I had a pretty rough time getting together the first draft of Riding the Dragon. One of the reasons for that was actually music.
I’m a musically driven sort of writer, so my writing process depends on having the “right” music. Plenty of writers make playlists and pick theme songs for their characters. I’d say my process is a step beyond that, even: I’m actively soundtracking my books. Characters have themes, but certain tracks inspire the action of various scenes. I envision the scene in my head, playing out like a miniature movie, moving in time to the music. The rise, the fall, the crescendoes, the bridges, the riffs: all of them are factored into the “beats” of a scene.
You can’t always see that; I often have a song on continuous loop as I work through a scene. It also takes more than four minutes to finish a scene most times, so the beats may be replicated. And then there’s songs that get put on repeat for six or seven chapters. There’s never necessarily a one-to-one correlation between scenes and songs.
Back to My Roots with Riding the Dragon
I thought I was going to have a fairly easy time picking a motif for the Riding the Dragon playlist. The story takes place in the fall and winter, the setting is rural and rustic, and Cad’s a farmer.
I’m not one for country, so my next best option? Classic rock.
And Cad seemed to agree—you’ll find I’ve got pretty much the biggest hits of Canadian rockers The Tragically Hip on this playlist. “Opiated” speaks to the themes of drug addiction in the book. (The phrase “riding the dragon” is taken literally here, but it’s also been used as a euphemism for using heroin.)
“Boots or Hearts” and “New Orleans Is Sinking” seem to describe both Cad’s attitude and his relationships. “38 Years Old” isn’t a great fit, although it does speak to Cad’s approximate age, as well as a history of criminality.
From there, I knew I had to add in some Rolling Stones—“Shattered” is one of my all-time favorite tracks.
For me, this is a return to the music I grew up with, by and large. My father is a huge music aficionado—music is his thing. You might even call him an audiophile. His music collection isn’t quite as eclectic as mine, but he’s sunk a lot of money into vinyl, then CDs, and now (finally) digitizing. (I, on the other hand, have mostly pirated my music until recently.) He has ’80s synth wave pop band the Eurythmics face off with Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, followed by Fleetwood Mac, The Cure, and, yes, the Stones.
In some ways, then, putting together this playlist took me back to “my roots,” drawing on the classic rock rhythms I grew up with.
For a few weeks, I ping-ponged aimlessly through my music collection and what Spotify had to offer, trying to find some sounds that connected with what I wanted to write in Riding the Dragon.
It’s a bit of a conundrum when this happens, a chicken-and-egg problem. Am I having trouble fitting a song to what I want to write, or am I having trouble picking a song because I don’t know what I want to write?
I rebooted the draft a couple times over, but nothing seemed to stick. I went back to older playlists, trying to pull something, anything, that would get this manuscript moving again. “All the Stars” by Kendrick Lamar and SZA, Smashing Pumpkins, Elvis Costello, Galantis’s “Forever Tonight”–nothing seemed to stick.
I tried rock’n’roll, then pop, then electronica, then rap and R&B and hip hop. Nothing was working. I dug deep into my music history, seeking out songs that had previously worked for action-fueled manuscripts, hoping something would spark.
So I rebooted the manuscript again. Again, the same thing happened.
Adding Songs as an Afterthought
I ended up having a breakthrough with the manuscript itself. A character I thought was rather minor turned out to have a bigger role to play in the story. It was like a switch flipped.
Even then, the music issue didn’t change. I switched back to some previous playlists, still searching for inspiration. I even started a playlist for another book project. Even when the songs there didn’t seem to fit with the story I was writing, they still provided more rhythm. That, at least, kept me moving forward, kept me going.
The end result? A lot of tracks on the playlist were added as an afterthought. Only a handful of them were there when I was actually writing; the rest of what I was actually listening to just doesn’t jive with the story itself.
Why Have an Official Playlist Then?
It’s a fair question. If there are only a handful of songs I can say actually inspired a scene or work as a character motif, why bother putting together a playlist at all?
Music is actually an enormous part of my writing process. Not having a playlist seems wrong, but leaving it at just one or two tracks seems silly. Even if I did just have The Hip on the entire time I was writing, it doesn’t make much sense to put that out there as a playlist.
Even though many of the songs were added afterwards, they do still speak to the story or a character within it, I think. I’m someone who deeply connects with music. When I’m inspired, music will connect to a character or a scene quite easily. When I’m uninspired, a new song or an old favorite can suddenly be what turns the tap back on.
Retreading some of the older songs in my music library means seeing songs in a new light. There’s notes in the track you didn’t notice before; there’s a new layer to the lyrics that didn’t exist before this character or this plot.
So even when I’m adding something after the fact, there is still that deeper resonance. It’s not that I’m sitting here, hoping a track will connect with a character or adding songs to “fill” slots.
Every selection does, in my mind, connect to the manuscript in some deeper way.
