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Feb 4, 2012

5 Steps to Writing Without a Muse

I need to write a story. And I have no idea what to write. How do I start?

Trying to write without inspiration is like trying to drive without gas.

For various reasons, I've been reading a great deal of literary fiction, and for various reasons I am expected to write something that is not fantasy or science fiction. So I have the added burden of writing something out of my comfort zone.

I feel like I'm writing without a muse. That's not the end of the world. It makes the process slower, that's all. It doesn't all pour forth in white heat. At least not right away. Eventually, the story must be molten to be poured into shape, but there are steps to take before it gets there. That's true also of my genre fiction. The problem isn't the genre, really. That's just one more challenge.

Here's what I do.

1. Brainstorm.
I flip through my notebooks, reminding myself of previous ideas. I brainstorm. I jot down new possibles. Since this is to be a mainstream, "realistic" story, I search my own experience. I have an idea... a real incident, based on two people I know. I'll just write down exactly what happened.

Damn, this will be easy. I feel almost like I'm cheating.

2. Outline.
Even though it's a short story, I write an outline. A simple one, whatever comes to mind. Tat-tat-tat, into the computer. In this case, I tat out six lines, six movements in the story. It is the story of a mother and daughter, both coming to terms in different ways with a dying father. My outline looks like this: Father dying; Daughter responds; Mother responds; Father gets worse; Daughter responds; Mother responds. Because this is based on a real incident, I know more than I write down. I have a sense of the details I will work in.

I add a last header to the outline: "Conclusion." As if it were a journal paper, not a story. I don't know what the ending will be. Not a clue. But do I need a real ending? Some clever twist, some final confrontation with the bad guy, some big reveal? Nah. I can just through in a beautiful metaphor and leave it at that. This is a literary story, so I can get away with an ambiguous ending. In fact, it will be considered more profound that way! Excellent.

The outline might seem so simple as to be useless, but in fact, it has revealed glaring problems. Reluctantly, I acknowledge that it's not just the ending I don't know. The details I thought would be easy to write about--because this all really happened--turn out to be more elusive than I thought. As I run through the story in my mind, turning real people into characters who are their own, different people, I realize there's much I don't know about them, about their lives, even about the disease that's killing the father in the family.

This won't be so easy after all.

3. Research
I can't avoid research after all, not even for a contemporary story based on my own experience. It's humbling. I realize how easy it is to stumble through "real" life only half-knowing things, and how this is not allowed in fiction.

There are two kinds of facts I need to research. One kind is easy to find. The name of a disease that will work for my plot. The medical particulars. Stuff like that. Fact facts.

Then there's the other kind of fact I need to research. This is trickier. How does it smell, how does it taste? How does it feel? Sensory details. Philosophies. Emotions. And what kinds of other everyday things can I weave into the story, things to stand in as metaphors without being painfully obvious and cliche? Not to mention just trawling for oddbits and curiosities to enrich the story, to try to light that spark, to try to wake the muse and warm the pot to molten inspiration.

4. Craft
There are certain technical questions I have to address before I can begin. Whose point of view will be used? A single narrator, a friend outside the family, or the alternating voices of the mother and daughter? Perhaps even the father? Unspecified omniscient? How long will the story be? Will there be formal breaks between the seven sections in my outline, or will I sew them together and disguise the seams from all but the truly discerning? Past tense or present? What word count will I aim for?

5. Heat
I lied. I can't write a story without my muse. I can't write without the white hot fever of inspiration. But inspiration can be stoked, like any fire. If the outline, research and craft decisions don't bring me to the point where I feel it, I go back to research. Or, I put the project aside, and go back to brainstorming. Yep, I start from scratch. But I don't throw away the work I've done on this story. I keep it, as a half-finished project. Another day, I might flip through my notebooks or files and find it, and that day might be the right day, the day I fall into a feverish heat of typing and finish it.

I have just one more secret.

Sometimes, even when I'm sure I don't feel the bell ringing, I pretend I do. If I've really done the research, I know the images I want to use, I know the characters, I know their actions. I just write that down. It's like like writing notes, but now arranged in paragraphs. I'm convinced it will suck, but I keep at it. I go through the motions. I KNOW it will suck. I keep writing. It's the worst piece of suck EVER.

As some point, I realize that I've completely gone off track from my outline...and yet, I've ended up with a story which is not half as bad as I feared.

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