The Imagination Muscle

From time to time, I get requests for writing advice. I’m not very big on offering writing advice because I truly believe there isn’t one way to do this business and what works for me won’t necessarily work for someone else. Instead, I’m a believer that practicing writing is the way to go (such as Stephen King’s quote about writing a million words and Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to master a skill).

Lately I have been reading James Altucher’s book Choose Yourself and he referenced something else from Stephen King’s memoir that jumped out at me as being profoundly true:

“Stephen King, in his book On Writing discusses an accident he once had that prevented him from writing for several weeks. When he started to write again he could feel the difference. He said how the words just weren’t connecting right. His writing muscle had atrophied. He needed to exercise it again in order to continue writing the nonstop, bestselling thrillers he’d been writing for thirty years.”


“The idea muscle is no different than the writing muscle. It’s no different than your leg muscles, for that matter. If you don’t walk for two weeks, the muscles will atrophy.”

What great insights, which I totally believe in myself and it has to do with the habit of persistence. I’ve seen writers finish their first books. Then they go through the discouraging process of trying to find an agent or a publisher, or maybe they self-publish it and hope it sells. They wait to start writing the next book until…what? Until they have feedback from a real publisher? Until their readers have weighed in on the book? Their writing stalls because they have not achieved some goal with the first? They have stopped after writing their first.

My advice is to keep writing. Even while waiting for the rejection letters from agents or publishers. Even while waiting for the copy-edits to be done on the book you are about to publish. Keep writing. Keep exercising the imagination muscle.

As I thought about this, I realized that I have been doing it for years. When I finish writing one novel, I begin immediately to start working on the next, whether it is a sequel to the first or a brand new trilogy. After I had finished Wretched of Muirwood, I tried getting an agent. I was insecure and wanted feedback to know if it was really good enough. I also felt the atrophy kicking in and so I started on Blight after a few weeks delay because I believed an agent would be more impressed if I had an entire trilogy to sell and not just one book. After Muirwood was done, I started on the Mirrowen series. It was fortunate because when 47North called me, they were excited to learn that I was still writing one novel a year and a new series at that. They offered me a six book deal–three I had already written, and the next three I was going to write.

Now that I have finished writing the Mirrowen trilogy, I have already started on my next project–which I hope to announce very soon. I did not realize until reading Altucher’s book that the habit of flexing my imagination muscle is one of the guiding principles in my craft.

Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: “That which we persist in doing becomes easier, not that the task itself has become easier, but that our ability to perform it has improved.”

Jeff Wheeler

Jeff Wheeler

Wall Street Journal bestselling author of over forty epic fantasy novels.

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  • Melanie says:

    This definitely resonates with me and the things I’ve been learning lately. Have you ever heard of the Law of the Compound Effect? I learned about it from my mentor and a book she’s having me read called The Power of Inner Choice… though I understand there is an entire book called The Compound Effect… The basic idea is that for anything and everything in life that you want to be good at, your first efforts will seem laborious and with limited results, but as you remain persistent and diligent over time, results increase exponentially. When efforts cease and then you start up again, you essentially start back at square one, and it requires effort and persistence to even make it back to where you were on that exponential curve. If you bury your gifts for a time, you’ll start to lose them!

  • Elle Jacklee says:

    Thanks Jeff! I always appreciate your perspective. This is so true! As a writer and a parent, I hear advice from so many points of view and some of it is completely the opposite of what’s been suggested by others. Also as a writer and a parent, I, like you, have a small time budget to spend on writing. But when I’m able to stick to that schedule, meager as it is, I’m so much more productive than if I let more time than usual pass between sessions. Though you say you’re not big on giving writing advice, I think this is really good advice in and of itself! Thanks Jeff!

    • Avatar photo admin says:

      Thanks, Elle! There’s a great quote in Altucher’s book about the productivity of writers and the value of sticking to a schedule that is limited and that it forces productivity. I think you’ve also found that to be true!

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