Thursday, October 28, 2010

Gotta Have Faith

I mentioned in comments to yesterday's post that I finally came up with the title for my NaNo novel. I didn't have one until now because I've already changed my mind three times about what I'm going to write in November. After much thought I decided the haunted house story needs to percolate a bit longer; I also briefly arm-wrestled the temptation to write a contracted book early versus having fun (fun and I won; the contract work will wait until it comes up on the regular work schedule.)

I did all this by blindly following what felt most right. I may pre-plan just about everything about the books I write, but during the decision-making process the comes before all the planning, I've learned to have faith and ride along with my story instincts.

I don't think story instincts are especially logical. Mine cannot be categorized, alphabetized or otherwise organized (I know. I've tried.) I don't know how they work, where they come from or why I got stuck with them, but I've come to trust them, and they've never let me down. My downfalls have come from not following them, and I've stumbled enough times to put my trust where it obviously belongs.

Once I get in line with my story instincts, everything seems to fall into place. Once I made my decision on what to write, I found my title. I also named my protagonists, created backstories for them and figured out their primary conflict. I went online, shopped around and found what I need for my cover art. Other characters have started emerging from nowhere and are telling me their stories. It's a lot like seeing rain drops fall on still waters and watching the ripples form and spread out, and then another, and then two more, etc. I'd like to take credit for what generates that creative storm, but it's a very enigmatic part of my process over which I have no control whatsoever.

The story instincts don't always kick in automatically, and when that happens I feel like I'm fighting the work instead of serving it. Over time I've come up with a few tricks to jump start things, but what mainly works is relaxing, reading and not thinking about it for a day or two. Then when all the noise is out of my head, I pay a brief, polite visit to my conundrum and try to see it with fresh eyes -- and that's when the story instincts generally wake up and go to work.

The theory I've heard that makes the most sense to me about how we acquire these story instincts is saturation via constant exposure. Writers read and write so much that we could be imprinting ourselves with innumerable bits of data that go on to form and guide our choices. It would explain why it's so hard to define story instincts, as they would exist both on conscious and subconscious levels. I just wish they came with an on-switch so I wouldn't have to spend any time driving myself crazy over what should be a fairly simple and logical decision, but maybe that's part of the process, too.

When do you depend on your story instincts? What do you do when you can't tap into them? Let us know in comments.


  1. Anonymous12:59 AM

    Like you, I use my writerly instincts while CHOOSING a project.

    I found the best way to get these instincts to start working is to begin sketching in free association what I know about all the projects ideas I have. I'm pay attention to the stakes of each story.

    I don't necessarily look for the story with the biggest or most exciting stakes (all that can change in the planning and drafting stages) but I am looking for the stakes that EXCITE me the most at the time.

    A coming of age story has different kinds of stakes than a heroic fantasy.

    A story's stakes -- that emotional value of a story -- that's what I use to guide me before I start writing.

    I also trust my writerly instinct while planning and drafting a story, but it's different. I learned from Holly Lisle to let my muse and my critic work together. I send ideas back, or add to them, or think about how a reader would react.

    I don't do ANY of that when deciding on which story to write. That part of it is all muse, all creative energy, all instinct.

  2. Hmm. Instincts come into play so many times in my process that it's hard to tell. Which story to tackle right now is one of them, which directions to pursue in the outline is another, and then when writing, if instinct tells me to put something in, I'm pretty sure I'll get to find out why later.

    Yay for choosing fun over work. It's only one month.

  3. I depend on instincts all the time, and when they refused to be tapped, that's usually an indicator that the story won't work.

    The characters who are telling the story will simply say: "Bored now." And move on... unless I back track to where they were happy with the events. If I can't find it, the whole thing is dumped.

  4. I use my instincts a lot when I'm creating a storyline. What if I did this? Or this? There's a small rush of recognition for some choices that just makes them feel right.

