Saturday, November 29, 2014

Strangling the muse

I’m forever hearing my fellow authors talking about finding their muse. That always makes me laugh.

If you’re friends with me on Facebook, you probably saw my post yesterday about our Thanksgiving festivities. We ate, went back to the apartment of my son and his girlfriend, and visited until she had to go to work. Then we sat around some more. During that sitting-around time, Sir somehow managed to work the word “spluge” into the conversation. I don’t know how; apparently I’ve permanently blocked out that little moment in time. But what ensued was one of those things of which family history is made.

Our daughter, whose personality I’ve described as having my quick wit and sarcastic sense of humor and her dad’s poor timing and total lack of brakes, then began a litany on what I will politely call “Slang Terms For Male Ejaculate.” There are a lot of them. A LOT of them. Tons. Stuff I’d never heard, but made me shriek with laughter. My mother was there, the woman who thinks she urinates from her clitoris, and she tried everything she could within her Southern Baptist constitution to not laugh, but she struggled, I could tell.

The little game session ended with my daughter drawing a penis spewing (pick your slang term here) on her brother’s girlfriend’s mirror, to which I added an arrow and the words “Red Eye Surprise” (yes, yet another slang term we discovered). If this makes you want to friend me on Facebook simply out of curiousity about my weird life, go right ahead. This story is more tame than most.

But I digress.

Here was what happened for me during this little game: I started to think about what some of the Walters men would do in that situation. And I knew exactly. I could hear them in my mind, see their faces. I knew Vic would get the ball rolling; not sure how, but he would. Tony would jump right into the fray and keep it going. Clayton would be laughing so hard he couldn’t speak or breathe, José would pull out some extremely creative terms, and Peyton would blush, get up, and go back into the kitchen, where he’d find Doug watching from the doorway, doubled over with laughter but afraid to get involved for fear he’d hear about it later when he chided someone else for their filthy mouth. Freddie would be overwhelmed and not know where to begin, Bart would be laughing quietly, Bennie would just be grinning, Mark would throw one in occasionally with a little medical terminology flair, and John Henry would be goading Vic on. Nikki and Laura would be listening from the kitchen, shaking their heads; Annabeth and Katie would be glad that they didn’t have to deal with that stuff; and Brittany would be mad that they were carrying on like that with the kids wandering around. And Sophie would wander through, yell, “POOGE, DADDY!!!” and squeal and run down the hall. That would make Tony howl with laughter when Laura came through the doorway and shot Vic a look that would wilt a California redwood.

And if this took place elsewhere, everyone would be getting a glimpse of Clint’s personality since he and Trish have been together because he’d be the ringleader. Out from under the specter of grief and despair where he’d lived for so long, we’d get a chance to find out that Clint is funny and silly and friendly and warm and loving, all those things he didn’t seem capable of. Of course, Steffen would be laughing so hard he couldn’t breathe and throwing in the occasional sickening term, and Dave would be sitting there very matter-of-factly, calmly rattling them off one by one as fast as he could come up with them. Marta and Angela would be screaming with laughter, Sheila would be right in the middle of it, and Trish would be wondering how long it would be before they got a call from McKenna’s teacher when she said something in class about “baby batter.”

But this brings me back to the muses. You see, I don’t have to drum mine up. They’re with me all the time. I don’t think about them; they just live with me. They’ve taken up residence in my head and they won’t go away, and I’m sort of glad. I don’t have to work at it. My books almost write themselves because I just follow the characters and watch them, let their lives unfold, and see where it goes. Yeah, I have a plot and a general idea where it will go, but when I turn them and their personalities loose, things happen that enrich the plots to the point that the books become WAAYYYY  more interesting than I’d originally planned. They fill in the simple, day-to-day things that make the book more realistic between the large events that make the plot what it is.

And that’s fine with me. Let them write the books. Takes some of the pressure off, knowwhatI’msayin’?

Sometimes they’re talking when I’d really rather they weren’t. Like when I’m trying to write in one series and the characters from another are talking. That’s kind of distracting. No, that’s very distracting. Then I have to stop, have a conversation with them, go back to the other manuscripts, note what they’re saying, and then return to what I was doing. What a bother.

