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How to Discover Your Writer’s Muse

Brace yourself: this ultimate guide to finding your inner muse and writing more creatively isn’t short! It may be one of the most important things you ever read, though.

Learning how to write with more creativity will not only improve the quality of your writing (i.e. make it more publishable). It will also make the journey a lot more fun.

The good news is that us humans are a naturally creative bunch. The bad news is that this creativity tends to get hammered out of us from middle-childhood onwards.

Watch young children at play and you will see pure creativity at work…

  • They will while away entire afternoons playing imaginary games.
  • They’ll set up shops using discarded cereal packets and strips of newspaper for money.
  • A small copse of trees becomes an enchanted forest. Dusty old rugs turn into magic carpets.

And then adulthood comes along and spoils everything. We put away our childish things and get on with the “serious” business of life (which for most people does not involve anything like writing a novel).

And we are all the poorer for it. As Dorothea Brande said…

The genius keeps all his days the vividness and intensity of interest that a sensitive child feels in his expanding world. Many of us keep this responsiveness well into adolescence; very few mature men and women are fortunate enough to preserve it in their routine lives.

This article is about reawakening the creativity we all possessed as children. Just as importantly, it is about using the skills we have acquired in adulthood to channel that creativity effectively – or knowing when to use it and when not to use it.

You see, the creative spirit is only one aspect of the successful writer’s makeup. The other is a deep, almost scientific knowledge of the craft of writing novels.

You use your creative side (or your writer’s muse) to supply you with great raw material. Then you use your logical side (or your inner-critic) to make sense of it all and knock it into shape.

Many beginners (and some seasoned professionals) struggle to write because their logical, critical side does all the work. For these writers, producing raw material that is true and alive is slow and painful at best… and sometimes impossible.

A less common problem is writers who excel at being creative but can’t get in touch with their logical side – which they need to hammer their free-flowing musings into some sort of shape.

What kind of writer are you?

There’s no need to answer that because it really doesn’t matter. The fact is that you will need to make full use of both sides of your personality.

Meet Your Writer’s Muse

There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter…Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.

Stephen King

Who is this muse, exactly? And who is his or her counterpart – the critic? What characterizes them? What strengths and weaknesses do they possess that might help (or hinder) your writing? Allow me to explain…

  • Your writing muse lives in the right side of your brain – the side where all the creative work takes place. The critic lives in the logical left side.
  • The muse has access to your unconscious mind – the place where you dream and imagine and store your hidden memories. The critic has no time for such nonsense.
  • The muse wants to wear whatever clothes he damn well chooses, or no clothes at all if he feels like having a naked day. The critic, not wanting to stand out, is more conservative in his tastes – and frequently wins when you get dressed in the morning. (The critic chooses that sober gray suit, the artist has to make do with vivid red socks.)

Incidentally, I’m referring to both the muse and the critic as “he” because I am male and that is how I think of them… and because writing “he or she” all the time is kind of a pain!

If you would prefer to think of your muse and critic as female (whatever gender you happen to be) then go ahead and do so.

  • Your muse is laid-back by nature and only wants to write when the mood strikes him (which isn’t very often). The critic is the one who stops the muse staring out of the window and forces him to get on with the writing.
  • The muse sulks when he doesn’t get his own way and sometimes throws things across the room in a temper. The critic sighs, shakes his head, and fetches the dustpan.
  • The muse is the life and soul of every party and drinks himself into oblivion given half the chance. The critic reminds him they have to be up early the next morning.
  • The muse delights in thinking beautiful thoughts and getting them down on paper in the form of a story. The critic checks the work for poor structure and weak characterization.
  • The muse prefers to go to bed late and sleep until noon. The critic knows the novel is never going to get written with such poor discipline.

I could go on, but that’s hopefully enough for you to recognize the influence of both of these characters on your personality. We all contain them, in varying degrees. And we need to draw on both these influences if we want to write novels (or do anything creative) to the best of our ability.

The trick is to not prefer one over the other, like a favorite child, but to love them equally. Not only will this help you to live a better life (it will make you responsible when you need to act responsibly, but willing to seek out fun and adventure and spontaneity in between times). But it will also help you to write better novels…

  • Too much time spent in the company of your writing muse will lead to a novel which shows flashes of brilliance but is ultimately too rough and shapeless to satisfy readers.
  • Too much of the critic’s influence and the novel will be technically well-constructed but somehow lifeless.

