Why You Should Make a Playlist for Your Novel


There are lots of ways to write a novel (and about as many opinions on them). Bird by bird, or one word/sentence/page at a time, as Anne Lamott would say. Butt in chair with dogged diligence. Or quickly and without self-judgment in a condensed timeframe, like during National Novel Writing Month. I won't try to tell you the best way to write a novel. But I do have one small tip:

Make a playlist. 

Now, this might seem less like an activity to boost your writing and more like an unnecessary way to procrastinate. It is actually both. But if you do it well, the scales will probably tip to the side of productivity. 

You've probably made playlists or mix CDs or, if you're as old as I am, mix tapes. These are carefully curated to enhance an experience (road trip!) or to express something to their recipient (loooove), or merely to keep your favorite summer jams all in one place so you can turn it up and let it go without having to constantly skip tracks that kill the vibe. 

Music manipulates our emotions in a visceral way. We don't just think, "Huh, that's sad," when we hear a somber ballad. We actually feel sad. As Stephen Jenkins of Third Eye Blind said in "Semi-Charmed Life" (my JAM in 8th grade), the four right chords can make us cry. Novels aspire to that kind of emotional potency. It's a pretty tough challenge for words alone. 

There are, of course, craft essays and books on how best to write emotional narratives. This is not that. This is simply a case for using music to create and maintain a head space that allows you to quickly anchor yourself in the world of your story. 

Think about your characters. What do they yearn for? What scares them? What are their relationships like, and how do they feel about themselves and others? Are they optimistic and loyal? Have they suffered unbearable loss? Are your characters acoustic indie songs or shiny pop?

Now look at their world. What is the setting? Present-day or past? What is the dominant culture or relevant counter-culture? Does it rain most days, or is it so hot airplanes can't take off? Is the world disco or big band or hip hop?

What are the primary, big emotions that run through the narrative? Is it a suspenseful story? A thriller? A comedy or romance? Do you want readers to feel scared? Do you hope they'll cry tears of joy at the book's climax? Are your big plot points an action film score? Are they blues?

Thematically, are you writing about love, death, technology, nature, travel, ambition? Whether it's the sound or lyrics that match, are your themes R&B, folk rock, or country?

It's pretty simple really. What music feels the way your book feels?

Start with songs you already listen to and like. Do they fit? Then browse. I like to click around Spotify categories and explore based on mood. My musical taste tends to match well with my writing (even, at times, my love for One Direction). I also look forward to my Spotify Discover Weekly, a new playlist each week created based on the songs you've been listening to most. I made a playlist for my current project several weeks ago, and now my Discover Weekly is usually pretty honed in on the right genre and emotional feel, so I don't have to search much to add to my playlist. And I add to it regularly so I don't get sick of the same 12 songs. Currently, it has about 100 tracks. 

The obvious way to use your novel playlist is to play it as you write (assuming music doesn't completely distract you). A well-selected song can quickly put you in the perfect emotional head space to begin writing. A long playlist can provide an extended submersion in that space to help you maintain a particular mood. 

However, I have found that mine helps even when I'm not writing. I drive around town with my music on, and I find myself thinking about what's going on in my story, problems I need to solve, where the story could go, or what reactions my characters might have to certain events. My playlist keeps my story on my mind so that I work on it even when I can't sit down and write. I listen to the lyrics, and they inspire an exchange of dialogue, an image. 

Even if you don't end up listening to your playlist that much, making it can be a useful activity to help you better understand the world you are creating. 

My playlist on Spotify, uncreatively titled Milo & Quinn after main characters, is for a novel-in-progress about coming back home, starting over, and renegotiating what it means to love. It's about family and about growing up, finally. The playlist feels, to me, like a hand sailing outside a car window, like running hard through a downpour, the inches between fingers that want to touch. 

What would/does your playlist look like? What other ways do you tap into the right emotional zone for writing?



Melanie Sweeney BowenComment