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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by journalist, writer and editor Dina Santorelli @DinaSantorelli
Full disclosure: I write in total silence. Well, maybe not total silence (I do have three kids), but in an environment that’s veritably music free. While I do things like pay bills or edit copy while listening to my favorite Pandora stations, when it comes to fiction writing my creativity amps up only when the radio is turned down.
Now before you start wondering, What the heck is this fraud doing penning a guest post for the Undercover Soundtrack, you should know that although I don’t write with music playing, my writing is fueled by songs and lyrics just the same, particularly in the following three ways.
For better or worse, my writing process is one of perpetual breaks – periods of furious keyboard tapping followed by periods of drought, or perhaps pause is the better word. Many times during a writing session my momentum will come to a crashing halt, and it is during these periods of inactivity when self-doubt tends to rear its ugly head: I’m not good enough. Who’s going to care about this story? Why am I bothering?
And while I have been known to take a walk, a shower, and do all kinds of things to get past this kind of “block,” one thing that almost always does the trick is my go-to soundtrack of inspirational songs. There are many of them that I’ve compiled over the years, performed by all kinds of artistes in all kinds of categories. What I find is that often the artiste or song doesn’t matter; rather, it’s the intention, or the message of the song, or sometimes it’s just the title or a meaning that I, alone, have infused into it that’s important to me. Here’s a quick list of some of my stand-bys:
- Keep Holding On by Avril Lavigne
- Fix You by Coldplay (this song undoubtedly made the list because of a very touching and inspirational weight-loss video posted on YouTube)
- The Climb by Miley Cyrus
- It’s a Miracle and Looks Like We Made It by Barry Manilow
- Defying Gravity from the Wicked original Broadway cast soundtrack
- Freak Flag from the Shrek original Broadway cast soundtrack
- I Dreamed a Dream, sung by Susan Boyle (what better lesson in triumph than Susan Boyle’s rendition of I Dreamed a Dream on Britain’s Got Talent?)
Baby Grand is a contemporary thriller, which means one very important aspect of the book is its pacing. I was very conscious of keeping a certain pace – almost like a perpetual drum beat – throughout the writing of the novel and then ratcheting things up toward the end, as if riding a train that was traveling fast and suddenly accelerates until it is speeding out of control. And because writing a novel is all about stopping and starting and picking up where you left off, I found there were times I needed some zippy songs to get my toes a-tapping and to return me to that ‘train’ mindset, particularly for the chase scenes that are inherent to most thrillers, Baby Grand included. Here are two of the many songs I’ve turned to in order to help me keep readers alert and on the edge of their seats (interestingly, these both come from films):
- Holding Out for a Hero by Bonnie Tyler and featured in Footloose (this one, I find, is particularly useful for chase scenes – is there anyone out there who doesn’t visualize Kevin Bacon with his shoelace caught on a tractor pedal during this song?)
- Neutron Dance by The Pointer Sisters and featured in Beverly Hills Cop
Occasionally, I’ll use music to help me get into the mind of a character. I also use movie clips for this purpose, particularly when a character is loosely based on the physicality of an actor. I did this for Baby Grand’s villain Don Bailino (whose appearance is based on a younger Robert De Niro), a handsome, charismatic ex-war hero/successful businessman in his late 40s. Bailino hails from Brooklyn, and having grown up around Brooklynites my entire life, when writing Bailino’s scenes I tended to channel lots of family favorites from the 1950s , 1960s and 1970s, such as Frankie Valli or Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin (who happens to be the person I was named after—my parents were big fans):
- Swearin’ to God and My Eyes Adored You by Frankie Valli
- Luck Be a Lady and The Lady Is a Tramp by Frank Sinatra
- Mambo Italiano and Ain’t That a Kick in the Head by Dean Martin
I call these songs ‘the soundtrack of my grandparents’ and they stir up in me fond memories of summer vacations spent shopping on Nostrand Avenue or at Kings Plaza and playing at the Buddies Arcade. I think in this case, though, it’s not necessarily the songs that inspire, but the memories that they invoke.
In the end, whether it is inspirational or helps me develop a scene or character, music enables me to reach a deeper understanding of myself in some way. And from there, I am able to find the confidence to explore a deeper understanding of my characters and of my story and the courage to fight through another round of that ominous self-doubt. Cue Theme from Rocky.
A freelance writer for over 15 years, Dina Santorelli has written for Newsday, First for Women and CNNMoney.com, among other publications. She served as the ‘with’ writer for the well-received Good Girls Don’t Get Fat and most recently contributed to Bully, the companion book to the acclaimed film. Dina is the Executive Editor of Salute and Family magazines for which she has interviewed many celebrities, including James Gandolfini, Tim McGraw, Angela Bassett, Mario Lopez, Gary Sinise and Kevin Bacon. You can follow Dina on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest, and on her blog. Baby Grand, her first novel, is available on Amazon.
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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
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- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2022. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'