April 4 – 10: “Do you need music or absolute silence when writing?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5We have a steller line-up of ITW members this week as we delve into writing habits. Thomas Kirkwood, Janelle Samara, Bobby Nash, J. L. Abramo, Ryan Quinn, Chris Pavone, Alex Gordon, Elena Harwell, Allison Brennan, S.W. Lauden and Daco will answer the question on everyone’s playlist: Do you need music or absolute silence when writing?


jerichoAlex Gordon is the author of the supernatural thrillers Gideon and Jericho, which will be released April 5th. Prior to becoming a full-time writer, she spent 26 years working in pharmaceutical product R&D. She was born in the Northeast, grew up in the South, and currently lives in the Midwest.




Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00046]J. L. Abramo was born in Brooklyn, New York on Raymond Chandler’s fifty-ninth birthday. Abramo is the author of Catching Water in a Net, winner of the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America prize for Best First Private Eye Novel; the subsequent Jake Diamond novels Clutching at Straws, Counting to Infinity, and Circling the Runway; Chasing Charlie Chan, a prequel to the Jake Diamond series; and the stand-alone thrillers Gravesend and Brooklyn Justice.


our only hopeJanelle Samara lives in Kansas City, Missouri, with her husband and cat. When she’s not busy writing, her favorite pastimes include devouring classic books on her tablet, growing organic vegetables, and creating new recipes for her large extended family. When she needs to get out of the house, she has many interests, ranging from watching ballet to fishing with her brothers. She also loves to continue learning and frequently listens to many educational podcasts.



The Good Traitor coverRyan Quinn is the best-selling author of The Good Traitor, End of Secrets, and The Fall. A native of Alaska, Quinn was an NCAA DI Champion while on the University of Utah Ski team. He worked in book publishing for five years in New York City and now lives in Los Angeles where he writes and trains for marathons.



requiemThomas Kirkwood is an international author best known for his Cold War thrillers. His novels have been published by Macmillan, Collier Macmillan (Europe), Penguin (Donald I. Fine), Signet, Amazon, Brilliance (audio), ACX (audio) and Stjerne-Spenning (Europe). After years in the EU, he now makes his home in Salida, Colorado. His new release, THE THIRTEENTH DISCIPLE: A REQUIEM FOR AMERICA, describes how the world’s oldest democracy set itself up to become the world’s newest dictatorship.



Evil Ways HC Front FINAL 12-6-15Bobby Nash is an award-winning author. He writes novels, comic books, short stories, novellas, graphic novels, and the occasional screenplay for a variety of publishers and production companies. He is a member of the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers and International Thriller Writers. For more information on Bobby Nash and his work, please visit him at www.bobbynash.com and across social media and say hi.


one_deadElena Hartwell was born in Bogota, Colombia, while her parents were in the Peace Corps. Her first word was “cuidado.” At the age of nine months, she told two men carrying a heavy table to be careful in their native tongue. She’s been telling people what to do ever since. After almost twenty years in the theater, Elena turned her playwriting skills to fiction. “One Dead, Two to Go” is her first novel.



poisonousAllison Brennan is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of 27 thrillers and numerous short stories. She currently writes two series, the Maxine Revere cold case mysteries and the Lucy Kincaid/Sean Rogan romantic thrillers. Allison lives in Northern California with her husband, five kids, and assorted pets.



travelersChris Pavone’s first novel, The Expats, was a New York Times and international bestseller, with twenty foreign editions and a major film deal, and received both the Edgar and Anthony awards for Best First Novel. The Accident, published in March 2014, was also an instant New York Times bestseller. The Travelers will publish on March 8, 2016.



ElectromancerDaco is an award-winning author of the espionage-thriller series featuring CIA operative Jordan Jakes. Her debut novel, The Libra Affair, was a 2013 #1 bestseller. Daco holds a B.A. and M.A.S. from The University of Alabama in Huntsville and a J.D. from the Cumberland School of Law. She is a member of the International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, Authors Guild, Alabama Writers Forum, Florida Writers, and Alabama State Bar.


