The Fallacy of Inspiration

In his excellent memoir, On Writing, Stephen King compares writing a story to discovering an artefact – you discover the story idea, but it’s encased in mud and dirt, and it’s through writing and revision that you chip away all the muck to reveal as much of the story as possible.

It’s a worthwhile analogy to keep in mind, because too many writers rely on inspiration to be their drive the whole time. They write when inspiration hits, or when the mood takes them. Any other time is not worth the bother, they think. If it’s hard to write, then it can’t be good, right?


Poets may be able to rely on inspiration – a poem will usually be short enough that inspiration and mood can carry the writer from the inception of the poem to its completion. The same applies to short stories. That’s not to say poets or short story authors don’t work arduously on their writing, or revise extensively, but just that these forms are short enough that these attitudes of inspiration and mood can survive the journey in its entirety.

An adult novel will be, on average, about 80,000 words long. It would be simply impossible for inspiration to motivate an author the whole journey. That would be tantamount to running a whole marathon at a sprint. Similarly, an author is not going to be in the mood the whole time through the course of writing a novel.

If you’re always waiting for inspiration to hit, or the mood to take you, you’ll never finish anything.

Inspiration is usually just an idea, or a question. What if an orphaned boy who lived under the stairs discovered he was a wizard? Or, What if a dysfunctional teenager was kicked out of his fancy school? Or, What if a character was unstuck in time? Continuing with King’s analogy, this is the discovery of the artefact.

Questions now may follow. Let’s use the first example. The questions might be:

  • Who is the boy?
  • If he’s orphaned, who does he live with?
  • How did his parents die?
  • How does the boy develop his wizardry?

These questions will either provide answers …

  • The boy is chosen to fight a great evil.
  • He lives with his cruel aunt, uncle, and cousin.

… or more questions …

  • What if his parents were killed by the very evil the boy has to fight?
  • What is there was a school of magic that the boy and others like him are sent to?

The idea is now starting to develop. Keep in mind, inspiration provided the spark. We’re now doing the rest of the work – some of it will come so easily it’ll surprise us, while the rest may take trial, error, and refining. But we’re underway.

Now everybody has to find their own methodology as to when they feel they have enough information to sit down and begin writing. But when they do, there’s one thing that’s just about guaranteed: you will be full of enthusiasm.

You’re excited. The ideas at this stage are brimming. You can’t wait to get stuck into it. So you write and write. But that enthusiasm doesn’t last. At some point, you’ll tire. You won’t be sure where the story goes next. It’ll feel flat. It won’t seem worth it. You’ll be too tired. You’ll have too much on. You won’t have enough time to make writing worthwhile. And on this list goes.

If you sit around waiting for the next inspiration, you may end up waiting so long that you forget important details that you have written, so then you have to spend time re-familiarising yourself with everything. Or you might end up waiting indefinitely.

This is not the time to start on a new project, however much it does beckon. Lots of authors do, and commend themselves on their versatility, but their other projects just become abandoned. A new project will always be more exciting because it is new and fresh and untainted. But it’s likely that if you did begin it, you’ll eventually face the same issues.

You need to stick with what you’re writing. You need to learn to write through tiredness and distraction and all that. You need to learn to push through flat spots and not knowing where to go. You need to develop that writing muscle so that it carries you through any of the times you don’t feel like writing for whatever reason.

When you learn to do this, you’ll find your imagination is always running, that you’re always contemplating where to go next, and that you’re eager to get back to writing.

Once you develop this as an ability, you’ll find that outside of the providing the original concept, you won’t need inspiration to fuel you through the journey of writing a book, and you will generally feel passionate about it the whole time.

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