Train Your Muse Like You Train a Puppy

puppy Reagan

The adorable and very well-trained Reagan

Strategies for Writers – Part 1 of 3

One of the difficult things about being a writer is having those days when you’re lacking inspiration, the words aren’t flowing, and you feel stuck. Pile enough days like that on top of one another and pretty soon you have the dreaded writer’s block. Ugh.

But that never has to happen to you…because you can train your muse to perform on command, right? The secret is to think of it like a puppy. You know — cute, rambunctious, frustrating and surprisingly teachable. Like a puppy, your muse only seems unmanageable. Here are some tips on how to get your creativity to show up when you need it.

5 Puppy-Training Basics for a Muse That Behaves

1. Develop desirable habits.

The secret to puppy training is getting your adorable fluffy friend to develop routine behaviors he can perform without even thinking. To help him develop good habits, repetition is key—doing the same thing over and over again. That’s the number one way to train your muse, too. Keep to a schedule; have a routine that works for you. Have certain “cues” that signal to your muse that it’s time to work: sit in a certain place, turn on certain music, get your favorite drink, whatever you need to do. Schedule + repetition = habit.

2. Have fun with it—make it a game.

Like a puppy, your muse loves to play. Throw your creativity a ball now and then by following writing prompts  (find new ones regularly here at Writers Digest). Take a break from your manuscript and entertain your muse by putting your main character in a completely different situation (outside your book) and writing their response. These kinds of activities are especially helpful on those “blah” days when your muse seems to have called in sick. It might show up if gets to play!

3. Be liberal with encouragement and rewards.

Punishment and harsh correction don’t work with puppies, and they won’t work with your creativity either. Be kind to yourself. Don’t berate yourself for unproductive days or crappy drafts. Talk to yourself like you’d talk to your puppy—in soothing tones. Give yourself little rewards for accomplishments. If you write a thousand words, treat yourself to a walk in the spring sunshine. Your muse might be  more motivated to appear if there’s the possibility of  a treat.

4. Keep training sessions short.

Puppies respond best to brief periods of training at regular times of day. You certainly can’t expect to keep their attention for several hours at a stretch. Similarly, don’t expect to sit down and write for eight hours at a time. Break it up into blocks, separated by other activities (like the above-mentioned rewards) for maximum productivity.

5. Expect mistakes

Your precious puppy is going to mess up sometimes, but rubbing his nose in it isn’t the answer. Similarly, you’ll have some unproductive work days, you’ll write some pages you have to throw away, you’ll get distracted reading blogs and waste your entire allotted writing time. It’s gonna happen. When it does, refer to #3 above and be kind to yourself. Then go back to #1 above and get back to your habit and routine. Don’t sweat it—tomorrow’s another day and you’ll get another chance. Ruminating on a bad day will only make it more likely to happen again.

How do you puppy-train your muse to behave?

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Books & Such Literary Agency. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Muse Training « Shining The Light on May 2, 2012 at 6:31 PM

    […] read an article a week or so ago by Rachelle Gardner about training your muse. At the time I didn’t think too much about it. In fact, I think […]

  2. […] Rachelle Gardner suggests your Train your Muse Like Your Train A Puppy. […]

  3. Patti Mallett on April 28, 2012 at 4:05 PM

    The penalties for getting lazy are very similar, too. Lost ground is tough to regain.

  4. Janie on April 28, 2012 at 3:40 PM

    So true Rachelle. Butt on chair and churn out the prose. Even if it’s bad prose, because you can always go bad and revise. Treat writing as a job until the habit is engrained. No other way to product 100,000 words.
    Your blog is great. Thanks for all the sharing and advice.

  5. Elaine Olelo on April 27, 2012 at 3:31 AM

    A famous writer once said, “I only write when I’m inspired. I make sure I’m inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.

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  7. Nichole Hall on April 24, 2012 at 6:04 PM

    I have found repitition IS the key for me. Tuesdays and Thursdays are my writing days. On those days I take the kids to school, pour a cup of coffee, read my bible, pray and then write. Some days the writing comes easier than others, but I have found the routine of it all helps my brain know ‘it’s time to write’.

  8. […] Ideas: Train Your Muse Like You Train a Puppy – “You can train your muse to perform on command, right? The secret is to think of it […]

  9. Josh on April 23, 2012 at 11:50 PM

    I truly like the note about not making yourself feel too guilty or talking down to yourself when you miss a day. This only affirms to ourselves that we are different from how we want to be, and it makes it harder to move in the right direction. We have to accept every part of ourselves before we can start to change!

