Saturday, April 30, 2011

Choking Your Muse

Finding inspiration has never been a problem for me.

Okay, so feel free to snort and turn away now.

Seriously though, I am the kind of person who gets a story idea from a news item I read in the newspaper, a snatch of conversation overheard in a coffee shop, a name, a turn of phrase, a dream—pretty much anything, in fact. In my teenaged years, I realized that there were going to be far more story ideas in my life than time to write stories so I started jotting them down in my journal and keeping those ideas for the anticipated barren future, when the ideas run out—Peak Idea, I like to call it.

My problem is motivating myself to work on one of these ideas, one at a time, until completion. I love starting a story, or a novel, or a blog post, and then dreaming up a hundred different endings for them, while actually putting none down on the page. Sometimes I can spend hours over many days internally spinning out one of these endings and that, it turns out, is a surefire killer to any story (or book or blog post).

In my head, I’ve already figured out how it all turns out. I feel like I’ve already written the book. So no need to write anything more in real life, right?

Well, the problem is that the average reader is unlikely to know what’s written in my brain, much less appreciate the full intricacies of characterization and plot that I have created there. There are no prizes for such stories contained only in the writer’s head, though maybe in future…

So back to the page, or the computer screen, to churn out this idea onto the page (assuming I haven’t already thought the book completely through, thereby killing my interest in ever finishing it). The good thing is that once you’ve put something, anything, down on the page, you’re no longer staring at that dreaded…dat dat duh…blank page. Writers are born with an instinctive fear of that. I’ve even been known to recoil at a package of fresh white 20 lb paper. I still run screaming out of the occasional Staples store.

Die, blank page, die.

If you’ve put down a sentence, you’ve started to write your book. Congratulations. I know, I know, the sentence must be a grabby, hookish, kick-you-in-the-teeth-hold-you-down-and-force-you-to-read-until-the-end, kind of sentence. A hook. Captain Hook. Battle of the Hook. Okay, I will stop now.

Chances are, if you’re writing the book, you’ve already been grabbed by just such a sentence. You’ve put it down on the page. It may not be perfect. It may not be pretty. It may not hook more than a small minnow whose feeling rather sickly anyway. But it’s there. Good enough for a first draft, I say. We’ll destroy all egos and sentence structures later…that’s call editing yourself.

So you’ve got at least a sentence down when you come back to your writing. That, my friends, is called a starting point. You don’t have to stare at a blank page or screen because you have this sentence, page or more even, to start with.

Now this is important…make sure you end your previous day’s work at a promising place. If you are now looking at your own work, instead of a blank page, every morning—you must ensure that you can pick up where you left off and continue on through the day. Nothing is worse than shooting yourself in the hand and not realizing it until you wake up the next day and try to type your allotted 500, 1000 or 5000 words.

How many times have I woken up cursing yesterday’s Nan? Too many to count. In the end, all I can do is promise today’s Nan will be more sympathetic to her future self and leave off their shared book on a good (read: promising) note.

Now, a good ending from yesterday does not necessarily close off a scene or chapter. That’s nice, of course, leaving you today with a fresh start and a new page (in no way related to the dreaded blank page). Instead, it can provide you with an opening into a new scene that perhaps you didn’t have a solid grasp on the previous day. Don’t worry, your subconscious has been diligently plugging away at the scene all night and it may well be ready to tackle it today.

Or, as I like to do, you’ve left off in a place where you have a vague idea of where to go but no step-by-step directions as of yet. The next day, you may have a choice: carry on in the direction you briefly planned yesterday or embark on a brand new one. If the pages don’t work, you can always cut and paste into a junk file (I usually have a companion file for my novel entitled Title_Notes into which I throw ideas, future plot points and whole scenes which just didn’t work out).

So this is how I choke my muse every day. Poor lady. She deserves better. But she’s stuck with me.

Photo courtesy of Pixomar at

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