"Spanking the muse"

More busy days with my day-job, so I’m sorry these blog posts are coming slowly. But not it’s Friday night, work is over for the week, laundry is folded — almost — and I’m sitting in front of Becoming Jane, laptop on my lap and glass of wine by my side. Ahhh

Here’s number two of my posts from the North Texas SCBWI conference last weekend. Illustrator David Diaz, who won the Caldecott Medal (and he told us it is an actual medal, that’s quite heavy) for the picture book Smoky Night, talked about writer’s block and what he called, “spanking the muse.”

David’s amusing talk gave some interesting insight in the ways in which writers and illustrators deal with those times when they have trouble creating. Prior to the conference, he did a (non)scientific study on Facebook and found that many creative types use many things to bring on the muse, with alcohol rated quite high.

But from David’s advice from the study, here are a few tips:

  • Focus – on what you’re trying to achieve
  • Change your medium – write with pen and paper if you’re used to a computer
  • Slow down or speed up – too much technique can kill creativity; let it flow
  • Move your butt – go for a walk or something to change your environment
  • Feed your head – nurture your inner creative person by providing creative things (David said he spends much time combing magazines for inspiration)
  • Embrace your inner dinker – allow yourself the freedom to dinker (David’s word for procrastinate) as long it opens you up to let the muse come in

David showed a number of quotes about the muse, and here are my two favorites:

“One reason I don’t suffer writer’s block is that I don’t wait for the muse. I summon her at need.” — Piers Anthony

“I have a wonderful muse called alimony.” — Dick Shaap


I love both of these, and I think they both have the same message: Make your own muse.

I’m going off David’s talk now, but I’m a believer making your own muse. I used to write whenever I had the time, and I got writer’s block often. But since I made the commitment to write every day, writer’s block hasn’t been as much of a problem, and my muse mostly stays close by. To me, the muse will give to you whatever you give to her (him or it). Inspiration comes when you’re living your story, writing every day and keeping the characters in your head as much as often when you’re not actively writing. Do that, and you’ll always have somewhere to go in the story, because your characters will always be taking you somewhere.

Robert McKee, author of Story, said the key to overcoming writer’s block is research. For me, whether you’re actually researching some aspect of your story or simply thinking about your story and actively writing, it’s one and the same. Both keep your muse at your side.

One of the best talks I’ve seen on creativity (as well as David’s, of course) is from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Love, Pray. I’ve linked to it before, but I think it’s worth mentioning again. And this time I found the code so I could actually embed the video. It’s about 20 minutes, but it’s worth watching; you won’t be disappointed.

How’s your muse treating you?

Write On!


Overcoming challenges to write

Today we have an interview with author Paul Maurice Martin, whose non-fiction book Original Faith: What Your Life Is Trying to Tell You came out last year.

Paul has a wonderful story about writing while overcoming illness.

Thanks for being on DayByDayWriter today, Paul, and congratulations on your book. Please tell us a little about Original Faith and how it came into being.



Thanks for having me, Samantha. Original Faith is a nonsectarian guide to spiritual growth. It speaks in terms of direct experience instead of doctrine about topics that include love, faith, work and getting beyond our egoism. The book offers readers insight as well as practical suggestions – I see the two as very much related. Original Faith is meant to enrich the faith of believers while highlighting the most energizing and creative features of inner life for nonbelievers.

The book started itself. When I was twenty-three, I had a spontaneous experience of the kind that people often seek through meditation. At that time, I’d never meditated or studied religion. I only knew that the experience was profoundly positive and a direct challenge to the despairing world view that I’d developed beginning in my teens. 

I started to see things differently, to experience life differently. I started jotting down ideas that were occurring to me just to help my own thought-process along. Several months later, I noticed it looked like my notes might be shaping up into a book manuscript.

By then, my life had been truly transformed. I’d gone from a mental state that I’m sure was clinically depressed to depression free – and the depression would never return. I was headed in a new direction that would soon take me to the University of Chicago Divinity School for a master’s degree and later a second master’s in counseling from the University of New Hampshire.

You had a break in writing due to illness. Was it difficult to starting writing again after so many years, and if so, what helped you finish?

Original Faith book coverIt was a long break all right. I had to stop writing for ten years because I was working full-time, my health was declining, and I was dealing with ongoing medical travel, research into rare diseases, and major health insurance struggles. 