Crosswisex1500-72dpiS.W. Lauden is a writer and drummer living in Los Angeles. His short fiction has been published by Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Dark Corners, Dead Guns Magazine, Akashic Books, WeirdBook, Spelk Fiction and Crimespree Magazine. His debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, was published by Rare Bird Books in November 2015. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published by Down & Out Books in March 2016.




  1. Turn off that running water, please! Who left the radio on in the bathroom? And the fan’s still going. Someone go answer the door. Bella, turn off that television show, I can’t think! You, too, Andrew, stop with the video games already and go outside to play.

    Sirens are blaring, and the sound of trucks barreling down the highway never seems to cease. Now, kids are streaming inside through the front door, chattering a mile a minute. Telemarketers are calling, leaving messages. The bomb specialists at the military arsenal are testing again, so the house is rumbling. Tractors are plowing up the back field, putting in roads for new home construction. The dog is barking at the workers or whining for food or wanting to play. The lights are humming, or maybe it’s the computer hard drive. The washing machine is rocking. The dishwasher is sloshing water around. Someone begins playing the piano. The list goes on and on, the interruptions are endless: I’m hungry, may I borrow the car, I need, I want …

    I am an author, and I want silence! Because, how can anyone possibly work with all this noise?

    Well, it’s difficult. Distracting. It makes me looney tunes, sometimes.

    If I had my choice, I’d choose the bliss of silence. But with children whom I love dearly and a bull Mastiff who acts like a puppy, there’s no such thing as silence.

    Fortunately, there are some noises that I actually enjoy—sometimes. The sound of the dryer running (but not the faucet running—any water running is a distraction). The sound of a clock ticking, but not the grandfather clock chiming. The sound of the wind rushing in through the windows and doors, but not the sound of the cooktop fan.

    But for the most part, I’ve had to teach myself to block out the noise. It’s not easy, and it’s not always possible. How do I do it? I lose myself in my work just as I hope my readers will. And that allows my mind to wander, so that I can actually hear the voices of my characters speaking to me, can immerse myself in my story’s setting, can live out the plot.

    I find that in the morning, I work fast and furious on accomplishing those scenes that I, for the most part, already have in my mind. Usually, the kids are at school, so I have the luxury of finding the silence that I crave. In the evening, when the real noise is back, a glass of wonderful red wine cuts through all the madness, and I find that I’m actually more creative and relaxed about my goals.

    1. I completely agree with you about the luxury of quiet while writing. For over four years, I was a live-in caretaker for my disabled grandparents. The days were full of constant wants, needs, and demands from two people who were angry that they needed help to do anything at all, let alone help for everything. Nap times and nights were my only quiet time, as well as the only time I could write.

      In warmer weather, I loved to open my window at night and listen to the crickets. My kitchen time was generally spent contemplating plotlines. But, I could never seem to get any actual writing done during the day when they required my attention. Even if I got a few lines typed out before they needed me, it was too hard to get back in the zone once I’d tended to them. At least with kids, they get less needy and reliant on the caregiver over the years instead of increasingly so.

      1. You are a saint, Janelle!! I know your grandparents must’ve really valued their time with you. But what a real life responsibility. I, too, love the sound (music) of the crickets and cicadas, especially late at night, trying to fall asleep. I live in the south most of the year and this is the one thing that I miss when I’m in LA.

        1. I’m just glad I got to make their final years better than they would have been if they’d been stuck in a nursing home. I hope to someday write a nonfiction about being an Alzheimer’s caregiver.

          I wish I could say that nature is my favorite as well as most frequent writing music, but I don’t get many nature sounds living deep in the city. Thank god for ambient noise CDs!

          1. I hope you do write a book on Alzheimer’s. My brilliant father died of the deadly disease. It was beyond awful! I will say that music was a dear comfort to him, especially classical.

  2. My ideal writing environment is in a coffee shop where there are several layers of ambient sound–voices, low music, espresso machines, furniture, and dishes. Absolute silence isn’t desirable because it’s too easy to ruin; any tiny disturbance is amplified. And music, if it’s played too loud, can derail my train of thought. I can get on a real roll when there’s just enough background noise and activity that nothing stands out.

    There’s another good reason I prefer to write in coffee shops: It forces me to stay put and focus on the writing. If I get up from my chair there is the threat of my computer being stolen, whereas at home I can procrastinate by doing chores or turning on the TV without repercussions.

    But sound-wise, I’m not too picky unless the environment gets too quite or else one stream of noise is too dominant.

    1. These are all great comments, but I’m with Ryan Quinn on this one in that background noise helps me concentrate in some weird way. It can be in a coffee shop or just the hustle and bustle of a busy household. I think it comes from writing in a noisy newsroom for many years! The one thing I can’t do while writing is listen to music, although from the posts here some writers can’t work without it. There are as many opinions about the need for silence or music or background noise while writing as there are genres, I suppose!

  3. When I work at home, I never play music. My office window faces the middle fork of the Snoqualmie River, so in the warmer, drier months, I like to have the window open so I can hear the water. There are also a lot of birds in the forest around our house, so it’s never “silent.”

    The problem for me with music is if I listen to anything with lyrics, I have to start singing along, which doesn’t make for a good writing frame of mind. If I play something without lyrics, I start wishing for music with lyrics and again I’m brought out of my writing zone.

    On the other hand, sometimes I like writing in public spaces: coffee shops, restaurants, even the occasional bar. The hustle and bustle of a public space sometimes sparks my imagination. Having to block out the noise of people around me can also force me to concentrate more fully, so in an odd way it causes me to focus better than silence.

    There is a large part of my creative time, however, which isn’t at the computer or a notebook. I like to spend time contemplating my current work. It might be analyzing a plot point that isn’t working, imagining the overall arc of the story, or generating aspects of a character, but I think it’s crucial to my process.

    When I’m working in my head, I can handle a lot more ambient noise, including music, but I don’t want anyone talking to me. I know it doesn’t look like I’m working, so it can be a little confusing to people. I guess that’s why people think writers are “dreamers,” because some of our work life comes across as daydreaming, when in fact, we’re hard at work building our imaginary worlds. World building requires a lot of energy!

  4. Neither! I’m a failure at listening to music with completely passivity—at the very least I need to keep the beat with my feet, and sometimes I desperately want to belt out the lyrics at full (albeit atonal) volume; either way, not helpful for writing. On the other hand, absolute silence is also a distraction, though I don’t know exactly why; probably something that a psychotherapist could diagnose in two minutes.

    I prefer to work someplace with enough life to defeat the distracting silence, but not so much audible music or distinct conversation that I can’t focus. So I go to a members club, which has the added benefit that I can use the bathroom without worrying that someone is going to swipe my laptop. There are other added benefits—a screening room, a rooftop pool—but the only one I really value is the bottomless cup of coffee.

  5. Either music or silence, depending on what I am writing and where I am in the process. If I’m caught up in the work, or so fixed on OMG! DEADLINE! that focus is not the issue, the silence is actually comforting. I can hear the house sounds—yea, sump pump’s working, and I don’t need a new refrigerator yet—or open the windows if the weather is conducive and listen to the birds.

    Other times, I need to retain some sense that life is going on outside the boundaries of my office, even if I can’t participate at the moment. That’s when the music comes on. Baroque, sometimes. Most other times, soft ambient and electronica—Brian Eno, Timothy Wenzel, Boards of Canada. The Soundscapes cable music channel. No lyrics—the words are too distracting. Exceptions are songs in other languages. I can listen to Françoise Hardy, for example, because the songs are gentle and I don’t understand French.

    That all said, there is the rare instance when I associate a song with the work in progress so strongly that I listen to it on continual repeat whether it has words or not. GIDEON’s song was “The Train Song,” a 1960’s folk song by Vashti Bunyan. JERICHO had two songs, both instrumental. “Shivers” by Shark Quest and “Such a Long Time” by Timothy Wenzel.

