A Musical Secret

8 Jun

By Sammy Bina


We’ve had plenty of articles about the importance of outlining here at LTWF, but today I thought I’d throw one more at you. Something a little out of left field, if you will. Something different. Because when it comes to outlining, I’ve never been a fan. In fact, I pretty openly despise it. Only recently have I been somewhat converted to the monstrosity known as the Detailed Outline (meaning I’ve only done it for one book); in every other instance (including the novel I actually made a Detailed Outline for), I’ve gone about things a bit differently.

My secret? I outline using music.

Writers are inspired by all sorts of things. Maybe for you it’s a conversation you overheard on the subway, or a really incredible piece of art. Maybe your ideas come to you while you’re in the shower, or in the middle of taking an exam. For me, music’s always been my muse. I tend to write my novels as if they were movies — I can see them play out in my head and, more importantly, can imagine the soundtrack playing faintly in the background. Ironically, I can’t write with music playing, but it’s a huge factor in actually getting me to write.

Allow me to explain how this all works.

Step 1: I get an idea for a novel. For realism’s sake, we’ll use my current WIP as an example.

Step 2: I open iTunes. That’s right — before I even open Word, I’ve got to get a playlist started. I even come bearing an example:

As you can see, this is the playlist for SILENCE. It’s still growing, but the initial playlist, before I even began writing, consisted of about 20 songs. Because the story’s very melancholy and quiet, I put together a compilation of songs that I thought would work well to set the tone. For example: William Fitzsimmons, Peter Bradley Adams, and a bunch of instrumentals.

Step 3: Start writing.

Step 4: Add songs to playlist. As new scenes are written, I try to imagine what song might be playing in the background if it were actually a movie. Most of the time the song actually inspires the scene, but sometimes it’s the other way around. For example, I consider SILENCE’s theme song to be If You Would Come Back Home by William Fitzsimmons, which is at the very top of the playlist. It isn’t directly related to any scene, but I always listen to it before I start editing. It really helps me sink back into the story and how I felt when I was writing it. Some people set the mood for a romantic evening at home. Me? I set the mood for a romantic evening with me and my computer.

Pivotal scenes often get more than one song. In the first chapter of SILENCE, the main character has a flashback to the night her parents died. The scene initially starts with a song from Yann Tiersen’s Amelie score, but as the tension grows, it turns into a song from Mansfield Park. Different instruments lend themselves to certain feelings, and in some cases, instrumentals aren’t even good enough. Sometimes you need lyrics. My soundtracks are so random and mismatched, but somehow, it just works.

By the time I’m done with a story (written and edited), the playlist is usually between 30 and 50 songs. It really depends on how scene-specific I get. SILENCE is a bit more like that, while my playlist for THE AGE OF NEVER GROWING OLD is more generic and mood-setting than anything. It all depends on the story. All I know is that this is the only real way I can outline. I start associating songs and lyrics with specific scenes or characters. The first novel I wrote had a pretty short playlist (short being 25 songs), but every time one of those comes up on my shuffle, I’m still reminded of scenes I wrote nearly a decade ago. Music sticks with you, which is why I think it’s been such an effective tool for me. So for those of you who are like me and are having trouble outlining, maybe give the musical route a go. If anything, you’ll get an awesome playlist out of it!


Sammy Bina graduated with a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and interned for the Elaine P. English literary agency in Washington D.C.. She is currently editing her YA dystopian, SILENCE. You can follow her blog or find her on twitter.


7 Responses to “A Musical Secret”

  1. oogs June 8, 2011 at 12:12 AM #

    This is brilliant! I thought I was the only one who did this. Thanks for sharing

  2. Misti Wolanski June 8, 2011 at 9:47 AM #

    I pull music in after I’ve already done some planning and writing—or if I get a thought that a song would be great for a particular character/scene while I’m listening to it. This works best with my urban fantasy books, though, because the lyrics have to match, too.

    My urban fantasy that I’ll be releasing next month even has its own playlist of a song per chapter, but while writing, I had a much larger playlist that was everything that fit the mood. I narrowed it down to the core song that worked.

    I even have one playlist that follows the romantic arc that’ll cover at least 5 books. Probably more.

    It’s such a fantastic feeling, when you find a song and realize it fits a particular character or scene exactly. 😀

  3. Mac_V June 8, 2011 at 11:16 AM #

    I love that you have “Your Hands Are Cold” and “Return to Mother” on there. I love the Pride and Prejudice and Tangled soundtracks and write with songs from them, too! I can’t write without a playlist either and if I’m having a hard time getting into writing (which sadly happens far too often), putting on a playlist helps me to get into it so much. I think I’m going to have to look up some of the songs on your list, though, because I haven’t heard of a lot of them. And I love having as much music as I can get!

    Thanks for the post, it’s great!

    Mer 🙂

  4. savannahjfoley June 8, 2011 at 11:51 AM #

    That’s a brilliant way of looking at outlining! I wish I was more music-oriented, because I would totally do this.

  5. Febe Moss June 8, 2011 at 5:19 PM #

    Wow this is awesome. Loved this post! I do this so much


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