While I was working on the first draft of my novel, “Everything Can Change,” I discovered that music dramatically improved my writing process. The book is about Jack Ritter, a young man who is diagnosed with testicular cancer while working a high-demanding job as an associate attorney at a large NYC law firm. Due to the storyline, the book deals with a number of emotions, including fear, loneliness, depression and hope. When I was writing and had issues in describing certain emotions or how to proceed with the story, I often discovered the answer by listening to music.
About a third of the way through my first draft, I started incorporating music into the story itself, with Jack hearing the songs on his iPod or in the background. Often the song would mirror Jack’s situation or his emotional state in the chapter. In some cases, the song would foreshadow story development. In at least two instances, the songs impacted Jack directly and powerfully.
In some cases, the relationship between the song and the story was obvious from the song’s title. while in others, the meaning can be found in the lyrics.
These songs form the “soundtrack” to my novel and one of my favorite playlists. I’ve listed the songs below as they appear on my iTunes playlist, and, with one exception, in the order in which they appear in the book.
If you’ve read my book, you’ve probably figured out much of the below already. For those who haven’t read the book, the below contains some spoilers, which I’ve tried to minimize as best I could.
1. Third Eye Blind, “Semi-Charmed Life”
This song ends the first chapter, which introduces us to Jack and his “semi-charmed life.” He works hard, is very good at his job and is paid well. The life, though, has its downsides that Jack ponders in the chapter.
In addition, the lyrics foreshadow Jack’s upcoming internal conflict: “I want something else/To get me through this semi-charmed kind of life.”
2. Collective Soul, “The World I Know”
This song is mentioned at the beginning of the second chapter, which provides exposition about the world Jack knows: his life and how he became a lawyer in New York City. Again, the lyrics signal upcoming events: loneliness in New York City, depression and laughter through tears.
3. Jeff Buckley, “Lover, You Should Have Come Over”
Jack hears this song in the middle of the second chapter when he’s working on a brief. He’s struggling with the writing and he’s also distracted by an earlier conversation with an off-and-on lover. She invited him out, but he declined due to the brief.
The lyrics reflect Jack’s romantic situation (“Sometimes a man must awake to find that, really, he has no one”) and portend a plot point (“Lover, you should have come over/cause it’s not too late”).
4. Bruce Springsteen, “Into the Fire”
If you lived in New York City on September 11, 2001, you were fundamentally affected by the events of that day, even if you weren’t anywhere near the Towers or knew anyone who was. In Chapter Five, the day after Jack is diagnosed with testicular cancer, he listens to this song about the heroic first responders who lost their lives on that day. As Jack recalls that day and the days thereafter, he gains much-needed perspective.
This song also foreshadows the eventual resolution to Jack’s upcoming struggles. In the chorus, Springsteen sings:
May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love
Throughout the book, Jack often lacks (or feels like he lacks) these four qualities. It is through encounters with several people who provide him examples of strength, faith, hope and love that Jack discovers them within himself.
5. Justin Timberlake, “Senorita”
Later, in Chapter Five, Jack hears this popular 2003 song playing at a Jersey Shore bar. The song about a guy talking to a girl at a bar reflects a similar episode for Jack.
6. Warren Zevon, “Lawyer, Guns & Money”
One of my favorite songs marks Jack’s return to legal work in Chapter Eight following surgery.
7. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Can’t Stop”
Chapter Nine starts with the morning after Jack received some bad news. He decides to take charge of his life and listens to this song while running. “Can’t Stop” also is about taking charge of life: “Can’t stop the spirits when they need you/This life is more than just a read through.”
8. The Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby”
This song appears in Chapter Twelve as Jack is undergoing his second chemotherapy treatments. The central theme of this song foreshadows a discovery that Jack makes in this chapter.
9. Foo Fighters, “My Hero”
This 1997 Foos song about an ordinary hero is one of my favorites. Jack listens to it during his third chemotherapy session in Chapter Fourteen. He’s struggling emotionally and mentally and is overwhelmed by the stresses from his treatment and his job. In the midst of this turmoil, he encounters two people that help him begin the process of emerging from his misery.
10. Depeche Mode, “Enjoy The Silence”
In Chapter Fifteen, Jack is riding with his sister as she drives to their Minnesota hometown. As the song indicates, Jack isn’t in the mood to talk. In this case, I felt referencing the actual title was too “on-the-nose,” so I didn’t directly mention it. Instead, I hinted that it was playing by mentioning that Depeche Mode’s CD, “Violator,” (on which was this song appeared) was playing.
11. Barenaked Ladies, “The Old Apartment”
This song is referenced half way through Chapter Fifteen after Jack has spent some time in his hometown. As the lyrics suggest, Jack is remembering where he “used to live.” As the lyrics reflect, he’s happy where he is now, but he loves the memories .
12. Indigo Girls, “Closer to Fine”
The song perfectly captures Jack’s circumstances in Chapter Sixteen. He’s troubled and looking for answers from others, but the answers he’s getting aren’t giving him the clear path he seeks. The verse about seeking solace in a bottle or friend also foreshadows his night out with high school friends.
13. Skid Row, “I Remember You”
This song was huge back in 1989-1990 when I was in my senior year of high school so when I picked out music for a night out for Jack and his high school friends, including his first love, this song came instantly to mind.
14. Don Henley, “New York Minute”
This song is the most important one on the list and, without it, the book would be different, both in its title and in its central theme. It was so important that I decided to incorporate it into a scene where Jack listens to the song and it powerfully changes his perspective.
As I wrote in an earlier article, this scene mirrored a similar experience that I had while listening to a Florence and the Machine song.
15. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Angel Dream (No. 2)”
This song, one of the “all-time favorites” of the late Tom Petty (and one of mine as well), appears at the start of Chapter Seventeen and sets up the events of the chapter: “I saw an angel/I saw my fate/I can only thank God it was not too late.”
16. Celtic Thunder, “Galway Girl”
If you’ve spent any length of time in New York City, at some point, you’ve probably found yourself in an Irish pub with an Irish bartender and Irish music playing on the jukebox. If so, you’ve probably heard this song about a man losing his heart to a girl with eyes of blue, just like Jack does in Chapter Seventeen.
18. Matthew Sweet, “I’ve Been Waiting”
Another song from Chapter Seventeen and another song about meeting a new love. By now, you probably have a good idea of what happens in this chapter.
19, Elton John, “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters”
In some ways, this song, which Jack mentions in Chapter Nineteen, reflects the story of the book. The lyrics reflect Jack’s desire to move to New York City and make it big there (“‘ll go my way alone/ Grow my own,my own seeds shall be sown/in New York City”). Once he’s there, he learns how tough life and work there can be.
However, there’s a specific part of the song that is even more important to me and the book. One of the reasons that I wrote this book was to thank my family, friends and classmates who helped me during my fight against cancer. Jack had similar people and he thanks them in this chapter using the song’s words: “And I thank the Lord for the people I have found/I thank the Lord for the people I have found.”