Dancing About Architecture

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By Colleen Oakes

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."

Having the right music while I'm writing is of the utmost importance.  In so many ways, it elevates the craft of writing, and it stimulates my brain in a way that nothing else can. Except for maybe, you know, writing.

When I wrote Elly in Bloom, the music I listened to had a lot of influence on the mood in my scenes.  For the happy, wedding-filled chapters, I listened to buzzy pop music, or bouncy-women-driven songs (Ingrid Michaelson,  Sia, Sara Evans, Carrie Underwood, Brooke Fraser).  When I had to take Elly down into her betrayal and the anger, it was all about Kelly Clarkson's "My December", a melodramatic and angry album that captured the depths of betrayal and the rage of a woman betrayed.

That album had everything I needed, and if I were to name "an album for Elly", that would be it. Towards the end of the book, I listened to Lifehouse's "Breathing" on repeat. There was just something sweet and lovely and old school about it, and I wanted to capture this new blossoming that was happening in Elly's life, and the hope that I wanted to carry into the sequel.

For Queen of Hearts, it was a totally different story. I could not write - well, anyway - to music with words. I needed grand and epic music, music that stimulated my imagination in the most direct way.  I didn't need Clarkson. I needed Zimmer and Williams and Elfman.

I needed movie soundtracks, and lots of them. I needed dramatic music to inspire scenes that were so big that I could only write them in a deconstructing way and then put them back together.  I needed music that made me feel angry, deceitful, rushed, panicked, terrified, betrayed, elated and devastated - all at once.

I needed music to burn a city down and to lift up a field of magical flowers.

For two years, this is what Queen of Hearts looked like: me, hunched over my little netbook at a Starbucks wishing I was at a Caribou, typing and frowning, typing and frowning, checking Pinterest, typing and frowning.  All during that time, I was graced with GIANT headphones that my husband bought me.  This let me get lost in the music, which enabled me to get lost in the book. I can truly say that without the music, Queen of Hearts would not have happened.

I would start out every writing session with the same song, something I highly recommend. Take a few hours and find that perfect piece of music, and let it lead you where you want to go. Let it be a marker that you are departing from your present reality.  My song was  A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics by James Horner: There is no other song I know that really gets my brain focused and working like this one. The quick pace of the song, and the way it climbs the scales, through quick, intense almost frantic piano notes...I can't perfectly explain it without seeming a bit unhinged, but when I close my eyes and listened to this song before I started writing Queen each time, it was like I was seeing a thousand doors unlock, one after another.  Then I saw a tree unfurling its branches and the branches became a forest, the forest a world.  My world. There is something about this song that prepares and bares my mind to consuming imagination. All the pressures of daily life fell at my feet. Yeah, it's that good.

When I begin writing a novel, I usually find a piece of music to power the climax of the novel as well. When I was writing, I would listen to the song at the end of every writing session, a bookmark, and something to look forward to. I would think "Soon, I'll get to write this amazing scene, this amazing ending."  My musical bookends. Everyone writes different, but for me, it's very important that when I write the first chapter that the last chapter is completely in my mind.  The song for the end of Queen was "Now we are Free" by Lisa Gerrad.   I knew exactly what I wanted to happen in that scene, and it sounded like this song; free, uplifting and dramatic. I listened to it leading up to the epilogue, letting it guide my writing to that spot.  It has a finality and resolution to it that resonated just right with that scene. It's so beautiful, it makes me so weepy and when i finished Queen of Hearts, I did indeed weep.

Did I ever listen to music with words?  Occasionally.  It just didn't suit this book. There is something about picking the right kind of music that rearranges the brain in a way that it's ready to write. It's ready to get lost in something, to dip its toes into the creative side of your life, your education and your passion.

My advice? It's worth the time to find the right soundtrack to your book.

I'm happy to report that even though my writing looks the same - Hunched over, typing, frowning, typing - but in my ears the cheerful beats of a new book are sounding.

A story of new beginnings and fresh words.

Colleen Oakes
Colleen Oakes is the author of the Elly in Bloom Series (Sparkpress) and the YA fantasy The Queen of Hearts Saga (Harper Collins, 2016). She lives in North Denver with her husband and son. When not writing, Colleen enjoys swimming, traveling, and immersing herself in nerdy pop culture. She is currently at work on the third Elly novel and another YA fantasy series titled Wendy Darling.
You can visit her webpage at: www.colleenoakes.net or at her very lengthy and sometimes embarrassingly personal blog, The Ranunculus Adventures: http://ranunculusadventure.blogspot.com/

2 thoughts on “Dancing About Architecture

  1. I’ve tried writing to music, Colleen, but don’t seem to be able to “not listen” to the beat, the lyrics, the melodies. You must be able to compartmentalize better than I if you can put the music in the background and absorb without really listening. I’m more the chair boogie type who must sing along.

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