The Rhythm of Writing

A few days ago I was pounding away at the keyboard when the Bride came in through the garage where she was met with a wall of sound as AC/DC’s Thunderstruck blared from my computer. “Hey! Turn it down!”

I didn’t hear her at first, but from my desk I saw her with two hands filled with groceries in plastic bags. “What was that?”

“I said. Turn. It. Down!”

“Oh.” I lowered the decibel level so she wouldn’t shout. “I didn’t hear you. The music was too loud.”

“Oh, that’s what it was.”

Snarky.

“Sorry. I’m…”

“Writing the climax.” She’d been there before.

“Yessum.”

“How can you think with the music at that level and him screaming at the top of his lungs?”

“I wasn’t listening.”

She gave me The Hairy Eyeball. “So why was it so loud?”

“Background music” I glanced down to lower the volume even more. “There’s lots of action and shooting and…” I was talking to the empty hallway. I finished my answer anyway. “It’s how I work.”

She couldn’t hear me in the kitchen, so I turned the music back up (but not as loud) and went back to my fictional world.

I seldom write in silence. For one thing, I need something to cover the sound of snoring from Willie the Guard Dog (our rescue Shih Tzu) who sleeps beside my desk while I work.

My office opens to the front foyer and there are only two walls, both filled with bookshelves, floor to ceiling. Some authors require walls and doors to cobble together their sentences. That works for them, but I’ve never had that luxury. I’ve mentioned that I can write anywhere, so distractions aren’t an issue, but I need music to fill the void.

The genre differs with my mood, the day, and where I am in the manuscript. When I’m working on the Red River books set in the 1960s, it’s classic rock and roll from the year I’m writing about, or before. This tenth book in the series is set in 1969 so the music is revolutionary and dark with the last vestiges of the bubble gum era, along with a few country songs from that time.

It’s my hope that faithful readers are drawn into that period with the mention and recollection of the song. Music is a time machine and can often transport us to a past time and place such as cruising with high school friends, at an outlaw party when staying over with a friend, or that time (and we’ve all been there) when listening to the same song over and over after that moment’s love dropped you like a hot potato saying, “I think we need to see other people.” (But I’m not bitter after all these years.)

Adding musical spice to a manuscript is sometimes enough to set a scene in the reader’s mind, or as Jerry Jeff Walker said at the beginning of London Homesick Blues for the second time after someone forgot to start the tape, “I gotta put myself back in that place.”

Playing period music also puts me in that time period during the creative process, and though I don’t pay it much attention, it usually brings something to the piece I’m working on. It seeps into my characters actions, phrasing, or mood.

I once had an interviewer ask why I hadn’t considered releasing the newest book along with a CD of the music mentioned throughout the novel. I explained how it’s all right to use the title and artist, but the cost of licensing the music would be astronomical.

As I worked on The Texas Job (February, 2022), I played music that was popular in 1931, during the Great Depression. Those tinny, scratchy old sounds put me in that place I’d never visited and even sparked bits of dialogue through those period lyrics.

The last few years, when working on the contemporary Sonny Hawke novels mostly set along the southern Texas border, I played a lot of country music as I worked.

Brief note: I’m referring to real country such as George Strait, George Jones, Dwight Yoakum, Tammy Wynette…essentially music released before the year 2000, because I can’t stand this new pop-bubble-gum-rock and roll-rap-crap that passes for country music these days.

Whew. Now I feel better.

Back on task. There was lots of music that set the Sonny Hawke scenes in my mind. Carmelita by Yoakum, Cowboys Like Us and The Seashores of Old Mexico by Strait, What a Crying Shame by the Mavericks, or the new Marty Stewart concept album, Way out West, all played over and over as I worked through the first two acts of each book.

But here comes the Third Act and the downhill slide to the climax. That’s where the action picks up, and the music helps drive pace. Nothing but AC/DC works. I play it over and over and over and over….

…letting the beat soak in. I have an album (remember those large, black fragile discs we played at parties or alone in our rooms at 33 1/3 on things called a record player?) titled Let the Good Times Roll that features interviews with a number of people about rock and roll. One unnamed official in some small backwater town in the late 1950s, goes on a rant about rock and roll, “It’s driving the kids to ruin, and when you ask them (the kids) what they like about it they all respond with, “The beat, the beat, the beat.”

We were so right.

It’s the beat (or the pacing) that drives the novel you’re reading right now. It’s the beat that drives the story for me when I’m working. It’s the beat of your own writing rhythm, the beat of your own works. Music and writing are similar in many ways. They both have rhythm and pacing, ingredients that are necessary for a successful novel or short story.

I received an email from a fan this morning which sparked today’s blog. He wrote, “I’ve listened to (your novel) The Rock Hole at least forty times. What I figure is that people listen to songs over and over, so why not (novels). Your work sings like a song.”

What a humbling comment.

The music. The music of creating fiction. The music we see on the page and hear in our minds. The music of writing.

