Breathe In

“I have ideas, but I don’t have the time to turn them into stories. Then, when I finally have time, my mind is a blank.” This was me complaining to another writer about my lack of progress. “What do you do when you’re not inspired to write?”

Her reply took me by surprise: “Inspiration is only a small part of writing. Time multiplied by Focus equals manuscript. If you’ve got a little time, you need a lot of focus. If you don’t have much focus, you’re going to need a lot of time to produce something. So which do you have more of — time or focus?”

My math brain thought about this for a long time, but this equation did little to get my book written. I knew I didn’t have many hours to write, and apparently I had little focus, either. Women are naturally better at multi-tasking, I decided. I have no talent for it.

My own experiences finally taught me the truth in her advice. My first novel took me only a few months because a) I had a lot of time to work on it; and b) it sucked when I was finished. I’ve written two more since then, have three more in various stages of incompletion, and more failed attempts than I care to count.

So, how do I manufacture inspiration? Here’s my list:

How to Get Inspired Enough to Finish the Novel.

Manage time: My best time of day for writing is four or five am. I get my best ideas then, find it easier to focus. I used to wait until I had finished everything else I had to do in a day before I sat down to write. Not surprisingly, few words were written. I realize now that I have to write first, and everything else will get done afterwards. Or not. At least I’ll have spent a couple hours writing. If it’s a priority, set aside time for writing.

Figure out what stops you: criticism rarely kills my desire to write, and it often inspires me to write better. Guilt is what kills my inspiration: I feel guilty because I’m spending so much time on something that seems to produce so little reward. It’s not like every time I reach 50,000 words a book magically appears. I feel guilty about all the things that aren’t getting done, about the people I’m ignoring, about the papers that are lying ungraded on my desk.

I give myself permission to write for a certain number of hours a day. Then when I write, I don’t have to keep berating myself for not doing laundry. Everybody deserves some time each day to decompress; other people play video games or watch television; I write.

Don’t throw out the fragments and stubs: I have a lot of unfinished writing on my hardrive. I could look on these as failures, proof that I never finish anything I start. Or I can see them as an apprenticeship — part of the one million pre-publication words that an author has to write. (I don’t know who said that, but as I near 1 million, it makes me feel like less of a loser.)

And a lot of those unfinished ideas come back to haunt me in different ways. Reading them over sometimes gives me the inspiration I lack. I have recycled a lot of things: a character, a situation, a bright little idea that got lost in a big bad idea, a turn of phrase that didn’t work in one context but might be perfect in another story.

Research: I love doing research. Back in the dark ages, I had to visit libraries that were inside buildings and do this thing we called “checking out books,” which meant I got to borrow them for a few weeks. Now, with the internet, I could very easily use this as an excuse never to write anything — writing has to be well-researched, doesn’t it? And there’s always something to look up.

In truth, when I’m stuck and don’t know what to write next, researching a few things is often enough to get me back on track. I can’t keep putting out and never put in. Reading, research, even just going for a walk and thinking are as important as sitting down and hitting keys.

Etymology Tangent: inspiration comes from a Latin word that means “breathe in.” You can’t breathe out unless you first breathe in.

Speed-writing: During Nanowrimo, I speed-wrote for nineteen days and produced 50,000 words. As I said, a lot of them were crap, but it forced my ideas out onto the paper. I would never write for an entire month without reading or revising now, but occasionally, when I get stuck, I just start typing my story, summarizing, skipping stuff, putting in stuff I know I’ll have to remove, and keep going until I want to stop. When I come back to what I’ve speed-written, most of it needs serious revision, but at least I have new ideas, a direction, and something to work with. That’s less forbidding than a blank page.

Writing short stuff: Short stories, poems, blogging — all of these keep me writing and thinking about ideas without dragging me into an entirely new venture.

I also write stories in Latin, limiting myself to a vocabulary of 300 words. If that doesn’t make me appreciate the large palette English provides, I don’t know what can.

When I finish my novel, it’s possible that it won’t get published.

If I don’t finish, it’s a certainty that it won’t.

Note to self: Worry about finishing the manuscript first.

Breathe in, breathe out.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. ian g
    Apr 07, 2010 @ 23:04:32

    i love research too 😀 i had/have this great, GREAT idea about a tribe in ancient Polynesia, and it was so much fun to dig into anthropological studies and research dealing with their customs. i decided to shelve that idea for a novella titled Dystopia (which i in turn shelved for After Life ahahah).

    i want to learn Latin, or Russian, or Italian, or Japanese. fuck, i just want to learn some language. but i have way too much to learn right now before starting on a whole different society/culture :/

    you and i need to sit in a coffee shop for a day, sitting across each other with our laptops out, and just write. when you speak, i’ll get up, walk to you, and smack you. do the same for me.



  2. ian g
    Apr 07, 2010 @ 23:06:00

    i want to learn another language not to visit the land and be able to partake in their way of life (though that’d be really great), but to learn the country’s history, customs, and everything that’s happened. there’s so much to learn in this world, but you really have to be fluent enough to learn those things 😦


  3. escher dax
    Apr 07, 2010 @ 23:13:28

    So that’s what my problem is! – I have no one to smack me when I talk. 🙂
    Most of the time I’m just talking to myself, anyway. I tell myself to get back to work, but I don’t listen very well.


  4. ian g
    Apr 07, 2010 @ 23:26:20

    today, i’ve had a routine. read 1 paragraph (or enough to constitute a paragraph), then i get to roam to ONE place on scribophile/internet. look at one thing, a minimum of two minutes, then i go back.

    hmmm. two hours and i’m only on page 3. not working out for me. lol


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