Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thursday Talk-Time: Sounds or Silence

Shhhh! Anne McAllister is trying to write.

Last week Fiona Harper wrote an enlightening piece here on the PHS blog about using "sound tracks" to inspire and as background for her books.

I was much struck by it because I so can't do it.

I am not sure why that is, but if I were to guess, it would be to say that I'm an auditory learner.

You would think, then, that sound tracks would make sense for me. The opposite seems true. And I think it's because when a book is coming to life for me, I don't have many visuals. I don't have lots of kinesthetic experiences. What I have mostly are sounds. I hear voices (don't tell!), I hear taps dripping, planes flying over, lawn mowers in the distance, gulls squawking, waves breaking on shore -- all parts of the scene I'm working on.

And I can't hear those things if there's music playing, if there's a noticeable rhythm or beat. What I hear then is . . . music. I hear notes. I feel rhythms. Worse, I'm aware of someone else's voice. I hear someone else's words.

The circuitry in my brain (tenuous at the best of times) goes snap! And my characters simply pack up and go away. Or even if they're still there, they tap their toes. They don't talk.

Occasionally, it's true, I have found a song that sounds like a character in one of my books. I often felt as if my rodeo cowboy Shane Nichols was channeling Chris LeDoux's Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy? And Hugh McGillivray seemed happy to drum his fingers to Jimmy Buffett's Changes in Attitudes, Changes in Latitudes.

But when I started to write, the music stopped. Had to. Otherwise I wouldn't have written a word.

Since my experience and Fiona's are so different, I thought I'd ask a few other authors about theirs.

Anne Gracie is definitely into music. She said, "I use two two kinds of music. One is my "pavlov's dog" CD that always puts me into "the zone" for writing. It's ancient music and is sung in Latin, and I don't know why, but it always works for me. It's Pergolesi's Stabat Mater & Salve Regina sung by Emma Kirkby and James Bowman and the Academy of Ancient Music under the direction of Christopher Hogwood.

"I don't write to other music, but I do sometimes have a theme song for stories and sometimes I'll play that one song over and over. It wasn't quite my theme song for His Captive Lady, but a song that linked with the mood of parts of the story was Katie Melua's Piece by Piece. Beautiful, heartbreaking song, though it doesn't fit the overall story. And the theme song of my new book, To Catch a Bride is also a Katie Melua song, The Closest Thing to Crazy.

When I asked Robyn Donald if she had a "sound track, she said, "In a word, no. However, I do listen to music sometimes while I write - mainly opera, perhaps for the emotions sung about so brilliantly? Or perhaps because they're sung in Italian and I don't know what the words are saying... And quite a bit of Mozart because I happen to like him, and Beethoven for the same reason. Towards the end of a tricky MS I sometimes put on Queen, and again, I don't know why. Because I am an organic writer I don't know that I could ever actually make one until I'd finished the MS and found out about the people! Sorry - no use at all. I find coffee to be a good way to get into the MS."

Some writers can't listen to anything at all. Sharon Kendrick said, "I just CAN'T CONCENTRATE if I hear any kind of noise. It's why I don't work outside (which people always suggest I do!) because the birdsong and rustle of leaves distracts me, as do the distant sound of voices. Likewise, even the faint undertone of a radio in a different part of the house stops my creative flow. I need to create my own world, not be drawn into someone else's."

Sophie Weston says, "I don't use soundtracks, per se, but I do tap into musi
c to help my writing in two ways. First, to get me into the zone. I will start off my writing day with a CD playing - while I play around with what I wrote yesterday, say. Then as I get deeper into the story, I hear less and less of it and soon (well, if I'm lucky) I am hearing my characters and writing away and don't even notice that the CD has stopped until I come to the end of the scene. I suppose I'm saying that I find music a great way into the unconscious. This is generally stuff without words, presumably so as not to tune out my characters thoughts and words. Bach, Mozart, John Dowland, the "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" from Gluck's Orfeo. Secondly, I have an idea about the songs my characters like. For instance, in a novel I'm writing set during WW2, "Dancing in the Dark" means something to Jack, my hero. The version I listen to is Louise Cookman's because it has a nice jazzy party feel but ALSO the late-night-into-morning honesty of a very, very difficult moment in the book."

Jane Porter sometimes uses "real" sound tracks. She said, "I wrote Mrs. Perfect to the soundtrack from Wicked. If you're familiar with the musical you know the songs and themes reflect perfection, self-image, loneliness, isolation and acceptance--all themes in Mrs. Perfect. I would put the CD on repeat and it'd play for hours and the combination of music, and emotion in the voice, would trigger a response in me, allowing me to access words and language that I might not otherwise access as easily. The benefit of writing to one soundtrack, or piece of music, is that the repetition makes the words disappear and instead you have this lulling melody that's powerful and yet compulsive. Once I start 'feeling' the music, I have to write."

