Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by fantasy author and self-publishing zealot Ben Galley @BenGalley
Music. It has always ruled my life. From getting up to falling asleep, I do so accompanied by music.
Where did such an obsession with music come from? That’s a good question. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had this preoccupation with the idea of a soundtrack to life. Let’s be honest – we’ve all pretended, or at least felt, that our lives were a movie at one point in our lives. It’s in this way that I use music. I’ve always been a huge fan of movies and the cinema (media from which I’ve drawn plenty of inspiration from in the past) and for some reason I’ve always paid a massive amount of attention to the soundtrack. Soundtracks can add a whole new level of punch to a scene – it could be emotion, tension, or action, music simply has the ability to add more. That’s why I use music to mark occasions, or to cheer me up or chill me out. I cook to it. I clean to it, I exercise to it, and of course, I write to it. And that’s where the involvement goes a little deeper.
Intriguingly, my obsession with music once usurped by dream of being a writer. In 2006, aged only 17, I swapped that dream for two years of studying bass guitar and music at the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM). It was brilliant fun. Those two years expanded my musical horizon immensely, and as such I began to look into a career in music, performing and touring. Sad thing was, nothing ever really took off. It was difficult. Tough. I felt I had missed the train somewhat. And so, whilst working a succession of meaningless jobs in bars, restaurants, and pubs, I decided it was time to start writing again – to get back that original dream of being a writer.
I first started writing my debut fantasy novel The Written in 2009. Although music was as ubiquitous in my life then as it is now, I quickly discovered something new – a way to take music and use it to fuel writing. I found that writing to music didn’t just help evoke emotion, but it also seemed to affect my pace, my focus, my drive, even the direction of the story itself. It suddenly grew from an accompaniment and a soundtrack to a force. Let me explain more.
I’d written books before, aged 11 and 12 (three terribly written novels that will never see the light of day) but I’d never used music to write before. As I learned more about my book and the series, I also learnt how music could help, testing it against how my tastes and playlist had expanded with age and ACM. This is how I learnt how to make my own private (or underground!) soundtrack for the scenes I was writing.
Getting back into writing and launching into an epic series was tough. Enter rock and metal. Two genres that can curl your fingers into fists, and make grim, determined slits of your eyes. Whatever mood I was in, music ignited my drive, helping me to get stuck and in and overcome those hard initial pages. These were my ‘Come on! Get on with the bloody thing!’ tracks. The main tracks that helped me do this are Dig by Incubus (a calmer track in this genre), Maggie’s Farm by the indomitable Rage Against the Machine, Kings and Queens by 30 Seconds to Mars, and Empire by Alpines.
Fights and cold landscapes
Fight scenes featured prominently in the first few chapters of my book, interspersed with sections setting the scene of the cold, vastness of my world, Emaneska. I constantly switched from rock, metal, and electronica, to softer genres: classical, soundscape, or original film soundtracks. The latter worked particularly well – composer Ludovico Einaudi gave softness to the calmer scenes, pause and mystery too. I Giorni and Monday are some of his finest tracks. Film composer Thomas Newman helped too, with the soundtracks to American Beauty and Shawshank Redemption. Using soundtrack music really helped. It was lyric-less so I could tune it out or in when I wanted to. Primarily though, it brought back memories of film scenes, and the dialogue, action, and mood used within them. This in turn helped me refine my scene-setting skills. Another score for music! Pardon the pun…
One thing I did find was that I would occasionally get bogged down by dialogue and the need to impart information to the reader. To help, I used what I called ‘swagger tracks’ – songs that I used to pump confidence and life into these sections. I believe that confidence can be felt through writing. Just as in social situations where the need to appear confident is important, I believe that writing is no different. Readers need to feel like they are in the hands of a confident story-teller. I call this swagger. Two particular swagger tracks for me are Radioactive by Imagine Dragons, or Miami by Foals.
Music also helped me to apply tempo and pace to exciting scenes. Rock, metal, and upbeat soundscape tracks, such as Staralfur by Sigur Ròs, once again helped. I also used a lot of electronic music, particularly dubstep. For those of you not familiar with dubstep, it can be frenetic and hardcore, more noise than anything, but I love it. It’s no-holds barred production and sampling. A good example of a track I used is Skrillex’s First of the Year – Equinox. Bonfire by Knife Party is also very good. One track in particular is My Obsession by Killswitch Engage. I found myself slowing and speeding up along to the pace of these songs as I wrote. I believe this approach helped me vary the pace of my scenes, making for more interesting, perhaps even more organic, writing.
And lastly, the finale. I needed something softer, for the calm after the storm. For my main character, Farden, he needed a moment sat atop a snowy peak, staring down onto his city. A moment of reflection. What was my send off? It was Sæglópur by Sigur Ròs. Beautiful song. (Fast forward to 1.50.)
Overall, I’ve found that when I’m writing, music becomes a tool. It helps me focus, helps me keep those fingers moving. I’ve learnt to feed off its pace and passion, off its confidence, off that unquantifiable ‘oomph’, off its conveyed emotion. When I’m writing, music becomes less of my own soundtrack, and becomes more the soundtrack to whatever world I’m building, hopefully enriching it. And that’s my undercover soundtrack!
At 25, Ben Galley is a young self-published author from sunny England. He is the author of the epic and gritty fantasy series – The Emaneska Series. He has released four books to date, and doesn’t intend to stop any time soon. Ben is also incredibly zealous about inspiring other authors and writers. He runs the advice site Shelf Help, where he offers advice and services for writing, publishing, and marketing. Ben is also the co-founder and director of indie-only eBook store Libiro. Ben can be found being loquacious and attempting to be witty on Twitter (@BenGalley) or at www.bengalley.com.