music taste is pretty eclectic and so are my playlists. My favorite one is comprised of The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, and Pink Floyd.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Loved hearing about your playlist, miaohdeux! I'm glad I'm not the only one who uses them so in depth :)

Linda, I love that it is part of your outlining process. It seems to be part of mine too but I never realized it!

Adrianne Russell said...

Music is so key to everything I do. If I'm in a bad mood, my husband will actually ask, "Did you listen to music today?" I make playlists for everything I write. Each character has one, the setting might have one and there are playlists for certain moods that I'm trying to convey. I seriously love the music you've shared in this post.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

I totally hear you, Adrienne! I'm the same with music and I think the playlist for the current book is so huge because it encompasses all those things, though you have given me the idea to break it down into setting, character and moods. hmmmm....

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