The muse and the critic, then, must learn to work together as partners, not be forever trying to outfox the other. And it is your job as the writer in whom these two characters exist to ensure that they do form a perfect partnership. How?…

Simply by understanding what each of them is good at (and not so good at). And then ensuring that you perform each stage of the novel writing process using the best man, or woman, for the job.

With that in mind, let’s run through the broad stages of the writing process (finding ideas, planning, writing, editing) and talk about which aspects of your personality are best suited to each of the tasks.

The Muse, the Critic and the Novel Writing Process

1. Finding Ideas

This is where your writing muse comes into his own. You know all that staring into space you do when you are brainstorming for inspiring ideas? That’s your muse at work.

The muse, as I have said, can be prone to laziness. So the critic has to give him a nudge from time to time to keep him focused on the task (and not start daydreaming about next year’s vacation instead). But, still, you need to give the muse as much time and space as is reasonable to do what he does best.

Does the critic get a look in? You bet, but not during the brainstorming…

  • The muse dives down into the darkest depths of your memory and surfaces with fistfuls of treasure. He hunts for pearls in your imagination.
  • Later, the critic selects and combines all the random ideas – a character trait here, a possible plot line there – into a cohesive whole. The muse stands by to give the thumbs up or thumbs down to the patterns the critic finds.

The final novel idea must satisfy both of them. It must be bursting with creative possibility (this satisfies the muse). And it must adhere to the rules of good storytelling (this pleases the critic).

It’s interesting to note here that, whenever you sit down to search for a novel idea, the muse will provide you with similar material every time. We all have subjects and themes and people and places that interest us far more than others, and the muse will always suggest them.

This is good, up to a point. After all, most writers’ work tends to be variations on a theme…

  • Stephen King writes about horrific happenings in small town America.
  • Hemingway about war and bullfighting.
  • Anne Tyler about the everyday lives of everyday folks in Baltimore.

And so on. Fans of a writer become fans because they like what they read and expect more or less the same thing in the next book.

That said, it is clearly important that each novel has enough that is different about it to stop it being a carbon copy of the one before.

And so the critic’s job, when the muse provides him with similar brainstormed material every time, is to select and combine the material in such a way that the final idea is both similar to what has come before but fresh and original enough to be unique.

2. Planning a Novel

The muse, as you can imagine, hates planning novels. (As a matter of fact, he hates learning the rules of how to write novels, which is why your inner critic is in charge right now. Your muse is taking a snooze!)

Given his way, the muse would take the first idea that comes along and immediately start writing chapter one. The critic in you must prevent this from happening.

Yes, the muse will sulk at the prospect of all that planning. But it isn’t like he will have no input whatsoever during the process of turning a one-sentence novel idea into many pages of plan…

  • It is the critic’s job to apply the rules of plot to the story (or construct the novel’s skeleton, if you like). But it is the muse who will imagine the perfect details (or the flesh to hang on the bones).
  • It is the critic who will run through the character-building checklist and tick off the items one by one. But the critic cannot succeed in creating a fictional character if the muse is unable to picture that character in his mind’s eye and see the character walking and talking just like a real person.

Again, you need to use both sides of your personality. You need to allow each side to do what it does best at the right time and keep the other side well out of the way while it does it.

As a rule of thumb, let the writer’s muse create and the critic attend to the more logical writing tasks.

3. Writing a Novel

This is where the muse and the critic can seriously get in each other’s way if you allow them to. The basic division of labor here is that the muse writes the first draft and the critic later revises it. Although the process is not quite as straightforward as that…

The muse, as you know, doesn’t like to be disturbed while he is writing. If the telephone rings in mid-flow, the muse is liable to rip the cord from the wall.

And so to save the muse from being disturbed (and to save you from having to buy new telephones), allow the critic within you to prepare the ideal working conditions before work gets underway…

  • Take the phone off the hook.
  • Hang a “do not disturb” sign on the door.
  • If you have other matters to attend to, attend to them before you write. (Writing is challenging enough without having that unwritten email on your mind.)
  • Make sure your writing room is the perfect temperature (the muse hates being too hot or too cold).

