Give your Muse a Break: Let Fear Fuel your Fiction

Do you wait for the muse to ignite your imagination?

And wait, and wait, and wait—

Then, consider fueling your fiction with an ever-ready  source of inspiration.


Our characters lead us places we’d rather not go—that’s the fear I’m talking about.

Of course, we don’t want to go down that road, but then why did we invent that character in the first place?

Forget the muse and tap into the energy of personal grief and failure—the emotionally honesty of our characters may depend upon it.

What do you fear about your story?

This is week-5 of my course, Don’t Get it Right, Get it Written, and some students seem hesitant to blitz that first draft. Is more instruction needed, or are they waiting for inspiration?

Waiting for the muse—waiting, waiting, waiting.

My muse may not give me the silent treatment, but I don’t count on her to make my fiction ring true. Not since the time a beta reader—unimpressed with my work-in-progress—asked me:

“PJ, what do you fear about your story?”

I retreated to a café with my notebook to reflect upon my story, my protagonist, a self-indulgent artist with a dying wife, a son with a nervous disorder, and a runaway daughter. Kids! What a responsibility. Parenthood, it’s a set up for failure. Sure, I struggled to raise my own child. Okay, we weren’t the best parents in the world. Did our own self-indulgences mess him up? I don’t know. Do we have to go there?

I had to go there.

Never mind what I thought my story was about, this was powerful fuel for the story that had to be (re)written.

(For the record, I don’t have a daughter, though I have a son who ran away. He was five when he packed his little red suitcase and marched as far as the sidewalk, where he stopped, then tromped back into the house, slammed the door, and said there were too many kidnappers out there. He’d leave in the morning. But I digress…)

The fuel that fires the engine

My novel, ROXY (Tradewind Books, 2009), features a 17-year-old heroine who travels to Greece to tend her estranged grandfather on his deathbed. The idea grew from the seed of compassion I felt for my own dying grandfather, whose mind “flickered like a fluorescent tube,” he said. He was in tears as he struggled to reason and remember.

Fear of death—there’s a bottomless tank of jet fuel.

SMOKE THAT THUNDERS (Thistledown Press, 1999), was inspired by a one-legged river man. As a hydrologist in Africa, I visited old Changwe every month at his river gauging station. When my contract expired he begged me not to go, even put it eloquently on paper. The letter spoke to me of innocence and goodwill and cruel fate. Whatever became of him?

My heart still breaks for old Changwe, who appears in my novel. His lifelong dream to become one with his river serves to fuel the story engine through the final act.

Writing should be risky

We enjoy forcing our protagonists to suffer their failures, but what about ourselves? I feel that a story should threaten the writer, somehow. Writing should be risky.

By tapping into our fears and our failures we can animate our fictional characters, and thereby fuel the story engine.

Leave the muse alone. She’s fickle, coming and going as she pleases. Nor does she know much about tough love.

Fear—there’s the mistress we should summon. She’s right here, right now, ever ready to fuel our fiction.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Be Sociable, Share!


  1. Kay says

    Wow! Great blog and great instruction/idea. What you say about writing seems also to be absolutely true about life in general. We need to head into the fear, totally and hopelessly, otherwise what is the point.

  2. Kay says

    Still can’t find ANY of the suggestions/links at the bottom of your blog. Why do they put in things that are errors?

  3. says

    Yes. Go in the direction of your greatest fear. I know that is right. I thought that your book about Conrad was about that very thing. I try to do that too (like you described as the ‘behind the scenes’ plot starring Conrad). I dissolve like a column of mud in a driving rain. But nothing else is worth the time I have left. Fear is like the door through which we enter in. Yah—intersanctum!!!!!!

  4. Sarah says

    As usual your blog sets ideas churning. What about fear of letting loose the grief monster? The loss of control, the fear of falling apart fuels that insane desire to keep all that emotion suppressed. A novel comes to mind: Good Grief,by Lolly Winston looks at what happens when her protagonist dives into that particular fear.

  5. says

    Love it PJ! Using the fear – the thing that stops us dead in our tracks to be the fuel that drives us steadily forward. Works for songwriting as well, and creates an opportunity for deep healing.

  6. says

    Lowry, thanks for showing up here. I’ve been delinquent lately on this blog — after six years — but I’ll back at it. See you soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *