The Naughty Anarchist Muse

I’m guilty of ignoring the Muse as a concept. I fall into the Get On and Do It school of thinking, generally, where writing is concerned. I’m practical: sit down; write this many words in this many hours; edit it for this long; send result out to this many agents/publishers/magazines etc. I’ve never had much time for the idea that there might be some external force – some fleeting, enigmatic abstract involved. Pah! I thought that Muse stuff was for people who like the idea of writing, but didn’t fancy doing any actual work. “Ah,” they could say, after a convenient half-hour at their tidy desk in their well-appointed study, “sadly, no luck today. The Muse wasn’t with me.”

If you read internet writing advice (especially the sort that comes in curly typography over dreamy pictures of moonlight or lakes) most of that ignores the Muse too. Mostly it talks about “turning up for work” and “getting your bum on the seat” and “putting in the hours” and so on. Basically the meditative photos offer sergeant majorly get up earlier; work harder advice. I’m fine with that. It is hard work.

But. I hate to admit it, but I increasingly believe there is something else. Here is a terrible truth: you can work really hard for a very long time and still produce a poor result; you can also work in a playful way for not very long and produce something fantastic. And the Factor X that makes the difference is what for the sake of convenience we might call the Muse.

I’m only just getting to know this creature. I don’t really trust her. She is female, Greek and mythological, which always means a lot of complications. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far:

  • she is very badly behaved
    • give her the perfect conditions, sit and wait, and she probably won’t be arsed to show up at all, but when you’re doing twenty other things and don’t have anything to write with she’ll be there in your mind’s ear, whispering
  • she is a bit of a thug
    • you will have careful outlines and plans; she will spit on them
  • she is a dangerous influence
    • she doesn’t care if you work hard or not, but her ideas stick in your brain like chewing gum sticks in your hair and will not, will not go away
    • she sneers at all sensible advice about, say, what the market likes, or what agents are looking for
    • many of her ideas are so outrageous they must have come from outside your own head (surely!)
  • she hates being bossed about
    • the second you think you’ve worked her out, she’s off
  • time is different for her
    • your time, your deadlines or schedules are irrelevant; in Muse time things are done when they’re done.

In short, I thought the Muse would be like this: gently kissing inspiration onto the author’s fevered brow. (Paul Cezanne’s Kiss of the Muse)

paul_cezanne_-_kiss_of_the_muse_c-_1863

It turns out she’s more like this:

blousy muse 2.jpg

a frolicsome party animal. Not what I was expecting at all!

(Original Blousy Muse artwork by Grannywritesbooks, as you probably guessed!)

When is your novel finished?

I know that painters suffer a terrible temptation to re-work, change, add to and generally interfere with a painting that is really finished. Watercolourists, in particular, have to beware. Because of the delicate nature of the watercolour wash, they are very limited in the number of changes they can make without destroying the fresh beauty of the medium and wrecking the whole painting. They have to be disciplined; make the right decisions early, then stop.

But what about writers? We can make a million changes and nobody can tell. When should we walk away? How do we know when a book is finished? It’s not as obvious as it sounds.

Stop when:  1. You’ve finished the story.

When’s that? When they all live happily after? After the ball? After the Prince finds another princess with the same size feet and better monarching skills?

When is a story finished?

Maybe when you’ve finished telling the part of the story that interested you (this time – there are sequels, remember).

Stop when: 2. It’s long enough.

No, that won’t work. It’s the piece of string thing. 100,000 might be enough, but so might 50,000 or 75,345 or 23,479. (That’s art for you.)

Stop when: 3. An external factor prevents you from continuing.

There might be an editor or agent waiting. A publisher may be scheduling the cover design and printing. These are excellent reasons to stop writing and send it on the day you said you’d send it. They may not continue to love/pay you otherwise.

If nobody on earth is waiting or cares about anything you write, find someone. It can be a friend or relation. It can be an online writer-friend of some sort. Set a date. Tell them they will have it for their birthday/your birthday/Christmas – whatever. Then send it on time. If you don’t do this your ghost will haunt libraries screaming ‘Here! Here is the shelf where my poor novel should have been!‘ forever.

Stop when: 3. You can’t think of a single extra thing you could do to make it better.

You will think of something the moment you click send. You have spent a huge amount of time and creative energy on this book. It is lodged in your heart and soul and psyche and will probably not move into its next phase without waking you a few times in the night, but the time has come. Every last possibility for improvement has been exhausted and so have you. Send it. Now!

The following are not signs that your novel is finished. You should ignore them and carry on.

1 People keep saying ‘you’re not still working on that are you?’

2 You’ve begun to hate the title (and perhaps the whole book).

3 You’ve begun to despise the whole idea of writing books. Other people go out/have friends/eat in restaurants, for heaven’s sake!

4 A tidy house and clean laundry are a half-forgotten dream, and who, exactly, are those other people living in the house?