Dr. Strangemuse: Or How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Love Writer’s Block

Angela Knight is the author of the New York Times bestselling Mageverse series. Her twelfth book, Master of Smoke, will be out January 4. Check out her website for more information at www.angelasknights.com

Today, Angela will give away 2 copies of Hot for the Holidays. Comment for a chance to win!

Welcome Angela.

New writers ask themselves a lot of difficult and painful questions.  Am I writing fast enough? Why is this so damned hard? What about all these other people who are more successful? What are they doing that I’m failing to do? Will I ever get published? Will I make the best seller list? Will I stay on the best seller list? Is there a trick to this writing thing that will make it feel less like pulling every sentence out of my bleeding ass?

Here’s a news flash: all writers ask themselves the very same questions, including bestselling novelists. All of us are neurotic. That should go without saying. Of course we’re drama queens: otherwise we wouldn’t be good at writing drama.

I must admit I’ve asked myself the same painful questions as any newbie. In search of answers, I have read every book I can get my hands on about the writing process, looking for some way to make it easier, faster. Less, in short, like spelunking up my own intestines.

I hate to say it, kiddies, but I have come to the conclusion that there is no way to make it easier, faster, or less frustrating.

There are times you soar on wings of words, riding updrafts of metaphors, cruising through clouds of silken simile. Nobody else’s words can make me soar higher than my own. Writing is definitely my drug of choice.

It’s the pursuit of that high – and the very nice paycheck it brings me – that has kept me going through the rest of the time. The times when my muse turns on her dainty heel and stalks off in a huff to ignore me like an inopportune suitor with a bouquet of wilting roses. The times when the book is due, and I must work through Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and my own damned birthday. (Like now.)

And the times when, like now, I have no clue what comes next, and I have to figure it out or miss my deadline, infuriate my editor, and blow the pub date I desperately want to make.

Publication is not for pussies.

But all this has taught me a few things. The creative process is different for every writer. Some people write by the seat of their pants, while others must know the plot before they can write. Some drive through the process on sheer work ethic, even if it means writing shit. Some of us simply can’t do that. The more we try to force it, the more stubborn the words become.

I have decided that water boarding one’s own muse is counterproductive. She’s down in the basement of my subconscious, working on my book. I can almost feel her, busily constructing God knows what, while my conscious self paces the floor and mutters curses.

If I try to drag her out and make her cough up something before she’s ready, I’ll only get in her way. I have to be patient with her, despite my deadline, my agent, and my editor.

Writer’s block is just as much a part of the creative process as sitting down at your computer and pounding out words. There are two halves of the brain – the part that uses words, and the part that creates images and emotions. That creative part doesn’t have access to language, so it can’t tell me to shut the fuck up and leave it alone.

Writer’s block is actually that part of the brain at work, on a level I can’t consciously access. The creative brain eventually communicates the answer to the writing brain, like someone sending a message attached to a balloon. It’s a process so old, the ancient Greeks saw it as a goddess muse murmuring in their ears.

That’s why I’ll be bitching to my husband or taking a drive or waking up from a sound sleep, and suddenly the solution to my plotting problem will simply appear, full-blown, in a flash of blinding insight. And then I write the rest of the book.

Every single book I’ve ever written has included at least one bout of writer’s block. Often there are two: one right after the beginning, when I have to figure out the middle, and another at the end, when I have to write the climax.

I’m having a block right now over the middle of Master of Shadows. A few months ago, I had another one during Master of Smoke, when I realized I hated my original heroine and had to reconstruct her. That block stopped me cold for two weeks, but I loved the result. My heroine, Eva Roman, is now one of my favorite characters, with her quirky sense of humor that made her a delight to write. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about her adventures as much as I did writing them.

So at the moment I’m working on a book video, reading everything Patricia Briggs has ever written – I love that woman, I really do – and writing this blog. My husband pokes me periodically to ask why I’m not writing, but I just shrug. Tinkerbell, my muse, will cough up the rest of the book when she gets done with it. I just have to wait her out.

