Like many writers, I work to music. For me, it’s music that’s barely music – drones, washes, minimal thrum or industrial groan. I’m in awe of people that can work in silence. Some people swear by writing in coffee shops, which I understand – regular hum and chatter is better than no background noise at all.
The crime writer Ian Rankin often refers to albums that he considers totemic while writing, including Mogwai and Aphex Twin – they disappear into the background, a bed upon which ideas settle. My totemic albums change from project to project. While writing the first draft of my alien-invasion novella, Blighters, I played Biokinetics by Porter Ricks, Grapes from the Estate by Oren Ambarchi and Water Park by Dirty Beaches on rotation. For the revisions, it was A Fragile Geography by Rafael Anton Irisarri and We Know Each Other Somehow by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe & Ariel Kalma.
I’ve taken to using music to support my writing in another way, too, though it’s also partly ceremonial. When I’ve completed a first draft of any project longer than a short story I create a playlist that, for want of a better term, I call a soundtrack. It’s generally unrelated to the music I’ve been playing while writing.
Instead, the playlist is an attempt to pin down the tone of the story – or, more often, the tone I’ll be aiming for during rewrites. Some of the track choices may be literal – named songs often crop up in my stories – and others are more about capturing a particular mood. I’m as much a film-lover as a book- and music-lover, so I’m unabashed about imagining the playlist as the soundtrack of the ‘film of the book’.
I’m the worst kind of nerd, the type that is a stickler for rules, however arbitrary. Here are my guidelines for creating a book soundtrack:
- The first and last tracks ought to work as an accompaniment to the story’s ‘opening and closing credits’.
- The playlist should include diagetic (i.e. in-world) and non-diagetic (i.e. conventional overlaid soundtrack) music.
- Broadly, the tracks should reflect the mindset of the central character.
- The ordering of the tracks should reflect the changing mood or plot events.
- Despite Rule #4, the playlist should be listenable in its own right, without sounding jarring. Unless jarring sounds good.
Rule #3 is an important one. My stories are mostly 1st-person or close 3rd-person POV, so I need to have a pretty good idea what makes my main characters tick. The soundtrack usually turns out to be useful in this respect.
I had fun creating a soundtrack to Blighters. The first couple of tracks and the final one are choices made by the main character, Becky, rather than me – she inherited her dad’s passion for 70s prog rock. Three of the tracks are actually named in the book (‘The Temples of Syrinx’, ‘Cat Man’, ‘Hocus Pocus’). The rest simulate the woozy experience of coming close to an alien slug that, though terrifying in appearance, produces a radius effect of utter contentment. I think it’s fair to say there’s no right answer about the correct musical accompaniment to that.
You can listen to the soundtrack on Spotify – hopefully it works as a teaser for Blighters, as well as a companion piece for those that have read it. Here’s the full tracklist:
1. Children of the Sun – Billy Thorpe
2. The Temples of Syrinx – Rush
3. Almost Always is Nearly Enough – Tortoise
4. Treacherous Orb – Time Attendant
5. Cat Man – Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps
6. Vise – People of the North
7. Oo Nu Dah – Anna Homler and Steve Moshier
8. Parallelo – Anna Caragnano and Donato Dozzy
9. Domine, Libra Nos / Showdown – The Space Lady
10. Hocus Pocus – Focus