Monday, January 21, 2013

How Do You Teach Writer's Instinct?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Before I dive into the post, a heads up that I'm guest posting today at Query Tracker, chatting about what your query letter says about your novel. I invite you to pop on over and say hello when you're done here. It's a great blog (and site) if you haven't discovered it yet.

I had a fantastic writing day last week. One of those sessions where everything clicks and pieces fall into place, and your fingers fly across the keyboard.

I was writing a scene where my character, a twelve-year-old boy, sneaked into a fellow boy's room. He gave the room a looksie, and I needed a few quick details to flesh out the setting. Boy stuff. Something normal, something embarrassing the POV could tease the other boy about, and something that would be impressive. These details weren't planned, just things I conjured up right then and there that would be A) details my POV would notice, and B) things the owner of the room would have. I wrote the scene and moved on.

Next scene, my POV had gotten himself into trouble, and I had him pick up the really impressive item and hold it hostage. It was perfect, but it wasn't planned, and I'd had no idea I was going to write it until it was happening. It wasn't part of my outline, or the summary paragraph I'd written at the start of the session. My subconscious put the pieces together to form the perfect event for that scene.

And then it hit me.

How in the world would I teach another writer this?

I can talk (and do) ad nauseam about technique and craft and structure, but when it comes right down to the writer and the page, there's that spark that can't be explained. I can't give examples on how to make your subconscious randomly pull out the perfect details you'll need three pages later.

I find that annoyingly frustrating.

Because this is the kind of thing I want to help other writers get. The thing that might be missing that is making them want to pull their hair out. That might even be the reason they're getting rejections instead of requests.

Maybe it's talent. Maybe it's instinct. Maybe it's just pure luck, I don't know, but the writing that always shines brightest for me are the words that I never expected to write.

So, hard as this may be, I'm going to try to offer tips on fanning the writer's spark in yourself.

1. Be open to gut feelings

Had I followed my outline and ignored the little voice in my head that saw the wonderful connections before I did, I'd never have written this scene. But as soon as I felt it I knew it was the right way to go. Forget the outline.

When you feel the urge or the pull of the story to go another way than you originally planned, go with it. Maybe it's nothing, but maybe it's the scene clicking together in a way that's far better than your first idea.

(More on trusting your writer's compass)

2. Go with first impressions

There's a lot of advice out there about ignoring the first ideas that come to mind, because they're usually the most common, clich├ęd, or just plain overdone. This is good advice, but sometimes, the things that immediately pop into your head are things your subconscious has already sifted through for you.

When things come to mind during that first draft, maybe it's better not to throw them away, hoping for a better option. There's always the second draft for second guesses. And by then, you'll have the entire story done so you'll be in a much better position to know what's working and what isn't.

(More on what if you don't know what's working)

3. Don't try to be perfect with every line

If I'd spent fifteen minutes thinking about the perfect teen boy's room, odds are I wouldn't have used the details I pulled out of the air. I'd have had reasons for them, the descriptions would have been crafted with just the right tone, the right words, and the scene probably would have turned out very differently.

It's easy to over think the writing. Storytelling is an organic process, and while it can be as structured or as loose and you want it to be, striving for perfection early on can strangle your creativity.

4. Just wing it

The spontaneity was made it all work for me. I was in the moment, in the character, thinking like a twelve-year-old boy. That kept me in his mindset so I could see the room as he saw it when I needed to. I just went with what was happening and tried to keep up with the character. Spending more time in the story and less time thinking about the story freed me from the technical aspects of writing and let me embrace the storytelling aspects.

Sometimes just writing what pops into your head is the right course of action. What the muse is working, it's rude to argue with her.

5. Hope for the best

When I'm in the writing zone, I just write and hope it all works out. I'm not pantsing, I do have an outline and a plan, but I try to leave myself open to those moments of inspiration. I can't force them, but I've gotten pretty good at recognizing them when they appear. That's when I feel the story becoming more than just words on a page.

Trust yourself to write what moves you, especially in a first draft. Unfettered emotion and creativity can get you a lot further than craft and technique.

Much of writing is skills you can learn and teach, but an important part of it is simply being "a writer." It's not easy to explain or diagram, not something learned, but something felt. Even when the work isn't great yet, there are moments when the muse takes over and the work transcends.

Others can help fan the flames, but the writer might have to bring the spark.

What do you think? Can instinct can be taught? Are there aspects of creativity that someone is born with, or can anyone learn to be creative?


  1. So true Janice that sometimes you have to just be open when you write and realize that what you hadn't thought of could make the scene/story better.

    Looking forward to seeing your post on queries as I need to work on mine.

  2. I think this is the part of writing that is alchemy, that sits at the intersection of science and magic. For me, it is THE best part of writing. But I'm not sure you can teach it. I think the foundations are these as part of talent, but you have to nurture them by laying the structure in place to support them. These magical bits can make the difference between a good story and a great story, but I suspect you still have to have a good story before they can really work!

    Thanks for tackling one of my favorite things and getting my brain engaged this morning! Lovely post!

  3. I'm really curious now to read your book (I'm sure you'll let us know when it's coming out) because I want to find out what details you picked out of the room!

  4. This is by no means new advice, but I truly think the best thing a writer can do to improve craft is to read--just absolutely stuff it to the brim with good writing. That's where instinct for good story comes from, I'm quite confident. I've critiqued authors before who I know don't read very much, and it really shows, even compared to other less experienced writers.

