Writer’s Quest – Part 2: When Inspiration Strikes

Even as a fairly young person, I found time to write. It just wasn’t with any frequency or regularity. It was, as they say, when inspiration hit me. It’s actually alarming how often I speak with adults who claim to want to be writers or two write a book and who also say that they hadn’t written in a long while because they just weren’t inspired.

Even as a fairly young person, I found time to write. It just wasn’t with any frequency or regularity. It was, as they say, when inspiration hit me. It’s actually alarming how often I speak with adults who claim to want to be writers or two write a book and who also say that they hadn’t written in a long while because they just weren’t inspired. I suppose, then, my syllogism would suggest they are “fairly young people.”

Well, maybe that’s not fair. But here’s the thing: Writer’s write.

I also know some writers who write work-for-hire stuff. These are talented, imaginative folks; but a few of them have said to me that it’s difficult anymore to imagine writing without guaranteed money. The thing with these cats is that there’s no way they could wait until they’re inspired—companies who pay up front have production deadlines, and deadlines don’t give a whit about whether you’re inspired or not.

Nevertheless, in my youth, I didn’t have deadlines, nor financial commitments, and so when I sat down it was because the muse had descended full upon me.

Muse Descending
Yeah, like that.

This often came as a result of great emotion, ya know. I’d feel a welling of happiness or joy or like I’d had a thought so profound that it simply must be recorded. These last things weren’t inventions or the like. No, they were thoughts that if I’d know the word “epiphany” I might have used that to describe them. Even that may not be entirely accurate, but it’s closer. These moments were times when some feeling or event or such just seemed to come into great focus, and I believed I’d better document them, since I found it unlikely anyone had had such deep revelations before. I s’pose I was precocious; shoot me.

However, I could also induce these states. Not with any prescription medication kifed from my parents medicine cabinet, or by cutting off the circulation to my own head as was a craze for a short time back then. Rather, I used music.

Now, I’m going to guess that many of you have a similar relationship with music; I like to think there’s something universal about music. Not that we all react to the same music the same way. And we certainly all have varying tastes. Still, music evinces a strong, personal reaction in folks—at least their favorite music usually does.

So, with me, at that tender age, it was Mannheim Steamroller. Now, today I still really dig these cats. Chip Davis is the man! And Jackson Berkey is wicked good on the ivory. But back then, I found that it’s somewhat transportive qualities could induce these fugues (as I call them) of writing brilliance.

It really amounted to the power to summon he muse on demand. Just pop in a Fresh Aire album, and the muse had no alternative but to answer my writing need. I think I still have a number of these. I wrote them long hand. They were typically a single page front and back, and they amounted to an outpouring of pure emotion.

Fresh Aire IV

I’ll be honest. I’m not sure I want to go back and read these now—though, like I said, I think I could find them. And it’s not because I think they’ll be awful. Maybe they are. Who knows? But the reason I think I’ll leave them undiscovered is because I still remember the way they made me feel. It was a powerful, genuine response to something I loved. The emotional stamp of that still lives inside me somewhere; I think I’ll leave it be.

I didn’t do this very often, really. I was a pretty typical kid, playing kickball and army and baseball, throwing rocks, getting into a scuffle or two, and eating as much ice cream and potoato chips as I could while watching some tube. Uh, that’s sounding pretty good about right now . . .

But to circle back to the topic, then, this isn’t a process a working writer can really use to be productive or successful. A good writer friend of mine (Jack Whyte) says is this way, “The only way to get it done is to put your ass in the chair.” You have to imagine that being said with a Scottish brogue, and then you’ll hear its real power.

What Jack means is that writing is about determination, and it’s work. Not every time a writer sits down is it all dreamy and romantic. It’s actually hysterical (and sad) that I know people who’ve been hit by the recession, who’ve said, well this will give me time to write, that’ll be a good way to make some money.

Of course, you can make money writing. For sure. But to think that writing is an easy thing to spin up when the job market imposes or provides you the opportunity . . . these poor misguided folks. The writer whose first book shows up on the shelf is a journey of a thousand steps. All those steps are invisible to the person who has that romantic notion in their head, and people seem to believe that writing (since they can make words on paper) is something they can do, separate from other career choices like brain surgery or professional athletics.

There’s a story that goes around writing circles, that I can no longer attribute (though I think it was Stephen King), in which two amiable men are talking at a dinner party—one of them is a writer, the other a brain surgeon. The surgeons says, I think I’ll write a book, to which the writer replies, I think I’ll do some brain surgery. (Note: even if I got that wrong, the point is the same.) And the moral is: Writing takes practice, and more practice, and discipline, and study. You don’t show up at the hospital when you lose your job and say, “Hey, I was put out of work, and I always thought of doing me some surgery. So, here I am. Where’s the scalpel.”

And the writer who thinks that he/she is going to get to publication without trodding the trail of practices and determination and patience, well, that writer should write fantasy, but he/she has got a vivid imagination.

Don’t be crushed by this, if you’re a would-be writer. The journey rocks! It’s worth doing. Don’t let folks, especially other writers, say things to you like: “If you can be discouraged from writing, you should.” Bull!

But having said that, you’ve got to prove those S.O.B.’s wrong. You’ve got to get your ass in the chair, day in, day out.

