Soundtracks, Silence & What Good Writing Needs: Music & Writing #3

I’ve heard of writers developing soundtracks for a book-length project.  Some even print a playlist as an appendix or on their blog or give a shout out to specific bands in the acknowledgements at the beginning of the book.  I’ve always thought that was a cool idea, but have never tried developing a soundtrack.  Nor have I, say, listened along to an author’s suggested playlist while reading the book.

But I like the idea.  Like it a lot.

I can’t focus on any one selection of songs long enough to develop a single soundtrack or playlist for a given project.  Almost constantly, I move around within a limited range of genres – folk, psychedelic, jam band, jazz, Texas troubadours.  Any project that takes longer than a week or two will be accompanied by lots of Grateful Dead followed by lots of Bob Dylan… only to skid off the tracks into rough and raw field recordings of Woody Guthrie or Leadbelly or some such.

Again, I like the idea of sticking with a handful of songs and letting their rhythms and moods seep into the words, into the soul of the project I am developing.  There is something, I don’t know, simultaneously organized and rock ‘n’ roll about the idea.  (And, let’s face it, I am neither of those things.)

If anything, the music of the Grateful Dead has been the most consistent accompaniment to any of my creative projects.  The Dead have taught me about taking risks, being willing to fail, and going with the flow, about opening up, expanding, lifting off, about blending and mixing.

At the other end of the continuum is the writer who works, as a rule, in silence.  I might be so hot to get something down that I forget to turn on the music or I might get so deep into the flow I don’t notice that the music has stopped.  But any sustained effort will more than likely have an ever-shifting selection of music, lots and lots of music. 

In a continued effort to get a handle on a session I will be teaching at the Writing in Place Conference this August, I asked five more writers about their relationship with music.  Below are their bios, the questions, and their responses.



Ed Greenwood is the author Falconfar and the forthcoming Elminster Must Die!, among many other books.  A prolific game writer, Greenwood created the Forgotten Realms setting, which has been used in the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game and as a setting for hundreds of novels.

Ian C. Esslemont is the author of Night of Knives, Return of the Crimson Guard, and the forthcoming Stonewielder.  His novels are set in the Malazan Empire, a fictional world co-created with Steven Erikson.

John Jeter is the author of The Plunder Room.  He and his wife own The Handlebar, a small music venue in Greenville, SC.

Jackie Kessler is the author of the Hell on Earth novels and co-author with Caitlin Kittredge of the the Icarus Project novels, including Black and White and Shades of Gray.

Caitlin R. Kiernan is the author of The Red Tree, A Is for Alien, and The Ammonite Violin & Others, among many other books.  In the late 1990s, Kiernan was the singer and lyricist for Death’s Little Sister.



In what ways do you or have you used music to enhance your writing and creativity?

Ian C. Esslemont:  Some writers I know demand temple-like silence for their creative process.  Others seem to thrive amidst the chaos and chatter of cafes.  Myself, I need music.  In fact, I must have music to write.  I cannot claim that the flow, the mood, and the rhythm translate from the music into my prose – perhaps not at all – but I find it a great help in my creative process nonetheless. 

What it does seem to give me is impetus and energy.  It also seems to help dissolve the room around me thus helping to seduce me into the dream, that “willing suspension of disbelief,” that is the act of writing and reading. 

So far, as I work on any single piece, and the months pass, a particular soundtrack of favored music seems to develop for each.  For one recent novel it was pretty much the soundtrack of Kill Bill


Ed Greenwood:  Music is the great soother, and mood-alterer, drowner-out of unwanted noise, and can be an aid in concentration. I say “can be” because it has to be the right music, which varies for each of us. I can use grand overtures or scary music or hauntingly eerie music or achingly sad music to “put myself in the mood” for writing scenes or passages that match those emotions.

For me, however, I dare not do the actual writing to the accompaniment of such music, because it fools me into thinking I’ve fully and richly conveyed those emotions onto the page, when I haven’t. (I know this doesn’t necessarily hold true for other writers.)

John Jeter:  As co-owner of a live-music venue, I’m exposed to all manner of music as performance art, creativity, expression — and writing. Some of the best songwriters in America have performed in my concert hall and seeing them and hearing them and their songs have helped me in big ways.

Watching an artist put it all out there, give it all up, lay herself totally open and on the line in front of a mass of people inspires the artist in me to be just as vulnerable. While theirs is a very public display of craft, writing is a solo enterprise (unless you share your work with friends, colleagues, spouses/partners, etc.).

Plus, watching/listening to a sprawling array of genres expands the mind and offers broader and deeper clues into my own personal creative potential, offering “permission” to take risks, push boundaries, experiment.

On the business side, the musician’s life has to be equally as brutal, if not worse than the writer’s. Writers, at least, get to stay home (tours are pretty much toast). Rejection still abounds for both, and yet the art remains the goal.

Jackie Kessler:  In the Hell on Earth series, music was essential. Part of that was because the main character was an exotic dancer, so when I described her stage sets I really wanted the readers to feel the music the way that she felt the music. So I’d play specific songs to help envision her sets.

