The On-Again-Off-Again Muse or How I Keep Writing

On March 9, 2018, Writeforfun wrote, A few years ago, by the time I was into my second book, I got to the point where I was writing at least three hours, every single day (which seems like a LOT to me!). I look back and don’t know how I was doing it! Nowadays I just don’t feel nearly as inspired or motivated. Lately I’ve been writing a few words every couple weeks, if not months. It’s sad, I enjoyed it when I was writing more, but the inspiration just isn’t coming like that any more.

I noted that this wasn’t a question, but I added it to my list anyway, because I think getting down to writing is something lots of us struggle with.

Three hours does seem like a lot to me. Great while it lasted. And maybe it’s returned by now.

Let me start with my most pessimistic response and move upward. Kids who love to write don’t always continue to write stories. Many young people who love to write are artistic overall and wind up swearing their allegiance to another art form, like painting or playing the flute. The writing fades, often painlessly. Some adults and other young people who love to write may become discouraged by rejection or criticism, and their enthusiasm wanes. This probably isn’t painless.

On a subconscious level, I think, some bump up against how fiendishly hard writing is and don’t find it in themselves to keep going. They allow themselves to be distracted by other tasks that seem more pressing. The budding story is visited less and less often.

A friend once pointed something out to me that I’d never considered: There are two kinds of art. One is interpretive, like playing the piano from sheet music, and the other is originating, like writing a story or composing music. When we write a story, we do have tools: our training, experience, every book we’ve ever read. But the page is blank and we have to make it all up. In my opinion, that’s much harder–not that interpretation is easy!

I don’t mean that leaving writing means we won’t ever come back. Life may teach us to cope with criticism and rejection. Or we may reread an old story fragment, love it as we couldn’t when it was newly minted, and be filled with fresh ideas. The capricious muse may pay us a visit and decide to stay.

And, usually, people who stop writing fiction are still skilled writers. They can draft an academic paper, an email, even a text message with more ease and flair than the average person. This stands them in good stead forever.

Some writers write only when they feel inspired. Some of them have careers as writers. Many of them, when inspiration comes, dive in and don’t surface until the magic is spent, often when a work is complete. Eating and sleeping have to wait. If you and Writeforfun fall into this category, I wouldn’t worry about a drought. The rain will come.

I don’t fall into the inspirational group, so I have to work at making myself write. I use several strategies that you on the blog can adapt, if you don’t use them already.

∙ Some writers have a daily page goal, which may work for you. The goal can be one paragraph or one page or five pages, whatever you decide. I don’t do it that way, or I’d face a lot of twenty-four hour stretches at my laptop and still fail. Instead, I have a time goal: two-and-a-quarter hours or more per writing day. (Some days I’m doing other things, like visiting friends.) I keep track of my times, starting at the beginning of the day. Whenever I stop, like to put dishes in the dishwasher or read an irresistible email, I write down the stop time and the restart time. If I reach my goal and the day isn’t over, I keep writing. As I go, I keep a running tally of the total.

∙ On days when, for no good reason, I don’t meet my goal, usually because I allowed myself to be distracted, I forgive myself. Always. Forgiveness guaranteed. Because if I don’t, it’s much harder to start the next day. This is a super important part of the process that keeps me writing–forgiveness. I urge you to adopt it, too.

∙ I ignore my brain when it tells me that what I’m writing stinks. This is also super important. Nothing can paralyze my fingers as effectively as a negative voice in my mind. I have to brush the voice aside or I can’t go on. But I encourage myself to be aware of specific problems in my story. Right now, in my WIP about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, I sometimes get so caught up in events that I forget their impact on my MC, the person my readers will care about. As a result, the tension suffers. At the top of my manuscript, I note this as something to think about in revision  and keep going. I keep reminding myself that what I have so far is only the first draft and that I love to revise.

∙ I imagine an approving reader. If this story is something I think my editor will really go for, it’s her. At other times it may be the writers in my poetry critique group, who are young enough to have grown up on my fiction. Sometimes it’s the child reader I used to be. Anyone or anything–a teddy bear–will do. The approving reader stokes my enthusiasm and generates new ideas to please her.

