How I Write Novels: Choosing The Foundation Song

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

One of the weird things about learning to write is that habits just crop up organically.  Your power’s out, so you write something by longhand, and determine that you’re the writer who works best writing in pen.  A few years later, you have discovered that your best works come out of a Moleskine notebook, with a blue fountain pen, in the atrium of the library.
It seems vaguely silly, and perhaps a bit pretentious at times, but you don’t question when the stories start flowing.  So you bow to the muse and hope you do not eventually break underneath an accreted layer of accumulated quirks.
For me, I need a song to write a novel.
I discovered this when I was writing my (as yet unpublished) novel The Upterlife.  I don’t usually have music on when I’m writing; as a musician, I find myself drawn to the beat of the drums, and then I’m paying attention to “What drum fills would I have used here?” than my story.  But when I was driving and plotting, Rise Against’s Re-Education (Through Labor) came on:

And when I heard that raw rage pouring out of my speakers, it seemed to summarize the dystopic future I was envisioning: rusted, built upon the backs of kids who didn’t have a choice, passionate in all the ways that the establishment wasn’t.  I put it on repeat.
Later on in the drive, when I got stuck on “What would my hero Amichai do?” I put on that song again.  And somehow, Rise Against put me into his head, and those plot problems unknotted themselves spontaneously.  It was like the soundtrack to my personal movie, except only that one song worked.
Then, later on, when I was writing my (upcoming) novel Flex, I had similar problems on a cross-country drive.  The novel opens with the apartment of a middle-aged Dad catching fire, so the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down The House” caught my attention.  And sure enough, when I listened to David Byrne’s plaintive voice, I got into Paul’s confusion and bewilderment that his life was now crashing down around his shoulders because he’d become a magician:

You’d think it was just the title that inspired me, but I listened to all my other songs about fire and middle-aged disaster: nothing. Only this song and this one song would recenter me whenever I got lost in my discovery draft.
The mechanics of it don’t make sense to me.  When I wrote the sequel, I was all like, “Okay, the original was a 1980s song, the next song will be some other 1980s hit.”  But no.  The next novel in the series is all about the chaos and destruction caused by the events in the first novel and how that falls out among the family, so what song caught my ear when I was driving and plotting?

The lyrics to that don’t even make sense. But it summarized desperation in a way that I couldn’t engage with otherwise. When I wrote the battle sequences, with ‘mancers taking down cops in gouts of fire, this is what I listened to about 200 times.
So this time, I gave in. Tomorrow I’ll be starting my next novel in a delayed attempt to hop on the NaNoWriMo bandwagon, and I realized this weekend that I hadn’t found the song that was a sort of bastardized theme song for it. And this novel is going to be about the quest for fine cuisine in a space opera setting, based on all my deep love of cooking shows and Michelin restaurants and Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and I needed a song that expressed some inchoate version of beauty – an ethereal hopefulness that among the hardscrabble death and destruction, there was still something worth fighting for.
I drove, auditioning songs on my iPod, flicking through the 1300 songs one by one, discarding each in turn. I came close a couple of times – weirdly enough, Dar Williams’ “As Cool As I Am” summarized a lot of the romance – but eventually I found that swelling idea of everything I needed to write this:

And as I drove, that plucking of a banjo reminding me a little of Firefly, I envisioned driven chefs and rich madmen carving a trail through the void, and the plot unspooled into my head as though it were being beamed in from some distant star.
It’s beauty. It’s inexplicable.
It’s process, and you don’t question it.


  1. Mishell Baker
    Nov 10, 2014

    For BORDERLINE it was “Crazy,” both Gnarls Barkley and Shawn Colvin versions.

    • Mishell Baker
      Nov 10, 2014

      Oh, and Residence Four has its own theme song: “God’s Away on Business”

  2. Matthias Williamson
    Nov 13, 2014

    I use spotify to create my own little playlists that I listen while I write, so I totally get this.

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