On Listening to Music While Writing

I sat down this morning with my laptop—right before my daily workout, which I religiously endure because of the effect it has on my creative mind (a subject that deserves its own post, coming soon)—and wrote fifteen hundred words worth of a story I sketched out yesterday, but I deviated from my normal writing process. I had my earphones on—and wrote while listening to music.
The effects were extraordinary. I don’t know why I’d never tried it before, but I tore through the paragraphs, ideas hitting me as fast as I could write them down, and what I produced during that short 45-minute (or one album) long writing session surpassed my grandest expectations for the story.
Is it a coincidence?
Does it matter if it’s a coincidence or not?

We all do things to coax the most out of ourselves. Some people have special writing chairs; some people can only write poetry in the nude. Why should writing while listening to music be any different?
Of course, it isn’t. It’s just another thing, another predisposition that sets us up for success. But, is there something more to it?

Studies show that music helps you remember things. Students of foreign languages showed exponential improvement in retaining vocabulary definitions when listening to baroque classical music. Also, tempo changes have been shown to disrupt one’s memory. So, if you’re studying the definition of ‘apotheosis’ while listening to Miles Davis, don’t click on some Jay-Z when it’s time to take the test—apparently.*
Some sources said that our brains cannot multi-task, and by giving it two separate objectives we’re diminishing our ability to produce and excel at both of those things, which I think is complete bullshit.
Academically speaking, where your goal is to simply parry facts and information—perhaps. But, in the creative process, I, and many, many others would argue that listening to music stimulates the creative half of the brain, and improves the quality of your writing.

This morning I turned on Marilyn Manson’s new album Heaven Upside Down, listened to the whole thing, and came out the other end with 1,500ish words written. More importantly, they were words I was happy with. They made me excited, and ready to continue with the writing, eager even.
Now, I’m considering how music genre might play a role in this. So, I conducted an experiment. Now that it isn’t morning and I’m writing a blog post about the effects of music while writing, I’ll return to my draft, and write for another 45 minutes while listening to baroque classical music. Then, I’ll compare the results.
I know absolutely nothing about baroque music. But, thanks to five well placed minutes of online research, I now know that Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion and Handel’s Messiah are wonderful places to start. My introductory song is “Zadok the Priest,” by Handel, performed by the Westminster Abbey Choir, English Chamber Orchestra, Martin Neary, and Martin Baker.
This paragraph is being written while listening to Zadok the Priest. I understand why this piece of music might put someone in the right state of mind as opposed to Manson drawling, “WE KNOW WHERE YOU FUCKING LIVE.”

Alright, look, I’m sorry. I couldn’t do it. I know it’s beautiful and intellectual, and that whole schtick, but the simple fact is that I’m not a baroque chamber music fan.
But, maybe the experiment isn’t failed at all, maybe the point I’m trying to make has been elucidated even further by my refusal to write** while listening to that—stuff. I think we all have different tastes, and if you’re a writer, and you’re listening to your favorite music: from Manson to Handel, the Black Keys to white noise. If you love it—I think it’ll make your writing better.

Do me a favor, before you start your daily writing rituals, turn on some music and jam out. If, that isn’t already a part of your writing life because I seem to have missed the boat on this one. People have been doing it for as long as music and prose both existed. Perhaps, even Shakespeare hired a violinist to saw on the ol’ axe while he penned his plays—and fill his wine chalice periodically, of course. What do you think you’re just gonna’ get paid to play a violin and watch a dude write? Pft.

*This is a link to an article that I found particularly illuminating while researching this post. (http://www.brainhealthandpuzzles.com/effects_music_brain.html)
**I did finish my daily writing quota (2,500 words) while listening to music. It happened to be the iTunes curated playlist of essential Black Keys songs. I listened to music I loved—and loved the writing which resulted.



