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How I Write: Music

Music is a big part of my writing process, in a pretty structured way. When I started, I'd just kind of listen to music (or not) as I wrote without thinking too much about it - maybe I'd listen to something I liked, maybe something instrumental to not distract me, whatever. But when I was working on War of the Bands, where music was such a huge part of the script and the tone, I got kind of serious about it.

For War of the Bands, I had a handful of albums that I'd bounce back and forth between depending on what part of the screenplay I was working on, with a few specific exceptions for the battle scenes. The main two bands were Linkin Park and Motion City Soundtrack, but there were sections that were Skrillex, Jay-Z, Charlie Daniels Band, and even more in earlier drafts.1) I had a couple playlists put together in Grooveshark (remember Grooveshark?) that I'd bounce between, and it really showed me the power of music for getting into the right headspace.

Shadows was a mess in a lot of ways, but when I was working on Gokhan, I found myself listening to the same album a lot,2) and eventually decided to do so on purpose: I stopped listening to anything else while I was writing, and listened to it every time I was writing. It was actually really helpful in getting myself back into the writing headspace - something of a mental uniform. I feel like it contributed a lot to the tone of the work as well, kept me consistent. Music can have powerful effects on mood, and by listening to the same thing the whole screenplay, I made sure it had the same mood even across something like a full year of work and revisions.3)

It was after that, when I was starting on The Destroyer that I codified my method. It was basically the same as what I'd been doing, with one additional rule:

  1. I would only listen to one band - ideally one album - when working on a given screenplay;
  2. I would listen to that album/playlist every time I worked on the associated screenplay;
  3. I would only listen to that album/playlist when working on the associated screenplay.
  4. Optionally, I would try to find a new band (or at least a new album) when writing a new screenplay, to make sure I didn't have any other mental associations with it.

Rule 3 did suck a little bit when I chose a band I really liked for a screenplay, but adding it was the final piece of the puzzle. It transformed the playlists from mental uniforms into, like, entire mental "rooms" that each felt completely oriented around screenwriting. Made it easier to focus, made it easier to keep my place. I could set a screenplay down, work on something else for a couple weeks, and then come back to the first screenplay and still remember right what I wanted to do.

Since The Destroyed, I haven't really changed anything musical about my method, except that now I will sometimes even start with a playlist. I have a couple albums that make me feel certain ways that I want to translate into a screenplay - they're just set aside waiting for the write idea to match the tone. I've struggled with screenplays until I found the right music. It's an irreplaceable part of my method now.

Bonus: my screenplays and their associated playlists

  • Good Enough for Me: Ryan Caraveo's Butterfly Boy
  • Distant: Crywolf's widow [OBLIVIØN Pt. I]
  • The Dragonslayers: Yonaka's Teach Me to Fight and CREATURE
  • Smoke & Mirrors: My Brightest Diamond's This Is My Hand
  • To Live For: Jay-Z's The Black Album
  • The Destroyer: Ruelle's Emerge
  • Gokhan: As already mentioned, Lorde's Pure Heroine
It's a bit beside the point, but I am mad at myself that this script in particular I don't have all my earlier drafts, because it changed radically between first and last draft. The first draft had full lyrics for all the battles in a way that I really enjoyed writing, but also was, like, not good. I'm not a lyricist.
Lorde's Pure Heroine
There were a lot of breaks, too, a lot of starting and stopping; I wrote the bulk of Gokhan during six months of traveling around Guatemala, Colombia, and Ecuador.