I don’t listen to the words as I work, and don’t sing along. Most of the time I can’t tell you what specific title is playing, but I get lost in the rhythm, the beat, the driving pulse of the song I’m working on. I oftentimes find myself sitting on the edge of the chair pushed back from the desk, as if ready for action, while the music thunders and riffs repeat over and over again, digging into and driving my story forward.

At times I take my fingers off the keyboard for a few seconds as a break at the end of a sentence, idea, run of dialogue, or chapter, and I find myself playing air guitar for one or two moments, just a flick of the fingers, which might be a different form of subconscious writing.

Hummm…

Thank the good lord there’s no video to record those moments.

Sidenote: A few minutes ago, I was pounding away on an action scene in the WIP when the idea for this post popped into my head. It was my subconscious reminding me I needed something for this week. I opened a new page and typed the first sentence I didn’t know was waiting to get out, leaving Hells Bells playing at a level guaranteed to cause partial facial numbness and hearing loss. The Bride came in from her walk and passed by, eyes rolling, hands on her hips.

“Climax?”

I selected at least two answers that was guaranteed get me the Hairy Eyeball again, and cast them aside before telling her the truth. “Kill Zone column.”

“Can you turn it down, then?”

“What’d you say? Can’t hear you.”

Telling me I was #1, she left and…

…where was I. Oh, yeah. Now I’m not saying it’s always loud music that’s necessary. There are quiet, insightful times when youngsters are talking to older folks, when the story slows, or an emotional moment develops between two characters.

When that happens, its ballads, soft and low, or soundtracks to such movies as Last of the Mohicans, Lonesome Dove, or The Natural. John Fogelberg, John Denver, and Michael Martin Murphy are here with me, and always, at some point, the most haunting song I’ve ever heard by Zane Williams, Pablo and Maria. Old, barely-healed wounds that still seep from time to time and are drawn to the surface by just the right piece of music.

I’m consumed by emotion. My stomach tightens. Quivers. A lump rises in my throat…

…as music drives the narrative.

When I’m finished with that chapter or scene, I have to take a break from the manuscript. That’s when I knock out a solemn, reflective newspaper column. Maybe something recalled from a time when old men took kids to fish from wooded creek banks and talk quietly as memories are made. Family time.

The music can get me in trouble, also. I once wrote a newspaper column about dogs I’ve known, and have lost. I related the day my oldest daughter who was around seventeen at the time had to put her Lab down. Eaten up with cancer, Ditto was nearing the end of her days and the Redhead was forced into adulthood. She couldn’t do it alone. I drove her and Ditto to the vet and sat in the floor with them both as that sweet old dog put her head on my sobbing daughter’s lap one last time and said goodbye with sad brown eyes telling her, “It’s all right to let me go.”

Dammit! There’s that lump again.

It was a heartfelt column driven by music my readers never heard that garnered more emails and letters than any of my columns before or since.

So what’s the purpose of this post that’s bounced back and forth like a pinball in play? (You think this was chaotic, you should see inside my head.) Use whatever works for you to be creative and don’t let anyone tell you that writing requires silence encapsulated by four walls and a door.

Write while listening to music, or sitting at your desk, or in your favorite chair, or even in bed. Writing is personal, and no matter if it’s show tunes, classic music, hair bands, rock, country, or kids songs, (B.I.N.G.O and Bingo was his name-o…) find what works for you!

Now, where was I in that manuscript I was working on just a few minutes ago. Oh, yeah, Hells Bells and that shootout.

Here we go again.

This entry was posted in Writing by Reavis Wortham. Bookmark the permalink.

About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at www.reaviszwortham.com. “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

24 thoughts on “The Rhythm of Writing

  1. To all you dedicated readers and writers who look forward to this blog each day. I sincerely apologize for my tardiness. Technology defeats me, and it launched another assault today. Hope you enjoyed this late post. Rev

    • Better late to TKZ than never to appear at all, Rev.

      I’ve never liked writing in silence. I use Coffitivity when I can’t get out to a coffee house. I like movie soundtracks for emotion. Sometimes I use New York street noise (YouTube has a bunch) to make me feel like a hungry pulp writer in the old days, typing away in Hell’s Kitchen with the window open.

      Question: Is The Hairy Eyeball the same as The Stink Eye?

  2. Happy Saturday, Rev. This post was worth the wait. (I’ve been in copy editing purgatory all day anyhow 🙂 I also write to music, often I take a few tunes, make a playlist and let it run. Or, I might even take one tune and play it over and over again. For my first 1980’s library mystery, I indulged and picked up digital albums by the Cars, Simple Minds, Fine Young Cannibals, The Bangles etc, and pulled select tunes into a mystery playlist. As you noted, it really brought those days back to life for me.

    Also, I’m an AC/DC fan and love “Thunderstruck.” Perfect music for a novel climax.

    Thanks for another engaging post! Back to the copy edits for me.

  3. Rev, as I have mentioned to others, you’re never later to TKZ because it never closes. Thanks for giving us all a peek behind the curtain to see how you work your magic.

