Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Focus : The Muse's Little Helpers

It's the most intoxicating feeling when your writing's 'in the flow'; the story's rocketing along on invisible fuel, your characters are writing themselves effortlessly into and out of sticky situations, there's not a plot-hole in sight and your prose doesn't hit a single log-jam (maybe just the odd twig). Wonderful. Sublime. Then the phone rings. It's time to get dinner. The washing needs doing. That ache in the side of your head starts to intrude. Loved ones outside your storyland need a bit of attention. The budgie cage could do with fresh sand. All that focus dissipates in an instant. Or your own mental or emotional dialogues start to cut into the writing stream, take you off on a thousand diversions. Maybe, since your brain is so inclined, entice you with new stories, a dozen gleaming plot trajectories. Or maybe said brain just got fatigued and opted out of the 'flow' for a while. This is natural, of course. It's Real Life. And the mind's fluctuations. The story will wait for you, patiently or not. But what state will your mind return to it in? What do you do if it won't or can't connect back into all those lovely strands it was unwinding?

I'm sure we all have our own methods of refocussing - and reconnecting - with our stories. I'd like to share with you my favourite helper; music. Not a startling one. I'm sure it's a favourite for many writers, and with good reason. For a start, music is linear - it usually has a beginning, a middle (no matter what genre it belongs to, apart from certain avant-garde forms) and a conclusion, related to the linear nature of stories and the written word. Music and writing aren't the only artforms with a fundamental linearity. Dance, theatre, film all share the same basic 'line' because they exist in time (unlike a painting or other stationary medium where a moment in time is frozen, preserved). But it's not that easy to write while your vision is engaged with something external, unless that is the thing you're writing about! Well, not for me, anyway.

But music can assist the writing process in much more precise ways than that. Music speaks to emotion, or conjures specific emotional or mental states. I find that if I've 'lost my way' with a story, music is the most likely thing to bring me back on track. I used to use this in a general way; by playing music that would either relax (or if I was tired, stimulate) my mind before starting to write. From there, I graduated to playing music that would relate to the type of scene I was writing, using it to 'set the mood', my mood, for the action of that particular scene. Some of those pieces of music have become so ingrained with certain stories or scenes that hearing them will immediately trigger that scene in my mind (just as music can powerfully trigger emotional memories). Massive Attack's 'Silent Spring' (featuring Elizabeth Fraser), for instance, is now inextricably bound up with a wistful scene in the novel currently underway. The delicate Andante from Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No.2 in F Major inspired the emotional atmosphere in a scene where a character in a very fragile state found her internal poise.

Now, I'm 'pre-programming' all my main characters with specific pieces that express their personalities, and which get me straight back into the groove with them if I've been away from them for a while. Looking at my playlist, I see I've looped some songs 140 times. Wow. That's a bit of writing time! My villain has been running on Muse's 'Butterflies and Hurricanes' for some time. It's perfect for him, the intense mood, the escalating, complex structure, even the lyrics, and this song is now so strongly identified with him in my mind that if I play it, I'm right in there with him straight away. If a character is going through a change in their personality, then I find a new piece of music for them that links to that change. It's fun, and enormously helpful.

Currently, I'm taking temporary leave from the set of all-consuming novels to finish a short story. The first thing I've done is to find music for the new story. It had to be music never used for the novels, or it would link me back to them, shift the focus away. So the story now has a defining 'song' of its own; when I hear it, I'm immediately present to the new story (this works best, naturally, if you really like the piece of music too!). And I know when I go back to the novels, their 'soundtracks' will be waiting there to help me get back in touch with them. All great food for the muse!


  1. That's fascinating. I've never thought of using music in that way.

  2. I like to use music to get me into a mood to write sad or happy. It's amazing how certain songs just push the right buttons, partly because of how they sound, and partly because of my own life memories associated with them. I've never thought of linking them to characters though. Must try it.

  3. Do try it! Of course, another aide for character and setting is creating images of them, but that's another post....:-)