The Tragically Hip: Canadian Rock Icons
The Tragically Hip are quintessential for Canadian rock fans, but those outside of Canada probably have limited exposure to them. They have a very identifiable sound, and some of their biggest hits are unabashedly Canadian. “Bobcaygeon” is named after a small town in Ontario, and the music video features the singer as a Mountie in Toronto. The lyrics even namecheck the city. “Hockey Song” has the singer wax poetic about Bobby Orr’s Stanley Cup-winning goal, while also singing about young love and the Cold War. Quite the feat.
Cad’s not Canadian though (and neither is Drake), so why does The Hip feature so prominently on this playlist?
We can probably put it down to Gord Downie’s unmistakable twang. There’s something rock-‘n-roll about The Hip, but also something undeniably rustic as well. “Boots or Hearts” walks a line close to country, reminiscent of some earlier rock-’n-roll hits.
There’s also the lyrics—when Downie croons, “When it starts/to fall apart/man, it really falls apart,” there’s something of Cad’s story there. The lyrics seem to speak to a man trying to reconnect with a former flame, perhaps against better judgment.
“Opiated,” on the other hand, seems to be speaking about drug addiction, overdose, and even suicide. The singer seems to regret that his friend, the subject of the song, has gone on ahead.
Given Cad’s struggles with opioid addiction, this song could be speaking to a past experience, a regret, or even how things could have turned out for him.
From Classic Rock to the Grunge Scene
I mentioned the Rolling Stones earlier, but only one of their songs ended up on the playlist. “Shattered” is a bit more uptempo than some of the other songs. Ultimately, it’s an angry song, calling out the shallowness of American culture (particularly New York), the high-fashion fronts and the filth that lies behind it.
If we’re talking about the Stones, we can’t forget another amazingly influential (and experimental) artist: David Bowie. Bowie’s work really transcends “rock,” crossing over into pop and other genres with ease. Bowie’s fascination with space—from “Starman” to “Space Odyssey,” “Life on Mars?” to “Ziggy Stardust”—makes him an easy pick for a book about some cosmic dragons. Ultimately, though, only “Ashes to Ashes” made the cut here. That’s thanks to its depressing tune, the anxiety in the bars, and the lyrics that seemingly warn about the dangers of drugs.
Bowie and the Stones had careers that spanned decades, from the rise of rock-’n-roll to the mainstream in the 1960s, through the arena rock and glam rock eras, into more modern pop-rock. In that time, punk also came and went. We also saw the rise and fall of grunge.
Grunge and the bands of the 1990s see some heavy rotation in my collection. I’m a bit too young for the Gen X ennui embodied by most of these tunes, but they were also formative for me. (My father tried to at least keep up with music until the early aughts, at least.) Tunes by the Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers echo Cad’s anchorlessness, his anger and feelings of futility.
Crossing Over Genres
Into the early aughts, we started to see some interesting “fusion” happening. Perhaps the best example is the rise of Linkin Park—ostensibly a rock band that also had a DJ and a rapper as core members. Linkin Park was a staple of my high school teen angst. Even now, a couple of their tunes resonate with Cad.
Gorillaz, a project by Damon Albarn of the band Blur, is another example of that genre-defying fusion band. Tracks like “Feel Good Inc.” seem to be rock-esque, while “Clint Eastwood” features rap, and later entries are decidedly pop. Here, I’ve picked “Clint Eastwood,” if only for the dissonance of that ominous bass line and “I’m happy/I’m feeling glad/I’ve got sunshine/in a bag.”
Fast-forward a couple decades, and Gorillaz are still releasing music—“Tranz” is a pick off their 2018 album The Now Now. Its lyrics seem to speak to some of the more cosmic (or mind-bending) aspects of Riding the Dragon.
We Can’t Forget the Boss
There are a handful of other selections on here—home features prominently, so the electronic track “Almost Home” by Sultan & Shepherd seemed like a good fit for Riding the Dragon. Nine Inch Nails is another iconic band of the 1990s and early aughts, and NIN’s angry, crass lyrics would seem to fit Cad’s motif. Yet the quiet “Hurt” (and Johnny Cash’s iconic version of it) speak most strongly to Cad as a character.
“I Miss You” by Blink-182, “Gunning Down Romance” by Savage Garden, and a couple of more dance-oriented tracks round out the picks, along with “All the Stars.”
Of course, almost no list predominated by rock-’n-roll would be complete without an entry by the Boss himself—Bruce Springsteen. And Springsteen’s working-class, blue-collar lyrics certainly earn themselves a place here. “I’m Going Down,” like many of the other tracks, speak to Cad’s past relationships. But the stand out here has to be “Born in the USA.” The lyrics speak about the Vietnam War, the horrors that American soldiers both committed and suffered, their very human concerns. The song sounds like ringing patriotism if you only listen to the chorus, but its verses are a stinging criticism of the American military complex and how it leaves those who serve either for dead or to deal with the aftermath.
Riding the Dragon is maybe set in a futuristic landscape, but those forces are still very present in the narrative—something front and center in Cad’s life. It’s not hard to imagine him humming along to a version of this tune, perhaps updated—and wondering if there can’t be a better way.