This is Your Writer's Brain on Music

You don’t have to be a writer to understand music’s power to move you emotionally. For many writers, music is an integral part of the music1writing process, in fact, many create soundtracks for their books.

Generally, I enjoy silence when I’m writing, but music has still played a huge role in my creative process. Music sparks my imagination. Each of my novels has been sparked by a different song. Just one song. The book is rarely about what the lyrics convey. There’s something about the timbre, the rhythm, the groove of the music that kicks my story telling brain into high gear.

music6But, why? And how can a three minute song spark four hundred pages of material?

I picked up, This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin in the hopes of answering those questions.


Music triggers our emotions. Certain songs make us smile, get us amped up, make us sad or sentimental. Music is employed in movies to set the tone of a scene. Would Darth Vader have been nearly as imposing without The Imperial March? Change the music to Send in the Clowns and Darth Vader becomes a joke.

Levitin pointed out that the amygdala region of the brain is the seat of our emotions. He writes, “Every neuroimaging study that my laboratory has done has shown amygdala activation to music, but not to random collections of sounds or musical over tones.”

 With writing being such an emotional endeavour, it’s clear that music can invoke the very feeling we are trying to convey and set the tone for our scenes.

Brain Stimulation

Music stimulates nearly every part of the brain—from areas that process sound to those that consider rhythm and timbre to those that music2store memories to those that make prediction about what will come next in the song.

 In Levitin’s words, “The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes. It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives. Your brain on music is all about…connections.”

 Is it any wonder that our creativity soars when our brain is stimulated?


While music in the short term awakens various areas of the brain, music has longer term effects as well. I’d be interested to know if those who use music religiously in their writing, are also musicians or  music lovers. Levitin reports that long term music listening actually improves neural connections. “Music listening enhances or changes certain neural circuits, including the density of dendritic connections in the primary auditory cortex.” He goes on to site a study by Harvard’s music4Gottfried Schlaug who reported the mass of fibres connecting the two cerebral hemispheres is significantly larger  in musicians than nonmusicians. They enjoy an increased number and density of synapses and they tend to have larger cerebellums.

For those that use music in their writing, they know its magic. Music opens up a world of emotion and can stimulate our imaginations. Music captures us. We are vulnerable to it and as the writer surrenders to its power, new worlds are created.

Do you use music in your writing? Are there certain types of music that really get you going? Or do you love the sound of silence? I’d love to hear about it .


Melinda Friesen writes novels and short stories for teens and adults. She resides in Winnipeg with her husband and four children. She often writes to the cacophony of her children practicing trumpet, saxophone, trombone, guitar, and piano. She just wishes she could sing on key. 

Melinda Friesen authored Enslavement, a young adult dystopian novel, released by Rebelight Publishing. When she’s not writing, Melinda works as marketing director and acquisitions editor at Rebelight Publishing Inc.

Quotes to Get You Over a Brick Wall

We’ve all had days when our fingers stall on the keyboard, or when one too many rejections take us down for the count.  Seems we’re not alone.  Every writer – even famous ones – hit the proverbial brick wall of frustration at some point.  Some, it seems, could not leave well enough alone.  They coined now famous (or infamous) quotes about their dark moments.

Misery loves company they say, so in the spirit of commiseration here are some sour notes from people in the publishing industry who must have been caught in a sand trap of gloom on at least one day of their illustrious careers.


“I hate writing.  I will do anything to avoid it.  The only way I could write less was if I was dead.”
FRAN LEBOWITZ, obviously not having fun yet

“I usually need a can of beer to prime me.”



“An editor should have a pimp for a brother, so he’d have someone to look up to.”

“It’s a damn good story. If you have any comments, write them on the back of a check.”
ERLE STANLEY GARDNER, writing to an editor

 “I have performed the necessary butchery.  Here is the bleeding corpse.”
HENRY JAMES, following an editor’s request to cut three lines from a 5000 word article


 “They didn’t want it good; they wanted it Wednesday.”

“Everyone needs an editor.”
TIM FOOTE, commenting in Time magazine on the fact that
Hitler’s original title for Mein Kampf  was
Four-and-a-Half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice

“I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous.  He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.”

“I am sitting in the smallest room in my house.  I have your review in front of me.  Soon it will be behind me.”
still processing German composer, MAX REGERimagesOD6A1URV

“From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down I was convulsed with laughter.  Someday I intend reading it.”
GROUCHO MARX, on S.J.Perelman’s first book

“There are three rules for writing the novel.  Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

“One of the signs of Napoleon’s greatness is that he once had a publisher shot.”

