Tag Archive | inspiration

Why We Write

It’s been a scary year. The events of the past three weeks have felt like some kind of demon cherry on top of a glut of instability and fear-mongering. No one can know for sure what happens next, but the signs point to very unsettling possibilities.

I’ve seen all kinds of reactions from the writing community, ranging from dearths of creativity to fierce rallying cries. All those reactions are valid. Personally, I’ve been somewhere in the middle.

But it’s all got me thinking about the power of what we do. Writing is art, it’s communication, it’s portrayal of the world. It can be used for wondrous ends and horrendous ones. You’ve only got to look at the average British tabloid to see ample evidence of the latter. In many ways, those examples make it all the more encumbent on the rest of us writers to balance the scale in the other direction.

We write to process our thoughts and our ideas. We write to work through past hurts and present difficulties. We write to explore possibilities, to warn of dangers and to sow our hopes. Speculative fiction does this in ways other genres can’t, because it isn’t restricted to the world as we know it. Its scope extends to the futuristic, the fantastic, the alternative… with all of those things we can explore ‘what ifs’ and share visions of things that haven’t yet happened or delve into human nature from entirely new perspectives. The blog post I wrote on the importance of science fiction amply describes my thoughts on why it matters.

Our writing can draw attention to world issues by portraying them, veiled or openly, through the viewpoints of our characters. In doing this, we’re taking ideas beyond the factual, beyond informative articles and projections, and actually turning them into real-life situations. We only truly relate to these things by empathising with others going through them, and fiction provides that empathy in a way no other medium can. When I show what my persecuted refugee character is feeling, I enable my readers to connect with her and others like her. When I show how my rebel protagonist stands up against her totalitarian government, I enable readers to experience her anger and determination to put things right. When I show my alien character struggling to overturn her species’ discrimination against humans, I hope readers will see parallels in the way we continue to treat those we deem ‘inferior’.

Fiction is a reflection of its era, and the one we’re in now is rife with pitfalls and possibilities that we need to investigate. We need to explore the dangers through story before it’s too late for empathy. We need to show the bright alternatives before we’ve steered our path too far away from them. We need to work through our own fears, putting them into words both as catharsis and signpost.

This is why stories matter. This is why our society needs them more than ever.

This is why we write.

The Eight Stages of Story Writing

Well… my eight stages, anyway. I’m pretty certain all writers go through some form of these different states while a work is in progress. For me, these are the ones that invariably occur, and generally in this order.

The first (or even second or third) time you encounter this process, you think it’s just you. You think it’s just this particular story that’s got you on such an emotional rollercoaster. You feel sure Real Writers don’t go through all this unprofessional emotive instability. Then it happens on the next story. And the one after that. And you start to realise it’s a pattern, and it happens every single time. It’s true that some stories garner stronger emotional connections than others, and sometimes the dips on the rollercoaster are less noticeable, but they’re always there. So these are the stages I’ve come to recognise and even embrace, in all their wonderful/frustrating/schizoid glory:

1. Inspiration

This is where it all starts. Sometimes it’s the spark of an idea that sets your mind ablaze and demands you scribble notes down on whatever scrap of paper you happen to have hanging around the bottom of your handbag (I always have a pen. I try to always have paper or a notebook, but ideas don’t care whether you’re prepared or not). Sometimes it’s a slower-burning concept that’s been smouldering in the back of your mind for ages and suddenly comes to life. But either way, this is always an awe-filled moment, even if it’s occasionally the fearful awe of wondering how the hell you’re going to pull this thing off.

2. Cohesion

Now we’re talking. The inspiration has grown legs (and usually, teeth), and suddenly there are protagonists in your head, carrying out the ideas of the previous stage. There’s the shape of a plot. There are secondary characters clamouring for their own fifteen minutes of fame. It’s not just an idea any more. Now it’s a story. Now you have to write, at all costs, and corner this thing into submission before it runs away.

