Trust Your Instincts

            People often ask me for recommendations on resources for learning to write, and I’m happy to give them.  There are some great guidebooks out there–any of our own Donald Maass’s books being some of the best, in my opinion.  But I have a confession: I think the advice that books on writing give is very often stellar.  But when I’m drafting a novel myself, I very rarely use it in any conscious way.  I mean, when I set out to write a chapter, I don’t consciously ask myself, what is my main character’s primary goal in this chapter? What is going to stop her from getting it?  When I’m wrestling with plot, I don’t consciously follow any of the ‘approved’ basic plot structures.

            I suppose I’d have to say that in my own writing I tend to rely on something closer to basic, gut-level instinct.  I try to dig deep into what makes my characters unique, what exactly about them made me so intrigued with them, so determined to tell their story.  And then . . . instinct takes over.  I’ll write a chapter, then realize it needs an added scene of danger or suspense or conflict simply because it feels right.  Of course, the converse is also true.  Has anyone else ever had the experience of writing a scene/chapter/book . . . and it’s a good scene/chapter/book.  The language is polished, the setting vivid, the characters real and vivid . . . and yet on a gut-level you just know that it’s all wrong?  That there’s nothing to be done but toss the whole thing in the trash and start again?

            That happened to me recently on my current WIP.  I’d been working on it for a few months, and I genuinely liked everything I’d written.  That’s what made it so hard, that subtle, sickening feeling that somewhere, somehow, the book was just fundamentally not right.  That I hadn’t yet reached the true core of the story I wanted to tell.  So what can you do?  What I did was to take a few days off, read, meditate, try to reconnect with my characters–try to figure out just what it was that had made me fall in love with my story in the first place.  There may or may not have been some stomping grumpily around the house like a two year old in need of a nap mixed in there, too.  :) And finally, finally, a doorway opened, a ray of light broke through, and I could look through and see my story . . . the real story I wanted to tell.   I’m working away at it now.  And although I’m sure there are still surprises left in store, struggles yet to face,  I’m feeling so much better about it as a whole–simply because it now feels right to me.

            I’m definitely not saying that workbooks and guidebooks to writing aren’t valuable tools in a writer’s workbox.  They certainly can be.  But I also think that somewhere along the way, we have to  let go of  a cerebral focus on the rules and trust our instincts and our hearts.  So how does that happen? For me, I think there’s no better way to hone your writer’s instinct that to read–read everything you can get your hands on, in a wide variety of genres.  And read with a critical eye.  Try to peel back the story to its bones and understand why the author made the choices they did.  Identify what worked for you in the story and what didn’t.  What about the characters and the journey you either hated or loved.  I tend to watch tv or movies that way, too–it’s like I just can’t shut it off, the impulse to analyze any story to figure out what makes it tick, what makes a piece of make-believe come alive.

            So read those books on writing, absolutely–but for me, I think the ultimate goal of any author should be to internalize the basic rules of storytelling, internalize them so deeply that our instincts take over as we write, and the rhythm of a good story becomes as natural as the rhythm of our own breath.

            What about you?  Do you scientifically craft your story line or rely on your gut?  And have you ever had your instincts tell you something that you didn’t really want to hear?

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About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.

Comments

  1. says

    Anna, what a great post. Writers need to learn about the craft, but strict rules and procedures can stifle a writer’s creativity. I had a similar experience to what you described with my WIP. After days-well actually weeks-of soul searching I figured out I needed to add a scene much earlier in the MS to make the climax work for the main character. It was a lesson I learned not from reading craft books but from doing NaNo last year. Writing out of sequence is a great cure for writer’s block. Thanks again for a perceptive and insightful post.

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  2. says

    But I also think that somewhere along the way, we have to let go of a cerebral focus on the rules and trust our instincts and our hearts.

    Yes, yes, yes. And then, when we get into trouble, and something feels sickly wrong, it’s time to get all analytical on it–hitting the books again literally or figuratively–and fix it.

    Thanks for a great post, Anna.