∙ By now I can comfort myself with the knowledge that I will finish my story, unless some real-life disaster strikes. I’ve made my way through the toughest of books (Stolen Magic) and gotten to The End. If you don’t have a lot of experience, remember that experience is what you’re building. Every story is evidence that you can hang in there. And every story that you don’t finish is just a stop on the way toward finishing.

∙ And there are Notes and Lists, which I’ve talked about in many posts to help me get to the end. Both are where I work out the knots in my story. In Notes and Lists, the stakes are low, really nothing. No one will see them. I can write anything! I can shake out my brain and see what emerges.

Just saying, the stakes are truly low in writing in general. If, for once, I fail to finish a story, no one will die. I can start another. I can congratulate myself on not putting more time into a project that just won’t work.

These are the strategies that keep me writing. And here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC is called a Creator. She makes wire figures, touches them with her left pinky, and they become anatomically correct foot-tall people. She types out three qualities that each of her creations will have and places the paper with the qualities on their tongue. As soon as they close their mouths, the paper dissolves and they come to life, incorporating the qualities. Have your MC create three such characters. Put them in a story along with their Creator, who meddles, just as we meddle in the lives of our characters.

∙ For possibly a dark story, imagine that the evil queen in “Snow White” has a child of her own–son or daughter, you decide–put the two in a story with or without Snow White. What kind of parent will she be? What will happen?

∙ “Pinocchio” is about creator, creation, and lying, which is what writers do. Imagine that Pinocchio wants desperately to be a real boy and he realizes that real boyness means having the power to lie. He won’t be real unless he can lie. Retell the story with that element.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I NEEDED this today. I write pretty frequently, but life happens and I need to remember to forgive myself when my writing gets pushed to the side. This post was so encouraging. And your prompts are so creative! I’m going to be mulling these over until I just have to write something, I think. 🙂

  2. This was so helpful! I’m so glad you wrote about this today because so many swirling thoughts in my head landed on the ground after reading this incredible advice! I love that all of these points are centered on the most determined mindset of positivity.

  3. I have needed it as well. I haven’t written regularly the last couple of years. There’s a lot going on right now, but there always is life going on. (Okay, right now is busier than normal, but still, I always feel there’s other stuff to be done. I’m also terrible at time management; I waste time and procrastinate.) The point is, I’ve been trying to work back towards writing, and this was a great blog about a problem I’m also having!

  4. Awesome tips! Forgiveness is extremely important, and I always forget it!

    I feel like this one of the writing topics (ways to keep up your writing) that you can benefit from reading a ton about, so it’s always great to have another opinion on it!

  5. This is SUCH a struggle!! Thank you so much for addressing it and for the practical, tactical tips that we can actually apply in our writing lives!! I pulled out a few of my favorite lines and am so going to sticky note them to my wall to keep me going!

  6. This is completely random but this thought popped into my head to day, and I wanted to ask everyone one here. How would you steal a hurricane?

    • I have three different ideas, all pretty random, but here we go:

      idea #1: sneak up on it from behind and pounce on it with a canvas bag.
      idea #2: suck it into a bottle
      idea #3: take it apart into the various elements of a hurricane (gale-force winds, rain, the eye of the storm), put them in separate boxes, and put it back together when I get back to my hideout. Then possibly demand a ransom.

      an interesting question, by the way, what brought it up?

  7. Hi! Finally, I am going to stop stalking this website and actually say something. I have been writing for quite some time now, and this blog has been a great help. Thank you, everyone! Great post, Mrs. Levine. I especially like the idea of Notes and Lists. I think I need to do some of those!
    @ HeroLass, I’m not sure. Maybe, if you are like a superhero or something, you could rein it in with wind powers?

  8. Oh brother. I was just thinking about it, and an idea popped into my head. Just for fun, I figured I’d show it here. (look out–very unrealistic stuff coming in!) What if someone did manage to steal a hurricane, so that it wouldn’t cause any harm, and then stuffed it into a house, and then with all of the energy the house has inside of it causes it to… do something. I don’t know what. Anyway, kind of fun to think about!

  9. Superb♥Girl says:

    Through both reading and writing, I’ve figured that the three blandest type of characters are:

    1. Love interests. They’re made to just stand there and look cute. They rarely have actually arcs.

    2. Parents. This has been discussed before. They just weigh the story down.

    3. Main Characters. Usually the main focus is what’s happening to them, not them themselves.

    So, does anyone have any advice for spicing up these boring characters?

