Inspiration deprivation

On February 29, 2012, Maddi wrote, I’m having some trouble getting “inspired.” I have my plot worked out, I’m just having problems with the in-between stuff like character development and other small events. I’m not even sure if I can make it into a good quality piece of writing. I’ve been turning to Legend of Zelda fanfiction. It works, but I want to produce something that is my own idea. Lately my spelling has been really off, even though I’m a pretty good speller. Any ideas?

Then this week TsuneEmbers wrote, I’ve been having way too much trouble w/ my own writing lately, as in it won’t come out and actually get anywhere. This makes me sad since I love writing stuff. I think I kinda lost my drive there, when I realized that one of my ideas was way too complicated, and not working at all. =/ I tried simplifying it out to a more workable form, but it still doesn’t actually feel like it can work yet.

I am toying with another idea of mine though, but of course, my usual plotting problems bit that one, so I’m currently stuck with not writing anything. I have a few major characters in my head already, and a vague idea of what I want to happen to them, but that’s about it. The vague idea could be considered a plot in a sense, I guess, but it doesn’t give me any idea over where to actually start the story. Not to mention that the word plot tends to make me scared every time someone mentions it, because I’m really more of a character person, and I don’t get this plotting thing as well.

Any advice? This whole thing has just been frustrating me here for a while now.

Creative work, writing in particular, is peculiar. We writers love to write. We feel complete when we’re doing it. And sometimes – sometimes often – many of us, including me, hate it. At these times I’d rather go to the dentist than write.

I feel most understood in the company of other writers, because almost all of us struggle with the same demon. An enviable few relax into writing. If you’re among them, count yourself lucky.

I have a theory about why writing, or any creative expression, is so hard. When we create we confront ourselves but not directly. If the confrontation were direct, we’d have an easier time. After all, we do difficult things all the time, take on new challenges, carry out unpleasant chores, speak hard truths. But when it comes to fiction, we’re confronting ourselves indirectly. We’re making something out of nothing, and what if we come up empty? What if we disappoint ourselves?

It’s scary. I wrote about this in Writing Magic, that when I’m writing a first draft and inventing my story I feel as if I’m locked in an iron cell without doors or windows or furniture. After a while a little moisture condenses on a wall, which I scrape off, and that’s an idea. I use it and wait for more condensation, the next idea.

How pleasurable can it be to inhabit a cell like that, to have to depend on our mind to come up with the moment-by-moment of a story but not to be able to force it to produce? No wonder we get frustrated. No wonder we occasionally despair.

The solutions the writers I know employ are mechanical. Some write at a certain time. The hour arrives, they sit at their desks and hope that routine will prime the muse’s pump. Some free write before they enter the “real” manuscript. Some edit the work of the previous day before they pen or type a new word. Some start before coffee, some only after their blood is fifty percent caffeine; some eat their way through an entire book (carrots and celery, to be sure).

My method is to keep track on paper of the time I spend writing. My goal is at least two-and-a-quarter hours of writing a day, so I write down my start times and stop times. I may write for twenty-three minutes and stop to answer the phone. Before I pick up the receiver, I note the time.

Often I do reread a little of my work from the day before but generally not much. And I don’t do the free writing or eating, and I’m not a coffee drinker. But I do rely on notes. When I can write nothing else I can write notes, which are sometimes unappealingly full of self pity. The nice thing about them, though, is that they don’t have to be carefully crafted. There’s no threat, no disappointment in notes.

My other assist is the knowledge that I’m a writer. Writing is my obligation, my duty, and I’m dutiful (my curse, just like Ella’s!). I’m not talking now about earning my living, because I felt this way during the nine years it took me to get published.

The point is that mechanics, not inspiration, helps us soldier on, and the soldiering on eventually earns us inspiration. Habit – I can’t emphasize this enough – keeps us going. Those of you who participate in NaNoWriMo may understand. For the month of November, writing is your job, and you do it no matter what – whether or not you make your word count at the end.

Forgiveness also helps. Sometimes I don’t make my time goal, and I forgive myself, because heaping coals on my head does no good. The coals burn! And they make getting started the next day even harder.

I don’t mean it’s all joyless. In the writing, in getting something right, in surprising myself, there’s sharp pleasure, which, underneath everything, keeps us going.

Please notice I haven’t said a word about quality. We talk about craft constantly here, but the global term, good, rarely comes up. I try to keep that word and it’s opposite, bad, out of my thinking. In my stories I work at characters, dialogue, action, setting, expression, all that, but I avoid as much as I can asking if what I’m doing is good or bad. Leave that to the critics.

So my advice is:

1. Establish writing habits, whatever they are, a particular time to write, a number of pages that have to be written, a time goal. If you choose my method, the time goal, write it down as you go. Don’t let it be vague.

