I learned very early on that music is a great way to build books and preserve sanity.
That means that for each book, I have a specific playlist. When I'm building up the idea, writing the first draft, or editing, I listen to that playlist exclusively-- in the car, while on walks, while cleaning the kitchen. I behaviorally condition myself to be in that world with those characters when I hear that music. That means that if I need to switch between projects-- say, stop a first draft halfway through to revise a book for my agent or editor-- I can easily switch gears and reimmerse myself in the book that needs attention.
The key to a great playlist, for me, is to use all new music. I don't want songs to which I already have attachments or songs from my past that evoke certain feelings or nostalgia. And that means that for each book, I need 20+ brand new songs. Sounds like a tough deal, doesn't it? Back in high school, I was lucky if I found an album I really loved once a year. That's where Spotify comes in.
Spotify is free—although you have to listen to ads and can't take it with you. I pay $9.99 for a monthly subscription that cuts out all ads and allows me to upload my playlist to my iPad and iPod. $10 a month for unlimited music in my car and while traveling? THAT'S A GOOD DEAL. I used Pandora for my first few books, and it's a great way to spontaneously find new music, but you can only skip through so many songs before they force you to listen to something that makes you want to plug your ears with knives, which does not work for me. So, assuming you're using Spotify, like I do, here's how I make a playlist.
First, I find a song that *feels* like the book. I don't want something for which the lyrics are a 1-to-1 perfect match; I want the feel. Whimsical, sexy, dark, futuristic, whatever. Sometimes, I'll hear a song somewhere and know that it's the playlist seed. Sometimes I go on Twitter and ask for suggestions. Frex, when I was building the playlist for SERVANTS OF THE STORM, I asked for moody, dark music that felt like a storm building and dark things crawling underneath. My pal Ken Lowery suggested a band called The Gutter Twins, and that band became the heart of the playlist. Sometimes, it's one album and maybe a few extras for a book. WICKED AS THEY COME, for example, was entirely written to Like Vines by The Hush Sound.
More often, I start with one song and have to find a bunch of songs that flow with it. The first step is to make a new playlist and name it. Then you have to find songs to dump into it. For WAKE OF VULTURES, I started with the band Gangstagrass. I searched Spotify for Gangstagrass and pulled up their Artist page. Then I clicked Related Artists, which pulls up dozens of new bands. For each band, I pull up their Artist page. Here, Spotify shows you that band's 5 most Popular/listened to songs. You can even see how many times those songs have been accessed by Spotify users. I listen to those songs and just drag n' dump anything that sounds good into the Playlist.
I can tell within 20 seconds, usually, if a song works for that playlist. If the music is so good and works so well that I just listen to the songs and forget to dump them into the playlist, I often go through all of that band's albums and add as many songs as possible. You can see from the recent CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS playlist that Gangstagrass shows up a little, then there's a ton of Trampled by Turtles, Greensky Bluegrass, Punch Brothers, and Brown Bird. For this playlist, I started with Wait So Long by Trampled by Turtles, which I found for the Bedlam playlist. I never finished the Bedlam book, so you can see that that playlist never got big.
As a writer, I feel like my books are an organic process, influenced by little tidbits, experiences, and quotes I think of while in the shower, while doing yoga, while surfing the internet. Playlists are like that, too. I might hear something I like on the radio or while at a restaurant, add it, and use the Related Artists feature to find more songs that sound like it. I also find that mental images or words from the songs sometimes make it into my books. Right now, I'm writing the first draft of an epic Fantasy, codename smallbright, and you'll see that the playlist is mostly Lord Huron. Little snippets of the songs keep ending up in the dialogue, and I'm okay with that. If you listen to Like Vines, you can hear themes that worked their way int WICKED AS THEY COME, like the song Sweet Tangerine or the arrow through the throat. Music heavily influences each book, and the playlists are like part of the magic spell that grows a rich, tangled story out of a few tiny seeds.
Once I have a story seed and a playlist, it takes a few weeks for me to work out the general tone and direction of the story and characters. I figure out where the story begins, what the instigating factor will be, what the climax will be, how it ends, and what happens after that. I don't start writing until I know all those signposts and can't stand to wait another moment to write. By then, the playlist has become the background music for my life, and I listen to it through earbuds while I write. I don't hear the words anymore while writing, although I sing them when I'm driving around.
You can see all my playlists on my Delilah S. Dawson Spotify channel. You'll notice published books, books in the works, short stories, the Lumberfox e-books, and books that never made it. I'm so grateful for today's technology that allows me to find 30 songs I love in a couple of days and weave them into my art. My playlists allow me to switch effortlessly between projects, and they also help me to access flow and tap into my subconscious when I get to a tough spot and don't know which way to take the story. I run a hot bath, turn on the playlist, turn out the lights, and meditate in the water until I break through the block, figure out what happens next, or realize at which point I took a wrong turn and need to back track.
One caveat: When I use a song for a book, by the time I'm done writing, editing, and launching that book, I'm pretty much sick of that song forever. Its magic is used up. That's why I don't use something old or something that I'm in love with. Each playlist becomes a period of my life, music that defined me during that book. I tend to drop the playlist, move on, and have no further interest in that music. And I'm okay with that. It's like giving my old clothes to charity because they no longer fit or are my current style. You just don't want to use a song that's truly, truly meaningful to you unless you're ready to say goodbye.
Another caveat: You don't have to make your playlists public, like mine are. You should be free to add as much Nick Jonas or Taylor Swift as you want without worrying about other people judging you.
Other benefits: Seeing the band from your playlist play live can be transformative and give new passion to the writing. We saw The Civil Wars, The Airborne Toxic Event, and Manchester Orchestra while I was in those playlists, and the day after the concert, I hit 10k thanks to the energy planted directly into my sternum.
Do you use playlists? What methods do you use to comparmentalize projects or weave music into your art?