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    • says

      Thanks, Therese. That’s exactly what I do, too. When I come up against a wall–or just a feeling that something, somewhere, has gone off the tracks, it’s often so helpful for me to take the books on craft down from the shelf and use the advice as a map towards finding my way back to the true path.

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  3. says

    I don’t consciously use advice as I write, but I do like to check my manuscripts or outlines after they’re written. I’ve found that it’s entirely possible to write a chapter that reads smoothly and moves the story forward, but has no conflict. Analyzing your work can help find those weak spots, whether it’s considering character goal, seeing if the story fits three act structure, or whatever. Working on instinct can make the writing fresher and more alive, but then you can use your toolbox to fine tune the manuscript.

    My Plot Outline Exercise is available as a free download on my Kris Bock website (http://www.krisbock.com/blog.htm) and is also in my book Advanced Plotting with more explanation.

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  4. says

    Thanks for the mention, Anna. I like your gut. It’s a good one, pushing you when you need pushing. I wish everyone would, like you, listen to theirs.

    I’d like to ask you about the breakthrough you had with your WIP. Why was the first stab “not right”? What was keeping you from breaking through to the story’s core?

    I believe that when a manuscript’s weak it’s not the story that’s the issue, it’s the author. Something’s holding the author back: a fear or some kind, or a feeling that he or she isn’t empowered to tell this story in the bold, powerful and personal way in which it can be told.

    I feel that lack of nerve in manuscripts in which protagonists are mostly reactive. I feel it in manuscripts in which protagonists may be highly active but are emotionally generic or blank. I feel it when I skim.

    How did you find your strength, your empowerment, your importance? What did you have to face? What did you have to embrace? Is it scary or liberating or both? Do you struggle daily or was there a lightbulb moment that lit the path?

    Terrific post, thank you.

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    • says

      Such interesting questions, Donald! I was trying not to bore everyone with exhaustive descriptions of my process, but since you ask . . . ;-)

      What I discovered was fundamentally wrong with the story as I first wrote it was the voice. My last 3 books have been written in first person voice–and I really like that voice, really like the intimacy of it. When I started my current WIP, almost by default I used first person voice again . . . and it just WAS NOT WORKING. This particular protagonist simply refused to talk to me in first person, she needed to be in third for me to figure out who she really was and for anything about her story to sound authentic.

      The issue that went hand in hand with the voice question was that I realized that I was trying too hard to impose MY will on my main character, trying too hard to make her into who I wanted her to be. I mean, obviously I know that my characters are not real people (I’m not yet that crazy! I swear!) and that I am as the author am in fact responsible for what plot and character choices I make–so this is all in a manner of speaking. But I was trying to make my protagonist too strong, too empowered, too perfect. By not letting her have any weaknesses, any moments of self-doubt (or at least very few) I was shutting myself off from discovering who she really was.

      You are absolutely dead-on accurate in what you say about manuscripts’ weaknesses being directly tied to a writer holding back and being unwilling to confront their fears. It’s scary to write about a characters’ weaknesses and insecurities, because it inevitably opens us up to feeling like we’re letting our own doubts bleed onto the page. But it has to be done if, as you say, we’re going to find our strength and empowerment to tell the story as it needs to be told. As authors, we have to sometimes let ourselves be weak in order to be strong.

      It has been SO liberating to have finally found my character’s voice. In many ways her external journey through the book is the same as it was in my first draft, but her *internal* journey is so much more alive, more real, and that makes all the difference in how easily my words flow onto the page. She’s still strong, still a character I admire very much–but she also has her vulnerabilities, her moments of doubt.

      This reply is getting as long as my original post here, but you are most welcome for the book mention! Writing the Breakout Novel was the first book on craft that I picked up when I was an aspiring author and realized that I was never going to get published unless I learned how to take my writing to the next level. I absolutely credit it in part with landing my first deal.

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      • says

        Outstanding, Anna, thanks for that. Your answer is so interesting.

        Many find it easy to portray their protagonist’s weaknesses. Their challenge is to find their protagonist’s strengths.

