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14 October 2008 @ 06:36 pm
On inspiration  
I get a lot of questions about writing and questions about inspiration make up the bulk of them. It seems there are a lot of writers wandering around waiting for the muse to descend in a flood of golden light and getting PO’d that it isn’t happening. These sort of emails:

“I lose my inspiration after the first few chapters. How did you stay inspired writing these books?”

"How do I make myself sit down and write and not get distracted?"

“what's a good way not to lose interest while you write? or for the strength of your writing not to fade?”

“Every time I’m in the middle of a book I get a new idea and I want to work on that instead even if the other idea isn’t as good.”

Always leave me thinking: yes, well — welcome to being a writer. How do you stay inspired? You don’t. How do you stay in love with the book you’re writing? You don’t.

It’s easy in the beginning. The book idea is fresh and new and the characters seem appealing and the story is one you want to tell. Then you dig in and round about chapter four or five you start realizing that nothing is happening, or that what your characters are doing doesn’t make any sense, or that you’re telling the whole story from the wrong point of view.

At that point the characters and story stop feeling fresh and new and shiny. They have become problematic. They are no longer the lovely new sweater hanging in the closet that you can’t wait to wear, but are instead the wrinkly old sweater that has soup on it that you should probably take to the dry cleaner. And you want nothing more than to take the whole project and bin it and start a new project that seems like fun, because now you are not having any.

Now I am not sure this is the same thing as ‘writer’s block.’ To me writer’s block has always meant staring at a blank piece of paper with absolutely no idea what you want to put on it. This is more that stage of writing where you feel like you had a party but the fun bit is over and now you have to put all the trash in bags and clean the Silly String off the ceiling. The party was fun. The cleanup bit is not.

I have a few mental exercises I use to try to work through this part (which extends pretty much from a third of the way through the book all the way to the end, and also the editing process.) If I’m stuck on a scene I figure it’s usually because I’m approaching it from the wrong angle so I try to visualize other angles. But mostly it’s just grim pushing through. Like strapping on lead weights and slogging through the snow, no end in sight. You set yourself word counts for the day or whatever and you just keep going. Which is not to say that some parts won’t still be fun. They will be. But you may have to do a lot of slogging to get there.

So how do you force yourself to do it? Determination. The same way you force yourself to do anything — go to the gym, learn to speak Russian, climb Mt Kilimanjaro. Some things take hard work and determination to complete; novels are one of those things. Learning to force yourself to work on your writing is not appreciably different from learning to force yourself to do anything else.

Which is where I think the whole narrative of inspiration comes in, and is ultimately unhelpful. Aspiring writers who ask this sort of question often believe (because they have been told it) that inspiration is like a golden light shining directly into your head and filling you with ideas and energy and mystical whatsit. They feel it should light up your fingers and send them speeding over the keyboard. They figure the story should be like a movie that plays in your head. And they figure that if this isn’t happening, there must be something wrong.

But there’s not. I don't know any writers who talk about how inspiration comes to them in a silvery shower that makes their writing feel effortless, but they would probably get punched the head by other writers if they did. We don't truck much with that stuff (mostly we spend a lot of time complaining about how badly things are going writing-wise, and how our stuff sucks more than everyone else's. It's a misery one-upmanship thing.)

But if I am not inspired when I write, people will be able to tell, you say. No, they won't. I remember one writer who famously said something along the lines of “Some things I write for love, and some for money, and nobody but me can tell the difference.” In the same way, no one but you will be able to tell which parts of a book came easily to you and which parts you sweated blood over. Sure, inspiration comes sometimes — a sudden great idea you can’t wait to write down — but it’s not often and usually at inopportune times when you don’t have a pen. And you have to learn to treasure those moments, because they are rare,, and in between them are long stretches of slogging.

