Like most writers, I have a fantasy prone personality. This proves useful when I’m visualizing the layout of a haunted hotel, filling the art deco décor with pipe organ chandeliers, gargoyles, and mirrored elevators. It proves troublesome when I feel an urge to sit in total silence for several hours imagining what it would’ve been like had I become the rock star my high school self was certain I would, contemplating how I would’ve downplayed public breakups, circumvented beefs with other artists in the press, and teased out topical new material.
Robert A. Heinlein’s second rule of is writing: You must finish what you start.
Neil Gaiman would add: Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
This article is about doing whatever you have to do, even when the spark from your first light bulb moment has gone dim.
What I do When My Inspiration is Incomplete
Ding. A light bulb appears over my head. It’s faint and it’s flickering, but I get the sense it’s one of many lamps leading down a larger path.
Most of my stories come to me like this.
“What if depression acted like a movie producer invading the set of a man’s life and it gave him all these ‘notes’ that ruined his day?”
“What if the corporation that runs reality starts putting features, like gravity, behind a paywall?”
“What if a guy has a different personality disorder for every day of the week?”
These blinking bulbs line the entrance of a conceivable composition. These lamps rarely cast enough light to show a story’s structure. I can’t see the exit from the entrance, but I have a vague sense where the front door is leading. I see movement in the windows, but only catch silhouettes of the characters.
A lot of writers need to see the floor plan before venturing into the building. I’ve found if I keep pacing the block looking for the brightest concept I never go inside. I’m the kind that goes in blind and screws the bulbs in along the way in.
Those first few dings of inspiration might lead me to believe I’m walking into a plot driven mystery, but with a little more light I realize it’s an intimate character study. My skill for lighting depends on my ability to adjust my expectations of the building I’m working on. Continue reading How to Swap the Light Bulbs of Inspiration→
Before a runner can take on a marathon they have to increase their millage over time, running a little more every day, building their muscles, and getting their bodies ready to go the distance. Before a writer can take on a novel they have to increase their word count, writing a little every day, building mental strategies, and getting into the habit of putting words on paper.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve run a marathon before if you’re taking on another you have to put in that leg work again. It doesn’t matter if you’ve already written a novel, if you’ve been out of practice, your brain will need a workout before its up to the task.
Life has a way of teaching you the same lesson over and over. It doesn’t care if you think it’s redundant. It will not apologize for repeating itself. Life goes on and on and on. It never shuts up. When life keeps giving you the same education in suffering it’s up to you to find new meanings in it.
Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.”
I never had writer’s block when I was in college. Assignments had a way of getting my imagination going. The more constraints professors put on my papers the more coherent they became. I found inspiration in limitations.
It takes a lot of positive reinforcement to support a writer’s ego. Flattery fades, while words of discouragement echo. It’s not that we don’t know how to take a compliment, it’s just that we lie for a living and we’re skeptical of everyone.
Praise for our writing feels like a put-on, something that dissolves upon cross examination. “What was your favorite part of my novel? What did you like most about the characters? Did you even finish it?”
Harsh criticism feels genuine, because it confirms our suspicions. “I knew that story came too easily. I should’ve outlined more. I should’ve shown it to more beta readers.”
What writers aspire to do is hard. We’re a generation trying to launch careers on Amazon while our competition gives everything away on Goodreads. It used to be that no one was buying what we were selling, now no one is taking what we’re giving.
One bad reaction invalidates a thousand compliments from family and friends, who we suspected were only feigning an interest to spare our feelings. A stranger’s insults resonate, because they have no stake in our wellbeing.
I can still quote the first negative comments I got online. They came from a message board where I’d previewed a few poems from what I’d thought was a collection worth publishing.
The first response read, “If you have a book coming out, then I’ll eat my hat.”
Enter the Anti-Muse. At the time, I had no idea how gentle he was being, that this was him on his best behavior. As I continued to share my work in public forums, the two of us became very familiar.
