Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Inspiration or Perspiration: Which is Most Important?

Well, of course, we know it’s both. Anyone who has undertaken the daunting task to actually write and complete a book knows that no choice really exists.  I wrote in January about Inspiration, but this one is more about her evil twin: Work. 

Yes, you need the initial inspiration to even talk yourself into starting. And, often, that beginning breath of the gods will take you a long way—through the opening, into the major conflicts, your oh-so-well-drawn characters jumping to life and racing around the first turn and even (hopefully) into the backstretch.

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 Ah, we love that muse, and prime her in every way we can think of! We feed her with all the sweet nothings whispered into her ear, with the promise of carrots at the end of our writing day. And she always responds. At least initially. 

And then, often, we run smack dab into a soft spot on the rail. Sometimes writers hit a wall but, usually, it’s more of a bogging down. Where did all that momentum go? 

It jumped straight off the track and landed in the soggy infield of slaughtered dreams.

I can’t begin to recount all the stories I hear from writers regarding this. Some try to press through, floundering as if with one leg tied behind their backs. Jockey-less. That writing muscle cramped up as in a lactic-acid meltdown.  So very many writers quit here altogether, or begin another book, only to at some point stop that one and begin another...  I hear often, “I was so inspired, I wrote 20,000 words in nothing flat. But then the trail went cold and now I can’t write until I get another breath of it.” 

Phooey! As professionals, we all know this is when the perspiration part comes in. We know all too well that while amateurs rely on inspiration, professionals know that fortitude and courage must now take over. If a deadline exists, well, we whip ourselves in the rump and spur that pony on. The feed bill has to be paid! 

And I actually think this is the best-case scenario—you have no choice but to press on. Because it’s oh-so-easy to stop and bemoan the lack of inspiration to write. But that is only a trick of the mind. 

I often suggest a couple of things here. The very best is to take one of your major characters out of the book and into a scenario that occurred a decade before. Or in childhood or adolescence. This piece isn’t to be included in the book, but it can be a short story you can sell down the road. Just take her away and include none of the rest of the characters, putting her into a scenario with a huge conflict. Begin writing her there and follow her where she takes you, with no attention to your prose or structure or anything, but rather, stream-of-consciousness. Not only will this cleanse your palate, but you’ll also learn something about her you can use in the book, once you get back to it.

Another is to just write something entirely different, even if it’s a response to Dear Abby. Just write. 

And then, circle back to your book. Write. Take the last passage you have, and go. It may be awful. It may take your story a way you ultimately toss. None of that matters. You don’t care that this workman-like prose doesn’t have the zing of the inspired brilliance of before. That’s not the point. The point is you’re doing it. 

Somewhere, along the far turn, you’ll find yourself racing again, getting ready for the homestretch, the breath of the gods back in your face, the finish line in sight. And often, you won’t even remember when you turned back on.

Because as Thomas Edison said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

With this latest release, award-winning author and editor Susan Mary Malone has five traditionally-published books to her credit (fiction and nonfiction) and many published short stories. A freelance editor, forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers. You can see more about her, and what authors say about working with her, at:


  1. I've tried both these tricks to get back on track, and they both work. Another is to adopt Dorothea Brande's suggestion in ' Becoming a Writer' and get into the 'writing habit', which effectively means developing habits that will make your whole approach to writing much more professional. If you haven't already, read her book. It can change writers' lives.

  2. I rarely am uninspired or dis-inspired. More common for me is to become derailed from writing because I discover that a piece of the plot puzzle simply does not work, or I have written myself right into a corner with no exit in sight. (What? Do you think I mix metaphors too freely? Never.)

    This is a risk with writing thrillers and mysteries. Half-way through writing the first inspired draft the ever-so-clever plot unravels. No amount of advanced research or careful outlining seems quite enough to protect from this. So, it's start sweating and researching and rewriting as you try not to panic that all 40,000 words might have to be thrown away.

  3. I remember Becoming a Writer, Stuart! It's on my shelf somewhere--a great book.

    Larry, I've had that happen as well (and I don't write Thrillers :) Happens sometimes. I ditched the entire second half of a novel once, as it got so far off-track. Sometimes our best work seems to be left on the editing-room floor. But nothing is ever wasted on the psyche--somewhere, sometime, all that discarded work pays off!

  4. Oh so true, Susan. Two of my favorite quotes about writing are: "Talent is helpful, but guts are absolutely necessary" -- Jessamyn West, and "The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work." -- Emile Zola. I might add Nike's slogan: "Just do it."

  5. It's so easy to be excited at first. You pull out a new notebook or open a new document. You ready your newly sharpened pencil or put your fingers on the keyboard, eager to begin. It's harder to force yourself to keep moving when the initial momentum dies. Even when you have a full outline, it's hard to push past what I call the middle malaise.

  6. Wouldn't you know it ... the nag I backed crossed the finish line dead last and was shipped straight to the glue factory.

  7. Inspiration is great, perspiration is essential, and writing is a real job. The idea that we'll be accepting six-figure advances, nothing but accolades from reviewers, and more signings and media appearance offers than we can possibly handle is pure fantasy, adulterated fiction, and an excuse to procratinate while we indulge in waiting for more inspiration to meet our adoring public's expectations.

    Bottom line: get to work! Love this post, Susan. It tells it exactly like it is.

  8. Well, darn, Linda. Burst my bubble. LOL

    I agree about the writing habit, Stuart. It is important to keep the well primed, so to speak.

    Larry, I have had the same problem with my mysteries. Currently I have tried three different plot ideas for the next Seasons book only to have the plot unravel as I thought it through. ARG! It is so much easier when this brilliant idea comes and the crime is so perfect the story almost writes itself.

  9. Susan, I'm at the "fortitude and courage" stage in my WIP. Thanks for reminding me it's only a stage! I'm headed straight for the "breath of the gods"—what a lovely image.

    Also love this in your comment to Larry: "nothing is ever wasted on the psyche." Inspirational—thanks!

  10. All of your sentiments are just wonderful! You inspire me so much. It's funny--I always get such richness from y'all when I post. What a gift to me to get to read what you say! Thank you all.

  11. I remember Allison Brennan saying she was just about at her deadline and she realized something wasn't working between her hero and heroine--had to do with their back story, so she rewrote 50,000 words or so and still made her deadline. If it can happen to best selling authors with a bushel of books under their belts, then I should be able to power through. Like now, when I've been doing more thinking that writing. But it's thinking about the book--especially after taking a workshop from Barbara Samuel on the Heroine's Journey and realizing I needed to dig deeper into my heroine's story--even though I've already written 300 pages.

  12. I agree. Inspiration and perspiration are both important in getting a book done right!

    Morgan Mandel


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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