        You by contrast defaulted to textbook-correct perfection for your protagonist. As a result, you weren’t hearing her true voice. The solution was to allow her some weakness. Fascinating.

        Another thing I take away from what you wrote is that to solve your problem you not only had to break with your familiar first-person style, you had to allow your character–but really yourself–to be vulnerable on the page.

        That’s what I call writing personally. (Some would call it being “authentic”, I’m fine with that too.)

        Kudos to you.

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        • says

          Thank you!

          The funny thing is that in the series I wrote before my current WIP, I had a heroine whose weaknesses–shyness and self-doubt–were extremely easy for me to find and portray. Every book and every character truly is a different journey.

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      • says

        Anna,
        Thanks for sharing that. That was part of my problem as well. I realized late that my MC was too good and his fall from grace was not plausible. So I added a scene in the beginning section where he makes a serious error in judgment–he takes a job where he is paid in cash under the table, figuring he really needs the money and will never get caught. That change makes the climax so much more impactful when this is revealed. Thanks for sharing your thought process.

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  5. says

    I think what you’re getting at is that sometimes we betray the idea of art by ‘following the rules’ stringently, and I think that’s exactly right. I feel like a lot of guidebooks encourage formula so much that there’s a danger that we lose the originality that will make us stand out from other writers. This is definitely worth keeping in mind in that regard. Thanks!

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    • says

      Thanks, L.B. That is my feeling, too. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it, that we are the only ones who can tell our stories in exactly the way we do. Take the same story and ask any other author to write it and it would be a completely different story!

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  6. says

    I think that Donald Maass points out a very important aspect of this in his comment when he speaks to the “thing holding the writer back” which he rightly diagnoses as (usually) some form of fear or self-consciousness. So many writers have that initial idea, and then get lost along the way to the book because they start in with the second-guessing, which takes on as wide a variety of forms as there are writers, but of which I can provide several examples:

    Oh no! I’m stuck; what if my idea wasn’t good enough to get a whole book out of it?

    I’ve never finished a novel; I must not be a good enough writer to do this.

    I’ve never sold a novel. I must not be a good enough writer to do this.

    My characters aren’t cooperating with me; that must mean my story isn’t strong enough.

    All I’ve got is dialogue; that must mean there’s not enough story here for a novel.

    If my idea was really as good as I thought, the story would come more easily. I must not be a good enough writer to do this.

    Everybody seems to be writing in first person and I prefer third person, but I’m trying to write this in first person because that’s what sells and it’s not working, so I must not be a very good writer.

    I’m trying to write in third person omniscient but it’s not working so my story idea must not be as good as I thought.

    If I were a good writer, this would be publishable after the first revisions, but I’m still stuck so I guess I’m not as good as I thought.

    And so on and so forth. And then, inevitably, we reach for the craft books to show us the way. Unfortunately, too often by the time we are done reading the craft books, we are so keyed in to “the rules” of writing that we have forgotten the story we wanted to tell, or it seems like that story will never, EVER “follow the rules” so we might as well not bother. Or, we are so engrossed in following those rules that we stifle our ability to tell the story well by obfuscating it in a mire of “as a writer I should” and “as a writer I have to” instead of “my story is.”

    I know that I have fallen prey to this so many times that I have lost count. In so doing, I have learned that for me, the most important thing is to get the story down, in whatever form it’s coming. I just have to get the story written. Once I have the story down, I can revise and change and edit and rewrite. Sometimes, that happens naturally as a matter of course during the writing process. But if it doesn’t, I have ceased pushing myself to find the answers to my roadblocks in writing craft books during the actual writing process, because I find that all I am doing in that case is handicapping myself by second-guessing my writer’s instinct. It’s better for me to skip the problem area, or describe the problem I’m having, and then move on to what I know or can work out.

    Once I’ve got a draft, or at least a substantial chunk of text to work with, and I know my story and characters well and can speak to the problems I’m having clearly instead of its just being a wall of anxiety or a vague “I suck” feeling, THEN the craft books come out, because I know exactly what I need advice in. That’s also when I might turn to representative works in my genre/ style to see how those authors tackled that same sort of issue.

