Sunday 16 March 2014

Dan Powell talks about writing to music - and his fab collection of short fictions, 'Looking Out Of Broken Windows'

A couple of weeks back, I met Dan Powell when we were both on a panel discussing short stories. I've heard so much about this guy's writing - and I couldn't resist buying his new collection, 'Looking Out Of Broken Windows' - just out from Salt. It really is great - but I won't do a blather here, not yet - because Dan's here himself, talking about something I could never do in a million years - writing to music. Welcome Dan!

Dan here - 

Many writers can’t write to music. Not so surprising. The act of writing requires concentration and music can be a distraction. Jonathon Franzen, unsurprisingly, takes his limiting of distraction seriously and writes using ‘noise-cancelling headphones that pipe "pink noise" – white noise at lower frequency’. You might expect musician and novelist Willy Vlautin would use music in his process, what with him being the frontman and songwriter of The Richmond Fontaine, whose ‘alt-country opera’ The High Country was a narrative and musical highlight of 2011, and the fact that he co-wrote an instrumental soundtrack to his second novel Northline. In fact, listening to music while writing causes Vlautin to daydream. In a recent interview he described once trying to write to a loop of instrumental music: ‘It was probably the most fun I ever had writing, but the poor novel was so damaged and beat up and off kilter that I pulled the plug on it after the first edit.’

For myself, I cannot imagine writing without music. My entire process is influenced and helped along by a various playlists set up on my laptop. The stories in Looking Out of Broken Windows were all written while listening to various instrumental artists and soundtracks. That’s the rule for me. The music mustn’t have words if I am to write to it. Other peoples words get in the way when I am in the act of writing. When writing in public I struggle to block out conversation which is why, if you ever see me writing in The Bookstop Cafe in Lincoln, I’ll have earbuds plugging my ears, pumping ambient and drone into my brain to drown out the chatting of the other customers. No offence intended.

The stories in Looking Out of Broken Windows, for me, were as much influenced by the music I was listening to as I wrote them as they were by the short stories I have read and loved and learnt something from. Anyone reading the acknowledgements of the collection will see that I thank Andy Othling of Lowercase Noises by name. Andy is a very talented guitarist who, in his own words, is ‘interested in playing as slow as possible.’ He is a generous guy, who gives freely of his expertise on his various websites and blogs, helping other musicians with the technical aspects of music production and promotion on the web. He very kindly allowed me to use his music on my book trailers and his particular brand of emotive, ambient guitar instrumentals is perfect for reading and writing to. Without the music of Lowercase Noises, many stories in my collection would not have appeared on the page in quite the same way. Other artists and bands that fill up my specially created AAA Writing Music genre tab in iTunes are, Oathless, Stars of The Lid (great for writing darker stuff to), William Basinski, Olafur Arnalds, Industries of the Blind, Hildur Gudnadottir, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Explosions in the Sky, and the daddy of them all, Brian Eno. They are all worth checking out if, like me, you need something to fill your ears and free your brain as you write.

Putting together the story collection itself was not unlike track listing an album or crafting a mix-tape back in the good old days before mp3s and playlists. I had to think about how each story fitted within the overall feel of the collection and how it influenced its neighbours. What is great about a short story collection is that the reader can dip in an out, picking on the stories whose titles spark an interest or whose first lines grab at the attention most. Kind of like how most of us experience music now, picking and mixing from our libraries and the various online stores or streaming services. To that end, I’ve put together the following Spotify playlist. It features key tracks from albums I listened to while writing the stories that make up Looking Out of Broken Windows. Think of it as an unofficial soundtrack to the collection. If you like what you hear, you might want to grab a copy and check out the stories these tracks helped onto the page. The list is here:

Music also influences my writing in another key way. Many ideas for stories come to me from song lyrics. Not so surprising this as prose writers have been pilfering from poetry for centuries. While I do read poetry and from time to time something leaps out that I have to ‘steal’ (in the T. S. Eliot sense), I listen to way more music as I race about taking my kids to school and getting myself to work. Quite often a lyric will stick in my head and evoke some feeling or idea that niggles at me until I am forced to write it down. Once it gets me that badly, hard enough to go from hearing the word to noting it dow,  chances are it will make it into a story. The latest song to do this to me is New Ceremony by Dry the River. I won't say which lyric it was that hit me as the story is currently on submission and the words ended up forming part of the title but the idea they suggested sat in my notebook for a year or more before I wrote something. Weirdly, though I didn’t listen to the song while I wrote the story and redrafted it, listening to the track now as I write this I'm amazed at how the tone of the track is somehow mirrored in the feel of my story. I find that a lot with the influence of music on my writing process, this stuff goes deep. The influence is not always conscious but it is always there. 

And here is Dan himself, reading a story for you: 

Dan Powell is a prize winning author whose short fiction has appeared in the pages of Carve, Paraxis, Fleeting and The Best British Short Stories 2012. His debut collection of short fiction, Looking Out Of Broken Windows, was shortlisted for the Scott Prize in 2013 and is published by Salt. He procrastinates at and on Twitter as @danpowfiction.

Dan is giving away a signed copy of Looking Out of Broken Windows to one reader of the blog tour; he will post to anywhere in the world. To enter the draw just leave a comment on this post or any of the other LOoBW blog tour posts appearing across the internet during March 2014 or Like the Looking Out of Broken Windows Facebook page for a chance to win.. The names of all commenters will be put in the hat for the draw which will take place on April 6th.


  1. I really struggle to write without music in the background. I find myself listening to the sounds of the house itself or trying to hear what passers-by are saying outside. Unlike Dan, though, I can't listen to music through headphones when I'm writing - it's too close-up and distracting.

    I have quite specific requirements for my writing music; it can't be something I've never heard before, as then I can't focus on anything else, so listening to the radio is out. It needs to fit the mood, broadly speaking, of what I'm writing (I can relate to Dan's comment about having something ready to help with writing 'darker stuff'). Oddly, I find it's best to avoid a set playlist - when I know what track's coming next that then becomes a distraction in itself.

    I've really enjoyed reading Dan's fiction online and am looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of his debut collection. I hope it's a big success for him.

    1. Hi Dan, I'd be interested to know what artists/bands you listen to when writing. I don't always use headphones, just when out and about as it means I don't annoy others around me and I can drown out ambient noise. Thanks for the kind words about my stories. Hope you enjoy the collection.

    2. Hi Dan, when I'm writing I usually just set my entire collection on shuffle and see where it goes. As a result it lurches from cheery indie-pop to electronica to folk-ish stuff, picking up bits of film soundtracks and various impulse purchases on the way. Music I've found particularly good to write to includes Underworld, Candidate, Death in Vegas, Leftfield, Blue States, Agnes Obel, David Holmes, and Massive Attack. But inspiration can come from anywhere. One of my biggest story successes would never have come about if I hadn't been listening to a particular track by The Killers.

  2. Thanks for dropping by, Dan - nice to meet you. I was beginning to think my blog had dropped into a black hole! After your comments, maybe I will have a go at writing with music somewhere in the background - Im sure I'd write very differently if I was listening to Wagner or nursery rhymes...

    1. Thanks Vanessa, I really enjoyed the process of thinking and writing about just why I need music to write. Hope you get some positive results from trying to write to a soundtrack.

    2. Thanks, Vanessa - I find the same with my blog; sometimes people comment within minutes of me posting something, other times I'm convinced I'm talking to myself. There doesn't seem to be any logic to it!

      With regard to writing to music, it's worth a go, although if you're used to silence it might seem very distracting. An interesting experiment, perhaps?