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[GUEST POST] Zack Parsons Talks With Authors About Writing and Music

Zack Parsons is a Chicago-area writer known for his acerbic humor at Something Awful, his non-fiction books like My Tank is Fight! and his contributions to various compilations. His debut sci-fi novelLiminal States, described by author Cory Doctorow as “vivid, and relentless, masterfully plotted,” was released April of 2012.

Book, with Occasional Music

When I set out to write my genre-spanning debut novel, Liminal States, I wanted to music to shape the outcome of my creative process. Ending with a free downloadable companion soundtrack from my friend, Conelrad, was something I hoped would excite readers and enhance their experience.

Listening to music while writing was vital for me. It allowed me to shut out what was going on, no matter where I was at the time, and depending on the music, it could serve as an inspiration for what I was writing. My obsession with scoring every moment made me curious about how more experienced authors of speculative fiction use music.

So I asked.


Some authors find music to be a distraction to the writing process. John Scalzi (Redshirts: A Novel in Three Codas) prefers to focus in silence while writing. He saves Sinatra and other American standards, classical piano or ambient music for when he does the editing.

32 Fangs: A Final Vampire Tale author David Wellington prefers quiet too, but he listens to classical music while writing dialogue scenes. He sticks to the classics with good reason.

“If I listen to something with lyrics, the lyrics tend to show up on my screen,” said Wellington. “I have to go back and make sure I didn’t have one of my characters quote Kurt Cobain or something equally embarrassing.”

In my own process, I like to choose the music to fit the style of the writing I have planned. While writing the western portions of Liminal States I listened to Neil Young’s soundtrack from the 1995 surrealist western Dead Man. For another portion set in Los Angeles of 1951, I created a playlist of Billboard hits from around that period and mixed in offbeat mystery soundtracks like the zither music of Anton Karas or the haunting guitar and wine-o-phone tracks from Nathan Johnson’s soundtrack to Brick.

The last act of my novel is set in the 21st Century and my work was fueled by the ambient dirges of Conelrad, an appropriate sound for the bleak and otherworldly events I was writing about. Like David Wellington, lyrics could cause problems for me, so I was careful not to listen to favorites that might infect my writing.

Cherie Priest, author of Boneshaker and The Inexplicables, avoids singing along to songs she likes by playing low-key, soundtrack music. After a draft is done she occasionally takes the time to make her listening more personal.

“I’ll often create a playlist after the fact – drawing up a group of songs that seem to speak to the story in some way or another. Sometimes I’ll give characters theme songs, or individual playlists. But only if I’m really out to procrastinate.”

And then there’s Kevin J. Anderson, who turns the dial to “11” and breaks it off when he’s writing.

“How do you create without the music cranking? Well, maybe that’s my difficulty. I love the sounds, the emotions they evoke, the lyrics, the music itself. It triggers my creative brain like giving an artist a palette of paints.”

KJA loves prog rock, from Pink Floyd to Alan Parsons, and credits Rush’s “Grace Under Pressure” with inspiring his debut novel, Resurrection, Inc. He doesn’t just listen to the music; his Terra Incognita fantasy series is supplemented with two prog-rock concept albums.

“I took a storyline from the first novel, The Edge of the World, and wrote a sequence of lyrics around it, with my wife Rebecca Moesta. Knowing my favorite groups, [producer Shawn Gordon] worked with his music contacts, got Erik Norlander (from Rocket Scientists) to write the music, and James LaBrie (Dream Theater), John Payne (Asia), Michael Sadler (Saga), and Lana Lane on vocals, David Ragsdale (the violinist from Kansas) played on [the first CD], as well as others from my favorite rock bands. The second CD had music by Henning Pauly, and vocals by Steve Walsh (Kansas), Michael Sadler, Sass Jordan, and others. Both CDs were released under the name of Roswell Six.”

Kevin J. Anderson’s latest crossover project was proposed by his longtime friend Neil Peart of Rush.

“[Neil Peart] began writing me about the new concept he had for the next Rush album, a steampunk fantasy adventure, Clockwork Angels, and over the course of about two years we talked about the songs he was writing, the story he had in mind, the characters, the villains, the scenes, and I began structuring it into a novel.”

Perhaps the most unusual recent example of music’s interplay with the creative process of speculative fiction is the multimedia collaboration of Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zero. I asked John LaSala, of the Very Us Artists, to explain the project to me.

“It is a book of short science fiction stories that comes bundled with a CD, each story in the book getting its own personal soundtrack. Or-Foreshadows is a multi-faceted concept album that comes with a book of liner notes so thick it’s a veritable tome, replete with illustrations by Talon Dunning and cyberpunk-tinged stories written by a whole slew of writers, many of whom are well-known fantasy and sci-fi authors, such as Ed Greenwood of Forgotten Realms fame and Robert J. Randisi, who is so prolific a western and PI pulp novelist, it’s not even funny. It all depends on which angle you’re approaching the thing: it’s an anthology, an album, and a series of drawings, all in one.”

The project began as the soundtrack for a role playing game that never took off. It became a chance to marry music with fiction in a very direct way.

“The authors were given the full selection of music to choose from and were asked to pick favorites, naming their first, second, and third choices. Most authors ended up with their first choice, which was wonderful. Everyone seemed pretty pleased with the music they had to work with, and we think it really shows in the stories they inspired!”

Samples of the project and its music are available on the website of Foreshadows.

Music and fiction have been blending in the creative process and in the media produced since long before the first musician played piano for the first silent film. New technology is empowering authors with new opportunities to explore multimedia storytelling; portable gadgets are giving readers and writers the chance to score every moment. Maybe the right music is just a mood setter. Or maybe it can make a good book even better.

1 Comment on [GUEST POST] Zack Parsons Talks With Authors About Writing and Music

  1. I use music much like Cherie. Building playlists is part of my creative process, but I can actually write with the music playing maybe 5% of the time. Instead I use song selection to “teach” me about the characters and what’s important to them.
    And especially about the story conflict. It’s great that there are many options for sharing soundtracks with readers these days.

    Thanks for the glimpse into other writers’ processes. I love the examples toward the end, where the creative efforts are blended together and music is part of the final product.

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