Whew! The finished manuscript of my new novel, Tower of Thorns, went off to the publisher by the (extended) deadline of Jan 27. It’s out of sight, if not out of mind, for the next month or so while my editor writes her report. If you’ve been following my posts, you’ll know that my time management for this novel was less than perfect, with the result that December and January passed in a blur of speed writing. I did squeeze in some final editing before I pressed the send button. And my writing process, which involves more or less continuous revision as I go, meant that the bulk of the manuscript was already well polished. But that last section, the dramatic, tension-filled climax and the neat tying up of loose ends? That was still being written a week before the deadline. My advice to you, fellow scribes: don’t let yourself get into that position. Put good time management practices in place for your project early in the writing period or you’ll end up like me, doing a solitary two-month NaNoWriMo Plus. That’s not the way to produce a well-crafted novel.
But wait. Maybe that’s only half right. When I’d typed the final words and was doing my first read-through, I realised those final chapters, the ones I wrote in a white-hot panic, were actually pretty good. They were fast-paced and dramatic, yet had the subtlety of character interaction I was aiming for. Sure, I found the typos and repetitions we’re all guilty of when we’re writing in a rush. There were some clunky sentences; there was over-use of favourite words. But that kind of thing is easily fixed. Overall, this was one of the strongest sections of the novel. Who’d have thought it?
As a druid once said, There is learning in everything, and this experience is no exception. Apart from the obvious lesson about time management, which I talked about in my last post, there’s the possibility that when we’re under intense pressure we work better. Why is that?
I’ll be a guest at this month’s Perth Writers Festival, and one of my panels is about inspiration. That word suggests a starving writer feverishly scribbling away in a garret, or an obsessive artist locked away from the rest of the world, neglecting to wash, eat or sleep until the masterpiece is complete. Inspiration has been interpreted as something outside the writer: the muse whispering in our ears as we work or visiting us in our dreams. So is the muse real, and if so, is she internal or external? And what’s she doing popping up at those times when the stress of a looming deadline should turn the creative mind into a jumbled mess?
The muse is what we make of her or him. WU’s own Barbara O’Neal has her ‘girls in the basement.’ My muse is an ancestral presence that sometimes passes on stories needing to be told, and occasionally accompanies me on long walks while I untangle plot snarls and dream up new ideas. Chances are most writers don’t think about the muse as an entity at all. Inspiration can take many forms. Something – a news item, a snippet of history, a conversation half-overheard on a train – sparks off a story idea and sends you running to set it down before you forget. Or it may be more of a slow burn that sees you right through weeks and months of steadily writing your novel (lucky you!) Maybe the muse is the writer’s mind weaving diverse threads of experience into the whole cloth of a story: what you see, what you read, what you hear, what you dream, what you touch, what you feel. The hideous, wonderful, precious and fearsome things you’ve been touched by.
In those fevered sprints to the deadline, we need the muse more then ever. Fortunately, the final section of a novel tends to be the easiest to write. You know the characters inside out; you know how each of them will act and react, what they will and won’t say; you know how the threads of your story will come together to make that satisfying conclusion. And because you’ve been sharing your characters’ journey for so long, you badly want to walk the last of it with them. That alone is a powerful incentive to write on, fast. When I get to the final section of a novel, I am far more motivated and far more productive, even without deadline pressure. So, when I found myself with what seemed like an impossible amount to get written in the available time, I simply parked my bottom on the chair and got on with it. And – surprise! – found myself often in that zone where the muse likes to hang out. You know the one: you sit down to write, then realise four hours later that your back hurts and your neck aches and you need to empty your bladder. And there on the screen is some of the best work you’ve ever done. Those four hours have passed without your being conscious of the room around you, your fingers on the keyboard, or your intentions with regard to style or form or word count. The writing has just happened. Mysterious. But there it is.
What does your muse do for you? How do you encourage your muse’s presence?