Whence cometh the flame of inspiration? Who can say? We are inspired by what interests us, what excites us, or by what strikes a chord, whether anticipated or otherwise. Every writer has experienced block and burnout, going stale on a project and having to set it aside, and there are techniques for overcoming this – pacing, occupying the mind with other things when not working, writing something else – but nothing matches the pure light of inspiration.
“Success is 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration,” is a hackneyed truism. Yes, we know this, and, having sweat gallons, every working writer knows all about the balance between wanting to do it and having to do it; but when inspiration strikes, the results can be amazing. My short story By the Moons of Grolph (picked up last month for the Sword and Planet anthology from Horrified Press) was written in one day. It was a reworking of an idea I first put on paper as a teenager and have long forgotten the inspirational sources, though I remember it being in the “New Age” era of weirdness-as-social-challenge. The story took on its own life, rooted in a distant memory (the original is longhand in an ancient notebook, long since packed away) and developed in a 4500-word rush to a wholly new conclusion. That was inspirational writing.
I have a novelette out on submission at the moment, “Annie Lustrum’s Psychedelic Shag Wagon,” a tongue-in-cheek adventure which makes no bones about being SF on the Western formula. This is a 26, 000-worder, I launched into it based on four lines of notes – and wrote over 8, 000 words on the first day. That’s the most inspired/driven I have been in a very log time, my previous record was 10, 000 (longhand) back in the mid-eighties.
So, what’s the tactic when inspiration dries up? I’ve found reading helps – read till your cup runneth over, and when it does so, catch the drops on paper. Lately I read a nonfiction work making a case for the Pharaoh Tutankhamen having been murdered – a theory which has been substantially challenged in the twenty years since it appeared, but the book was a great read all the same. This was part of the research for my short story “With Scientific Detachment,” an archaeological piece about Ancient Egypt, currently on submission in the UK. Before that I read an illustrated volume about Victorian and Edwardian London, both as a personal interest and as research for possible steampunk tales and other outings featuring Victoriana and later. This was another very entertaining read and contributed to my fantasy piece “Silver Scales” which is doing the rounds. Before that? A massive illustrated volume, The Discovery of the Nile, tracing the history of exploration for the headwaters of Africa’s greatest river, from ancient times down to the dawn of the 20th century. You can bet the sweep of history depicted in that one will be providing background to stories – I have one in notes already, something very much in the Lovecraft vein.
Currently I’m enjoying some stories by Clarke Ashton Smith I’ve not read before, having obtained one of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy anthologies edited by Lin Carter (vintage 1971); and continuing with The Complete Works of H. P. Lovecraft. Some would say I’m pouring in all the wrong things, of course, two writers from eighty years ago can’t possibly prepare one for today’s market. Well, yes and no. Their imagery and concepts are inspirational, execution is what styles a work for a market.
I look through my files of notes and, typically, an idea from long ago will jump out at me and gel almost of its own accord – sometimes two ideas flow naturally together and become a more solid, effective whole. It’s important, I think, when this happens, to listen to your instinct, go with it, let it happen – and trust those instincts to know if it isn’t working at any point.
Imagery is inspirational, powerfully so. Three photographs turned into my vampire short “Dance of the Trees,” currently on submission; one was of an autumn wood, another was a gnarled, split but living tree, the third was a pool in a titanic cavern… They went together seamlessly and in two days another property was in the folder. If I feel myself needing to write but unable to focus I will look through photographs or artbooks and the chances are, some image will speak to me strongly enough my mind begins to construct the circumstances surrounding the image, and this leads to a new project.
I have three unfinished pieces from last year, a pure fantasy, a historical fantasy and an SF. I must get back to them, and I’m waiting for some particular spark of enthusiasm to rekindle. I’ve tried forcing it – it doesn’t work.
I should write again today – I wonder what it’ll be?
Oh – the image above has been doing the rounds on social media lately, no source or credit attached… I found it, yes, inspirational!
Cheers, Mike Adamson