“He wrote the books, then he died.”
WILLIAM FAULKNER, on what a writer’s obituary should read


And my personal favourite…

“We have read your manuscript with boundless delight.  If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard.  And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity”
UNNAMED REVIEWER, as quoted in the Financial Times

Life or DeathLarry Verstraete ( is a Winnipeg educator and the author of 13 non-fiction books for youngsters.  His next book, Life or Death: Surviving the Impossible (Scholastic Canada) is set for release in Spring 2014.

Other posts you might enjoy:

Reviews: How to Filter Through the Good, Bad and Sometimes Ugly

Rejection and the Editor-Advocate

Three Plus One: Writing Books I Recommend

For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.

Classic Read Alouds- Wish I Had Them in Jamaica

kids in runaway bayThis month my husband and I are volunteering in a tutoring centre for kids in Runaway Bay Jamaica. tutor with kids in runaway bayIt didn’t take me long to find out that the children we work with are rarely read aloud to either at school or home.  chidren runaway bay jamaicaI’ve been trying to read a story to them everyday and although there are many donated books at our tutoring centre I just couldn’t find any of the classics that I loved to read to my sons and my elementary school students,many of which I think might serve as good models for getting the kids to do some creative writing of their own, something else I think they’ve done very little of. mildred and the childrenMildred Beach who coordinates the tutoring program along with her husband Tony asked me to list some titles of books that I thought would be good read aloud picture books. tony and the kidsIt didn’t take me long to write down thirty or more that I think help teach kids the beauty and cadence of the English language and/or keep them engaged with great plots. dave and student runaway bayHere are just ten from my list.  They can inspire those of  us who write for children as we try to match the wordsmithing expertise of these authors. 

bear-hunt-coverWe’re Going On A Bear Hunt- Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury1970_Sylvester_and_the_Magic_PebbleSylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig

Cover_of_Tikki_Tikki_Tembo_by_Arlene_MoselTikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel

mauricesendak-wherethewildthingsare_page_01Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

ferdinandThe Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leafcover of millions of cats by wanda gagMillions of Cats by Wanda Gagharold and the purple crayonHarold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson250px-Mufaros_daughters_coverMufaro’s Beautiful Daughters By John SteptoeHungryCaterpillarThe Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carlefortunatly by remy charlip

Fortunately by Remy Charlip

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MaryLou Driedger is just beginning to write fiction and non-fiction for children after working as a teacher, newspaper columnist and free-lance journalist for thirty years. She also blogs at What Next?

MaryLou Driedger is a free lance writer with a long career as a newspaper columnist, curriculum writer and contributor to lifestyle, education and religious publications.

Cloying Clichés 2 ~ Stale Story

Cookie cutter stories. cliches-in-genre-fiction-altCopy cat fantasy. Repeating romances.

Last week I discussed tired clichéd phrases and comparisons.Peas in a pod similes and metaphors.

But clichés happen in storytelling too.

Boy meets girl. They detest each other. Something happens to the one. The other can’t bear to stand by hating and rescues the other. They realize they love each other. It was destiny. The fillers are just as cliché. Just as predictable.

Fantasy. One humble, gutless or shy hero. One nasty as heck villain. One goal–to attain something or somewhere before the other so the evil git doesn’t destroy the world. End=hero, still humble on pedestal. Oh, and maybe throw in a girl to protect. Possible slight variations, but again cliché, predictable.

The names change, not everyone is red-haired, but basically cookie cutter cut-outs. Some people don’t mind if all they want is escapism for a few hours.

But the multitudes want something more. Twists, turns and that “Oooh, I did NOT see THAT coming.”2012_12_10-cookiecutters
And so even though they were about to see if their spouse or brother left them any mango chip, avocado muffins, they tuck their feet up for another chapter. And another.
And they don’t hear their stomach growl in the stillness because in that chapter the hero starts acting like the villain and the villain has an attack of conscience and you still can’t put the book down cause–wow–you want to see where this goes and how it pans out.

Clichéd story frameworks are crutches. They can be starting points, because as every writer learns there are only so many plots all told. But what do we do with them? Yes, there are few plots, but that doesn’t mean also few stories.

The story is what we do with that plot, where we take it and the characters. Think of the most interesting or influential people in history. Think of the class clown in your school, however long ago. Why were they interesting? Because they dared to be different, to take a different road, to say the unexpected. They were not white stormtroopers, mindless clones.

