Lost in the Trees (Rescuing the Muse, Part 6)

As soon as I set foot under the canopy of trees, it felt like the sound had been muted on the world. Even the dripping of the rain was muffled by the umbrella of branches stretching out above me. It seemed a bit lackluster for the start of an adventure, though I wasn’t entirely sure what I had been expecting. I followed the meandering trail further into the growing gloom, steady in my stride. After all of the tales I had heard about these woods, I had expected a goblin or ghost to charge at me from the underbrush. But all was quiet. Was it perhaps too quiet? I kept moving, uneasy in my surroundings, wishing that I were back at the inn with it’s cracking fire and roasting meats. And yet I continued on, putting one foot in front of the other as my mind wandered between the place I had left and where I intended to go.

The thing that no ever tells you about the beginning of a grand quest: you seldom run into monsters right out of the gate. No, the first stages are usually a bit more tedious; you’re marching to a mountain, you’re discovering the mystery behind the gemstone you found, you’re laying under a blanket in a hut on a rock until a giant knocks your door down and tells you that you are a wizard. You’re going about your business while building up new routines to create lifelong habits. The beginning of an adventure is often boring and a bit uncomfortable because you are existing in a life that you are beginning to outgrow. It’s no different than planning that grand international vacation you’ve always dreamed of. First you have to slog through saving money, buying tickets, researching what to do. And then you have to sit on that 10 hour flight in those tiny cramped seats before your feet ever hit the ground in a new land. It’s tempting to pretend that the adventure starts the moment you get there, but the truth is you were on that road long before your metal bird touched down. This quest we are on right now: this is no different.

At the moment we are slogging through a forest. We are feeling muscles ache, we are cold, hungry, and unsure if we are headed in the right direction as we listen to the chirping of distant birds. And yet we still put one foot in front of another for hours on end. At times this can be the most difficult part because at this stage you aren’t seeing results yet. You are fighting your bad habits, you are itching to pick up your phone and scroll through social media one more time, you are dying to watch that last episode of that one show you can’t get enough of. You are learning how to build yourself up so that you can fight the monsters and save the world later.

The surrounding gloom was slowly darkening; I could only assume that night was beginning to creep in over the land, though I hadn’t seen the sun itself in ages. I knew I wouldn’t be through this forest in a day, but I was still uneasy with staying the night here. After finding a small clearing in the trees I set up my tiny tent and lit a wisp of a fire. This wasn’t what I had been expecting at all.

“Pleasant evening to you, young adventurer,” a voice burbled near a rock at the distant corner of my patch of earth. I squinted my eyes in concentration towards the sound, but couldn’t see anything at first.

“Where are you?” I whispered uneasily, clenching the strap of my pack that lay at my feet.

There was a rustle of sound from the rock as a small creature hopped up onto it’s surface, it’s back legs scurrying as it pushed it’s round little body up within view. He turned his large eyes at me and blinked. I had never seen anything like him before: he resembled a frog, with a wide-set mouth and strong back legs obviously meant for hopping. But his skin was a deep purple and appeared to be covered in shiny diamond-like scales; a miniature suite of armor. I blinked back at him, unsure of what his sudden appearance could mean. “Hello,” I finally breathed, a bit of me was relieved at his small stature, though I knew I should be wary of everything in these woods.

“And what kind of quest would you be upon, youngling?” the creature asked conversationally. He gurgled a laugh at my startled expression, “Everyone who sets foot this far into the woods is in search of something. These trees are not for the whimsical explorer. So what are you after?”

“M-my Muse,” I stutter before clearing my throat, “My Muse was taken from me. She is hidden away in a dragon-guarded tower far to the north. I am going to rescue her.”

He croaked a bellowing laughter, “Why on earth would you want to find a Muse for? Life can be lived perfectly fine without one. Why, look at me, I haven’t had a Muse a single day of my life and I’ve done quite well for myself. I have a beautiful bog, a sweet wife, a couple of spry little tadpoles. Life is quite grand without dealing in pesky adventures and Muses,” he scoffed.

