Please welcome our guest Amy Sue Nathan. Her new novel, The Good Neighbor, will be published tomorrow by St. Martin’s Griffin. She launched the award-winning Women’s Fiction Writers blog in 2011 where she has interviewed more than 150 authors. Amy has two grown children (her favorite oxymoron) and lives near Chicago where she’s writing her third novel.
I really got stuck on my third novel for a while because I heard all these other voices in my head and didn’t trust my own instincts, even though I was devoted to, and loved, the story and characters. I had to teach myself to trust my own damn self and just write.
Writer, Trust Thyself [or How (And Why) To Perform a Writer Gut-Check]
Before I leave the house I ask myself three questions:
Is the stove off?
Is the iron unplugged?
Are the dogs inside?
Three yes answers get me out the door.[pullquote]I realized I needed to trust myself more or my third novel wouldn’t get written – or it would, but it wouldn’t be the book of my heart I felt it could be. [/pullquote]
I should trust that these things are the way they’re supposed to be because I’ve never missed one, not yet anyway. But, asking and checking are musts—reassurances that allow me to move forward without worry. On days I’ve forgotten to check any of these, I’ll be honest, I go back into house. I’ve even driven around the block for the occasional did-I-shut-the-garage check. And I’ve been known to ask a friend to peek into the backyard while I’m out—just in case.
Doubting that I’ve done the right thing leads to a lot of wasted time, to doubling back, pulling over, racking my brain. I’ve learned to preempt this preoccupation by having these household checks as part of my routine.
These checks save time and maintain sanity—two things also crucial for my writing.
Except with writing, it’s more of a gut check—a feelings inventory bereft of knobs and plugs and sliding doors. It’s not quite as straightforward, but necessary in order for me to move on with my work without doubling back, over-thinking, and therefore under-performing.
I realized I needed to trust myself more or my third novel wouldn’t get written – or it would, but it wouldn’t be the book of my heart I felt it could be. Constantly questioning myself, worrying about agents and editors, book reviews and book sales, even storylines and character arcs (good enough? unique enough? strong enough?) whittled away at my confidence. I needed a way to convince myself I was a trustworthy vessel for this story, so that I could close my mental garage door on my misgivings. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for the journey and delighted by the destination, but if I’m being honest (which I am) the process still sometimes torments me. (And all writers know that the word torment is accurate.)
Here are four questions I asked myself that allowed me to know I could and should just write the damn book already, to build my trust in my writerly instincts. None of this means there won’t be (and haven’t been) many rewrites, but some parts of the novel are musts, and I’m clearer on those now, and on my dedication to them, than I ever have been. And I know the book will be written. Not always a given.
Four Writer Gut Check Questions
- Do I feel it?
Picture your main character and his or her story in broad strokes and general themes. When you do that, close your eyes and feel it (then open your eyes again). Go ahead. Close your eyes.
When I did this quick exercise I felt the angst of my newest main character in her plight to overcome what others thought was a bad decision. I felt the weight of her desire to move forward, her fear that she wouldn’t be able to.
Did I feel it? Check!
- Do I need it?
Now think of a few story points. Do you need to explore them? No shoulder shrugging. No eye rolling. No think-so. Know so.
I asked myself this question and knew that this was a story I needed to write. I write for me, from a place of compulsion, but not everything I write is a need. My novels must be needs.
Did I need it? Check!
- Do I want it?
Writing a novel takes a lot of time and a lot of work. More than you think it will. It’s also emotionally draining. The process is strewn with critique and rejection. Do you want to do it anyway?
I’d been through this before, but knew that every book is different, and that subsequent books are not necessarily easier to write.
Did I want it anyway? Check!
- Do I like it?
Do you like your story and your characters enough to stay with them for around 300 pages? Be honest. If you don’t like it, chances are, no one else will either.
Strangely I liked my story and characters so much that it worried me. Talk about mistrust! If I was so sure of them there must be something wrong, right?—which circles back to trusting myself.
Did I like it? Check!
Did you answer yes to any of these gut checks? To all of them? Then move forward! Trust yourself while remembering that things change. Stories, writers, motivations. And that’s when the doubt creeps back in and you’re second-guessing yourself and doubting your own instincts, sidelining yourself. So, when you get waylaid (which you will), just start again.
That’s what I did.
And I know I’ll do it again.
Do you trust your gut? When you get stuck, how do you get back on track and move forward?