Torturing myself about the delay is pointless. And it’s just as pointless for you, Dear Reading Writer. If your mother is sick and you can’t concentrate on your writing, if you have a houseful of holiday guests, if your kid needs help with his homework – well, deal with those things. The writing will still be there when you’re finished. You have to take care of your life and accept your process, or you’ll only get in your own way. Be gentle with yourself. If you’re nice to your muse, she’ll be nice right back.

Nice Tinkerbell.  Pretty Tinkerbell. Clever, clever Tinkerbell.  Look, I picked some lovely roses for you.  Come out and play?

43 responses to “Dr. Strangemuse: Or How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Love Writer’s Block

  1. I’m having my second cup of coffee and reading this. All I can say, Angela, is–thank you…thank you…thank you!

  2. Thanks, Angela. It’s nice to hear it said.

  3. This is exactly what I needed. To know that I’m normal and to read that others struggle at some point in the writing process. Knowing that’s its just not me waking up at 3am because I suddenly found the best way to kill off a character. But that others are up before the rest of the world pounding away at their keyboard.
    I will be sure to share this.
    Jeffrey Barbieri

  4. I recently did a post on my blog titled Runaway Muse. I started it…My muse is on the lam and asked my visitors to look for her and ship her home. I offered to pay any necessary expenses. If only I’d known she was in the basement of my subconscious the entire time!!! I’m happy to say she’s back now…interestingly enough she returned right after my Thanksgiving for 25 and a Chanukah dinner for 117. Back to work….she says happily!

  5. The best part about meeting other writers has been learning that even multi-pubbed authors still struggle. Or maybe that’s the worst part about meeting others, since I was hoping the struggle would go away eventually. 😉 Thanks for sharing, Angela!

  6. Ok – you’ve convinced me that torturing my muse is not productive! LOL! Thanks for the great article and good luck on your new release.

  7. Oh Angela, what a joy to laugh on a Monday morning filled with mundane tasks ahead and a guilt surge over not being able to physically sit and rewrite Chapter 3’s 100th rewrite. Yeah, you guessed, pre-pubbed writer here.
    Thanks, I needed that happy slap back into the reality- the knowing my subconscious Muse is rewriting the entire manuscript. Ahhhh, now I am free 🙂

  8. ROFLMAO … Yep, that just about covers it. But you described it so much better than I ever could have. Thanks for sharing that all of this is normal. (As much as a writer can be “normal”.)

  9. Thanks, ladies:

    And Vikki, may I give you a piece of advice as someone who has been there and done that — QUIT REWRITING CHAPTER THREE. That’s why you have writer’s block. You’ve pissed off your muse. Leave the book alone for a few days or a month or whatever. You’re not on deadline. Let the book cook. First, ask yourself: OK, what would be FUN to write next? Do you like sword fights? Put in a sword fight. Love scenes? Where would be a cool, different place to set a love scene? Think FUN. Fun is the key to writing well. If you’re flogging yourself, you’re going to end up writing crap, hating what you’re writing, and hating yourself. You will suck all the joy out of the work, and worse, you will guarantee your own failure.

    Look, you guys who are not under deadline shouldn’t be torturing yourselves into writing because of some misplaced sense of Puritan guilt. If you have fun with your work, the reader will have fun reading your work. You will be more creative, more fun to read, and MORE PUBLISHABLE.

    Those of us with contracts and deadlines flog ourselves when we can’t work because we have to hit our deadlines. We can’t afford to play. You CAN. So PLAY. Muses love to play. Let them go to it, and follow wherever they want to go.

    No piece of writing is pointless, even if it isn’t publishable. It’s said that to be really good at something, you have to spend about 10,000 hours doing it. Whether that’s flying a plane or writing a book. That doesn’t mean you have to write 10,000 hours before you’re publishable, just that it will take you that many hours to reach a true mastery.

