What’s the Use of a Muse?

Like some writers, and people who pursue other creative endeavors, I use the term ‘muse’ to mean an embodiment of the concept of one’s own creativity.  To the ancient Greeks it must have seemed a supernatural phenomenon when some individuals produced poetry, sculpture, and music out of nothing, as if some deity were whispering guidance in their ears.  The process can still mystify us today when we encounter a great creative work and wonder how a mere human could have made it.  No wonder the term ‘muse’ has survived even into our scientific, rational era.  

Some writers have imagined the physical characteristics of their muse, even named it, and go so far as to speak to it, appealing to it for that spark of insight only the muse can offer.  Stephen King described his own muse, I think it was in his book On Writing, as a grunting, cigar-smoking old man.  I imagine my muse in a more conventional way, as a young Grecian woman with flowing robes.  She stands only about seven inches high, but is able to hover near my ear when she wants.

Here I’ll pause to offer a free idea to all you web entrepreneurs out there.  If piano students can have their busts of Beethoven to serve as inspiration, why can’t someone manufacture small figurines of muses for writers and other artists?  I wouldn’t underestimate the power of physical symbols to stimulate the desired mental activity.  If such a figurine was not too expensive, I’d buy one!

Every writer asked to describe his or her muse’s behavior would certainly list at least two major characteristics.  One is a perverseness with respect to summons.  My muse appears at the time of her choosing, not mine.  Pleading, wishing, praying, even sacrificial animal offerings leave her unfazed.  (Okay, I haven’t tried that last idea very often.)  I could be all set and ready to write, my materials before me in a well-lit and quiet room, several hours at my disposal, and the cursed muse will remain hidden.  But let me be somewhere without a notepad—say, taking a shower or mowing the lawn—then the whispering starts and I can’t shut her up.  Some of the finest prose ever imagined has been whispered to me at such times—trust me on this—only to be forgotten for lack of a pen and paper, and to remain forever unwritten.

The other behavioral trait of my muse is easy boredom.  A half hour or hour at a stretch is the longest stream of inspiration the muse will bequeath.  Moreover, the very project she was so excited about just a few days ago has become passé, no longer worth her time or interest.  She’s moved on to some other idea and demands I write about that.  Should I ever start writing ‘formula fiction,’ such as romance, mystery, or series books can often be, I think my muse would quickly grow bored with the formula.  She specializes in the planting of seeds, not the toil of watering, tending, or harvesting.

My muse craves the new, the different, and the untried.  Once, I noticed a call for horror stories to be part of an anthology associated with fish or fishing.  I, the writer who hated horror stories, quickly clicked elsewhere.  Silly me, thinking I was in charge.  My muse was turning the idea over and over, and wouldn’t let go.  Mere rational logic would not sway her.  My insistence that I disliked horror, had never written it, or read much of it–all those arguments meant nothing.  The result was my story, “Blood in the River,” which appears in the anthology Dead Bait.  I never thought I would write a romance story or a fantasy either, until the muse suggested the ideas for “Within Victorian Mists” and “A Sea-Fairy Tale.”  Often I’ve carefully outlined the plot for a story only to have the muse guide me in a different direction.  On occasion I’ve created a character intended to be minor, but the muse has other ideas and brings that character into the foreground.

So you can’t beckon a muse and expect her to arrive, and once she’s close it’s never for long.  How can any writer deal with that?  How does one channel that fleeting, inspirational energy into something useful?  Ah, there are ways, but they shall have to remain the subject of a future blog post.  So stay tuned!  In the meantime, feel free to contact me with comments.  With the occasional assistance of my muse, I remain…

Poseidon’s Scribe



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February 27, 2011Permalink

A Trip to the Idea Store

At the risk of upsetting beginning writers who agonize over figuring out what to write about, I’ll admit this is one problem I do not have.  Whatever other deficiencies I have as a writer, a lack of ideas is not among them.  I’m awash in ideas, flooded with them.  Not bragging, since it’s a curse in some ways.

Unfortunately, like some star baseball pitcher who’s a “natural” at the game but can’t pass on his technique to others because he can’t describe what he does, I’m not sure I can put into words just where my ideas come from.  For me, it’s just plucking from the Idea Tree—they’re free for the taking, and all around me.  You, on the other hand, might have to visit the Idea Store, and it will cost you.  I think I can at least give you the store’s address.