On Making a Living Writing Short Stories (Part 1)


I remember the day I decided to become a professional short story writer, and by that, I mean, I decided that I could produce short stories at a frequent enough basis that I’d make a profitable living. This was a half-decade ago, and my main source of understanding for the short story underground was Harlan Ellison’s many works, and the non-fictional, part-of-the-job, here’s-the-business-of-it-all, sections that bridged one Ellison story to the next.
Harlan Ellison is credited with writing over 1,700 short stories, novelettes, novellas, screenplays, teleplays, moonside tattoo flash fictions, etc. At the time (1960’s-1970’s) the going rate for short fiction was a penny a word. Of course, now, the SFWA classifies 6 cents a word to be the bare minimum a “professional” publication can pay their writer’s.
I got to thinking: what exactly would it take to make a living as a short story writer?

Gotta love the old mags


Let’s say that the average piece of short fiction is 5,000 words. At a penny a word like ol’ Harlan was getting paid, that makes $50 a story.
1,700 (Harlan’s total publications) x $50 = $85,000 (over the course of a very long and winding career.)
That’s not spectacular in today’s economic, fiscal perspective, but at the time it was a living. Though a groveling one. By no means was he a rich man, however this is not taking into consideration the payment he got from television writing in the 70’s and 80’s for the work he did on shows like Babylon 5, and The Twilight Zone.


Now let’s break this down. Thanks to the handy resources over at Internet Speculative Fiction Database, I compiled a spreadsheet of the Harlan Ellison’s 12 published pieces of short fiction in 1959*, to extrapolate exactly how much money he made to live on (considering only his income on short stories), and how that would translate to the modern market.
Check it out.

Ellison Graph_0001
That’s not enough money to support yourself, let alone if you’re married or have kids. It wasn’t enough for Harlan back in 1959, either. So, the real question is, why do we write short fiction at all?
Passion. Of course, you already knew that. You’re a struggling writer yourself who’s faced the same pitfalls I have, and drawn the same conclusions I have. You, on the other hand, didn’t put the time into making such a beautiful spreadsheet to prove your point to the world! (unless you did, and if you did, my apologies.)


To use the figure given in the spreadsheet, the average single person, minimum wage income is $15,080 a year. Let’s say you are only published in SFWA approved publications that pay at the minimum 6c a word. Let’s do some more math.
15,080 x 100 = 1,508,000 pennies a year
1,508,000 / 6 (your minimum per word price) = 251,500 (rounded up from 251,333.333)
To achieve the average minimum wage salary, you must sell 251,500 words worth of short fiction. This means, essentially you must sell the equivalent amount of short fiction as James Joyce’s Ulysses (261,222 words approximately) a year, just to make a minimum wage living.
251,500 / 5,000 (average short story length) = 51 (rounded up from 50.3)
51 short stories a year to professionally selling markets. That’s over 4 stories a month. That means at any given month, your name will be on Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Interzone, and the Magazine of S&SF.
The point is, the odds are highly against you.
Of course, professional writers who have the inclination towards short fiction supplement their income with other things, such as novels, short story collections, self-published pieces, articles, and of course, a day job (that’s a classic).
If, even after an eight-hour day frying burgers at Checker’s, you’re still coming home and writing your daily 2,500 word requirement, if you submit in spite of dozens of rejection e-mails, if you have the courage to accept constructive criticism and make your fiction writing as sharp as it can be, then you have that one thing, the thing that will give you a successful career as a short story writer.


The book that made me want to be a (short story) writer.



So, if you want to make a minimum wage living publishing short stories, you gotta’ sell 51stories to professionally paying markets per year. There are other ways, of course. I’m currently experimenting with them, and when I have enough content to update you on my pursuit, I’ll post the second part of this post.
Until then, write on!

*This is, almost, what Harlan Ellison made from his writing that year. The only other published work he had during 1959 was a double-sided ace paperback. The Man with Nine Lives/ A Touch of Infinity. If you look back at the spreadsheet, you’ll find a novella published in the October ’59 issue of Amazing Science Fiction Stories called Sound of the Scythe, which would later be published as The Man with Nine Lives and makes up half of the ace double. The other half, A Touch of Infinity, contains** five short stories and one novelette.
**Blind Lightning, Back to the Drawing Boards, Life Hutch, The Sky is Burning, Final Trophy, and the novelette Run for the stars. A Touch of Infinity also included an introductory essay by Harlan Ellison.