As Justine just said: "Ideas are not the hard part, making yourself sit down and write is.". That’s why it’s work and they pay you (ideally) to do it. And while it may seem depressing to be told that there is no secret way to access inspiration (like, “Go to this address in Cleveland and knock on the door and tell the guy that the red fox barks at midnight, and he will GIVE YOU THE INSPIRATION”), I hope it’s also helpful to think that you don’t need to. That everyone gets tired in the middle, or feels bored with what they’re writing, or wishes they were doing something else, and that, to quote Maureen in a post whose theme is not dissimilar to this one, “even the best books like to REPEATEDLY PUNCH YOU IN THE FACE while you are working on them.”

But the thing is, just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. There’s fun to be had even in the slogging bits. Because inspiration, when it does come, doesn’t come from outside of you. It comes from the work that you do, from the process itself. So the truth is, you don’t need to be inspired to write. But you do need to write to be inspired.
meandering: Base - bookseffervescent on October 14th, 2008 10:54 pm (UTC)
Could be personal identification - after all, if you've wanted to be a writer since you were six and so have I, then when you announce that I can go OMG I am so much like her, of course I shall be published! ;)

Some people just like knowing everything there is to know about authors, etc, though.

And thanks for writing this - it comes at a particularly good point for me, when I've been wondering why, if I have so many ideas, I find it hard to just sit down and do it. This is a good reminder that it's not necessarily going to come easily.
Cassie Clarecassandraclare on October 15th, 2008 01:48 pm (UTC)
I suppose it is just that my personal story about wanting to be a writer is boring and I can't imagine why anyone wants to know it. But other people probably have more interesting ones. :>
bacchanaliangrl on October 14th, 2008 10:58 pm (UTC)
Yeah, you pretty much described my writing angst perfectly.

Random person who's read my stuff "You're so awesome!"
Me: "I hate everything I write. But thanks."
★♪★MARCY★♪★: Hanson ~ Tay Ike Shadesmarcyjo on October 14th, 2008 11:16 pm (UTC)
This was the perfect time for me to read this. Two weeks away from NaNoWriMo and I'm already angsting about being bored with my characters who are only outlined and not even written yet. *sigh*

As for the side note question, I think younger readers ask that hoping for validation. If you, like they, wanted to be a writer since you were small, then "you are like me." Which can be translated into "I am like you." Which sparks dreams of success.

In adults that ask that question, either they just have really lame and unoriginal interviewing skills, or they are wondering what level of crazy you really are. I think most adults view someone who "wants to be a writer" the same way they view people who "want to be a rockstar." It takes massive amounts of talent and hard work with a heavy helping of kismet to make it in that industry, and they may be asking if it was a childhood dream that you worked for, or if you decided to attempt the impossible (improbable) as an adult. There, too, they may be seeking validation...whether to follow dreams of becoming a writer or a rock star or a world famous goat sweater knitting champ. :D

And I think you are dead on about the "won't they be able to tell if I'm not inspired" bit. Usually when my crit partners say "I'm struggling with this, I'm just not feeling it...its crap...fix it!" That ends up being some of their best work. They aren't still in the honeymoon phase of the story, and so they are more critical and sharp penned and that makes for some of the best material.
Erinnyxian on October 14th, 2008 11:20 pm (UTC)
Fantastic! I like your explanation, especially the bit about writing to be inspired. I know what it feels like to hit a brick wall and trudge forward. Sometimes great little paths are illuminated that you didn't see before and you fly down them before hitting the next wall - hopefully to have the process repeat.

Thanks for these FaQ things. As an aspiring writer, I find myself devouring published authors' thoughts/experiences on writing.
alikat_69 on December 3rd, 2009 03:52 pm (UTC)
It's hard being an adult writer wanting to write. When you tell others you're a writer, you get some of the strangest looks. But I keep moving on through the inspirational days (and those that aren't - which are a lot). I've been at this for a while, allowing years to go by when all i do is write down ideas. It took my step mother telling me to stop talking about it and sit down to write out my book to get me moving.

