posted on request

arielstarshadow (edit: got it wrong the first time; so sorry!) asked in comments to this post how I go about making playlists and soundtracks for writing. At this point I’ve become a bit more systematic about it, so here, in case it’s useful to anyone else, is my system.

Step 1, way back in the day, was rating all of my music. This was, to be honest, a giant pain; I had about 6,000 songs when I set to work, and it took a while to get through them all. I’m very glad I did it, though, and even more glad I didn’t wait any longer to do it.

Then, if I recall correctly, I went through everything rated three stars and higher and created a bunch of mood-related playlists: bright, creepy, romantic, triumphant, etc. I mention this becuase maybe it would be useful to someone else, but the truth is that I’ve only rarely made use of those lists. Slightly more useful to me have been the “style” and “regional” lists; I’ve got one for all my Asian-sounding music, for example, and one for stuff with lots of drumming in it, etc.

When I’m making playlists for a book, though, what generally happens is I go through my list of albums and dump suitable material into a “reserve” playlist. I did this first for Memento, the game I ran, and it proved to be a godsend, so I’ve kept the habit since. Usually there’s some criterion guiding the formation of the reserve; in the case of Midnight, for example, I was looking for dark-sounding orchestral music. I didn’t want anything too modern, because of the period, and (with a few exceptions) I didn’t want words. Whenever I get around to writing The Changing Sea, it’ll be ocean-related music: the Pirates of the Carribean soundtracks, Master and Commander, sea chanties, whatever.

The reason for this is that I need some limitation. I’m up to over ten thousand songs now, and if I don’t find some way to narrow my field of selection, I’m doomed. Once I have my reserve, though (which is usually hundreds of songs all on its own), I sort them into playlists to actually listen to while writing. In the case of an Onyx Court book, there’s usually one for the faerie court (dark and atmospheric), one for the mortal world (whatever was current at the time), one for romance and sad things (the fact that I combine those two might be a telling point), one for battles, etc. And then I put those things on shuffle while I write, picking whichever list suits my immediate purpose best. This means I get variety within the parameters of that night’s scene, which is generally useful when you’re going to be listening to this stuff for months on end.

When it comes time to actually make a soundtrack, I figure out what characters and events I want to assign songs to, and then I make a whole bunch of playlists, one for each track. That way I can go through the reserve and toss possibilities into the relevant lists. Sometimes I work from the mood lists instead (Baroque music for some things in Star, for example), but more often I just cull through the reserve, since usually I’m doing batch jobs, looking for a bunch of things at once. Mind you, sometimes I just pick a song without any searching; it’ll come up on shuffle at some point and I just know I want to use it. But not everything works out that way.

Here’s the interesting thing about the process. Some authors, as a revision tool, outline their book after they’ve written it; that helps them figure out just what they’re doing with their story. This? Is my equivalent. Deciding what deserves to have a song, I’ve realized, is a form of outlining, and then the actual selection of music forces me to think about what exactly I’m trying to convey. This is somewhat true of the character-related selections, but especially true of the ones that soundtrack specific events; I use a lot of film scores, which means I’m listening to various pieces trying to find the one that really matches the arc of that scene. No, I want something that sounds creepier at the beginning, and then builds in a slow crescendo rather than going loud really suddenly, and then it needs to cut off right after the climax, without a long denoument — I learn a lot about my story by going through this process. And sometimes, yes, I’ll listen to a piece and decide that while it doesn’t match the scene I have, maybe the scene would be better off if it were more like the music. Mostly the soundtrack gets matched to the story, but not always.

I will, as requested, post more about specific instances of the relationship between music and my work, though not tonight. It’s going to be a bit tough, since the discussion won’t mean much if you can’t hear the song in question; I’ll have to see what I can find online. But we’ll see what we can do.

0 Responses to “posted on request”

  1. arielstarshadow

    This was extremely helpful for me, thank you! I think I need to start the process of rating/organizing during my upcoming vacation here at the end of the year. Did you find you needed to listen to a song in its entirety in order to rate it, or were you able to listen to the first 30 seconds or so?

    Of course, the problem is that now I would love to see a list of your music collection, because I suspect you’ve got a lot of things I’d love to have in mine! Why has no one made a program that easily allows people to share their music collections?!?

    • Marie Brennan

      Ack! That was you, not . I had been reading a post by another user right before I wrote up this, and my brain crossed the wires. It’s corrected now, and sorry for the mistake.

      It’s been years since I did the original ratings, so I don’t much recall; it may have been paired with one of my periodic “listen to all the music I own” crusades. If I were doing it separate from that, though, I probably would be able to rate things I knew well very quickly, while stuff I hadn’t listened to much would get a full playing, so I could reconsider whether it deserved more of my time.

      Why has no one made a program that easily allows people to share their music collections?!?

      Because of piracy concerns?

      • arielstarshadow

        Oh, no – I didn’t mean share the actual FILES. I meant share the album/song titles. You know, some sort of “turn my music collection into a list that I can post somewhere” sort of thing.

        And no worries on the mistake! 🙂

        • dynix

          What about spotify playlists?:)

        • Marie Brennan

          iTunes can export playlists as .xml files or as .txt. I’ve thought about posting the complete playlists for the Onyx Court books, but frankly I think the soundtracks are the only interesting part.

          • arielstarshadow


            It can?!?!? I’m new to iTunes, so I had no idea it could do that.


            I would love, love, LOVE to see your music collection (I’m always looking for more good music, especially orchestral/instrumental).

  2. sarcastibich

    Have you and your publisher/agent ever thought about working to get the rights/permissions to MAKE a soundtrack album for your books? I realize that it might be impossible considering the sources for some of the songs (as they come from movie soundtracks and are going to be pricey to license)…but that would be kind of awesome.

    • Marie Brennan

      My publicist looked into it for Midnight Never Come. Unfortunately, as you say, the licensing costs turned out to be prohibitive.

      Which is a pity, because I would lovelovelove to do that.

  3. celestineangel

    This is absolutely intriguing, especially after the previous post. I just wish it were something I could use; I can’t have music playing while I write, it’s not something I can relegate to the background, or integrate into the writing experience. If there are lyrics, I will sing along, and writing and singing do not go well together. And I’m not big on instrumental music, so I don’t have much of it (and I only have 600 and some change in songs on my computer, anyway).

    Basically, I have to have silence while I write, with the exception of my fingers clacking on the keys and my own mutterings about how the scene should go. ^_^

    Still, I look forward to seeing more posts about how your music choices help with your writing. Always interesting to see how someone else does things and what does and doesn’t work for them.

    • Marie Brennan

      I need music playing, or I get distracted. Generally it’s instrumental, though — I own a crap-ton of film scores, which are perfect for this kind of use.

      • arielstarshadow

        I have quite a few film scores myself – love them! (This is why I’d love to see your collection, because I suspect you have more than me and I’m itching to add to my own music – can you tell I reallyreallyreally hope you post your text music files/playlists?)

  4. milbrcrsan

    I’m glad you posted this, actually, just yesterday I had two playlists for writing. One I put together years ago, and the other is only a year or two old. And I finally merged them and while it did take a good bit of time, I’m glad I did it in the end. Though, to be honest, I’m surprised you put some much time into the music you listen to for writing, but that’s very impressive. I can only imagine how your whole library sounds.

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s a form of cat-vacuuming, really. 🙂 But I like a) having suitable music to listen to while I write, and b) putting together a soundtrack at the end, and doing some prep work up front saves me a much larger amount of work later.

  5. ken_schneyer

    I just recently created my first playlist for writing, and it helped the story more than I could have imagined. But, on the other hand, this story was prompted by a song in the first place…

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