“Well,” belches my muse. “You really screwed it up this time.”

“What?” I said. “I made it to 50,000 words. 55,000, even! I won and kept my streak alive.”

“Ah, but you didn’t finish the story this time,” he said, waggling a fat finger. “You notched your lowest wordcount since 2012, too.”

“Does that matter?” I said. “It was an ambitious story without a real outline, and I had a life this time around instead of just free time.”

“You won’t finish it,” my muse said. “It’ll go on the pile with those other half-finished books. The YA book. The noir. The action comedy. That pathetic attempt at political fiction.”

“Look,” I said. “I don’t care if I finish it or not.”

“In this case not.”

“I wanted to tackle some quasi-serious science fiction, some big themes, and try writing some more diverse characters…all at the same time. It was a lot to chew on, but I’m not sorry I bit it off.”

“Oh, you bit it all right,” my muse said, cracking open a fresh brewski. “You bit it.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

The personification of my creative muse hasn’t budged from my couch in 30 days. His give-up-on-life pants are earning their name ten times over, while his stained t-shirt is not officially holier than the Vatican thanks to ash burns. If assembled into a pyramid, the mountain of been cans nearby would have contained so much aluminum it would take five men to lift it, and 22 immigrant laborers would likely have died during its construction.

“Well,” he says. “I kept my part of the bargain. How did your attempt to write a fantasy novel AND serve as a municipal liaison for National Novel Writing Month go?”

“Bleargh,” I reply.

“As I thought,” my muse cackles. “You stretched yourself too thin.”

“Buh. Sneh.”

“Look at that,” my muse says. “You can’t even muster the creative juices to respond in plain English.”

“Brain hurts,” I say. “Stop with talky-talky.”

“Only once I’m through gloating,” my muse snaps. Rousing himself, he peels off the couch leaving a shadow not unlike the kind you’d find after an atomic blast. Stumbling over to my computer, he clears away the detritus of frenzied creation and moderation (the internet forum kind, not the doing-less-of-things kind).

“No read-y,” I croak in what sounds about halfway between a hiccup and a sneeze. “No edited.”

Ignoring me, my muse peruses the work. “Huh,” he says. “I’ll give you this: you made it further than I thought you would.”

I don’t respond, and looking over he sees why: I’m passed out in a puddle of my own drool.

“It’s a good thing you’re not conscious to hear this,” my muse adds. “But even with all the stuff that went wrong, I’ve read worse. By you.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“I’ve got you now.” The personification of my creative muse, wearing give-up-on-life pants and what might once have been a t-shirt, is lounging on my couch while ignoring the cigar ash and drops of cheap beer accumulating on what passed for his clothing.

“I wasn’t under the impression that ‘getting’ me was your goal,” I say. “Aren’t you, as ever, an appropriation of a concept used by Stephen King (without permission) to give form to my creative angst during National Novel Writing Month?”

“No.” My muse takes a deep drag and a deep sip before continuing. “I’m also a personification of your fear of creative failure and occasional reminder that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. And I’ve got you this year.”

“How’s that?” I say defensively. “This year I’m writing a fantasy novel, going for something that’s not at least quasi-realistic for the first time. That’s practically my normal mode, my comfort zone.”

“Yes, but you’re also signed up as a municipal liaison. Officially this time, with real responsibilities and stuff, and not the half-assed kind of quasi-ML you were before. You think there’s enough time in the day for a full-time job, finishing what promises to be another 100,000-word novel, and supervising a bunch of other writers and events? Especially considering you’ll be arriving back from a trip to France one day before November starts?” My muse laughs a bitter laugh.

“We’ll see,” I say in return. “Being an ML could energize me.”

“Or it could leave you a dried-out husk, as dead on the inside as on the outside, so dessicated that Egyptian mummies will look at you askance and say ‘what the Helios happened to that guy?'”

“We shall see, my friend,” I say. “We shall see.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“Who’s this strumpet?” asks my muse as he walks into my writing den–otherwise known as the single room comprising my kitchen and living room.

Sure enough, a young woman in a duster and hat, both heavy with dust, is sitting on the couch, arms folded, and glaring bullets at me. Luckily, the revolvers heavy on her hips are loaded with strictly imaginary bullets.

“This is Virginia McNeill, the heroine of my National Novel Writing Month novel for 2013,” I say. “I’ve been toying with her as a character since 2007 and finally got her story underway this year.”

“Uh, okay, great, sure,” says my muse. “I’m very happy for you. But why is she here, on your couch, which ought to be my place of honor? I am, after all, the imagined personification of your muse, shamelessly ripped off from an author so much richer and more powerful than you that I’m surprised you haven’t been sued back to the stone age?”