    Thanks for a great post that got me thinking and evaluating my writing process again! Very helpful. :o)

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    • says

      “Once I’ve got a draft, or at least a substantial chunk of text to work with, and I know my story and characters well and can speak to the problems I’m having clearly instead of its just being a wall of anxiety or a vague “I suck” feeling, THEN the craft books come out, because I know exactly what I need advice in.”

      I love how you put this! And I completely agree. I think it’s so important to remember that our first drafts can always be improved, we don’t have to pressure ourselves to make them perfect.

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  7. says

    “I think the ultimate goal of any author should be to internalize the basic rules of storytelling, internalize them so deeply that our instincts take over as we write, and the rhythm of a good story becomes as natural as the rhythm of our own breath.”

    Yes. This. Thank you!

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  8. says

    Excellent blog! I agree- I love writing books, always looking for another tidbit to add to my writing knowledge. But that being said, I do NOT have a checklist or plan to incorporate the knowledge from those books. I think if the information sang true to me, I’ve internalized it, if it didn’t I won’t ;).

    Great blog- lots of food for thought!

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  9. says

    Wow, Anna. I read your post this morning, loved it, but didn’t have time to comment. Am I ever glad I came back to check the comments. This is a really interesting conversation.

    I am among the many Donald refers to who find it easy to voice their characters weaknesses, but have sometimes struggled to find their ‘authentic’ strengths. My critique editor, Cathy Yardley, pointed this out to me. To fix it, she had me really examine what my characters wanted. Getting a fix on their motivations opened a back door to their true strengths. My instincts tell me I’ve improved on the rewrites. And I’m sensing it in the feedback of readers since.

    Great conversation-starting post!

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    • says

      Vaughn, that’s so interesting what you and Donald both say about finding weaknesses easier to portray than strengths! Can I ask WHY you find that with your characters?

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      • says

        I think I was very concerned that my protagonist not be too perfect. But I think I subconsciously equated suspending disbelief with imperfection. I knew my character would be motivated to not make the same mistakes as his megalomaniac father, and that he was fearful of being able to live up to the expectations of others. But in the process of writing it, he came off overly fearful, sullen, withdrawn. It made readers wonder what his love interest would find attractive about him.

        Once I connected with his goals, rather than focusing on what he didn’t want, it was easier to make him proactive. I think, as Donald said, there was fear involved (on my part). I feared making him cartoony, or unbelieveably capable without basis. I tapped into his resolve, his genuine care for others, rather than his prowess as a warrior (it’s historical fantasy), and those were strengths I felt were not at all cartoony or unbelievable.

        This is an interesting exploration. And interesting to me that I am not alone in portraying characters in this way on early drafts. There might be more going on in the dark recesses of my melon, and this is great food for thought, but I hope my answer helps to illuminate the issue. Thanks for asking, Anna. Great job today!

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  10. says

    I’m a gut writer. I follow my instincts. Those instincts may not be what the readers ultimately want, but I have to tell the story the characters are telling me. I love craft books, too. Read them a lot, but at the same time, I don’t take the workbook style questions into my WIP. Good article.

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    • says

      That’s the thing, isn’t it–you can’t write entirely for the abstract ‘reader’ because everyone brings something different to a book when they read it. What one reader loves another is going to indifferent to or even dislike. That’s why it’s so important to be true to our own instincts in the stories we tell!

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  11. says

    Anna, oh, the irony of telling us writers to follow our gut-instinct when we’re all such head cases. ;-)

    I find it noteworthy that every time I read a craft book, I start thinking about things I can blog about, but every time I read a novel, I am flooded with tidbits of inspiration for my WIP. I think that should tell me something right there, don’t you? I agree, craft books have their place, but you are so right that we should be reading STORIES with a critical eye. Coincidentally, I happen to have Donald Maass’s last three paragraphs from The Fire in Fiction printed and taped over my writing space. When I’m stuck, I ask myself those ending questions he asks, with my personal favorite being: “Where have you been that the rest of us should go?” And even though it’s scary to put the true answer to that “out there” (into my story), I know in my gut that that’s what I need to do.