    • I think a good tip for developing any types of characters is to give them a goal, conflict, and motivation. What do they want, why do they want it, and what’s keeping them from getting it (character flaws can frequently contribute to conflict)? And then use those core values to develop both the past (how did they become like this? Why do they want what they want? What events in their life has shaped their motivations and goals?) and the future (what will they do to get what they want? How will they overcome conflicts in their life?)

      As for the types of characters in particular:
      Love interest: Give them an interesting life beyond their connection with the MC. What would their life be like if the MC wasn’t in it? What elements would be the same, and what would be different?

      Parents: One book that I think writes parents REALLY well is The Big Splash by Jack D. Ferraiolo (there’s a lot of things he writes well, and the book is super entertaining even solely from a reader’s perspective) The mom in the book is present in the main character’s life without being a constant presence (she’s single mom who has to work really hard to provide for her family), caring while still respecting his independence, and wants to help him through his problems but never turns into a deus ex machina, and most importantly, intelligent and not somebody you can pull the wool over. (She knows her son is hiding something, but she doesn’t press him for information because she trusts him to handle it.) In addition, she also has a few secrets of her own and complicated relationships with some other minor characters. She has problems of her own that are not directly tied to her son, and that really helps to make her a well-rounded character. (Basically the way to make minor characters well-rounded is to give them a life that intersects with the MC’s life, but doesn’t revolve around it.) And all this is shown, not told, and the mom gets a fair amount of “screen time” (either in interactions with the MC, who’s the POV character, or in conversations that the MC overhears.)

      Main characters: I think the most important aspect of main characters is that they’re active instead of passive and ACT, not just REACT or be ACTED UPON. Well-written, compelling characters, in addition to beeing inherently intresting, also do stuff of their own voalition and take initiative. This doesn’t always work out perfectly and sometimes makes matters worse for them, but the important thing is that they made a CHOICE instead of doing what the situation forced them to do. I’m never saying that you can never have the MC react to an outside situation (for example, in most cases the inciting incident is an outside force acting on the MC, and the MC reacting), but it should not be the majority of the novel. For example, take Disney’s Cinderella, which most people criticize for being a passave heroine. She accepts her horrible life under her stepmother’s control without doing much about it, she decides to go to the ball after the MICE sew her a dress, and later actually goes to the ball only after her fairy godmother shows up and fixes things. And then, she dances with the prince, runs away, and only finds him again because HE sought her out and put the shoe on her foot. (Granted, there are a few moments where she takes initiative, but those are few and far between.) Compare this with Ella in Ella Enchanted, who actively fights her curse, goes on a quest to try and end it, schemes (in a good way), opposes her stepsisters, and builds a relationship in the prince. Though she does get help from various characters, most of what happens (especially the important stuff) is due to Ella saying “I want this, this is what I’m going to do to get it”, and then doing that thing.

  10. Hmmm. Well, for love interests, I have read that you should develop their character and personality, and then let the reader get to know them before the actual romance happens.
    I do think that parents can weigh the story down if not done correctly. I think they can be made more interesting by having them contribute to the character’s development or have something to do with the plot. Main characters, well, I suppose if you study their personality, maybe a personality sheet, express their emotions, and don’t leave out flaws I think they can be made better. For example, Nancy Drew and Ella from Ella Enchanted. Am I the only one who’s annoyed by Nancy Drew’s constant perfection…and boringness? But Ella’s emotions are expressed, she has flaws, she’s interesting. (Mrs. Levine, Ella Enchanted is one of my favorite books!!!!!! Finally, I get to tell you that!)

  11. Writeforfun says:

    I’m so glad you posted it this Gail. Thank you! I suppose my comment wasn’t originally posed as a question, but I’m very glad you answered it because I really needed this!

    I’m definitely one of the writers that writes only when I feel inspired – and it’s not really inspiration so much as sudden, total obsession (ha!). It only happens with ideas, stories or scenes that pique my interest in a way that I can’t just achieve whenever I feel like it – and they fascinate me so much (for whatever reason) that I simply cannot wait until the next chance I have to sit down and write! I suppose that is how I was managing to write three hours a day a few years ago.