I shrugged, “I just need mine, is all. I can’t live the life I want without her. She helps give me purpose. My Muse is my heart and soul,” I glance down to the creature, “Not that you need one to live a good life. It’s just- it’s a different kind of life I want.” I didn’t want to offend my visitor, I still had no idea what he truly was.

“Well, it doesn’t sound like you’ve really tried to live without a Muse, have you? All that business with creating and thinking- it sounds quite tedious if you ask me. No, why don’t you come with me to the bog and just see how you like it. Many people live without a fabled Muse whispering into their ears all the cursed day. It would probably be a relief to you,” he gestured back to the woods, attempting to coax me away. I shook my head, but before I could say a single word, he launched back into his speech, “Oh come now, youngling, you don’t even know if you’ll actually succeed in this quest. What if you fail? What if you do all of this work and you don’t find her? Or you find her and she winds up not being as amazing as you expected? What if you two don’t create this grand future you seem to have envisioned?”

I shrug my shoulders as I pick up a stick to prod the fire with. Embers fly into the sky and die on the air before our eyes. “I need to know that I tried, at least. And even if we don’t create something grand- that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering to be beautiful to me. I just need to try.”

The tiny creature grumbled as he stiffly slid off his rock. He hopped over to a tree and spit on the bark; the sticky substance that landed glowed a brilliant shade of purple. “If you ever wise up and change your mind, or if you fail,” he eyed me seriously, “Think about coming back and trying my way for a change. Just come back to these woods and look for this mark- go straight in, walk for about 20 minutes and you’ll find my bog.” He started hopping back into the gloom before pausing, “Good luck, youngling, I’ll see you soon.” And with that, he was gone.

The biggest risk you will come across in this forest is getting lost within it’s twisting branches. Distractions and side-quests pepper the ground like pine cones. There are hares that you will want to chase into the dense underbrush and hobgoblins that will attempt to entice you off of the path you have chosen. Your old habits and comfortable thoughts will whisper to you, play into your weaknesses, tell you that it’s too hard, you won’t succeed, and what you had was never that bad to begin with. The truth is, they don’t want you to leave this forest. This road can be a lonely one, and at times it can become quite monotonous. You are at the stage of hard-work and little reward; what you may not realize is that within these trees your mettle is truly being tested. If you can push through the mundane and keep your eyes on that distant goal, then you stand a real chance of discovering the inspiration you carry within. Do not forget these shuffling steps that started you off. Do not ignore the internal monsters you are battling while walking this road. There is no quick solution for this stage. I don’t have magical words that will transport you to the end of the game with all of those good habits pre-filled into your routine- this is a fantasy quest, not sci-fi; Scottie can’t beam us up from here.

To make it through the forest, you must learn to fully invest in yourself so that you have the the strength to keep walking, even when you aren’t entirely sure you are headed in the right direction. You must learn to acknowledge the goblins that creep across your path, shining their light and whispering sweet nothings to tempt you away from your goal. Right now your main pursuit is to find your route, learn what a workable lifestyle is for you. If you are struggling, dig a little deeper to find out why. Are your obligations overwhelming you, are you lacking support, are you lacking confidence in yourself and your dream? You will never walk out of this forest until you face the demons you carry around with you. Take care of yourself so that you can nurture those dreams nestled within. And always, always: be patient with your process. This is not a sprint to the mountain- so take your time and keep putting one step in front of the other.

The Shuffling Steps of the Past Week:

It’s okay if your steps this week were smaller than anticipated; every single one of them is worth celebrating. My week was not particularly linear, I had great days, and then some not-super great days. I was waylaid by goblins on a few occasions (mine tend to wear a mask of motivation, which I struggle to overcome). But I kept trying. My feet continued to move, even if it was only a shuffle. While I missed the mark on my daily goals, I did still accomplish some pretty awesome things. I managed to cook a few meals without recipes (and they were even edible, though the pictures are bit lackluster), edited a few chapters of an old Fan Fiction I want to have done by the end of June. I wrote in my journal, cleaned up the blog and some old WIPs, did some creative computering at work (still counts), 3 days of an art challenge (woohoo!), I made a hat for my Dobby and researched some new projects while I was at it.