Or when I’m at the grocery and Laura and Nikki are talking about cooking something that I have no intention of making in the next month. It’s hard to remember to get rutabagas when someone’s chattering on and on about cheesecake. Hard to stay on a diet too, for that matter.

And then there’s when I’m in the shower. Or having sex. Which is okay if it’s the guys talking, but when it’s the girls, that’s kinda creepy. In a sexy way. Oh, nevermind.

Another author and I were talking one day and he asked if mine ever shut up. I told him no; he said that made him feel not quite so alone because his don’t ever shut up either. Yet another author friend and I have talked about the fact that it’s almost like we’re channeling them. Really, it is. It’s like they take over and tell me what should be going on, like I should be trying on a new pair of Jimmy Choos when, in reality, I’m supposed to be scrubbing the shower. Nice try, Kelly. Have fun at Nordstrom.

So when they get to be too much and you just don’t want to deal with them, or you know what you want to say and you think you don’t need their help, here’s how to get rid of them. I think I will call it:

Remind yourself, “They’re not real”

Yeah, tell yourself that over and over. Remember: If you don’t see them as real people, then your readers won’t either. It will relieve them of the responsibility of reading your work because it’ll be so boring and contrived that they’ll never get through it. When a reader can read your dialogue and say, “Nope. Real people would never say that,” then you’ve managed to shut up the muses. Nice going.

It also cuts down on arguments in the car. Between them, I mean. I wear my Bluetooth EVERYWHERE or people think I’m daft because I’m arguing with myself in the car. I could put down the window and say, “It’s Tony and Nikki, I swear!” But I fear that would get me in even more trouble because, to the rest of the world, I’m alone. If only they knew . . .

I’m never alone.

Create a diversion

This always works nicely. Turn up the music – REALLY LOUD. Or here’s the muse-killer extraordinaire: Turn on the TV. Works every time. If you want to create a situation where they can’t talk to you, TV always sets the mood – unless you’re trying to recreate Vampire Diaries in your books, at which time you’ll need the TV. But you won’t need a computer or pen and paper, because no one wants to read that shit. Been done. Move on.

And there’s always pain pills, booze, or your mother droning on and on over the phone. The mother will kill your muses in under three minutes. The pain pills will do the same. The booze? Hemingway said, “Write drunk. Edit sober.” To which I say, “Amen, brother, preach it.” Do I write better when I’m drinking? I’d like to think so. I’m not sure, but I know I certainly write happier. And yes, it loosens me up. That’s one drink. Two, not so much. With three, let me warn you: NO ONE writes well sloppy drunk. That’ll make your muses run for the hills for sure.

Now, add to this movies with friends, arguments with your kids or significant other, and calling your ex just to fight for no reason. That’ll do it. After all, this isn’t serious business – it’s just writing. No biggie.

Jump from manuscript to manuscript

You’re working along and they’re chattering in the background, but you’re tired of them, so go to that other manuscript, the one you’ve never found the muses for, and work on that for awhile. They’ll get bored and go away. Better yet, start yet another story, one that you really haven’t gotten a feel for yet, but that, for reasons unknown to anyone on the planet, you think will sell better. Yeah, that one. Work on that for awhile. Your muses will eventually give up, go sit down, and whisper amongst themselves. They’ll leave you completely out of the loop and you’ll have peace and quiet to muck around in.

No, I’m not suggesting that you only have one manuscript going. But if you’ve got more than one open at a time, well, you’re pretty sure to chase your muses away. Try it – you’ll see I’m right.

Decide that they’re wrong

You have a character named Bob. Bob is a really, really serious guy. He’s had a hard life, and he rarely if ever smiles. He’s dealing with a lot of emotional pain. To top it off, he’s very shy. You’ve devised this huge soiree you want Bob to go to, and he’s going to be the life of the party. And when you start writing it, Bob says, “Whoa! I’m not going to a party! My social anxiety disorder will kick in big time. I’m getting a little nauseous and flushed just thinking about it. Please, I can’t do this. It will kill me.”

And you say, “No, you’re going to the party. You’re going to be the life of the party, and then later, you’re going back to being your old self. I want everyone to see this side of you, Bob.”