    Separate from the music I listen to while working are the playlists for the books. Those songs can be all over the place—screaming guitars, industrial bass thrumming away, bird-like vocals. JERICHO’s playlist veers from Cliff Richard to Joy Division. But I listen to those songs when I’m not working. They’re way too distracting to write to.

  6. I’m wondering if the preference for silence over music depends at all on whether one lives alone or with other people? It’s just me and my dog, and music is a noise that I can meter and control. Too much silence, and I risk feeling isolated. I could decamp to a coffee shop to feed the need to get out in the world, except that I have a knack for either winding up next to the person with the distinctive voice or abandoning work to listen to nearby conversations. Because I am nosy.

    1. You might be on to something there, Alex. I played music louder living alone. With a roommate, I tend to have the headphones on and the volume lower.

  7. I’ve been sitting here at my desk for about three minutes wondering how to dismiss the question of this week’s roundtable as irrelevant. I thought I had come up with a way until a couple of things happened, things not at all out of the ordinary. I should mention that I’ve just downed a triple espresso. In any case, here I sat, on the cusp or brilliance, when my wife tiptoed into her studio, separated from mine by a substantial wall and door. Even though she carries her 100 pounds so silently that she can sneak up on me when I’m doing absolutely nothing and scare me half to death, I hear her moving silently across the carpet to her desk as if she’s ridden a Harley into the room. Why? The espresso? The disturbing mental waves created by her strained attempt to be even quieter than usual (she knows I’m writing), or my unconscious desire to be distracted so that I have an excuse to escape what we all hate – the act of composing something from scratch? I take my hands off the keyboard for a second and imagine I hear someone being strangled in the next room. I listen more closely and manage to capture the scarcely audible swish of a paint brush on canvass. And while I am trying to find distraction where it isn’t, my Border Collie flings himself through my door, happily enters my sanctum sanctorum and feels moved with his usual canine lack of judgment to cover me with unwanted kisses. One noise, the noise that wasn’t, I heard more loudly than the thunderous entry of my dog.
    I suppose this is easily explained. When assaulted by “the sound of silence,” I was trying to write. When assaulted by my old friend, I was trying to figure out why I thought I heard noises loud enough to prevent me from writing. So what, I asked myself, is the line between noise (music as our discussion topic states) and silence? It depends, which is what I hear in every post above. Writing is a dreadful activity. Most of us wonder why we have chosen self-flagellation as a career . . . if not always, then sometimes. We cannot abide total silence because our mind tends to ask us why in such periods why we aren’t living but trying to breathe life instead into fictional characters. So a coffee shop with the monotonous hum of ambient noise, the dryer running, the window that opens onto the sounds of birdsong and a nearby river . . . such is the writer’s music.
    But how undependable that music is! Some button-down buffoon walks into the coffee shop with a cell phone and makes sure everyone within hearing distance is party to his latest sales idea; the birdsong becomes a hideous collective screech as a Blue Jay discovers a sweet little nest full of babies; the dryer begins to shutter and thump like a car wheel about to come off. What then? Do we long for the silence we sought to escape? And if we manage to get it back, will we want immediately to close our ears to the hard reality that we, instead of living, are creating beings who are?
    Is music perhaps a reliable solution to the problem: dependable noise that distracts us just enough to allow us to work but does not erupt with changes in pitch, tenor and loudness that sound to the writer like a kid with cymbals hiding behind the “seat” of creativity? If such music exists, I have yet to find it.
    So we need silence to write, but not too much silence. We need music to write, be it actual “music” or the music of life. But the delicate blend we seek eludes us, whether in nature, in human shuffling about or in the soft hum of machinery. We need it but, like the perfect demi-tasse of espresso, we’re unlikely to find it. And if we do, that precious moment will not obey Goethe’s words: Verweile doch! Du bist so schön.
    What to do? I have tried to enlarge the circle of activities I consider “writing.” A walk through blaring traffic because you started your street crossing too late; an evening in a big leather chair, a double Scotch in hand, accompanied by Mozart; a noisy midnight altercation in front of your house. These things are the stuff of writing, too. Observing, contemplating, allowing images of scenes to form in your mind. Here, noise is welcome. Sitting at the keyboard, however, one must learn to ignore the deafening “sound of silence,” strap on the requisite psychological armor and step into the world that is unfolding only in your mind, a world that will later become your novel. For me, silence is necessary only for a part of writing, the part spent at the typewriter, the part that might not even be the most important.

