Music is essential to writing a first draft. It sets a mood, fuels creativity, and offers words when I hit a blank. But music can also be distracting and enabling. I try to be intentional about how I bring it into my writing and what types of music I use. Below, I’ve got some tips on how I balance music with my writing. Plus, my “official” Outside of Grace playlist (with some teaser info at the end)!
Moment of honesty first: sharing the music I listen to is terrifying! I discovered in college that whatever I listened to, regardless of what it was, was definitely uncool. I once had a TA do a music session in lab at the end of the semester and let everyone pick songs. My song was the only one immediately booed and voted off. (If that happens in a future book, now you know.) So I’m pretty self-conscious about my music. But whatever. My police-officer dad raised me on a steady stream of Enya. I’ll never be cool. I’m learning to be okay with that.
Set the Mood
Whether it’s a sad, reflective moment, or an upbeat, hopeful scene, music helps me get into the right headspace. As a mom of toddlers, if I’m going to quickly go from changing diapers to writing about college kids in a bar, I need the help of music. I have a playlist for each novel I’m working on, and each one features a unique style of music. The Outside of Grace playlist (above) walks through the moods of the book—ranging from Scottish ballads to house beats and more. I wonder how much of the book can be given away in that playlist alone? It should probably come with spoiler alerts!
Find the Songs
Another novel I’m drafting is more character-focused and doesn’t feature as many drastic scene changes. Rather, it develops two characters who are total opposites. Thus, the playlist for that book features songs that help me get into the character’s heads more, focusing on who I’m writing about and the way they view the world. One of them is very bohemian—and I’ve got her listening to indie songs with a nature-focus. Finding Bohemian and Christian Boho playlists on Spotify was very helpful in building my own playlist. Spotify’s suggestions were helpful for building onto a playlist once I got started.
Words or No Words?
I used to hate songs with words when writing. If I’m trying to get an academic paper just right the first time, I’m likely to stick with classical music. But for the creative process, I find that the slight distraction of songs with lyrics helps take off the pressure of a blank page. I can let loose, fill the page with words, and then come back to it for edits later.
I’m a shameless repeater. If I find an addictive new song, I’m likely to play it on repeat endlessly until I can hum it in my sleep. (With headphones of course, so I don’t drive my husband insane.) It becomes a background noise that helps me zone out and focus on writing; I think it keeps me from getting distracted by other thoughts.
Religious or Secular?
A quick look through the Outside of Grace playlist will reveal a majority of secular songs, which may seem odd—possibly even offensive—for a Christian novel. As a teenager, a small church I visited wanted members to only listen to Christian music. To an extent, I can see their point. Honestly, I find my mental health tends to be better when I primarily listen to Christian music. However, I think being aware of current music trends and culture can be helpful (Acts 17:22-31 is a good example of being aware of the culture). Outside of Grace deals with a lot of secular settings—bars, college campuses, etc. Pretending like Christians don’t encounter that sort of thing on a regular basis doesn’t help anyone.
In theme with setting the mood, when my main character is wrestling with her faith, my listening will reflect that. Artists like Matt Maeson, who is vocal about his experience of turning away from religion and later rediscovering it, capture the feel so well. Several of his songs filled the playlist when I was considering how to accurately represent a crisis of faith. (Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco also wrestles with topics of religion in songs like Say Amen, while offering the vibe I needed for certain scenes.)
*Let’s just take a break here to say that you’re probably thinking I’m an insane over-thinker. You would be right.
Reverse the Mood
When it’s time for edits, I try to challenge myself to reverse the mood. Listening to something peppy and upbeat before editing a big tear-jerker scene is a great way to test its strength. The scene must be written powerfully enough to bring me back down. And while I’ll do copy editing with music, I need silence for line editing. Once I’m ready for final edits, I do crazy person things like stand in my room, alone, and read the entire thing out loud. It’s amazing how much more you can catch when you have to speak the words and your brain can’t just auto-pilot through them.
Now go forth, Writer, and picture your perfect playlist as the soundtrack to your wildly successful book-turned-movie. Or, Reader and epilogue-loving Fan, find your author’s playlist and reread the scenes you loved with all the feels. Having a playlist is just plain fun.
Outside of Grace Teaser
The playlist above used to be perfectly organized with one song corresponding to each chapter. However, it’s changed a bit and recent edits have dropped an entire chapter from the book. When writing the first draft, I had a massive playlist for inspiration that wasn’t nearly as carefully curated. But the “official” one features the songs that I felt best summed up scenes. Since doing edits, I’ve messed around with it a bit and added a handful of extra songs to it. It’s still pretty representative of the book, so if you want a sneak peak, give it a listen!
Bonus: If I had to pick one song to represent the entire book, it would be Leave a Light On by the Red Hot Chilli Pipers and Tom Walker. (Fun facts: they’re both native Scottish artists, because I. Must. Be. Genuine. Part of that over-thinker thing.) This song is probably not the coolest. There are bagpipes involved. But I love it and will stand by that. (Obviously 8.6 million people agree with me, so I’m not that far off.)
TL;DR – listen to that song ^