In short, the critic must do everything necessary to ensure that the muse has no excuses to snap his pencil in disgust and go shoot some golf instead. (The muse loves the good thwack of a golf stroke. What he can’t stand is the critic pointing out that he failed to rotate his shoulders through ninety degrees.)

Ideal working conditions all set up? Great. That means it is time to write. But be warned…

The muse isn’t through with playing games yet.

Given the choice between writing words on paper (or typing them onto a screen) and staring out the window at the clouds drifting by, the clouds win every time. The muse, remember, is lazy. Strangely, when he does finally get to work and the words begin to flow, it’s difficult to convince him to call it a day.

But only once he has started.

The critic’s job, therefore, at the beginning of every writing session, is to nudge the muse into activity. He must allow the muse to do a little window-staring first (because this is how the muse “warms up”).

But not for long…

After a few minutes of inactivity, the critic must declare that it’s time to make a start. The muse won’t respond well to this. “If you’re so great,” he will say to the critic, “you can do the writing!”

And that is precisely what the critic must do: get the ball rolling…

Without the muse’s help, the words won’t come easily at first. And even when the words do come, the critic will find it difficult to fight his natural tendency to edit what he has just written.

Sooner or later, though, the muse will tell the critic to budge over and give him some space. And then, like magic, one sentence will lead into the next sentence. That will lead to another. And so on, until the writer’s body is barely able to keep up with the mind.

Where is the critic when the muse is in full flow? As far away as possible…

If you ever find yourself re-reading what you have just written, wondering how you might improve it, or searching too long for the perfect word when any old word will do for now, it means the critic is still looking over the muse’s shoulder.

Tell the critic that his turn will come later, when it is time to revise the draft. Then kick him out the writing room.

4. Revising a Novel

Do you know why revision, generally speaking, is an easier process than writing the draft in the first place? Because it is a more mechanical process, one carried out by the efficient critic, not the temperamental and work shy muse.

Not that the muse isn’t needed at all during revision…

The critic is good at applying the “rules” of novel writing to the scene the muse has just written – checking it for consistent characterization, proper plot progression, and the like. He is also good at checking the spelling and punctuation and looking out for typoos typos.

But when it comes to revising the language itself – altering sentences and replacing weak words with stronger ones, until the language acquires a kind of musical fluency ‐ only the muse will be capable of “hearing” the music in the words and knowing when they are pitch-perfect.

More Tips On Handling Your Writer’s Muse

1. Let the Inner-Critic Deal With Feedback

However talented and capable you may be as a writer, and however willing you are to work at it, you still have plenty to learn (because every writer does). One of the best ways to learn is from your mistakes, and that means receiving constructive feedback positively.

Here is the thing, though…

When you do receive criticism (from friends, family, folks you meet online, whoever), make sure that it is your inner-critic who listens, never your muse.

The muse is very thin-skinned and doesn’t like to hear anything but glowing praise. At the slightest hint of negativity, he will either slump into a depression or dismiss the giver of the feedback as a moron (and quite possibly both).

Not only will this make you look bad if you happen to be in the same room as the person providing the feedback (they will be able to see it on your face, however hard you try to disguise it). It will also make you deaf to their potentially invaluable comments.

Your inner-critic loves praise, too. But he is wise enough to know that constructive criticism can be very useful indeed. And so he will receive it like the gift that it is.

And if the feedback is indeed moronic, the critic will at least accept it with good grace… before respectfully ignoring it.

2. Don’t Talk About Your Writing

When you tell people you are writing a novel, they will naturally ask you what the book is about. Take my advice: don’t tell them!

Okay, so you will need to say something if you don’t want the person to think you are rude or stupid (or both). But keep it vague. Give them the most concise synopsis imaginable (“It’s a love story”)… and then move on to talking about the weather.

Why all this secrecy?

Because if you get into talking about your story in any depth, you may not be able to stop at talking about those parts of it that you’ve already figured out. You’ll start “thinking out loud” about where the novel is headed. And that can be fatal.

