The Art of the Playlist

When my editor asked me last fall to create a music playlist for my novel, The Summer List, I thought it would be easy. Much of the story is set in the 1990s, when I was in my twenties. It was an incredible decade for music. I saw The Cranberries, R.E.M. and The Breeders perform back in the day, and nineties tunes appear throughout the book. I’d pick a dozen favorites, shuffle them for maximum impact, and hit Send. Finally, a book-related task with zero angst involved!

Except I’m a writer, and I specialize in angst. The playlist could never be merely a cute collection of song titles; it had to tell a story. Like scenes in a good novel, each song had to earn its place. I wanted listeners to be hooked, not to click away from my Spotify station after a couple of songs the way they’d abandon a novel that didn’t pull them in. There had to be a narrative arc, conflict, a climax and denouement.

Luckily, I had plenty of time to create a playlist I love. So last winter I spent more hours on it than I ever did as a teenager, sweating over the perfect mix tapes for different target audiences (the classmate I had a secret crush on, the friend who needed cheering up) and occasions (Amy’s Pre-Winter Ball Mix, Amy’s After Winter Ball Mix, Amy’s A.P. Test Study Mix II).

The playlist captures the mood of my novel—fun and summery but bittersweet, with unexpected twists. And it feels like something my characters, Laura and Casey, would play in the summer while lazing on the lakeside dock in their swimsuits, sharing confidences. I’ve already heard from several galley readers about it. A 20-something bookstore employee had never heard Blind Melon’s “No Rain” and is now obsessed with the band, and a woman in her forties said she had just finished the book, shed tears throughout and loved it, and is now playing the music every day because she was sorry she’d finished. Both emails moved me enormously, and made me glad I’d put such care into crafting the list.

Here are 7 tips for creating a playlist you’ll love:

1.  Don’t rush. Re-read your book specifically for music ideas. You’ll want time to jot down song titles and set the list aside to breathe before revising, just as you would with your writing.

2. Don’t try to include every song in the book. The Summer List has plenty of diegetic music and quoted lyrics. “Fade Into You” by Mazzy Star plays during a pivotal romantic scene and I adore it, so it went on the list right away and never came off. But even though “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees blasts during Disco Night at the town roller rink, it was…not appealing. It didn’t make the cut.

3. Do be open to songs that aren’t in the book. When you’ve identified a handful of songs you know you want, create an Apple Genius, Spotify or Pandora radio station with those tunes as the base, then let it play in the background of your life for a while. I had forgotten how obsessed my high school friends and I were with Queen Latifah’s irresistible feminist anthem “U.N.I.T.Y.” until it surprised me one night as I was cooking spaghetti. It’s catchy and smart, and fits the strong female characters in the story.

4. Do turn to your characters for inspiration. Pearl Jam’s “Better Man” is not only quintessentially 1990s and a song I’ve loved for decades, but the lyrics perfectly capture one heartbreaking moment in my story, as a character becomes entangled with someone who’s not good for her. It had to go in. Same with R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” and Dionne Farris’s “I Know”; they’re powerful songs with lyrics that distill important events in my characters’ lives.

5. Do pick songs you love. This sounds obvious, but if you ask too many people for opinions, you might be tempted to abandon a favorite or two. Stay strong. My list includes “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba. It’s not subtle; my characters make fun of it as resembling “drunk soccer fans shouting in a bar.” But I’ve always enjoyed the song’s hook and raucous energy, and play it on my iPod Shuffle when I run. Yes, it’s a one-hit wonder, and no, it didn’t win any Grammys. But it makes me happy and it works with the songs near it on the list. I’m prepared to defend my choice to the end.

6. Do accept that your family might grow weary of your D.J.ing. My husband and 12-year-old daughter are excited about my debut novel and listened politely as I dithered between Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette songs, replaying All I Wanna Do and Hand in My Pocket ad nauseum. But after weeks of me broadcasting the same tunes before dinner night after night, my daughter slipped in her earbuds to play Hamilton, and my husband tiptoed into another room to play Pink Floyd on his guitar.     

7. Finally, when you’re finished, Do put on some headphones, sit in your favorite chair or go for a long walk, and enjoy. Pre-publication anxiety can be intense, especially if you’re a debut writer. Listening to my playlist for the first time was cathartic for me at a time when I was struggling to accept a thrilling but terrifying fact—my book would soon be out in the world, exposed. Not everyone would love it. But letting my novel’s music wash over me reminded me why I’d written the story in the first place, and why I loved it. Listening to my playlist always makes me feel stronger. To paraphrase the immortal Chumbawamba, writers may “get knocked down, but we get up again.”

Amy Mason Doan has written for The OregonianSan Francisco Chronicle, Wired, Forbes and other publications. She lives in Portland, Oregon. The Summer List is her debut novel.

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