Are you inspired?

It was back at Windycon, in the Green Room before a panel, that I ran into Kerrie Hughes. Kerrie mentioned that she was going to edit a theme anthology called GAMER FANTASTIC which DAW Books was publishing, and gee, had I ever been a gamer? Of course I had, I told her. Heck, I’d run a fantasy RPG for several years for a bunch of local people… In that case, Kerrie asked, would you want to write a story for the anthology?Sure, I answered, especially since the deadline was June 1st of 2008 and it was at that time November of 2007. It’s always easy to say “Sure” when the deadline’s next year sometime.

I like doing the occasional short story; it’s a nice break from the novels, a chance to start and finish something within a a week or two rather than a year to two years. And given how relatively quickly one can write a short story, when I put the invite reminder in my calendar, I had it pop up on May 1…

A month should be twice as much time as I needed. Maybe three times.

For the last several years, I’ll get, oh, maybe one or two such invitations a year. I rarely turn them down if the anthology’s theme is something that interests me. Only once have I failed to come up with something I like as a result — I was working on a tight deadline for a novel at the time, and if a story idea had arisen that I could have written in a few days, I’d have put aside the novel long enough to write it…. but nothing was coming, and nothing was coming, and the deadline for the anthology kept creeping closer and closer, and I finally had to admit that it wasn’t going to happen. That one failure still embarrasses me, since I hated having to bail on the editor at the last moment, although knowing that she had a couple writers waiting in the wings in case helped. I’m fairly sure, though, that she’ll never again ask me to be in something she’s editing. Can’t say I blame her, actually.

I also like to ‘push the envelope’ of the theme a bit, find a direction that seems a little left of what I expect the ‘mainstream’ of the stories will be. For the most part, I’ve been really pleased with the stories I’ve produced for these anthologies.

So sure, I told Kerrie. I’ll get something to you. I put the note on my calendar, and promptly forgot about it while I was finishing up A MAGIC OF NIGHTFALL. Until May 1st, when my calendar reminded me.

Of course, that was the last week of the semester, and I had a TON of work to do grading the final papers and stories from my classes. So I really didn’t start thinking about it until the second week of May. I had an idea of what I wanted to do though. I’ll avoid spoilers here, but it felt sufficiently sidewise to the theme, and hey, it was going to be a light, humorous piece, something I don’t often do.

Umm, humor is hard. Really hard.

I realized that quickly after drafting the first scene, which didn’t seem all that humorous when I finished writing it. But hey, I thought, it’s just the first draft, so what does it matter? I can always go back and fix it later. So I kept plugging away, occasionally trying to brush up the preceding sections as I drafted new ones. It was a long, hard slog, though. I kept resisting writing it — which is usually an indication that my subconscious is telling me “Hey, idiot! This really sucks!”

But I kept plugging away. Because I had to. Because the deadline marched closer every day. Because I didn’t want to fail again. By the time I’d hit 6,000 words or so, though, I had to admit that this wasn’t a good piece. In fact, it wasn’t even close. I was despairing. The humor was mediocre and sometimes entirely AWOL. I was just moving the characters around. I didn’t really care about any of them. I knew how the story had to end, given what I’d set up, but the ending didn’t inspire me and I didn’t want to write it. Sure, I could finish the story, but I wasn’t sure that this was something that 1) Kerrie would even accept, or 2) that I’d want my name attached to even if she held her nose and took the piece. It was late in May now, and June 1st was looming terribly close, and it was appearing likely that I was going to have to write Kerrie, apologize profusely, and tell her that I wasn’t going to be giving her a story and she should go to Plan B with a back-up writer, leaving me with my second humiliating failure.

That’s where I was the other night. I couldn’t sleep. I was tossing and turning, trying to puzzle out why the story was such an abject failure and why I couldn’t manage to find the story in it. And it hit me…

Sure, I was trying to get outside the theme somewhat. But the problem was that I hadn’t let myself get far enough outside it. I was still clinging to the ‘story’ with my fingernails, trying to make the narrative about the characters. And it wasn’t. I was putting all these restrictions on myself instead of just going as far as I could with the concept and enjoying the process. I was being safe instead of daring to fail spectacularly. The story’s suckiness wasn’t with the characters or the story. It was with me.

That was the revelation I needed. The Muse, who had been whistling in the corner, twiddling her thumbs and rolling her eyes while I’d been slaving over pages of crap, yanked the covers from me and pointed ominously toward the office. I went, because when the Muse calls that strongly, you’d better answer. Even when it’s midnight. Especially when it’s midnight.

