Friday, November 12, 2010

Critical Writing Skills: Check Your Gut

Today, amidst the panic of Week Two for NaNo, I am going to blog about a topic that is important to all writers.

I usually refer to it as a "gut feeling" but I've heard it called listening to your Muse, or following your intuition. Whatever you call it, every writer has it.

Your gut feeling is there from the entire process of having an idea to editing. You just "know" things about your book, that can't be explained. Certain things just seem right and wrong. If someone were to tell you to make your main character a squid, you would feel in your gut that your main character isn't supposed to be a squid; she's a human girl.

Sometimes the choices you make for your book are logical ones. The setting is often a logical choice depending on your conflict. If you want to write a high seas adventure, then writing aboard a ship on the ocean is a logical choice.

But sometimes we make choices for our novel that are neither logical nor based on novel-intuition. They are just assumptions we make when we develop the idea. Sometimes these assumptions are fine, but if you haven't sufficiently thought through these assumptions they can cause real problems, the very least of which becoming parts of your book that sort of bore you.

I was in that place two days ago. I was feeling restless and bored. My gut was telling me something was seriously off. Not a good place while trying to write. In the past, I just wrote past those feelings, and had some serious issues to work through in revision. Normally those feelings crop up when I have something fundamental off about the book. So despite the pressure to continue, I stopped and took inventory of what I had so far. 

Taking inventory really isn't such a bad thing while writing a novel. Sometimes mid-novel your idea of the characters or plot or setting changes. You can either panic and run around the room (did that) or you can sit down and brainstorm all the elements of the novel you love, and how to incorporate them into your novel better (did that). My gut was telling me something was off. It was my job to figure out what.

How did I do that?

I questioned everything. Not just half halfheartedly going through the characters, plot, and setting, assuming everything is okay. You can't expect the problem to just jump out at you. If it was that obvious you would have fixed it already, right? 

Your problem will normally be something you didn't stop to consider when you were plotting your novel (or just threw out there, for you pantsers). 

I even went so far as to consider throwing out my conflict. Yes, ladies and gentleman, 21,ooo thousand words in and I actually considered throwing out my conflict. I just wasn't sure anymore that the conflict fit what I really wanted to write. When I first thought of the book idea I am writing now, the characters and plot were much different. Sometimes it's hard to let go of how things used to be. So I sat there, with my list of notes of elements that I loved about my book, and figured out how to best showcase that.

Turns out the conflict is still the best choice. But if I had thought of a better one I would have changed it in a New York Minute. I just needed to refocus the conflict so I am writing the scenes I actually care about, and not where the conflict was taking me initially.

Next I checked my characters. I talked with my friend Lena, and discovered while there was plenty of interaction between my two female main characters and their possible love interests, there was little to none between the two main characters. It gave the story a disjointed feeling, like I was writing two mini books. This fix was pretty easy. I didn't have to change the characters, just add some history in their backstory. 

This time around I lucked out, and most of the fixes I made were minor in nature. My plot, setting, and characters are still mostly intact, only now I am writing scenes with life in them.

Learning to listen to your novel-intuition is not for the faint-hearted. You have to be very careful--and confident--that it's actually your gut feeling telling you something is off about the novel, and it's not your self-doubt trying to sabotage you. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices when you realize what the problem is. If I had realized the conflict didn't fit the story I wanted to tell, I would have had a lot of work ahead of me.

For those of you who haven't made a radical change in your story mid-novel before, the technique is called Pretend You Got It Right the First Time. For example, I wrote a book where a villain threatened to release a DVD of people who were pretending to be normal humans changing into werewolves. I never actually planned on him releasing the DVD (I know, rookie mistake) but I got to the point in the novel where I realize there was no good reason (other than it totally destroyed the rest of my plot) that he WOULDN'T release the DVD. So he did. In this case, you DON'T throw away what you've already written and start over. You'll never finish a book that way. You just keep writing as though this is how it's been all along. Then in revision, you make the necessary changes to the earlier scenes.

Sometimes you DO have to chuck what you've already written. If I had decided the main characters needs a complete overhaul, the setting had to go, and the conflict was crappy, I might have tossed what I had already written. But you should make sure that's what you HAVE to do, and not your self-doubt talking. Your job as a writer is to finish this book, come hell or high water. 

Learning to listen to what your gut is telling you is, I believe, a vital skill as a writer. It's what will tell you during revision what is important to you, and what you can toss. It will tell you mid-novel that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and then help you figure out what is stinking up your novel so you can go back to being brilliant. Before making any radical changes though, I suggest you talk with some trusted writer friends who have experiences similar to yours, and for the love of all that is holy, back up your current WIP just in case your self-doubt sucker punches you. 

You all might think I am raving mad, talking about listening to your gut. I just know it's been an invaluable tool for me. And in this case, it saved my novel.

I hope everyone is doing okay during NaNo. Slow and steady wins the race!


  1. I could have just posted that! Why didn't I think of that? I didn't have to go on for paragraphs!

  2. Well, we KNOW you're raving mad... ;-)

    But yes, sometimes you have to revisit things, cut things no matter how painful, etc.

  3. When my gut finally kicked in, I was halfway through revisions of my first novel. But thankfully it did, because I made a fresh start and the new version is 10 times better.

    NaNo is not my friend, again this year. Just too much else going on in november. But the new novel is cool nonetheless. I'm more in tune with my gut now so everything is flowing better. :)

    Glad to know one of us is on track!

    ~ Tara