But more than that, some music really helped capture a specific mood, or the general atmosphere. In the second Hell book, the main character summons a demon. As she waits for the demon to appear, I played Depeche Mode’s “Pimpf” again and again to help me feel the building urgency, the growing sense of something dark about to happen.

When I was writing my second YA novel, I played tons of Nirvana. (One of the characters looks exactly like Kurt Cobain.) I’d also play certain songs (from Shinedown, Breaking Benjamin, Three Days Grace, etc.) to help with specific moods…especially highly emotional scenes.

Right now, my working theme song for the third YA is Linkin Park’s “New Divide.” It’s just perfect.

Caitlin R. Kiernan:  It’s rare that I can write in silence, without music.  I use music to create and sustain mood and voice while I’m writing. I’ll admit that I’ve used alcohol and drugs for the same purpose, but I tend to find that music is both more effective and less detrimental to my health.

Before I begin a short story, I find an appropriate “soundtrack,” music that matches the intended mood of the piece. It might be a whole album, or it might be a single song. Sometimes, I’ll listen to one song fifty or more times while I’m writing a single story. A story’s “soundtrack” might consist of music from one artist or from several. For example, I just finished a short story called “Tidal Forces,” which took me five days to get out, and it was written to a few songs from Radiohead’s The Bends, and How to Destroy Angels “A Drowning,” and two or three songs off the Editors In This Light and On This Evening. I do the same thing with novels, though any given novel might require dozens of artists, many dozens of songs.

I suppose I really do think of the songs as a soundtrack. I’m writing, not making film, but, in effect, in the movie in my mind (because what I write is always a movie in my mind), these songs compose the films soundtrack.


And/or what has music — listening to it, seeing it live, playing it, writing it, whichever — taught you about writing fiction?


John Jeter:  Listening to singer/songwriters has taught me an enormous amount about the economy of words, the poetry that can be applied to prose and the importance of Show/Don’t Tell in creating vivid, image-laden stories within a tightly confined structure. Songwriters such as James McMurtry, Bruce Springsteen, Fred Eaglesmith, Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen, Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark (what’s with Texas?) and many more are masters of the story-song craft. All of those artists create miniature music videos in their songs, with tightly drawn (and often Steinberg-esque) characters and settings. When I “see” precisely what words these artists choose to show their stories, I can apply the same principles in my own narratives.


Ed Greenwood:  That the pacing and flow of narrative is of paramount importance. It’s not just what’s said, it’s how it’s conveyed. Over the years, I’ve heard many “standards” (from medieval airs to rock anthems) done by various performers, and although we all prefer this version or that version, if you stop to think about why you prefer this or that, or Element A from Version 1 but also Element B from Version 36, it tells you about your own preferences but also about what “works” (and doesn’t) in particular situations of communication…which of course can be applied to one’s own writing.

Jackie Kessler:  Go with the feeling. That’s a big one. Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up with: “Is this the best way to move the story forward?” Just as important is: “Is this how I should be feeling when I’m reading this?” Words need to evoke feelings; done properly, they carry their own melodies. Just like something’s got to happen, the reader has to make a connection. Trusting in the music can help you trust in the words. Play the right music, and see what words come pouring out.

Caitlin R. Kiernan:  This is a hard question to answer, because I think it’s hard to point to simple one-to-one correspondences, and it’s hard to answer this without oversimplifying things. But I can say that there are singers and songwriters and bands that have taught me a great deal about rhythm and the poetics of prose. I study, consciously or unconsciously, the cadence of a song, and apply to my fiction. Some of them have had a lasting effect, genuinely shaping how I write, how I fit words together. In this category, I’d put R.E.M., David Bowie, Kate Bush, Nick Cave, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead — it’s a long, long list.

Then there are musicians who seem to be very important for a brief time, or at least a limited time. They allow me to experiment, and show me how to do this or that, but then the experiment fails or I just move on. The Sisters of Mercy are a good example of bands in this category. Tales of Pain and Wonder was written between 1994 and 1999, and the band is all over those stories, but I pretty much never listen to the Sisters anymore, not for the last decade. I’ve gone somewhere else. I’ll go back to them sometimes and try to use them the way I used to, because that sound was so potent, so consistently efficacious, but it simply doesn’t work anymore.

Then there’s a third class of musicians, who are utterly brilliant and definitely inform my work, but I absolutely cannot write to them. They’re just too good, and I’m too distracted by their words to focus on my own. Tom Waits and Patti Smith fall into this class.

Anyway, the point is, I’d say I’ve learned as much from songwriters about how good prose should sound as I have from writers and poets who do not intend for their words to be set to music.


Ian C. Esslemont:  I won’t descend into extolling any one genre over another for music to write by – that is too much up to personal taste.  Whatever gets the job done, I say.  I will however put in an appeal for variation.  Just as in one’s reading I think you should avoid the same thing over and over.  Try other genres, experiment, freshen the pallet every once in a while.  I guess you could say it’s kinda like travel.  Trying other genres in reading and in music broadens the mind. 

And I think that’s what good writing needs.

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