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Category: Writers

The muse

A gift from the muse can be a two edged sword — wonderful and dangerous.

Some writers start with a scene in their head — a gift from the muse — and no idea what it’s about or where it will go from there. They will write the scene down and push on, trying to work out what the story is about. This can work brilliantly, but it can also be a source of much angst. A writer I know often starts this way, then gets a few chapters in and wails, “I’m stuck!”

And that’s where the real work of writing starts — working out what your story is about, and how to make it work. This is the problem for most  “pantsers” — people who write (or plot) by the seat of their pants — or as some people call it “writing the discovery draft”, where the writer writes the full draft to discover what the story is about.

I, too, often start with a gift from the muse. There are days or nights, when I’m drifting off to sleep or slowly waking in the morning in a semi-dream state, and I will find a scene unrolling in my head, almost like a movie, with dialogue and all. I’ve learned to write those scenes down and to this end keep a large notebook by my bed. It can end up as three or four A4 pages or more, and will often contain  long dialogue exchanges.

The times I haven’t written them down — usually because it was such a brilliant idea that I knew I wouldn’t forget it — it’s gone by the next day, even within an hour or two. All that’s left is the conviction of its brilliance and the frustration with myself for not writing it down at the time. 

Sometimes what comes is a scene or dialogue exchange from the characters in the book I’m working on, and sometimes it’s a scene completely out of the blue, where I have no idea what it’s about or who these people might be. This last doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it has usually sparked a book or even a series.

And some of the scenes or dialogue exchanges I scribbled down in my notebook are almost identical to the final edited scenes in the books. Here are some examples:

a) The ballroom scene in Gallant Waif. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know it comes toward the end — it’s the heroine’s black moment, and it’s a scene that people always mention when they talk to me about that book. I started with that scene in mind, and worked backward to decide where the actual book would start.

b) The scene in The Perfect Rake where Prudence first meets Gideon, and thinks him someone else. That book sparked a series.

c) The scene where Harry in His Captive Lady, sees Nell riding on the back of a wagon in the rain, and gives her his hat.

d) The scene in To Catch a Bride where Rafe finally captures Ayisha. All I knew from that initial scene was that was here was a very cool, uptight, elegant regency rake teamed with a spitting, fighting, furious little guttersnipe. And the combination made me smile.

e) The scene in Bride By Mistake where a young soldier finds a young girl being attacked and saves her. And then doesn’t know what to do with her, because he can’t leave a thirteen year old to fend for herself in a war zone.

f) The scene in The Autumn Bride where Abby first meets Lady Beatrice. The scene was about a girl (who I knew was a good person) climbing through a window to find something to steal —she was desperate and this was her first time — and instead of some small object to steal she found an aristocratic old lady in a desperate situation. This sparked a series.

There are more — in writing this I’ve realised how many times this has happened — but you don’t want to read a list of my books and how the muse helped me with each. These posts are about your writing and how to get started — and keep moving. 

A gift from the muse is not a random accident — you can train the muse to appear on command. Or at least to turn up regularly. 

The thing is, you don’t have to be wildly lucky to get these gifts from your muse  — I believe any write can develop a state where it happens regularly, but you have to work at it. It’s partly about allowing yourself to dream, and partly about developing a habit, and in this I’m going to encourage you to follow the advice of Dorothea Brande — or Julia Cameron if she’s your preference. I go with Dorothea because she was first, and I found her book early in my writing career. 

Dorothea Brande was a writer and writing teacher in New York in the 1930’s. She wrote a slender little volume called Becoming a Writer — and it’s still in print today, which shows you how relevant her advice still is. If you’re interested in the quick and easy version of how I “follow Dorothea” there’s an article on my website you can read.

Dorothea Brande talks about training the muse to perform on command, and lest you imagine its some magical mystical airy-fairy way approach, the tone of her book reminds me a little of a dog trainer’s instructions. ;)  She’s very down to earth. But, she says, follow her method and the magic will happen. And it does.  

Try the method I outline on this page, and see how  you will gradually get better at tuning into your muse. And eventually having her turn up at your command. I’ll talk some more about this  process next week.

Finding The Bones of Your Story

Get Writing, Part 3
 (Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.)

Finding The Bones of Your Story
(That’s my Milly, who loves finding bones of any sort)

Okay, we’ve battled the dark forces of procrastination and perfectionism (and for some of us the battle is won but the war continues) and we’ve started our story.

Do you plunge in with joy, or are you a prowl round the edges type, examining your idea from every angle before you start? People are always asking writers whether they’re a plotter or a pantser — I like to say I’m both. I don’t usually have the story worked out in advance (though I often wish I did) but I have a vague idea of where it’s headed, and I plot obsessively—all the time— while I’m writing.

I plot and replot, refining this thread, clarifying that conflict, pulling apart the opening so the story starts at a better angle, going back over a scene to give it a sharper edge, cutting out other scenes because while I thought I knew what the main conflict was when I started, I now know what it really is. And usually I write the final version of the start when I’ve finished the whole book — because then I know what my story is.

But every writer is different. And I don’t know about you, but my writing process is constantly evolving. I’m always up for trying new things and I love learning about how other writers work.

Some writers start with a situation. A “what- if.” 

Ask yourself a question or a problem that isn’t easily solved or answered. Starting with a “what if” can really help you set up a strong premise for a story.

eg. What if a man who didn’t want to get married could only inherit a fortune if he got married? What are his options?

1) Pay a woman to marry him and plan to divorce later? That’d work in a contemporary story. Not so much in a historical, where divorce wasn’t easily obtained. But what if he thought he could get the marriage annulled? And was wrong. (I used this in Bride By Mistake)

2) Marry a dying woman? That’d work, too. But what if she didn’t die? (I used this one in a novella called The Mistletoe Bride, part of a Christmas anthology called Mischief and Mistletoe.)

