Thursday, July 26, 2012
Music to Write By
Maybe it’s a result of growing up as part of the TV generation, but from the start I’ve always felt most comfortable writing to some form of music. Radio or records or just the TV, I need some noise going on in the background. Not only does it inspire character and plot and get me into the proper mindset for certain scenes, it takes my mind off the writing just enough that I don’t have to think about how crappy the words I chose are or how ridiculous the premise is. When you’re writing stuff like paranormal or science fiction or horror, sometimes you don’t want to pay too close attention to what you’re committing to paper, because one little flash of logic can make it all fall apart. If it wasn’t for background music, I’d probably never get anything done.
My tastes are pretty broad, so I can write to a number of musical genres. I’ve typed or longhanded to classical, heavy metal, Broadway musicals, movie soundtracks, and that electronic stuff that never quite caught on. Yes, even to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Everybody of a certain age has a copy of that in their closet, right next to Frampton Comes Alive. I usually trot out SNF when I want to annoy the neighbors. If they wanted to annoy me, they’d play rap. Fortunately they haven’t figured that out yet.
The radio works in a pinch. My preference is rock and its many sub-genres. A lot of rock stations these days have gone classic, which is perfect for writing because it’s so easy to ignore. How many times can you stand to hear “Stairway to Heaven” before you tune it out? I like variety, so I’ve found a station that plays a nice mix of old school and new stuff. It provides those flashes of nostalgia while keeping me up to date.
Some people claim lyrics are too distracting. I don’t have that problem. A human voice provides needed company while I spend all those hours alone at the keyboard creating fictional lives. Who pays attention to the lyrics anyway? Who can even understand the lyrics, if it’s Pearl Jam or Nirvana? The only thing I could never write to was Howard Stern. I’d get listening to him and lose my focus. Once he went to satellite, my production increased.
Like I said, the radio’s plan B. I have an extensive collection of vinyl from back in the Stone Age and a turntable that miraculously still works. I pull a couple albums out, fire up the stereo and I can go for hours. Plus I get regular breaks because I have to get up and flip the record over. Win-win.
For writing, I prefer movie soundtracks. The glory years of ‘80s blockbusters, when John Williams ruled supreme, are my favorites. Top of the list is a tie: Superman: the Movie and Conan the Barbarian (Arnold version, not the remake). Other favorites include Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Robocop, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Moonraker. These are lush, dramatic orchestral pieces with a mix of lyrical romantic movements and driving action music, so no matter what kind of scene you’re writing the matching track is bound to pop up if you wait for it. Classical music serves the same purpose, but soundtracks put it all in one place. The Williams soundtracks have the added advantage of being two-record sets. You can do a whole chapter to Star Wars or Empire. I never checked to see if I type faster during the action tracks. Probably.
If I’m in a different kind of mood I’ll write to soundtracks from musicals. I have a nice set ranging from South Pacific and Singin’ in the Rain to West Side Story and Grease (Broadway cast, not the movie). Or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There’s a soundtrack you can write erotic M/M to. If the writing goes flat on you, you can always get up and dance.
I can use music to set the mood if I know I’ll be writing a particular type of scene. I used side 4 of Star Wars for the big Spielbergian climax to an apocalyptic fantasy I wrote. I did a fantasy story about a haunted police car with the Robocop soundtrack blasting in the background. It seemed appropriate. There’s a scene in my new one, Temptation and Tights, where Owen, who can fly, recreates the flying-with-Lois scene from Superman with his boyfriend Burke. He even hums the background music while they’re soaring over the city. I made sure that track was playing when I got to that scene.
In the ancient days of tape and cassettes I used to make my own novel soundtracks, drawing from a variety of sources. The songs followed the plots and emotional state of the characters. None of those books ever saw the light of day (thankfully), but listening to those old tapes can bring the whole book back for me. Maybe someday I’ll take another stab at those ideas, this time with the advantage of experience. I know those homemade soundtracks will be invaluable in getting me back to that mindset.
Writing as a profession is lonely enough without having to do it in silence. TV has taught me no action happens without some kind of music to set the mood. Even reality shows use background music to heighten the drama. I should mention that I can’t always write in front of the TV. I get watching the show, especially if the men on it are cute. Maybe I should turn my back on the set and just listen to it. Come to think of it, that’s probably the best way to watch TV anyway.