As we dive into National Novel Writing Month, I’m reminded that writing is a highly intuitive practice, way more of an art than a science. That said, especially in the crucible of something like NaNo, it’s easy to lose perspective, which is why going in with a plan or an outline often means the difference between floundering aimlessly, freezing up, or moving forward.
So what do you do when your “gut” tells you to take your story on a hard pivot? Or when your instincts are telling you that there’s something fundamentally wrong? What do you do when you’re convinced that your writing sucks, or that you need to take a break rather than keep pressing forward… even though you haven’t made any progress in the last year, much less the past month? Are you right – or are you fooling yourself?
As with so much of writing: it depends.
You’re not doing your writing any favors by shifting with every whim your subconscious throws at you. Even though it’s the engine behind your writing, let’s face it: your subconscious has its own reasons for things, and it’s not always going to line up with what your conscious mind wants. That said, your subconscious has flashes of brilliance and can often produce things that bring your writing, your art, to life. It cannot, and should not, be ignored by holding yourself to a rigid framework.
How, then, do you find the sweet spot between instinct and plan?
Awareness is key.
Whether it’s your actions or your story, being aware of why you’re making the choices you’re making is a big part of whether or not the choice is a solid one. Here are some examples of how to test the validity of an option:
- Should you fundamentally change your story?
I often see people decide to make radical changes in their stories, usually when they’re stuck, or disenchanted, or scared. They don’t like what they have, and they decide that what really needs to happen is a complete re-boot. To test this, ask yourself why you decided to write the story in the first place. What did you like about it? What speaks to you? Then test the new story. Is this just shiny object syndrome – a distraction? It might help to see if you’ve abandoned other stories in the past in a similar manner… especially if you have a history of not finishing projects. If you haven’t abandoned other stories, if you’ve got a strong story idea (rather than just a glimmer of a story), and you have a true passion, then maybe the new story is the winner.
- What if your story feels “wrong” but you’re not quite sure why?
This can be one of two things. Something really can be wrong, or your subconscious is scared of you completing a project (or has some other arcane complaint about this project) and is therefore jamming your signal by sending “something unspecific is wrong” vibes.
The quickest way to test for this is to hand your work to someone else, someone you trust, and ask “is there something wrong here?” Don’t necessarily ask them how they would fix it (unless it’s a coach, teacher, or editor you trust). Just ask if there’s something amiss. If there is, you can stop and re-tool. You can read a few reference books, see if any comments were offered as far as what might be wrong, or get an editor to help you. (On a side note: when something is wrong in a story, one of the quickest ways to get back on track is to find out what the character wants, why they want it, and what’s standing in the way.)
If you get a few opinions, and they all say “you’re fine, keep going”, odds are good that your subconscious is trying to sabotage you. The best way to deal with that is to continue writing.
- What if you’re convinced your writing sucks?
On this one, I can say with confidence that it’s your subconscious messing with you. Writing quality is subjective: one reader’s trash is another’s bestseller, literally. If you think your writing is thoroughly and unequivocally terrible, that’s fear talking. Your work might need, well, work, but it’s rarely as bad as you think. Starve the fear by ignoring it and continuing to write. It’s the only way to improve anyway, and we can all improve.
- What if you feel like you need a break from the story?
There are usually four obstacles to writing: time management, energy management, fear, and process. Daily living often has most people more exhausted than they realize. That said, momentum is built by pushing just a little bit outside your comfort zone on a regular basis. Taking a break from a story does not mean taking a break from writing altogether. Work on another story, or do daily writing prompts. Keep your hand in. And check in to see if it’s really an energy issue, or a time management issue, and not simple fear of completing a story. Fear is a weird and sneaky beast. It often masquerades as other things, as can be seen in the other examples.
The key is to experiment and keep moving.
Test everything. Ask yourself “why” on a regular basis. Be mindful of your personal state and the motivations both behind your writing habits and your story itself.
Tell me: how often do you trust your instincts? Do you second guess yourself? Do you feel out of touch with your instincts? Or have your instincts ever led you astray?