Training Your Muse: Prose (plus, fighting writer's block)

Training the muse of prose, whether fiction or non-fiction, is a lot trickier than the poetry muse. Now and then, no matter how long she’s spent in harness (if you’ll allow me an equestrian analogy) she will pick up a weapon called writer’s block and chunk it at the back of your head. That having been said, let’s discuss ways to train the prose muse. Again, as with poetry, you have to find your own method; you’re free to try mine, but it may not work the same for someone else.

Generally, I train my prose muse the same way I trained her sister: by getting into character and letting the story flow from that character. I liken it to being an actor – you research for the role, practice it, and eventually perfect it. Once you can slip effortlessly into that role, you can act the part (or write the story) seamlessly.

Different readers will tell you they prefer plot to drive a story, but most I’ve met fall in love with the books that are character driven. If you love a character, you’ll accompany him/her/it through any plot the writer throws at them. Take a fave of mine for example, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Over the course of seven seasons, Buffy and her friends have had a LOT happen to them. Some episodes are favorites, others you can take or leave, but what makes you sit through the ho-hum ones? The characters you love.

Taking all of that into account, why not use your characters to combat writer’s block? Some writers make up character sheets (similar to the roleplaying game concept) and these can be a valuable tool and resource, for many reasons. They can also help fight writer’s block.

Step back. Take a deep breath. Now, instead of fighting it, don’t worry about writing the story you’re stuck on. Think about your characters. Focus on the main character and maybe a secondary one or two. Put yourself in their shoes (you invented their shoes, so this should be easier than it sounds) and imagine being that person for a while. After a time, you’ll find that inspiration and drive start to creep back in, edging writer’s block out.

The more stubborn muse, with the bigger writer’s block rock to your head, might require more effort or completely different methods. Try looking at the stresses in your life, basic health issues, etc. If something is lacking or off in your life, it can easily affect your writing, or your ability to be motivated to write at all. Fix that sleep-depravation schedule a bit, rest a couple of days if you’re sick, talk to a friend about problems you’re having trouble sorting out. Once these issues are balanced better, it’s easier to fight off or end writer’s block.

Another trick is the old “bait and switch”. Stuck on your Sci-Fi story? Set it down for a bit and pick up your Adventure tale. I always have more than one thing going precisely so I can do this method. It works for writer’s block, and for basic boredom if you’ve been at one story too long. Instead of stopping your writing habits, switch to another project. If you stop writing regularly because you’re a bit bored with one story, you may find you’ve stopped writing more often than you planned. This is a lot worse than writer’s block, folks. Writer’s block is when you feel stuck; but sufferers of it want it gone, because they want to write. This other malady is incidious, and it can steal years from your plans to finish a novel before you are even aware of it.

One last point on the subject of training your muse: if you want a character-driven story, you eventually need to hand the steering wheel to your characters. Instead of writing it all as YOU, work yourself into the skin of your characters and make your muse conform to that person or critter’s point of view. Slipping into that other skin can help you to jump into the story, leap over the block, and dash off into the far reaches of plot.

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