‘This wonderful, startling alchemy when music meets the writer’s brain’
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 bestselling suspense author and writing coach James Scott Bell @JamesScottBell
Soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann, Thomas Newman, Carter Burwell, Thomas Newman, Hugo Friedhofer, Mark Isham, Jerry Goldsmith, Alfred Newman, Steely Dan, Steve Miller Band
‘Of all noises,’ Samuel Johnson wrote, ‘I think music is the least disagreeable.’ I’ll go along with that. I like to write in public, mostly at Starbucks, with a little bit of ‘white noise’ around me. But when I have to get deep into a project or scene, I pop on the Bose headphones and fire up iTunes.
Music has a way of snapping the creative synapses. I once saw the whole plot of a story unfold because of a piece of music. I was thinking of my characters when it came on, and the emotional impact of the tune came in and mixed with my imagination and created something new. I doubt I could have gotten to that place any other way.
And that’s the point. There is a wonderful, startling alchemy when music meets the writer’s brain.
That’s why I have created a collection of ‘mood tunes’. They come in three categories: suspense, heart and inspiration.
Since I’m usually writing suspenseful scenes, I have this collection going constantly, on a random basis. The foundation of this collection is Bernard Herrmann and his Hitchcock scores. Over the years I’ve added to it, of course. A few that work well for me: The Road to Perdition (Thomas Newman), Burn After Reading (Carter Burwell) and Sherlock Holmes (Hans Zimmer).
If I need to get warm, I go to scores like The Best Years of Our Lives (Hugo Friedhofer) October Sky (Mark Isham) and various selections from classic Hollywood.
Not in the mood
But there is another way I use music, and this is when I’m tired or just not feeling motivated to write. A professional writer believes what Peter DeVries once said: ‘I only write when I’m inspired, and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9am.’
So I have some ‘pump me up’ tunes to get me going on days when I’m dragging. There’s the football tryout theme from Rudy (Jerry Goldsmith) and the opening credits from How the West Was Won. But I don’t limit myself to movie scores. I’ll sneak in a little classic rock, like Bodhisattva (Steely Dan) and Jungle Love (Steve Miller).
As I listen to these selections I think of writing as an athletic contest. My competition is with myself. If I don’t write, the books won’t get done. I put in a weekly quota, and have for twenty years. The pages accumulate, almost by magic, but only if you show up each day ready to write.
Music can help you get there.
James Scott Bell is a bestselling suspense author and writing coach. His books for Writers Digest Books are Plot & Structure, Revision & Self-Editing, Conflict & Suspense and The Art of War for Writers. Writing as K. Bennett, he is the author of the zombie legal thrillers Pay Me in Flesh and The Year of Eating Dangerously. He blogs each Sunday at The Kill Zone. Follow him on Twitter as @jamesscottbell and find him at his website