Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere


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Character Weaknesses and the Strength of a Muse

Ran across this article today. What caught my attention was the title, or part of it: What’s Your Greatest Weakness?

Granted, the article is about job seekers (and no, if my boss is reading this, I’m not looking for another job. I like the one I have!) and the common interview question potential employers like to ask just to see how you answer. I almost dismissed the article as another standard how-to-shine-at-your-interview piece, until I got about a third of the way through it. I’ll let you read it. Come back when you’re done. (in the meantime, imagine the Jeopardy theme song playing)

My first instinct was to blog about how, as a writer, all of your characters should have weaknesses, especially the protagonist(s), but you know that already. I skimmed the article, and stopped. You know the spot if you read it (okay, I’ll wait for you to go skim the article. You’ll find the spot.). It’s that paragraph that starts with “Who kills a Quaker person?” Then I backed up a couple of paragraphs to get the intro to that statement. What struck me about that part of the article is how a person’s strengths can actually be weaknesses. Again going back to the article and the statement about the ill-begotten passing of Mary Dyer, I can see the strength of Puritan convictions being in truth the weakness that drove the assailants to kill someone who was likely just as devoted to her method of religious practice as the Puritans were to theirs.

Can you see it, yet? How a strength can be a weakness? We’ve seen this sort of thing play out all through history, even to the extent that Christians marched thousands of miles to Jerusalem just to kick the Muslims out because they weren’t Christian. Fast-forward from medieval times to the 21st century and replace Christians with radical Muslims, replace Muslims with everyone else, and replace Jerusalem with Syria and Iraq. The rest of the article is valuable as well, so don’t forget to read it, but it just got me thinking about characters and how we can use our characters’ strengths against them and the rest of the world.

Put another way, if your protagonist’s strength is being tenacious when investigating a crime, think about how that strength could go against her. Does her tenacity force her to follow a lead “into the lion’s den”? Does it mean even after she nails the criminal she keeps working on answering that one lingering question that no longer affects the case, and because she’s distracted she misses a clue on her new case? What about the field doctor who’s greatest strength is his ability to keep even the most grievously wounded soldiers alive? How could that come back and bite him or someone he loves?

Okay, now try this for fun. Think about someone you know–better yet, someone you admire for one reason or another. Now, create a character modeled on that person. List that character’s greatest strength; what is the one thing that character is known for in his circle of friends? Generosity? Loyalty? Humor? Kindness?

Okay, here’s where your muse’s strength comes in (didn’t think I’d get that in here, didya?). Think of something that character does, good or bad, because of his personal strength: rescue lab animals, spend time helping clean up after disasters, volunteer at a homeless shelter. How could that strength actually turn into a weakness? Is she so much against animal experimentation that the mice she releases infects the world with a plague–on purpose? Or does her rescue effort mean her sister’s fatal illness doesn’t have a cure? Is she behind a human trafficking ring operating under the guise of relocating disaster victims to locations where they need people (slaves of any sort)? Or does she discover she’s given a crime ring new territory? Is he secretly sterilizing homeless people of child-bearing/child-fathering age or killing them because they’re leeches in his mind? Or does he inadvertently create a rapist or gigolo who knows he can’t father any children and takes advantage of the fact?

Let your muse run wild with the possibilities. You may wind up with your next protag/antagonist who could create quite the storyline if you let him.

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Seeking Solitude

I have a confession. I like being alone.

Oh, I like socializing, too, but not to the extent a lot of people seem to. If I have no one to visit and nowhere to go on a weekend, I’m good with that. There have been times when I wondered if my desire for solitude was a bad thing. I just came across this article assuring me that it’s okay to spend time without anyone else around.

My mother was a nurse, with the accompanying crazy hours. When she wasn’t working she was constantly doing something, going somewhere, visiting someone. Even during her chemotherapy, when the first day after treatment was still a good day, she’d plan hours of errands to get done. I suppose she wanted to take advantage of the good day before the bad one, the one where she could barely function because of her reaction to the chemo drugs. I remember talking to her on the phone, listening to her list of “things to do”. I got worn out just thinking about them. I tried to encourage her to take it easy. LIke she ever listened to me…

It amazes me when I meet people who need to socialize to “recharge”. The concept is foreign to me. Part of me feels guilty at needing time alone, because my mother never seemed to. Don’t get me wrong; I do like spending time with family and friends, but not a lot of time (a lot of time being more than a couple of days). Even with my own family, I still enforce an hour of “quiet time” on weekends and holidays: an hour when the kids are either in their rooms or outside for an hour. This has been the rule since they were old enough to only need one nap a day (For reference, my children are 16 and 14 yrs old).

As for writing, time alone is mandatory, especially when I’m trying to write a first draft or revise. I can only get so far away from the buzz of activity in the house–I won’t get my own office until the kids leave for college. Maybe. My husband keeps threatening to build me a Rapunzel tower. I can’t wait, but by that time I’ll probably be too old to climb the stairs! When discussing writing spaces, writing articles and books suggest everything from writing at the library to finding a seat at a Starbucks to getting a hotel room for a weekend.

There’s something, though, about the comfort of being at home, so I’m disinclined to head somewhere else for the sole purpose of writing unless I’m also attending a writing conference or a reunion with my Writing Sisters. As long as the television is off, there is no teenage bickering, no loud music, and nothing else is demanding attention “right now” (dust and weeds can wait for an hour or two), I can hear my muse.

Do you need quiet to write? Or can you still focus if you are somewhere it isn’t quiet and there’s a lot of other things going on? Can you write at a Starbucks, with patrons constantly moving around? Or at a hotel, where the rooms are less than inspiring? How about at a park? Of all the other locations I could go to for the purpose of writing, a state or national park is probably the one I’d take advantage of more than any other. Now, if I could just read my computer screen outdoors and keep the bugs (mosquitoes, gnats, flies, etc) away, I’d be set.

Where do you go to write when you feel the need to just settle and focus? Where would you go to do your writing if you could go anywhere in the world? Okay, given that option, I’d vote for a log cabin deep in the forests of the Pacific Northwest (Minnesota or Wisconsin will work, too), where the air smells of the green trees, the loamy earth, and either the sea or a creek. I’d have a connection to the Internet (for research and backing up my writing), a meandering path to a “thinking chair” that overlooks a waterfall for those times I need to move around or just clear my mind, an easy drive so I wouldn’t have an excuse not to go there, and a nice fireplace for those chilly nights.

Don’t sell “mental” vacations short. In lieu of a real writing retreat, fifteen minutes of meditation about your dream writing spot may be just enough to settle your mind and jump-start the creative energy. Bring your muse along and let the words flow.


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Muses and Mondays

Welcome to Monday and the first day of the work week!

You may notice that your muse heads out early and stay out late on Sunday nights. Whether it is the prospect of being set aside for the work day or mental realignment for non-fiction instructional writing versus fiction telling-a-story writing, it seems like my muse abandons me for a bit. I was inspired until evening, and then poof! I was itching to write, but didn’t really feel I could focus on yet another revision of my contemporary fantasy novel. I needed my Muse’s help for that, and he was enjoying Happy Hour somewhere without me.

Instead I turned to critiquing a book passed to me by a family member. This self-published book (well, printed and bound at least) was written by a friend of his, and he wants honest feedback. It can be a great learning experience when you go through someone else’s writing and notice things that lead you to examine your own writing.

This book, however, is a bit of a challenge to critique in a way that will help the writer improve and yet not damage the core of the story. I hate to say it, but I wanted to throw the book across the room when I finally found out what sort of creature the main character was. I had been led on a merry journey with actions and activities that made little sense–until put into the context of the type of creature at the center of the story. Had I known up front what the main character was, my impression of the story would have been different. Note to other writers: tell the reader what the main character is up front if it isn’t a person. Please.

There are a lot of little things in the book that add up to big things that need revision to the point where the entire book really needs to be rewritten. How do I politely tell the author to overhaul his story? This was about the time my Muse decided to reappear, toss an arm around my shoulders, and remind me I was a more-experienced fiction writer who needed to provide guidance to a less-experienced fiction writer. I told him to sit his ass down and help me. He gave me a dirty look that said ‘Be nice’, but he stuck around.

And now it’s back-to-the-grind Monday. Don’t let the start of the work week put your inspiration or creativity on hold. Take five minutes here and there to generate ideas and let them percolate for the day. Even if you aren’t actively thinking about the creative process, somewhere your muse is juggling and shuffling those bits around. Especially if you have a commute, you have that time to check in with your muse to see the progress. Who knows, by the end of the day, when you’re crossing the threshold of your home and tossing your keys onto the counter, you may have the outline of your next awesome short story, poem, or novel.


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Energizing Muses

Autumn is coming. Judging by the sudden cool-down here in MN yesterday and today (and tomorrow), it’s Mother Nature’s way of slapping us across the face with a reminder of what is to come. At least we didn’t get the snow Calgary did (boy, I’m glad I don’t live in Calgary!). Summer started late for us, and now the danger of frost on Saturday morning just makes me sigh. Half the tomatoes in the garden aren’t even ripe yet.

Weather aside, the blustery outdoors is an excuse to stay indoors and write. Weather like this, at least this time of year when we know the hard stuff isn’t coming for at least a month yet, brings many muses to my doorstep. Leaves change, pumpkins and apples begin to appear at roadside stands, and the sky has a particular hue to it when it isn’t hidden behind leaden clouds.

In response to a request from an agent I pitched to last weekend at the workshop, I’ve been revising a book I’ve left alone for a few months. My muse was at my side pointing out the little things that needed revision, and I realized how much better I felt after actually getting some writing done. Perhaps that’s the sign you are a real writer, a sense of peace within that comes from putting words on a page, or refining the rough spots in a work you’ve already put many revisions into.

Do you find the changing seasons inspires a surge in creative energy? For me the ups and downs of those transitional times between seasons reminds me how different each one is. I find that flux to be an active muse. Each day can be so different, and it’s the final “deep breath” before the busyness of the holiday season takes over the calendar.