I opened up the old draft because I was going to use bits and pieces of it. But the rest of the framework would be something entirely different. I opened up a new document and started writing, occasionally cutting and pasting bits from the old story in between the new sections.

By 2:45 in the morning, I had a draft. I had a hard time falling back to sleep, too energized by the writing. When Denise went off to work at 7:30 the next morning, I got up with her and started in on revisions. By 10:00, I’d sent it off to Kerrie. Then I waited, not certain how Kerrie was going to react to what was now a very strange piece.

But here’s my questions for you (and what all this prelude was really about)… How much of a role does ‘inspiration’ play in your writing — an idea that seemingly floats in out of nowhere? How do you make yourself more receptive to such ideas? (For me, these most often come when I’m in a relaxed state: in the shower, or in that half-dreaming state before sleep.) Or do you plan everything out beforehand, so you don’t need ‘inspiration’ to finish the story? What do you do when the story you’re writing just isn’t working or you can’t figure out where it’s going or how to make it work?

Oh, yeah. The story…. An e-mail from Kerrie came yesterday. She’s accepted the story, so YAY!! I don’t yet know when GAMER FANTASTIC will appear, but my story “The Gods of Every Other Wednesday Night” will be in it. And no one (except you) will know how close it came to never existing at all.

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  1. 1. James Alan Gardner

    I rely on inspiration and its cousin, serendipity, all the time. I plan very little for books or short stories; once I’ve got a decent opening section, I plow ahead without worrying how much else I have.

    This approach means I try to avoid tight deadlines (although the highwire act is a nice thrill once in a while). It also means I occasionally go down dead-end streets and have to throw out days’ worth of work.

    I make inspiration come by going for walks (which can be a real pain on nasty days in winter). However, inspiration will also come if I simply immerse myself in the story and then go about my normal day. If the story is on my mind, then anything I see or read may well form a connection that solves a plotting problem or provides a useful character trait.

  2. 2. Nick

    Make sure you post back here when the book comes out – it sounds fun!

  3. 3. S.L. Farrell

    James — Serendipity plays a large part in my process also. Like you, I don’t do a whole lot of outlining/planning for my fiction… and perhaps as a result, I *always* hit a section in the middle where I bog down. I’ll resort to what I call “mining for ideas” — reading lots of non-fiction, trying to be open and listen to conversations around me. Inevitably, something I read or hear sparks an idea and I know where the story needs to go again.

    Nick — thanks. If I find out when the book is due out (probably sometime in 2009, I’d suspect), I’ll let you know.

  4. 4. S.C. Butler

    Like you and Alan, I don’t do a lot of planning for a story either. But I do have to have a beginning and an end. However, the only time I will ever get inspiration is if I’m actually sitting at the keyboard banging away. Sometimes I take walks, as it helps my thinking, but sometimes it’s my characters who take walks, and eat breakfst and go to the bathroom and nap, as I take them through their daily lives until I finally stumble onto the details of their story. Then all the time-killing stuff gets tossed, and the tale goes forward.

    I envy folks who do it more rigorously, with full outlines.

  5. 5. S.L. Farrell

    S. C. Butler wrote: “Like you and Alan, I don’t do a lot of planning for a story either. But I do have to have a beginning and an end.”

    I always have a strong beginning in mind, and usually some idea of where I think the story’s going to end. But I leave myself open to the idea that there might be a better end point to the story by the time I actually get there. Often enough, I don’t end where I originally thought I was going to end…

    I don’t really *envy* folks with more rigorous outlines… but only because I tried that a few times and realized it just doesn’t work for me, while it obviously does for them.

    There ain’t no right way to write! :-)

  6. 6. Mary Johnson

    I write nonfiction (scientific and explain-to-the-lay-person pieces about minerals and gemstones), but still need my muse’s help from time to time. Again, late at night or the shower seem to stimulate ideas; but occasionally I hear a voice dictating, and I try to transcribe that exactly. I’m still wondering what the lastest message, “prophecying at three miles an hour,” means…

Author Information

Stephen Leigh

Stephen Leigh (aka S.L. Farrell) is a Cincinnati author with 25 novels and several dozen short stories published. Booklist called his Cloudmages trilogy "Good enough to cast in gold." He teaches creative writing at Northern Kentucky University, and is a frequent speaker to writers groups. Visit site.

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