2. Know that you are a writer and your obligation, possibly your calling, is to write. Writing is your fallback position.

3. Forgive yourself if (probably when) you fall short.

4. As much as you can, avoid judging your work. When you find yourself doing it, shift your thoughts elsewhere. Remind yourself that you’re really good at setting the table or walking quickly, and confine your judging to that.

Maybe I went into a rant here, and there are specifics in both Maddi’s and TsuneEmbers’s questions that I didn’t address, so I’ll continue next week. In the meanwhile, here are some prompts, which come from the summer writing workshop, which Agnes from the blog has been attending:

∙ Hope is the daughter, or Harold is the son, of the king’s highest advisor in the Kingdom of Kestor. She (or he) has been warned that there is a traitor who is plotting against the throne. She’s been invited to tea at the palace of the king’s youngest brother. She has reason to suspect that one of the other guests is the traitor. Write the tea and make the reader suspect several guests by showing them through Hope’s or Harold’s eyes.

∙ Now write the tea from the point of view of the character who is actually the traitor.

∙ Now make the traitor a good character.

∙ Use all of this in a story or a novel or a seven-book series.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thank you for this post. I end up in this predicament a lot! I try to remember the advice "Give yourself permission to write garbage." Sometimes I'll even sit down and say "Time to write some garbage!" That's gotten me kickstarted a few times.

  2. I'm a three-time NaNoWriMo winner and one-time loser. NaNoWriMo definitely helps you write. There are low and high moments, but the result, and the point, is that you become highly productive and get stuff done.

    However, this summer I was planning on finishing the second draft of last November's novel, and I've made very little progress. Part of that is because I have a job and I'm very tired whenever I have time to write, as well as other emotional stuff. How does being tired, depressed, or stressed, affect your writing habits?

  3. It was so funny, I couldn't htink of anything to write so I looked to see if there were any new posts on my favorite blogs and I found exactly what I needed. Thanks! Also I try to write for a certain amount of time each day and it really helps me stay focused.

  4. I have trouble establishing routine, but I really should be better about it, because I love writing. It brings me peace and joy, and when I haven't been writing, I talk to myself incessantly because all the ideas, characters, and stories need to get out. It took me a while to make that connection. Thanks for this post, Gail. I know being more self-disciplined would make me a better writer.
    I've done and won NaNo twice, but neither story got very far, because about 20,000 words were all introductory story, and the last 30,000 were random scenes all out of order.

  5. Clare~ My current WIP was like exactly like that. I've been piecing things together and it has been so much fun. I've some friends I send updates to and they send theirs to me. It is very encouraging! The great things about the random scenes is that they have so much detail packed into each one. So in the rewrite I can expand them and it has been so enjoyable… except for the hard in between parts… they are when I really lean on my encouraging friends. 🙂 Thus, not very far is better than not at all! Hope your encouraged!
    angelgeekh~ I'd say moods have a LOT to do with writing and not all for the bad. I enjoy writing to instrumental music. When I read over my work I can tell when the beat was more intense or more relaxed. There are scenes that I simply can't write until I'm in the right mood. My characters feed off the way I feel. If I'm angry so are they. If I'm depressed they empathize. If I feel like crying they find a reason to as well. It is also a sort of coping. I can cause a character great pain, it can also cause me to smile. It can talk me out of my nonsense or just simply give me an escape. I don't think I could survive without my stories and journals, especially when I'm emotional or upset! 🙂 Writing can be like a great escape.

    LOVE the prompt! Can't wait to go to work at it!
    I have a very limited routine when it comes to writing. Yet it is like my mind knows when it is time to start writing and kicks in at those built in times. Usually Fridays of late has been my writing and blogging day. Even if I don't get to work on my WIP there are a number of journals and letters to friends. I've been very blessed with this opportunity for a few open hours on one day. A few months ago I had nearly every afternoon in which I could write. I found it was too much time. At first my mind would go wild and I could write non stop. Then all the sudden I couldn't come up with a word to put between my pen and paper. It was like I'd exhausted all my creative writing. For me that meant resorting to drawing. It is my other love and hate relationship. 🙂 So I'd say routine works just not too much of it.
    I enjoy hearing about the different things writers do to motivate themselves. It is fascinating how different each person is. NaNoWriMo is definitely a big one for me. As is a steaming cup of hot chocolate with whip topping! 😀 Although I go for the lemon-aid in the summer.
    I like that …not thinking of writing as good or bad. When I'm writing I like to feel connected. If I don't feel it I know I'm rushing or I'm missing something and need to go back over what I already worked out.

  6. From the website:

    Hi, Gail! I'm a long time reader of your blog, though this is the first time I've reviewed. Something funky happened with my account, so sorry about this. On your most recent blog post ….

    Generally, the way I keep on writing is by reminding myself how much I love it on a good day, and how much fun it is. Sometimes it's hard, pushing through the tough spots, but I always keep on writing.

