How I Use Music in My Writing

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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.

Zone Out

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.

“I don’t even like the idea that there is a separation between Christian music and non-Christian music. [That designation] makes it seem less approachable… I wouldn’t label my music Christian music anyways, but it does have a lot to do with faith.” 

Matt Maeson

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.

Have Fun

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 ^



#NaNoWriMo and a Novel Update

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National Novel Writing Month—it’s a crazy challenge that starts November 1 and ends on the 30th, with the goal of getting at least 50,000 words under your belt. Similar to one of my favorite tools for busting writer’s block—The Most Dangerous Writing App—the idea is that if you can just get the words out, you’ll find the story you were meant to tell (and you can always go back and edit it later).

That said… I did not participate. (Bum bum bum.) At least, not in the traditional challenge. I have two novels under my belt (the first is garbage, said every author ever) so as fun as it is to write, I feel responsible to actually finish what I’ve already set out to do. So, inspired by the NaNoWriMo community and movement, November was editing month for me.

The Glenfinnan Viaduct in Scotland, photo by yours truly. Representative of the giants I see ahead.

I spent the month editing my beloved second novel to prepare it for a second round of publishing submissions. This was the month to kill my darlings (read that post for some seriously good writing advice). Two entire chapters got the cut. Do you know how hard it is to trash things your own creation? Things that you were once convinced were brilliant and absolutely necessary?! Ahem. I did it, nonetheless. And honestly, it was overdue.

I finished this novel in March of this year and started submitting it to literary agents in May. Sadly, I was unable to find one. Honestly, it was crushing. I realized I still struggle with rejection. Not a good characteristic for a freelancer and author. It was frustrating too. One agent told me my genre wasn’t selling well (which I disagree with). And they all wanted platforms (I swear, that word has turned into a curse around here). I’m not an influencer and have no intention of becoming one—I happen to like being a real human who focuses on my real family, rather than forcing screaming children into coordinating outfits for the ‘gram.

So I did what every sore loser does. I got frustrated and gave up. I stuck that thing under the bed and turned my back on it for several months. I’m not very proud of this part of the story, so let’s ignore how long it lasted and continue.

Then. I was getting groceries at the beginning of the month when I heard a familiar song playing in the store. It was one of the songs I listened to repeatedly while writing the novel. Now, I certainly hadn’t forgotten the book (impossible), but I had avoided it. And it all came rushing back. When I got back to my car, I pulled up the playlist I had made for that story and listened to a few more songs. And I wasn’t frustrated, I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t disappointed. I was convicted.

The Three Sisters of Glencoe. More giants in the land. I spy my sweet little toddler in a yellow coat ❤

I don’t like to throw around phrases like “I heard from God”—no, no booming voice came from the sky, no blinding light from the heavens. But I felt it. I felt the passion I once had for that project come back and the conviction that it isn’t just my story. It isn’t just something I made that I can decide to quit on. It’s a story that was planted in my mind, totally outside of my comfort zone, for a purpose. It’s a story that someone needs. Whether a traditional publisher will take it on or not, I felt the determination to continue and to explore the possibility of self-publishing. Because this is the story of church hurts, of the pain caused by purity culture, and of the long road back to faith after walking away in college. This is a story that I am absolutely convinced someone out there needs to hear.

When I hear people say God called them to something and they struggled to follow, I’ve always thought that seemed a little silly. I mean, if you know God is calling you, why not just do it? I figured I had just never been so sure. But I was lying to myself. I know for a fact God is calling me to write—and he has been since I was about 8 years old. And yet, there I was, hiding my talents in the dirt. I was looking into the promised land and saying, “No way, God, don’t you see the giants in there?” And I finally saw how silly it was.

So that’s how I ended up spending my November editing ruthlessly. My novel is coming back out from under the bed for a second round of submissions. And I’m hoping and praying that I’ll be a little more resilient this time around and be open to self-publishing, if necessary. Because Outside of Grace deserves to be read, regardless of what the giants have to say about it.