  8. Music has been playing in the background for most of my life. My older brothers were a couple of hard rocking metal heads who always had the stereo cranked up to eleven when I was growing up. I dutifully followed in their footsteps, but my tastes ran more to punk, power pop and Indie rock. The radio blared in the car, records and CDs spun while I did my homework, and I’ve been known to pick a favorite bar or restaurant based on the quality of the jukebox. I even played in bands for twenty years.

    So it’s strange to me that I need absolute silence when writing. I’m not saying that I get it very often (my own kids like to blast Taylor Swift), but you won’t find me with ear buds in while I’m typing. Fact is I’m too easily distracted, even though my debut novel, “Bad Citizen Corporation,” is about a Los Angeles punk singer turned cop. Both that book and my standalone novella, “Crosswise”—along with many of my short stories—are filled with song titles and musical references, but I wrote them all in relative silence. Go figure.

    What, if anything, do you listen to when writing? Do you make playlists, listen to the radio or let an algorithm decide? Or do you wear those noise-cancelling earmuffs you see at the gun range?


    1. Writing in silence? Couldn’t do it. If I don’t have early Iron Maiden playing (anything up to Seventh Son of a Seventh Son) then I can’t write at all.

  9. Background music is as important a tool in my writing as the computer keyboard. They say ‘silence is deadly’—but listening to music with the right tone tends to make my crime and thriller fiction deadlier.

    It is never a question of whether or not to listen to music while writing—the question is what to listen to. I tend to write with visual images of the action—cinematically if you will—and what I listen to while writing is my soundtrack.

    My tastes in music are quite eclectic—but my choices when writing are often selective. If it is a more graphic, frenetic, urban or dialog driven passage, I lean toward more up-tempo, perhaps edgier music (“To Live and Die in LA”, the Wang Chung soundtrack of the film, always gets me going) and classical music in the big symphonic vein (Beethoven’s Ninth is an effective kick starter.)

    Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd or Antony and the Johnsons set very different moods.

    If I am writing introspective narrative, I lean toward melodic and somewhat soothing selections—Genesis, Joni Mitchell, Marillion and Van Morrison work well—and “Private Investigations” by Dire Straits is a standard when writing Jake Diamond or Nick Ventura.

    Listening to music from artists with an outlaw sensibility is also catalytic. My short story, “L.A. Freeway”, will appear in an anthology later this year called “Mama Tried: Crime Stories Inspired by Outlaw Country Music” from Down&Out Books.

    For me, it is all about music and words.

    Please join the discussion and share your thoughts—does certain music float your literary boat—or is silence golden.

    Private Investigations/Dire Straits:

    (By the way—I am listening to Elvis Costello, “Watching the Detectives”, as I write this.)

  10. Music is important for inspiration. Before actually sitting down to type I listen to music and pay attention to the vibes. When I do the creative part of my writing, stream of conscious, I do well with silence. I’ll remember how the music made me feel and use those memories. Music is a big part of my storytelling. Oddly, in a particularly dark scene from “Route 12”, “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley was looping through my head. Strange but awesome.

  11. I like a little music playing when I’m writing. It doesn’t have to be anything specific like a playlist for characters or anything like that, but having music playing is better for me than absolute silence. As I get into the writing, the music fades into the background, almost like white noise.