    @carpelibris – I literally do that, too!
    @angelgeekh – When I'm tired and stressed, I find it best to take a break from my manuscript, step back, and let my mind kind of wander a few days (or weeks). Do other stuff, get your sleep, get your brain running. Like someone said, "If the creative well runs dry, step back and wait for it to fill with water again." Or something. Anyway, if you step back from the story a little while, you'll come back to it fresher and happier.
    @Clare – I totally agree with you.

    What I don't do sometimes is finish the stories I'm working on. I have about five to seven stories going, and I keep on starting new ones! Like, if one of your prompts inspires me (your prompt about Hope/Harold did, but for a completely different plot) I will most likely start writing that story, though I'm getting better at stopping and jotting down the idea then returning to my main story. My big problem is all the stories I do have that I can't bear to give up! Do I just choose one and stick to it, then work my way through them? Usually I work according to whim, so if I feel like doing X I'll do X for a few days, then switch to Y for maybe a month if I really love it, then Z for a day, then I find W and work on that for a while …. Any advice?

  7. More from Anne on the website:

    @Carpelibris – I know, right! Too many great ideas …..

    Also, Gail, do you have a post about writing dialogue? When my characters speak, it often comes out sounding forced and unreal. Sometimes I can fix this by saying my characters' lines aloud to myself, but often my dialogue flops. Can anyone share a few tips?

    @Gail – I just want to say, thank you so much for all your amazing prompts! So many of them have spawned novels for me, one of which I'm saving for my first NaNoWriMo in a few months. So, thank you, thank you, thank you! I'll be sure to dedicate at least one of these to you – lol. Also, is it okay if I use an aspect of the glass slippers in ELLA ENCHANTED? The fact tht Ella seems to dance better with them on than not? I'm also doing a Cinderella redo (partially inspired by you, though the plot is nothing like ELLA, I promise) and those slippers were just really cool, I thought.

    P.S. I figured out why my account didn't work – I never had one! Something went screwy with the "create account" page. Turns out I will never have a blogspot account, though. Even though my mom was fine with me creating an account just to review on this site and some other blogs, my dad wasn't, for whatever reason. In conclusion, Gail, I'm very sorry, but I will have to review on this guest book in the future. SO sorry for the inconvenience!

  8. Anne–There is one dialogue post, which you can click on on the right, but I've added your question to my list. As for your ELLA question, if it's just a matter of dancing better in the glass slippers, that sounds okay to me.

  9. Anne- scripts are a great way to make your dialogue sound normal. If you write your character's conversation into a little skit and get a few friends or family to read it out loud, that might help you in crafting and bending the words to work. Sometimes it also helps to hear them in someone else's voice. Personally, whenever I read mine out loud, they always sound bad because it's me reading them 🙂
    I love working from notes and I have tons and tons of unfinished projects around like carpelibris and Anne… but I hate it when I go back to find a story to work on and either can't find the last version I wrote, or my notes on names/plot ideas are completely illegible 😉 I had to come up with an entirely new name yesterday for my story… I totally could not go on until I figured it out even though that character doesn't come in for another few chapters. I was reading over my notes for my current WIP that I started a year ago and was like, "Who the heck is Hudson?" Apparently some character I liked a year ago.

  10. Oh yes. You get this great idea burning and bubbling in your brain and write like crazy, then you run out of steam and let it sit a while, and when you come back you have a congealed lump of "Where was I going with this?"

  11. I've been working on a story that is writen in first person and I'm having issues with putting in the backround or writing flashbacks. I can bring them into the story easy enough, but I am having trouble getting back on track without it being a choppy transition. Any tips?

  12. I have a different problem-too many ideas . I used to start a story only to rip it out three and a half pages later so I could use the notebook for a fresh idea. I fixed this by jotting down makeshift titles in a palm sized notebook (now a computer file) whenever I came up with something. That way, I thought, I would get around too all of these ideas sooner or later.
    Then one day I was flipping through my list, ooh, I remember that one and that one and wait just a second. Somehow two of my half-begun story ideas had snuck into the only one I was seriously working on, dropping their plots and symbols and characters all over the place. And they thought they could fool me just by changing the names. Now my story works so much better with those loaned bits, and those two others get a second chance at life.
    Try keeping a list of your ideas. You'll be surprised how many you have.

  13. I am currently writing a book about a girl who meets a new girl at school named Mia, who is a foster child. Mia knows nothing about her parents and when the girl discovers a secret passageway in her house and a strange letter from Mia's grandmother, she uncovers some dark secrets about Mia's ancestors… sound interesting? I really love fiction, and fantasy, especially, but to writ fairy tales like you, Gail, you have to be a REALLY creative writer… where do you get such amazing ideas, Gail?

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