Music and Words

There seem to be two types of writers: those who need silence to write, and those who need music. I’m one of the latter type. That’s not to say I can’t write without music playing, but if I’m not feeling inspired when I sit down to get some words on the page, the number one way to up that inspiration and get my fingers flowing across the keys is to put on some suitable music.

It helps put me in the zone. It shuts out the distractions that try to pull me away from the story. And if I get the right music going, it can spur me on like nothing else. The right music is key. Radio is hopeless, with all its distracting chatter and randomness. Music with lyrics is rarely helpful, as the lyrics carry me off in a different direction from the one I’m trying to head. They impose themselves on my brain while it’s coming up with streams of prose, and generally interfere. So it’s almost always instrumental stuff for me.

I’ve found that the most useful instrumental pieces to write to are pieces of music that are in themselves telling a story or seeking to create a deliberate atmosphere. Contemporary composers like Ludovico Einaudi and Max Richter are excellent for this. The repetitive nature of their melodies can almost hypnotise me into a writing state while inducing the necessary emotion to carry the story.

But the music that achieves this best is soundtrack music. Film scores are designed to elicit emotion, to place the viewer in the story and impart a sense of urgency, or tragedy, or scope. There’s something about the work of a composer who has specifically written that work to accompany a story. That sense of story, of conflict and emotion and character, is imperative to writing, and having it conveyed through the medium of music really helps to uncover whatever story I’m trying to tell.

A good playlist is essential. There are some tremendous ones on sites like 8tracks – just type in ‘writing’ and you’ll get a massive selection of playlists put together for just this purpose, with all kinds of perfect scores and tracks you’ve never come across along with the familiar ones.

When I need to get in the zone, a cup of tea, a stash of salt liquorice, and an amazing playlist of audio inspiration is my ideal recipe for wordcount success.

I’ll leave you with one of my all-time favourites, from the sorely-missed master of emotion, James Horner:

Why We Write

It’s been a scary year. The events of the past three weeks have felt like some kind of demon cherry on top of a glut of instability and fear-mongering. No one can know for sure what happens next, but the signs point to very unsettling possibilities.

I’ve seen all kinds of reactions from the writing community, ranging from dearths of creativity to fierce rallying cries. All those reactions are valid. Personally, I’ve been somewhere in the middle.

But it’s all got me thinking about the power of what we do. Writing is art, it’s communication, it’s portrayal of the world. It can be used for wondrous ends and horrendous ones. You’ve only got to look at the average British tabloid to see ample evidence of the latter. In many ways, those examples make it all the more encumbent on the rest of us writers to balance the scale in the other direction.

We write to process our thoughts and our ideas. We write to work through past hurts and present difficulties. We write to explore possibilities, to warn of dangers and to sow our hopes. Speculative fiction does this in ways other genres can’t, because it isn’t restricted to the world as we know it. Its scope extends to the futuristic, the fantastic, the alternative… with all of those things we can explore ‘what ifs’ and share visions of things that haven’t yet happened or delve into human nature from entirely new perspectives. The blog post I wrote on the importance of science fiction amply describes my thoughts on why it matters.

Our writing can draw attention to world issues by portraying them, veiled or openly, through the viewpoints of our characters. In doing this, we’re taking ideas beyond the factual, beyond informative articles and projections, and actually turning them into real-life situations. We only truly relate to these things by empathising with others going through them, and fiction provides that empathy in a way no other medium can. When I show what my persecuted refugee character is feeling, I enable my readers to connect with her and others like her. When I show how my rebel protagonist stands up against her totalitarian government, I enable readers to experience her anger and determination to put things right. When I show my alien character struggling to overturn her species’ discrimination against humans, I hope readers will see parallels in the way we continue to treat those we deem ‘inferior’.

Fiction is a reflection of its era, and the one we’re in now is rife with pitfalls and possibilities that we need to investigate. We need to explore the dangers through story before it’s too late for empathy. We need to show the bright alternatives before we’ve steered our path too far away from them. We need to work through our own fears, putting them into words both as catharsis and signpost.

This is why stories matter. This is why our society needs them more than ever.

This is why we write.

Friends Forever

Relationships are the basis for most stories. Whether it’s family ties, a love interest, a beloved animal, bonds of companionship, or the protagonist’s relationship with the antagonist, the theme of how characters relate to one another is a crucial element. A story with no relationships is like an omelette without eggs.

For me, the most compelling relationships in stories are friendships. Maybe it’s because close friendships have always played a pivotal role in my own life, but there’s something about a firm bond between characters that makes me root for them all the more. Most of my favourite works of fiction have close friendships at their centres. Fitz and the Fool. Frodo and Sam. Holmes and Watson. Locke and Jean. Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Sara and Becky. The Doctor and his companions. Lyra and Will. Buffy, Willow, and Xander. The list could go on and on, and I’ll probably think of several more after I’ve posted this. (Double points for anyone who knows all those references…)

Friendships play an important role in my own writing, although I think that’s more true of my novel-length pieces than short stories. There’s less time to develop relationships in a short story, and friendships are complex, nuanced things. It takes space to show the depth, history, and loyalty between two (or more) characters. Frodo and Sam’s friendship would have a lot less meaning were it condensed into 5000 words. I’m not even sure you could scratch the surface of Fitz and the Fool in that space. In fact, all but one of the examples above come from multiple-book series (if you count The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy) or lengthy television franchises. Maybe it needs to take that long to develop a meaningful bond between characters. Something you can care about, cry about, pile all of your hopes into. Friendships are what get us through the tough times. In fiction, friendships are often what get characters through the final hurdle. It’s about the strong characters being able to rely on others and the steadfast loyal characters being there regardless of what the protagonist is about to face.

Maybe I’m a sap, but that stuff inspires me like little else. When it comes down to it, that’s surely what’s really important in life. Is that why it’s such an enduring theme in good storytelling?