One of the most common questions for a writer—even us mostly no-name types—is, “Where do you get your ideas?” (Harlan Ellison once answered this with, “There’s this little store in Schenectady.”) A common answer that isn’t as flippant as it first sounds, though, is that ideas are easy. Developing ideas—taking them from that initial snippet of image, text, or “what if” question and turning them into a plot and then, finally, a complete draft—is the tough part. I know my own biggest problem is just sitting down and getting the words on paper. (Well, screen.) Sometimes it’s the vast initial blankness before any words are written that I have to overcome—deciding what happens to kick things off—but more often it’s figuring out what to type next. What’s the next thing that character says? What’s the next thing I need to describe? How do I get from the last thing I typed to that scene I have in mind that’s somewhere near the story’s end?
For a long time I was never much of an outliner and I suppose I’m still not much of one, but I think more about story structure now than I used to. (Looking back, my best stories in the past are the ones that I not only outlined a little but ones that stumbled into the classic three-act screenplay form by mistake.) This helps, but it’s far from a cure-all. I still spend a lot of time waiting on my muse.
And you might, too, right? Spend a lot of time staring at the screen dolefully? Or just finding something else to do while you wait for inspiration to strike? As long as you’re waiting on your muse, you might as well kill some time, right? Maybe you can find something else creative to do. Maybe it’ll give you ideas.
Or, you know, maybe it’ll be the time sink into which you put your creative energy, rather than writing. If you’re me, that time sink is usually online roleplaying—text-based MUCKs, not graphic MMOGs. These are wonderful for writers because they (potentially) reward good extemporaneous storytelling. This is also what makes them terrible for writers. If you’re regularly on one of these things, you’d be surprised how many thousands of words you write a day. It’s no wonder you’re not writing much other stuff.
In truth we don’t wait on our muses; we don’t need to wait for inspiration to strike (or go to a little store in Schenectady). We’re a lot better at summoning creativity on demand than we usually think. The problem is in where we put it.
My solution so far? Try to write a little every day. My track record on that through 2012 is spotty, but better than it has been in the past; I think I’ve written most of the 30,000 words of the untitled sci-fi novel this year, as well as 20,000-and-counting on the new Ranea story (more about which soon, hopefully). I’d rather write two thousand words than a thousand, but I’d rather write two hundred than zero. Originally I counted any writing toward this goal—blog posts like this one, story notes, whatever—but more recently I’ve decided that some of it has to be actual fiction, even if it’s just a paragraph or two.
“Well,” you say, “that’s fine for Chipotle, but…” Actually, it’s probably fine for everyone who’s serious about writing. You can’t sit around waiting on your muse—and the only thing worse than putting your muse to work on inconsequential things is putting your muse to work on coming up with justifications for why you’re not at least trying to write regularly.
(Originally published at Coyote Prints)