    I have burned many of my old CDs onto my laptop so I can play them or I turn on an on-line radio/music app. I’ve also gone to Youtube and let music videos play.


  12. Absolute silence. Sometimes I turn on music for inspiration. Then I turn it right off once I’ve got it. Goodbye to Hawk by Ryuichi Sakamoto is my new fair weather muse.

  13. Every book gets a soundtrack unique to that book. I used to be unable to write with any music (with words). Then I got past it. I can’t imagine writing a novel now without one. (The latest Jay Porter features a lot of Lana Del Rey [who I thought I hated], Brian Fallon, Flogging Molly, Bowie, the Boss, and Taylor Swift.

  14. Always in need of music while I write. Helps set tone and get my head to certain places it needs to be.

    Tend to build playlists before I start a project just to outline the mood/feel of the piece before I even outline.

  15. I usually make a playlist for all of my books. Even the Mistress books, which are set in the 16th century, has a playlist, made up of some 16th century ballads and some more modern stuff that speaks to my characters/action/mood. My current WIP, set in 2015 Venice, CA, includes songs by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes, Bad Company, Best Coast, Asaf Aviden & the Mojos and Sharon Van Etten (Serpents nearly perfectly defines the theme of the book).

    But I don’t often listen to music while I write. I use it to get into the mood but it’s distracting when I actually write, especially if I’m editing.

  16. I like how music can magically transport me back into a scene from my story. In my first novel, Evil Ways, I have a scene set in a bar where one of the characters is on stage with the bar band singing covers. I listed off the next 3 songs that came on the radio and used them. One of those songs was Evil Ways. I liked it and started using it as a placeholder title until I came up with something better. As you can tell, the name stuck. Even now, all these years later, any of those songs transports me right back into that scene.


  17. I love writing to music … in fact, my playlist is filled with rock music. The Who, Three Days Grace, Fall Out Boy, Led Zeppelin, Kansas, and more. I wrote my first 9 books alternating between Starbucks and a pub. (I have five kids and my house was chaos … plus my office was the living room, hence no door.) So I needed earbuds and found that I was more productive with rock. I could shut down everything else and focus. (I couldn’t do that at home because I have a much harder time writing with interruptions than noise.) I prefer listening with earbuds than through my computer or radio — maybe because the earbuds block out all the external noise.

    Now that it’s baseball season, I’ll be watching the SF Giants while writing. 🙂

    The flip side is I need to edit in silence. Once the story is done, and I’m in editing mode, I think my brain flips a switch and any music is totally distracting for me.


    1. I’m the same way with editing. I also prefer to do edits on paper. There’s something about marking changes with that red (usually) pen. 🙂


      1. I do my first pass (after my rough draft) on the computer because there are a lot of story changes, rewriting, etc. But my second pass I try to do on paper. If I have time. Deadlines tend to drive this process. 🙂 … but I think that we catch far more on paper than on the computer. I’ve noticed this when I’ve received digital copyedits — the copyeditor misses far more than if the copyedits are on paper.

      2. I’m the same way. I edit on paper and I try to always do it with a red pen. If I don’t have a red pen with me, I do big arrows on the margins so I don’t miss a small note in a dark color. But I still can’t have music playing 🙂

  18. Question for everyone– for those that listen to music and/or create playlists for your characters/books, do you ever program music that is not music you would normally listen to, but really fits your character?


    1. I may add that music to the playlist, but I may not play it often. Once in a while, to catch the mood. But listening to music that I personally don’t care for aggravates me, which isn’t exactly helpful.

    2. No — I don’t like to listen to music I don’t like 🙂 … However, I do have certain moods and have playlists to reflect that. Like my “easy rock” which might be Muse, The Doors, Howling Diablos, Joe Walsh. Sometimes I need to slow things down when I’m writing …

      I wasn’t a Katy Perry fan but I took my daughter to a concert with a variety of artists, and she was my favorite, so I picked a few songs and incorporated them into some of my playlists. I tend to be very old school when it comes to rock …

  19. On a side note—I have found that I pretty much always listen to a couple of specific songs prior to doing a live reading. It wasn’t something I planned, just a something I noticed I was doing.

