East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

How to write without inspiration (sort of)


she who maulsMy friend Yuri hates me, or so he says.
The problem emerged after my public writing session last week. Basically I sat down for five hours typing, and two days later I had a story to sell1. Yuri mentioned on Facebook the fact that he’d been staring at a blank page for a while, and therefore he hates me.
My answer to that was that he’d spent too much time thinking. You’ve got to start typing, I said. If after five pages you still don’t know where your story is going, then you have a problem.
Another friend of mine, Paolo, butted in, saying that following my rule, he’d never have written one of his recent stories – a big hard sf tale.
A good starting point for a discussion, but Facebook is not a good place for discussions of writerly survival. So, let me see if I can put this thing in some order here, and try to explain what’s going on.

This might be the first of a series of posts, I don’t know.

18545184._SY540_Writers are often divided in plotters and pansters, pansters being those that sort of jump in blind into the story and improvise, while plotters outline and define every little bit in advance, and then start writing.
I think these definitions are just the two extremes of a sliding scale, and each one of us sits somewhere between pure improvisation and rock-solid preparation. Depending on the time, the mood, the project, we’ll plan while leaving room for improvisation, or improvise while keeping a few structural helps at hand.
This, just to get this plotters/pansters thing out of the way from the start.

This said, what now?
In the case of what was to become She Who Mauls, I did not exactly jump in blind. I was going to write a story that’s part of a series, so I already had a genre, a setting and a cast of recurring characters2.
That’s a lot of work already done.
At that point, even without a proper story idea, I was able to start typing. Just sit a few of my characters around a table, and have them talk about whatever stuff they feel like.
Sort of the start of Reservoir Dogs, if you will.
Starting like this is fine because

  1. It provides me the opportunity to introduce the characters and the setting
  2. It offers an opportunity to hook the reader
  3. But most importantly, it gets me writing

Because that’s the important bit: I’ve set my watches so that I will start writing at midnight? Fine – then at midnight I must be going. I’ll stop later, things will drag, there will be mishaps, wrong turns, trackbacks, but the important thing, to me at least, is to start writing.

This, as I said, falls somewhere in-between pure improvisation and absolute planning. The characters and the setting are planned, and the genre has its rules and its requirements. Those are the tent-poles holding up the story, that yes, I will try to let emerge from events and suggestions while I write.


This is, I guess, what you’d call character driven narrative – after all I have the characters, I have the location, all I have to do is come up with a problem (and the characters themselves might suggest its nature) and then let the guys react.
It works.
I’m not sure this system is particularly economic – I had to work one full afternoon to edit and prepare She Who Mauls for distribution, and we’re talking a 6000-words story.
And I don’t think this approach can be very effective with, say, a 100.000-words novel. But with a 20.000-words novella? It might be worth a try.

And if we are talking a short story, five hours of delirium followed by one afternoon of hard revision sure beats five days staring at a blank page waiting for inspiration.
It’s good for business. Because it means we can strive and make it for that open call we just discovered and whose deadline is in five days time. Better to take a long shot like this than give an opportunity a pass. Opportunities are precious.

Now, for my next experiment…


I am planning a second experiment, another five hours spent writing while online for all to see. And this time, to up the ante, I will ask a friend to provide a prompt, for my story, about one hour before I begin writing.
A story idea, something completely out of the blue.
Then I will write a story.

I do have a “method” to be applied in these cases, but I will discuss it after my next experiment, just to be on the safe side.
It would be bad, you see, to blabber about my method and then come up with a blank. It would be really bad.

Anyway, these are some preliminary reflections.
I will post more on the subject, provided someone’s interested in this sort of stuff.

  1. in case you are curious, you can get it here, as a Pay What You Want. 
  2. in case you are interested, the characters first appeared in my self-published story The Hand of Isfet (in the collection of the same name) and the boys had their first solo adventure on the 4th issue of Occult Detective Quarterly 

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

3 thoughts on “How to write without inspiration (sort of)

  1. Hm, don’t think I could do it. I’m a bit like your friend Yuri. There are days the words come like sludge and no amount of clicking on the keyboard help. However, there are days when I can write a storm and my words take a planned story in a completely different direction, so yeah, sliding scale. Definitely.

    Liked by 1 person

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