(or, how to keep both you, and your muse, from starving)
I went to school for graphic design. My teachers insisted that in order to make it in the business, you needed to learn to be creative all day, every day. I assumed they were nuts, and I’ll bet a lot of aspiring writers out there would agree. You can’t snap your fingers and expect the muse to come running, she’s not that kind of girl. The muse is your crazy bohemian friend – she shows up at odd hours, wearing outrageous hats and drags you out to shady bars. Then she disappears for a month, only to show up in the middle of the work week, sporting a tan and bubbling over with enthusiasm for this thing she just has to tell you about right now. And ugh, why are you still doing that boring job?
Your feeble reply is that you need to pay the bills. You have gotten rather used to the whole eating thing, and clothing, while optional at home, is required for going out to the store. But there is a part of your soul that screams, There Must Be A Better Way Than This #$@%$%$#@$# Day Job!!! You love to write, you want to sit and write all day, but the bills do not pay themselves. So, how do you convince your muse, that zany non-conformist, to stick to a deadline?
I hear it all the time, people complaining that schedules and outlines kill their creativity. And yet, nearly every successful author manages to use them, and they still create the wonderful books that got us excited about writing in the first place. I’m here to tell you it can be done, and I’m dedicating this article to sharing ways for creative people to make a living without selling their souls in the bargain.
And so, without further ado, let’s tackle the thing the Muse hates most:
Those two words have probably just sent your muse running to hide under the bed. Don’t Panic. I will give you a tip, the muse likes cookies. Chocolate chip. Get a glass of milk, put on some soothing music, and I promise you she’ll not only come out to play again, she’ll even be nice.
Now that we’ve got her settled, we can take a closer look at this necessary evil. There is no doubt that an outline can make you a better writer. It is a great tool for pointing out holes in plots, and it keeps your story from wandering aimlessly for days on end. Wandering plots do not meet deadlines, they require weeks of wrangling to get back on track, and if you only had an outline, you would have seen them wandering before you put pen to paper. They also make it easy to rearrange scenes to give your story more impact. There, you see, outline is not a dirty word!
On the other hand, outlines are boring. They take the beautiful, flowing prose of your story and turn it into something as soul-less as those homework assignments you used to hate. And schedules are even worse – I think most of us are still having traumatic flashbacks to high school. “I swear Mrs. Jones, just give me one more day and I’ll have that 30 page essay on the mating habits of fruit bats ready to hand in…”
Give your muse another cookie, she looks like she needs it.
My advice is going to make a lot of people cringe, but bear with me. Do not start with an outline. If you haven’t started writing yet, how do you plot out a story that doesn’t exist? It is a daunting task for experienced writers, and for new writers it is enough to make you want to hide under the bed right along with your muse.
If there is one thing I have learned over the years as a professional designer, it is that you can’t create a design without content. You need to know who your target audience is, and then create images and text that suit them. The same thing goes for writing. You can’t write a story without characters, or all the little details that make a story feel real, like setting and voice. My favorite tool for gathering content is a to-do list. No, not your typical honey-do list, this is your Muses’ list, and she knows how to have fun.
The first thing I put on my list is a description of each character, even the secondary ones. There is no such thing as a throw-away character, any of them can add to the story. Don’t worry, it’s not as much work as it sounds, just ask a few questions for each of them: Does he wear boxers, briefs, or commando? Can he braid his back hair? Can he dance the mambo?
Remember, this is only a first draft and it’s supposed to be fun, so it’s okay to be outrageous. I mean, c’mon, did you see that hat the muse is wearing today? She’s okay with being silly.
I write my list on paper so I can doodle in the margins. I put flowers around the list numbers and write encouraging notes to keep myself motivated. “Today, I will make item #5 my bitch. Booyah!” And there is nothing more satisfying than crossing things off once they are done. You get visual confirmation that you are indeed making progress, and it can give you a rush. Three items done today, go you!
Then, once you are done deciding if the mailman’s hair should be blue or pink, you can take a close look at all this crazy stuff you’ve written down. Your main character is a dance instructor with a back hair problem and a passion for the mambo… he lives in a shady part of town with no barbers, but some day he will be as smooth as Michael Phelps and set the dance world on fire…
Oh. My. God. Did you see it? That was, dare I say it, the start of a story outline. And it didn’t even hurt. Quick, make another list, ask more questions about your story. What happened to all the barbers? Is there a mystery to be solved here? Hot damn, we’ve got a genre!
The muse is currently bouncing up and down in her chair, clapping her hands in excitement. “EEEEeeeee! That was fun, can we do it again?” Yes, yes we can, as often as you like. Pass me the cookies, please.
~ Angie C.
*Graphics copyright Angie C.