    My two songs are “Preaching The Blues” by The Gun Club, and “Waiting Room” by Fugazi.

    How about you?

    1. Waiting Room sounds like a reading necessity, but I’m usually grabbing a beer before reading, and they never put me in charge of the music at the bar. Fools.

  20. I often write to music without lyrics. Often classical music, more specifically baroque, like JS Bach, Vivaldi, Handel’s Concerto Grossos. Also chill/ambient/lounge electronica. But nothing is constant. I’ve written to Kid A or The War On Drugs looped. Some Kind of Blue and Thelonious Monk here and there. Nitty Gritty Dirty Band if I’m feeling rural flavor is needed. A bunch of different genres overall. It just needs to feel right. Last year I wrote a 70s funk story and listened to funk bands on Youtube that emphasized music over lyrics (like Funkadelic, Black Nasty, The Meters.)

    1. Though I don’t listen to music when I write, I’m totally inspired by classical music, especially baroque!

  21. It shouldn’t be surprising, given how different our novels are, that we don’t all have the same need for ambient noise when writing. Those who write to music don’t write to the same music. Those who prefer silence often use music before sitting down to compose in order to conjure a certain mood. But is there a difference in the way we approach writing itself that helps explain why our “noise needs” are so different? To an extent, I think there is. Some of us cross a daunting psychological barrier to enter the fictitious world we hope to bring to life. We can’t conceive of caring about characters, scenes, twists of fortune that don’t include our presence. We essentially live the life we are creating while we write. Others are able to maintain a distance, often a helpful critical distance, from the act of creating. I think those in the first group, those who must live the story they are writing as if they are part of it, cannot work to music. Characters make their own preferences clear without our imposing personal tastes on them. Scenes write their own soundtracks as they unfold – but only if the melodies are not predetermined by the author. In the second and perhaps “healthier” group, music ties you to your life outside of the life you are creating. It helps you avoid the plunge that severs the umbilical cord to the real world. When you finish up your days writing, you are still you. Dinner discussion is not limited to what your characters decided to do but presumably includes some of what YOU have done. You have not bought into Thomas Mann’s warning that one cannot pluck a single leaf from the laurel tree of art without paying for it with his life. For better or for worse, I belong to the first group. For what it’s worth, those are my thoughts on why some of us need complete silence and some require a form of music.

  22. Ever watch a film in a foreign language that is so engrossing you soon forget you are reading the subtitles—it seems as if you are hearing the words spoken in English—that is how listening to music works for me—it is subliminal, not distracting—fades in and out of my consciousness—and becomes company for a very solitary endeavor.

  23. I have to have no music on when I write, however, this is only when I’m “in the zone” or trying desperately to be in that zone. I get distracted easily. I used to write in coffee shops but I found myself eavesdropping and getting nothing done. So I stay at home which is quiet – just me and my dog. I am right by my sun deck though so I still hear dogs, birds, intermittent noise from my neighbors / incessant construction going on everywhere (I swear everyone right now in my neighborhood is remodeling or rebuilding their home). But if I need inspiration or I’m sitting there “thinking,” I definitely listen to music which depends entirely upon what I’m writing. I go back and forth between hip hop, KROQ, and 80s music.

  24. Silence is dangerous; it lets my brain run free. I almost always play music while writing. I’ll get lines in my head while I’m in the shower or the kitchen and scrawl them down and type them later, but without the rhythm, the direction, of music, my manuscripts could get as ramshackle as my life. Granted, manuscripts can be edited and I’m good at editing, but I don’t need to make this shit any more difficult than necessary. Now, a lot of the music I love is heavy on lyrics, and sometimes I can’t listen to certain albums because the lyrics would distract, but other times I want those distractions – they’re like abstract directions. Music too. Sometimes I listen to instrumentals when any words would interfere with where I’m going, but I usually want a mood behind what I’m typing, and vocals usually add to it.