3) In a temper, vow to marry the first eligible woman he sees. (I used this in The Laird’s Vow, and Georgette Heyer used it in Friday’s Child.)

Brainstorming further options for your “what-if” can give you a range of choices. Choose the one you think has the strongest and most emotional conflict potential.

Sometimes a “what-if” has become so popular that it has become a trope.


Some writers begin by deciding on the trope they’re going to explore— in romance  a trope might be; convenient marriage, beauty and the beast, friends to lovers, amnesia, bad boy/good girl, etc. You get the idea. There are plenty more.

Tropes exist because they are hugely popular with readers. Each trope brings with it certain reader expectations, and understanding how and why the trope works, and why readers love a particular trope is important.

In some cases a trope can help you with your plot — for instance in a “secret baby” story there will be a scene where the hero first discovers he’s a father. Sometimes it’s when he first meets the child, in other cases, the first meeting of the child is another scene. For “pantsers” this can help you work out some of the scenes in your plot.

On the other hand, know that if you’re writing a “convenient marriage” story, your readers will have read many, many stories with that trope — so how can you make your story fresh, fun and different?jewelled skull

Try to work out a way of surprising the reader; a good surprise planted in the middle of a beloved plot is a delight.

Many writers start with characters. For me, a story only has legs once my characters are on the page, talking and interacting as if they have a life of their own.

Sometimes I’ve chosen a trope and a situation but the characters simply would not come at it. “I wouldn’t do that,” they’ll mutter. They’ll become wooden, sullen, lifeless. The solution—change the characters or change the plot.

Sometimes all that’s needed is a name change. Sounds bizarre, I know—I mean, a rose by any other name smells as sweet—right? Not in writing, at least not for me. A few chapters into an early draft of The Autumn Bride, I realised my heroine was a bit priggish and righteous. I hated her. I changed her name to Abby and a new heroine sprang to life, warm, courageous and loveable.  The same thing happened in Tallie’s Knight — she was called Serena in an early draft, but she wasn’t a Serena, and when I changed her name to Tallie, she revealed herself as a quite different character and came alive on the page.

And then sometimes it’s just a gift from the muse. But more of that —the muse, and how to manage and encourage her — next time.
Until then, keep writing.

Next week: The muse
Previous posts in this series:
Get Writing , Part 1 – Danger, Will Robinson
Get Writing , Part 2 – Procrastination, Perfectionism and Getting Unstuck

Procrastination and Getting Unstuck

Get Writing part 2  (Part 1 is here)
Procrastination, Writing Anxiety and Getting Unstuck

Different people deal with procrastination in different ways. Some writers I know have bought a program that blocks them from internet access for a set time. Others unplug the modem and give it to someone else, with strict instructions not to give it back until a certain amount of work has been done. I know people who do all their writing on a computer with no internet access, in a different room from the computer with internet. 

Some take themselves off to write in public places, in cafes and libraries and places like that. That’s me, and I’ll talk more about that in a minute.

It’s easy to blame the internet for habits of procrastination, but sometimes the cause is a deeper writing anxiety. If you’re anxious about your writing and have no internet, you’ll still find other things to distract you – a burning desire to scrub tile grout with your toothbrush. Followed by an urgent need to go to the supermarket and buy a new toothbrush.

Procrastination and Perfectionism
Sometimes procrastination is about perfectionism—your subconscious telling you that you can’t start until you have the perfect opening sentence, or until you know exactly what this scene is about, or what that character is going to say. Or maybe you’ve started, but you don’t want to write rubbish, and everything you’ve written in the past five minutes is rubbish.

It’s a battle. But you know, often the hardest thing is just to start.

Don’t worry about the first line – most of what you write at the start will change as your story starts to grow and become more dimensional, and the more you write, the more you’ll ask yourself the kind of questions that will let you uncover your character’s secrets and push the story to a deeper level. Just write.

Don’t worry about writing rubbish. Writing is like a muscle — it can get a bit stiff without regular use. Sometimes you have to write a pile of rubbish before the good stuff starts to flow. Accept it. It’s all part of the process.

Try Writing by Hand When I’m stuck, I go to my local library, and I write by hand in a large spiral bound notebook. Research has shown that the hand/brain connection works differently — is more immediate with handwriting, than a keyboard and screen, so for me it helps get the words flowing quicker and often better.  I have a rule that I’m not allowed to leave the library until I’ve written three pages. That works out around 1,000 words.

But usually I write more. If I’m really stuck, I will start by asking myself questions about my character. e.g. What just happened in the scene before? Has it complicated things for your character? What’s s/he worrying about? What might s/he do next? The questions, of course, are different every time, but that one about what s/he’s worrying about is particularly useful and can crop up at any time during the manuscript. 

I write the questions down, and answer them in writing as well. Sadly, they don’t count as part of my three pages, but what usually happens is that in answering a question, I’ll find myself writing screeds of dialogue, and lo! the next scene is unrolling.

Sometimes it’s not the next scene, but a future one, or one that should have come earlier, and I realize that’s why I was stuck — I took a wrong turn in the story.

Whatever, I find that taking myself away from home, and writing by hand, almost always gets me unstuck and the story moving again. The other benefit is that when I go to type it up, I edit as I go. 

So try writing without fear or perfectionism — and remember the famous Nora Roberts quote: “You can fix a bad page but you can’t fix a blank one.”

 Next Week: Get Writing Part 3, Finding The Bones of the Story

Last Week: Get Writing Part 1