  5. I just know it's there, and I have to trust it. I try not to think about it too much...knowing me, if I did? I spaz, and panic... and chase it away. O.o

  6. I trust my instiscts but then after a while I look at them clearly and if I like it, I take it, basically. You just can't stuff everything into your story, because no one's that genius to form the right words/plots every single time, really.

  7. The "saturation via constant exposure" theory is probably correct. I think about people who are pantsers and not outliners. How do they happen to make the story events come out in the right order? How do they reliably put their plot catalyst, midpoint scene, and climax scene in just the right place without an outline to guide them? It's probably because of the constant exposure to good, solid stories and now they know instinctively how to do it.

    I'm not a pantser. Now I'm wondering if they are better read than I am. :-)

  8. Anonymous9:09 AM

    Just this week I finally resolved an issue I'd been resisting for a long time. I felt like I had to have a second sister to my protagonist, but I didn't want a storyline involving the father to be the center of the story, because it wasn't.
    I could not figure out how to deal with that; it seemed like it was an either/or choice. I finally decided to start collaging on the potential sister, who was part of the plan from the very beginning, and I finally figured out how to take the father out of the equation, completely by surprize to me. I'm still really happy about this. :)


  9. I trust my instincts, and try not to overthink things. When I'm having trouble tapping into them, I'll reread what I have written, go over research and synopsis, take a walk, clean the house, try to relax and ideas will come together. I really think 90% of the process of creating a story is unconscious. It can be somewhat directed, but it's a different process.

  10. I fight a constant battle between my instincts/emotions and my need to be in control. It may be a losing battle, but it also may be one of those dialectic things that creates something else entirely. That ineffable something that lets me enter the world of story.

    When I'm stuck, it's definitely an indication that I've made a wrong turn somewhere in the writing. My best 'unstuck' strategies: read poetry, walk the dog, or take a long, hot shower. (Not at the same time, LOL.)

    Good luck with NaNo!

  11. I've worked hard to learn to turn on my creative instincts. I know this will sound a bit silly, but I find that if I take a break, tell my backbrain to get to work, and then do things with my hands for a couple of hours over the course of several days, I can come back to an idea and be surprised by how much clearer things will be.

    By hand-work, I mean scrubbing floors, cleaning, knitting, making food, pulling weeds, and so on. I used to quilt, too, but I can't anymore for health reasons (bad knee makes it hard to use the pedal of the machine). Sometimes I take my dog for long walks in the park and that helps too.

    I also sometimes go through stacks of magazines and cut out pictures to make a photo version of the problem. I don't think, I just let my gut guide me, and I am often surprised at what I find in the pictures. I once solved a tricky plot problem when I discovered I had covered a piece of paper with cut outs of boots and a mountain and some interesting flowers; clearly my protagonists needed to go on a journey! It was just the plot twist I needed.

    I also like to use brightly colored different pens to jump start the creative juices. The cheerful colors make me more playful. I highly recommend orange and light green and silly purple.

    Anyway, all of these ideas are kind of silly but I find them fun. :D

  12. When my instincts fail me, I try to go about daily life as though I wasn't a writer. My instincts are like an uncooperative child, best ignored until they're ready to play nice.

  13. Lynn,

    I have always had a very difficult time with my story instincts because I am riddled with self criticism and doubt. Especially now that I have attempted to take on the expansive trek of writing a historical novel.

    The best thing to do is make an attempt to clear your head and find a place of complete "visual" inspiration. I go to a local botanical gardens here in Longwood, PA. The colors and smells and overwhelming sense of life especially in the winter prove to be exceptionally inspirational. With this visual beauty within the mind I can go home and write without the clutter that was in there previously.

    The other way is to sit down and literally talk to your characters. Sit or lay down and meditate and imagine him or her coming to meet you and have a conversation with them. They will tell you who they are and what to do next, leave your mind open to their influence and think of nothing else. Yes I know it sounds slightly insane but this is what works for me...


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