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Summoning the Muse

Some days when I’m writing, I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep because I feel like an entire swath of my story– a scene, a chapter, sometimes even more– has just been downloaded into my head. My mind is so filled with lines of dialogue, descriptions, and plot points that I can almost feel my brain creaking trying to hold it all, and when I sit down with my computer my fingers fly over the keys, frantically trying to capture everything that’s so crystal clear in my imagination. I call those times visits from the muse (even though yes,I know, muses are really just manifestations of the authors unconscious mind, etc. etc). Regardless of where it comes from, it feels like magic. It’s the way we always want to feel when we write.

Although before I get to the heart of this post, I do want to say one thing. Yes, the visits from the muse are great, but I have other writing days where my children interrupt me 600 times in twenty minutes, or I have a cold or some other real-life intrusion, every paragraph feels like a chore, every page is a slog, and I will literally stop writing mid-sentence just because I’ve finally hit my word-count goal for the day. And then again somewhere in the middle, I have other days when I know exactly how I want the story to play out, but it still takes forever to write because I somehow can’t quite find the words to match what’s in my mind. And you know what? At the end of the day, when the story is all finished, I honestly can’t tell which chapters were written on which types of writing days. Nor, I don’t think, can anyone else. I get just about the same number of editorial compliments and criticisms on scenes that were written on pulling-teeth kinds of days as I do on the writing that happened during a visit from the muse. The muse isn’t the be all and end all, is what I’m saying, and if she’s just not showing up for you, don’t despair. I honestly think that just your showing up and writing each day, no matter what, is the single most important component of what makes a successful author.

That said, though, it’s easier (not easy, but easier) writing when the muse is willing to pay us a call. And magic or the unconscious mind, I do think we can, to a degree, make those visits more likely to happen. So here are my top three favorite strategies:

Let Go of the Fear
. I know, I know. Easy to say, hard to do, right? As far as I know, every writer out there has moments (or days or weeks) of feeling those crippling moments of self-doubt when you’re convinced that you’re writing the worst book in the history of language itself. I get it. But have you ever read Blake Snyder’s, Save the Cat and the sequel, Save the Cat Strikes Back? Blake has a technique he recommends called, Here’s a bad way to do this, and it’s one of my favorite ways of getting past the fear. When you’re stuck on a story and every word is a struggle, ask yourself, What’s a really bad way to do this? It works with everything from plot points to scenes to single sentences. Give yourself permission to think of the worst possible ways to accomplish whatever it is you’re trying to do– and somehow the permission to be bad often frees you enough that you wind up thinking of a good solution. When I’m stuck, staring at the screen trying to think of a good way to capture a particular moment or description or feeling, I’ll let myself write everything down in flat, completely pedestrian language, just to get the job done, even if it’s not done well. I don’t let myself worry about showing, not telling, or not lapsing into passive voice, or avoiding cliches. Yet somehow, having that bad version down gives me a starting point, something that I can improve and build on. They say you can’t edit a blank page, and it’s true.

Set a Time Limit. Software like Write or Die is a little extreme for me personally, but I do find having a set time limit to my work period helpful. Sometimes on the weekends my husband takes the kids to the grocery store, and I’ll tag along expressly so that I can sit in the car with my laptop and work while they’re doing the weekly shopping. Something about having that limited chunk of time in a completely distraction-free setting is incredibly helpful to letting me get out of my own way, tune into the story, and just write.

Immerse yourself. We all have so many distractions and busy-ness in our lives, but don’t underestimate the power of trying as much as possible to let your mind keep working on your story, even when you can’t actually be at the computer. I daydream about my stories whenever I have a spare second– driving, doing the dishes, etc. This may occasionally make me seem slightly zombie-like to my family when they try to talk to me, but I’ve had some of my best realizations that trigger a visit from the muse that way.

What about you? Do you have any strategies for calling the muse?

About Anna Elliott [1]

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.