Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Killer Instincts: Trusting Your Writer's Compass

Are you heading in the wrong direction?
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Every writer I've met has that inner voice that guides them when they write their stories. My best bud calls this the "writer's compass," the thing that tells you if you're on the right track or not. Most of the time we listen to it, but once in a while (especially in the early stages of revisions) we ignore it. Or we hear it, don't trust it, and seek outside confirmation. How often have you seen someone ask, "Does this sound like the right thing to do here?" (Heck, or asked that yourself. I know I have.)

There's nothing wrong with this, it's how we learn and how we improve our books. But one of the things we also need to learn is to trust that writer's compass, trust our instincts, because they usually know what they're talking about.

Especially during revisions.

After that first draft is done, we (usually) have a much better understanding of how the story has unfolded and what we want to do with it. It's when we really start digging in and fleshing out the parts that work and stripping away the parts that don't. Even if we're not sure what to do with something, there's often that nagging ambiguous sense of what we need to do.

(Here's more on Mentally Preparing for Revisions)

Take me for example.

I knew on the first draft of Blue Fire that there were certain problems, because my compass was pointing right at them and yelling "DANGER! DANGER!" But I ignored it, because I was nervous about writing my second book and freaking out over it (which is totally normal). When I turned it over to my crit group, and they told me exactly what my compass had been saying all along. Had I listened, I could have avoided those mistakes.

So I cut out half the book out and rewrote it. There were still things bugging me though. My compass was poking me, saying "You're not done, doofus" (my compass can be rude), but I ignored it again. (Yeah, I know, what was I thinking? No wonder it's rude to me). I'd dealt with the issues, but I still had that nagging feeling I hadn't done enough and that pieces were still missing.

(Here's more on Putting the Con in Confidence)

Back to the crit group, and sure enough...they told me what I already knew, but was afraid to trust.

I went back to the basics, re-outlined my whole novel, and this time, followed my writer's compass. If it didn't feel right, I didn't rationalize "Oh, you're just second guessing yourself cause you're a big wussy and freaking out over your sophomore novel." I kept fiddling until I figured out what was wrong and then I plotted and planned until it felt right.

Before this "second book" experience, I'd always been good at trusting my instincts, but being on the pro field tossed a lodestone onto my compass. I've gotten past it now (thankfully) and when I think something is off, something is off. Every time I get into trouble with a manuscript, it's because I don't listen to that rude little voice.

(Here's more on Execution vs Idea: Which Comes First?)

Don't be afraid to try something just to see if it works. Don't be afraid to do what your gut tells you to do. Sometimes it'll be off base (hey, it happens), but odds are you'll learn or discover something on that sidetrack that's just what you needed to make the book work out how you want. Your instincts were sending you in the right direction, even though it took a few wrong turns to get there.

Trust your instincts. Follow your writer's compass. They may take you on the scenic route, but they won't lead you astray.

Do you listen to your writer's compass? Have you ever ignored it and wished you'd listened? Has it ever led you the wrong way?

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Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Yes yes yes! Without my writer's compass I'd never have gotten through writing my first novel. In fact, I ignored it for months, adding so much unnecessary delay to my work.

    Now when I'm writing my first draft, I do small tweeks every day as I look over what I wrote the day before, and make notes for any larger revisions that need doing. That way the book doesn't stagnate.

  2. Definitely. I've been working on book 2 for the novel I've self-published, and there's a particular scene that I kept scrapping and trying again. Went through at least half a dozen tries—a few times I tried pressing through, but then by the time I was two scenes beyond it felt even more wrong, so I stopped and tried again.

    There was one particular version of the scene that felt the most "right" to me, but it still felt "off". I pulled that back out, realized the narrator needed to fail… and it still felt "off". I finally squinted, trying to figure out what was wrong with the scene—and I had my narrator fail at the wrong point.

    But that's not all. Throughout working on the scene, I'd been remembering a blog post (over on Urban Psychopomp) where I'd mentioned I was working on a book with a female raised in an egalitarian culture, which would give her problems when she encountered her native patriarchal culture.

    The members of her native culture were acting far too egalitarian.

    It's working far better, now.

