A Personalized Soundtrack for Your Novel: Creating Writing Playlists

When I’m in the early phases of writing, I don’t plot. I don’t outline. I don’t write extensive character bios.

I create playlists.

Okay, so lots of writers don’t listen to music when they work. But I think there’s a big difference in having the radio on and listening to an well-crafted collection of songs that remind you of your WIP. Music can create an immediate emotional reaction and help you find the emotional touchstones within your narrative. Think about Jaws without that ominous base soundtrack, or that wordless sequence of Up without the touching score. (I’m tearing up right now.) Why not use that kind of emotional connection in your own writing?

Maybe you don’t have John Williams or Michael Giacchino creating your novel soundtrack, but you do have your own collection of music. Here’s how my playlist-making process went for The Chance You Won’t Return:

Step 1. Start thinking about your WIP like a cat considers a speck of dust–“Oh, I don’t really care about you, I’m going to look over here instead”–before you ultimately pounce on it.

The Chance You Won’t Return started with the idea “My mother thinks she’s Amelia Earhart.” I eventually started thinking that this was from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old girl who’s also the worst driver in Driver’s Ed and is suddenly getting the attention of a hot guy at school with secrets of his own. Beyond that, I didn’t exactly know where this was going or what would happen to these characters.

Step 2. Once you have some basic characters/settings/plot in mind, go to your music collection. Start finding songs that might connect with your WIP and create a playlists with those songs.

For me, this is my iTunes library. I had a few scenes written already, and a few more in mind, so I imagined them as if they were movie scenes and tried to match those images/tones with the right songs.

The first few songs that jumped out to me were pretty literal: “Lady Pilot” by Neko Case, “Dream About Flying” by Alexi Murdoch, “Amelia Bright” by Ben Folds, and “Someday We’ll Know” by Jonathan Foreman and Mandy Moore (with the lyric “Whatever Happened to Amelia Earhart?”). These worked pretty well as I was drafting, then…

Step 3. Find songs that hit the emotional core of your scene/draft/character. Add them to your playlist and hit shuffle whenever you’re writing.

The first time I remember really connecting with the first draft of The Chance You Won’t Return was when I heard “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem. I was trying to write the scene in which Alex first drives with Jim, and this song felt perfect for the scene–there’s a slow build to it, and a constant forward momentum, and there’s the sense of being swept up in something but also feeling kind of lost.

Eventually, as I started learning more about my characters and their stories, I started finding more songs that connected emotionally for me, like “Lonelily” by Damien Rice (which reminded me of the Winchesters and leaving/coming home), “Where It’s At” by Beck (which reminded me of Alex and her best friend, Theresa), and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” by Arcade Fire (which reminded me of Alex driving around with Jim).

By the final draft of The Chance You Won’t Return, I had 63 songs and 4 hours and 15 minutes worth of writing music. That’s a lot of time to be able to sit at the desk and not have any silence or any repeating song. Having a crafted soundtrack was a huge help in the writing process–I easily got into the right frame of mind, and didn’t get distracted by non-related music or noise.

Step 4. When you’re stuck, for other songs based on the songs you already have in your playlist.

When a scene wasn’t working for me, I’d go to a particular song that almost felt right for the scene’s mood and click “Create genius playlist.” iTunes would compile 50 other songs like that one from my library, some of which I hadn’t originally considered but were perfect and got me back in the zone.

Step 5. Listen to your playlist when you’re writing and when you’re not writing.

I’m someone who needs music while writing. It helps me shut out the rest of the world and dive into the emotional core of the story.

But sometimes a writing playlist can be just as good when you’re not writing. I would put on my The Chance You Won’t Return playlist when I was driving or walking around or on the T, and it led to some great brainstorming. Now, one of my favorite things to do is put on the playlist for whatever my WIP is when I’m traveling to conferences or retreats. It immediately puts me in the writerly frame of mind.

So maybe if you’re a pantser like me, a playlist can be a helpful tool in understanding who your characters are and where they’re going. And even if you’re not, it’s fun to have a collection of songs that remind you of your work and can get you in the writing mood at the click of a button. Or, you know, the dancing mood.

Annie Cardi lives outside Boston, MA, where she spends her time baking, creating alternate lyrics for tv show theme songs, and writing YA fiction. Her debut novel, THE CHANCE YOU WON’T RETURN, is forthcoming from Candlewick Press on April 22 2014. Her writing is fueled by copious amounts of coffee and chocolate.
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6 thoughts on “A Personalized Soundtrack for Your Novel: Creating Writing Playlists

  1. Pingback: Annie Cardi

  2. Love this post, Annie! I always need a playlist for my WIPs. Always. It helps me focus. Constructing a proper playlist can sometimes be challenging for me, so I find I often delete/add songs at various points in the writing process. Regardless, it’s worth the “effort” (in quotations because when is making a playlist not fun?).

    Great post! 🙂

    • Thanks, Katie! I’m with you on deleting/adding songs as you learn more about the story. It’s just like making character bios or (cough cough) giant webs of plot info–sometimes things change later in the writing process, but it all helps you get to know your book better, and it’s FUN. 🙂

  3. Pingback: My Current WIP | Rose B Fischer

  4. Oh my gosh! I was reading this and I didn’t even realize that it was you! Hello there!

    I’m wondering about the legalities of using the copyrighted material? Any thoughts on this? We’d like to share the music with our readers for the e-book my friend and I wrote.

  5. Pingback: 31 Days of NaNoPrepMo: Day 15 |

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