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?