Hunting Down The Muse

By Boyd Morrison

I’m in a situation that I haven’t been in for four years. Now that I’ve delivered my latest book, I’m no longer under contract to a publisher expecting my next novel. This is the first time since I signed my first publishing contract in 2009 that I don’t have a hard deadline. It’s both a scary and liberating scenario because I have to decide what to write next.

Like every other author, I often get the dreaded question, Where do you get your ideas? I can usually come up with a response that sounds reasonable and interesting, but the real answer is that I don’t know where they come from. I wish I did. It would make everything so much easier. I wish I could flip a switch in my mind that goes, “Okay, Brain, time for the next idea. What sounds good to you?”

Instead, Brain usually tells me to buzz off. It’s much too busy forcing me to watch TV or worrying about whether I forgot to lock the car when I left it in the mall parking lot. Other times, Brain is throwing ideas at me left and right, many of which are versions of stories that have already been done, but dumber.

Brain: Hey, what about a book about a sea creature that terrorizes a small coastal town, but this time it’s a crazed man-eating jellyfish?

Me: I hate you.

But ideas typically aren’t a problem for an author. I’ve got plenty of ideas. I just have no clue whether any of them will make good stories. I’ve started at least eight books that never made it past page 150. A few of them never made it past page ten. Some of them may grow into full novels one day, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if none of them did.

The question for me is, how should I get started on the next book? Do I need a breather to gather a bunch of new ideas and select the right one or should I plunge back into it and trust that the alchemy will produce something worthwhile?

Some authors, like Stephen King, stick to their word count every day no matter what. They force themselves to hunt down the muse and throttle it until it gives up the goods. Other authors, like Chuck Palahniuk, can take a year off to recharge and explore the world until the pressure builds up so much that they have to sit down and write the story. The muse tells them when the story is ready to go.

I think Stephen King’s process works well for “pantsers,” authors who don’t outline and write without knowing where the story will take them. But I don’t know how that can work if you are a “plotter” and you outline and research to see how a story fits together. How can you write to a word count that day if you haven’t plotted out how the next scene contributes to the story?

One technique that I’m trying was suggested by my agent. It’s called the List of Twenty. You come up with a list of twenty of ideas for a novel. The first ten or so will be obvious, so obvious that someone else may be having the same idea as you’re typing (which is why we end up with situations like two movies this year about the White House being taken over by terrorists).

But when you exhaust those first ten ideas, you start having to come up with more unusual and off-the-wall ideas, and that’s where you find the gold. Those are the ideas likelier to be unique and amazing.

Even then, you may still come up with an idea similar to someone else’s, but your spin on it might be so intriguing that it’s worth doing anyway (look at how Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games explored a different take on the kids-fighting-to-the-death scenario that Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale had already established).

After having completed six novels, I thought this process would have gotten easier. It hasn’t, and I don’t think it ever will. But when that inspiration does strike and the muse becomes your partner in crime, the exhilaration makes all of the struggle worth it. For me, that’s the thrill of the hunt.

12 thoughts on “Hunting Down The Muse

  1. What’s worked for me, Boyd, is to think of myself as an executive at my own fiction studio. I have to hear pitches and decide what projects get further development. The pitches come every day, in the form of “what ifs” or other ideas. I write down the ones that seem most promising (the list of twenty you mentioned is another way to go).

    I periodically select ideas to go into “development.” I have numerous projects at various stages (character notes, plot notes, journal entries). I put the best of these on the “front burner.”

    Eventually, one of these gets the “green light,” and that means plotting, then writing the thing (be it story, novella, novel). I always have a main project, but also three or four others going, so I always have a way to fulfill my quota.

  2. Boyd,
    I’m also a plotter, so I don’t know that the “No new book idea? Write to a word count anyway!” thing would work for me, either. At the same time, I keep a file of characters and the world they live in so when I get done with a manuscript, I have some other stuff to parse through and see if any of it still zings for me. If it does, maybe it’s workable. If not, I delete it so the stuff in the file stays relatively fresh. But for me, the muse always starts with a character. Always.

