Sometimes to see, you need to listen first.
For almost all of the projects I would create before 2016, I ran into a wall over and over again: For some reason, I couldn’t visualize anything about my stories the way I needed to.
It wasn’t because I didn’t have a vivid imagination or that my projects weren’t immersive enough — on the contrary, sometimes there are so many ideas in my stories that it’s hard to streamline my vision. I thought this was just a shortcoming of my own writer’s block; I would have these potent images of characters and scenes, but once I sat down to write, all of those visions drained from my head until I was left with this blankness. For the longest time, I didn’t have a remedy for this; I just kept writing my stories, and when I ran out of juice, I couldn’t stay in the headspace of my world.
I knew I needed a change.
At the beginning of 2016, I read the YA fantasy series An Ember in the Ashes — a series you should go out and buy this very minute — and was introduced to the author, Sabaa Tahir.
I didn’t know anything about Sabaa, as it was her debut in the YA literature scene, but the more I looked into her, the more I became invested. Her Twitter was (and still is) full of fun anecdotes about her children and lots of non-spoilers about the characters from the series. Her personality drew me in immediately, but what stuck with me was what she wrote nestled at the end of her acknowledgements.
She thanked musicians whose songs she used to help inspire her world.
I looked more into this and discovered that Sabaa makes expansive playlists for each of her novels (and some just for her own pleasure), which help breathe life into her world and characters. These playlists are very detailed: They encompass each character, specific character relationships and a master playlist for the whole book.
And of course, Sabaa Tahir isn’t the only one making playlists when she writes; this is a strategy that has been around for years, and everyone has their own way of going about it. Some claim that listening to music can bring back the freshness of a certain place, others like making playlists because the music they choose can influence the creation of each book. There’s 101 ways to make a playlist, and the important takeaway is to choose the music that speaks to you.
Music creates in us an emotional reaction; when we hear a song, we have this implicit memory recall that brings forth emotions and experiences we associate with the instrumentation or melody. For me, this is important for hand-picking the songs that eventually go into a playlist for my stories. I filter through songs on Spotify knowing what kind of mood my story sets, and I want the music to match that.
My short story “Pavane” will be published in the 2020 issue of the Long River Review, and it does have an accompanying playlist. The story is about a teenage boy whose friend, through a love for classical music, tries to work through his tense home life.
The playlist began with “Pavane, Op. 50” by Gabriel Fraure. I knew I needed a classical piece to be at the core of the story, and when I heard “Pavane, Op. 50,” the mood matched exactly how I wanted the story to feel: wistful yet full of life.
Other songs slowly joined the roster. “Circles” by Post Malone and “Lie for Love” by Sabrina Carpenter were choices based on the lyrics and how they applied to the boys’ relationship. “I Feel It” by Avid Dancer and “All For You” by Years & Years had a certain feel to them that mimicked the atmosphere I wanted to create. Check out the full Spotify playlist here or down below.
Once the playlist was made, I only listened to those songs when I wrote. This helped me stay focused in the minds of my characters, and the music kept me in this writing vacuum. It added an entirely new layer to the process and gave me the motivation to finish.
You may not be the type of person who likes listening to music while writing, but give it a try — just listen between the lines.
Ryan Amato is the Long River Review managing editor and a translations panel reader. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.