  10. J. M. Orise on April 23, 2012 at 10:51 PM

    I just love the analogy. Writing and art are my passions and I make time for both. It hasn’t always been so. As a former teacher and builder of my own homes (I physically built three—no, I only live in one. Sold each one and moved on to the next project). So time was pretty scarce. Now retired I take great pleasure relating with my creative muse. I even dream about my writing or my painting. It’s great.

  11. Jackie Layton on April 23, 2012 at 10:29 PM

    I’ve had a terrible day writing on my WIP. I blamed it on working at the store all weekend, so when I got home from work I was tired.

    You’ve inspired me. I can do this!


  12. Melanie Marttila on April 23, 2012 at 8:57 PM

    Love the puppy metaphor!
    My on-line alter-egos, Writerly Goodness, and The Learning Mutt are both dogs. That’s just how I roll.

    Actually, there was a time when I describe myself as writing-agnostic: I couldn’t get my butt to believe in the existence of the chair long enough to get the two together!
    Thanks to a pivotal writing workshop with Gevernor General Award winner Nino Ricci, I finally figured out how to turn my writing practice into a habit. Haven’t looked back since and rarely miss an evening of writing.
    It was so easy, I’m still amazed 🙂
    Will hang onto muse-as-puppy though. That’s a good one!

  13. Ann Bracken on April 23, 2012 at 6:46 PM

    Since my muse is more like a cat, I have to appeal to its inner lion. It goes for the surprise attack, ignoring all the temptations I throw it’s way, only to pounce once my back is turned and I’m doing something else.

    Having my muse be a cat also explains why my puppy thinks that when I pull out my laptop she can’t leave me alone! She’s sure it’s a landing pad for her bone. I’ve sent out some rather odd emails, thanks to how that bone has landed. 😉

  14. Peter DeHaan on April 23, 2012 at 6:17 PM

    I’m still trying to figure out who or what my muse is, but, armed with this information, once I do, I’ll know how to train him/her/it/me. Thanks!

  15. Melissa Tagg on April 23, 2012 at 5:29 PM

    Now I want a puppy!!

    One must-do for training my muse – as much as possible avoiding distractions. (Which I’m guessing is true for puppies…and now I just want to say “Squirrel!” I can’t even remember which animated movie that’s in, but I know it’s in some movie with dogs…) One of the big hindrances to my muse is the distraction of social media/email. 🙂 So I’ve got a program which allows me to shut off my Internet for however long I write.

    • Jennifer Major on April 23, 2012 at 6:40 PM

      It was in Pixars’ “Up”. A beautiful film, by the way. My kids still yell “squirrel” at each other.

  16. A Spring-y Monday | Breakfast in Moscow on April 23, 2012 at 4:41 PM

    […] Train your muse like a puppy […]

  17. Michelle DeRusha on April 23, 2012 at 3:55 PM

    Ok I was totally not thinking about the connection between puppies and crap, by the way. Everyone probably thinks I’m really gross now.

    • Johnnie on April 23, 2012 at 4:01 PM

      Not at all, Michelle! (Though I did laugh.)

    • Jennifer Major on April 23, 2012 at 6:38 PM

      Oh! Hahaha!

    • Jennifer Major on April 23, 2012 at 6:41 PM

      And…no we don’t.

  18. Michelle DeRusha on April 23, 2012 at 3:51 PM

    I allow my puppy-muse to write crap, knowing that somewhere in there I’ll find a kernel of something good I can shape. It takes discipline to write crap, you know! 😉

  19. Cherry Odelberg on April 23, 2012 at 2:35 PM

    Oh, speak gently to myself and don’t rub my nose in my mistakes? I need to hear that today.

  20. Becky Doughty on April 23, 2012 at 2:27 PM

    I’ve recently undertaken a few online writing challenges – NaNoWriMo (50,000 words in November), A-to-Z Blogging Challenge, My Name Is Not Bob Platform Challenge, etc. These challenges have really forced me to keep consistently and actively writing every day.

    A place and time set apart, a long-suffering and flexible family, a few encouraging friends, and coffee. When I pour myself a cup of coffee, especially when I have half-n-half to add to it, I can almost feel my creative brain cells firing off.

    And prayer. Where would I be without my Best Friend?


  21. Beth Overmyer on April 23, 2012 at 2:24 PM

    As someone trying to become more disciplined with their writing, those were all good words of advice.