The muse, you see, simply likes to create. He doesn’t much care if this creativity happens in the writing room or around the dinner table. And if it does happen at the dinner table, you’ll expend all of your creative energy when it doesn’t count.

Not only will some of the pearls the muse provides you with at the table be lost the next day (memories being what they are). But the next time you sit down at your desk to write, the muse – having already “done his thing” – will remain stubbornly silent.

3. Learn When to Say “No” to Your Muse

Creativity doesn’t only need to be encouraged. It sometimes needs to be restrained. As I mentioned earlier, the muse’s natural tendency is to skip all of the “boring” planning stuff and push straight on with writing the first draft. The critic’s job is to hold him back.

The writers who fail to do this are the ones with two chapters of an abandoned novel gathering dust at the back of a drawer. They started the project in a creative frenzy… but soon said everything there was to be said. So they quit.

If you view the planning process as tedious, you will probably suffer the same fate. You’ll pour out 30 or 40 pages of wild prose and then stop.

  • Partly you’ll stop because the muse is now empty.
  • Partly you’ll stop because you won’t allow the critic to take charge for a while and give some structure to the project in the form of a good plan.

Art is good. But it needs craft to give it shape.

So if craft must always come before art (i.e., if planning must always come before writing), how is the muse meant to fill his days during the long process of planning a novel?

Well, as we’ve already seen, the muse is required to help plan the novel. He’s the one who brainstorms for ideas, for example, and who puts the flesh onto the bones of the skeletal plan the critic draws up.

But, still, what the muse really wants to do is write the first draft. And the planning might drag on for weeks and weeks.

What to do?…

The answer is to start writing from the very beginning of a project, perhaps for twenty minutes a day. Ideally, write those parts of your novel you have already figured out. Failing that, write anything

  • stories
  • poems
  • blog posts
  • journal entries
  • descriptions of the view outside your window

… anything you like. And don’t worry about writing well. In fact, don’t even read it afterwards. Just write.

Not only does this keep your writing muse from growing restless, it keeps him in peak condition, too. Just as athletes need to run every day, so writers need to write.

A great habit to get into, other than writing every day, is to write every day at a certain time

In other words, train the muse to write on command, not just when he feels like it. The muse, as I’ve said, is naturally lazy. He might have an urge to create, but only at times and places that suit him.

This is no good to you.

When the time comes to stop planning your novel and write the first draft, you need to get creative every morning at nine o’clock or every evening at six.

By writing for twenty minutes (or whatever) every day during the planning phase of novel writing, and by writing at a certain time – during your lunch break, perhaps – whether you feel like it or not, you will train the muse to be creative when it suits you, not when it suits him.

4. Let the Muse Play

Too often, we spend our days wrapped up in our own petty concerns. We scurry around like worker ants, always focused on the immediate task ahead. We never find the time to tick everything off our “To Do” list.

Moreover, we rarely deviate from our daily habits and routines. That’s why days away from home are so refreshing… we leave our routines behind and instead have to make – the – day – up – as – we – go.

Us writers need to take regular time out from the daily grind.

We need to have fresh experiences all the time in order to replenish our stockpile of raw material (raw material that we may one day use in fiction). And we need to truly experience these fresh things, like children, in order to fully appreciate them. So…

  • If you always watch television in the evening, switch it off one night and take a walk around your neighborhood instead. Try to notice things you have never noticed before.
  • If you always drive to work, go by bus for a change. Study the other passengers like they are the first human beings you have ever seen.
  • If you always go to the same shops in the same part of town, visit streets you have never explored before.
  • Be a tourist for the day in your own hometown – hop on a tour bus, visit the local museum, explore all those lanes and back alleys you have never ventured down.
  • Spend time in your garden – not digging the weeds or mowing the lawn, but studying lichen on tree bark or bees pollinating flowers.

These moments of fresh experience are a great way of feeding your writer’s muse. And the way to make sure that you do have such moments regularly is to consciously shut down your inner-critic.

The critic likes habit and routine. He hates newness. He will fight you when you try to deviate from the norm, telling you all the practical reasons why you shouldn’t do this. But you must ignore him, if only for ten minutes a day or a day every month.

The muse will thank you for it. And he’ll reward you with richer writing.

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