  3. Cool post!

    I do like having a writing group to confirm that those nagging things in the back of my head aren't working. Sometimes I'm paranoid about something (like pacing) and that extra bit of description was actually a good thing and I end up surprised.

    More often, though, all those suspicions are right.

  4. Love this post. I call this Writer's Intuition but yes, absolutely this is something that develops as we develop. The more we learn about writing craft, and the more we open our writing to constructive criticism, that faster this develops. This is my #1 reason for recommending people get involved with a critique group!

    Great post as always!!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  5. I think I needed this right now. I keep feeling like a part of my WIP is dragging. But when I read it, I can't bear to cut any of it. I've been letting it sit 'on the shelf' for two weeks. When I get back to it, I think I'll be ready to give my little darling a trim. Snip-snip!

  6. Yes! I am firm believer in my writer's compass. I usually call it my muse or subconscious, but it's the same thing. It's that gut feeling you have.

    The hardest time I have knowing if it's a valid suggestion from my writer's compass or just boredom is when I have a new idea for an old project. It would change some thing around, but at the moment it feels like it would be making it better, not just procrastinating finishing the book.

  7. I ALWAYS follow it! I start to freak out if I can't hear it. Then I know I need a tiny break from writing.

  8. I'm doing 3rd draft revisions and lacking confidence in my intuition. I'm glad Angela told me what I know I need, 'opening up to constructive criticism'. I'd be thrilled to, but just have to find the someone. Thanks for the kick in the pants Janice and Angela.

  9. I have a friend that likes to read the things I'm working on. I have had to stop showing her because of this very thing. When what I wrote is in her hands I start to second guess myself and it really halts my writing.

  10. Paul: I start every writing session reading the previous scene/chapter. It really helps to get you back into the story's groove. I like the notes idea. I've been doing that more and more this book and it's making it a lot easier.

    Carradee: Great story. That's such a perfect example of knowing something's wrong and taking a while to figure it out. Glad you found the answer and good luck with that scene!

    MK: More times than not. The rare surprises are nice to see, though. Doesn't happen nearly as much as I'd like, hehe.

    Angela: I'm also a huge fan of crit groups. You learn so much from looking at other people's work. And those outside perspectives? Priceless.

    Amelia: It might not be a snipping issue. Maybe you need to add something to raise the tension or layer in more conflict. Worth thinking about before you cut those words you love :)

    Elizabeth: Those are tough to judge. I've wondered the same thing in manuscripts I've been editing for a while. Is it really boring or is it just that I've read it 35 times. Time and distance helps there.

    Angie: Love that! What a great way to know when you need a break.

    Anon: I did a post on finding crit groups once. Here's the link. Maybe you'll be able to find a group to help you out there:

    Raising Marshmallows: You might just be the type of writer who can't show works in progress. Nothing wrong with that. I have friends who won't let a word out until they're happy with it.

  11. Great post. I imagine that you have an awesome inner compass. Sometimes it's hard to have that perspective on your own work. At least for me.

  12. For absolutely ages, I've had several problems: 1) Running way too short, 2) an inability to get any subplots into the story (literally. It wasn't a matter that I wasn't seeing them -- they were not there), and 3) Story setup problems. My "compass" kept nudging me to the setup problems, which I ignored because the other two seemed like bigger issues to me. I absolutely could not resolve either one. Guess what? The story setup problems were causing the other two problems ...

  13. The thing to remember also is that when you have your work critiqued, the crit may be in contradiction with your compass. At this point, you shouldn't worry because very often if you ask your crit partners for their reasoning and let them know what you were trying to accomplish, it's likely with a little brainstorming, you will end up exactly where that compass is pointing and your crit partners will agree.

  14. I'm currently relying solely on my compass as I don't have a crit group/partner. At the moment I prefer to work this way. I'm writing in my style with my own voice. I'm worried I will stop my own flow if I give my work out before I'm ready, so for now, I'm all compass.

  15. The compass has never led me wrong, of course, that is at the times I've listened to it. Often it suggests things that I'm not ready for or uncomfortable with (yeah, it guides us through our own issues as well). Learning to trust the compass (which is also called a "muse" by some) is a hard thing to learn but essential.