Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by thriller writer Kelly Simmons @kellysimmons
Of all the issues that divide writers – to tweet or delete, to Skype or to not, handwritten first drafts? Are you kidding me?—the greatest dividing line seems to be between those who write with music, and those who don’t.
I have a foot in both camps. I don’t listen to anything during the first draft – I don noise-cancelling headphones because even relaxing sounds like birds or waves irritate the crap out of me —but I crank it up during revisions.
There is something about the enormity of the revision task that requires pumping up, like music during a marathon run. And like many writers, I enjoy pairing the music to the task.
My favorite secret weapon is soundtracks. Soundtracks from movies and TV help me think visually, help frame out scenes. It all started when I was writing an unpublished novel about a mob wife in South Philly. The Sopranos soundtrack was an unbelievable inspiration to me over three years of revisions. It kept me focused on the violence, but also the humanity, of that world.
For my first published novel, Standing Still, about a woman with panic attacks who offers her life in exchange for her daughter’s mid-kidnapping, I relied on soundtracks with plenty of tension and pathos – and surprisingly, the soundtrack to Grey’s Anatomy, with its wealth of new artists, proved helpful and poignant. The lyrics to Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars still go through my head when I think of the kidnapper and kidnappee telling each other their darkest secrets in a motel room.
Another great side benefit of the soundtrack is that while some of the selects will have lyrics, many will be instrumental. An instrumental piece doesn’t crowd into my thinking space the way songs with lyrics do. For my latest novel, The Bird House, about a grandmother with Alzheimer’s struggling to connect with her granddaughter and remember the secrets of her past while chasing down a mystery with her daughter-in-law and son, I listened to the Philip Glass soundtrack to the movie Notes On a Scandal, which offered just the right amount of tension for the scenes in my book when the grandmother steals her daughter in law’s phone, and follows her after seeing her kiss a strange man on a jogging path.
Listening to music from that film, movie, particularly since it starred Judi Dench, who could easily step in to the role of Ann in The Bird House, helped me think about the characters and plot beats differently – more like a screenwriter. And that keeps your novel taut and faster paced.
Like storyboarding on Pinterest – another helpful obsession – music can inspire a novel to feel more cinematic. And if that leads to a movie deal, well, cue the Rocky soundtrack on that, and I’ll run up the stairs at the Philadelphia Art Museum.
Kelly Simmons is the proud recipient of starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly for her novels from Simon & Schuster: Standing Still and The Bird House. She is a former journalist and advertising creative director. Her website and blog live at www.bykellysimmons.com And she quips on Twitter: @kellysimmons