But there are some major improvements that need to be made still. I need to come up with a daily routine that will prioritize my creative projects. I’m getting better, but I’m not there yet. I had a few days where I fell into old bad habits and I noticed a marked downturn in my mood when those days popped up. To be perfectly honest, those days wound up being more depressing than anything, and they took a bit of effort to climb out of.

The Challenges for Next Week:

  • Daily art challenge:
    • create one piece of art/drawing every single day. Doesn’t matter if it’s something you see, imagine, or are feeling- it doesn’t have to be pretty, skill is not a component. Think of it like an art diary that will act as a time capsule for what you were thinking about this year.
  • Clean up and reorganize my areas so they reflect my goals better
    • The desk is a mess, clean it up, and hang up all of those things that make you happy.
    • Do the household chores early: you’ll feel less stress when it’s time to create
  • Finish editing Fan Fiction piece
  • Nail down the Self-Care for Creativity Routine
    • 70 oz of water a day
    • healthy eating
    • 30 minutes of movement per day
  • 3 blog posts because you have promised and fallen short every week

Good luck with those Goblins, my friends, I know they can be quite convincing at times.

Introductions: Hook, Line and Sinker

Introductions are the most exciting and ultimately terrifying of the literary endeavors. There is a firmly held belief that without imbuing the essence of a meteor shower into your first few lines, your manuscript will summarily find its new home in the overly-inhabited trash pile of the publisher. I disagree with this sentiment, primarily because I firmly believe that by now they have fully embraced the art of recycling.

How do you make your own beautiful creation stand out like a beacon of hope to prospective readers? I’ve never felt particularly qualified to answer this question. After all, its not exactly like I’ve got a slew of best sellers standing proudly at attention while bearing my name. No, I do not have that. But then I realized that I have something else, something better. I am an avid reader- one of those book junkies you hope to hook on your opening line, fiercely loyal to my favorite authors and quick to recommend their newest work. What could possibly make me more qualified than being a proud member of what is ultimately the target audience?

I believe that there is something universal that all agents, publishers and readers are looking for when they peruse the pages; they want to find something honest, original and brave. The best work will keep your mind reeling and your fingers feverishly thumbing through the pages. In your first chapter, you need to catch their attention and give them a reason to stay. Think of it like an appetizer, giving them a taste for what the kitchen has to offer. But how do you get them to stay?

There are a thousand theories on the do’s and don’ts of a first chapter, a lot of it can be pretty conflicting; don’t open with a dream sequence, don’t have too little dialog but also don’t open with dialog; don’t open with a character’s thoughts. Now, while there may be some level of merit to some of these ‘rules’ in regards to specific publishers, I’ve never turned a book down because the character had a dream on page one. I think a lot of this has to do with the context of the story, and while you should perhaps be cautious using different techniques, I don’t think there are any automatic disqualifiers. So instead, I am going to focus on the style of the first chapter as opposed to the concrete content.

Keep your prose tight. This is the biggest struggle of the first chapter. Tight verbiage is the sign of a seasoned writer. We all want to show off our skills, to pull someone in. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of flourishing descriptions and intense back-stories. I strongly advise that you be sparing. You don’t need to explain your entire world in the first chapter; you can let the mysteries slowly unfold throughout your work. Don’t lay all of your chips down up front. Remember who you are and why you are writing this book. What is it about? What is your purpose? Hold on to that and do not lose your focus.

Ensure that your tense and point of view stay uniform. If you have a changing POV in your story, make it clear quickly who is speaking. I’ve read a book or two where I had no idea which character I was following for a few pages, and that can get very frustrating for a reader. You want your work to be smooth, to be concise and easy to follow. Unclear shifting of tense and POV will leave your reader confused, which doesn’t exactly entice them to continue on to the next page. Consistency will be key.