3. Immersion

This is the best bit. This is the beginning of a high that doesn’t culminate until the final sentence of the first draft is in place. This part is the love affair. You’re heady with it, unable to think about anything else, unable to make constructive headway on anything but writing this story. You love your characters. You’ve developed a relationship with them. You want them to succeed, even while you’re throwing deliberate hurdles in their way. (You also love seeing them jump and scramble.) You believe in this plot. You believe in this story, you’re having an absolute blast, and even when a plot snag comes along, you know you can overcome it, because SUDDENLY YOU ARE GOD AND YOU CAN DO ANYTHING.

4. Relief

No matter how awesome that immersive excitement is, getting the final sentence on the page brings the most wondrous sense of relief. You’re higher than a kite, and now you get to breathe again. It’s done. (I mean, it’s not done. It’s nowhere near done, and you know it. But first drafts like to believe they’re finished, even for just a few moments. And you let them have that.) Usually, you read through the completed draft right then and there (depending on how long it is, of course), and you look on what you’ve done and you smile with satisfaction. Phew. Another story complete. Another confirmation that I’m more than just a bag of unrealised ideas.

5. Apathy

Aaaand here it comes. You’ve hit the peak of the wave, and naturally you have to come gliding down the other side. A day goes by. Maybe two. You read the draft again, and pick up on typos and errors and words that don’t read quite right. You keep reading it. You keep revising paragraphs and scenes, and gradually your wonderful, amazing, all-consuming story feels stale and worn out. It’s not really the story. It’s the fact that you’ve read it over and over until the shine has completely worn off. You experience a certain numbness to it. It’s done. It’s okay. But you honestly can’t tell if it works any more. Or if it’s any good. Or if maybe it’s not so original after all…

6. Doubt

…or if you’re any good at this writing jaunt anyway. Argh. Why are you even bothering with this? You send the story out for critique, to try and pinpoint the weaknesses (and strengths) you simply cannot see any more. You get critiques from fellow writers. Many of them are complimentary. You’re buoyed by the good things they say. And some of them aren’t so complimentary, and somehow the negative points become far more consuming than the positive ones. Sometimes these points unwittingly strike right at your insecurities. Other times they denigrate something you thought you’d got just right. Either way, you’re at the doubting stage, so no matter how constructively the advice is given, or how many positives they give you at the same time, you’re seriously questioning yourself. Maybe you’ll never be any good at this thing. Maybe you suck.

7. Renewed belief

But, like all the stages, doubt is temporary. It’s actually constructive, if you channel it right. You can use it to improve, to overcome the issues you feel plagued by, and to keep persevering despite the hurdles. Often, you have to let significant time go by before renewing your belief in a story. Some stories take longer than others, but it’s always best to put them aside, let the critiques mull away in your subconscious, go and work on something else, and finally come back to the original story with a clear mind. You go back and read it, and it’s fresh again. You remember what you saw in it in the first place. You can clearly see where the weaknesses are and what needs improving, and you revise those areas. You thank your wonderful critiquers for giving you their invaluable outside perspective, and you know that the changes you’re making are strengthening the story and taking it to the next level. Now it’s a story you can root for again. You fell in love with it, you fell out of love with it, and now you’ve regained your respect for it and value it as a friend.

8. Vindication

It’s ready. You’ve done everything you can to it, revised it to within an inch of its life, and have a piece you’re proud to stamp with your byline. It’s time to start submitting. You research your markets, you aim high, and you send it out there to be judged by slush readers and editors. You get rejections. You know you’ll get rejections, but they’re never fun. Here’s where you can end up on a little merry-go-round, where Doubt crops up again and again. But you don’t listen to Doubt at this stage. If an editor provides constructive feedback (it happens!), you take it and you damned well use it. Either way, you send the story back out again. Over and over and over, if need be. Because one day, one of those editors replies to your submission, and you sigh, expecting rejection by virtue of the odds… and then your whole day lights up because it’s an acceptance. Your belief is vindicated. Someone thinks you’re good enough. Not just okay. Not just pretty good. Worthy, of a place in their publication and of receiving payment for your work.

And that’s what makes the whole rollercoaster worthwhile.

Listening to the Voices

Sometimes stories falter. It’s in the nature of writing. The trick is being able to pick up and start again even when you reach a seemingly insurmountable wall. The thing is, as a writer, you’re not the only person invested in your story. You’re the main person, sure. It won’t get written without you, and no one will care more than you whether it is or isn’t successful.

