There’s a lot that goes into writing a great novel.
Planning, skill, imagination. And, of course, the ability to complete your first draft. There’s no Great American Novel without a finished first draft, and second draft, and third, so before you set out to write your masterpiece, you have to figure out how to get your initial words down so you have something to build on, to make into something you feel is worth sending out into the world.
I’ve talked a lot about the two ways that will help you reach the end of your first draft. You need to have consistency in your writing every day, reaching a chosen word count (I talk about that here), and you need to set a deadline for your first draft, even it’s totally made up (I talk about that here).
But what about the very act of getting your words down for the day? Beyond finding a time of the day that works for you, beyond sitting down and knowing for sure the scene you want to work on, what helps get your heart pumping, your imagination soaring?
For me, it’s film music.
Since the first day writing my very first novel in April 2010, I’ve been playing film scores through the speakers as I write my fiction. This kind of music always does the job for me because it evokes not an image, but a feeling, a mood, a tone I want to express through my words. It gives me a clear, centered space to do my writing for the day, always letting the other noises around me, and from within my own head, fade away.
Now, these are not songs I’m talking about. I’m not playing the soundtrack from The Bodyguard in the background as I compose my latest novel. I’m not blasting tracks from the latest Marvel movie soundtrack. The music I listen to while I write new fiction is always score, with no voices, only melodies that I specifically choose for the kind of work I’m doing.
At the very beginning of my writing career, when I wrote my first three novels, I listened to John Williams. His iconic scores were always fun to play in the background as I wrote for long hours. It wasn’t until I wrote my fourth book, however, that I realized that to do better work, I needed to listen to film score that wasn’t just great, but that actually added to what I was writing. Listening to the Jurassic Park theme can fill me with wonder, but is it appropriate for a scene where a high school jock is walking through his prom alone? Where a woman jumps out of an exploding building?
When I started my fourth book Happy Birthday to Me Again, my YA sequel, in early 2011, I decided to look around for a more helpful film score. Something that would keep me on track, and assist me in my efforts to bring my scenes to life. The perfect score I found, one that had just won the Academy Award, was the score to The Social Network, composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. This score is perfect for many kinds of novels because it drums up feelings of uncertainty, uneasiness, conflict, obsession. It can be anything, really. What I love about film score is that, as long as you make the music work in favor of the novel you’re trying to put down on the page, then by all means use it! I wrote four novels in 2011 and listened to The Social Network as I wrote every one of them.
But then in early 2012, I found something even better.
Also by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The score I’ve written the most novels to, probably ten or more. The duo’s score to the next David Fincher film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This score is better for two main reasons: it doesn’t have any of the super fast beats from The Social Network, and it has 39 tracks, compared to The Social Network’s 19. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to the score from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Maybe a thousand at this point? It is exquisite. Mesmerizing.
And no matter what kind of fiction I’m writing: horror or adventure or quiet literary, this score always seems to do the trick. It puts me in the right frame of mind. And with this specific score playing through the speakers, I’m never uncertain if I’ll hit my 2,000 words for the day. I always do. Whenever I’m stuck in a scene, whenever I’m struggling, I let this music play for a few minutes… and then I’m always okay. The score to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has absolutely been my hidden secret as a writer for all these years. I don’t know how much I would’ve written without it.
In 2015, for my super creepy horror novel Toothache, I advanced away from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to, you guessed it, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s next score for David Fincher, their fabulous music composed for the brilliant Gone Girl. I wrote this one novel to the Gone Girl score, which I love, has its own compelling creepiness and haunting quality, but by the time I started writing my next book Monster Movie at the end of 2015 (the book that got me an agent after seven long years), I went back to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It just seems to work best for me.
I’ve tried a few different scores over the past six years.
When I wrote my apocalyptic ending to my third Happy Birthday to Me book, I spent about a week listening to the ending emotional track The End, from 2006’s United 93, which lasts all of six minutes (!) and yet gave me the terrifying mood I needed to make those last couple chapters of Happy Birthday to You as emotionally compelling as I could make them. I’ve tried writing to some of Hans Zimmer’s scores, particularly to the Christopher Nolan movies. His score for Inception and Interstellar are incredible, and of course his work on the Dark Knight trilogy is superb. My problem with some of this work is that it’s almost too overwhelming in its grandiosity, and sometimes makes me lose my way.
Just this month I spent three weeks writing a new screenplay called The Substitute. I decided to try something brand new, out of the box, and so I went searching on Youtube for film scores. I don’t even know how, but I stumbled upon a score to a movie I’d never heard of called Beyond the Black Rainbow. It’s only 38 minutes of film music, but as soon as I started to listening to it, I knew it would be perfect. I needed something extra strange for this intense and twisted examination of a mother in crisis, and the Beyond the Black Rainbow film score did the job. I listened to it for all seventeen days that I wrote my latest writing project.
But nothing has gotten as many words out so fast as the score to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
I don’t really have an answer for why. It’s just great, great writing music. And always will be.
So I don’t really know how you do it. If you’ve written many novel first drafts in the past, I’d love to hear what your process is in terms of what you allow yourself to listen to. Maybe you prefer silence, which just doesn’t work for me. Maybe you prefer lots of voices surrounding you, like in coffeehouses or on a college campus. This works better for me than silence, but still, it’s not ideal. Maybe you like listening to actual songs instead of score. Or classical music. Whatever works for you, great. Keep at it.
But if you’ve never written a first draft of a novel before, if you’re intimidated by the idea of it but still very much want to do it, listening to film scores is a tool that I absolutely believe will help you. Again, it’s not about shaping your story in any concrete way. It’s about instilling a feeling and a mood inside yourself that will keep you focused on your writing, will keep you on track to reach your goal word count for the day.
Give this practice a try. You may be surprised at how much, and how well, you write in the future.