How I Use “Soundtracks” To Help Me Write When I’m Not Writing

 

by Matt Frick

“The Official Motion Picture Soundtrack.” How many of those do you own? I know I owned a few soundtracks on cassette tape when I was growing up. Some of these albums were a central part of the film for which they were recorded, like Purple Rain (which I wore out listening to) or [insert musical title here] (which I did not own…because I don’t like musicals).

But most soundtracks were recorded to provide an audible background intended to enhance the movie by putting the audience in the right mood or frame of mind at just the right time, so they would experience the film the way the director intended.

Remember the title track to Jaws?….Of course you do….It works, doesn’t it?

For movies, sure, but what about books? They don’t have soundtracks. They rely on the author’s ability to put words on the page to set the mood or guide the reader’s frame of mind. There’s no help from an awesome John Williams score to prod the reader into seeing the point the author was trying to make or feeling the emotion he was trying to evoke.

That’s all on the back end, though, after the book is published. What about before that point? When the book is being written? Does an author have an “Official Printed Page Soundtrack” while he’s putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard, creating the next New York Times Bestseller?

I DO. I mean, I don’t have any delusions about getting on the NYT list anytime soon, but I do put together a soundtrack for each writing project.

 

Movies of the Mind

I talked about how I like to have to outline a book project on several different levels before I start writing in Planning: The Importance of Outlining (for me, anyway). I also mentioned in that post how the outlining process usually takes me a few months to get through. But for the outlining to work, I have to have an idea of where the story I brainstormed is going to go (how it will move from beginning to end…the middle part is always the most difficult, but also the most fun to develop).

Just as important as moving the plot along, though, is how the characters–particularly the main protagonist and antagonist–will develop throughout the story. At some point, these characters are going to run into conflicts, and they will need to adjust in order to overcome those obstacles. How they adjust to each new situation is tempered by their own personalities and abilities.

Sure, they will likely have to step outside their comfort zone, and they may even do things, or say things, they never thought they’d do or say. Sometimes the personal or emotional consequences are good–sometimes not so good.

And for each of these situations, in both the plot and character development progression, there is an accompanying song that plays in the background of the mental motion picture playing in my head. Those songs help me stay focused on the mood and emotion I want to convey to the reader at each point in the story when I do start writing–especially when I am in the scene-by-scene outlining phase. I like to think of myself as the director of a movie in my mind, and the music helps set the tone.

 

Writing without a Pen

This is where the book soundtrack really does its work.

Millions of people spend an average of 400 hours on the road commuting to and from work every year. (I just made that up…but at least I can admit when I’m pulling statistics from my hind end, unlike [DELETED BY DIRECTION OF WH COMM OFFICE].) Many people use that time in the car to “read” by listening to an audio book. I did that for years when I had a no-kidding full-time job in the Navy, and I was attending the National Intelligence University at night and on weekends. I got through mass quantities of possible research material for class papers that way.

I obviously wasn’t writing those papers while I was driving, but I was thinking about things I may or may not use as references as I listened. That’s what I do with the soundtracks I put together for each writing project.

For The Complicity Doctrine, one of the songs on my playlist was “Duck and Run” by 3 Doors Down. In that book, the protagonist, Casey Shenk, is the victim and witness to a bombing that killed several people and injured many more. He was eating an onion bagel when the explosion happened.

That traumatic event could have caused Casey to say, “F— this, I’m outta here,” pack his bags, and move out of the Big Apple and back down to Savannah where life was much simpler. But he didn’t. Like the song, Casey refused to “duck and run,” because that’s not who he was…and the book would have ended around page 53, which wouldn’t do me any good.

That song helped me shape Casey’s actions in the subsequent chapters and scenes, as well. And that was just one of the 20-plus songs I put together for that book. I will listen to the book’s soundtrack every time I’m in the car–I burn the iTunes playlist onto CD(s)–and as I’m listening, I am picturing how the characters will act and interact as the plot unfolds. I am writing the manuscript in my head as the background music plays. When I get to where I’m going, whether it’s work or home or wherever, I’ll write down notes on whatever thoughts came to mind during my commute.

So even when I’m not writing, I’m still “writing.” Thanks to book soundtracks.

 

 

 

Guest post contributed by Matt Frick. Matt recently retired after twenty years as a Naval Officer, during which time he self-published three geopolitical thrillers. A prolific writer outside his works of fiction, Matt is also the author of several published articles and conference papers about the Middle East and maritime piracy. His non-fiction works have been referenced in journals, theses, and other media in over five different countries; including India, Russia, and Iran.

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11 thoughts on “How I Use “Soundtracks” To Help Me Write When I’m Not Writing”

  1. I do this a lot. With me, it’s mostly instrumentals–John Williams, James Horner (RIP), Alan Silverstein, etc. But I love Prince, too. This is a fun thing to do. Music is emotional and good at identifying certain emotions at the right time. ☺️

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  2. I do this too. I actually have a “soundtrack” playlist saved for each of my projects. The challenge, obviously, is translating the feeling the song gives you into words. I’ve found that simply putting forth an effort to do that – really thinking about what the song makes you feel and how to describe that feeling – has helped me become a better writer.

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  3. I love listening to music when I’m relaxing. It adds to my mood, even if I’m not writing – like a soundtrack for my own unwritten life, lol.

    Your story about research reminds me of my college experience. I was a vocal major. Now, I’m a better pianist than a vocalist, but I discovered that I was able to “practice” my foreign-language songs by listening to them during the commute to school. I copied and pasted the lyrics into a text-to-speech converter to learn the words. Once that was done, I found artists who sang them. That way, I learned dynamics and pitch, and I was able to tweak the words and quality while I was singing along in the car! Needless to say, I switched from piano to voice to make things easier on myself. It sort of felt like cheating when I recorded my practice hours at the end of every week, but hey, smart people use every available resource, right?

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