“If anyone asks, you’re fair use,” I say. “Or one of Stephen King’s Dollar Babies.”

“Whatever boats your float, slick,” says my muse with a hearty belch. “Now answer the damn question. What’s Annie Oakley doing in my ass groove?”

“I’m cross at him,” says Virginia. “I don’t like how my story turned out.”

“Ohh, and the crowd is crestfallen!” crows my muse. “All those years of thinking about Virginia’s story in the shower and you whiff on it like Casey?”

“I didn’t do any such thing!” I cry.

“I beg to differ,” snorts Virginia. “I thought my characterization was trite and two-dimensional, my character arc was more like a straight line, and that more often than not you were making fun of me.”

“Sounds like she has your number, slick,” says my muse. He tosses the cowgirl a cold beer from the fridge. “Here, have a brewski.”

“I for one think her story turned out well,” I say. “Sure, there are always edits and revisions, but-”

“Did you finish it?” snaps my muse.

“-I feel that I did enough justice to the outline of the tale that-” I continue, trying to ignore the question.

“DID you FINISH it?” my muse says again with exaggerated emphasis. “That WAS your resolution, wasn’t it?”

“It’s finished enough for now,” I say airily, evading the question.

My muse rolls his eyes afresh and turns to Virginia. “Did he finish it?”

“Far as I’m concerned,” she drawls acidly, “he never started it.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“So, it’s that time of year again,” says my muse through a fog of cigar smoke and with cheap Pabst heavy on his breath. “What are you going to fail to finish this year?”

I don’t like the tone of my muse’s voice, or the various odors issuing from his maw, and I could do without the stained wifebeater and torn sweatpants he’s sporting. “You’ve got a lot of nerve talking like that,” I riposte. “I’m beginning to regret ripping you off as a concept from Stephen King.”

“The process of ripping off, be it from On Writing or your own blog posts from last year, is irreversible,” my muse replies, punctuating the remarks with a throaty belch. “Ripping off is like heat transfer, it only goes one way until the eventual, and inevitable, Ripoff Death of the Universe. Now answer the question.”

I sigh. “A western,” I say. “I’m going to try writing a western. A heady tale of humor and betrayal, gunslinger grrls and black-hatted villainesses.”

“A western?” chortles my muse, frabjously. “Well callooh-callay, aren’t we fancy this time around. Who the hell writes westerns anymore? The genre’s been dead as a doornail since the Sputnik launch.”

“It’s a genre I’ve never tried before,” I reply, more than a little defensiveness in my voice. “Would you rather I wrote a Harlequin romance?”

“At least then you’d have an excuse for female characters all over the place,” my muse snorts. “They didn’t have female cowboys there, hoss. I mean, that’s encoded right there in the name cow-BOY.”

“I’ll think up an explanation,” I shoot back. “And the western isn’t all about historical accuracy. Sergio Leone had a gun from 1889 in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and that was set in 1862.”

“And when you have the track record with westerns that he has, maybe you’ll get away with it. Maybe. But if you want to cough up an unfinished western when the genre is deader than Louis L’Amour, don’t let me stop you.”

“I’m going to finish this year, too,” I say. “NaNoFiMo, National Novel Finishing Month. Set in stone.”

“Just like the last 5 novels?” My muse laughs. “Or the one you actually did finish…six months later? Or the only one you finished by November 30, by undoing all your contractions at 11:50pm, but refuse to speak of?”

I roll my eyes. “I don’t refuse to speak of it, I just openly admit that it was dog crap. That’s what happens when you try to expand a 1000-word story by 50 times. Now are you with me or not?”

“Fine, fine.” My muse opens a fresh can of rotgut and clips the head off a fresh cigar. “We’ll see who was right in 30 days on the dot. Happy National Novel Writing Month, my rootin’, tootin’ friend. Good luck–you’ll need it.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“Another year, another novel that hasn’t quite been finished but has the requisite number of words.” My muse, a blatant appropriation of Stephen King’s concept thereof as expressed in On Writing, cracks open the fridge and retrieves a cold beer. I keep it on hand for guests, being a de facto teetotaler myself; I don’t know where he got the Cuban cigar that billows smoke all over my single-room downstairs.

Since my muse is an insubstantial personification of my creative drive, albeit one ever so slightly ripped off from a more successful author, I don’t suppose it really matters.

“It’s not just the number of words,” I say. “I’ve takes one of the stories I wanted to tell and given it a good start. It barely existed before and now it’s 300k on my hard drive.”

