Courting the Muse

Then, rising with Aurora’s light,
The Muse invoked, sit down to write;
Blot out, correct, insert, refine,
Enlarge, diminish, interline.
                   Swift, On Poetry

Most of us allow our characters more foreplay than we allow ourselves. I’m not talking sexual foreplay, but creative foreplay. Think about it. Do you plunk yourselves down to work! Do you sit, staring at a blank page or an empty computer screen, demanding your creative side to get busy and produce. Do you tackle your manuscript with a red pen and the attitude that you’re going to get through that entire sucker tonight and make it shine? Is this any way to really be creative?

I thought about this article for some months before I sat down to write it. I mulled over the title, made a few false starts, tried to force out a few paragraphs. Then, sitting in the hot tub up to my neck in bubbles and staring up at the stars after a very unproductive day, it all came together in that one key word–courting.

How many of us court our creative muses? Do we send our creative side flowers? Do we mutter soft flattery? Do we evoke an inviting environment with soft light and music? Do we honor any of the rituals of courtship–or even half of what we’d like on a first date?

For me, it’s more often a matter of, “Gee, muse, I’ve got an afternoon to get some work done, so get your tail in here and get down to it.”

Now, I’d toss any potential romantic hero out on his semi-colon if he showed up in my manuscript with that kind of charm. But I’m guilty of approaching my ‘work’ with that same knuckle-dragging grace. Too often, I’m under pressure to produce, or I’m trying to squeeze in that extra bit of writing into an already packed day, and so I demand roughly, “Strip baby!” as I try to get under the skins of my characters. Their usual response is to freeze up, and refuse to even participate in the story. Wit turns wooden and dialogue flows about as well as lumpy oatmeal pours.

To court…to woo…to try and gain the favor of. From court we get courtship, courtesy, and even courtesan. The word implies grace, irresistible charm, and facinating allure. But exactly how do you court your muse? How do you woo creativity so that you don’t waste precious writing time.

Well, for me, I’m better off wasting that time.

You see, I believe that for a writer, no time is ever wasted. Half of writing is figuring out what to write, when to start the story, who the characters are. Personally, ‘down time’ is as vital to me as breathing. Sometimes the bad writing, the stiff dialogue, the stuff I look at and go, “yuck!” that’s really just my muse screaming for some attention. She dries up like an old heifer and sulks at my poor treatment of her. So, I do as I would have done to me. I take her out for a date.

The nice thing is that she’s a cheap date (really cheap). I can lie in a park and stare at clouds. I can garden a little (meaning pull a few weeds and just poke around). Or I wander around a farmer’s market (with no intention of buying anything and every intention to sample the sights, smells and produce). Or I just sit somewhere. And drift.

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about this as taking an artist date. For me, it’s even less structured than that. It’s a matter of clearing away the rest of the world so I can get quiet enough to hear my muse. It’s a matter of soft lights, of sitting in a hot tub, of not having anything else to do. It’s not having the TV on, or a book open, or the radio playing, or a record sounding, or someone talking at me. It’s just wandering–sometimes physically and always mentally. Because that’s when my muse comes to me.

She comes on soft and darting feet, as elusive as a dandelion on a summer breeze. She speaks in whispers quieter than a moonless night. She stays long enough to laugh at mortal whims, and then she glimmers out of sight. And if I’m lucky–and have nothing else in my head–I see that what she leaves behind are golden rays of ideas. And these pour out of my fingers in such a rapid flow that my keyboard clatters late into the night.

That’s how this article happened. And all because I got up from my chain and keyboard and stopped trying to work. I started goofing off. I started wooing and stopped demanding.

It is called foreplay for a reason. Fore as in before, play as in have fun. Let’s face it, writing is not work. It’s hard. But it’s not work. Ditch digging is work. Writing is art. It’s black magic. It’s farce and tragedy, and bloody amazing that anyone can learn to speak to another soul so directly with print on a page and this clumsy, lovely, mysterious thing we call language.

So next time, before you sit down to write, waste a little of that precious time. Treat yourself, and your muse, to some creative foreplay. Don’t just slam, bam on the keyboard. Goof off a little. Let your characters roll around in your head without the encumbrance of shopping lists and chores. Ease yourself into it as if you were going out on a date with someone you greatly admire–and lust after. Apply a little courtship, but then, be warned–when the muse whispers to you, you must write.

Write at once. Not tomorrow, not later. Grab a pencil, switch on that computer. Get that hot flow of words onto paper before they dart away.

Writing Muscles

Fast writing is not a gimmick–there are some tips than can make any writer more productive.

More years ago than I like to mention these days, I started writing computer games. The deadlines cracked whips that could get a crew in a Roman galley up to speed for water skiing. Over the years, those deadlines have given me “writing muscles.” It’s like this–you don’t run the marathon without training for it, and you don’t do the 50-yard dash in under ten seconds without muscles that’d put a cheetah to shame. Well, a lack of training is all that’s keeping you from getting that 130,000 word book done in less than ten years or knocking out a story a week (the way Science Fiction great Ray Bradbury used to when he was building his writer’s muscles).

So, how do you get these muscles? Put away those weights. The exercises I’m about to give you happen only at your keyboard.

First–you are now an athlete in training. This means that you must PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR BODY. Frequent, small meals keep my mind sharp. I avoid fats and sugar, functioning best with starches, such as pasta, rice and very little protein. I go light on any alcoholic beverage and limit the caffeine, unless I’m facing a late-night, last-minute deadline. And I make sure that I get enough sleep. Facing a blank page or computer screen with a sleep-dulled mind is a great way to do Zen meditation, but not much else.

On your day off, you can dig into those chocolates and cookies and wine and live it up. But don’t be surprised if you find yourself not liking those ‘treats’ as much as you used to. Training quickly becomes habit–and you’re conditioning your body to like writing.

Next, establish a habit of “warms-up” that begin every writing session. Your main writing muscle is your brain, and you’ve got to give it a chance to settle into writing mode.

Warm up start on by writing something. So sit at your desk and write one page. Of anything!

Write a page from the book you’re currently reading. (This is a great way to limber up and subconsciously gain insight into ‘how does she do that’.)

Write a page of what’s going on in your head.

Write a page that describes any conversation you ever overheard.

Write a page that describes any person you ever met.


Each week, increase this goal until, first thing off, boom! You write five pages. This is a religious routine. Do it until it’s automatic. But these five pages do not count as your regular pages. These are your warm-ups.

Then, after you’re warmed up, look at your current project. Go over the last five pages you’ve written. You can only make minor edits–changing a word, correcting a sentence, fixing a misspelling, marking a place that needs more research. If anything in those five pages needs major work or makes you want to throw it out–don’t! Instead, write the word EDIT in big, bold letters and go on.

Now, to stretch your muscles. Your initial goal is not to do ten pages a day. Would you try to run ten miles without being ever running and doing well at a single mile? Your initial goal is to do ONE MORE PAGE each week than you consider productive and comfortable. Push past your comfort zone by easing past it. If you consider two pages a day good, set your goal to three pages a day. Keep pushing. Don’t say, “I’m a slow writer.” You become your labels–so start saying, “I’m a fast writer.” Don’t worry if what you write is good or bad–just write it. The time for editing is when you have something to edit.

Plan your training. If writing short romance is your goal, work those sprinting muscles. Once a week, write one entire short story. Yes, one story. The story can be any length. But you must write the entire story–beginning, middle and end. Write only the first draft. Write without thinking, “this is good” or “this is bad.” Just write a story. Don’t fret over characters or point of view. Use the characters from your favorite TV show. Rewrite that ending for the movie you saw and didn’t like. This is an exercise. No one’s going to see it, so just have fun! And next week write another story. Work on this story the same day every week, so that your mind starts getting ready. Do it on your worse day–if Wednesdays are usually unproductive, do your story every Wednesday. You are training your writing muscles, working them out, so that they become productive no matter what.

If you want to write longer fiction, your exercise is–write every day. And write only one book at a time. This is important. You are training for a marathon here. You need endurance. You need to learn how to start the a long course and finish it.

If you’re not used to writing every day, start by writing for five minutes every day on your book. (Everyone has five minutes, so no excuses here.) The next day, write for ten minutes. By the end of a week, you’ll be up to 35 minutes a day. Stay at that speed for a week, then boost it to one hour the next week, and so on until you’re working a minimum of two hours a day. You can get a lot done in two hours-and even more, if you’re fast.

That’s your second exercise. Even when writing long books, you still need sprinting muscles. So in addition to your regular time on your book, once a month you’re going to do the sprinting exercise. But with this small change–your goal is to write a ten page story in one day. That’s right–one ten page story. This can be any story–even a childhood fairy tale that you remember, or a story about what happened to you at the car wash last week, but you’re going to write it. The point is to show yourself that you can do it.

These days, I joke that I don’t have time for writer’s block. In fact, I’ve found two tricks to keeping my writing muscles loose and working every day. First, always stop in mid-sentence and mid-scene. (It worked for Hemingway, so it can work for you.) The other trick is that you must write something. No sitting and staring at an empty screen. If you can’t think of how to describe a scene, write dialogue. If you can’t think what the characters should say, write description and narrative. If you can’t think how to do a scene or what should happen, just write what you want to have happen. If this scene isn’t working, change character viewpoint or write about why it isn’t. If all else fails, outline. But you must write. You must write even if your head is empty. You must write even if it is only for the next five minutes…and then the next five minutes…and then the next five minutes. All those five minutes add up.

Just like your characters, you need motivation. Money is one of the best incentives I know to get any writer working–oh, that lovely cash. But a writer who hasn’t yet sold is missing this prime motivator–which is why you’re going to start paying yourself.

Set your pay according to what you can afford, anything from a dollar to ten cents per page. You must pay yourself once a week. And you must put your pay into a visible “piggy bank”–something made out of a clear plastic is perfect. Now if you don’t think that’s much money, add it up. For a 400 page 100,000 word manuscript you’ve earned between $40 and $400 dollars! Even if your thrifty soul screams at this, even if it’s a stretch to make the paycheck cover the bills, you must do this. You must pay yourself something in order to know bone-deep that you are making money! Pay is what makes you know that you can earn money with your writing.

There is one catch–you can’t spend a nickel until after you finish your first draft and do a second-draft edit to smooth all scenes. On the day you write THE END and you’ve removed all those “EDIT” notes you had left, that’s when you open up that piggy bank and celebrate. Spend the money on anything you want–a triple-scoop sundae, new clothes, a writing conference.

Make your writing place comfortably yours. Athletes need good equipment to compete. You don’t see Florence Joyner on the track in ratty cross-trainers with broken shoe laces. Get that pocket dictionary by your desk, buy yourself that wrist rest, make sure your chair and desk are at comfortable heights. This is an investment in yourself and your career. You don’t have to do this overnight. Start with cheep equipment and trade up as you get better and need better equipment.

If you don’t have a computer, make it a priority to get one. On a typewriter, 65 words a minute is my max. (and don’t even count the errors). With a computer, I can push 120 words a minute or more. Computers increase productivity. And they’re getting cheaper by the day–particularly the second-hand models. There’s no way I could produce as much work as I currently do without a computer.

When you take a vacation–or suffer an illness–ease yourself back into your training schedule. You’re an athlete making a comeback, remember. Nothing is more likely to cause a block than to think you’re hitting one because you normally produce ten pages in a week, only this week you barely got two done. When that happens, back up in your training program. Go back to basics. You can strain your writing muscles by working too hard when your out-of-shape.

In each writing session give yourself short breaks. The key word here is short. Get up, walk outside, stretch your back, have a glass of water. Then get back to work. You’ll be more productive for it. I have about four to six good hours of work in me, but I spread that out over eight to ten hours. Learn what your own pace is–watch how you work on the most productive days and copy that pace to make every day just as productive.

There are other techniques you can use–most of them you’ll discover by just observing how you like to work and customizing your training program to work for you. Just remember one thing–a muscle gets stronger with use. Your goal is progress. It’s no good if you spend all day exercising, but only do it once a month. Sure, you get some benefit, but you’re not building long-term muscle. Same goes for writing. It’s a lot harder to write when you don’t do it very often. And, by pushing yourself for a little more each time you flex those muscles, you’ll soon wonder why you ever thought it was so hard just to write a few pages.

Plotting from Character

We’ve all read it (and written it)–that scene where the heroine does something really stupid because the plot needs her to be at risk. Or what about that moment when you can’t think what happens next–say, right after the heroine and hero make love for the first time–and all you can come up with is them bickering over a misunderstanding because you need conflict.

Contrived. That’s how those scenes read. But there’s a better way to create a tighter, more believable story. By plotting from character.

To do this, you create the action (or beats) for your story from the inside out. Your characters will come across as well motivated, and this’ll give you some great plot twists because they come from character not cliché.

To start on the inside, start at the deepest point: for every character in your story (hero, heroine, secondary folks and villains) find out that person’s core need. This goes beyond a tangible goal, such as to be rich. This is what Debra Dixon in Goal, Motivation, Conflict calls a motivating force. For example, maybe the heroine needs a place to belong, because she grew up with an alcoholic father and her parents’ divorce when she was twelve left her feeling she didn’t fit in anywhere. As you can see, when you identify this core need, you also need a reason for how it arose.

Orson Scott Card in Character and Viewpoint recommends that when looking for motivations for your character’s core need discard the first two or three ideas. These impulses pop up because they’re overused–you’ve seen them a lot. As in, the hero doesn’t want to get married because a woman betrayed him. Instead, stretch a little.

Maybe you start with a hero betrayed by a woman–but how did he end up with a woman who’d dump him? Maybe he’s deeply insecure due to having grown up short and fat (before he shot up to six foot and trimmed down), so he picks women who’ll leave him because it reinforces his self-image. Or maybe he had a repressive childhood and flaky women represent a freedom he craves–but they also leave him. Or maybe he grew up a foster kid and has thick walls about commitment, so women end up “dumping” him because he’s not emotionally available.

As you dig deeper, you’ll get a more complex character. This means a stronger plot. An important factor is that core needs developed in early years always resonate the strongest with readers, creating the most sympathetic characters.

Once you have the core need and why it’s there, now set up a potential mate who can’t provide that need, but who is still attracted to that person and by that person.

Let’s pick up with that heroine who wants a house because of the ‘belonging’ it represents. This means we need a house in the story. And we need to hook her up with someone who doesn’t want to belong. So how about that hero who’s looking for freedom (and has been looking for it in flaky women who leave him). Give them both a house–a join inheritance–and now they’re ready to clash. She wants it for a home. He wants the money from it for the freedom it’ll buy him.

Now we have internal and external conflict going–and the start of a plot. Time to go back to your characters (instead of to outside situations or actions).

Do your characters recognize their needs and motivations, or are these unacknowledged?

Maybe the heroine knows she wants a house–does she know why? Let’s say we go with her knowing she wants to belong–how do we add conflict? Have her hate this weakness. She’s independent, strong, and successful–and this need irritates her. It’s a weakness. Now she’s in conflict with herself.

What about if she doesn’t know she has this need? How to increase the pressure? Maybe she has trouble explaining her attachment to this house–it’s only a feeling. And this embarrasses her. The hero’s frustrated with her lack of communication, and she resents him pushing her for answers.

Notice that either approach creates conflict, but also creates two different people. That’s going to mean two different stories. Make your choices based on what works for you. Repeat this with all your characters, but particularly focus on your main characters.

