The Muse Trap

How long have you been working on your current project?

We all have that friend in our writer’s group whom we love dearly, but who has been toiling away at the same novel for years. They rewrite the same words until everyone in the group hides a silent groan whenever they see the same chapter again.

Why are some writers afraid to let go of their work? They could be chasing perfection.

For me, I was afraid I wouldn’t have another idea as “good” as my poorly conceived novel.

My “aha” moment came during a conversation with several award-winning authors in my area who laughed as they talked about ghostwriting projects like Goosebumps and Nancy Drew. Several of these authors made good money when a condom company was buying erotica for a marketing campaign that never saw the light of day.

These were professionals who were excited to write anything. Sure, they were science fiction and fantasy writers (my field), but they had studied and appreciated other genres and looked forward to the challenge of new work. They had spent years on the fundamentals of storytelling, character development, and worldbuilding (a character in a situation with a problem), so the actual act of writing was a joy and rarely a chore. They were like studio musicians. One had taken part in a beta-wave study to determine exactly when he fell into flow state while writing… rather chasing his muse, he chased flow state.

The Goose That Lays Golden Eggs

The reason the muse isn’t your friend as a professional author is that the muse operates on scarcity. Fear drives scarcity mentality: fear that you won’t have more ideas, fear that your work will be criticized, fear that you’ll make mistakes, fear that your ideas are stupid (or maybe that’s just me).

The fact is, those fears are inevitable, and your ego’s only protection is to write more. Every day. Rather than worrying at scarcity, I strive for abundance.

Not all my ideas will be great, but the more I produce, the higher the probability I’ll get it right at least a few times. I don’t produce just one “great” book. I produce consistent, daily work. Some of it is good, some pleases me, but I keep creating more.

As a professional, your skill is creation. Stories are your golden eggs.

As a writer with skills, you can take joy in the abundance of stories all around you. My mentor, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Nebula-nominated and winner of the Bram Stoker Award for horror, keeps little notebooks she calls “Story Catchers,” where she collects situations, characters, and bits of worldbuilding. She numbers her notes, and then when she wants to write a story, uses dice to roll out the outline. Then she writes stories that sell. I thought it was magic until I learned to do it, too. The key is to enjoy the creative process.

Actionable Steps

If you’ve been laboring over the same piece of writing for too long, let me ask you this: How many new words can you produce in a month? Do you know?

If you don’t write daily, start now. If you don’t track your word count, grab this word tracker and start writing just five hundred new words a day. If that seems like too much, back it off.

Like any job, knowing what you can produce in an hour of work allows you to plan, to improve, to hold yourself accountable. It wasn’t until I approached my writing in a systematic way that I knew what I was capable of, and what I could expect of myself. I also realized I could produce far more work than the muse had ever led me to believe.

Once you know how much you can write, and you have your fundamentals down, it becomes more and more clear how time spent on a manuscript that isn’t working is often wasted, because the next thing you write will be better. And the next story, even better. It took me two years of work-shopping short stories to figure this out.

If you haven’t read 2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron or 5,000 Words Per Hour by Chris Fox, those books will show you how to understand your output so you can depend on it.

Broaden Your Product Line

When you focus on creativity and write more, things like bad reviews don’t matter as much. If I get a bad review, I’ve most likely already moved on to the next project. If the review has something to teach me, I’ll apply that lesson to my new story, but otherwise, it doesn’t faze me. It certainly doesn’t hurt like it used to when I only had one book out in the world.

If you imagine a taste test at the grocery store, it’s common sense that no one flavor of salsa is going to please everyone. Books are the same way. I take it for granted that someone is going to dislike my work. If that’s the case, I have other stories to share. Abundance mentality keeps me moving forward, rather than getting hung up on past criticism.

If you’re an author who already has a tight production schedule, you might feel like you don’t have time to expand your creativity, especially if a current series is paying the bills. If you don’t want to take your head out of your current world, look for ways to be creative within your current material. Write sketches from different characters’ perspectives than your protagonist, write a travel guide to your world, write a recipe book of your characters’ favorite foods… these are all exercises you can re-purpose later in your marketing.

The reality of the new reading marketplace is that readers want to binge, and once they find an author or genre they like, they’ll read everything they can get their hands on. This market will reward your abundance.

Give Generously

As Seth Godin says, if you show up consistently and give generously, good things will come your way. I’ve found this to be true.

Writing daily, fostering my creativity, and building relationships have been the key to nearly every sale I’ve made in the last five years.

Editors and other writers know I’m excited to try new things and can produce work consistently. If a story doesn’t work for them, no problem. I can submit it to a magazine, give it away to my mailing list, publish it myself, or just move on to the next thing.

The joy was in the writing, and there’s more where that came from.

Saying Yes with a Purpose

A few notes to think about as you focus on expanding your creativity:

You still need to market yourself, and mixed backlists can confuse readers. If you’re going to venture into a new genre, consider using a pen name. A pen name can be a great tool to free your creativity because you don’t have to worry about anyone knowing it’s you… unless you admit your secret pen name later when it’s outselling your real name.

  • Don’t do a print version. With ebooks, you can easily unpublish a book that either doesn’t sell well or doesn’t fit your current brand. Once a book is published in print, it will always be associated with its author name on Amazon. (Except for Goodreads. Goodreads remembers all.)
  • Say yes to projects that expand your author network, build relationships, or push you to grow as an author. Because time is finite, having a strong idea of your goal as an author can help you choose among the many opportunities that will come your way.
  • Readers can’t get enough, and anything you give them that will keep your work top of mind will help sell books. Character sketches, flash fiction, essays, etc., can all serve your audience through your marketing channels, newsletter swaps, and social media posts. Look for ways your work can do double duty, even if it was an exercise born from a twenty-sided die. In my opinion, stories born from a roll of the die are pure magic and I can’t get enough of them.

James S. Aaron is the author of seven science fiction novels, with his eighth, Eve of Destruction, available now. You can learn more about James through his podcast at https://Speculative.Work

Each week in this blog series, I’ll discuss what it means to live the author life, delving into topics about mindset, craft, audience, finance, publishing, self-improvement, spirituality, technology, and more.

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