Dancing my plot with a playlist
A friend recently commented that a lot of my playlists re-use songs. He’s right, particularly since many of the lists I’ve been sharing lately are based on some of my writing lists2. That’s because I assign some songs to particular characters. Or I assign some songs to particular character combinations. For instance, I use the Matt Goss song, “Evil” if I’m working on a story or section of one of the fantasy novels when the characters of Madame Valentina and the Zombie Lord figure prominently; because the song’s lyrics sound like something that Madame Valentina would say to her former friend and comrade-in-arms about why they are no longer friends. Other songs represent something a bit more abstract and just wind up in lots of playlists.
I listened to music while writing long before having a program that could play pre-programmed lists. And I even had playlists, of a sort. I used to make myself mix tapes3 on cassette. Like the playlists now, they were often meant as sort of a soundtrack for a project I was working on at the time. Before I had that technology, I used to like to listen to certain albums on vinyl while I wrote4. But more often I listened to the radio, where I had no control on what music would come up.
I’ve had multiple friends comment that they can’t write at all while listening to music that has lyrics. They can only write to music if the music is only instrumental. They mention this because they are confused when the vast majority of my writing playlists are made up of songs (often dance, pop, or rock songs, but queercore, baroque pop6, and broadway style musicals7 figure heavily as well) that have lyrics. I attribute this ability to two things. First, the fact that back when I was 11 years old9 and such I listened to the radio while I wrote. But another factor is familiarity. I usually only put songs that I know relatively well into the playlists, which means I don’t have to spend a lot of brain power parsing the lyrics when I hear it.
But even when I put new songs that I have only just discovered into the playlist they quickly become familiar. Because—and this is something I only realized recently is different than the way these friends use writing playlists—I don’t just listen to the playlist while I’ve actually writing. I listen to the playlist to get me in the mood to write a story. By which I don’t mean I sit quietly listening to the playlist hoping that I’ll eventually feel like picking up the keyboard and getting to work. No, I listen to the playlist during the day at the office, or while riding the bus to work, or while walking home, and so on.
I mentioned above that some songs function as themes for some of my characters or certain relationships, but I also have some songs that are essentially theme songs for specific subplots, or story arcs, or even specific plot twists. It’s not that I sit down and think, “Okay, this moment here needs a song,” it’s more that I’ll hear a song and find that when I listen to it it makes me think about that bit of the story. So I add the song to one of my existing writing lists; or I take subsets of several existing writing lists plus this song that hasn’t been in one of the lists before, and put together a new one. Which is another reasons that some of my lists repeat songs in other lists.
I know that I’m not the only person who uses inspirational playlists this way. But clearly the idea of listening to a writing playlist other than when you’re writing isn’t an obvious one. And it is true that sometimes I find, while I’m actually writing, that I need to switch to something other than the new writing playlist I’ve been listening to recently. There are times when I’m focused more on the words than the story. But that doesn’t happen often.
I think that might be another difference. I’ve always had a little trouble understanding why some people get so hung up on what to write next. Particularly when they describe struggling to find exactly the right word, or that a particular sentence kept coming out awkward. Because writing isn’t about showing off your gigantic vocabulary. It’s storytelling. And you can tell any story, even a new and unique one that is yours and yours alone many ways. This is sort of an extension of an idea that Stanley Fish talks about in his excellent book, How to Write a Sentence. Fish argues that the basic tool of the trade of a writer is the sentence, not the word, because words don’t take on their exact meaning until they are put in the context of a sentence, right?
The important part of a story aren’t specific sequences of words or astonishing turns of phrase. The story is about the characters confronting a problem, how they react to it, how they grow (or fail to) as they endure the slings and arrows of the tale. It’s about how the reader feels about those things. It’s about how the reader is moved by the events, what those events mean to the characters, and the state of each character as they reach their final fates.
That’s why lyrics shouldn’t distract you. Because good songs speak to your emotions. And emotions and events are what you need to be focusing on while writing your story. The words are just how you get there. They aren’t the end, they’re the means.
Put on your headphones, queue up some music that makes your heart and soul want to dance. Then, start writing.
1. That’s right, I used iTunes for three years before I owned my first iPod.
2. I very very occasionally publish lists of the songs on my blog. I slightly more often zip up all the songs in a list and share the file with friends who express interest.
3. Other people made mix tapes to get to people they were romantically interested in or already dating as a way to express their feelings. I assembled tapes of songs for myself.
4. Once I had my own record player, I could put a stack of vinyl albums on the spindle, and it would play one side of each album one after the other. It only held three albums5, but it was a way to build a very primitive sort of playlist.
5. The big stereo in the living room could hold five or six albums in a queue!
6. For instance, Rufus Wainwright or John Grant.
7. Yes, I’m the kind of queer man who listens to musicals! So sue me!8
8. It almost goes without saying that I appeared in musicals in school, but the truly frightening thing is that I’ve written a musical!
9. I decided to become a writer when I was four or five years old, after Mom responded to my question about where books come from. I wrote my first “book” when I was six. I learned to type at age 10, and wrote a lot of short stories on my mom’s Easter Pink Smith-Corona Silent Super typewriter until, just before my twelfth birthday, my paternal grandmother gave me her 1952 Remington Let-R-Riter. I owned my own typewriter! And I went crazy with the writing.