I’m not very musical. When I was little my mother decided I should learn the violin. Big mistake. Give an unmusical child one of the hardest instruments to play – one that doesn’t sound any good until you’re pretty advanced – and you’re in for trouble. I screeched away for years as my friends and family listened patiently – I hope they snuck some earplugs in while I wasn’t watching.
My mother meant well. The violin is an amazing instrument and, much like a tennis racket, she thought it would be useful to learn something I could carry around with me. Anyway, music has been a bit of a sticking point ever since.
Other people’s music, now that’s different. I have a huge admiration for the discipline and commitment of professional musicians. Not to mention the fact that musicians are some of the world’s greatest storytellers. All of this is inspiration enough. However, I use music in a special way too.
I don’t listen to music as I write – though I know some writers love to do this; I get too distracted by music for this too work. What I do, is to think how different pieces of music could relate to my characters and my story. In fact, I’ve found that listening to music related to my writing when I’m not writing (when I’m walking or driving or doing the dishes) is a great way to keep my subconscious working on your story.
Music was particularly important to me whilst writing The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells. I listened to Louis Armstrong because Norah loves him and also to the Sountrack of Fantastic Mr Fox because Willa is obsessed with the film (she comes to the magic of Roald Dahl’s book later…), and with foxes.
So, here are some ways in which you can use music to write better:
Choose a theme tune for your story or novel
Think of your favourite films and how the theme music floods in whenever you visualise it. By choosing a theme tune for your novel or story as a whole you will be making decisions about the tone and style of your writing, about the emotions you want your readers to feel, about the peaks and troughs of the plot. It’s a wonderful way to feel your story coming to life. Listening to the theme tune of your story can also be a wonderful way to get you back into the mood of writing and to remind you how important it is to get that story finished.
Choose a whole soundtrack for your story or novel
If you love music and are enjoying this way of thinking, you could create a soundtrack of songs to go with the different parts of your novels, just as the different parts of a film are epitomised by different songs and tunes. One of my favourite films, and books, is The English Patient. I have listened to the soundtrack hundreds of times and each piece of music makes me relive both the story and the characters.
Make a note of each of your character’s favourite songs – or the instruments they play.
This is a great way to get to know your characters better. What do your characters love to listen to in the car, on their iPhones, when they are running, over dinner or in the shower? Which concerts do they go to? Which CDs do they buy? What instruments do they play? How does the music they love shed light on who they are? A character who loves listening to Rachmaninov is not going to be the same as a character like Adam from The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells, who listens to The Beach Boys. The fact that Sherlock Holmes plays the violin is crucial to understanding his character and how he communicates the emotion he holds back in the rest of his life. See details of the wonderful Sherlock Holmes: A Musical Mind at this year’s proms.
Use song titles to inspire you for the titles of your stories, novels or even chapters
Last year, there was a trend in authors using song titles as novel titles. Think about Helen Fielding’s sequel, Brigit Jones: Mad About the Boy or Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. Again, this will give you an insight into the kind of story you are writing. Of course, book titles have inspired books too like David Bowie’s 1984.
See your writing as having a beat, a rhythm, a tune
One of the most useful things you can do is to read your writing aloud – to yourself and, if you have a willing volunteer, to a loved one or writing buddy. Language has music and a sentence needs to sound good as well as to look good and read well. Listening to and understanding music will make your a better writer of sentences. And beyond the sentence, I would argue that each paragraph and chapter and scene is like a movement in a piece of music. How does your writing sound? What tune does it make? Does it fit the tone and style of the story?
Use music to generate ideas
You can turn all this on its head and start with music. Play a random song and free-write for the duration of the music. See what ideas come out. Let your imagination go. Who knows, this might be the spark for a wonderful novel.
Challenge: Today, find 10 minutes, choose one of the ways I’ve suggested to use music for your writing and make some notes. And make sure you listen to some music too.
Write. Read. Love. Vx