How to Murder Your Muse

A muse is similar to a witch’s familiar, which is usually associated with a black cat. The cat is a companion to the witch, but it doesn’t do the work of the old hag (although it can be a pair of extra eyes, which I suppose she could find helpful). A muse on the other hand is meant to fill the writer with extraordinary ideas and help the words flow like the gushing waters over a waterfall. In other words, the muse is using the unsuspecting writer and is writing the novel through them.

I’m not sure I like that idea. When I finish my manuscripts I want to know that all that hard work is actually mine, and that I haven’t been something else’s vessel to get the work done.

To be honest, I’m not even sure I believe in muses but if you insist you do have a muse and you really want to be rid of it, how do you murder that pesky presence?

You could try to trap the little devil, but I haven’t heard of anyone being successful in this task. Muses are adept at hiding just when you need them most. In fact, they take great delight in playing hide and seek and will often disappear for days, if not weeks, at a time.

You could fool it into believing you’re not ready to sit down and write, because a muse loves to appear at those times. It knows the writer gets frustrated and annoyed when it’s an inconvenient moment and that gives the muse a thrill. The excitement is heightened when the writer has absolutely nothing to write on too. Oh, how the muse enjoys that.

I must hang my head in shame, because I’m not able to tell you how to actually “murder” your muse. I wouldn’t want the authorities knocking on my door and accusing me of being the mastermind behind such an act. I believe the best line of attack is to go the other way – ignore it completely. Every time it shows its ugly head, push it to one side and don’t listen (and you’ll feel a certain amount of enjoyment after doing this for a while). The muse, however, will find this treatment intolerable. A word of warning, muses have a temper and it’s quite amusing to watch them stamp their feet and shout profanities so you’ll have to keep your own amusement in check. If you are strong enough to do this for a prolonged period (a couple of weeks should do it) then the blighter will pack up and leave.

You see, a muse wants everything its own way. It’s not interested in your plans (especially fast approaching deadlines) and it certainly doesn’t care about the assorted ideas you have. The muse looks down at its vessel as being inferior and…well, to put it bluntly…stupid. The writer must do as the muse directs or all Hell breaks out. It’s that simple.

However, we writer types know we are not inferior and we certainly are not stupid. If we sit down and think about it carefully, we don’t need the muse. All the muse is doing is dictating when we can write and what we write about. We have our own ideas and once we rid ourselves of the fearsome muse, we’ll be able to write whenever we want…and what’s more, we’ll be able to write in peace.

How to Plot Your Novel

I’ve been plotting novels and short stories for some years now, but that doesn’t mean I think I know everything that needs to be known on the subject. Because of this, I continually borrow books from the library, or purchase them if they are being sold at the right price, to ensure I’m not doing things the hard way, or I’m not forgetting to do something altogether.

I recently borrowed a book called How to Plot Your Novel by Jean Saunders. It’s a relatively old book, but in this case the content is still viable. I didn’t read the entire book (and rarely do with this type of book as I usually pick out the sections of interest to me), but I wanted to share – in point form – the main items I got from the book.

  • Find a theme you are passionate about.
  • Know the kind of book you want to write.
  • Keep the proposed length within publishing bounds and plot your novel to appeal to the widest audience.
  • Create good characters, who you know well, and who have real motivation and goals.
  • Learn how to ask yourself questions such as “What if…?”
  • Scenes and chapters should be linked together.
  • Throw the reader a curve now and then, without relying on coincidences.
  • Don’t allow your story to sag in the middle by sustaining pace and keeping control of your characters.
  • Dramatic scenes need their calming counterparts.
  • End your story without leaving loose ends, and leaving the reader feeling satisfied.

I believe the points outlined above are common sense, but should be reiterated often because it seems that many books being published these days are not paying attention to these important details. Hence, the quality of reading is lowered and the chance of the author becoming a best seller slim.

If you’re a writer and you can place a tick beside each of the above, then you’re off to a great start. Naturally, there are other items that could be put on the list too, but these are the essential ones, in my opinion.

Being Invisible

Excerpt from The Business of Writing for Children: An Award-Winning Author’s Tips on Writing Children’s Books and Publishing Them, or How to Write, Publish, and Promote a Book for Kids by Aaron Shepard.

All at once, in the middle of the story, I “woke up” with a shock. For just a few seconds, I had completely forgotten I was sitting in a hot tent with a thousand other people – forgotten even that I was listening to Connie Regan-Blake. She had drawn me into the story so completely that I was aware of nothing but that story’s unfolding within my own mind.

That moment taught me that the height of storytelling – oral or written – is when the teller becomes invisible.

Part of becoming invisible is to engage the reader’s imagination with concrete images, as discussed earlier. If the imagination is busy enough, it will wrap the reader up in the story and draw attention away from the writer.

Have you read a book where this has happened to you? I have and I found that I felt that I was part of the story. In fact, I was part of the story. I tend to imagine myself as one of the characters and I ‘live’ the plot.