First, let’s clarify.  An idea is not a story.  An idea is not even a plot.  The idea for Moby Dick might have been something like, “I’ll write about a sea captain obsessed with hunting a particular whale.”  The idea for the Harry Potter series might have been, “I’ll follow the adventures and maturation of a young boy who’s attending a school for wizards.”  Both reasonably good ideas, but my point is that it’s not the ideas that make those books great.  The skill put into the writing of the books, the fleshing out of the ideas, matters much more.  So don’t think your idea has to be unprecedented, astounding, or unique.  Your story idea can be simple, mundane, overdone, even stupid, but if the story you write based on that idea is well crafted, it will sell.

I’ve found that most story ideas consist of two elements that I’ll call the ‘seed’ and the ‘twist.’  The seed is something really basic, perhaps something from everyday life, or something in the news, or something you read in a book or magazine.  For Herman Melville, his seed might have been the sea captain.  For J. K. Rowling, the seed might have been a boy going through school.

The twist is some adjustment you make to the seed, some new way of looking at it.  It’s where you examine the seed and ask, “but what if—?”  Turn the seed over in your mind and alter it in different ways.  “What if my sea captain was obsessed with a particular whale?” “What if the school was for educating wizards?”

Here are a couple of examples from my own writing.  For “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” the seed was a steam-powered ship.  The twist came when I realized that the power of steam was known in ancient times but never put to any use other than with amusing toys.  What if—?  For my story, “Within Victorian Mists,” I set out to write a steampunk romance, and I knew I wanted it set in the Victorian era.  I’d recalled reading somewhere that lasers were invented late; that is, the basic materials had been available earlier but nobody had hit on the concept, even accidentally.  Moreover, holograms are an extension of laser technology.  What if—?

Story ideas need not involve technology, of course.  Often the seed for a story is some previous proven story line by a historical author, or a successful genre.  The twist is simply to bring the story up to date, put it in a different setting, turn a tragedy into a comedy (or vice versa), or tell the same story from the point of view of a different character.  You can even take an event from a classic story that seems unlikely or too coincidental and make that event happen differently, then explore how that would turn out.

This idea of seeds and twists for story ideas is akin to the concept of TRIZ in engineering problem-solving.  Genrich Altshuller reviewed Soviet patent applications and realized that after a technological breakthrough occurred, he could predict the follow-on patent applications that would arrive.  They were all twists on the basic seed technology.  How many times have we seen this in the electronics industry?  Think of VCRs, PDAs, PCs, etc.  The first gadget to hit the market is large, boxy, and black, with rectangular buttons.  The follow-ons become smaller and smaller, then come in different colors and more stylish packaging.

Back to story ideas.  In a later post, I’ll talk about a technique for improving your creativity.  In the meantime, try taking some simple seed ideas and giving them a twist.  Write down your ideas, even the stupid ones, because they can often spark a good idea.  That list is what you just bought at the Idea Store for the price of a little thought.  Earlier, I said you can write a good story from a stupid idea.  That’s true, but it’s a low-percentage shot.  I suggest writing from your best ideas first.

Good luck, and feel free to write to the Scribe if this blog post worked or didn’t work for you.

Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 20, 2011Permalink

Why I Write

It would be better for you, the reader, if I could title this blog post, ‘Why You Should Write,’ since that would be more interesting and applicable to you.  However, it turns out I’m not as well informed about you as I am about me.  In hopes that one writer’s motivations may apply to someone else, I urge you to read on nonetheless.

The simple answer to why I write is that I cannot do otherwise.  The creative, story-telling impulse is too strong to resist; my muse screams too loudly when I don’t write.  In that manner, it is easier to write than to abstain.

All of that is true, but it wasn’t always so.  I didn’t always have a story to tell.  Even when I did, my doubts about writing outweighed my desire to do so.  Of doubts I had many.  How could I possibly write as well as the authors whose stories I read and loved?  How could I ever hope to convey ideas and provide entertainment in such a clever and skillful manner?  I understood that writing took time; could I spare that time?  I knew beginning writers got a lot of rejections; could I deal with them?

Further, I had not done well in English classes in school.  Enjoyed—yes; excelled—definitely not.  In college I majored in a branch of engineering.  Engineers are not known for their language skills.  An ability to write well is actually frowned upon, and could get you tossed out of the Engineers Guild.  (I’m kidding, of course–at least about there being a Guild).

So, despite a lack of writing skills, a lack of confidence in my English ability, and despite an inferiority complex when I compared myself to the world’s best authors, despite all those things, I still took up a pen and scribbled.  Why?

Looking back, I did have three things going for me.  First, I had a strong interest in reading fiction.  Loved it.  Devoured books, especially science fiction.  Second, I am creative by nature.  I delight in imaginative brainstorming, but not so much with other people, as brainstorming is normally done.  I seek to come up with solutions to problems that are unique and interesting to me.  Third, I’m one of those self-improvement nuts.  Phrased more positively, I was willing to spend the time trying to improve a new skill.  I’m willing to push on past minor failures along the way to achieving a goal.

These attributes didn’t pop up out of nowhere, of course.  I was influenced by my parents.  Much as Jules Verne gained a sense of precision and skill with words from his lawyer father, and a sense of romance and knowledge of human relationships from his mother, I too was a product of separate influences from my parents.  Thinking about it now, my own parents separately bequeathed me important attributes necessary to be a science fiction writer.  Thanks, Mom and Dad!

In summation it appears that, for me, the impulses to become a writer overcame the opposing factors (the doubts, lack of skills, etc.).  After that, like any hobby, the snowball effect took over and the habit of writing became self-sustaining.  I found I enjoyed writing the more I practiced it and the more I learned about it.  My critique group helped hone my skills and provided an encouraging atmosphere.  Eventually, I felt confident enough to submit stories to the marketplace.  Lastly, getting stories accepted and published provided the most powerful incentive of all to write more.

That’s why I write, and if you’re wondering if you could take up writing as a hobby or vocation, perhaps some of the items I discussed apply to you too.  More likely, your reasons will be different.  Did this blog post trigger some thought of agreement or disagreement?  Write to me here and let me know.

Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 13, 2011Permalink

What’s in a (character’s) name?

Here’s one weird thing about the way I write.  I can’t get started writing my story until the characters have names.  I might have fully outlined the plot, gotten the story clear in my mind, even come up with fleshed out personalities and histories for my characters, but without their names I can’t write the story.  In planning one of my stories, plot comes first.  As I’m outlining the plot, I’ll use character markers like Characters A, B, C, etc., or ‘Bad Guy’ or ‘Wise Old Woman,’ something like that.  But I’ve found when it comes to generating the prose, these markers won’t suffice.

Maybe that’s not weird.  Look at real life, and those things to which we give names.  We give our own babies names at birth or very shortly after.  We name our pets—the large ones–soon after obtaining them.  In a strange way, the name gives them their uniqueness, their personality.  Think of small pets like tiny tropical fish that often are not named.  Can they be said to have as much individuality as named pets?  Some people name their cars, and I contend that in some mystical manner they are imbuing their vehicles with a persona that doesn’t exist in unnamed cars.  Ships receive names after construction but before going to sea, and the naming itself is part of an elaborate ceremony.  Sailors have long considered it bad luck to sail a ship that lacks a name.

How do I choose names for my characters?  One rule is obvious; a name must be appropriate to time period and geographical setting.  Very few members of the Mongolian horde were named Trevor, I suspect.  The internet serves as a vast resource for coming up with realistic character names.  We’ll stay with our Mongol horde example, in case you’re writing about a single squad (called an arban, apparently) of the horde and you want to have plausible names.  Just typing ‘mongol names’ into a search engine comes up with plenty of sites with good examples.  Some sites pair the names with their meanings.  I do try to pick names with appropriate meanings, if the name feels right.

It’s a good idea to have interesting, distinctive names for your main characters and more plain names for background characters.  On the other hand, writers often give common surnames to main characters to convey a sense of a humble, common background, or give the character an ‘everyman’ feel.  Indiana Jones, for example, or many of the characters in the novels of Robert Heinlein.  If you do that, you might want to make sure the first name (or middle name) is unusual.

It’s also wise to avoid having any two characters whose names start with the same first letter, or the same sound.  Why risk confusing a reader?  Like most rules of writing, you can break this one.  Say you want to suggest a deeper similarity between two otherwise opposite characters.  Similar names can provide a hint of that, but you’ll have to go the extra mile in each scene to make it clear from context which character is involved so the reader doesn’t mix them up.  To take our Mongol horde example, you’ll need to use context to remind your reader that Mungentuya is the arban’s leader, and Munkhjargal is the young upstart who wants to challenge him.

As with other research, time spent choosing names is time not spent writing.  So you want to select your characters’ names wisely, but not take all day about it.  Remember, the object is to come up with a great story, not a list of perfectly suitable names.

On occasion I have picked a character’s name, started writing, and found later the name doesn’t work.  Sometimes changing a name is the right thing to do—and technically easy, using the ‘replace’ feature–but it always feels odd.  When you’ve built up an association of a character with a particular name it can be jarring at first to change it.  Still, if it must be done, like deleting a wonderfully written scene that just doesn’t help the story, then do it and get on with things.

As always, feel free to comment.

Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 6, 2011Permalink