NaNoFeed (On the Eve, Part 1): Music to Wreck Trains By, or the Art of the NaNo Playlist

Motorcycle–check. Cliff–check. No helmet? Drunk? Go for it.

That’s the mnemonic I gave a fellow National Novel Writing Month marathoner at the Twin Cities region’s kick-off last night at Nina’s in St. Paul. It gives my Inner Adult a nervous breakdown to see that all alone on the page, so here’s the full version.

Motorcycle–check. Cliff–check. No helmet? Drunk? Go for it.

If the music in your NaNoWriMo play list makes all of the above sound like a good idea, then you’ve picked the right stuff. It should make you feel reckless, ready to sail straight into the Perfect Storm of fate, circumstance, and bad judgment that makes for a novel.

I do a lot of NaNo drafting at lunch hour or first thing in the morning or at public write-ins where half of the attendees are chatting and the rest of the room is having their own conversations, so music and headphones help me to build a wall between me and them. Music gives me a rhythm for the tippytap of fingers and keyboard, and makes me feel a little less implausible getting lost in the story. The alarm on the cell phone will bring me back to the surface of Real Life So-called, but the music will help me to swim through the underwater dream of Story, and will grow me gills so I can breathe down there.

It’s another way of timing a writing bout, too:

  • Write while this song plays, nonstop.
  • Write until the end of the album (that’s good for 35-50 minutes)
  • Write to the last act of the opera. (The four hours of Prokofiev’s War and Peace got me through the final marathon write-in of NaNoWriMo 2010, by being four hours and epic into the bargain.)

A change in the music presages a change in the times, so there is warm-up music and there is melancholy in-search-of-lost-times music and there is epic endgame music. Music entrains the nervous system and lifts us out of ourselves. In my very best writing bouts I have typed in rhythm with the music and let the scene play out without my choosing words.  The music secretly infects the written rhythm, the deep beat that the reader hears in silence, and jumps the gap between the words on paper or screen and the hypnotic rise and fall of the story-teller’s voice around the common fire.

Writing fiction, like acting, is a true possession experience. The things we avoid in life — conflict, danger, bad judgment — are the very blood and bone of story. You’ll come out of it alive even if your characters don’t, but you’ve got to believe that they want to do the thing that’s exactly the wrong thing for them and the right thing for the story.

So put on the music, let them chug that whiskey, toss the helmet aside, rev up the Harley and get ready to jump the safety wall into the Grand Canyon.

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