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The Quixotic Influence of the Mixtape

by Jennifer Lyn Parsons

Music plays a significant role in my writing process. Maybe it’s because I was a musician when I was younger, maybe because we always listened to music in my house growing up. I think part of the reason it’s so important is because it does interesting things to my subconscious and lets me find things I need in order to shape my characters and move the story along.

I’m a linear writer and I don’t really outline, though I know where I’m headed, generally. So while I know where I want to start and where I want to end up, the bits in between are a mystery. I discover the story as I go.

What that means is that as I go through the process of writing a story or book, I allow whatever is going on around me to influence where the book goes. This was especially true in the novel I just finished working on a few weeks ago, the first draft written in more or less real time, and evolving as both the outer world and my own inner world, changed.

On of the most important influences that shifted what I was writing was the music I was listening to at the time. While I sometimes listen to instrumental stuff while I’m writing, what I’m talking about here are songs, mostly with lyrics. In other words, I make a lot of mixtapes.

For me, the mixtape (and it’s modern descendant, the playlist) is vital to my creative process. Sometimes the story I’m writing starts because of a song I hear, but most often I have a story and use music to help me find the shape of it.

Songs will show up out of the blue occasionally and spontaneously a line from the lyrics will spark an understanding of what a character might be thinking or feeling. The energy of a song or even the performance by a particular musician will reinforce some plot line I’m working on, or show me clearly that I’ve been barking up the wrong tree.

Those are fabulous moments, but most often I go after a mixtape with intention. I seek out songs that have a germ of what I want a character to be like, how I see a relationship developing, or what happened to a character in the past to make them act as they do. Often I get a bonus out of this process. Not only do I get the clarity I need about the story and its characters, but the rest of the lyrics will spark a deeper understanding or uncover a facet of information I hadn’t thought of on my own. That either gets incorporated directly, or is at least noted somewhere and influences what comes after. Sometimes I’ll go searching for lyrics on a certain theme and discover an amazing new artist I’d not listened to before, too.

Of course this method of working isn’t for everyone, but if you’re interested in trying it out for yourself, the first thing to do would be to start listening to music more attentively. Open yourself up to what emotions the music you hear is invoking. Read the lyrics and see what the songwriter is communicating.

As for the tools to make playlists, Spotify is a good place to start. You can even make your own cover art, if you’re so inclined. Youtube playlists work for this as well. Personally, I love using 8Tracks. I’ve discovered great stuff on there and there’s a lot of fandom-based mixes if you’re looking for inspiration. To build my own mixtapes, I have a sizable iTunes library and CD collection and pull from that, buying the occasional track as needed when I stumble on something that feels just right.

With that novel I just finished, I ended up with about twenty different mixes, but even I’ll admit that was a bit extreme. The main character shares my love of making mixes and so that was reflected in how the book came together. Most often I’ll have somewhere around two or three mixes for a novel. One for the main character and one for the overarching themes I want to touch on.

It’s not for everyone, of course, but I hope you give it a try and see what happens. I’d love to see some of your own mixtapes out there in the world. Send me the link, I’d love to see what inspires you and I’m always on the look out for something that’s going to turn my head.

Here’s a few resources to get you started:

8tracks internet radio
Create and edit playlists on Spotify
Create & manage playlists on YouTube
The Art of The Mixtape

A bit about the columnist:

A software engineer by trade, Jennifer Lyn Parsons is a life-long lover of story with a capital S. Her work has been seen in various magazines and she has published three books, with quite a few more in her back pocket. She counts Jim Jarmusch and Laura Ingalls Wilder as two of her biggest influences. Make of that what you will. When not writing either code or fiction, she reads books and comics, and sometimes makes things out of wool or paper. She finds joy in making things, be they digital or analog. Visit author page

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