“300 unfinished k, you mean.” My muse emerges from the fridge with beer and leftover barbecue chicken strips. “Don’t you think it’s about time you finished the others?”

“What others?” I bristle. “There’s only the project at hand, nothing else.”

I mean it as a metaphor, but it’s taken literally. “The story about those kids finding alternate dimensions with giant landsquid for one,” my muse says. “Don’t forget the unfinished noir detective novel about a librarian, and the comic wish-fulfillment tale of the assassin and the accountant.”

“I’ll get to them in time,” I say, a little defensive. “It doesn’t matter if they’re finished. What matters is that I wrote something that didn’t exist before. It’s good even if it’s a little rough.”

The muse sits down heavily on my couch and fires up the Xbox. “What about the one from 2008, where you tried to stretch that 500-word short story into a tale ten times its length, and wound up so desperate for wordcount that you undid all your contractions a half-hour before midnight on the last day?”

“Don’t bring that one up,” I snap. “It was an election year and I had a new job. Too many distractions!”

“Whoa there, killer,” my muse says without looking up from the first-person shooter he’s working away at. “Did I touch a nerve? Don’t forget that it was a failure for me too. Or do you think part of a novel each year and a blog post a day is nothing for me?”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “It’s a stressful time even without the novel.”

“But you’re glad you did it again this year?”


“Well then,” my muse says, wreathed in smoke and barbecue beer fumes. “That’s all that matters.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

For the NaNo Excerpt Blog Chain.

Have you ever seen a movie with an audition montage? The kind where it quickly cuts from one awful aspiring actor to another, and throwing in the director’s horrified reactions for good measure, despite his best efforts to maintain his composure?

My first student-teacher conferences were like that.

It’s something I carried over from teaching at Osborn College—over there, we were expected to be the kinder, gentler “good cop” teachers to the “bad cops” that did unpleasant things like fail students and give tests. Composition was about growing your students’ writing abilities, not fascist grades.

I assigned the fascist grades anyway, and just took care to document each step thoroughly, but the idea of a face-to-face conference with each student before each paper was due stuck with me, since freshmen who might otherwise hand in a piece of shit can sometimes be cajoled into improving their work if the instructor is right there. Or at the very least I’ll be able to tell if the shit they hand me has changed appreciably from the shit they had in conference.

To get things rolling, and eager not to repeat the disaster of my short story analysis assignment the previous year at SMU I assigned the kids a movie analysis paper. We didn’t have time to read a novel, and they all would have watched the movie version anyway, so I drew up a list of critically acclaimed movies that met the most crucial criteria of all: I liked them.

The first thing students would do was claim they didn’t have any idea what to write.

“I just don’t know what to write about,” said Ted, who had chosen Braveheart.

“Well, consider the character of William,” I said. “What was his motivation? Why did he do what he did?”

Ted shrugged. “Because he hated the English. That’s all I’ve got right now.”

“Well,” I asked, “Why did William hate the English?”

“Because they were the bad guys,” Ted said.

“Did you even watch the movie, or just read the back of the DVD case?” I wanted to ask. The fact that the conference was being conducted in a coffee shop on campus stayed my tongue.

“Think harder,” I said. Of course, I invariably did all the thinking, using guided language to get the student to realize, seemingly of their own free will, that William Wallace hated the English because they robbed him of the opportunity to live a simple life and raise a family.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Bleary, Jenny raised her head from the nest of wrappers, cans, and napkins on her desk. The clock said she’d been out for nearly two hours, and the open wordfile on her laptop still blared its humiliating message:

Page 19/19. 5862/5867 words.

“Holy hell,” she breathed. “I’m doomed.”

It had seemed like such a lark earlier. Jenny had heard of the International Book Authoring Event (InBoAuEv or “In-bow-ev” to those in the know) years ago, and it had always seemed like just the thing to soothe her restless writer’s soul, to put an end to all the starting and never finishing she seemed to do. The event’s challenge–write 200 pages or 80,000 words of a book, whichever came first, in the space of March–seemed eminently doable when broken down to six pages a day. And, indeed, Jenny had blazed through twelve pages in that first day.

But then the horror started. Characters lost their motivation and refused to behave, wandering aimlessly in Jenny’s mind’s eye. Her outline broke down in key places. Vacuuming the apartment or surfing internet cartoons gobbled up the time carefully allotted for writing. And now, five days in, she felt like a drowning sailor after a shipwreck–ironic, given that her tale was a modern-day pirate story.

“What’s it going to take to get this thing back on track?” she cried to no one in particular.

She was about to find out.