I hadn’t heard anyone complain about writer’s block in a while, and then recently someone asked how I overcame it. I am not prone to writer's block, so it was a hard question to answer. After thinking about it, though, I realized that at times I do feel blocked, but that I learned long ago what to do when I can’t seem to get into a writing rhythm. I find a muse.
My original muse, who still spurs me to write the best prose I can, will be a surprise to many, who know that I write crime fiction. But I try to write good quality fiction—like my muse. He wrote about the south, and he wrote about crime—true crime. In fact, he wrote one of the most famous true crime books ever written—In Cold Blood.
But his writing that always inspired me was not his crime novels but his short stories. For some reason I could read just a few lines of Truman Capote’s prose, and my writer brain would light up.
In the past few months I’ve been working on a book that is outside my usual genre, a thriller. I was having trouble not only with the action, but also with understanding the protagonist. I couldn’t quite figure out what the reader needed to know about him in order to care about him. It was time to find a muse. I picked up one thriller after another, thinking that if I understood how other thriller writers hooked me I might learn what I needed to know. And one after another I tossed them aside. Each had some kind of problem-- too wordy, no character development, improbable action, too self-conscious. And then I picked up The Tourist, by Olen Steinhauer. I had never heard of this writer, but as soon as I started reading The Tourist I knew instantly I had found a writer who would work for me. His story was convoluted but when he rambled too far afield, he went back and subtly reiterated the salient points. His characters were well differentiated and strongly defined. The story was intriguing and not too over-the-top. Best of all, he made me want to get to work.
So I found my thriller muse. I don’t mean that I will copy him or try to write like him. But when I read his work, I tend to find myself itching to write. For some reason his writing rhythm spurs me to what I need to do to bring my characters and plot to life.
What I wish I had suggested to the person who asked the question about writers block is, “Get yourself a muse.” It doesn’t have to be a writer. It can be music or movies. It can be something in nature, or an animal you love. It can be a friend, or a particular piece of art. But when you see it, you’ll know it. You’ll have a little jolt that makes you feel like you need to get to work. The trick is to recognize it when it happens and to embrace it. And remember it, so that when you suddenly feel empty and unable to put words onto the page, you know where to go.