The Anti-Muse believes his tastes are universal. If something isn’t his cup of tea then the person who made it ought to shuffle off this mortal coil. It’s not enough for him to dismiss the author’s spark of inspiration, he needs to suck it right out of them.
Rather than leave others to separate the wheat from the chaff, the Anti-Muse burns the field down, planting seeds of doubt to spare the world from another crop of poets, bloggers, and self-publishers. When a budding author asks for advice, he tells them to quit. The Anti-Muse prides himself on his ability to quell artistic ambition.
I remember those first harsh reviews more than what I’d shared. That’s the problem with the Anti-Muse. He likes to linger.
Living with an Anti-Muse on Your Back
Once the Anti-Muse gets under your skin, he sets up shop, stirring up intrusive thoughts, flooding the imagination with bad memories. He needs your self doubt on hand so he can reference it at a moment’s notice.
The Anti-Muse has you writing slow, editing as you go, making you so self conscious about what you’re working on, you’re forgetting crucial details about the story to come. He has you overworking for simple statements, second guessing every line of description.
At first you worry your descriptions are too poetic, then you worry your verbs aren’t evocative enough. You use exaggerations to add emotional weight, catch yourself doing it, then resort to procedural accounts like you’re writing a police report. Your purple prose turn beige.
The Anti-Muse has you over researching your subject, then wondering if your dialogue is too technical, as if you dropped all this knowledge just to prove your knowhow. Then he has you gut every plot line that required any level of expertise.
When your imagination suggests a bold new direction, the Anti-Muse keeps you pressing on a familiar one. You play it safe, making sure everything you write feels familiar. Your characters speak in tired clichés, not because you lack an ear for dialogue, but because you lack the confidence to write your own.
Rereading your result, the Anti-Muse has you wondering if you should even bother editing. That’s his function. He’s a demon, sabotaging creative endeavors until the artist is ready to throw the towel in.
Dismissing the Anti-Muse
The good thing about encountering the Anti-Muse online is that he makes himself easy to identify. Like a desperate lawyer who knows the law isn’t on his side, the Anti-Muse makes appeals to emotion. He hates your art without offering a clear reason he thinks it’s wrong.
In some cases the Anti-Muse doesn’t know enough about the medium to offer constructive criticism, literary theory eludes him, he tears you down, because he doesn’t know how to tell you what to fix. He may not know art, but he knows what he hates.
In other cases, the Anti-Muse knows too much, but refuses to share his wisdom. He’s failed to make it on his own, now he resents anyone with similar aspirations. If he can’t be successful, why should anyone?
Either way, the Anti-Muse’s hostility is easy to dismiss, because you know there’s no sense in reasoning with it.
When I’m online, I tune the Anti-Muse out at the first signs of name calling, profanity, or the words “Sheesh” and “Bro.” I don’t put a spotlight on him when he’s heckling, because I know he only speaks in zingers.
Exploring forums on writing, there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t see an angry know-it-all, who is only there to put newbies in their place, trash talking like the conversation is a match of Call of Duty. Examining their comment history, I find they’re terminally toxic, self-congratulating, flame war veterans.
Some people come across as the Anti-Muse by accident. They know their stuff, but refuse to cushion their candor. They’ll grade your writing, without a professor’s kindly classroom manor. They don’t have the patience to pay you compliments. They spot problems and dive right in.
Before you go dismissing critics based on their tone, see if they’ve gone to the trouble of citing examples. Did they use terms that seem like foreign jargon? Look up their lingo to see if they touched on tropes you use too often. Did they give suggestions for taking your story in another direction? If they hadn’t come off as smug, would you listen to the advice they’ve given?
Every screenwriter that came to speak at my school said the same thing about getting notes from producers: if a suggestion was based on an abstract feeling, the screenwriter ignored it. If a producer touched on something specific, their advice was always considered.
