Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Art of Mix-Making

I’m one of those people.  You know the kind I mean.  You ask them what their favorite band is, and their reply is something along the lines of, “Favorite band of today, this month, or this year? And would you mind specifying a genre?”  You tell them you went to a cool concert last month, and they give you one of those oh-how-adorable looks and say, “Only one?”

You ask them about if they have a playlist for their novel, and they give you a mix CD with liner notes and tell you that you have to play it in order.  No shuffle allowed.

Yeah, that would be me.

I’m not kidding about the mix CD.  It’s got fourteen tracks, broken up into three four-song “chapters,” one interlude, and a good old musical epilogue.  Pretentious?  Maybe.  But hey.

The thing about the mix is that evolved in much the same way as my book did, albeit with far less work.  As I was churning out the first draft, I made a playlist; onto it went every single song that reminded me even a little of my characters or story.   Or rather, of what I wanted my characters and story to be.  Once I started revising, I added new songs, deleted others, and began arranging them in a way that seemed to correspond, to me at least, with the arc of the story.

And after the book deal went down, and my editor’s notes began to shape the book into what it is now?  That’s when the tracklist happened.  That’s when I trimmed the playlist down to its bare essentials: fourteen tracks from over twenty, each reflecting something specific about what I was working on.

But music as a reflection of prose, while awesome, isn’t why making a mix was such an essential part of the writing process for me.  It was actually the opposite: prose as a reflection of music. 

My book, The Art of Wishing, is about a high school singer-songwriter-wannabe named Margo, who falls for a younger boy named Oliver – a boy who just happens to be a genie.  I’d been wanting to write about a human girl and a supernatural boy for a long time, and I chose to make him a genie for many reasons (gender roles, power dynamics, blah blah blah), but that’s just thematic stuff.  When I started working on the characters and their stories, that didn’t help me anymore.  I had to figure out who they were as individual people, not just as embodiments of capital-T themes I wanted to write about.

And the key to figuring out who they were?  Music.  There’s this band I absolutely adore – a Celtic-flavored indie band out of Virginia – called Carbon Leaf.  When I started writing The Art of Wishing (back when I was calling it That Genie Book), I was deeply entrenched in my Carbon Leaf fandom.  And it was one of their songs, an odd and beautiful thing called “Lake of Silver Bells,” that gave me my first glimpse into the head of my genie boy, Oliver.

There’s that slow build at the beginning, the explosion of percussion shortly thereafter, the slight syncopation in some of the verses, the free-flowing whimsy of the lyrics, the strangely fairy-tale-like imagery – all of those things were essential in figuring out who Oliver was.  But more than any of those things, it was this one little group of lines, standing alone in the middle of a lull in the song:

Looking past the love you face
You miss the place you never had
What you see’s not just the dream
But something on the other end
Wake up, wake up
Wake up, you’re much too fast asleep…

That verse is so at odds with the rest of the song, and there are so many things about it that grab me.  The hint of a fuller story that we may never know the entirety of.  The idea of nostalgia, and of moving beyond it toward something unknown.  Even the idea that “fast asleep” is a thing that can be quantified.  Those were the words that really helped me create my character.

For Margo, my narrator, the process was much different.  There weren’t specific lyrics that applied to her, at least not until much later in the revision process, but there were collections of lyrics, and of musical phrases, that helped me see better through her eyes – and most of those songs were by Neko Case.  There’s a certain sensibility that Neko’s lyrics have, and while Margo’s narrative voice wasn’t particularly influenced by that, the way she sees the world definitely was.  So much so that Neko, along with a few of her songs, ended up in the book as Margo’s favorite artist.

I could go on ad nauseum about all the songs that influenced The Art of Wishing, and what they mean, but I can practically see your eyes glazing over at the very thought.  So instead I’ll leave you with a playlist.  And yes, Christina Aguilera is on it.  Because obviously.

1. When I’m Up (Great Big Sea)
2. Stinging Velvet (Neko Case)
3. Faster (Matt Nathanson)
4. Lake of Silver Bells (Carbon Leaf)
5. I Wish I Was the Moon (Neko Case)
6. Hand Me Downs (Indigo Girls)
7. Tip Toe (Carbon Leaf)
8. Zuma (Coyote Grace)
9. Genie in a Bottle (Christina Aguilera)
10. Another Mystery (Dar Williams)
11. Consequence Free (Great Big Sea)
12. Bound (Suzanne Vega)
13. The Story (Brandi Carlile)
14. Seed (Carbon Leaf)

Lindsay Ribar is a literary agent by day, a writer by night, and a concert junkie 24/7.  She is fond of wine, Ireland, musicals, long walks around Manhattan, and the color blue.  Her first novel, The Art of Wishing (Dial Books, March 2013) features genies, guitars, and kissing – and you should totally read it.


  1. Love it, Lindsay. I'm a fan of so many of the artists on your playlist and must check out the ones with whom I'm not as familiar.



  2. I learned about some new artists today, thanks Lindsay! I was wondering if that Christine Aguilera song would be on your list. :)

  3. I love messing with playlists to be able to "hear" the shape of a story. I think I have a thing for Carbon Leaf now. Thanks, Lindsay.

  4. Lindsay! Great Big Sea! Indigo Girls! Dar! We need to go to some concerts together.