To which Bob responds, “But I don’t HAVE that side. It’s not there. Please, don’t try to make me. It’ll ruin everything.” Actually, he’s begging and pleading.

No, you’re not moved by his entreatment, so you persist. And, as predicted, it comes off leaden and contrived. But hey, Bob’s not telling you what to do anymore, right? Problem solved.

Try to make them be you-know-who

You’re writing along with your characters, Hannah and Tristan. And you suddenly realize: They’re not enough like Ana and Christian. You even tried with the names, but they’re just not acting like them, all shaky and socially inept or angsty and tormented. Doesn’t matter that the story is going along just fine, that it’s looking pretty interesting, or that they’re developing their own personalities. No, they’re just not similar enough to the characters in your favorite book. They’re not Bella and Edward enough. And your character Jackson isn’t enough like Jacob.

They must change. They must conform or perish. So you kill one of them off and then get another one in there that’s more Christian- or Edward-like. Congratulations. You’ve just written someone else’s book.

Ignore them

Let me just tell you right now, Vittorio Vincenzo Moretti Cabrizzi aka Victor Vincent Walters is not ABOUT to be ignored. The guy just won’t have it, and if you know anything about him, you know that if he intends to be noticed, he will be, no way around it. Besides, with his size and looks, ignoring him is pretty much impossible anyway. Antonio Luigi Walters is accustomed to being the authority figure in his circle, and he earned that position with intelligence, hard work, and wisdom born of years of struggle. He has no intention of being ignored, and you can ask his little wife, Nicolette Renee Wallace Wilkes Walters, about that. She’ll tell you that ignoring him is as easy as shoving a chimpanzee into a shoebox. Just isn’t going to happen. But if I ignored Vic or Tony long enough, know what they’d do? They’d leave, that’s what they’d do. Your muses will too. If you ignore them, they’ll find another fertile field to plant in, and it won’t be yours. Try making a plot without them.

Oh yeah. You have. Forget I said that. How’d that work for you?

Just generally don’t like them

This is the one that will really kill them off. They’ll leave and they’ll never come back. Ready?
Dislike them. Hate them, really. They’ll disappear because, as Steffen says in Unforgettable You, everyone just wants to be loved.

See, here’s the thing. We talked about this in a panel on which I sat that dealt with villains. If you want an effective villain, one that will really, really grip the reader and leave them torn, conflicted, and basically invested up to their earlobes in the story, make that villain a despicable person with a conflicted, tormented heart that lets you know that even they have some redeeming quality. It may be insignificant, but there’s something there, some little spark of humanity, that they can’t deny or deal with. They’re the person the reader hates but, at the same time, wants desperately to love because the reader sees that soft little underbelly and wants to stroke it to make that villain even just a little less tormented. The reader wants to like them; can’t, but wants to.

So do it. Hate your characters. Give them absolutely no redeeming value. Make them the most emotionally devoid, painstakingly cruel entity on the planet. Let them be someone who meets with a fate worse than death because you can’t stand them.

I didn’t like Steve very much when I started writing him into the Love Under Construction series. He seemed to be a loathsome individual. But know what I found as I went along? Steve had his own story, his own, sad, sweet, hurtful story, and I owed it to him to give him that opportunity to redeem himself by letting everyone see that soft, warm, vulnerable side of him. If I hadn’t done that? If you don’t do that?

Don’t be surprised if, halfway through the story, that muse bails on you. When they realize that you don’t like them and won’t give them even the tiniest break, just the smallest crumb of sympathy, they’ll disappear. You won’t hear from them again. But you’ll have to find another villain, because that muse has evaporated before your eyes.


There. See? It’s not so hard to kill off your muses. Writers do that every day. I know, because I’ve accidentally gotten hold of some of their books. You’ll know one when you read it. It’s the one you can’t finish, the one that tells you you’ll never buy another of that author’s books.

Trust me, Mr. or Miss Author Person, that dance you do with your muse will be the most important one of your life. And believe you me, if Tony, or Vic, or Clint or Steffen or Dave show up in the night and want to dance with me?

I’m going to open up this laptop and dance until I drop. And then I'll be excited to see where they take me next. Frankly, I trust them a lot more than I trust myself. Without them, there'd be no story. And that story? That's everything.