But. There are other people, without whom you don’t even have a story. People you rely on wholeheartedly in order to write in the first place.

They’re your characters.

Your protagonist, your antagonist, your secondary characters and side characters. They’re the focus of the whole thing. The story is about them. I could argue that there’s nobody more invested in your story than its characters, because without it, they don’t even exist. Or if they do exist and now you’re faltering, they risk being left in limboland, dangling and inconclusive because you can’t figure out where to go next.

In some ways, you and your characters are a team. You need each other. When encountering problems in other walks of life, we talk with our team mates, colleagues, partners, spouses, whomever, and conclude how to proceed from there. For me, it’s no different with characters. My consistently best solution to writing-related stumbling blocks is to talk to my characters. It works every time.

I don’t strike up direct conversations with them per se. For a start, they don’t even know I exist… But if I can get them talking to each other, conversing on something that’s just happened or is imminent, or even just regarding how they feel about a situation, solutions come flooding in. Sometimes these conversations will make it into the story, although they’re usually abridged, because these guys can get mighty chatty and they don’t give a liquorice clog about word counts. Sometimes the conversations themselves don’t get written down, but they still provide massive insight into where my characters are at a given moment, and they always manage to dig me out of a pit.

It’s amazing how much insight comes through in these visualised chats. When I can get into the characters’ minds and feel what they’re feeling, I end up knowing what they’ll do next, even if that might not be what I’d envisioned. It leads me away from the trap of forcing them to behave the way I need them to (which never works) and allows them to show me how they’ll behave, what they’ll do next, what it is that really matters to them at the specific point in the story. I don’t know of any better way to discern these things. Listening to my characters, observing their discussions, and trusting what they feel has always shown me where to go next and frequently throws up all kinds of surprises that end up making perfect sense down the line. As well as being my number one problem-solving tool, there’s something organic about it that I love. And it’s an amazing way to get to know my characters better.

So, my number-one rule of fiction writing: always listen to your voices.

Showered with Inspiration

My muse lives in the shower.

I’ve been aware of it for a long time now, but I’ve only recently realised just how true that is. I’ve often been struck by ideas and solutions to story problems whilst standing amongst the steam, but I’ve now discovered that I can deliberately seek such solutions mid-shampoo. And I find them. Pretty much without fail.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been stuck on a plot point or searching for the story behind the concept only to be struck by inspiration as the hot water courses over my skin. They can be issues I’ve been juggling for ages, finding no joy, and then I’m lathering up and – bam – I’ve got it. What is it about showering that unleashes the ideas? Perhaps I’m washing away all the extraneous thoughts and distractions so the solutions can shine through. Maybe it’s something to do with the almost hypnotic lull of shampooing and scrubbing, my brain on autopilot as I perform the automatic ritual of getting clean. It’s almost like it frees up my mind to concentrate on outside issues. I guess it’s one of the few times I don’t have to focus on anything else. No distractions. Nothing to break my chain of thought. Just the flow of the water and the rhythms of washing.

Some people sing in the shower. I ponder… often without realising it, occasionally on purpose. And I figure out where my stories are going. How they should end. Where the conflict lies. What the heck to do about that niggling plot problem. I emerge from the steam physically cleansed and mentally revitalised, my works-in-progress several steps closer to cohesion.

If nothing else, I guess I’ll never be one of those writers who locks herself away for days at a time and then emerges, dishevelled but triumphant, with a fresh story hot off the keyboard. My hair might not need a wash, but if I’m snarled up in story brambles, I’ll be jumping in the shower to discuss things with my ever-fragrant muse.

Does your muse hang out somewhere specific? Or do you just get hit with inspiration at entirely random intervals?

Words from My Hero

“Don’t only practise your art, but force your way into its secrets,

for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.”

Ludwig van Beethoven

Every so often I come across this quote, and each time it stops me in my tracks and demands me to ponder it. To me, it’s a near-perfect summation of what it means to be devoted to a craft. You don’t just practise it; you peel away the surface and prise open all the layers beneath until you begin to make sense of how it works. With a glimpse of such understanding, art can take us out of ourselves and reveal things far deeper than what’s apparent at only that surface layer.

And personally, I’d say the guy knew what he was talking about: