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A Little Advice about NaNoWriMo and Music

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) starts today. For those of you who have never heard of it, the concept was created by freelance writer Chris Baty in 1999. It started with 21 participants who used the month of July as the timeframe to write a 50,000-word novel. Moved to November the next year, the number of participants has since grown into hundreds of thousands.

Thoughts about completing 50,000 words in a month range from, “That doesn’t sound that difficult,” to, “A complete novel in one month. Are you insane?” As a three-time NaNoWriMo winner (last year I was in grad school and editing my thesis, so I only got to 25,000 words), I have to say it is not an easy task. I had to be diligent and plan my time in advance, often times telling my family I had to go somewhere so I could get my words in. And most importantly, my music had to be right to keep me going. Without it, the noise of my thoughts would distract me. But even worse was choosing the wrong style and stuttering through ideas.

I have strong opinions of what music to look towards while writing. For short sessions where I am just trying to reach my goal of 1700 words for the day, my music has to have a high BPM (beats per minute) rate. Like with running, I am trying to push the pace. However, this does not mean I listen to my running playlist. Instead, I look towards albums that are short and hard-hitting punk albums like The Clash’s The Clash or London Calling, Gang of Four’s Solid Gold, The Stooge’s Funhouse, The Replacement’s Sorry Ma! I Forgot to Take Out the Trash!, and post-punk Yeah Yeah Yeahs Fever to Tell. But don’t forget The Sex Pistols, The Misfits, Joy Division and as James Murphy says in “Losing My Edge,” “The Sonics, The Sonics, The Sonics, The Sonics.”

If you are at a loss for punk albums, find a punk friend, and ask them to come up with a couple. The secret is to listen to music you do not know well. Then you aren’t distracted by favorite songs. You are just using the energy they produce.

However, if you are saying, “I’m not into punk. I need something that isn’t so angsty.” I say go for LCD Soundsystem. They are post-punk disco electronic rock. They have songs that last well beyond six minutes and are high BPMs. I will always go for the original LCD Soundsystem, but I like all of their albums including their newest one, AMERICAN DREAM.

If you are looking at a longer writing day, I have two major suggestions. The first one is common sense: Look for soundtracks that you like. These can be classics like Star Wars, Rocky, or West Side Story. Find something in your style. I always love the Zabriskie Point Soundtrack double disc or extended version.

It has a variety of music styles, and when you get to the later tracks (the second disc), there are instrumentals that keep you going.

However, my real go-to during NaNoWriMo is live music. There is something about a live show that is energizing, but they are also typically about two hours long. That is enough time for you to dig in and get your writing done for the day. And then there is Phish.

I do not talk about Phish that often anymore because the mention of their name is like saying Voldemort or Betelgeuse. People cringe and back away. However, I went to Goddard College because of the band’s history there. They are creative, work hard, and have found great success.

Like any band that has been playing for over thirty years, Phish has some great eras. I love them in their youth, especially when they were evolving from a barroom band to playing arenas and building their own huge festivals. Although it is often an overlooked year, 1994 Phish was slaying shows. It was when they began developing their long, jammed out sets that would sometimes have as few as four songs, but before they added the funk from Story of the Ghost.

The album I am thinking about in particular is Phish: Chicago ’94.

This collection has 43 songs, including an 11:22 “Maze,” an 18:27 “David Bowie,” a 20:58 “You Enjoy Myself,” and an 11:15 “Split Open and Melt.” If you have the endurance, sit forward in your sit, enjoy this Phish overload, and write. Try to keep up, and if you can, you may have a week’s worth of writing done.

Other live Phish shows I love: The Bomb Factory, 3/13/93 Campus Club, 1998 Island Tour, and 2/28/03. (The 2/28 show is good for the “Poor Heart Soundcheck,” if nothing else.)

If you are not into Phish, there are Grateful Dead, Daft Punk, Dave Matthews, String Cheese, Medeski Martin & Wood, Primus, and of course, Radiohead shows. Or, if you are into local musicians, you can find music on sites like

Maybe you don’t like any of my suggestions. That’s ok, but please don’t find yourself sitting at your computer with no motivation. Let music be a pleasant distraction. It can be that small source of stimulation that you need to finish your novel. And that’s the goal, right? A 50000-word novel by the end of the month.

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