Words and Music

Part 1: It’s all in the interpretation.

Writers get told this a lot. You know that old thing: there’s only 1 or 5 or 7 or 32 or whatever basic plots* (people count them differently), and it’s all about telling the story your way, using your imagination, your style and your personal experiences or truths.

I think this can be very nicely illustrated with music. Take the traditional folk song “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” (also knows as “Run On” or “Run On for a Long Time “).

Here’s Johnny Cash’s compelling, lurching, gravelly version:

Here’s Costanza’s dreamily threatening electropop:

Here’s Moby’s take on it, sampling Bill Landford & The Landfordaires and scratching it up:

Personally, I love all three versions of this song (purely for musical reasons). But however you feel about them, perhaps you’ll agree that they’re very different.

So, if you suddenly get an idea for a novel about zeppelin-dwelling talking bears and you’re really excited about it and then somebody retroactively steals your idea**, and you find out that just such a book came out a week ago, don’t worry. It won’t be your novel about zeppelin-dwelling talking bears.  Theirs is some light-hearted fluffy secondary world romp in pastel colours, while yours is set in a post-apocalyptic dsytopia and is a harrowing examination of the beast in all of us. And yours will be much better, obviously.

*I have this book and have never actually made it all the way through it. I do love the explanation of the monomyth in “The Writer’s Journey”, though.

** This seems to happen all the time. Terry Pratchett has a theory about it in one of the Discworld books. He talks about inspirons sleeting through space and hitting people with an idea that has found its time. Why else do Hollywood suddenly have 2 Robin Hood or 2 volcano movies simultaneously? It doesn’t seem like a good market strategy.

Part 2: Loosen up.

Sometimes,***  when I’m writing I feel like I need all the help I can get. So, I’ll try to steal learn from anywhere.  I really struggle with descriptions. I think about what the thing looks like, and I’ll be all,  “Ok, it’s about 50 feet tall and made of stone and covered in carvings of artichokes.” Which feels very pedestrian. I need a way to loosen up and let go and still create vivid pictures.

I’m completely in love with Lana del Rey’s music at the moment****, but I also think her lyrics evoke strong images with very few words. I can’t quote them without breaking copyright, but have a listen to “Off to the Races”, and see if you can’t picture that girl in her white bikini, floating over bright blue ripples in the swimming pool.

I feel that Ms. Del Rey gives kodacolor snapshots of a few details that are vivid enough for me to get the whole picture. So I might experiment with that as a technique because I think it would work with the style of the current novel.

But another approach that might work would be to switch off the inner critic and not worry about the description making sense. Just write it off the top of your head, and let the prose be so purple it’s black. It can always be toned down afterwards. Be as silly or random or grandiose as you like and then see what you’ve got.

What are the songs that conjure pictures in your head? And how to do they do it?

*** All the time.

****I can’t wait until she re-releases her first album that got obliterated by her PR people. It’s a crime against music that they’ve vanished it.

Part 3: Get in the mood.

Something else I’m experimenting with is creating a playlist for my novel. When I feel like I’m losing direction or motivation, I’m hoping that the playlist will help me remember what feeling I wanted for the novel, or for a particular scene. I’ve even started one for the putative next novel that I haven’t got a single word for, because I know how I want it to feel. I might experiment writing pivotal scenes with the track I’ve selected. And if that doesn’t work out, I can always use it for my total fantasising creative visualisation of how the film adaptation will be. Of course, first I’ve got to get the words on the page. So I’ll use music however I can if it helps with that.

Do you use mood music for your writing? Or just something with no lyrics as a neutral background?  Does music inspire you some other way? I’d love to hear.


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