My Ever-Elusive Muse or Writing When I Don’t Want To

A topic I see come up a fair bit in writerly circles is the question of whether you should write only when you’re in the mood, i.e., feeling inspired, creative, and so on. Some writers do only write when their muses are sitting on their shoulders and whispering into their ears. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable approach, and it clearly works for a lot of people. It’s not for me, though. The reason is simple. If I waited for the right writing mood, I’d never write. Getting started is the most difficult part of the process for me, mostly because of the usual cocktail of fear and self doubt (couple of assholes, those two). That said, I’ve learned to fight through that so I can be productive, and this post is about how I go about it. Let me reiterate, though, I am not saying writers who wait for inspiration to strike are “doing it wrong.” They’re doing what works for them, as they should. It’s just that my muse is one elusive motherfucker, and I often have to chase it down with a butterfly net and a bottle of chloroform. So, if you’re like me, maybe this post will be helpful.

Okay, here are three things that get me started writing and keep me going.

1) Clearly defined goals. The most effective writing tool for me is a word count goal. I don’t know why, but aiming at a set number of words on a daily basis just works for me. For novels, that number is generally 2,000 words per day broken up in to 500-word chunks. I write 500 words, then I take a break and pat myself on the back for hitting the mini-goal. Then I do it again, and again, and again. By the end of my writing day I have a respectable 2,000 words, and I feel accomplished and satisfied. Those feelings turn out to be motivating fuel for the next day of writing. The downside is that if I don’t complete my goal, I feel like the day is unfinished, sort of an unsettling “shit, I left the stove on” feeling.

Now, as an occasional media tie-in author, I often have real, honest-to-god deadlines. Those are pretty motivating. In fact, I started using daily word count goals as a way to stay on target and meet those deadlines. Then I started using the word count goals as artificial deadlines and found they still had the same effect. I got more written with them than without.

2) Grit your teeth and go. The first 500 words are always the hardest. Every time I sit down to write, that first page is a hell of a struggle. Not surprisingly, the first 500 can take me longer than the next 1,500. Once I break through that weird mental block I have about beginnings, the words always flow more easily. So it’s a bit of a gut check for me to get started, and I might procrastinate a little, but eventually I’ll force myself to sit down and get on with it. I know it sounds arduous, but I’ve written hundreds of short stories and like ten novels this way, so, you know, you do what you gotta do.

3) It’s not as bad as you think. One of my favorite quotes from Stephen King reads: “Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” God, I love that quote because it pretty much sums up my entire existence as a writer. I often feel like I’m shoveling shit when I write, especially when I’m gutting out those first 500 words. You know what, though? Most of the time, when I go back and look at what I’ve written the next day, it’s usually pretty solid, even good. In other words, that ugly feeling is mostly bullshit, just the ever-present demons of fear and doubt doing their best to derail me. It’s nice to hear everyone, even Stephen King, has those same demons. One of these days I’ll learn how to shut them up. 🙂

So that’s how I write even when I’m not in the mood. How do you do it? Tell me about it in the comments.

4 Comments on “My Ever-Elusive Muse or Writing When I Don’t Want To

  1. So, do you write four seperate 500 word scenes? Or do you plan it out at the start of the day? Like saying, “I’m going to have Gemnez exposit for 500 words, then I’m going to have a 500 word fight between Hedrenathax and Dyaza, then another 500 word exposition, then another 500 words finishing the fight”?

    • If we’re talking about a novel, that 2,000 words is essentially one chapter. So it’s probably all one scene. I won’t stop at exactly 500 words, like in the middle of sentence or something. I’ll complete a thought, or paragraph, or whatever, then take the break.

  2. Well said. I also create a “poster board calendar” where I fit several months per sheet, then if it’s a first draft, have that word count goal for novel, then break it down by how many weeks I want to try to kick it out in based on where in the season I am. then I know the weekly average to accomplish it.. When I’m in editing, when I don’t create a calendar, I find I procrastinate more. Once I create the calendar, I have goals, like in this currently novel meant to be YA rom-com paranormal, but it’s light in com, so I need to add a com pass along with other edits. I’ll see if my goals are realistic, as I’ve mapped out a more aggressive timeline that the first 3 (and I’m creating a new 16′ x 6′ x 15″ raised bed….) so we’ll see if I’m anywhere close to realistic as the spring turns to summer to fall!

    • Nice. I often create spreadsheets for my novels that serve a similar purpose to what you do. I set a total word count target and then map out how much I need to write per week to finish the first draft in three months. It’s worked well for me.

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