    Excellent post and discussion. I learned a lot today, thank you.

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  12. Sarah E.A. Fusaro says

    Anna! Fantastic post. :) This happened to me just the other night. I liked what I’d written, felt the passion, the characters were good… but something wasn’t right, something wasn’t flowing. My gut instinct told me that I had to re-think things. And then I did.

    And do you know what? My protagonist’s wife informed that she, in fact, was the protagonist and that I had to start writing in first person. And so far, it feels better. I completely commiserate with you on the frustrating aspect of having to throw everything out. But it’s worth it! Keep up the awesome writing!

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    • says

      What a great story, Sarah, thanks for sharing! It’s so fantastic, isn’t it, when your characters start talking to you like that? Good for you for having the ears–and the courage–to listen!

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  13. says

    I think guide and how to books are good, but in terms of writing i feel they are best suited for the second draft and editing process.

    When it comes to that initial draft you have to trust yourself, like you say, and just let your gut create

    Will it be perfect? Hell no!!!

    But with time and after thought you can bulk it out, tidy it up, and hopefully in time, make it the best it will ever be :)

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

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    • says

      I completely agree. There’s a quote on writing from Jacques Barzun that I absolutely love:

      “Convince yourself that you are working in clay, not marble, on paper, not eternal bronze: let that first sentence be as stupid as it wishes. No one will rush out and print it as it stands.”

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  14. says

    Great post, Anna. I agree with you completely. I’ve taken classes and read books and soak in all the info I can in my online writers’ groups, but there comes a time when, as Cherry Weiner said to us the other day in a Skype class, that you “take the training wheels off” and go it alone.

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  15. says

    Thank you! This is something I needed to hear!

    I didn’t read a single how-to book for years and my writing flowed naturally. It wasn’t always good, but it was always fun. Now my desk is piled with writing guide books and I’ve been totally blocked for months.

    Those books are going back on the shelf and I’m going to try to get in touch with my gut again.

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  16. says

    I don’t have much time to write, and I am a “new” novelist, so I have found it extremely fun to immerse myself in craft books– I sit in my car during my lunch hour, and read the how-to’s of writing. I take notes and absorb small bits at a time. Then I think about my WIP the rest of the day and at night, when I can finally get to my computer, I already have some ideas floating around. I can also apply some of the craft I’ve learned. The first book I read when I hit my ‘aha’ moment of ‘yes, I need to write’ was “The Fire in Fiction.” I can’t imagine having started with anything else, as it gave me a springboard into my first-ever novel. I also believe it saved me years of heartache. I plan to revisit it when I’m ready to re-write. Thank you for your post!

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  17. says

    This is me! I don’t consciously think of those rules when I write, either. I do think we internalize it all after awhile and instincts kick in. Great post.

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  18. Redbear says

    Hi Anna: I haven’t been at it long enough to know the rules, only a year or so as a hobby due to medical retirement, but have been reading since I was five, about sixty five yrs now. I like to think I know what good writing looks and reads like, and try to emulate. So it’s from the gut for me as well as the heart. Pardon my ignorance, but what does WIP mean? (I’m green as grass at writing!) If I can keep finding well written and informative posts like yours I won’t have to ask embarrassing questions like this. Many thanks for what you do!

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    • says

      Hi Redbear! Sorry so slow, for some reason I only just got notified of your comment! WIP stands for Work In Progress. Definitely no shame in not knowing these acronyms–I have googled my fair share of them to find out what on earth they mean! :)

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  19. Sarah E.A. Fusaro says

    Oh and Donald Maass’ books are my favorites. His “Fire in Fiction” is well-loved and the pages are well-worn. :)

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  20. Jill says

    Hi Anna,
    Thanks for this post. I appreciate the advice about reading other books. I tend to get so wrapped up in my own writing and find that I am not reading enough. I am in a sort of creative funk right now, so I better go find a book!

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