Thursday, October 19, 2017

When Your Muse is Missing in Action

By Jana Oliver, @crazyauthorgirl

Part of the Indie Authors Series

In every writer’s life there are days when the words flow like a raging river over a waterfall. Nothing gets in your way as the sentences and paragraphs and pages pile up. Then there are days when you should be cranking out 1K or 2Kwords and you’re lucky to get 500, and most of those are iffy, at best. Even worse, your Muse decides to take a vacation, as in a “head to the beach” type of holiday where there’s nothing but chirping crickets left behind. We’ve all been there, even though I’ve heard authors claim that’s never happened to them.

Where this sudden creative silence is problematic if you’re working on a contractual deadline, it’s equally troublesome when you’re writing for yourself. An indie author often schedules their book launches at precise intervals, geared toward certain events or marketing promotions. Your various contractors (freelance editor, cover artist, typesetter, etc.) will be expecting to see that project on pre-arranged dates. A few days (or weeks) of no words can seriously impact not only your production schedule, but your livelihood and your sanity.

It’s usually at this point someone mutters “writer’s block” and all of us nod sagely. The closest I’ve come to full-blown writer’s block was after a year of full-time international travel. I was so burned out and the words wouldn’t come, but after a rest they returned. This type of block may occur in response to a major upheaval, such as divorce, death, serious illness, or job loss.

I will occasionally share war stories with my fellow wordsmiths, some of whom are pushed to their breaking point between dealing with family, work and deadlines. Besides trying to solve and/or mitigate the core issues, more resilient ones have figured out ways to de-stress, tailored to their own personalities. One volunteers at an animal shelter, enjoying the love and companionship of our four-footed friends. Others go for long walks, enjoy Tai Chi, dancing, baking or quilting. One author does wildlife photography during his long morning walks. In short, anything that allows them to reduce their stress and unwind.

While others hike or dance, I clean. It doesn’t have to be a major project, just tidying up a closet or the refrigerator. While I’m doing that, I’m “noodling” on the plot problem, and most of the time I’ve worked out a solution by the time the cleaning is done. If I haven’t, and my stress level is not in the red zone, then I try the Change of Venue Technique, taking my Muse on the road. For the first few years of my writing career I rotated between my home and a few local coffee shops since the change of environment seemed to spur my Muse and helped me put words on page. Eventually, those places just didn’t feel right—I became more of a hermit—so I simply moved writing locations within my house. Finally, I ended up with my own writer’s cottage, but even then I often would take myself to another portion of the house for a change of pace. For some writers, that moving around would cause more stress, so this doesn’t work for everyone.

If I’ve managed to set up my workspace with everything I need (ergonomic keyboard, mouse, music, hot tea/iced drink) and nothing is flowing, then, sadly, the core problem is the story. Where changing venues is relatively easy, story flow issues are anything but. I’ve found various ways to work through this blockage and I’ll share those with you.

If I have a beginning and an end, often the actual scenes in my head, I can usually crawl my way through the unknown middle. But not always. If I have no clue what the next scene is going to be about—and that still does happen even after writing twenty-five plus manuscripts—I jot down short sentences or phrases indicating what could happen next. It’s just a way to pry the brain open and let in some “aha!” moments.

So that list might look like:
  • Alex fights first bad guy, barely avoiding a knife in the ribs
  • Morgan keeps Alex from being shot by second bad guy
  • They escape
  • Retreat to hotel room to strategize and figure out who set them up
  • They almost kiss, then phone rings….

This is rudimentary stuff, and though sometimes it takes a page of these short sentences to get me going again, but it usually works for me. If it doesn’t, and I’m convinced my nascent plot is viable, I jump ahead in my story and keep writing. Not everyone can handle leapfrogging over a scene (or a few) and continuing the story. Some of us have to write linearly, others can hop around. I find that ability depends on the book, because each story has its own dynamic.

If you’re absolutely stuck, another option is to try to lay out your entire plot, scene by scene,using some sort of visual aid. That can involve an Excel spreadsheet or 3” x 5” notecards, or a foam core board covered in sticky notes. Or use the closest wall. If you want to go electronic, Scrivener has that capability, or you can remain Old School and lay out your thoughts the way Dame J.K. Rowling did. Sometimes seeing the whole story allows you to work through those troublesome sections and move past whatever is holding you back.

But… what if none of this works? Now it’s time to ask yourself a few hard questions: Does this story have enough depth to sustain it to the end? By depth, I mean are there enough plot elements to reach your required length (short story, novella, novel)? Can you visualize a story arc that makes sense, that offers a few twists and turns, without being clich├ęd?

If all those answers are positive, then let’s drill down. Is this a story you are eager to write, or are you just phoning it in? Because sometimes the latter can happen, even for us pros. A story that really fired us up a few months before can hang around your neck like an iron weight today. That’s happened to me.

If you find you no longer care about this story (and you’re not under contract), then you need to ask yourself if it’s worth finishing. Yes, I know, it nearly heresy to speak of abandoning a manuscript, but sometimes your head isn’t in the right space. However, down the line it might be. Or your level of writing skill isn’t where it needs to execute this story properly. I still have books I want to write, but will not touch, until I know I have the skill set to handle the story the way it deserves.

Or this might be a book that’s never destined to be finished, an idea that didn’t made the grade or faded out after the first few chapters. Admitting that is difficult—these are your babies after all—but necessary. Not everything we do comes to fruition, and book projects aren’t any different.

If you’d decided this book is a wash, at least at this moment in time, don’t throw away all those words. Instead, archive them back and someday you might find yourself weaving them into a new project. I refuse to toss any scenes, even if I think they have no further value.

By now I hope you’ve found ways to coax your Muse back from the beach or wherever she/he went when the crickets moved in. If you haven’t determined the best means to de-stress, consider finding that means. Trust me, you’ll need it down the line.

If you’ve discovered a problem in your storyline, I hope I’ve given you ideas of how to get it moving again. And if not, the fortitude to say, “Enough!” and move onto something that really has potential.

Because writing, much like life, is always an uphill journey. But when those words flow and that story sings, it’s worth all that climbing, no matter how steep the mountain.

An international bestseller and the recipient of over a dozen major awards, Jana Oliver often laments that there are far too many stories inside her head at any given moment.

Best known for her young adult Demon Trappers series, she writes what intrigues her, and spends a good deal of time fretting about whether demons actually exist.

When not wandering around the internet researching exorcisms, or posting on social media (eerily similar, those two), Jana can be found in Atlanta with her very patient husband, and a rapidly dwindling collection of single malt Scotch.

Jana Oliver | Chandler Steele | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound |

About Cat's Paw

After five years in a Louisiana prison, Alex Parkin desperately wants to start over. Even more, he craves revenge against Vladimir Buryshkin, the New Orleans drug lord who framed him for cocaine possession. The second he walks out of prison, Alex is a wanted man, both by the Russian mob, and by Veritas, a private security firm that claims to be "on his side." When his sister is brutally beaten, he has to choose: Join forces with Veritas, or let Buryshkin destroy his family.

Because of the Russian mobster, Morgan Blake lost both her husband, and her career at the FBI. Now working with Veritas, she's eager to take Buryshkin down. So eager, she's willing to do anything to make that happen, even sacrificing a certain ex-con, if needed.

As a load of tainted cocaine hits New Orleans' streets, the body count quickly rises. To prevent more deaths, and a potential drug war, Morgan and Alex must learn that revenge comes at too high a price, and that love always has its own agenda.

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