Starting to write again was difficult only in the sense that I had to re-familiarize myself with my notes and files. But in another way, it was easy. I was at a point where my illness was progressing so fast that it was clear that if I didn’t organize and transfer my handwritten notes to the computer soon, then I was going to run out of time. I was rapidly losing the mobility and range of motion needed to work with paper files.

Do you have a routine that you use for your writing, and if so, could you tell us about it? 

Most of the creative work on Original Faith and most of my creative writing in other areas as well was done when I was still healthy. I used to get up in the early hours of the morning to write before heading for work. Late in the afternoon or early in the evening at the end of my workday just didn’t work out – it wasn’t a creative time for me.

When I’ve heard other writers interviewed, I seem to notice that more often than not they write in the morning. Ideally, I’d have written between maybe 8 AM and 11 AM or noon. But since I had to go to work, getting up at around 3 AM and writing until between 6 and 7 AM was second best.

Of course, the hard thing about 3 AM is getting up that early and having to go to bed early. But in writing terms, it worked well. Once I’d gotten up and had a couple cups of coffee, I could write effectively at that hour. The key for me was to write not long after waking up so as to have a fresh, uncluttered mind.

I read that you started your day with meditation sessions. Could you tell us about what you do to meditate? Do you think it helps you be creative?

I learned to meditate from the late Fr. Basil Pennington at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. He taught a very simple form of meditation. It consists of repeating a word that you’ve chosen for this purpose – for example, “love,” “peace,” or “God” – and repeating it to yourself each time you exhale.

The purpose isn’t to think about the meaning of the word, but to make the word a continuing focus of attention to prevent your mind from engaging in its normally ceaseless background chatter. So even just a sound – like the famous “Om” – could work as well as a word. Every time your mind starts to wander, you return to the word or sound.

You might say that the purpose of meditation is to find out what your mind can do if you give it a break from not saying things to yourself. Giving your mind a break from mental chatter on a regular basis can do amazing things over time. These include gradually making you a calmer person in day to day life and deepening your personal relationship with God or life itself, according to how you think about these things – again, my focus is experience itself and not belief systems.

I’d be surprised if these effects didn’t indirectly enhance my creativity. For sure there were two key insights that I discuss in Original Faith that came to me as a direct outcome of reflecting on a particular kind of experience that I sometimes had while meditating.

Both of these insights concern love – a spiritual experience that crosses all sectarian divisions. Love is the subject of Original Faith’s first chapter and the foundation for everything that follows.

Thanks, Paul, and good luck with the book.

And for those reading this, reflecting on your story in the way we’ve talked about on this blog is a kind of meditation, I guess, but the deep kind of meditation that Paul talks about is something people study for years. If you want to try it, I suggest you study it carefully first.

If you have any questions for Paul, post them in comments. For more information about Original Faith: What Your Life Is Trying to Tell You, see Paul’s website and the book’s Amazon page.

Write On!

What to do when you've finished your book

Typing The End after spending months or even years writing a book is an exciting, thrilling thing. But when it’s done, what do you do?

After celebrating with a nice dinner and good bottle of wine, if you’re like me, you want to scroll all the way back up to page 1 and start revising. But WAIT!

You’ve had these characters and this story floating around in your head for all these months, and although you’re going to miss being around them for a little while, you’ll gain more if you keep a bit of distance.

Because we have the story in our heads so much, if we re-read it now, we’ll most likely follow along the same paths we took in our first draft, because it’s familiar. But if we wait, at least two weeks but preferably a month or two, we have the opportunity to see the story fresh in a new light. And with that, we have the opportunity to take the story to a new level of creativity, in the action, dialog and words.

At a seminar I attended years ago, one thing has stayed with me: Never settle for your first idea. The more ways you think about writing a scene, a line of dialog or a description, the more it’ll be your own.

Ever seen a movie trailer or read about a book and thought, Hey, that’s like my idea? As the seminar speaker reminded us, people often have the same ideas — I don’t know why, perhaps because we all have similar experiences that we get our ideas from.

As that is true, to make our work as creative and our own as possible, we need to dig down to the fifth or sixth, even tenth idea of how to do that scene, line of dialog or description.

Digging down to deeper creativity, will also give our work that strong voice we always here about — our voice — and make our work stand out in comparison to all the other manuscripts trying to find an agent and/or editor. Especially in the current economy, when both agents and publishing houses are being more choosy about which books to invest time and money in, standing out is all the more important.

