August 2, 2009

WRITING ADVICE: JACK MCDEVITT 1: Wait for Inspiration (My Muse Will Be Back Any Day Now”)

(The Twelve Blunders are used with permission of Jack McDevitt, from his webpage:

The word “inspire” is from the Latin, in = “in” (creative, huh?); and spirare = “to breathe”. Medically, inspiration is the term that means to breathe in and expiration means to breathe out (it also means, “to die”, but let’s not get into that here). Harlan Ellision says he gets his ideas -- his inspiration -- from Sheboygan. Despite what he says, it follows logically, then that if you wait too long for inspiration, you’re gonna die. But the question for me has always been, “How do I know real inspiration from false?” How can I tell whether I should breathe the idea in and use it to build a story or to jot it down and leave it alone for good?

I’ve learned to recognize an idea/inspiration that would be like breathing chlorine. Inspiration of that gas will KILL me; a chlorine inspiration would go nowhere no matter how hard I tried. For example, I once had an idea to write a literary SF story like the work of Haitian writer, Edwidge Danitcat using symbolism, metaphor and excruciating detail about a powerless woman living her life in quiet desperation on a marshy world while I made educated, satirical, wise, obscure, snide and erudite commentary in a way that no real person in that life could possibly duplicate. It was a miserable failure.

That was a chlorine idea.

My problem now is that I can’t tell a carbon monoxide idea from an oxygen idea. Carbon monoxide deceives the hemoglobin in your blood, which carries oxygen to the lungs. Carbon monoxide takes the place of oxygen, remains there and doesn’t break free so that the lungs can release it into the air or the cells can pick it up and use it to make energy. More and more hemoglobin is hijacked by carbon monoxide until there’s so little oxygen left you fall asleep…and expire. I can’t tell which ideas are going to hijack my creative process. For example, I wrote “Out of the Wounded Hills”, a story tangential to my novel, INVADER’S GUILT. I thought “Hills” was gripping. I was excited! I wrote it, edited it, polished it and sent it out to have it return ten times. I revised, edited, polished and sent it out to have it return five more times. I trunked it a few months ago out of sheer disgust. What’s the difference between “Hills” and “A Pig Tale”, my 2000 ANALOG story about a potential cure for Alzheimer’s used in an unorthodox way to fix a researcher’s personal life? “Hills” was carbon monoxide. “Pig” was oxygen. My ability to inspire oxygen instead of carbon monoxide has been impaired for the past four years. To add yet another metaphor to this confusing morass, I know the WAY to Sheboygan, but my GPS is malfunctioning.

Even so, a couple days ago, I picked up a clue that may lead to the healing of my disability. In his blog, Ted Dekker, multi-gazillion books-in-print writer had this to say, “If your stories are awakening magic in the hearts and minds of only a few…your words might very well be getting in the way for most.” ( For the past four years, my stories have been having a deadening effect on people who read them.

A half an hour ago, I went downstairs and grabbed an unread book by a master short storyteller, TALES OF O. HENRY. I’ll be reading them in the next few days. After that, I’m going to see what I can see.

Maybe I can find my way around Sheboygan before I expire.



Paul said...

Then there's me, who doesn't seem to be breathing anything at all, CO, O2, or otherwise....

GuyStewart/DISCOVERCHURCH said...

Is it because you're in suspended animation...or because you're dead? After reading your story, I'd hazard to guess you're in suspended animation and waiting for the right signal to bring you back to life!

Anonymous said...

Any thoughts yet from O. Henry? I have the same problem judging my own work sometimes. There have always been pieces of mine that I love that die when I send them out. The two approaches I can think to defeating the problem are critique (to see if someone points out a major problem or limitation we can't see when we're writing the piece) and as goofy as it sounds, checklists. Not that a good story always has to adhere to a checklist of qualities, but thinking about the usual good qualities of stories may give insight (I'm thinking). Want to try your 15-times-no-luck story against The Virtuoso Writer's Cheat Sheet that we compiled on Codex a year or two ago? I'd be happy to send a copy. Actually, I should stop hogging it and go post it on my LiveJournal blog ...