Just as you think about what’s going to keep your hero and heroine apart, what personality traits are going to pull them together? Go beyond he’s hot and she’s sexy. These two need to click emotionally, mentally and on levels beyond physical.

Maybe she makes him laugh–she’s spontaneous without being a total flake. That’s a hint she’s got the potential to satisfy that basic need of his–but there’s a journey past his baggage to get to a relationship that works.

For her, maybe he’s the version of her father she remembers from before her childhood fell apart. Maybe she gets a little swept up with his dreams. Again, the reader need hints–not clubs over the head, hints–that somehow these two can satisfy the basic need in each other. Or perhaps the character will grow past this need.

Keep layering. Add traits that are strengths and ones that are weaknesses, make them compliment and contrast to the other person. Maybe he’s good with fixing things–nice potential here to have his shirt off as he hammers nails–but he’s short tempered. Maybe she’s patient and creative, but procrastinates. Can you start to see scenes for how these traits clash? Or work together? Use these characteristics to jot down scene ideas of how you’ll show these traits in action–that’s story.

Four things are helpful in plotting this way:

1) Give every character a secret. This may or may not come out. Either way, it shapes the character. This could be a secret fear, sexual fantasy, hidden lie, or a guilty pleasure.

2) Leave room for characters to surprise you. If a character goes off in some direction, let ’em. It’ll keep the writing fresh for you and the reader.

3) Focus the story on one character’s specific growth. In a romance, both the hero and the heroine will have to move from a person for whom a relationship is not possible. However, one character will have the greatest growth–that character should be the focus of the book. Build the story around that person.

4) Know your main characters’ sexual histories. Your hero and heroine need to be compatible sexually, so it’s good to know how they complement each other, and how there might be conflict in experience, comfort zones, and willingness to experiment.

With all this brewing, you also need a clear goal for each character. Something that connects to that core need you found. Character goals must put the two characters in conflict, but there are two approaches.

Either have the goals be opposite–she wants to keep the house, he wants to sell it, or she wants a family, he wants no responsibility, and so on. Or give them the same goal and make the conflict come from each person’s approach to achieving it. As in, they both want to sell the house, but he’s knocking out walls while she’s trying to paint them. Or her plan for a family is no plan at all, while he’s got it mapped out with travel for five years, then marriage, a house, and two kids spread three years apart. This is a great way to create sizzle because it seems as if the complimentary goals ought to work, but they keep clashing.

With your characters developing, now we’re ready to shape the scenes to give us the four main points of the book. You’ll need the first turning point, mid-point, third turning point (sometimes called the third act dark moment), and resolution (where the main character realizes that he or she has changed). In a romance, the resolution is also where the reader sees that the hero and heroine have moved to where a deeper relationship is possible.

This is a good time to play the “what if” game.

Two simple rules–start every sentence with “what if.” Then think of the worst thing that could happen to this person and jot it down.

What if the heroine has her sense of not belonging thrown into her face by her being…fired…asked to leave her favorite club…ostracized by the local community?

What if the hero has his freedom taken from him by being…thrown in jail for violating an obscure city law…saddled with a house that can’t be sold due a sudden drop in the market…faced with a baby that’s dumped on him?

This is where you bring in outside events and actions to bounce the “what ifs” off your characters’ core needs and goals. Come up with situations to strip away every defense a character has–pound away at their needs. Now is the time to layer on external conflict to increase the internal conflict you’ve been creating with character development.

Use the “what ifs” that resonate with you. The ones that make you chuckle or make you think ‘I can’t do that to that poor person.’ Test each plot point against the questions of would this person really do this, think this, feel this way?

As you jot down scenes and continue plotting, keep building on your characters’ feelings, actions and reactions. Stay true to your characters, be honest with them, respect them, find something to like in each of them, find something shameful, find something to love. Trust your characters. Let them tell the story they want to tell.