    So if you write something that gets rejected, don’t sweat it. Just figure writing that particular book was part of your 10,000 hours, and go on to the next thing. And HAVE FUN.

  10. Meh. Writer’s block doesn’t really exist. It’s a figment of the imagination and the mark of a general procrastinator or a control freak – one or the other. Sometimes both.

    Writing is a job. Do your job. It’s that simple. Can you imagine a garbageman or a cable guy or a journalist, for that matter, saying, “I’m sorry, my MUSE is BUSY today, I can’t do my job.” I don’t think so. Donald would fire your a$$.

    Just do your job. Whether it’s hard or not. Deadlines need to be met. Meet them. Donald may not be around to fire you. But readers will forget about you, count on it. Agents and editors only have so much patience for “creative” folks, even if they deal with their tantrums daily.

    Just because you are a creative person does NOT give you permission to be irresponsible or flaky. And those who complain about “the muse” and flake out all over the Interwebs give the rest of us a bad name.

    • JP, The great thing about picking up garbage is you don’t have to think about it. You just drive from place to place and lift the cans. 😉 Writing isn’t quite so ‘mindless’. Take it from someone who has had a LOT of mindless jobs. LOL! Some things just cannot be forced. 🙂

  11. Interesting post. When I get stuck, I generally write something esle until I can become ‘unstuck’ again.

  12. Angela,
    This came at a perfect time for me. My mother has been ill, and I did exactly as you said — I took the time to deal with that. I’ve just recently, thank goodness, gotten back into the swing of things. It’s been slow going, but my muse is perking up a little more every day. I’m glad to know that others deal with the same things I do. Great post. Thanks!

  13. Wow, I’m normal, I’m normal!

  14. Ah, my dear…you been hanging with my muse? So true, and believe me, I hit the wall of all walls on my last book, CrystalFire. NOTHING worked. I finally had to put the book aside for a couple of days, even though I’d already missed my frickin’ deadline, and just let the story simmer in the back of my worthless brain. Then husband and I went for a hike and things started popping up between the big empty spaces in my head…and I found the ending I’d not been able to see. I have to agree, though…on occasion it’s like waiting for the cat to cough up a hairball…

    • Kate — I think our muses play hooky together. And yes, it’s so frustrating! I think plotters get this problem more than pansters. Pantsers make stuff up on the fly anyway, so they don’t really have the problem.

  15. I’m a big believer in getting enough sleep. I’m convinced that my muse works well in that twilight space between being awake and being asleep and it works while I’m really asleep. I’ve woken up too many times with The Answer about what to do. I also keep a pad and pen by the bed and write notes to myself by the light of the alarm clock. Yes, I can read the scratchings in the morning. Cheers, Ann

  16. I absolutely adore this post. Everything about it is awesome. Waterboarding though? Hmmm… I haven’t tried that tactic yet. I know you said it didn’t work, but I just might attempt it at some point anyway. You know, might give me another experience to write about. Oh, right. Guess I should just hope she responds to the trail of chocolate and aperitifs I’ve left around. Good luck on your release and enjoy your reading adventures while your Muse is enjoying whoknowswhat in whoknowswhere.

  17. Great advice! It’s good to know I’m not crazy.
    I don’t what to make of my muse. There are times when I can write steadily, day after day, and produce sparkling prose (well, sparkling to me). Then there’s now, when I can’t motivate myself to do anything. Maybe a trip to Vegas will wake her up…

  18. Awesome post on writer’s block. I’m going to post a link to it from our home page, because I think you’ve captured it perfectly. By the way, Angela, while I haven’t read your books, I know Patty Briggs is a big fan. Your books are frequently found near our bathtub, where Patty does her best “comfort reading”. She’s usually very careful with her books, so only the most scrumptious end up with water spots!