For example, dragons in story have been cast as brutal and also benevolent, but nearly always large, magnificent, and powerful. Where would a story go with a dragon who was large, yes, but cowardly and had stunted wings of different sizes. He can’t bear a hero on his back to glory. What would he do in battle? This then affects the hero. How does he react to this pathetic sample of dragon kind? How does his reaction affect the rest of the epic journey?

lego-stormtroopers-photography-12And here’s a big one. What if the Boy wasn’t tall and handsome? Or the Girl slim and beautiful? Why can’t writers portray heroes/heroines who stutter, or limp or have a scar or are even just plain? Nondescript, easily forgotten?

Twist it, distort it, throw everything and everyone in your stories for a great roller coaster loop. Characters in these circumstances will really have a tale worth telling and reading and will stay in the mind much longer than those interchangeable princes and princesses in fairy tales. Remember, “Once upon a time” and “Happily ever after” are clichés too.

Seeking alternatives to clichéd writing, is how we develop our unique writer’s voice, that voice, that writing style and story style that makes a reader say not “I liked her book” but, “I like her books, I love this author, I love her way with words!”

Here’s an exercise. Using all these words in a 10, 15, or 20 minute do-or-die, write-off-the-cuff, free-write. Just fly with it and don’t think too hard.

mammoth, skiing, hail, garage, mechanic, perfume, conservatory. 🙂

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I

I took the one less travelled by

And that has made all the difference”

–Robert Frost

VastI footer

…writes for under 18’s & is currently torturing her first complete manuscript with revision. She encourages all writers thus:

To know is nothing at all. To imagine is everything” -Anatole France

Christina’s motto is:
“Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)

Hustle on Over to the Movie Theatre

Why would I be writing about a movie with lots of bad language, explicit sex scenes, nudity, violence and out of control alcohol consumption on a blog for people who write for children? I just saw American Hustle and while it certainly is a film that would be wholly inappropriate for children of any age, it is a veritable textbook for writers looking to spin a fascinating and engaging story.  I’ve been studying the art of writing fiction for about a year now and every single ingredient I’ve learned is a requirement for creating a great story can be found in the script of American Hustle. Here are five of them. 

1) Protagonists we love despite their faults. These characters are so incredibly flawed, and those flaws are right out there for us all to see, nothing subtle about them- yet somehow we empathize with all these messed up people-the mayor who buys off senators and congressmen, the FBI agent who curls his hair with perm rods, the con artist with an annoying hair piece and a paunch, the former stripper with a fake British accent and the whining wife who drinks too much.

2) Lots of conflict. Every single character  is in conflict at some point with another character or several. When the wife and the mistress in this movie confront each other in a public washroom the antagonism is so intense we think the screen will explode with their seething fury. These characters both male and female all seem to be drama queens and they leave us nearly gasping with their ever present inner and outer conflicts. 

3) Start with the most exciting scene. This movie jumps right in at a pivotal point when the scheme of the three con artists at the heart of the film is about to fall through unless it can be rescued somehow.  We meet those three characters and are introduced to the tensions between them and then the movie flips us back in time and leaves us to wonder and wait in suspense to get back to the opening scene to find out what happened. 

4) Authentic setting. The film is set in the seventies and every little detail reminds us of that- the fashion, the hair styles, the cars, the furniture, the role of women and oh my goodness the music.  There is one scene where Rosalyn played by Jennifer Lawrence is cleaning her seventies decorated house in rubber gloves and singing along to Live and Let Die that is just priceless and for me would have been worth the price of admission alone. 

5)  A Theme. I kept thinking about the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit during this movie because that gentle heart warming story is all about the desire to be real and that is exactly what the characters in the crude plot twisting story of American Hustle want too. They are in search of a ‘real’ life even though they aren’t exactly sure what that might be. And we don’t have to guess at that theme the characters give voice to it frequently.  There are plenty of other things I could describe- the film’s suspense, its eventful plot, and its realistic dialogue, but suffice it to say  that though I wouldn’t take any child I know to see American Hustle its writers have the craft of storytelling down to a fine art! They are going to be my inspiration as I tackle my next story writing project!

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MaryLou Driedger is just beginning to write fiction and non-fiction for children after working as a teacher, newspaper columnist and free-lance journalist for thirty years. She also blogs at What Next?

MaryLou Driedger is a free lance writer with a long career as a newspaper columnist, curriculum writer and contributor to lifestyle, education and religious publications.
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