Writing Without A Muse

calliopeThis is another in my irregular series of posts documenting the process of writing my first non-genre novel, working title, Chocotle. Previous posts are lower in the stack. The purpose of this documentation? Many. One is that it helps me move forward. I write these when I’m stuck. Often, writing out what’s on my mind helps me get past the problem, which is usually my own preconception of what should happen.

Also, based on past experience, when this project is done and I’m on to the next one, my memory of writing this will be erased and it should be interesting to revisit the present moment from the point of view of an alien future. I tend not to repeat myself too much, and I keep changing, so my future self will be nothing like my present self.

This is my fourth novel-length story, and each has come from a different head space. My first was a madcap adventure-thriller across three continents,  with stolen treasures, mistaken identities, multiple murders, and sentimental relationships. I undertook it mainly just to see if I could write from a female point of view, but I learned a lot about writing in the process.

The second effort was a mystery-thriller of sorts, involving a divided self rather than outright mistaken identity, with only one murder, and making a determined effort to embrace more realistic characters, consciously backing away from the cartoon  people  and plots that permeate mass media culture. But it was still in the category of a “romp,” a shaggy adventure story for its own sake.

The third one, starring a hard-boiled police detective, was in some ways a regression to the cartoony mystery genre of earlier work, but I wanted my detective to undergo a serious character arc, changing from Manichean absolutist to nuanced humanist. I started him out as a hard-boiled cop to contrast with where he would end up (not as a cop). There were plenty of murders, because he’s a homicide detective, but they were all off stage. This was the first time I tried to include an explicit theme, or story question in a novel. I was exploring whether a rigid, black-and-white personality can ever really change to accept more subtle views of self, world, and other. The answer was yes, and the magic potion was love. That project still needs a lot of editing because it reads like two stories mashed together. The arc did not arc as gracefully as I had hoped.

This fourth project, Chocotle, aspires to leave the genre terrain behind. It is a story about ordinary people doing relatively ordinary things. There are no murders, not even any guns. The dramas and conflicts arise mainly from within families and romantic relationships (as in life). I’m terribly worried about this novel because on the face of it, “nothing happens.”  But I am determined to push through to the end before I pass judgment.

And the ending, or lack of it, is what has me stuck at present. I am in the END section, which should be about 25% of the whole.  The large, sprawling MIDDLE is over. I’m at 65K words, which feels about right. What I’m trying to do now is provoke the final climax and reversal, leading to the resolution.  Wrap it up and get the hell out, that’s the mission. As usual, the unfolding is going slowly, proceeding through a fog, the destination only dimly discerned.

The main problem is that I have lost the muse. I’m writing from my overall outline, in which I have set high-level goals for the characters and their situations. I look at that and I say, “Okay, in this chapter, this character has to get from Place A to Place B, and has to change his or her outlook from X to Y.”  Then I write words to make it happen. I’m not guided by any vision or inspiration for the characters or their plight. It’s more mechanical than that. I’m using the narrator to compress time, to make things happen quicker.  Dialogs are briefer and though I hope, still full of tension, they present fewer surprises to me. Characters say what I want them to say, what they need to say for practical reasons of the outline and the chapter goals.

I don’t think I’m writing badly, only differently. I don’t sit around waiting for inspiration “from where I dream,” as they say. I just write, getting the job done. I crank out a 10-page chapter in three to five days. It’s rough-draft quality, that goes without saying. But it’s something, and making something out of nothing is the job. It just feels odd to be “cranking” instead of following the beckoning of a coyly smiling muse.

Maybe I simply know my characters better now. I am on chapter 22. I don’t have to wonder what they’ll do or say because I know them. Maybe I’m counting on my readers knowing them better too by this point, so I don’t feel the need to delve so deeply into the heads as before. At the same time, the plot has thickened, so maybe I’m being pulled along by plot devices as much as by characters’ motivations, a regression to type. I think there is some of that going on. It’s not necessarily bad.

So I’m going to crank it out to the end, some kind of end, and then go back and evaluate the whole thing. That’s the only way forward. If I stop and get self-judgmental now, the momentum will die and so will be the project. Can’t stop writing…

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