Along with writing, I also draw a bit and work with polymer clay. On some days, it seems I can draw or sculpt anything. My little clay creatures end up with charming winsome faces and I fall in love with them. My tiny clay houses make me want to peer in the windows and imagine antics going on inside. And when I sit down with a sketchbook, I seem to create something endearing with each doodle.
But that doesn’t happen every time.
Some days my clay sculptures take forever and just feel dead and overworked. My drawings look awkward, poorly proportioned, and unconvincing.
The exact same thing happens with my writing.
Sometimes I sit down, the story flows, and it feels good and right. But sometimes I sit down and I can almost believe in the mythos of writers who sweat drops of blood as they try to wring out the words. I’m inclined to suspect that all creative endeavors have good days and bad days. We like to blame this phenomenon on our muses.
Well, whether this temperamental muse exists or not, I’ve come to see patterns to my good days and bad days and understand how to make the good days show up more often. Use these tools to make your good muse show up more often!
1. Muses Admire Skills
Skill building is a grind. When I’m trying to get my sketches and little creatures to have hands instead of oddly twisted flippers, I do lots and lots of studies. In a study, I look at photographs of hands in different positions and I just draw them. Hand after hand after hand. My hands are still far from perfect, but they do look a lot more like hands, so a figure with hands that comes out looking great is being helped along by all that practice.
There’s something similar we can do with our writing. If there is something I really want to learn to do well, I’ll look at writers who do it well and then I’ll try small “studies” patterned after what the author did.
For example, suppose I’m trying to get the reader to like and care about a character right away. How do I do that? Well, I turn to writers who do it really well.
Do you know which writers are really good at making you care about a character fast? Horror writers. They have to be. Otherwise, when the book opens on the young couple walking through the woods and ends with the couple being eaten, you won’t feel the horror properly. To feel it, you have to care. A good horror writer, therefore, must be skilled at making you care fast. So I’ll look at some vintage Stephen King or some old Dean Koontz or some Dan Poblocki (The Nightmarys does this really well in the opening.) I’ll see what ways the author made us care, then I’ll try it.
I’ll try writing a scene where you meet a character just before something terrible happens, and I’ll try to write something that would make someone care. Then I’ll do it again with a different character and a different terrible thing. And the terrible thing might not be horror story terrible, but realistically terrible. It might be getting the news that your boyfriend won’t be coming to pick you up because he died on the way or some other, less boogie-monster level of terrible. I’ll do these studies over and over and then when I turn to my books, I am better equipped to make you care quickly. I’m coaxing the muse to show up whenever I set my mind to this particular task, because I’ve worked to become fluent in it.
2. Feed Your Muse
One of the things I enjoy is looking through Pinterest or Instagram at artists. I find the more I look at art and at the endless variety of how people approach something, the more I’m inspired to try it. The more eager I am to get to work. And nothing seems to lure that muse like feeding it with other people’s art.
For the same reason, I also read. There are writers who will say they don’t read when they’re writing for fear of having another writer’s work taint their voice. If I felt like that, I basically couldn’t be a writer. I need to be feeding my muse with story all the time. I need to curl up with a good book if I have any chance of writing good books. I need to get outside my own storytelling head and get different perspectives on how scene and pacing and dialogue and action and conflict are handled. I need to laugh at other people’s jokes. If I don’t, the odds of mine being funny are lessened, considerably. So I read a lot. When I’m pressed for time, I read the books I most want to read because it’s easier to connect with them and not be pulled away by the zillion things I “should” be doing (because a part of me will always connect reading with “goofing off” no matter how much I know better).
If I’m trying to write in a new form or one I’m not experienced in, I’ll try to read extensively in that form. For instance, a person who reads lots and lots of novels will struggle with writing short stories or picture books. The really tight word counts needed will tend to end up as vignettes instead of stories (or you may end up being one of the 2000-word picture book authors moaning about the lack of markets). Teach your muse to inspire you by reading what you want to write, otherwise you may be surprised when you end up with, say, a novel fragment instead of a picture book or short story.
3. Muses Get Lazy
Some days, I have to work even when it’s not flowing, or easy, or fun. Writing is my profession and I don’t have the leisure of not working on the bad days. I do cut myself a little slack on those days and accept fewer words (although not fewer hours). And I write on the bad days knowing that writing will need a lot more revision. But an interesting thing happens when I don’t indulge the muse.
Sometimes, a bad day will loosen up at some point and turn into a good day. The early words were hard but the later words become easy and flowing. Another thing I’ve noticed is that the more I find excuses not to draw or sculpt or write on “bad” days, the more bad ones I get. The longer breaks I take, the harder it is to get back in the writing flow and the more likely I am to encounter slow starts and rough spots. The more my “muse” recognizes that I’m going to work whether it’s easy or hard, the easier it gets overall. I still have hard days. And I still give myself breaks. Life completely without breaks is the short road to burn out. But I keep breaks short and I try to fit my skill building and muse feeding into the break times so I’m not totally setting aside forward momentum. I’m a big believer in the power of momentum. Once you get going, it’s a lot easier to keep going.
So if you have good days and bad days: congratulations! You’re just like everyone else. Bad days are painful, but you can do things to make them fewer, reduce the severity of their interference, and with that, your muse should give you a lot more good days than bad.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.