How You Can Use Music to Make Your Writing Better…and Your Life

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Wow, that’s a pretty big declaration. After I wrote it, I wondered if I had the balls to back it up.

Of course, I always love a good writing challenge so let’s get to it, shall we?

Music has been not only a valued entertainment throughout my life, but a way to mark critical parts of my life, some good, some bad, some unforgettable. I’m watching my fourteen-year-old fall into the obsession, consistently on his headphones, downloading new songs, his head bopping to the beat in his head, and my heart is happy because I remember all of it. How my best friend and I played Motley Crue on repeat and paced her driveway, talking about deep things like crushes and the future and who was the most popular in school. Bon Jovi serenaded me when I had a broken heart, and every eighties pop song was an invitation to show off my dance moves at the club. Music was woven into the very seams of my life.

As I got older, my tastes changed, broadened, and grew. I fell in love with Frank Sinatra and then I fell in serious love with the man who made me dinner and danced with me for hours in my living room while Old Blue Eyes crooned I’ve Got You Under My Skin and The Way You Look Tonight.

And each time I hear the Doobie Brothers, I smile and remember how much my Dad loved the particular song, What A Fool Believes, and how he bought it for me on a 45 record and we’d sing it together in the basement, gold shag carpet and all.

But looking back, I think what I loved the most about music was the ability for it to change my mood. The right song could drive me from frustration and depression right into motivation and hope.

During really tough times when I was struggling, I’d turn to my favorite songs that made me feel connected and gave me the desperate kick in the ass I needed to keep pushing forward. It allowed me to have a deep, heart wrenching cry so I could cleanse from dark emotions. In a strange way, music has been my best friend—always ready to comfort, motivate, sympathize, and heal.

The song, Fame, by Irene Cara propelled me forward when I was young and dreamed of becoming a famous writer. All I had to do was close my eyes and surrender to the lyrics, and I believed I’d make it one day. I imagined myself one of those young, talented artists who bounced on the hoods of cabs in Manhattan while the song blasted through the city streets. There was something about the song that allowed me to picture my success so clearly, it was like having my own personal vision.

It took twenty years of endless rejections and eight books that never saw the light of day, but eventually I had success with a book that went viral and the opportunity to write full time and quit my day job. Every time I hear that song, I now smile. And I still dance.

After the end of a disastrous relationship, I moved back home with my parents with only a garbage bag to my name and a humiliating bankruptcy attached from a man who’d betrayed me. I’d spend long amounts of time listening to Barrry Manilow’s classic, I Made It Through the Rain. There was something innately soothing within the lyrics and melody, and I imagined myself making my own damn parade and being okay one day.

And eventually, I learned Barry was right.

As I got older, new songs took the place of the old.  Fight Song by Rachel Platten was a friend to me during a dark time when I felt like a failure on all levels.  The idea that a simple spark, or light of a match, could ignite a fire was helpful. Of course, the awesome beat and belted out solo gave me shivers, pushing me to accept if Rachel believed, I could too.

Want to know my all-time favorite, go-to song when I need some serious ass kicking?

The theme to Rocky, of course. Gonna Fly Now by Bill Conti. Yep, the moment I hear the strings begin, I picture Rocky climbing those stairs in Philly, at first broken and unable to make it. But he doesn’t quit and one day, he runs straight up, throws his hands in the air, and announces to the city that he made it. At that point, he’s already won the fight because of his transformation. He shows up and does his best. I put that song on when I don’t think I can exercise any longer and want to shut down my treadmill or turn off my kickboxing DVD. I pump it up through my headphones when I’m stuck in a part in my novel and truly believe I need to scrap the whole thing, quit my career, and begin to study becoming a coffee barista. I’m reminded it doesn’t have to be pretty, I just have to get to the top of the stairs.

That’s how music can change life. But what about your writing?

A theme song can be integral to writing certain pivotal scenes in a book, or even drive the entire theme woven within the story. I always pick a song that resonates with my characters, digging especially deep into their fears and figuring out their motivations. This is the crux of great character building, and it’s a vital element in writing a great book.

How about some concrete examples?

When I was writing my novel, Searching for Perfect (think Beauty meets the Geek), I knew immediately the book would be based on the song, Beneath Your Beautiful by Labrinth. The moment I heard the haunting lyrics and slow pounding background percussion, I was struck by the vulnerability of the singer, and her crippling fear of intimacy. For my own heroine, these fears were based on her past fight with bulimia, brought on by intense bullying regarding her weight. Though the reader meets her years later when she’s successful, healthy, and confident, the past doesn’t just disappear when one achieves money, success, or approval. It lurks in hiding for when one is vulnerable, and then pounces. Being able to cope and work through those fears was her character growth to have a healthy relationship with the hero.

It was a theme I needed to explore for the story to bloom on all levels. The song is sung in dual parts, an entreaty to their loved one to reveal their most innermost selves, scars and all. It’s a dance of infatuation, flirtation, and crippling vulnerability. The hero tells the heroine there are walls holding her back, but he promises her if she strips bare and shows her real self, he will love her. That she is beautiful.

This heartbreaking song drove my emotions and motivation to sketch out a worthy character based on real fears of showing someone your true self.

Another example is my novel, The Start of Something Good which is based on the song titled…

The Start of Something Good.

This may be a cheat, but I literally named this book after the song by Daughtry, which I’d been obsessed with for years. I loved the idea of creating a story that explored a brand-new budding romance and the hope that comes from beginning the fall into love. It’s a delicious feeling to explore, for both the hero and heroine. How can you forget the butterflies of first attraction; the shock of an amazing kiss; the sweetness of holding hands and realizing you love the same food, movies, experiences; the raw fear of realizing you may be falling in love but it may not be the same for you; and the uncertainty of trying to put a time limit, or future on something so new and precious? These are all emotions worth exploring and it all began, for me, with this song.

Finally, because I have a sense of humor, my book Searching for Always has a very special theme song.

You Make Me Sick by Pink.

Yeah. As you may have guessed, this is my ultimate enemies to lovers book and opposites attract. Focusing on this song helped me keep the banter and comedy heightened throughout the book, which was key. It’s a song full of heat and snark and wit, and I loved thinking about what happened between them at the end of the song. So I wrote a book to find out. Honestly, there hasn’t been a song by Pink I haven’t loved, she’s so badass.

Now, I’ve hopefully shown the power of music in life, and in writing great stories, but what about for the readers?

Sometimes, when I read a book, I play a game of picking out my own theme song for stories I love. I’ll also check Spotify to see if an author has uploaded a playlist—I make sure to do that for each of my novels so my readers can listen to the same songs I did while I wrote the book.

What would your theme song be for the book you’re reading or writing now?

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