I too love reading through published writers blogs, taking in everything they have to say about the writing process, plus the posts from writers like me just getting started out on this journey. Reminds me I'm not alone.
Ship Of Fools: dr. horrible creepersaiyengirl on October 14th, 2008 11:25 pm (UTC)
Woo, Amen sister. The hardest part about writing, for me, is to actually sit down and do it. I'll get in my chair, stare at my screen and my fingers just won't move. I've gotten to the point that no matter how much I hate what I'm writing, I just do it. I know that eventually I'll get to the point where an idea will pop up, or a scene will take shape, but I have to write something to get there. I feel like all of my writing is slogging, but I know that somehow, that's where the best stuff comes from.

My stories like to point and laugh at me and my characters sigh because I've neglected them. *sigh*.
Meganlyea on October 14th, 2008 11:25 pm (UTC)
My icon is better than your icon. ;)
Meganlyea on October 14th, 2008 11:25 pm (UTC)
I think a good idea for those aspiring writers who are having problems with inspiration is to direct them to Nanowrimo, which is starting up again in a couple weeks.

It provides the encouragement to write and write and slog through things, and write down any ideas that come to mind. 'Inspiration' will be gotten this way, and not by waiting for magical fairies to bestow it on you.
★♪★MARCY★♪★: Nano ~ One Good Wordmarcyjo on October 14th, 2008 11:37 pm (UTC)
Re: Nanowrimo.
Ah, NaNo. The program that takes you from worrying that your writing sucks, to knowing that it does yet makes you so tired that you can't find the energy to care. 19 days and counting...
Re: Nanowrimo. - cassandraclare on October 15th, 2008 02:23 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Conversantconversant on October 14th, 2008 11:40 pm (UTC)
So the truth is, you don’t need to be inspired to write. But you do need to write to be inspired.

That is as true of the sort of professional writing that I do (which is not at all like the kind you do, but is, nonetheless, my bread and butter). Your reminder of this truth comes at a good time: I needed to be reminded because I need to buckle down and get a pile of writing done.

I myself enjoy having written, but writing is agony: once the work is finished, it feels great, but the process is very, very tough.

...and editing out the silly errors is its own special torture (omg, sorry)...
Cassie Clarecassandraclare on October 15th, 2008 02:11 pm (UTC)
Indeed. I used to do nonfiction/journalism and while I found it to be a very different process in many ways, the business about having to do the work to get the result was the same.
leahcliffordleahclifford on October 15th, 2008 12:10 am (UTC)
“Go to this address in Cleveland and knock on the door and tell the guy that the red fox barks at midnight, and he will GIVE YOU THE INSPIRATION"

You know Ted? Wow, I thought I was the only one! PS. The password has been changed. It is now 'the green frog sings at noon'.
Knower of Things: Haikuakakat on October 15th, 2008 12:24 am (UTC)
I think what people ask is very seldom what they actually want answered. People asking when you knew you wanted to write don't care so much about the age you were or whatever, they're fishing for the story. If I asked that, what I'd mean was, "Can you tell me how you knew writing was for you? What was that like? Why do you want to do this crazy thing that you do?" In the same way I think people asking you if the books are going to be made in to movies don't necessarily think you are totally in charge of that process or anything. More likely they're hoping you'll engage in some speculation, fantasizing, and dream casting like fans are so prone to do.
Cassie Clarecassandraclare on October 15th, 2008 02:14 pm (UTC)
That reminds me of something I heard Chris Crutcher say once, which is that you shouldn't answer the question you are asked so much as the question you should have been asked.

"In the same way I think people asking you if the books are going to be made in to movies don't necessarily think you are totally in charge of that process or anything. More likely they're hoping you'll engage in some speculation, fantasizing, and dream casting like fans are so prone to do."