When it comes to taking criticism, developing a thick skin isn’t a writer’s only responsibility. Developing an ear for good feedback is more important.
A critic’s ability to articulate is what separates assessments from reactions.
“No one cares about you, so why the hell would they want to read your memoir?” Isn’t feedback worth paying attention to.
“Every character speaks with the same voice, same dialect, and same pop culture references. You need to make them more distinct so we know which one is talking.” Is feedback you can use.
Just remember, your work will never be universally loved. You will always be a hack to someone. Accept it and keep writing.
There’s a reoccurring phrase characters on Lost always shout when someone tells them that something is impossible:
Something about that stubborn declaration has always resonated with me. I find myself thinking it, every time someone tells me there’s no future in fiction, that I shouldn’t even bother, that I should leave the storytelling to some old Hollywood producers recycling the same franchises year after year.
Writing for the web, I find it difficult to return to long form storytelling. Maintaining an online presence, my short stories always feel more relevant to hot button issues of the day. Working on a novel, I don’t have the instant gratification of ‘Likes’ and comments.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King recommends churning out a draft in three months. He says, if you wait any longer you’ll lose momentum. For writer’s trying to woo an audience on social media, this time frame is tough to maintain. Blog entries and short stories are speed bumps on our novel’s journey.
Returning to my work in progress, I’m often stumped. The characters aren’t as fresh in my mind. I know where the story is supposed to go, but the direction doesn’t seem as interesting. There’s a writer’s blockade around my inspiration. King’s curse comes true.
Usually I’d just give up and move onto the next bright shiny idea, that was before I’d stumbled onto a method to revive my manuscript. Now, rather than stick to my original outline, I give myself something new to look forward to. Not a crowd pleasing triumph, but a problem in need of solving, a plague on my characters’ houses. A big terrible event on par with George R.R. Martin’s infamous red wedding.
This new tragic twist wouldn’t betray the story, but it would be shocking enough to jump start my interest.
Make a Bad Situation Worse
Rereading works in progress, I look for seismic activity. These tremors take the shape of character traits, details I’d put out there to make the character seem more real.
In The Book of Mirrors, I made Austin, the hero, a troubled teen who’d grown up into a successful author. For flavor, I mentioned that she used to have a compulsion to pluck out her hair. I wasn’t planting anything in the grand scheme of things, but when I got stuck something about that character detail became appealing.
In the story, Austin is brought on to ghost write a draft of a forged diary. The diary is supposed to be a cautionary tale to scare teenage girls away from sex, drugs, and the occult. The problem is it’s been stitched together from the real experiences of a dozen other contributors, each one with a background similar to Austin’s. This Frankenstein’s monster journal is so effective at drawing out the reader’s empathy, it gets under the skin of anyone who works on it.
I got stuck trying to figure out the best way to visualize Austin’s descent into madness. She’d spent the story writing in a mirrored room, a place her benefactor said would help Austin reflect on her life. I figured, he’d return to find she’d broken the mirrors and cut herself with the shards, but as I got closer to the scene, I felt like it was a copout, a cheap horror gag I’d seen several times before.
I was about to put the piece on the back-burner when a little voice inside of me said, “Wouldn’t it be terrible if the benefactor returned to discover Austin had plucked herself bald?”
My initial reaction was, “That somehow seems more insane than more traditional forms of self mutilation. If she’s that far gone, how will she come back from that?”
The little voice whispered, “Are you really sure you want her to come back from that?”
Those signs of seismic activity, I’d written subconsciously, steered me toward the emotional volcano at the heart of the story. All I had to do, was listen for the tremors and let it flow.
Mamet’s statement breaks down into three concepts: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. If every character is motivated to act on their goals, there should be conflict, especially if their goal isn’t compatible with anyone else’s. This is how scenes reveal characters, advance the plot, and tip the scales of hope and dread
If the scale is tipped too far toward hope for too long, not only will the audience lose interest, so will you. If it’s tipped too far toward dread the story will be emotionally exhausting, to read and to write. The trick is finding the right balance, to create just enough tension to keep you and your audience engaged until the end.