Kate Walker said, "I don't have a 'soundtrack' to my books. I work more with a 'film' of the book playing in my head so that I can see the scenes as they unfold and hear my characters voices. But sometimes I do use a particular song to express the mood of a scene or a whole book. When I'm stuck or trying to get back into the mood of the story then playing that song will usually unblock me."

"I like the idea of a sound track," Liz Fielding said. "And I really envy people who can find the mood to the book they
're writing in music they love, but I don't have a big enough knowledge of popular music for it to work for me. I work to a few "classic" pops that I have on my computer and the kind of classical stuff that's supposed to aid concentration and focus. When the work is going well I don't notice when it goes off."

Abby Green doesn't have the patience for it. "I can't have music on while I'm working it's too distracting," she said, "And I don't do that playlist thing. Certainly, music might inspire me, but I won't go to the trouble of getting it and having it nearby."

Annie West gets distracted, too. She told me, "I find music too distracting, especially something with the human voice, even if it's a piece I love. I generally have a silent house when I'm home alone writing. At other times there's lots of noise from the family, but no music. I do sometimes lash out though and play music while I'm reading copy edits as a treat!"

Like me, Annie finds that, "I hear my characters' voices so perhaps it's a matter of music interfering with that particular channel. When I'm creating new words on the page I need to be able to hear the words and particularly the dialogue in my head. More than the actual words, I think I also subconsciously listen to the rhythm of the words so adding an overlay of music, however delightful, just sends me into overload!"

Obviously, then, whether to listen or not to listen to music -- and if so, what -- is a very personal decision.

Beyond music, things get even weirder. I, for example, am still trying to figure out why I can't listen to music while I write, but had absolutely no trouble listening to Dodgers baseball games while doing my algebra homework back in high school.

Maybe it was because I had less invested in the algebra!

Do you listen to music (any particular sort or "sound tracks?") when you write -- or read? Or when you do/did your algebra homework? Always presuming, of course, that you actually did your homework.

Anne McAllister did not listen to the sound track for Sleepless in Seattle when she was writing her book, Savas' Defiant Mistress, even though it takes place on a houseboat on Lake Union in Seattle. She would have found it distracting. Life itself is distracting enough. Her characters agree. You can read an excerpt here, if you want to see how distracting her hero, Sebastian, found that his life was becoming.

She's writing about auditory, visual and kinesthetic learning on her blog on Thursday. Stop by and tell her what sort of learner you are. She'd also be interested in knowing if you did your algebra with sounds or silence.


  1. You know, I'm torn. There are usually songs I clue into being a soundtrack for the book, but then I don't play them that often as I'm writing. Or I'll play them as I'm starting my day and doing e-mail etc. before I get into the ms...kind of as a mood setter.

    Most of the time I work in silence. If I do listen to music, much of the time it is relaxing classical (I have a CD called The Most Relaxing Classical CD Ever) or something with foreign languages so the lyrics don't intrude - lots of Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli, Il Divo...

  2. My favourite music - I forgot to add - is working in my new office in the summer, with the windows open and listening to the birds. :-)

  3. Donna, your new office sounds great -- especially the part about having the windows open and listening to the birds. I can deal with them because they don't distract me (don't have to do anything for them, and they don't have a regular rhythm to distract me).

  4. I suppose there's been music in the background when I've written books. Knowing my household, there's also been TV's blaring, shouts of "where's my (fill in the blank)" from my husband and/or son, and--in season--my beloved, if snakebit, Cubs' baseball on the radio.

    When I'm zoned in, I can write amidst chaos. When I'm not zoned, every stray dust mote is a distraction.

    Still, music did play a significant role in genesis of one of my books. A music video, to be precise. "Angel Come Home" by Mick Fleetwood.

    The video interpreted the song as a kind of old fashioned American western. Before the song was over, the character of Jason Montana and much of the storyline of "Beloved Outlaw" popped into my head. I recorded the video and re-played it many times over the course of writing that book.

    These days I mostly write post-it notes to stick to the dashboard of my car so I won't forget the thousand things I have to do that week, but those strange and occasionally joyful days of yesteryear when I used to write books, did have their moments.

    Musical and otherwise.

  5. Linda! I loved Jason Montana as your "Beloved Outlaw!" He was mine, too, and I didn't even have to write him.

    I didn't know there was a video. Now I have to see it.

    Stop writing post-it notes and write more books.

  6. Anne,

    Sorry to pop by so late. Just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed reading about everyone else's experiences! What a treat.


  7. Thanks, Annie. It's always fascinating to me to discover how different people approach the task of writing a book.