Sunday, August 20, 2006

When the muse has left the building....

Okay, so as I noted in my previous blog post, I don't think you're a lazy, terrible writer if you don't write every single day. I think that there are times a break is unavoidable, and there are times a writer simply needs one.

However, there can also come a time when you've got the time to write, and nothing particular is holding you back, yet when you sit down at the computer, nothing happens. It's like your imagination has left the building. Your muse has taken a powder. Your writerly instincts are out on a long lunch. Maybe they've quit completely and are sitting in a Starbucks somewhere with your muse, talking about you.

I think there are a three general reasons people have trouble finding the motivation to write.

1. They're too distracted by other things (family crises or conflicts, moving, other errands, PR, etc.)

2. Your interest in the story seems to have gone the way of the dodo. In fact, your interest in writing seems to have dried up, which leads me to

3. It seems like you're never going to sell, or if you have, your career is stalled, so...what's the point?

What do you do if that happens to you? Here's what I do.

If I've got distractions, I acknowledge them. If I can get them out of the way, I do, but if I can't, I accept that's the way it is right now. Guilt is neither helpful nor productive.

I set priorities and let some thinks lag a bit. I don't have to go the Post Office the moment I have something to mail. I can do it once a week, or when I'm running other errands. I don't have to answer reader mail immediately. I can wait a day or two or three, and do it when I'm done my writing for the day. And you know what? The sky does not fall.

If I've got a lot on my plate, I divide those tasks into more managable pieces, or small things I can do over time so it seems less overwhelming. For instance, when the household clutter was really starting to drive me nuts, I did a little bit every day. I didn't take two days to do the whole house. I started with junk drawer one day, then did a closet the next.

That works for the writing, too. Thinking you have to write about 400 pages can seem overwhelming, especially if you've got other distractions. So think in smaller terms. Today, I will write five pages. Or two. Or a paragraph. Or just get my characters from the courtyard to the solar, or whatever.

PAY NO ATTENTION TO WHAT OTHER WRITERS ARE DOING! Really, I can't emphasize this enough. They're writing 15 pages a day? Good for them. Seriously, good for them -- that doesn't mean it's good for you, or should influence your schedule in any way. They're not better people or better writers because of their output.

Think about what you enjoy writing most. Dialogue? Description? Write that.
As others have said, let yourself write junk. You can fix it later. And if you tend to go back and revise, DON'T. Just forge ahead. Fake it till you make it. Write junk till it's not.

I'm aware some people simply cannot do this. They can't move ahead until they're perfectly satisfied with what they've written. Guess what? I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Saves a lot of revising later, so if that's your method, that's your method. And you won't have to revise later. Take a moment to bask in the glow of that as I'm working on the twentieth draft of the first scene of Chapter 10. Again. And it's still not right.

But what if you've lost interest in your story? Think about what you liked about it in the first place. There must have been something. Realize that you aren't chained to your synopsis, so let your imagination roam a bit. Maybe there's
something you can add/explore/jazz up a bit that will bring back the spark. If it's a major change, though, and you're published? I suggest you run it by your editor first.

And then there's envy's bitter sister -- the feeling that it doesn't really matter what you write, because you're never going to sell. Everybody else seems to be selling, but not you. Your writing must be terrible.

If you've sold, you think nobody's going to appreciate your work anyway. You don't get glowing reviews. If you've got readers, they're conspicuously silent.
You aren't moving up from midlist. Your career has hit a roadblock.

Well, I know one thing for sure about writing. You'll never be a published author if you don't write anything.

The average time to publication is five years. That's average -- some sell sooner, some sell later, and it's often a matter of being at the right place at the
right time with the right manuscript. But if you aren't writing and submitting, that time will never come for you. It's as simple as that.

There's something else to consider. How long have you been working on that project? Because if you've been revising a partial for over a year and you've sent it out and it's been rejected a few times? That story's (probably) dead in the water, and really, really dead to your imagination. Start something new.

But, you say, I love my hero!

Okay. Keep him and ditch everything else. Give him a new name, new identity, new location. If he was rich, make him poor; if he was poor, make him rich. If he was a playboy, make him a cowboy. You see where I'm going here?

But let's say you've already sold. Indeed, you've a got a contract and a deadline, but you can't help thinking that this book isn't going to do anything spectacular, so...I think I'll go fold some laundry.

Well, I know this feeling, too. I've seen writers published after me shoot up the
lists and win awards. It took me fifteen years and nearly forty books to make the USA Today list. I don't get bags of reader mail. I've also had some incredibly bad, hurtful reviews, including one that implied I was some kind of voyeuristic pervert. Not easy to shake off, that.

But then I ask myself, how many letters did I write to authors whose books I loved? Not a one, but I loved 'em just the same.

I'll read a good review. Maybe more than one. The bad ones tend to stick in the mind, so sometimes, I have to remind myself there have been good ones, too.

I also remind myself that if I've got a contract, I must be doing something right. And I've got readers all over the world. My royalty statements tell me so.

See, there may be times when the only person who tells you you're a good writer is, well, you. There are times you may have to be your own best cheerleader.

But here's the main thing to keep in mind: you've sold a book. You are a published author. How many people can say that? Haven't we all met people who've said, "Oh, I'd like to write a book some day." Not only did you do it, somebody paid you for it. I mean, seriously, how great is that?

As with selling the first book, though, that won't happen again unless you learn to take pleasure in your writing for its own sake, and keep at it.

I'm pretty sure that if you write even when you don't feel like it, even if you think nobody cares, even when you think in the secret recesses of your heart your writing's turned terrible, even though you're just doing a bit at a time, one day one of your characters is going to suddenly say or do something that makes you sit up straight and think, "What the--? WOW!"

And the dog days will be over.

At least for a while. 'Cause getting paid to make things up? Yes, it's great but it ain't always easy to get your butt in the chair.


Julie Cohen said...

Thanks, Margaret. I've been suffering from 1) and 3) a bit lately. It's nice to have a gentle boot up the butt.

Margaret Moore said...

The operative word being, "gentle." Seriously, it does no good to get all bent out of shape if you're going through the doldrums. The guilt adds to your stress, which makes it more difficult to write's a vicious cycle.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Nice one - Margaret -- I think our muses are together at the Starbucks. Jerks.

Nienke said...

Well put, Margaret. It's so easy to get wrapped up in everything but writing that we need this reminder every once in a while. Thanks.

Sinead M said...

Great post, Margaret. So true.

Sometimes we all need a gentle kick in the ass... and not to pay attention to what everyone else is doing

Anna Lucia said...

LOL! I pop in to post a subtle, shy and retiring 'thank you' and see Julie's beat me to it.

Thank you, Margaret.