The difference it makes to the story is enormous. The pages turn automatically, the setting and characters move before your eyes. And before you know it the story has come to an end and you are left with a feeling of wonder…and disappointment because it’s over.

On the other hand, I’ve read plenty of stories where I find myself flicking forward to see when the chapter ends. Or I might continually look down at the page number to see how I’m progressing. Naturally, doing these things means I’m not right into the story. I’m distracted by the words, the author (maybe), everything around me, because something about the flow or plot doesn’t grab my total attention.

As a writer, being invisible must be a talent because I think it must be hard to do. I can’t say that I’ve tried to achieve this when I write, but I certainly would take it as a compliment if someone told me this happened to them whilst reading one of my stories.

Writing is like painting a picture. An artist uses colour to place an image before our eyes, whereas, a writer uses words. To become invisible, we have to pick the right words, a good balance with description and setting, rounded characters and realistic dialogue and action. It’s not easy, but can you make yourself invisible when you write?

Where to Start

As a reader, no matter what I’m reading – a children’s book or a book for adults – I always enjoy the books that start right in the middle of the action. It’s exciting! It makes me keep reading to find out who the characters are and what is happening to them. Yet as a writer, I sometimes feel the need to “set up” the character and setting first.

Excerpt from Writing a Children’s Book: How to Write for Children And Get Published by Pamela Cleaver.

Begin at the moment of change or crisis in the key character’s life. Don’t start with an explanation with his circumstances, or a description of where he lives. If you feel you need scene setting or character establishment to get you going, write it for yourself and go on until you reach an action point. This is where your story should start:

  • Start where the trouble begins.
  • Start on the day that is different.
  • Start where the main character comes up against something he can’t stand.

Don’t discard the previous material but feed it into the narrative as snippets as the story unfolds.

This is simple advice. Yet I feel that it’s the perfect way to find the best starting point for your story. I now know that I have to rethink the beginning of Cat’s Eyes.

I found this advice by using Google Book Search.

Burn It, Bury It, Let It Live

Sometimes, especially when we first start writing, we reach a point where we no longer like or want to work on the story at hand. Usually as we grow as a writer, we can see the errors we’ve previously made and that “spoils” the story altogether.

It’s possible that we might rewrite the manuscript entirely, but even then we are not satisfied, we are not happy. What do we do?

Making a decision like this is difficult. We might regret the decision later, so we must be careful in what we do today.

Holly Lisle’s Burn It, Bury It, Let It Live might help you make that decision. Answer the questions and see how you fair. However, remember, once you burn it you can’t get it back. So be careful you don’t rush into anything.

Why do we edit?

Editing means that we try to make our story as flowing and reader friendly as possible. It means that we take away the confusion of awkward sentences, bad grammar and spelling and allow our readers to enjoy the story. Constant mistakes will distract the reader and eventually they will focus on how terrible we write, instead of the plot. No writer wants this, so editing is essential.

The first thing we must do is read the entire manuscript through, just like we read any other book. As we read, we should use a red pen to mark problem areas – confusion, something missing, waffling, point of view shifts, format problems etc. Don’t stop to fix them yet, because that will stop the flow. Just mark the area and keep reading. If it doesn’t sound right to you, the author, then it’s going to sound even worse to the reader.

Here are some questions you should ask yourself:

1. Is the style and voice consistent?
2. Do I use the best word possible in every single sentence?
3. Is the flow smooth?
4. Do I use proper sentences?
5. Is the point of view consistent?
6. Am I using passive sentences?
7. Are the events in the right order?
8. Do I have plot holes?
9. Are my characters realistic and growing?
10. Does every scene move the story forward?
11. Is the dialogue natural?
12. Is there enough description, without going over the top?
13. Is the title appropriate?
14. Is the opening sentence catchy?
15. Will the resolution leave the reader satisfied?

Now work through the manuscript again (is it any wonder we end up hating the story?), and this time, fix the errors. Take your time. Be careful, don’t trust your spell checker, so watch for words that sound alike, ie their/there/they’re. And don’t be afraid to cut huge chunks of writing, even if it is your favourite part of the story. If it doesn’t move the story along, delete it.

When you’ve finished, you should have a polished manuscript. However, if you’re like me, you won’t be able to rest until you read the entire manuscript again, and hope with all your heart that you don’t find any errors. If you do…you know what needs to be done!

What’s the Point Anyway?

What’s the point of a scene? There’s only one answer to this question – each scene moves the story along. So if you’re writing scenes that don’t move the story along, then you’re wasting your time. Those scenes need to be deleted, no exceptions.

With my latest project, I’ve found myself asking “so what’s the point of this scene anyway” and if I don’t know the answer then I’m heading in the wrong direction. Luckily, I haven’t had many of these dead ends (only one in fact) but it’s important to remember that each and every scene must have a purpose.

Sometimes it’s difficult to delete a scene, especially one that is worded just right but leaving it in isn’t going to do yourself or your manuscript any favours. You must learn when to cut and then do it.

So, one more time, each and every scene must have a purpose and must move the story along. If it doesn’t, get rid of it.