Introduce a strong character right away. The quickest way to get a reader hooked is to give them something to care about. Typically, this means that you need to give them a character that will matter to them. The main point here is to give them a character that feels real; one that you could picture living and breathing, a three dimensional being that draws them in. In my personal opinion, the focus should be more on their personality traits and how they are interacting with the world around them, as opposed to flower descriptors. Teach them about your character through movement; let their actions speak for them. You don’t have to explain that they have a chip on their shoulder, or that they would give you the shirt off their back- show the reader these traits, let them come to these conclusions on their own instead of having to take your word for it. After all, you created them- of course you love them. Let them fall for your creation too.

Be sparing with your descriptive settings. The main point to take away from this piece of advice is that you don’t want to get lost in your setting; unless your scenery is essentially acting the part of a character, it’s best to be concise. You can show off your descriptive prowess later in the story when your reader has a reason to care; right now, you still need to convince them to turn the page. It is easy to get lost in descriptors. I have put some books down simply because the explanations overpowered the story itself. If it’s not going to add to the scene, then perhaps it doesn’t belong there. Pack a punch with the least amount of details, get creative with how you describe your scene. For example; in Crime and Punishment, the scene is described in terms of the way that Raskolnikov resented the opulence of St. Petersburg. You were able to understand the setting through your character’s eyes in a way that helped lay the groundwork for the rest of the story. Describe without making it obvious what you are doing. It might be an excellent passage, but if it doesn’t add to the story, then you might need to let it go, or perhaps find a more fitting section for it to call home.

Choose your details carefully, create a sense of urgency. When you do use your descriptive words, make sure they pack a punch. Instead of saying that the bike was dusty from lack of use, show the reader the corroded metal and the blanket of unused cobwebs. Use imagery that will stick, something that will hold the attention. Amp up your word choice, step outside of the box.

If possible, attempt a mini plot. This wont work in every situation, but in some situations, having a mini-plot to delve through will give your readers something to sink their teeth into. It will introduce your characters and show how they handle tough situations. This could be something similar to a magazine excerpt with ‘false closure’ at the end. It will only be the tip of the iceberg, but it will show what your story might contain. Take Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for example; the first chapter stood alone quite well, it introduced the setting and the life that Harry was going to have, it ended with ‘false closure,’ and it successfully hooked the reader enough to start in the Chapter 2 where the crux of the story began to unfold.

Be fashionably late to your own party. Begin your story as late as you can, as close to the drama as possible. You want your reader to jump in with a sense of urgency, you don’t want them meandering through page after page without a clear path. Throw them into the action just before the elevator door closes, right as the plane is about to take off, when the cab has sped by.

Conflict is the key. Bait them, give them a reason to see the story through to the end. Make them care about what happens. Make them believe in your characters the way that you do. And make them squirm a little bit. We all love a touch of conflict, a dash of drama- do not disappoint, give them a taste of what your book has to offer.

Be bold. Put your best work out there. Do not humbly introduce your story, do it with a flourish. Make it memorable. Have confidence in your work. Remember why you are doing this and show them.

Take my advice with a grain of salt, like I said- I do not have a number of best sellers behind my name. I am bumbling along like everyone else. What works for me or my pieces might not work for yours- that doesn’t mean that one way is right and the other is wrong; they are different creations in need of different elements. I am a reader, that is where my insights come from. I acknowledge the elements that I crave to read and try to work those into my own pieces. Do your own research to decide what works for you.

Pick your favorite books and find a common thread. What made you turn the page, what hooked you, what was it about that story that made it impossible to turn down? Read your favorite books and look at them with your writerly eyes. You might be amazed at the simplistic beauty that brought you back for more. No two stories are ever the same, therefore the advice to imprint on each project will not be universal. You know your style and your stories better than anyone. Make them shine.