So, what to do when you’ve finished your book? Start on your next. You don’t have to finish it before you go back to researching your last book. You don’t even have to start writing, but start thinking, start researching, start planning. Let new ideas and characters float around in your head. Get as prepared as you can be, then take a break, and do your revision. Getting your mind focused on something else will help make you that much fresher when you go back to the revision, and this preparation time will make you ready to roll when you’re done with your revisions and can move onto your next project.

What are you working on?

Write On!

Getting creative

Current word count: 21,859

New words written: 966

Words til goal: 18,141 / 422 words a day til the end of September

Another good writing morning. Yay!

I’m at a strange part of my story for me. My characters have moved to a different world, and I haven’t created a different world before, so it has been intimidating but fun. I keep reminding myself that if it doesn’t work for any reason, that’s what revisions are for.

My words written each day has been over my goal in only about an hour or two, which means that my fingers are pretty much not stopping as soon as I hit the computer in the morning. To do that, I’ve got to know somewhat where the story is going. So preparation is key. How can I get that preparation when I only just woke up minutes before? Being fully engrossed in my story all the time.

For busy writers, whether they’re busy writing or busy with the rest of the things in their life, tapping into creativity whenever you sit at your computer can be daunting, and difficult, but it’s a must.

If being a writer full time is our goal — being a published writer — we can’t sit around waiting for the muse to whisper sweet plot lines into our ears. When we’ve got publishing deals signed, we’re going to have to deal with deadlines and make sure we meet them (Check out what Editorial Ass said recently about Making Your Delivery Date). And to make those deadlines, we won’t be able to wait for the muse.

Being creative when you’re tired from your day-job and you’ve got bills to pay and a family to feed and laundry to do, etc., can be difficult. To make sure that creativity is there, on call, ready to be tapped into whenever you need it, make sure you’re fully engrossed in your story ALL THE TIME; not just when you sit in front of your computer, but all the time.

Some of my most creative ideas have come not while I was writing, but while I was doing something mundane in my life. That’s the time when my mind can wander back to my novel and explore, even though I’m not actively writing at that time.

Driving: I’m not advocating not paying attention on the road, but driving is one of those activities that, as long as you’re being mindful of the other cars, you can allow your mind to think about other things too. Next time you’re driving around, between work and home, the grocery store, kids school, turn off the radio and bring your story into your head. Let the characters play around in there and watch. If something interesting happens, make sure you write it down so you won’t forgot — but after you’ve parked the car, of course.

Walking: Exercise is necessary to keep up your energy, and if you’ve got a dog, it’s necessary for the dog too. But your walking time can give you a few minutes to mull over your story as well. I also use my walk the dog time to read, which is an excellent way of increasing your writing skills, but you have to make sure you don’t trip.

Showering: Another mundane but necessary action. While your brain’s on soaping up autopilot, allow it to also consider what your characters are doing.

Cooking: Turn off the TV in the background, and while you stir your sauce, let your brain wander back to your book.

The more you find ways of bringing your story into your head when you’re not at your computer, the better prepared you’ll be when your fingers hit the keyboard.

When do you get your best ideas?

Write On!

Writing creates writing

Current word count: 19,901

New words written: 1,067

Words til goal: 20,099 / 436 words a day til the end of September

I had a good writing day and made my weekend goal in one day. Yay! Hopefully I can do the same tomorrow. We’ll see. The story is coming together again now that the characters are clearer. It makes such a difference.

But I’ve noticed two interesting things:

1. Although this novel is steaming along, I must admit, as I get closer to the third act, I am nervous I’ll mess it up. I felt the same way when I was writing my first novel, intimidated by the ending. There’s a voice deep at the back of my head that says, Ok, so you’ve been doing all right up to now, but there’s no way you’re going to write a really great ending, the kind readers will remember and cherish and want to read over and over again.

I’m ignoring this voice, keeping it far away. But it’s there. And I every time I write, I think, just see what the characters are doing today. Of course, my subconcious knows that with every word I write, I’m closer to that intimidating ending. I just won’t think about that.

Do you have this problem?

2. Last week, I had an idea for a new novel, and added it to my list of ideas. But it keeps creeping in. The characters are waving at me, not too close, but they’re there. The idea keeps popping into my head, and expanding. It’s as though my brain is on a creative streak, and I think it’s mostly due to the continued writing. I think writing creates more writing. When I started writing my second novel, it gave me a creative boost that helped me go back and revise my first novel — for the better, I think. Writing creates writing.

I’m beginning to feel addicted. 🙂

Do you?

Write On!