    But in between those bouts of inspiration I still wish that I could do at least some writing. I’m goin

    • Writeforfun says:

      Sorry, accidentally erased the end of my comment!
      I meant to say, I’m definitely going to save this post and come back to your suggestions the next time I am feeling un-ispired!

  12. Writeforfun says:

    Also, anyone feeling creative? I need some help for developing a new idea!

    First though, thanks Song4MyKing and HeroLass for the suggestions regarding my question last week about how to come up with a new story! I really appreciate it, and you helped me come up with some ideas! And Melissa – I didn’t think I could, but I tried it anyway, and I do think I managed to find the core of that fanfiction and teased a story out of it, after all! I’ve got the start of an idea now (one that I just might even manage to become obsessed with 😉 ). But now I need a new world to put it in!

    I’ve never built a world before – though I prefer reading fairytales, my own stories so far have, ironically, always taken place in the real world (albeit with a little bit of wonky science thrown in). Right now I’m trying to come up elements to figure out for this world. I’m working on deciding what sorts creatures inhabit it, of course, what forces of magic will be included, what type of government it will have. What else?

    I feel like the Harry Potter books are almost more world-driven than they are character- or even plot-driven (is that possible?), and it definitely resulted in an extremely well-developed world. Granted it’s not exactly a fairy tale, but still, I feel like I should be taking lessons from Rowling; it just seems sooo much more interesting and immersive than any other fantasy worlds I’ve ever read (though Middle Earth is up there). What is it about this universe that makes it seem so real? Thinking about it, for me one of the things that stuck out about was the prejudices and politics within the wizarding world – not that prejudice is a pleasant part of real society (and I hate politics), but I feel like adding it to a fictiona magical world made it seem much more interesting, for some reason.

    What are some other elements you think are interesting to see included in a fantasy world?

    And lastly! I need some magical creatures – good and evil. I thought I might potentially use the world that the Grimm fairytales takes place in – though, it’s been a while since I read through them and I can’t remember all the creatures that were involved. I remember that they seemed to include mostly humans but also giants, various talking animals (some intelligent, some less so), fairies, elves, dwarves, unicorns, and witches. Did they include dragons? I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to regardless. What else?

    Or I might go with creatures from a specific region of the world’s folklore. Any suggestions?

    • Oooh, worldbuilding. Fun. I have my own world, set in the future, that I have to build too. Some thoughts on worldbuilding: One thing I found online showed that even the seemingly unimportant stuff can make a made-up world more realistic. Such as, where do the inhabitants get their water? Or, where do they get their clothes? Do they make them? Buy them? How do they relieve themselves, outhouses? Do they go to work, to get money to pay for all this? Where do they go to work? Do they have some sort of a religion? Questions like that.

      I think some things that would be interesting is to see a sort of caste system among the creatures. Are the dragons highly regarded, while dwarves are looked down upon and treated like dirt? Do some creatures hate some other kinds of creatures in the world? After all, I wouldn’t expect all hundreds of different kind of creature species to get along perfectly with one another.

      Oh yes! Include dragons! Majestic, beautiful dragons. Dragons are awesome. I suppose when it comes to creating different species, you can unleash your imagination. A pencil and a piece of paper help. Or you can research different kinds of creatures found in fantasy. I honestly think it would be fun to create some of your own, unique kinds of creatures. I might do that myself! 🙂

    • I started my fantasy world with the idea that each color of the rainbow had its own type of people, with abilities and personalities that represented them. Primary and secondary colors don’t always get along. Then I put them on a continent based off of the western US, because I love it here are there are so many interesting wild places. Every time I have a new story idea, it usually fits somewhere on my alternate history timeline. I’ve been using all real animals so far, except for griffins. We’ve got some pretty cool wildlife, magic or no. Harry Potter gets a boost because Rowling is combining extensive knowledge of the fantastic with an everyday boarding school world which I’m guessing is foreign to most of us on this blog. So she’s using what she’s learned about and what she’s experienced.

      If you want to get super nerdy, peek at this site: https://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/ They take every question seriously, no matter how unusual. I just read a question and answer on how bat racing might work.