    I tend to beat myself up over not getting done what I want to or writing a crappy draft. You’re right on with the puppy analogy, methinks. I’ll try to be kinder to myself 🙂

  22. Josh C. on April 23, 2012 at 1:43 PM

    I trained my puppy by beating it with a stick and putting its food bowl on the top shelf for a day or two.

    Okay, not really. Like puppy training, routine is key for me. If I wait for “inspiration” to strike before I write (a mistake I made early and often when I first began this nutty quest into literary existentialism) I have a word processor and that’s about it. I set realistic goals each week, depending upon my schedule and the length of my honey-do list. I write at specific times each week, though on occasion I will deviate from that when something clicks. And I always try to make it fun.

  23. Renee Pierce Williams on April 23, 2012 at 1:42 PM

    Great analogy! Owning an in-home pet care business for 10 years, I should have put this into play years ago. It makes perfect sense to incorporate the same advice I have given to clients…into my own muse!

  24. Lori on April 23, 2012 at 1:34 PM

    Wow, thank you for this. It’s just what I needed to read. I can relate so much to this, and comparing it to puppy training is really insightful. (I have an eighteen month old sheltie.) 😉
    Now I can’t wait to read parts 2 and 3!

  25. Brianna on April 23, 2012 at 12:47 PM

    Great tips here. The biggest struggle for me is finding time to write.

  26. Sundi Jo on April 23, 2012 at 12:06 PM

    I love this idea. One of the hardest things for me is not berating myself. Perhaps I can look in the mirror with puppy dog eyes and that’ll melt my heart. 🙂

  27. Mira on April 23, 2012 at 12:00 PM

    Wow. This post is absolutely brilliant (and cute, a great and rare combination).

    Fantastic writing advice on a topic so many people struggle with it.

    I know I’ll take it to heart.

    Brava, Rachelle!

  28. Joan Cimyotte on April 23, 2012 at 11:49 AM

    I wonder if my muse is more like a cat. It spends a lot of time loafing.

    My puppy goes, “Writing! My favorite thing!”
    My cat goes, “Do you mind? I’m trying to nap here.”

    • Elissa on April 23, 2012 at 3:39 PM

      Mine is definitely a cat… but cats can be trained, too. I have to find ways to appeal to its curiosity. Drag a lure of plot and character in front of it, twitching a bit like a wounded critter, and I can often get the muse to pounce.

    • Ann Bracken on April 23, 2012 at 6:37 PM

      Mine’s definitely a cat! Love the idea of an almot-dead, twitching character.

  29. Jillian Kent on April 23, 2012 at 11:18 AM

    Ahhhhhhhhhhhh. Puppy muse training. How cute. Very creative, Rachelle.

    I puppy train my muse mostly by leaving the house, keeping the flash drive handy for unexpected down time, and writing in chunks of time. I can’t sit at the computer for long periods of time, it dries up my creativity and hurts my back. So those short training sessions work for me. 🙂

  30. karen on April 23, 2012 at 11:06 AM

    Yes, a good routine is key. And when the muse is not cooperating, make the command out loud: Sit that rump down!

  31. Wendy Paine Miller on April 23, 2012 at 11:03 AM

    At the risk of sounding totally weird, I’m in love with your pup (now grown dog). Yep, sounded weird. No way around that.

    Here’s an unexpected one for training: Let the puppy up on the bed to sleep with you. In other words, keep a pen and paper handy in case your muse is a middle of the night, restless sleeper.
    ~ Wendy

  32. Zan Marie on April 23, 2012 at 10:52 AM

    Adorable post…just like a fluffy puppy. ; ) I’m going to share a link to this one with my small accountability group. We’re always hunting way to work with out muses.

  33. Kathryn @ Clean Teen Fiction on April 23, 2012 at 10:38 AM

    Rachelle I LOVE reading your posts! Your advice never fails to inspire me. I’m working on my very first first draft. It is difficult, especially with 3 boys under the ages of 5. 🙂 Thanks for the inspiration! I’ll try to talk to myself with encouraging words, like I would to a friend. My routine is 5 in the morning and fruit snacks. I’m getting addicted to fruit snacks!

  34. Sharmon on April 23, 2012 at 10:33 AM

    Wonderful tips!!!

    I am going definately use this new information!

    I have figured out though, when I have blocks, to listen to music!

    I have insprirational music that always tend to get my creative juices flowing!

