I have actually never subscribed to the idea that writers have a “Muse” to listen to, to inspire them to write. I know, radical rebel that I am, I have always firmly believed that butt-in-chair meant work would eventually get done, and once done, it was something that could be edited.
Now, butt-in-chair didn’t always mean “words on the page” to me. Sometimes it meant research, and sometimes it meant daydreaming… hmmm, quite often, it means staring off into space, “seeing” the scene and following the characters around, playing ‘what if?’ with various types of conflict in the scene. Eventually, words would get on the page, and I can edit. I am a much much better editor than I am a writer.
One of the things I’ve envied about other writers is their ability to give themselves word quotas and then live up to it. I want to do that. It looks so cool, to do that. It’s like a race and bam, you’re finished, and you can leave the pages behind for the day and feel good about yourself, because you hit a goal. And nobody makes you make the goal a high number, so you can even set it low, and feel good, because, hell, you hit it. People like me, on the other hand, writhe in angst over how little we’ve written and we may have actually written more than your minimum per day, but we didn’t set an end-goal, so it doesn’t feel like success. You’d think, then, with that sort of awareness, that I’d set a minimum number of words and be happy hitting them.
I cannot do that.
There’s just enough OCD in me to accomplish the task, sure. It’s just that this inner critic will start chiding me. “Well, yeah, sure, you hit that number. That was a wussy number. You’re a wuss. You should’ve doubled it. If you were a real writer, you’d be able to do twice that much in a day.” So then the next day, feeling all cocky, I’d double it, because I am competitive like that, and if I managed to make it, the same dialog would show up, with the added, “And yeah, just look at what a sloth you were yesterday. You should double this again tomorrow just to make up for your lazy ass.” So of course, I’d double it, and keep doubling it until the point where I’d have to write the entire novel in three days to accomplish my goal or feel like a failure.
I really hate that inner critic.
It’s the part of me, though, that pushes hard, that doesn’t allow me to slack off on crappy sentences, on weak structure or pansy-assed excuses for emotion that are about as strong as tinfoil. It’s the part of my psyche that makes me want to do better with each book and push harder to improve, to use the lessons learned to get to the next, deeper, level, to connect with readers in such a way that they’re either laughing or crying, but they’re saying yes! to that moment they’ve just read.
Maybe I don’t have a Muse. Maybe instead, someone assigned me a Drill Sergeant. And if I find that someone, one day, I’m going to kick them in the shins.
Anyway, I believe in just showing up for work. Some work will get done. You may not get a lot of words on a page, particularly in bad times, hectic times, but your inner writer will be cataloging and sorting and combining images and notions into useful tidbits and float them up to the surface for you to use. They may not feel like inspiration at the time. I don’t believe in waiting ’til we “feel” inspired. I believe we show up and the inspiration will follow.
But. And there’s always a but.
But there are times when life just stomps all the hell over you and you cannot sit down and write a coherent sentence if your life depended on it. It can be family stress or economic, job losses or job fears, illnesses, wrecks, or, in my case, a death in the immediate family. (My father-in-law passed March 1st. He will be sorely missed.) I couldn’t even think about writing anything. It was the one time I just did not miss it, as we watched him in hospice, and waited for the inevitable. Now, I’ve been able to write through a huge number of life’s stressors, including three major hurricanes which knocked out our electricity, but this one just–understandably–drained me of emotion. I had nothing to give to the page, because there was so much out there in life to feel and suffer and deal with.
So now… it’s time to get back into the swing of the story, this heart-wrenching story I’ve started that has grabbed me and doesn’t want to have mercy. And frankly, I’m a bit scared.
I don’t think you ever get to a point in your career where it doesn’t feel a bit scary to work on the next project… not if you’re challenging yourself. So that’s okay, that I’m scared. I keep telling myself it is, anyway, because it makes me feel less like a freak.
Bottom line, though, is I’ve got to jump back into the river of thought and swim. Figure out if I remember all those subtle layers I had been planning and if I’ve planted the right amount of clues/implications, built in the right kind of humor (very dark), included the right mix of characters who will be showing up again later. And so on. It’s like lying on a gurney and having the Drill Sergeant shout, ‘Get your lazy ass up, you whiny brat!’ and then he hits me with the shock paddles and I’ve got to leap off the table and get busy. (Really really hate the Drill Sergeant.)
I was mulling over this need, though, to jump back in, and trying to figure out ways of playing with my story that would ease me back into the world–without feeling like I’m goofing off, instead. I’ve got a few techniques: re-reading what I’ve done so far, of course. Read over my notes. Brainstorm on paper to sort of re-create that magical dream-state I fall into whenever I’m thinking of Story. I’m also going to play more with Scrivener over the next week or so–go grab photos from the web that epitomize the small town I’m creating, maybe find various people who look like the characters so I can feel more familiar with them again. I love Scrivener for this, because I can dump all of this in various files and cross reference it pretty easily.
So how about you? How do you handle taking a break? How do you get back into the flow? And for readers, that applies to any project you do, so your answers count!
All non-MSW’ers comments will be eligible for a $50 gift certificate, either to Mystery Lovers Bookshop (they offer free shipping–on almost ANY book, not just mysteries)… or Amazon or B&N. International people, you’re welcome to comment, but I have to be able to email you one of the above three from the US for you to use, so however you want to handle that is okay by me. Contest ends Friday night, midnight, CST and winner will be announced Sunday.