  3. I always thought it would get easier as I wrote more. It doesn’t. Every book seems to have its own way it wants to be written.

    I’m a plotter and like to know what happens in every chapter. I also have a word goal for each day of drafting. My plot outlines cover what has to happen in each chapter; how I do it is very much a seat of the pants operation.

  4. I have the terrible flaw of writing productively only when I’m under deadline, so taking ‘refresher spells’ is deadly for me. The spells tend to turn into dead calms. So for me, writing begets writing, even if it seems like it’s going nowhere at first. Who was it who said, “Just start writing. The water doesn’t flow until the tap is turned on.” ?

  5. I call my muse ‘Mysteria’, for obvious reasons. The little brat has a terrible tendency to take off for long vacations in Monte Carlo, but when she gets back, it all works. If I could only figure out a way to stop her from leaving in the first place….

  6. I don’t like tricky methods. I pay too much attention to the method and not the result. So I think about what the reader likes: compelling character and fascinating situations.

    I try to start with an interesting (soon to be converted to compelling) character. At this point, he/she is a cardboard cutout. Then I figure out a crime that is awful and you can’t look away from. (My current novel starts with a body beaten from head to toe with a sledge hammer). Then I ask “What would (main character name) do?

    It seems to work for me.

  7. I’m a somewhat reformed information junkie that cn surf the web for hours. Yesterday I read a fascinating write up on the unabomber, tensions w/his brother and a weird test study he was involved in at Harvard I believe. He and othwers were asked to write down their hopes, viewpoints on life, goals etc and then an atty. was sent in to belittle and riducle what they wrote.

    A year or so ago I read about a murder in West Va. A 400 lb female bigamist killed one of her husbands and the other, a 130 lb. man. cried as he explained how much he loved her.

    My “muse”, personally I hate that word, is the endless facts, realities and history that exist all around us.

  8. My two lovely muses, with whom I’ve flirted adventurously for the past several years, have recently taken to showing up less often. I fear they may be hunting for younger more energetic flesh on whom to push their desires. There is only so much energy a man of a certain age can maintain.

    Or it may be that they were getting scared of the violence their flirtations seemed to be conjuring in my writerly soul.

    Truth be told…I always have a hard time after the first fifteen or twenty thousand words, especially if life is spinning about me, which it often is. My best trick to get over that hump is simply to take long walks (by long I mean nothing less than three or four miles and sometimes covering more than ten) just thinking about the story, imagining it, talking to the characters. Then the dry spell always seems to lift, and voila…more people getting killed and heroes saving as many as they can…mayhaps with a bit of romance about somewhere as well.

    I just got back from one such lunch hour walk of about four miles and I…


    there’s a knock on my frontal lobe…

    Excuse me for a moment.

    “Oh! Ladies!”

    “Basil, we’re sorry we left you. Will you take us back?”

    “You girls may have left, but I never did.”

    Big hugs, lipstick marks on my cheeks.

    They look at each other slyly, closing the door and push me into the writer’s comfy chair. The perky one kneels beside me, cradling her chin as she leans against the arm of the chair and looks up with mischievously sparkling eyes.

    The poetess slides onto my lap, and whispers. Her lips brush against my ear, hot breath sends a quivering tingle down my spine that evokes a giggle from perky.

    “Now…what do you know about this new Chinese assault rifle, and do you want know what the general plans the target’s wife?”

  9. Boyd–
    “I’ve started at least eight books that never made past page 150.” I admire your tough-mindedness regarding what you write. Even if I should, I’m pretty sure I could never abandon a long narrative the way you have. Once in, all in I’m afraid.
    And as you say, it isn’t coming up with ideas for stories, it’s knowing which ones to develop–there’s the rub.

  10. Do you know how comforting it is to read: “After having completed six novels, I thought this process would have gotten easier. It hasn’t, and I don’t think it ever will.”?

    As a writer struggling with the ideas, the unfinished books, and the determination to keep working until done, I am encouraged that the pain never goes away. Not that I like knowing this fact but it is good to discover this is a trait, not a fault.

Comments are closed.