    Great article! 🙂

    • Mike — Really? Patricia Briggs reads MY books? LIKES my books? Oh man, I’m getting goosebumps! Tell her I adore her books so much, I read them, then buy the audio version and listen to that too. Where’s your website?

      Yes, I am a fangirl.

      • Angela:
        Yes, really. 🙂 I think there’s a little mutual admiration going on here . The website is http://www.hurog.com, and you’ll find a link to this article up on the home page. Now I may have to try your books — but don’t tell or it will ruin my macho image!

      • Mike — Hey, that was a great post on writer’s block at your site. And the site looks really nice, too. Thanks for the link, and for mentioning this blog there.

    • Yes, Mike. Thanks for the link!

  19. Laughing and wincing at this one. Great post, Angela!

  20. Hey Angela– very good post. I have to admit, though, I agree in part with JP. I always tell newbies the best cure for writer’s block is a deadline. That’s not to say you don’t occasionally get stuck here and there but you just have to keep writing until the answer to getting unstuck appears!!!

    All the best for you new release.

  21. Love this post. I often let my writers block sit for awhile. And I feel the same way about forcing something, it’s completely counter productive. Best of luck on your new book!

  22. Great post. One thing I do to fight writers block is work on two or three projects. That way if I get stuck on one I can move on to the other. (Three’s my limit, though.) And I write the first draft straight through without going back and editing. That was the reason I never finished my books in years past. I’d always start editing right away and finding reasons not to continue. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to corral those damn plot bunnies.

    Happy writing!

  23. Hooray! Thanks, Angela, for making my own writer’s block feel less intimidating. I suffer a lot, castigating myself for not just plowing on with the writing when I know I haven’t figured out a crucial motivation or plot point.

  24. What a great post, Angela!

    Like you, I can’t write through these things. A block is my subconscious telling me something’s off. So I use the downtime to edit what I have so far, smooth it out, make adjustments or add detail to my working outline until the light bulb goes off. Either that or I watch TV and make a really big cocktail. If I plow over this step, I’m likely to leave plot holes big enough to drive a tractor through. While my muse can sometimes be a bitch, she’s rarely wrong.

    Thanks for sharing with us today. It’s nice to know (or distressing, depending on your point of view) that even experienced writers have these problems. We’re as normal as writers can be.

    Good luck with that book. We’ve enjoyed having you with us.

  25. Melinda — Do you pick the winners of the books at random, or am I supposed to do it?

  26. Melinda — Thank you so much for the opportunity to blog on ATTACKING THE PAGE. I love your blog, and I highly recommend it. Thank you, and I want to thank everyone who made such wonderful comments and gave me so much encouragement.

    Angela Knight

  27. At random, I picked the numbers 4 and 15. That would be Wendy S Marcus and kimberlyloomis. Please e-mail me your addresses so I can send you your books, ladies.

    Thank you so much for commenting and reading my blog.

  28. In case you’re wondering, I skipped my own replies in that count.

  29. I dunno…I’m a pantser from day one–I don’t plot at all. Just start with my characters and ask ’em wha’sup…generally they tell me. But when they don’t nothing on earth will make them talk other than setting the book aside, taking a hike, a long, hot shower, going for a drive. Something that engages the part of my brain that says I can’t do it, and frees up the wild child who knows she can. It can take a few days, though, which really sucks when you’re facing a deadline…and it’s BEHIND you.

  30. Angela,

    I’ve tried writing with music low in the background to distract my internal editor while my muse creates. Sometime it works. Sometimes I just need to get away from the project for a little bit. A solution will usually present itself at the most unlikely time and place.

    Thank you for guest blogging with us!

  31. Angela, thanks so much for this post! I feel better already 🙂 I always feel like there’s something wrong with me when I come across an author that claims they’ve never suffered from writer’s block. My muse is much easier to work with when I’m gentle with him. He’s really sexy, but sometimes not all that productive.
    Kaylea Cross

  32. Sometimes the best thing for a writer to do is nothing

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