The origin of creativity

TED.com has a video of a great talk from author Elizabeth Gilbert about nurturing creativity. She talks about where creativity comes from and how in today’s society, when an author or creative person achieves a certain amount of success, there’s enormous pressure to do even better next time. Gilbert can attest after the huge (she calls it “freakish”) success of her Eat, Pray, Love. To relieve some of the pressure, she suggests that we stop thinking of successful creative types as geniuses (with the need to constantly repeat the genius) and instead adopt some of the ideas of the Greeks and Romans, who believed that creativity was a gift from the gods (thereby taking some of the pressure off us). Of course, Elizabeth Gilbert says it all much better than me, so I recommend taking 20 minutes and watching the video.

I totally agree with what Elizabeth’s saying. Sure we work hard at our writing, and we grow our talent and skills, but there’s more to creativity than that. And in my experience, that more is God. I believe that God gives us all gifts when we are born, and we can choose to use them, build on them, or not. And He can help, but we have to ask. That’s free will.

I also think He gives us nudges, pokes to get us going in the right direction. And hopefully we’re open to them, and if we follow through, follow His will, then everything’s beautiful — still work, but beautiful nonetheless.

When I got the idea for the Sir Newton books, I did nothing with it. I thought it was a good idea, but frankly, honestly, I was scared to do anything with it, to take a chance of failing. So I didn’t do anything. Then one day, when I was walking to work, the idea popped into my head again, but not a simple, “Hi, remember me?” It was like a tornado. The idea burrowed into my head and exploded into a heap of other ideas, about how the books would look, what kind of content they would have, why they would sell, etc. It felt as though something was shouting at me: “Hey, I gave you this great idea a while back, and you’re not doing anything with it. Here’s what it could be. Do something with it.” Needless to say, I did something with it and they have been a success.

More recently, I was doing the structural revision of my novel and I was revising a part that had made me stuck for days. I just couldn’t think of a good way to fix the problem, and I had gone over it and over it. My plan was to stop torturing myself and take a break for a couple days in the hope that inspiration would strike. But that night, I was at our local church sitting in our Adoration chapel (I was raised Catholic), and I was talking to Our Lord and telling Him the problems I was having. I asked Him to help and basically said that I believed God had given me the idea for this novel, but if I was going to do it well, I needed His help, because I couldn’t figure it out on my own. Despite planning to take a break on the revision, the next morning, I woke up early with the solution in my head. I jumped on my computer and had the problem solved in an hour, and not only was it solved, but I got all these other great ideas. Thank you, God.

A family friend who’s a priest told me once that I should pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance before I start writing every day. I don’t. I always forget. But I do pray about my writing regularly, and when I do, I can see the change in the work.

What drives your creativity?

Write On!

Dig deep

One of the best pieces of writing advice I have heard was to find the 10th way of doing things. It was in a screenwriting seminar, and I apologize to the wise man who said this, because I can’t remember who it was. Let’s call him Will (after Shakespeare, who no doubt used this rule whether he knew it was a rule or not).  Wise Will was, indeed. He said that for all the decisions you make in your writing, you should discard the first nine and write the 10th. The first nine, he said, are the easy choices, ones that other people will also have. The 10th idea will be the one that’s starting to get really original.


Last night, I watched The Spiderwick Chronicles movie, and I realized just how true Will’s words are. As I was sitting there watching, I kept thinking, “Hey, that’s like in my book.” Yep, my novel, the first draft of which I finished writing last week. The thing is, this was my first time watching the movie and I haven’t read the books. (I know, not good for an aspiring children’s novelist, but they are on my “read really soon” list and, after watching the movie, have been bumped up to the top so I can compare the mediums.)


Now, this isn’t to say that I think like Spiderwick creators Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi or that they are unoriginal. It’s just an example that different people can have similar ideas without even knowing it. This happened to me while I was dabbling in screenplays too. A few days after finishing a vampire script, in which I had come up with something I thought was truly original because I had never seen it before in any movie and hadn’t stumbled across it in any of my research, I watched Blade III and saw my idea realized on the screen, at least, something similar to my idea.


In Hollywood, there’s a saying (well, not a saying, but a belief, or not a belief but… you’ll get the point) that there are no original ideas anymore. That all the stories have already been told. Joseph Campbell said, and proved, to a point, that all stories are different versions of the Hero’s Journey.


Maybe that’s true. Maybe all the stories have been told. The difference is, they haven’t been told by us, in our way. And for us to really find that idea, that way of doing a scene that is truly original, we have to dig deep, find our 10th idea. I’m going to do that when I start revising my novel.


What are you working on?


Write On!