  5. I think instinct might be synonymous with talent - so no, I don't think that can be taught. Although I do think we can be encouraged to listen to that little voice in our head that we so often ignore. That little voice IS our instinct and our talent.

  6. Instinct is something more natural than anything. I think it's possible to encourage a person to pay more attention to those little things they tend to turn a blind eye to because they have yet to embrace taking a chance on really LISTENING to themselves, but to teach it...not so much.

  7. Natalie, exactly. Time away helps with this. I also think fast drafting does as well, since you don't have time to really think about it. You're writing with your gut.

    Martina, thanks! Love your description. It really is magic meets science. You can know all the facts and rules, but without the magic the words can just lie there.

    Heather, lol fun! I'll let you know, though it'll be a while I imagine. Maybe I can do a sneak peek with that scene one day.

    Emily, I couldn't agree more. It might be old advice, but it's true. Hmm...I spent the last two months reading like a fiend. I wonder if that's why things are clicking so well? I thin that proves your point!

    Elizabeth, I know when I ignore mine, I always regret it :)

    Angela, I like that...encourage to pay attention. Get in touch with your inner artist. A very Zen approach.

  8. This is so true! The muses must have been busy last week because I had a similar experience. I was working on a planned scene, actually revising for a 2nd draft so I knew what would happen. However, part way through my brain took off in another direction and I wrote it. The result was more tension and raised stakes. Win, win!

    Now I just have to replot the rest of the story. *headdesk*

  9. Such great advice. Trusting our gut takes confidence, which is sometimes difficult. When writing my first draft, I'll go with my gut. Then I'll add little notes like (would option B work better?) That way I remind myself when I'm going through revisions.

    I'm so glad your writing session went well!

  10. Fantastic advice, Janice! You're right - it's so hard to convey that feeling to others, but I love it when the writing just seems to sing.

  11. I have a differing opinion here, Janice. Your tips on this post are well and good, but…

    Only if the writer actively reads.

    In my work as a line editor, copyeditor, and proofreader, the avid readers stand out. Avid gamers or TV viewers can tell an engaging story, but not in the same way an avid reader can. The mediums and devices differ.

    It's also common for writers who don't read much to think they've come up with something so unique that it'll be likely to confuse readers…when it's actually a standard component of the genre they're writing. >_> (That can make for an awkward conversation, let me tell you.)

    (Note: If you're one of the writers I've worked with, with whom I had this conversation, I'm not picking on you. Notice that I've had this happen more than once, and it's a perfectly normal side effect.)

    But a writer who actively reads in the genre he or she writes? Those are the ones whose subconscious (or muse, if you prefer calling it that) understands what they're trying to do and has some idea of how to do it, even if the writer isn't consciously aware of what he or she is doing.

  12. Charity, cool! Shame about the replotting, but it'll be all the better for it :)

    Julie, thanks! I love notes. They're so useful in a first draft to keep you moving forward without getting bogged down in editing.

    Nicole, same here :)

    Carradee, you're absolutely right. That seemed like such a given to me I didn't think to mention it, but that should have been #1 on the list. You can't know what makes a good story until you're familiar with good stories and how they're put together. That's how you develop that writers' instinct (and ear). Thanks for bonking me on the head for forgetting!

  13. I don't think this can be taught, but I do believe that an author should watch out for the various Easter Eggs her subconscious has put into the story when she starts the rewriting process.

    Often, I'll find a thematic string of images and ideas that my subconscious has spread through my work so I go about making those images, etc., stronger, if needed, to give my work resonance.

  14. You’ve been nominated for two blogger awards. XD

  15. Another great post, Janice. Thanks! I love it when the characters in my head speak to me and I write something that I hadn't planned. I find that's when I write the best.

  16. Marilynn, great tip! That's one of the things I love about revisions, actually. I get to weave all those pieces together.

    Kittyb, aw, thanks!

    2unpublishedgirls, thanks! Same here. And when the adrenaline really gets going and you know you're in the writing zone. Awesome feeling.

  17. Hi Janice
    Loved the post, thanks
    As a music teacher, I struggle with teaching composition for many of the reasons you mentioned. you can go through all of the technique and theory, but it still requires that little spark of something!
    I must admit that I'm shocking at outlining and generally start writing as soon as I know how it ends, often with very little idea of what happens in middle.
    As I write more I may get better at the planning stages, but at the moment, following these five tips is working well for me! So thanks for the confirmation that it can work that way too!
    This is my first time commenting, so thought I'd say yay for being a PADI. My wife and I got ours last year (though just the basic, not the rescue) then headed to Australia and the great barrier reef which was fabulous.
    Also, have you blogged at all about your choice to write young adult fiction. I'd be really interested in whether it was a conscious choice or just how things panned out.
    Thanks again for the great post and the reliably useful tweets!

  18. Michael, there's nothing wrong with not outline if that works for you. Plenty of writers go that route.

    Yay, divers! Grats on your certifications. The Barrier Reef? Color me jealous :) That must have been amazing.

    I don't remember if I've blogged about that or not. I know I've talked about it, but it might not have been on this blog. I can do that, though. I'm sure I can come up with a useful post that also tells my tale.

    Happy diving!

  19. I experienced this a lot when I was writing my novel, and I've always marvelled at how and when a writer can tap into that well of intuition. I surmised that it all boils down to the "writer's" instinct - the gift of writing.

    1. I think it is. It's where the "storyteller" in us lives.