Every (Fictional) Life Has A Soundtrack

I’ve come to realize I’m not one for writing or talking about my “process”. There’s plenty of other places online you can look to read about “process”, and there’s plenty of people who are happy to share what their process is. They’re all interesting and informative, and also contradictory and probably of little use to you.

Ahem ...

Ahem …

That’s because they’re talking about their process; they aren’t talking about what process works best for you.

Some insist on powering through the first draft and revising after it’s finished; others swear by revision as you go.  Some obsess on word count or pages per day; others are concerned only with “good” pages. Some brave souls rise at 5am and write for three hours before starting the day proper; others write in the evenings when the day is done.

Point being, you have to find a process that works for you. And what works for you will probably work for nobody else but you.

So here’s a piece about my process. Please feel free to ignore it.

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For me it begins with the idea. Sometimes it’s a well-conceived idea; other times it’s just a rough sketch of one. From there I think about whose story “my” story is; the characters. Male or female, child or adult – I’ll try various combinations and complications before settling on POV. From there, assuming the story I’ve put together is any good, and the characters I’ve conceived are going to be interesting enough to follow, I clear the decks, close my door and start writing it. I outline before I draft, I treatment after I outline, I look for leaks and plug plot holes the best I’m able, and once that’s done, I start writing. Because if I don’t, this happens:


But before I do any of the above, I listen to music. Music may in fact be the most important part of my process. If I haven’t decided on what music I’m going to write to, chances are I won’t be able to do any writing, and what I do write will be shit.

Okay maybe not shit, but difficult.

My favorite approach to this is to assemble a playlist or mixtape to accompany whatever particular project I’m working on.  This is music that gets me into “the zone”, but more importantly into the character’s heads.  I’ll tailor a playlist to a specific character, and use the songs I choose to illustrate their personalities, their hopes, their fears, their everything. I’ll create several such playlists for any given project, and I’ll listen to them when I’m focusing on a particular character or subplot.

There’s a couple of reasons for this. The first I already mentioned; to get into the characters and the world they inhabit. But the second is more basic; to get me going. Because sometimes you just … can’t … get … into … the writing part of writing. You have lousy sleep or a lousy day, you’re at one of those points in the story where you’ve lost the plot.  You want to do anything but write.

That’s where the playlist comes in. Because you’ll sit there and you’ll listen to it, or you’ll throw it on your iPod and go for a walk, and pretty soon the story will come back to you. And once the story comes back to you, you find you’re able to write it down.

Now, this music doesn’t have to be of the period the project is set in. In fact I’d advise strongly against that. The reason you create a writing playlist is not to be authentic but to be real. To connect with the characters and the story on an emotional level.  So unless you grew up listening to Civil War era grassroots music, using that music to score your Civil War era story is going to make it a dry museum piece. Ask yourself what your characters would listen to if they were alive today (and seeing as they are your characters they are alive)? Would they be into rock? Punk? Country? Hip-hop? Try and see them as living, breathing people, not just words on the page and an idea in your head. Put yourself in their headspace and assemble a list of songs that relate to them, their trials, their troubles.

A long-in-the-works project of mine is a murder mystery set in Renaissance Italy. It’s a novel, my first (unpublished, though if anyone’s interested …), and it was written primarily to 60s British Invasion and 90s Britpop. There are two main characters, each with alternating perspective chapters. One was 50-something, the other a 20 year old. Any time I was writing for the older character I lived on a steady stream of Rolling Stones, The Hollies, Manfred Mann, and the Yardbirds. For the 20 year-old, it was Blur, Oasis, Elastica, Inspiral Carpets, Happy Mondays, and so on.

Pictured: a renaissance man

Pictured: a renaissance man

A screenplay I wrote about famed a WW1 Flying Ace was written to early 90s alternative; grunge mostly, but a lot of Pogues, Dropkick Murphys, early U2, Depeche Mode, and Duran Duran. I wanted to capture a feeling of excitement in the lives of Billy and his fellow fliers, all young twentysomethings taking to the skies to vanquish their enemies. Because a substantial portion of the screenplay dealt with the after effects of being the most famous killer in the world, I balanced fast paced rock with more introspective music for the quieter scenes.

There are other examples. A suspense thriller I’m currently writing is being scored to a lot of Madchester era music, which is appropriate given the main character has walled herself off from the world and is living in something of a nostalgia bubble, so it made sense for her to be into the music she was into as a teenager.  A thriller I wrote for a prod co about an EMT on the edge had a lot of 70s Punk in the mix – The Diodes, The Demics, The Clash, The Ramones. Music that reflects the thoughts of a main character living on the edge.

And obviously, there’s Mixtape. A lot of people have asked about the role of music in writing a particular issue, and I’ve talked about that here and here. But the shorthand of Mixtape is every issue has a mixtape; a 14-15 track playlist assembled by whatever character is front and center for that issue. I start with the playlist in a lot of cases (I only really cracked issue #4 after cracking the playlist), but sometimes the playlist results from the plotting, as if the character assembled their mix in the aftermath of the events dramatized. Since I outline each issue with a great amount of detail anyway, by the time I’ve settled on the story itself I’ve got the playlist ready to go.

That all being said if your particular project is of a  period where music – contemporary music – is available, use it. If there’s an emotional component also, even better. A TV pilot I’m penning right now is set in the 1950s, so naturally that playlist is comprised of 50s Rock and Roll. This works on both levels for me as I grew up with that music, not because I was around in the 1950s, but because my parents were.  That was the music they grew up with and I grew up with it by osmosis (and on long rides in the family station wagon). Listening to the music the characters in this TV project would be listening to helps me understand them better, whether the scene or scenes I’m writing are being mentally scored to The Platters, Etta James, Ricky Nelson, or Elvis.

Not this Elvis. That's a different project.

Not this Elvis. That’s a different project.

Now, things I’m not a fan of using are movie soundtracks or scores. I know a lot of people swear by them, screenwriters in particular. And there have been times when I’ve thrown on chase music when writing a chase scene, or fight music when writing a fight scene. But the problem I always run into (and I’ll admit it may be a personal thing) is that the images I associate with that music – Indiana Jones chasing a truck, Batman chasing The Joker – are images crafted by somebody else, and those images have a tendency to infect whatever you’re trying to write.  Now there are worse crimes in movie making than riffing on something someone else has done to great success – and to be blunt, it makes what you’re writing a much easier sell.  But as I’ve become a more seasoned, confident writer I try and step back from those influences. I figure I have my own stories to tell, so why try and duplicate what’s been done, subconsciously or not?

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So that’s it, really. That’s my process and it probably only works for me. But maybe it’s worth a shot if you’re stuck on a plot point, or something with your story that just isn’t working for you. Or maybe all you need is white noise to keep you from getting distracted. The point is you need to find what works best for you, and stick to that. Don’t let people like me or anybody else tell you what you’re doing is wrong because it’s not wrong; it’s right for you.  As long as what you do works for you it’s better to stay on that track than try and write like someone else.

Because they already do that.  Your job is to write like you.