Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 7, 2011

Inspiration vs Perspiration in Writing

by Fae Rowen

This one isn't so much a throwdown  as a mirror reflecting what keeps us writing.  Usually Laura Drake draws the line in the sand first, but today I'm going to talk about inspiration and writing.  On Wednesday, since she's the queen of "bottom in the chair," Laura's going to follow-up with perspiration and the writer. (How lucky for me that, according to the old saying, I'm only writing about the 1% inspiration and Laura gets the hard work--the 99% perspiration!)

Without the inspiration of that first story I would never have attempted to write my own novel.  But the characters kept adding scenes to the movie in my head and I felt my day-to-day life slipping more and more into their reality.  A bit scary when the story is a medieval fantasy! An English-teacher friend told me to write the movie down and my first novel was born.

Typically my characters start to impinge on my consciousness to the point of me saying, "Okay, already!  I'll write your story!" so they'll leave me alone when I'm not writing.  I pretty much know the beginning scenes and the ending before I start writing. When they're clear enough in my head, and the characters are three-dimensional complete with backstory, I start the book.

If you read our throwdown about Plot- vs Character-driven stories, you'll know that I'm not much of a plotter.  But when you've been a voracious reader all your life, you've pretty much got the drill down.  Things start out bad and get worse and worse still.  When your character is facing death--or worse--things get better fast and you're done.

This writing style can be a problem after the first three or four chapters. Uh, what happens next? How do I get to that compelling ending? How do I weave my theme into non-existent scenes without getting that dreaded sagging middle? That's where inspiration takes over for me. I can get inspiration from almost anything--and have.  Take the time I was working on a contemporary (so out of my time zone!) about a female math professor who had been a star ballerina in her younger days. Because of an injury, she now tutored young ballet students in her spare time.  Need a scene.

I was taking a belly dancing class in preparation for my Middle East trip. Now, I am not any kind of a dancer. As I was trying to figure out where the muscles were that made my stomach ripple (Did I have them?), I thought, "What if my heroine were a belly dancer?"  What if her friend, a fellow student at Juilliard, danced in a belly dancing troupe? What if, after my heroine's injury, she learned to belly dance? What if she rejoined the troupe for one night only as they toured the West Coast--and that was the night our hero saw what he thought was an uptight college professor belly dancing?  Hmmmm.  Yep, bump up the romance with a shimmy and a hip thrust.

My little sports car has been a jet fighter, a spaceship, and a race car, depending on the book.  In fact, Laura calls the car the Athena-mobile, after the heroine of my first futuristic.  My Siamese cat, Shogun, has spawned a tiger, a lion-like creature, and a sentient alien race.

Most recently, on a trip to Kauai, I was snorkeling as I usually do on vacation.  While maneuvering through coral tunnels looking at eels, octopus and hundreds of brightly colored fish, I thought of the book I'm working on now.  Of course, there must be an ocean on that end-of-the-universe planet.  Since it's a planet with crystals instead of trees and plants, it would make perfect sense that underwater there would be beautiful crystalline gardens with incredible hues and dangerous currents from the vibrations of the crystals.

Not only that, but this beach would work well to show the hero he isn't infallible and that he can't fix everything like he can on his home world. Later, a major scene with a competitive sporting event will have a a broader influence if it's at two venues, one of which is that same beach. Made one scene into two like that! And ramped up the tension (thank you, Donald Maass!), because the heroine must compete at the location of her recent almost-deadly accident.

All that from a wonderful morning snorkeling the North Shore of Kauai.

Did I mention that this planet has no food source? The people must eat only protein bars and protein drinks packed with all the necessary supplements--and some nasty things they don't know about!  Guess what? When I came up with this idea I was on a diet, you guessed it, of protein bars and powders.

You could probably look at what you do the next two hours through a different lens and come up with at least one--I'm thinking more--story ideas for setting, character or scene. Just ask, "What if ...?" and go with it.  There is no wrong answer. You're opening the door for inspiration from your everyday life. And, like it or not, we all write based on our own lives, because that's what we know best. And great writing comes from what we know best.

So put on those glasses of a different color and be inspired by your world. Awaken to everything around you and see it in a new way, as if you're seeing for the first time. And wonder what might happen if ... .

Do you have a sure-fire way to get inspired to write? Do you have a routine to call in your personal muse? We'd love to hear from you. (Heck, I'm not above stealing a good routine!)

Unfortunately, you can't finish a book on inspiration alone. You've got to do the work. On Wednesday Laura Drake will address writing from the "perspiration" angle.  I can't wait to read her blog--she's incredibly dedicated to putting in the time.

0 comments on “Inspiration vs Perspiration in Writing”

  1. Great post, Fae. Donald Maass was one of the first "writing guides" I found and has been invaluable to me for years.

    One thing. The mind map link appears to be broken.

