Following Your Muse
Leonard D. Hilley II
Thanks so much for this opportunity to write a guest blog. I’d like to share with your followers why I believe following one’s muse is a necessity.
Sometimes a writer’s muse will do unexpected things with a character or a storyline, but that’s often a good thing.Don’t ignore the gentle prodding. Follow. I give you two examples of how this has worked well for me.
I’ve been asked if I use an outline when I write novels. The answer is: “No.”
I don’t know why, but I’ve never been able to outline the events in a novel well before they occur. It never works for me. When a great idea pops into my head, I immediately write it down. That’s my writer instinct. I may not know where the idea will lead, but I’m willing to follow.
That’s how the Predators of Darkness Series began. In January 1996, when I laid down to go to sleep, the opening sentence came to me: “Dropping a cat from the top of a ten story office building was not the best way to remain hidden, but it was necessary.”
I was intrigued. I didn’t know where the story would go or why someone had dropped the cat off the building, but I got up and wrote it down. A few minutes later when I was stilltrying to go to sleep, the next two paragraphs came to me.So, again, I got up and wrote down the words.
The next day I sat at my computer and hammered out twenty pages in a few hours. At the end of those pages, I found myself in a new dilemma. I couldn’t add anything else to the storyline. Anything I attempted to add didn’t fit, sounded too corny, or took away from the characters and the initial plot. I was stuck, and I didn’t know why. I printed it out and set it in a box to work on later.
Two years later, during my final year at Morehead State University, I registered to take two creative writing classes in the coming fall. During the summer I took out the twenty pages and thought I would see if any new ideas stirred that would breathe life into this story. Rereading the piece I realized something. I didn’t have twenty pages of a novel.What I had was the skeletal frame of a novel that needed depth, description, and more urgency to push the plot forward.
I took a yellow notepad and made a lot of notes. When I was content with how I would flesh the book out, I sat at the computer and spent a week working and revising with the new ideas. The last sentence of the original twenty pages now ended on page 100; but still, I couldn’t add anything else. Frustrated, I set it aside.
Once the fall semester started, we met the new creative writing professor, Dr. Chris Offutt. He stated that his class would be treated like a writer’s workshop, and on our designated days, we could bring in a short story or the chapter of a book we were working on to have the class evaluate it. When my day came, I brought the first chapter (~32 pages) of Predators of Darkness: Aftermath in and gave each student a copy. The next week they came back to critique and offer suggestions about what did/didn’t work.
After everyone in the class had made their suggestions, the professor walked to the chalkboard. He drew out a diagram on the board and said, “Leonard, you don’t have one chapter here. What you have is five or six chapters.” In a matter of minutes he mapped out the five potentialchapters. I feverishly wrote down his suggestions. The best part was that something unique had clicked for me. The fog lifted. And I suddenly visualized my characters, their uniqueness, and their voices became audible in my head.
Eventually, Predators of Darkness: Aftermath grew into 340 pages, and there are four complete novels in the series.Book 5 will be released in May or June. Had I not written down that first sentence, would the series have everoccurred? After all, I didn’t have a plot or any characters.All I had was the one sentence. I never imagined the opening sentence would spawn five more novels afterwards (I’m working on the sixth book), which is why I suggest that writers follow their muse, carry notebooks, and don’t get chained to an outline. If a character takes an unexpected turn into a dark alley, don’t stop him/her. Follow.
A couple of years ago I published Devils Den. Due to the characters in the fantasy realm of the novel, I thought that writing a novella backstory would be a good idea.However, my muse had a much different idea.
The fantasy characters in Devils Den I’ve known—in my mind, at least—for more than twenty years. The first novel I attempted to write had been based on these characters, but the plot was too weak to develop, so I killed the story. But the characters never died. They didn’t speak a lot, but they were there in the back of my mind, maturing and waiting.
As I started the “Prequel” for Devils Den, something strange occurred. The characters wanted their voices to be heard, and they weren’t shy about letting me know. What I thought would be 40-50,000 words, came to life on a much larger scale. Twenty years of maturing in my mind, the characters suddenly brought their world to life. The plotlines are endless.
The new novel ended up as a 148,000 word epic fantasy novel, Shawndirea [Book One of The Chronicles of Aetheaon]. Since the events in this novel are twenty years prior to Devils Den, and so much occurs between the two, the new book has become the first book in its own series.This past January, Lady Squire [Book Two of The Chronicles of Aetheaon] was released (200,000 words).
Oddly, following my muse with Shawndirea (a fairy)opened up new doors I had never imagined possible at that time in my writing career. The novel stayed in the Top 100 Paid Fantasy novels for over ten weeks in 2014. The neatest thing was seeing the book beside R.A. Salvatore and Terry Pratchett in the list. Writers I’ve always held in high esteem. Plus, the success of Shawndirea qualified me to become a member of The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association. I guess fairies ARE magical.
So, you see, my muse took me in a different direction and definitely further than the novella I had planned. Most often my muse knows more than I do, so I follow, take notes, and I write down what I hear and see. If there’s a better formula than that, I don’t know it.