Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Hit Your Muse With a Rock

There is a very healthy market of books on how to write and – more importantly – how to find inspiration. Every day, frustrated writers struggle with getting their characters on paper – they battle writer’s block and boredom and the conviction that the story isn’t worth writing. They rack their brains for ideas on how to liven the story, how to make it work, how to “find their muse.” And yes, many of them are sitting in the chair, hand on pencil, eyes on the page as they struggle, so it isn’t even an issue of taking the time to write. It’s an issue of making the writing fit the time.

Seriously, when your muse deserts you like this, hit her with a rock.

Blink. A rock? How can I advocate hitting an imaginary goddess of inspiration with a rock?

It’s simple. When a story stalls, that’s your invitation to write whatever comes to mind. You can begin with the most outlandish words you can think of. For example: “Muse, dear, I’m mad at you. I need a good story. Why aren’t you helping me? I’m throwing a brick your way.”

It sounds like a twisted form of on-the-couch therapy, but the key to this technique is that you write as you do it. Writer’s block is so harmful because it stops your desire to write. It halts the pen with thoughts of inadequacy. Hitting your muse with a rock is not the way to start the Great American Novel. What I’m advocating is a way to break that writer’s block. This probably won’t produce words you can use, and anyone looking over your shoulder might wonder at your sanity when the muse writes back with “Oh yeah? A rock? Is that the best you’ve got, writer-boy?” But this technique will get you writing. It will get thoughts from your mind onto the page, reopening the all-important path between eyes and pen.

This technique is actually a modified version of freewriting. Most writers use freewriting entirely off-the-manuscript. They find a fresh scrap of paper, scribble away for fifteen minutes or so to get in the head of their protagonist, and then they return to their typing. Hitting the muse with a rock requires no such interruption. As you sit before the precious manuscript with nothing to say, you duke it out with your muse right there. You type it onto your manuscript wherever it is you happen to be. Sure, the muse holds no real part in the story, but it relieves a lot of stress to throw rocks on paper. It loosens up the manuscript itself. Remember that writer’s block is the result of high expectation for the manuscript coupled with low expectations of your own abilities. Both of these impulses are wrong. A manuscript is never all-important – when you’re still at the stage for writer’s block, you’re sitting before a first or maybe a second draft. The story isn’t done yet. There’s plenty of room for change. Throw some bricks – you can always delete them later. A press of a key or a swipe of the pen restores the original work.

The secret, of course, is that you don’t need to throw bricks. You don’t need to involve your muse. As you develop this technique, you can focus it to meet the needs of your story. I discovered how much fun this can be during National Novel Writing Month, that wild month of the 50,000 word novel. For NaNoWriMo, the only requirement is word count, but getting that word count is hard. A week of writer’s block can be a deathblow to your work. To produce 1,667 words a day during the month of Thanksgiving and Christmas Shopping, every moment counts. You have to be focused and you have to be excited. The fingers must fly. So I began throwing rocks at my protagonists. Rocks, dragons, tanks, even a computer that was allergic to water. I tossed in absurd challenges, ideas that I would have never written had I taken the time to worry about the final product.

Strangely, the story I wrote worked. The protagonists fought back. Parts of the work seemed silly and ridiculous, I kept writing. The audacity of the story kept me in my seat – I never knew what would happen next, but I always knew I could find another rock.

There’s a reason why this technique works. Deep down, every story is about conflict. It’s about a protagonist facing a challenge and learning to overcome. Challenge on the page takes many forms, but you can imagine it as throwing a rock. Remember that your rock can represent any difficulty. It can be the prom dress that doesn’t fit. It can be the spooky neighbor who invites your protagonist to see the windowless basement after dinner. It can be the cute crush who’s too nice and too funny and to perfect for your protagonist to bear thinking about.

How does your protagonist respond to the rock? Does she duck aside, find her own rock, and throw it back at you? Or does she catch it in the stomach and throw up? Don’t think about it – write it. The key to this technique is to write every step of the way. Keep it fun. Pick an unusual rock, something that does not fit with the rest of your story. Has the heroic knight of the quantum order defeated the horrible space dragon? Give him the queen’s baby nephew to keep quiet for an hour. Has your heroine survived budget cuts and layoffs to become the executive vice president? Maybe her boss the vampire invites her to a round of midnight golf.

Remember, the goal here is not to write the Great American Novel. The goal is to break through writer’s block and to keep writing, to get the ideas free-flowing. Sometimes, you may discover an entertaining twist that you enjoy more than the original story. Other times, you’ll get a good laugh, reconnect with your characters, and then pick up from where you left off. The hardest part is letting go. You have to relax, ignore the expectations of greatness, and focus on your eyes and your fingers.

And, when all else fails, feel free to blame your muse. Just beware of the brick she’ll throw back.

1-2-Writing Workshops Online
About Ryan Edel