    • For creatures I use ‘Giants, Monsters And Dragons’ by Carol Rose, I get a little lost sometimes. It has hundreds of creatures from fairytales, myths, and folklore around the world.

    • Here’s a list of basic wordbuilding questions I like to use: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/ that covers a whole bunch of topics from magic to culture.

      In addition to those “basic” questions about how the world works, you could also include a few random “fun” elements. I think that’s the reason why the worldbuilding in Harry Potter is done so well; in addition to explaining the nitty gritty of how the society works (like the magical government, the prejudice against muggles, the political fights, etc), J.K. Rowling also includes a TON of fun, unique, whimsical elements that aren’t necessarily integral to the plot but provide a lot of interesting detail to the world. (Like butterbeer, chocolate frogs, the Hogwarts express, all the different magical creatures, the owl post, etc.).

      As for magical creatures in the Grimm’s fairy tales, I feel like talking/magic animals and fairies/witches were the most common. I can’t think of any Grimm’s fairy tales that involve dragons, but I do know that there are definitely other fairy tales that include dragons. A lot of fairy tales also involve shapeshifters (either unwillingly due to a curse, or willingly due to magic powers), so you could also consider that. Pinterest is also a great source of inspiration for me. Just search “magical creatures” or “folkloric creatures” and you should get a ton of results from various different cultures.

      • Glad your story’s coming alive again! There’s so much great advice here I’m not sure what I could add, but I think one of the things that makes Middle Earth so vivid is that it has history. You could add monuments to historical events, or places that people avoid because “something” happened there “way back when,” but nobody remembers the details.

  13. Thank you Gail, for this post! I agree that goals with forgiveness to balance out the accountability is incredibly important. And I love the Snow White writing prompt! That actually gave me a major flash of inspiration for my current WIP.

  14. Writeforfun:

    I absolutely agree with everything that has been said about world building. I didn’t get to do any world building for my first Jelsa fanfiction (I’m doing a little world building in the sequels but not that much.) However, I’m having a blast world building for my fairy story, from figuring out fairy religions to fairy slang: (for example, they say “Flaming Sun!” when surprised.) The Harry Potter books are also an inspiration. For me. What always struck me about Rowling was how much detail she puts behind ALL her characters for example, did you know that professor Quirrell’s hobbies are traveling and pressing wild flowers?? In many modern books I’ve read there are main characters who aren’t as well thought out as Rowling’s SECONDARY characters!

  15. OK, so I have a few questions here. I am having difficulties figuring out the plot, it is my first time and I don’t have much inspiration. Should I figure out the general theme of my story and work it all off that? Should I just do what sounds cool? I really want to get my plot figured out because then I can get to serious work on my story. Originally I just started off with no ideas for the plot and just figured it out as I go along, but I can’t do that anymore. Would it be cheating to start from the end of the story and go backward? What do you guys do when figuring out the plot?

    • Song4myKing says:

      The End is a great place to start. I have to know the end before I can write.
      Sometimes, though, it changes. I know that some people can keep charging right ahead and find the end that way, but not me. I freeze, until I know where I’m taking the story!

  16. Maggie R:

    Do you have an idea of who your characters are going to be? A big part of figuring out plot for me is figuring out who my characters are. For example, I ask myself, “what do my characters want? How can I make things difficult for my characters? Where do my characters live? Where do I want my characters to be at the end of the story?” If I can answer these questions, the plot usually unfolds from there.
    And you should definitely do what sounds cool! One of my favorite pieces of advice for writing is: “Write what you like,” as opposed to simply writing what you know. “Write the story you want to read.” I’m paraphrasing, but the quotes are from Steal Like An Artist by Austin Klfeon, it’s a fantastic book about creativity that everyone should check out.
    Mrs. Levine also has a lot of helpful posts on figuring out plot. I highly recommend checking those out as well! : )

  17. Thank you so much for helping me with my question! 🙂 I have a challenge for all y’all now.

    Have you ever looked up the actual fairy tales? Often they are pretty different from what Disney showed us. Go ahead, right now, look up the actual story of Sleeping Beauty. It’s pretty scary. Not for the faint of heart. It’s so interesting reading about the actual fairy tales, really makes me think twice.

  18. I have a question. Do you think it is possible to write good romance that isn’t cheesy even if you’ve never been in love?

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