Spring Thaws and the Buzz of the Muse

I read an interesting article in the New York Times several years back about honeybees and how they survive the frigid winters in the states. They do so by feeding off their honey stores and metabolizing that honey, thus creating a lot of heat. They also flutter their tiny wings without actually flying, which warms things further. They use all of this created energy to survive and protect the Queen Bee.

I read about the owners of these bees, too, who worry incessantly about their little friends—“the girls,” they call them. They check on them on the coldest, darkest days, after the fiercest storms. They press their ears to the still, oft-times ice-covered hives, knock gently, hear nothing in response, and wonder: Are they all right in there? Are they alive?

All of this made me think of writing and our “girls”—the girls in the basement (ht Barbara O’Neal)—and that phase of the writing process that feels like a long, bleak winter. When the writing just isn’t coming. When we sit and stare at the blank screen wondering: Where are the words? Where is the magic? Am I finished?

During those still times in the writing cycle, our “girls” are busy as well. They’re metabolizing a world as rich as honey, and they’re flexing their creative muscles even though we can’t see them. They are protecting the Queen Bee of the Basement with all they’ve got, until there’s no longer any doubt that the worst of the winter has passed.

We worry. It’s what we do. But those girls? They’re survivors. You’ll see them in the spring, struggling out of their hives—a little lethargic, but flying again, ready for a new season. And once again the page will fill.

If you, too, are in a struggling-out-of-the-hive season, I’ve gathered a few tips for you from your fellow bees:

Falling back in love with the project and the process can be tough. I like to return to the reasons why I started writing in the first place. I read writers I love. This isn’t soft easy reading. It’s often a little frenetic. I open one book I know well, read a little, then move to the next and the next. I read new writers I’ve never heard of. Often I look to online literary magazines, ones with more experimental edges to them. I rummage around that way for a while. Some of this acts as sparking my own memories. The writer describes a character who reminds me of an old aunt of mine — that aunt brings with her a story. I also pick words on the page to spark my memories. I always start my students off with this combination of reading and memory exercises. Reading offers: This is how you could do it. Memory exercises offer: this is what your story could be. – Julianna Baggott, author of HARRIET WOLF’S SEVENTH BOOK OF WONDERS and PURE

The longest gap I’ve had away from a WIP was five months, while my agent had it on submission. When it came back to me still needing revision, I got reacquainted with it by adopting the technique I use with the writers in my Your Novel Year class: I looked at only the bones. Origin scene, inciting incident, major plot complications, dark moment, climactic fight. And surprise, surprise, there were slight structural misalignments that, amplified over the course of 100K words, took a toll on the story’s integrity. I adjusted those at this macro level before diving back into the supporting detail. – Kathryn Craft, author of THE ART OF FALLING and THE FAR END OF HAPPY

The only real thing I do when I feel that way is to set timers and write until it stops. Anything, whatever awful words show up. And usually, I get back into it within a little while. If I don’t, I take a break and start again. 50 minutes, no internet or phone. No excuses. – Barbara O’Neal, author of WHEN WE WERE MERMAIDS and the forthcoming WRITE MY NAME ACROSS THE SKY.

For every manuscript, I pick a theme song, which I play at the beginning of most writing sessions. (The song is always anachronistic but thematically resonant – for The Arctic Fury it was “Steady As She Goes” by the Raconteurs.) If I’ve been away from the manuscript for a while, playing the song through a few times can be an on-ramp to the right mindspace. If I’m starting something new — always a daunting time for the muse — searching for the right theme song can help focus my thinking about the story’s most important elements. – Greer Macallister, author of THE ARCTIC FURY and THE MAGICIAN’S LIE 

When I need to re-enter the world of my book and characters, I read a few pages from the works of my favorite authors: Toni Morrison, Dennis Lehane, Jesmyn Ward, and Jacqueline Woodson. All of them are masterful with language and story. Somehow, their words inspire me to put my own on the page. – Nancy Johnson, author of THE KINDEST LIE

I’ve never had trouble sleeping. Car, airplanes, any comfy couch, anywhere. I have always had the gift of falling asleep easily. And then the pandemic hit. For the first time in my life, I found myself staring at the ceiling at 4 am unable to drift off. I started imagining myself in the book I’m writing, playing out scenes, trying out dialog, visualizing the scenery. It’s been one of the only things that helps me fall asleep. And it’s helped my writing. I understand my characters on a deeper level because I’ve been spending time with them in a low-pressure situation. I’m not writing. I’m just imagining them, hanging out with them, observing them. Then in the morning when I sit down to write, I feel like I’m halfway there before I even turn my laptop on. – Julie Carrick Dalton, author of WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG

What helps me most is to revisit my original inspiration for the story––that is, to recall it and then write about it in my journal. What was it that got me excited enough to begin the work? Why did I think this particular notion was “the one?” The other thing that gets me excited to write is to read something I admire and enjoy. It lights the fire under me. – Therese Anne Fowler, author of Z and A Good Neighborhood

After time away from writing in general, the same way I prevent writers” block, I rely mostly on plotting to motivate and propel me forward. As for diving back into a wip, I find that backing up a chapter or two is super helpful—all while resisting the temptation to reread from the very beginning, since editing, for me, is so much more appealing than writing from scratch. And as always, reading other novels in my genre, even if it’s just a few chapters, can definitely be a great source of inspiration. – Kristina McMorris, author of SOLD ON A MONDAY and THE EDGE OF LOST

I’d start with reading through what I had to reconnect with the voice of the manuscript and to get the story living in my brain again. Then I’d go through any notes I had (I know you have extensive notes!) to see what ideas I want to keep or toss, but I wouldn’t feel like I had to follow the old architecture. Depending on the time that has passed, I might have found a different way to tell the story. Then start writing. Even if it’s 250 words a day, the flow will come back. – Catherine McKenzie, author of SIX WEEKS TO LIVE and YOU CAN’T CATCH ME

And if your bees are still too sleepy?

My writing tip is not to write. Read. Or do research. Anything but write. Give yourself new thoughts to replace all the old scary ones and the writing will come. (Don’t read anything that you need to read for work!) – Brunonia Barry, author of THE LACE READER and THE FIFTH PETAL

How do you wake your sleepy bees? Have tips, tricks, or tales of recovery after lingering lethargy? The floor is yours.

About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh (she/her) co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress, and orchestrates the WU UnConference. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub). Learn more on her website.