    When I get a block going,
    I get my music playing!

  35. Johnnie on April 23, 2012 at 10:33 AM

    I took my cutsie papillon, Rugby, to the vet this morning to be neutered. I hope my muse doesn’t retaliate.

  36. Patricia Zick on April 23, 2012 at 10:20 AM

    Thanks for the tips and reminders. I always have so many projects going at once that if one isn’t working, I move onto another. And I give myself permission to count writing emails or responses such as this one as writing. And when I face the blank white page, I always tell myself no one has to read the first draft and the delete button is a little finger swipe away. Works every time I’m facing the dreaded writer’s block.

  37. Jeanne T on April 23, 2012 at 10:17 AM

    Loved the analogy of training your muse like training a puppy. Don’t have a puppy yet, but that will change if m oldest son has his way. 🙂 So, I’ll keep your tips for training a puppy in mind when that day comes. 🙂

    I puppy train my muse 1) by having dail writing times, and 2) by having a good idea where the story is going. Then she is able to move around inside the story boundaries.

  38. Sarah Thomas on April 23, 2012 at 10:12 AM

    Consistency! With my dog Thistle, if I give her an inch, she’ll take a mile. The same with my muse. Lay out one day and the muse thinks we have a new routine.

  39. Karen Chatelain on April 23, 2012 at 9:53 AM

    I have always loved the reward system, whether it’s for my writing or my housework. Best reward is enjoying the sun playing fetch with my golden. And it works!

  40. Lindsay Harrel on April 23, 2012 at 9:49 AM

    Great post! It especially resonates with me since we HAVE a puppy. I’ve seen the difference even six weeks of training has made for her. It’s all about expectations. She needs to know what I expect of her. Same way with my muse.

  41. Mayra Calvani on April 23, 2012 at 9:42 AM

    Love the photo! Is that your dog? I also have a golden retriever. 🙂

    • Rachelle Gardner on April 23, 2012 at 9:48 AM

      Yes that’s my dog – in a 7 year old photo!

    • Lindsay Harrel on April 23, 2012 at 3:06 PM

      Aw, I have a golden too, and will be getting another this year. 🙂 They are such great dogs, aren’t they?

  42. Lori on April 23, 2012 at 9:41 AM

    Definitely numbers one and two. Repetition works best for me, as it develops into a nice habit. I’m very routine oriented, so anything that helps that will help the end result – writing the book!

  43. Lori Benton on April 23, 2012 at 9:30 AM

    I’m big on rewards, and repetition/routine. And breaking up the writing day with a nice long lunch which will include a short bike ride, possibly quick shopping trip, or an episode of a favorite show while I eat/bike. Then back to work for a few more afternoon hours.

    My signaling cues to the muse includes putting in foam earplugs. Cuts out those distractions like nothing else for me.

  44. Janelle on April 23, 2012 at 9:29 AM

    I decided not to indulge myself and left the puppy at the pet store. I get a lot more writing done that way. 😉

  45. CG Blake on April 23, 2012 at 9:28 AM

    Rachelle, thanks for the interesting take on tapping into our muses. Getting into and maintaining good habits are the keys for me. My reward is to remove the leash and run around the yard.

  46. Terri DeGezelle on April 23, 2012 at 9:19 AM

    Take him out for a walk.

  47. Kathryn Barker on April 23, 2012 at 9:16 AM

    Love the playful post! This “puppy” is inspired!

  48. Katie Ganshert on April 23, 2012 at 9:14 AM

    I can’t tell if this makes me want to write or if this makes me want to go buy a puppy.

    I love puppies!!

    Awesome post, Rachelle.

    • Jennifer Major on April 23, 2012 at 1:53 PM

      Puppies chew shoes. Ours chewed pop bottles, but that’s beside the point.

  49. Jennifer Major on April 23, 2012 at 9:11 AM

    I sit at my dining room table with my research notes and my maps (yes, maps) laid/laying/lying/layered all around my laptop. Which was stolen from my husband. I can’t focus if the radio is on, because I like to know what I’m listening to next. Yay for Ipod playlists. If I know I have a decent chocolate stash in the dining room cabinet, then I can relax and start writing. Why the dining room cabinet? There is 0% chance that the 4 males in the house are going to spontaneously open the cabinet where I keep the antique teacups.
    I can’t schedule writing after school or until bedtime, as it’s hard to work in a whirlwind.

    During the day or late at night is when the muse is best amused.

  50. carol brill on April 23, 2012 at 8:46 AM

    My muse is a master of disguise and frequently masquerades as my judgemental inner critic

  51. Jennifer Major on April 23, 2012 at 8:45 AM

    This is quite similar to training a new husband…but I’d *NEVER* say that out loud.

  52. Julie Jarnagin on April 23, 2012 at 8:15 AM

    Ha. I love the comparison. My muse is especially stubborn and strong-willed. Do you think I could take it back to the pet store and exchange it for a new one?

  53. Stephen H. King on April 23, 2012 at 8:14 AM

    I take mine for regular walks like that other Stephen King recommended in his book. Scenery does wonders for the creative process.

  54. jeffo on April 23, 2012 at 7:17 AM

    I think the number one thing for me has been repetition. Simply sitting down and writing every day has really gone a long way to keeping things flowing. That said, sometimes I find it’s helpful to break the routine which, for me, usually involves switching from computer to pen and ink, moving to a different room/venue, or printing out a troublesome passage and taking a walk with it. The change of scenery or medium is often enough to get things going again.

  55. Leanne Bridges on April 23, 2012 at 3:47 AM

    This is wonderful Rachelle.

    I do not reward, and that is something that I will now change.

    Thank you

  56. P. J. Casselman on April 23, 2012 at 2:50 AM

    I use chocolate for a motivational treat. My muse has a sweet tooth. Unfortunately, it’s also on a low-carb diet, so it’s sugar-free chocolate. If I overfeed it, my muse gives me some rather undesirable output. 😛

    • Jennifer Major on April 23, 2012 at 7:25 AM

      Dark sugar free chocolate? EW!

    • Jeanne T on April 23, 2012 at 10:13 AM

      Too funny, PJ! My muse likes the real deal–dark chocolate, not the sugar-free variety. Hmmm, sounds a bit like me, too.;)

  57. sally apokedak on April 23, 2012 at 2:39 AM

    Good strategy.

    I’ve tried rewards and punishments. The only thing that never fails to motivate me, though, is a deadline. I never miss a deadline, whether I’m being paid to write or not. I have trained myself through many years, to preform to other people’s expectations. If they are expecting something from me, they’ll get it, unless I’m the hospital, maybe.

    So my muse is one of those people-pleasing pups who will gnaw on the slipper when no one is around and then look all innocent when someone walks in the room.

    I guess the answer is to make myself the master of my muse instead of letting her think other people are the master and I’m just the woman who cleans up the mess.

  58. Dee Bright on April 23, 2012 at 2:20 AM

    What a timely post. Thanks. I was just complementing a friend on her writing discipline and lamenting my lack of same.

    Rather than inducing guilt and adding to my pile of “shoulds,” your post is challenging me to reframe my attitudes.

    My inner puppy is going to be delighted with this new approach!

  59. Martha Ramirez on April 23, 2012 at 2:10 AM

    What a creative post!! And so very true. Thank you for this!

  60. Gabrielle Meyer on April 23, 2012 at 1:59 AM

    I do a couple light choirs before I sit down to write so that I’m not distracted by other “things” that are calling for my attention. It gives me the ability to focus on the screen in front of me.

    • Gabrielle Meyer on April 23, 2012 at 2:00 AM

      *chores* – obviously I didn’t do them before writing this post! 🙂

    • Jennifer Major on April 23, 2012 at 8:57 AM

      Getting the boring work done is a great way to enjoy writing, so that writing doesn’t become work. If I make sure things are in order before I sit down with a fresh cup of Earl Grey (and the heating pad is on so my 600 year old spine is not hurting), then I can focus. I get distracted easily, oh look there’s a sale at Home Depot on vapor masks, then I can get a lot of writing done.

  61. Charise on April 23, 2012 at 1:58 AM

    This is very timely. Thanks! I was just telling a friend that I envision my muse to be a “he” resembling Ewan McGregor and a bit of Daniel Craig. Much easier to find time that way…

    • Jennifer Major on April 23, 2012 at 7:24 AM

      How odd, our muses must be twins…

    • carol brill on April 23, 2012 at 7:29 AM

      Love that !

  62. Joanne Guidoccio on April 23, 2012 at 12:59 AM

    Great post! I tend to use Tip # to puppy-train my muse. I also like to set the oven timer for a specific time period and write until it goes off.

    • Marilyn on April 23, 2012 at 12:57 PM

      I totally agree with the timer. It also gets me out of the chair so I can get the circulation going again.