If you’ve hit a moment of stagnation in your writing, step outside one evening at or before sunset and just be still. Listen to the wind rattle the leaves. Look at the sky and notice the subtle changes that hint at the seasons to come. Smell the sweet loam of fallen leaves soaked in rain. Feel the breeze warm against your skin, then cold with the next breath. Close your eyes and just be. Your muse will hover beside you for a moment, then poke you in a bid to drive you to the keyboard to write.


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Of Writers, Writing, and their Muses

sambuchino 1

I attended the Minnesota Writing Workshop yesterday, a 9-to-5 event with what another workshop attendee described as “four keynotes” by Chuck Sambuchino, plus a critique panel for first novel pages. What a great event! As I recommended to a few fellow writers I met there, workshops and conferences are golden for inspiration and meeting other writers who are just as excited as you are about writing.

There are so many great things about attending a workshop or conference like this, especially if the event is big enough to attract writers you’ve never met before (as opposed to a regular group or club that offers extra time or a guest speaker on occasion). Contrary to popular belief, writers are fun people! We love to talk about writing, about our projects, and about each other’s projects. Everyone is there to learn and get inspired. We love to meet other writers, learn what they do, compare notes on how they do it, and get ideas we might want to use in our own quest to become published.

I met some wonderful writers, had lunch in an Irish pub (the fish and chips at Liffey’s are tasty), and listened in awe as Chuck Sambuchino spoke for almost the entire time. I mean, how many people can speak for almost seven hours straight without going hoarse and still garner laughter at the tail end of the day? We did have an hour and a half lunch break, during which time our little group of just-acquainted writers learned about inspiration and reasons to write that go beyond letting the characters out of our head. One fellow writer had a touching story about the children’s book she wrote for her brother. Gorgeous book, beautiful illustrations, and a story that touched me in particular because of what is happening in my real life at this point. Another fellow writer works for an organization that strives to provide safe shelter to orphans worldwide.

Whenever I’ve been in a group of writers, either a couple hundred at the UW Writers’ Institute in Madison, WI, or with my Writing Sisters, there a creative energy that coalesces, as though it isn’t just the writers of the group but their Muses as well that attend the gathering. I find myself longing to sit down and write after these events before that creative energy dissipates. My Writing Sisters have a particularly powerful effect in that department. It’s like the very act of coming together to cultivate our craft charges or recharges our muses.

So much great information was presented yesterday that I found myself just trying to keep up with the info dump. Now to wrangle all that great creative energy into my writing. If any writers out there want to recharge and learn something to boot, writing workshops and conferences are an excellent venue. I wish I could attend more of them, but the dollar only stretches so far. Penciling in next year’s Writers’ Institute in Madison on my calendar!


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WHEN I WRITE

Sounds like a muse to me!

keithgarrettpoetry

 

 

Close your eyes and see If a picture comes to mind,

A thought about something seen out in the world.

Could It be possibly a scent In the air that holds a memory,

Tasting a favorite food that reminds one of a place in time.

When I write there are many possibilities that come to life,

I might just close my eyes for a moment and breathe.

A title appears In my mind, words from feelings arrive,

Inspiration comes from different things that are explored.

When I write day or night the world belongs to me,

Whatever I write when I write Is share for you to read.

Keith Garrett

 

 

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Anticipating the MN Writing Workshop

Tomorrow I’ll be attending a writing workshop in St. Paul sponsored by the Twin Cities chapter of Sisters in Crime. I’ve long wanted to become more involved with SinC, but real life and my determination to actually focus on my writing on a regular basis, not to mention I live over an hour away from the Twin Cities, have nixed that idea. At least for now. Oh, and we can’t forget to take MN winter driving into account.

For anyone out there who is working on becoming a better, and published, writer, I highly recommend attending as many writing workshops and conferences as your time and budget allow. Living in MN has limitations–many of the larger writing conferences and workshops are just too far away (think east or west coast). The costs for many of the workshops and conferences are also budget-straining. Boy, I’d so love to go to any of the BIG writing conferences in Hawaii or Seattle, you know, the ones that have writers like Patricia Cornwall, Terry Brooks, or David Baldacci as guest speakers. On my list when I find an extra five grand lying around.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to it. I’ve found gatherings of writers bring so many muses to life it’s almost surreal. Inspiration abounds in these workshops and conferences, and I always find myself wanting to hide away to write and build a writing platform and design a book cover and more before the creative energy ebbs. Conferences and workshops are also opportunities to meet fellow writers, some of whom may be just the person you need to read through your manuscript, supply a blurb, or just commiserate when you get your 50th form rejection.

Pitching to an agent and thus bypassing the whole query letter thing is another opportunity offered at many workshops and conferences. If you’ve never written a query letter, believe me when I say it’s harder than writing a novel. I have writing friends who’ve had little success with query letters, but great response from in-person pitches. There is the anxiety factor of explaining your book in such an enticing way–in 90 seconds or less–so as to inspire the agent to ask for more, but I’m willing to deal with that over trying to write yet another query for my book.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Twitter feed: #minnww  if you want to check in.