    1. Thanks for the heads-up, Gene. I got there before (obviously) and now I can't get there even by typing in the URL. Oh, well. I love technology when it works, but when it doesn't...

  2. Fae, where would we be without that illusive one percent? Yes, we need the hard work, but then again, just a random thought, a sentence at lunch or a joke at the dinner table can get me going. As to the 99% of the work? I have learned the hard way, i.e. I once wrote an entire book based on a question at lunch. "Where to you work, Florence?" I answered in my fashion, "I work in a cave." My room is set at the front of the condo and there is a half wall to the stairs for the second floor. My huge window has no view, I hear no traffic and thus ... my cave. The book started like this, "I live in a cave in Brooklyn." I loved it and it started me on a mad journey. About Laura's preference? In the end, the first sentence was chopped, the original setting changed and the premise reversed. In the fifth incarnation, I have done more research, outlines, plotting and yes ... planning. Lesson? Inspiration is great, my characters are always on the scene first but without a strong idea of where I am going I end up with a stand-up comedy script instead of a novel. Can't wait for Laura's response 🙂

    1. Oh, I'm a lot like you on inspiration. I can be daydreaming during a TV show, not truly watching when a word or picture jumps out at me as an idea. And when I write myself into a corner, I leave my desk and do something else unrelated. Pretty soon, the solution comes to me and I'll be surprised at how easy it was!

    2. And a stand-up comedy routine isn't great? Just the evolutionary process is fun to see! I'm right there in line with you waiting for Laura's Back At'cha. Kudos for you for working on a fifth incarnation. I bet it's pee-in-your-pants hilarious with your outlines, plotting and planning. Fae-

  3. Good post. You can get inspiration from anywhere - you just have to be in the right state of mind. I've also had some weird situations that led to inspiration and when it happens and happens well it is great 🙂

      1. Definitely. The mind works in very strange ways - making connections all over the place. You just need to be receptive to it and work hard to realise the vision it gives you.

        1. If you're at all like me, that receptivity thing can be difficult sometimes. I guess my eyes should have been in the back of my head to make it easier to see what I should have done! Ha!
          And if you talk to anyone who knows me, they'll agree with you. My mind definitely works in weird ways. Do you think that might be a writerly trait?

  4. Love how you gave us insight into your books and inspiration, Fae. I'd never have thought you'd get inspiration for your Sci-Fi/Fantasy from real life! Hey, there's a reason I write contemp - it's hard enough to get down on paper what I see every day!

    And after this great post, I'm getting perspiration just thinking about my perspiration blog!

  5. I've looked for inspiration in a bottle. I've looked for inspiration in a box of chocolate. I came up drunk and fat and not inspired. Then I looked inside my heart and found the reason I sit here and beat my brains out. You may quote me on this.

    1. Oh, now the box of chocolates--what a wonderful place to look for inspiration. My problem, I'd need to look in a mountain of boxes! Thanks for the quote, Terry. It'll make a great sound-bite!

  6. I am definitely not a plotter. Even when I was working on my MS in international relations, I couldn’t make an outline. Like you, my characters yell at me until I write something. But because I got used to pumping out 200+ page papers once or more a week, even over 20 years later, I have the ability to sit down and write quickly.

    1. Oh, how lucky you are! I'm good for a solid page an hour, ten in an eight-hour write-a-thon if I'm lucky. It's funny how school and a job train us in ways we never appreciate at the time for what we really want to do in the future. Now, I'm going to go try to type faster!

  7. I love this talk about inspiration. Recently, I've been struggling with a short story. I'd write the first chapter ... and then nothing. Toss out the chapter, try a new idea, write the first chapter, and again there'd be zip for chapter two. Finally, on the fourth try, something in the first chapter carried me through to the 2nd chapter, then on to the third chapter. At this point, when I ran into the wall, I returned to the first chapter to do some rewriting and bingo. There was that tiny spurt of inspiration that helped me twig the story idea into something stronger. This morning, as I continued the rewrites, I had another flash of inspiration and viola, there was the story ending. So in a nutshell, the perspiration is writing the story but the inspiration is what MAKES it a story. 🙂

  8. Never before have i thought of looking for inspiration in my every day life. Until now I have always been happy searching through a vivid imagination but your piece has definitely changed my thinking. From now on even a simple act like taking out the rubbish will be considered, broken down and probably reconstructed into me exploring a mystic portal or road testing a new Porsche; the possibilities are endless.

      1. Yeah, I occurred to me that the broken leg was to teach me I need to ease back on the edge of the envelope.

        "Should" is the key word in the above.

        Screw that - I've got too much to experience yet, and a limited amount of time! Warp drive, Scotty!

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