    Re: the music you write to…I just read an article suggesting that it might be time to include music soundtracks on audiobooks. Sounds like someone of your obviously excellent and eclectic taste should look into that. Anyone who can include AC/DC and Dwight Yoakam (a graduate of Columbus Northland High School) on their playlist is my brother-in-arms.

    Enjoy the weekend, Sir!

    • I just can get this thing to post properly. Speaking of Brothers in Arms, I often play that song by Dire Straits when I’m in a certain meditative place is the manuscript. Thanks for reminding nd me.

  4. I write to instrumental music only, words make me want to listen and then I lose my place in the story. Just finished a horror short story, werewolves in ancient Sumeria terrorising the kingdom of Sargon the Great. Found a great series on YouTube called ANCIENT REALMS that fit the bill perfectly, they even have an album called Wolf Moon.

  5. I wuz wonerin’ where you were this morning, Rev. Glad you’re here and I love your style. I usually like to write in dead silence – reminds me of my time in the morgue where I picked up a lot of great story content by listening to the residents. But I once wrote half of a novel while babysitting a bunch of potheads working in a bud trimming room where they talked non-stop at a decibel level above the bloody rap music they played. Story behind that, and I might write a post about my time working safety/security in a medicinal cannabis factory. BTW, I’m one of the few people my age who’ve never smoked weed.

    Quick note about the cost of music rights. I’m starting a series based on a 1920s hardboiled detective fiction theme. I found some of the coolest music for the series website intro – a cover of Corey Hart’s Sunglasses At Night by the Lost Fingers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BFzHhCGlXs I contacted the band’s agent/manager and was quoted ten grand to gain the play rights. Ouch!

    • Thanks for the compliment, Garry. You sound like a REALLY good listener. Music rights are out of sight and that’s still another business I don’t understand, (not saying much because I don’t understand the business end if publishing, either).

      Thanks for reading that rather long post.

      Rev

  6. Hi Rev,

    Thanks for another great post. I usually write in silence or listen to some background like quiet instrumental music or Coffivity. Anything else would take me out of the story.

    You mention “the music of writing.” Now you’re singing my tune. I want my writing to have a rhythm. I’d like the words in my novels to play like a symphony to draw the reader through the narrative and leave them feeling they had a great ride.

    Thanks again.

    • Good morning, Kay. I think we all subconsciously seek that rhythm, and it eventually comes to those who keep after it. Hemingway had a distinct rhythm that I love. It’s almost dead on.

      There’s nothing wrong with silence, either. Sometimes I’ll leave everything off if I’m working out a problem in the manuscript, or suspect I have something out of synch and can’t identify what it might be. But then I’m bombarded with yard crews mowing laws, loud cars and trucks passing by, or a neighbor hammering on a piece of wood all day…long. I’ve wondered if that’s some kind of therapy for him. Hummm….

  7. I seldom, if ever, write with music, finding it too distracting. That said, The Fire of Joy from Ed Van Fleet’s Grand Eagle album inspired a trip across Africa for one of my protagonists. Love that song, and have listened to it four or five times in a row.

    • Some songs get into your head and won’t leave. This morning I woke up with Elvis signing “That’s All Right Mama” in my head and can’t get it out. One line keeps repeating, “Son that gal you’re foolin’ with, she ain’t no good for you, but that’s all right…”

      Wonder what my therapist will say about that one.

      Thanks! Rev

  8. I used to have a playlist that provided background music and set the mood. It also ran for 1 hour, so it was a good writing ‘timer.’ But I never got around to changing it, and I stopped, preferring the quiet.
    Then, when I was writing Remaking Morgan, where the protagonist was a classical pianist, I asked Alexa to “Play Solo Classical Piano” so I could discover pieces my character would play. To my surprise, the dog came in and seemed to enjoy it, so I now have a playlist for her and it’s become familiar enough that it doesn’t distract me from the writing.

    • Lucy for you. My dog only enjoys treats and naps, and a good belly rub. He’s stone dead now, but maybe that’s from listening to really loud AC/DC while I work. Now someone’s gonna turn me into PETA.

      Thanks for reading and replying! Love that you found period pieces that work for you.

      Rev

        • 🙂 Rev. Nope, the dog is Feebie (short for FBI Special Agent in Charge Odell).
          The music seems to calm her when the wind rattles or the thunder strikes. She’s the only dog I’ve ever met that doesn’t want belly rubs. Behind the ears only.

  9. Great post. I love how you’re able to ride the crest of a song into the heart of your story.

    I’ve never been able to write with music playing, especially if the music has lyrics. As a singer in a former life, the lyrics simply won’t allow me to ignore them. And lyrics are stories screaming to be written. Those words interfere with me getting the words to the current story down.

    Instead, I prefer the jungle-like sounds that surround me while I sit out on my deck, an activity I can only engage in about six months out of the year.

    • I understand that! I love to write outside, when I can. That’s late fall and into March around my part of the world.

      As a singer, I bet lyrics DO get into your head. It all fades into the background for me.

      Thanks for reading my post and taking the time to write.

      Rev

Comments are closed.