Tips from the Pros: Kemp, Pauley, and Cordell on How to Wrangle Your Muse
It’s the Friday after Thanksgiving, and with NaNoWriMo over in just a few days, surely you are taking advantage of the holiday for a weekend of writing to remember! (I know I am!) But just in case that turkey has you dozing, here are some inspiring words from award-winning and New York Times best-selling authors who’ve learned to wrangle their muse against all manner of temptations and distractions.
This culminates a week-long party celebrating the thousands writing for NaNoWriMo. If you missed it, be sure to check out Monday and Wednesday's posts for more inspiring tips from some of my favorite professional authors.
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We’ve all been there: transfixed and empty, staring at the blank page, our head in our hands and our hair standing on end. Usually, it happens when you’re under a deadline (either official or of your own doing) or when there’s some other pressure upon you to GET THE WORDS DOWN. And that’s the key thing--we often get stuck because we don’t have the time to get stuck. So, how do you get un-stuck?
You have to learn to LET GO. Obviously, that’s easier said than done. How do we let go when we can feel the words buried deep in our brain, hiding from us?
It can be as simple as doing something else. Step away, literally, from the keyboard or the pad of paper. Watch a movie, take a shower, have a dance break, take a walk. Or, if you’re a plugged-in kind of person, try switching to paper and pen for a while. Do something different.
Try writing something that isn’t the something that you need to work on. If you’re a novelist, scribble some poetry. If you’re a structured writer, try free writing. Do a character study. Try your hand at doing a scene using a scriptwriting format. Write a flash fiction piece. Write a short story. If you normally turn towards visual imagery in your writing, try thinking with your other senses (after all, there are five!).
If one thing doesn’t work, try something else. And remember, the words are in there.
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When I’m stuck, I get unstuck by writing out of sequence. Of course, to write out of sequence you need to outline, which I do religiously. So when I face the dreaded writer’s block, I set the current scene aside and read over the book’s outline until another scene leaps out and grabs me, then I just jump ahead and write that.
Sometimes I’ll write the entire later scene, sometimes just a few paragraphs, sometimes just some important dialogue, but it invariably prods the muse. Hell, often I don’t even need to check the outline, since I typically have three or four great scenes from later in the book rattling around in my head (you do, too, I’m sure; some tense showdown, some bit of derring-do, whatever). By jumping around to the scenes that have me on fire right now, in that very moment, I keep progressing and keep the creative fire burning.
Importantly, I also avoid the kind of downward spiral writer’s block can create. You know what I mean: “Oh my God! I’ll never get this done in time! I’m an awful writer! Blah, blah,” with the upshot being that you get more blocked than ever because you’re so worried about being blocked. Then, a day or two later I go back to the scene that had me stuck, look at it with fresh eyes, and invariably I find myself unstuck and wondering what in hell had me stuck in the first place.
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I usually don’t have trouble starting the next chapter, especially if I’m switching Point of View. In fact, switching POV is one of my favorite techniques for getting on with my writing groove, because it allows me to start with a (relatively) fresh perspective.
Of course, sometimes it’s not appropriate to switch POV, which means a fresh perspective has got to come from the same character you left off with. The easiest way to accomplish that is to conclude the previous chapter with a surprising revelation, a surprising turn of events, or even a plain ol’ cliff-hanger. Cliff-hangers are cliché for a reason; not only do they make the reader want to find out what happens next, they give the writer room to go in new and perhaps unexpected directions. In some ways, a surprise twist at the end of the previous chapter is like being given a (nearly) blank slate, with only the constraint of the set-up of the surprise to guide you.
Which reminds me of one other technique I use to get my writing back on track: constraints. Because sometimes a blank slate is exactly what you don’t want. But throw in a constraint, and even though your character can do anything next, he or she can only do so after figuring out how to get down off the cliff face.
Cliffs aside, most constraints should be simple, and can essentially be randomly chosen. Regardless of the constraint, its appearance provides that essential impetus of ‘fresh perspective’ I mentioned earlier. Constraints (you might call them ingredients) I’ve randomly thrown into my novels to great effect include: a pet cat, a scarf, a water-pipe lounge, a vegetarian, a terrible painting, a pawn-shop, and a tendency for excessively foul language.