Waiting for the Muse

Often when I talk at writing conferences, book clubs, and other gatherings, someone will ask what the process is by which I get from the blank page to a finished manuscript. I stammer through something resembling an answer, but it always seems a bit lame and inadequate.  I wish it were as simple to describe as “first I do this, and then I do that,” but it isn’t, and the truth is I am hard pressed to explain how all the little inspirations that whiz around me like electrons join forces with the imagination that has to be coaxed out from under the bed.

I’m trying to use my new novel in progress as a means of understanding better for myself what happens when I write, so I can be more coherent in talking about it afterwards.  I think the best I can do at the moment is to say that I wait for the Muse to appear, but while I’m waiting I start writing anyway.  Is what I write in the absence of the Muse any good? Sometimes. I don’t go into it with the expectation that is will or won’t be good, but just that it will be.

I am only about 4000 words in to a manuscript that will probably end up being about 130,000 words (a fairly typical novel length–around the page count of THE FOUR SEASONS), and I have already unceremoniously deleted and started over on one passage of about a thousand words, because it just wasn’t a compelling enough opening to a novel.  I needed a voice that would draw the reader in and I didn’t have it the first time around.  The second time, I think I got something not only more vivid, but also sustainable over the course of the book.  On the other hand, one scene just seemed to spill out of my fingers onto the keys and is already polished to a level I wouldn’t mind seeing published.

It feels like a real gift to get something right the first time I write it down.  The other gift is just to be writing at all.  That’s why I don’t wait for full-on, mind-blowing inspiration.  I know that will come as I work my way into the story and get to know the characters and the settings.  At some point the plot will gather momentum from that knowledge.  What can and can’t happen will be clear, and I’ve learned to wait for that to reveal itself rather than getting committed to a plot going one way or another. The hard part at that point is that I want to write faster than is humanly possible.  I want to be a hundred pages ahead of where I am, and I know I’m months away from certain scenes I can’t wait to get to.

But once I’ve had my morning coffee and sit down at the keyboard, I’m usually happy to be just where I am. Though I usually know what’s going to transpire in a scene, I can’t wait to see just how it happens–who says what, does what, thinks what.  It’s a real privilege to be in the position of getting the breaking news before anyone else does.

Who is my heroine and what is she doing on the opening page of the book?  Dear reader, you’ll know in about two years when the book is (I hope) in your hands!  Until then, its just between me, my computer, and a Muse who often runs a little late.