7 essentials for writing a good novel – notes from the Undercover Soundtrack

essentialsYou’ll have seen the posts here about my blog series the Undercover Soundtrackfor logo

Over the years, the posts consistently repeat certain bare essentials, both for reaching the writing mindset and creating a good story. Here they are, and whether you write with music or not, we all need them.

To enter the zone

In front of us is a keyboard and a screen, or maybe a pad and pen. Whether you’re putting on a soundtrack, closing the door on your favourite silent space or seeking the anonymous corner of a coffee shop, the first step is to find a way to delete the outside world.

Start the time machine

Whether we write gritty memoir or the most extravagantly invented fantasy, we need to harvest our emotional memories. Many of our scenes, dilemmas and storylines are drawn from feelings we had at important times with family, friends, loved ones.

To keep the pace

Stories aren’t static. To keep the reader gripped, we need to generate a sense that the world of the story is changing all the time. For me, music is a useful reminder, because music does not stand still. There may be a new instrument snaking into the mix, a new variation on a theme, a creeping, evolving harmony. If this is going on in my ears while I’m spending time with my book – whether I’m musing or typing – I find it keeps me up to the mark – pushing for ideas that give this forward pressure.

And structure  

We’re getting more musical now. A song is not unlike a well-told tale. It creates a territory of familiarity – a pattern we recognise of verse and chorus. Then we have the second verse – familiar, but not the same because the background is more dense or the lyric more intense. The second chorus is usually more substantial than the first, and even if it has the same lyric, it packs more punch. And on the song goes, seeking a climax.

And elegance

For all its variation, a song is tightly disciplined. It develops by adding only what belongs. As story writers we can splash about in ideas, locations, settings, characters and events, but the more they align with the home territory (or exquisitely contrast with it), the more they will seem to belong in one piece.

And contrast

In a piece of music, there might be a breakdown, where most of the elements are subtracted, perhaps leaving only the drum track or the melody at great distance. Breaks are important for a reader too; perhaps a campfire scene, a time out from the pressure to let the reader breathe before the tension comes flying back.

To calm the inner editor

Novels are huge and often daunting. Getting from beginning to end requires persistence, and we always find our confidence tested. Many of my Undercover Soundtrack guests report that music is an essential companion in this. It helps us believe more in ourselves, our story, our characters, our world – and in our ability to finish.

How about you? What essentials would you add? And if music isn’t your aide of choice, is there something you use to get a novel finished?

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  1. #1 by tomburkhalter on March 24, 2014 - 12:34 pm

    “Novels are huge and often daunting.” I won’t say novels are the most difficult art form of all (I’ve never written a symphony) but it’s got to be right up there. You are so very right when you say writing a novel takes persistence and, ultimately, the confidence to believe in yourself and your ability. Even then it’s a lot like Sisyphus and his rock sometimes.

    Good post! BTW, I tend to make soundtracks for every day and sometimes by task, like editing or writing the (occasional!) short story. The music has to be upbeat, except the sometime sad song like “Dust In the Wind” by Kansas or “The Very Last Time” by Alan Parsons.

    For me, though, the ultimate motivational song is “Turn It Up” by the Alan Parson Project. Loved it the first time I heard it in the early ’90s, still love it today.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 24, 2014 - 7:49 pm

      Hi Tom! That’s a great point you make about self-belief. Operas next!

      How funny that you mention The Alan Parsons Project. I have one of their albums – Eye in the Sky – which I go running to when I need a bit of time in the open air with some corduroy rock. I haven’t tried Turn It Up, but I can recommend ‘When I’m Old And Wise’ for a good bit of slush.

  2. #3 by Darren on March 24, 2014 - 2:13 pm

    Great: simple, to the point, yet timeless essentials – and in addition to music? I could only add tea, but then I am a Brit 😉

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 24, 2014 - 7:50 pm

      Thanks Darren. And as a fellow Brit, I raise a cup of Earl Grey in your direction!

  3. #5 by sharonhughson on March 24, 2014 - 7:34 pm

    I’ve been meaning to give music a try during my writing time. I think it would have to be instrumental because I like to sing along when I know the words and that would pull me out of my fantasy world for sure.
    I love silence. I read my work aloud to hear if it works. I like to talk out a scene or problem. Yes, I am one of those crazy writers who talks to and answers herself.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 24, 2014 - 7:56 pm

      Hi Sharon! I used to think I couldn’t write if I could hear music at all – whether instrumental or not. But then I realised it was because it was altering my thoughts – and that this could be a helpful thing. But it depends what you write – a lot of my Undercover Soundtrack contributors would agree with you that lyrics are just plain wrong for writing to.

      You talk the scene out loud? Great idea! I often have to splurge the dialogue down very quickly because it starts happening very fast in my head. I’ve never tried speaking it out loud as I experiment, though I do read my final draft out loud to Dave, who then lacerates the rough bits.

      It’s interesting what you say about silence. I live in a city, so silence is hard to find except for very early in the mornings (not a time I get on well with!). But I do love the feeling of being cocooned in a special still place. I often have to use suitable music to create that.

    • #7 by Darren on March 25, 2014 - 10:15 am

      I find I need some sort of distraction, but some music can be off-putting (it depends on my mood actually – a song can help one day and hinder the next). One thing I have used recently, and found helpful is a little MAC app called coffitivity. This gives you the sounds and ambience of a coffee shop. It’s weird but it does seem to help, breaks up the silence but isn’t as intrusive as music sometimes is. Having said that, today is a music day for me… a little Gary Numan I think.

  4. #8 by jumpingfromcliffs on March 26, 2014 - 9:41 am

    You know, I use music as inspiration for writing, but had never broken it down structurally to compare with the writing process, as you did in this post Roz. Thank you, it’s given me a new perspective on the relationship between the two and really helps in thinking about the way a storyline needs to wax and wane and evolve and mutate. Really inspiring stuff.

    • #9 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 29, 2014 - 5:22 pm

      Hi Jon! I find music so interesting as an artform. It’s basically structured emotion, and seems to have many parallels with what we do as writers. Glad you enjoyed it!

  5. #10 by L. Palmer on April 3, 2014 - 9:36 pm

    Music is an essential part of my writing process. I make soundtracks, and use them as rough outlines for the emotional core of the story. With vocal tracks, I use them as, “If this book were a musical, this character would sing this here.” Once I hit the right song for a mood or moment it can quickly bring me back into the book.

    • #11 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 4, 2014 - 9:18 am

      You’ve come to the right place to find other people who do just that! I use soundtracks as a musical capsule to carry the book with me and to help freeze the dramatic moments so that I can get the most out of them. Thanks for stopping by!

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