Not everything that can go wrong in your hero’s life should go wrong, but your reader ought to think it’s a possibility. They need to believe you are a cruel God and that yours is a harsh reality.
I don’t use every tragic outcome that comes to mind, but I foreshadow as many of them as I can. This way, a happy ending feels like a well earned surprise. Trick your audience into thinking you’re telling a tragedy, then give them a victory.
God might forgive people in the moment, but writers should wait until the third act to decide their character’s fate.
I can come back to stories that I’ve sat on because I write with a loose plan, leaving space for bad shit to happen. Just as stories are born from “What if?” questions, so are plot developments. I ask myself, “What if this terrible development upset my hero’s plan?” If I decide the idea is too harsh, I dial it back and it becomes, “What if I allude to the possibility of this terrible development? Now, how do I prevent it from happening?” Either way, I add to the tension.
For me, so much of writing is tricking myself to press on. If I can keep myself at the edge of my seat I’ll keep going, if only to find out what happens.
Writers are always asked where our ideas come from. Our answer is usually a deflection in case potential rivals are listening in. If we told the truth, everyone would be making a play at our game.
Of course we know where our ideas come from, we just want to keep our inspiration in house. We have a monopoly on our muses, exclusivity deals with our delusions, and first rights with our figments of the imagination. Our creativity is under contract. We lie to keep poachers off our lots, to keep talent thieves from ensnaring our rising stars, to leave headhunters scratching their own.
Writers are the rulers of our own entertainment empires. We keep our spark moving through our internal studio system. Non-disclosure agreements forbid us from discussing our process, but today I’m feeling generous.
The majority of my ideas come from Daydream Agents tirelessly pitching their clients. My job is to choose which one I want to spend the next several months with. Writers are really producers deciding which bright ideas to green light.
Hearing Pitches from Daydream Agents
As a producer, I don’t live behind my desk, nor do I need a room full of Evian swirling executives to tell me when a story has potential. I hear elevator pitches everywhere I go.
When I page through the terms of service on my brand new tablet, a Daydream Agent appears in the reflective surface.
Leaning over my shoulder to scroll through the fine print, he smirks. “What if there was a clause that claimed your soul just by tapping the ‘agree’ button, maybe just a fragment of your spirit so you wouldn’t notice it was missing? You go about your routine until you realize something about you was gone. Not a memory, but a sense of understanding.”
Having whet my appetite, the agent earns my business card. We set up a meeting for whenever I’m having trouble sleeping.
Later that day, I’m at the bookstore looking to expand my library, when I overhear a pair of women talking about how a certain memoir ought to be labeled as fiction.
Flipping through the pages, a woman shakes her head at the book in her hands, “Go Ask Alice was written by a psychologist trying to make a cautionary tale for teenage girls. She dressed it up as this anonymous diary to make it more authentic than an after school special. I’m telling you, she wrote a whole series of these. Her next one, Jay’s Journal, was about this dude who got seduced into a Satanic cult. It read like a bad found footage movie.”
Watching the women through the bookshelf, I’m startled to find I’m joined by someone else: a Daydream Agent with a stack of memoirs in her hands.
Snapping her fingers, she turns to me. “What if someone hired a ghostwriter to forge a memoir, but instead of scaring teens straight it kills them with a curse? It’s Go Ask Alice meets The Necronomicon.”
Grabbing the Agent’s shoulder, I shush her. “You had me at a curse that kills teenagers.”
Ensuring this idea has an opportunity to build a rapport with me, we schedule a meeting for the next time I’m stuck in a long line.
That night I’m out at the bar, listening to a group of hipsters talk about the dark side of viral video: gross-out porn, gore memes, and the disturbing snuff footage posted by trolls in random comment sections.