  25. Music can be helpful when I’m writing, but I don’t find it absolutely necessary. If I’m not listening to music, though, I do tend to need silence in the vocal sense. I have trouble working while the TV is running in the background, or if my husband is sitting in the same room with me while he talks on the phone. I think it is the actual sound of words that distract me, even when it’s in another language. I don’t speak his language, so when he’s on the phone with his family, I don’t know what he’s saying. It’s still a distraction. The same goes for foreign music or TV shows—just the cadence of spoken language is enough to distract me and break my train of thought.

    So, when I do listen to music while I write, it is rarely lyrical. I tend to listen to classical music or even meditation music stations on streaming internet radio. If I’m writing something light and whimsical, I might listen to Cinderella by Prokofiev and/or certain Tchaikovsky tracks. Darker, more somber scenes are inspired by the tracks that stick to a minor key. At times when I am listening to music while I write, I’ll frequently skip tracks that don’t make me feel right for what I’m writing at the moment.

    I can only think of one lyrical song I’ve ever listened to while writing fiction—Stay by Otep. It’s hard, but soft. It’s sad and empowering, violent and vulnerable. I had to listen to it on repeat for half an hour to write a chapter in my next book. It was vital to the scene because the song was part of the conversation. Given how important music has always been in my life, I suppose it’s surprising that I don’t use it more when I write. But, listening to words in music—especially music that I know and love—can stunt or even stop me from writing most of the time. I just get too into it and wind up drumming on my desk or working on my own vocals.

    I, personally, can’t write in public. I tried once; it was awkward. But Starbucks has the whole free refills deal for the rewards members, so I took my computer one day and sat down for a few hours instead of getting my coffee to-go. I found that I couldn’t tune out the conversations of others, the calling out of names when orders were ready, the laughter of a couple standing in line, etc. in order to think of what my characters were going to say and do next.

    It’s easier for me to edit with such noise than it is to write new lines. Editing is just so different from writing since it’s mostly reading. And my brain is trained to always edit when I’m reading, even if it’s not my own work. Most of my life I’ve been able to tune out background noise while I read, so I don’t mind editing in public, or with the TV on, while my husband is on the phone, or while there’s construction outside. But still, even while editing, lyrical music is distracting to me. I suppose I’m just too musical to ignore the words that caused me to love and buy any given song that I own.

  26. Judging from the diversity of opinions on this one, I think this supports the theory that there is no secret or magic formula to writing; every writer is different and inevitably discovers what is best for him or her.

    Outlining or just diving in. Writing in the morning or late at night. Music or silence or a pleasant din. Find what works and go with it.

  27. I agree – I think we are all as different with process as we are with product. I wonder if there is any similarities between those who outline and those who don’t and those who listen to music and those who don’t. I never outline first (though sometimes I create an outline after a first draft to see how things are organized) and I never listen to music, anyone else?

    1. I never outline first. I’ve tried it, but I can only stick to an outline for short stories. In novels, my characters take on a life of their own and I can’t always make them stick to the roadmap I’ve drawn for them. They’ll end up where I want them, but seem to take a more circuitous route than I’d originally planned.

      1. I’ve finally reached the point where I can compose decent synopses. Not as detailed as outlines, but containing decent amounts of plot and character detail. I don’t follow them exactly–characters still twist off the hooks I try to latch them onto. But I’m no longer flying blind for vast stretches of the book, which often led to a great deal of backtracking and rewriting. Mine isn’t the most economical of processes, but it used to be so much worse.

        My need for music also varies. Sometimes I enjoy the silence, and other times I need something playing. In this as in so many things, I inhabit the Gray. Not all one. Not all the other.

        1. So, sort of outline – and sort of silence. A correlation? The more of an outliner – the more outside sound/music/noise? The more of a free form, the more need for silence? I’m sure if I ask enough people, I’ll find out there’s no pattern at all, but it’s interesting to think about.

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