And here’s the good part: While it’s not always the muse dropping craploads of greatness onto the page. More days than not, most days, the writing is so much fun. It’s, as King often puts it, like going into a trance (mind movies).

The secret is to remember that after you do the hard part of sitting down and starting, what comes after is magical. Really! You’re still going to write a lot of garbage. But so what. Fail spectacularly, then do it again. After enough time, you won’t fail anymore. And the super, super secret is: For real writers, even if you never sell a story, the process is reward enough. I know that sounds maudlin, but hey . . . I’m a writer.

And as for those fugues I put myself into as a kid and young teenager, throwing on some Fresh Aire and letting the music whip me into a writing frenzy . . . I’m not above doing it still. Because for me, music inspires images and story. And when I see them, I want to capture them, and see where they’ll take me. The good news is that I don’t use or need music to do that anymore. But you know, for me, letting the music play and letting my mind go (making up story) even without capturing it on paper, is just all kinds of awesome. I have to believe it’s the same for you. Give a whirl. And if you do, would love to hear about it . . .

Writer’s Quest – Part 1: From hope to publication.

I’ve wanted to be a published writer for . . . well, a long damn time. See, while I think storytellers might tell their stories even if they never got published–’cause we’re all masochistic like that–such is not really the idea.

I’ve wanted to be a published writer for . . . well, a long damn time. See, while I think storytellers might tell their stories even if they never got published–’cause we’re all masochistic like that–such is not really the idea. In fact, there’s a wonderful argument that goes something like: Art is only art if it has an audience. But I’ll come back to that later in this blog series when I have the strength to debate. The point is, Tor bought some books from me, so I’m going to realize one of my dreams. Sweet! And in talking to a friend–Shawn Speakman, whom many of you know–he said, “Dude, write it. The whole thing. How it happened. You’re on the cusp, and there’s folks who want to hear how it goes down. A lot of fantasy and science fiction readers want to be writers.” I believed him, so here we go.

I started, you know, outlining the whole shebang, and before I knew it I had 40 posts worth of [voice of God] “the journey to publication.” That all led to the idea of a weekly blog post to tell the story, my story. But not an atypical story, if human’s share as many chromosomes as science tells us they do. What you’re reading is the first installment. It goes something like this.

I kind of always dug words. I remember listening to my dad speak, fascinated by the nonsensical syllabels that came out of his mouth, but which he spoke with such self-assurance. I suspect it was the same for you, no? And for me, getting to the definitions of these glorious, foreign words … today’s public school psychologists would slap an OCD tag on me in a heartbeat.

Click to embiggen.

Kiddos who discover the richness of so many words, and then have the “oh-my-hell-you-mean-it-has-more-than-one-meaning” realization, are considered precocious. Meh. So I was precocious. A little. It got me into a program called “Horizons,” which meant release from the regular grind of elementary classwork, and a chance at true creativity–like mana from heaven, that. And it was in this Horizons thingy that I wrote my first bona fide anything: A murder mystery play in which I would also perform a title role.

I co-authored this travesty with a gal-pal who had been blessed since the womb, I think, to know she wanted literary fame when she grew up. Took me to the age of about ten or eleven. But something strange happened with that little play: We failed.

We tried hard, we even did some improvisational acting to try and work through the writer’s block. I’m sure it was garbage, but even as I write this I vividly remember thinking at the time, “I could be an actor, too!” (Makes you wonder how many of our living thespians had just such a revelatory momenty, huh? And maybe, like me, they should have let it go …)

Anyway, our “advisor”–by the way, don’t you love that term? kind of makes you feel shepherded along the path to greatness–saw that we weren’t so great in our first play attempt. She steered us toward a mid-stream change. Right in the middle of our little mystery play, we wound up singing a little diddy, the lyrics to which I still know by heart:

Oh, we wrote a play mysterious
And we tried to make it serious
If I took my pen
I could write it all again
And make it hilarious …. ious … ious …

Whereupon the lights went out, the strobe light began it’s maddening pulse, and we began to lumber around the stage of the multi-purpose cafeteria/gym/auditorium. And you know, that’s when I learned that comedy is king. We got so many laughs. It was a triumph! I think the strobe light, mostly.

What we had done is gone from a half-serious little murder mystery to a full-blown melodrama–I got to be the Snydley Whiplash character. How many of us are ever gonna get THAT role? Let me just say: Long black cape, flickering strobe light, skulking about and looking menacing … pretty much the definition of following bliss.

Pretty much a caricature of me.

So, there you have it. My first literary effort. But it did something quietly profound. It set my heart–if that ain’t to maudlin–on a path. Not one I pined for or labored overmuch about. But my love of words themselves, and books–I really liked books–began to percolate in my down low (soul, that is). And even at that tender age, I began to tell folks I had three dreams: musician, MLB (Major League Baseball) . . . and writer.

When I complete this Writer’s Quest blog series–and “quest” is used deliberately in place of “journey,” since I’m writing epic fantasy for Tor–I’ll have seen this last dream become a reality. If you wind up reading and liking the stories I tell, that’s all kinds of awesome. If not, again, I blame the strobe light. But one way or another, that mystery play/melodrama is where my story begins.

Cheers, gang!
Peter