Muses Aren’t Real, and Now is Always the Best Time to Write

Standard

FountainPen

“Writing a book is an adventure,” wrote Winston Churchill in 1949. The man knew a thing or two about writing. He wrote four bestselling works of nonfiction and a novel before he turned 26. Never one to tackle anything in a half-hearted manner, he completed his first book (85,000 words) in roughly two months. There were some nights he wrote so long and hard, his hand cramped to the point where he could no longer hold a pen.

Why mention this? Because Churchill, in my mind, exemplifies the writer’s discipline at its very best. He wanted to write, and so he did. There was no waiting around for inspiration or searching for the muse. There was simply a desire to produce.

Like my favorite historical figure, I don’t believe a muse is necessary when it comes to writing. Actually, I don’t even believe in the muse, nor do I believe in waiting for inspiration to strike. You can wait for that wonderful moment of clarity, when all your thoughts coalesce into a glorious narrative that’s ready to spill forth on the page, but you might end up waiting a long time.

Search the web, and you’ll find plenty of blogs and articles offering tips on how to summon your muse. The time spent reading such advice could be spent tackling a blank page. Writing is all about discipline. If you want to write something, you have to sit down and do it. Such a pragmatic view might be blasphemous to some. “You can’t force or hurry art,” one might argue. Frankly, I don’t approach my writing as high art; I approach it as a job.

This less-than-romantic attitude is, in part, the result of my background. I’m a journalist by trade, having spent more than a decade working on daily newspapers. I took great pleasure crafting well-honed stories under tight deadlines. Also, the fact I don’t write fulltime might have something to do with my attitude. I have a “day job” to pay the bills. My writing-and-research time is limited to several hours on the weekends and a few precious hours each night after my wife and kids have gone to bed. I don’t have time to sit around waiting to feel inspired.

All the inspiration in the world doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t buckle down and force yourself to put words on a page. Waiting for the muse to send a message, is—in my opinion—a delay tactic, an excuse not to do the hard work. Mind you, this is not to say I’m a writer without influences. As a non-fiction author, I’m influenced by Cornelius Ryan, Antony Beevor, Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, William Manchester, and Rick Atkinson—historians who relate history not in dates and facts, but compelling narratives that rival the best novels. In my early years, when I thought I might write fiction, Stephen King’s command of story and pacing had a huge impact.

But the one writer whose influence has remained constant throughout the years is Ian Fleming. This might seem strange for one who writes the sort of books I do, but I’ve always admired Fleming’s straightforward approach. He honed his writing skills as a reporter for the Reuters News Agency, learning to write fast and well. As an author, he tackled his books with a journalist’s discipline—not waiting for inspiration or the whisperings of a muse, but working feverishly to get the words out.

Fleming was a man of habit. Once he established his writing routine, he stuck with it and never deviated, writing for three hours every morning—no excuses. He knew the importance of getting a story out quickly. Here’s what he advised a friend who was contemplating writing a book:

You will be constantly depressed by the progress of the opus and feel it is all nonsense and that nobody will be interested. Those are the moments when you must all the more obstinately stick to your schedule and do your daily stint . . . Never mind about that brilliant phrase or the golden word, once the typescript is there you can fiddle, correct and embellish as much as you please. So don’t be depressed if the first draft seems a bit raw, all first drafts do . . . Don’t let anyone see the manuscript until you are very well on with it and above all don’t allow anything to interfere with your routine. Don’t worry about what you put in, it can always be cut on re-reading.

Nothing about muses or inspiration there. “Stick to your schedule and do your daily stint” is what he says. That, I think, is the best writing advice one can give.

Our time on this planet is a finite thing, so if you want to write—just do it. Time waiting to feel inspired or searching for your muse is time wasted. If inspiration is something you really need to get started, just think how great it will feel to hold that completed manuscript in your hand.

 

Stephen King On Writing a Good Opening Sentence

Standard

stephenking

Stephen King is one of two authors—Ian Fleming being the other—who made me, when I was thirteen, want to become a professional scribe. While cruising around online the other night, I found a piece King wrote last year for The Atlantic, in which he details the importance of a good opening line. You can read the article here in its entirety—but here’s a glimpse at what he had to say:

There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line. It’s a tricky thing, and tough to talk about because I don’t think conceptually while I work on a first draft — I just write. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar.
But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.
How can a writer extend an appealing invitation — one that’s difficult, even, to refuse?
We’ve all heard the advice writing teachers give: Open a book in the middle of a dramatic or compelling situation, because right away you engage the reader’s interest. This is what we call a “hook,” and it’s true, to a point. This sentence from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice certainly plunges you into a specific time and place, just as something is happening:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

Suddenly, you’re right inside the story — the speaker takes a lift on a hay truck and gets found out. But Cain pulls off so much more than a loaded setting — and the best writers do. This sentence tells you more than you think it tells you. Nobody’s riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket. He’s a basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who’s going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious.
This opening accomplishes something else: It’s a quick introduction to the writer’s style, another thing good first sentences tend to do. In “They threw me off the hay truck about noon,” we can see right away that we’re not going to indulge in a lot of foofaraw. There’s not going to be much floridity in the language, no persiflage. The narrative vehicle is simple, lean (not to mention that the book you’re holding is just 128 pages long). What a beautiful thing — fast, clean, and deadly, like a bullet. We’re intrigued by the promise that we’re just going to zoom.

The rest of the article is worth checking out, so stop hanging around here!