A Daydream Agent slides into the stool beside me. He speaks without making eye contact, like a confidential informant. “What if someone shot a snuff film and a tech savvy viewer set out to exact revenge on behalf of the victim?”
I roll my eyes, “Like in that Nic Cage movie?”
The Agent raises his finger, “This is different, because it turns out the hero’s online allies, the ones helping him track down the killer, are the producers of the original feature. Our hero unwittingly helps them make a second, delivering them another victim.”
I sip my beer like it’s a fine wine. “Sounds complicated.”
The Agent rubs his hands together, “That’s because there’s a twist. Our hero realizes this group has been in the snuff business for some time and according to their pattern he’s slated to be the star of their next production.”
“That’s pretty downbeat.” I cock my head, he has my ear but it’s on the move.
The Agent slaps the bar in a desperate attempt to keep the energy up. “Okay, knowing that he’s marked for death, the hero stages evidence that points the next vigilante patsy to the creep that showed him the footage in the first place. The producers accepts this dummy offering and our hero goes into hiding.”
“Sounds like a novel.” I rub my chin. “Right now, I’m more into producing smaller features.”
The Agent snaps his fingers, “How about a novella? No subplots. No more than nine chapters. We could give it a micro-budget and streamline the whole thing.”
I shrug. “Now that’s something I could see happening.”
A person like me doesn’t get the luxury of going for a run with headphones on. I have to be available to hear pitches everywhere I go.
“What if a boogieman stalked a little girl only to find he was being hunted by her imaginary friend?”
They pitch me in the shower, they pitch me on the John, they captivate their captive audience before I even put my clothes on. They pitch me in my sleep, but dream logic always needs a few dozen rewrites before it ever makes sense. It’s hard to suss out substance from the surreal. I buy the rights to a few visual elements and leave the story to float back into the ether.
My favorite Daydream Agents are the ones that comeback without a callback. I want a fantasy with the confidence to knock on my door after my assistant has told it I’m out. The kind of idea that doesn’t care if I’m working, driving, or in the middle of a conversation.
The best daydreams are the ones I remember without having to write down, the ones with staying power. They’re memorable but timely enough that there’s an urgent need to rush them into production. After all, every author running a private entertainment empire has a slew of summer release dates to lock down.
Ideas are the Easy Part
When readers ask, “Where do your ideas come from?” they don’t realize they’re asking the wrong question. The right one is: “Where do you get the tenacity to flesh your ideas out?”
I’ve been warned that I shouldn’t share my ideas with strangers. I say, why not? There are no million dollar ideas, they’re a dime a dozen. A good idea doesn’t write itself on its own. You still have to write scenes that flow into acts that fit together into something greater.
Hearing story pitches is the easiest part of a writer’s job. It’s putting them into production, keeping them on schedule, and getting a final edit that’s the real challenge. Anyone can say they want to tell a story, it takes skill and dedication to finish it. A good idea doesn’t guarantee memorable characters, witty banter, interesting settings, or good pacing. That’s the real work writers do.
Part song, part spoken word anthem, the above piece is a mantra for getting writing done. It’s creative advice served with a side of synths, and a beat worth bumping to, a metaphor for writers trying to keep stressors from stalling their fiction.
Think of it like this: you’re a director charged with delivering a film on schedule. Your story is the production, your imagination is the location, and every aspect of your personality are the stage hands.
What happens when the morale shifts, the spirit of the set turns toxic, and the forces behind the camera get overtaken by doubt? You grab yourself a megaphone, and you own your production. When Inspiration goes on strike, its up to you to shut Fear, Anger, and all the other scabs out.
You’re filming on a closed set, kick Heartache off of it. You’re not about to go wasting film on Self Pity’s vision. Narrow your focus through the right lens. You’re not about to give a panic attack all the best lines. The name on the director’s chair is not “Depression.” It’s high time you took back your imagination. Continue reading Take Back Your Imagination (Audio Blog)→