Ah, that's probably true. Perhaps I just feel bad because for me speculating about that sort of thing feels like a bad idea, whereas for fans it's probably just fun.
Sera Zane: master chief i will pwn ur ass!serafina_zane on October 15th, 2008 12:33 am (UTC)
I dunno if I'd risk Cleveland for inspiration...for one, it's a Hellmouth...
See, my failsafe for inspiration is stopping. Sitting in math class, going to the supermarket, that's where the ideas come through. Staring at the word document and changing the size of the font to make it longer...less productive. Trips to the outside world tend to give some weird influences too, cuz nothing's more strange than people.

I've followed the setting-daily-word-count-to-get-through-it philosophy, but that sometimes has the bad side effect of sucking (and exhaustion). Looking at the first page of the novel (why does that word ALWAYS sound pretentious?) I wrote in two months, I noticed the time randomly set back three hours and realized one character later developed a completely different last name.
Cassie Clarecassandraclare on October 15th, 2008 02:20 pm (UTC)
Re: I dunno if I'd risk Cleveland for inspiration...for one, it's a Hellmouth...
Novel isn't so bad. There are way worse words I've heard. Ask me next time you see me. :D
Nessness_va on October 15th, 2008 12:49 am (UTC)
I kind of always thought the writing experience was a hard slog, but it's nice to hear it confirmed, in a weird way :)

Regarding the "when did you know you wanted to be a writer?" question, I think it's just because writing is an industry most people (myself included) don't know a lot about and I would be willing to bet that people asking it don't know what they want to do with their life.
Cassie Clarecassandraclare on October 15th, 2008 02:21 pm (UTC)
Oh no! I do not want to be involved in telling people what to do with their lives. :D
(Anonymous) on October 15th, 2008 01:37 am (UTC)
Ha, just in time for NaNoWriMo, too. -high-fives fellow Wrimos-
Thanks for telling it like it is! I actually had no idea it went down like that - I thought I got bored easily. Takes a whole lot of crap off my mind to know that that's normal... (but I still hate my characters. -headdesk-)

Personally, if I want to know when a writer knew what they were cut out for, it would be because I'm starting to think I'm made for writing myself, and I'm wondering if I'm just naive and I'm not supposed to know yet.
Cassie Clarecassandraclare on October 15th, 2008 02:33 am (UTC)
Ah, I guess that does make sense. Though the answer there is still that there's no one specific age everyone knows at. It varies.
Kathleen Foucart: Keep Writingkathleenfoucart on October 15th, 2008 02:16 am (UTC)
Great post. Especially because my story is currently punching me in the face. And laughing. And then doing it again.
(Anonymous) on October 15th, 2008 03:22 am (UTC)

First--I am your biggest fan. I just love every iota of your work. If it was a drug, I would be an addict, and not just an I-get-high-on-the-weekends-addict, but an I'm-living-homeless-on-the-street-with-no-clothes-and-no-food-addict.

Which is a perfect segue. I am so, so, so glad to hear you say this. To know that there's not something wrong with me. It means that I can go, "See, Cassandra, god among men (and women!), has trouble sometimes too! I can have some slogging bits and still be a writer..." It means that someday, I may be like you. If I can just make it through this one long haul.

Then, to answer your question, I think that some people ask the question "When did you decide to become a writer?" because it has become such a cliche. I personally ask it because of the time issue. What I'm really asking is "How long do I have to work at this until I'm as good as you?" So, let's see, you're about 25, and you started writing when you were, say ten, so it took you fifteen years. Well, I'm sixteen and I started writing when I was eight so...I still have a long way to go.

I love you!
Cassie Clarecassandraclare on October 15th, 2008 03:26 am (UTC)
I am glad to hear the post was helpful!
(no subject) - (Anonymous) on October 16th, 2008 12:10 am (UTC) (Expand)
fletcherfashion on October 15th, 2008 03:39 am (UTC)
I think when people ask "when did you want to become a writer" or whatever it's not so much the time period, but maybe they think it was a significant event that changed your perspective or inspired creativity. They want to be able to relate or possibly see what started you off.