Em's place

Writing, anxiety-wrangling, tea.

Developing a writing instinct

By Emma on February 16, 2012

Now don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you how to do this, because if you’ve ever read any of my other Writer’s Rutter posts, you know I really don’t believe there is a single (or “right” – perish the thought!) way to do this writing thing. We’re all different, we wrestle this beast in our own ways, but a conversation with my better half this evening made me think about how I’ve become more confident in my own writing instinct and how that’s come about.

What I mean by ‘writing instinct’

I know I should define this before I go on, but it’s surprisingly difficult to do so. For me, it’s the shiver that makes all the hairs on my body stand on end when I’ve nailed a particular last line, or the twist falls into place, or the resolution to a sticky plot point flies into my brain, usually whilst in the shower.

It’s also, however, the grinding to a halt in the middle of a story, or scene or even entire novel. It’s that being stuck without necessarily knowing why, that growing sense of unease when it feels like what I’m writing – or even about to write – feels like it’s the wrong shaped block for the hole I’m trying to push it into. That’s what I’m going to focus on here.

Where things get tricky

For the first five years or so of writing books and stories with real commitment, it’s been almost impossible to know whether that grinding to a halt is because there’s something wrong with the story, or something wrong with me.

You see, for most of my life I’ve believed I’m a flaky person, someone who has no “sticking power”, no strength to see things through. I’ve had this deep belief that I’m unreliable, that I’m the kind of person who tries something for a while and then just drifts off when the next shiny comes along.

Then I realised I was, for most of my life, just doing the wrong things.

In fact, for a good ten years of my adult life I was so busy avoiding writing, (because I had a little story-related success and it scared the hell out of me) I did all kinds of things to try and survive, both financially and creatively. I even became a designer dressmaker at one point, and now, with the ever remarkable power of hindsight, I see that was just my creativity desperately needing an outlet when I couldn’t write.

The root of this belief started when I was very small, probably about six or seven years old, when I wanted to learn to tap dance. My late grandfather had instilled a love of old movies in me already, and I wanted to be able to tap dance like Fred Astaire. So my mother obliged, enrolled me in a class which insisted on doing ballet first, then tap, and bought me the clothes, knitted the cardigan, got me the shoes etc.

We did not have a lot of money, I hasten to add.

I tried the class a couple of times, and the horrible lady kept trying to make me be like a butterfly.

I did not want that. I wanted a top hat and tails, and to be like Fred Astaire. Even then I was already a Tom boy. I was not a delicate child. I didn’t have the grace, nor the desire to be a butterfly, fairy, flower or sparkle.

You can guess what happened next, right? No twist here; I stopped going, my mother was (understandably) rather upset at the wasted cost and that hung over me for a good few years afterwards.

Why is this relevant? Well, I reckon a lot of people have similar experiences. We don’t find the right job for us, or the right place to be, or perhaps even the person we could be and so we chop and change until, if we’re really, really lucky (and I am lucky off the scale) we find what we want and need to do and suddenly, it all gets much better.

I’m 35 now. It’s taken all my life to figure out that I want, need and am built to write stories. Every day – every single day – I am so thankful I’ve had the space and opportunities and good fortune to have come to this point.

But what the hell does this have to do with this fabled writing instinct?

Trust me, my cherry blossom, I’m going somewhere with this. You see, for a long time, (i.e. the last five years up until a few weeks ago) whenever I ground to a halt in a story, scene, whatever, the Fear set in. Which isn’t unusual for me, as I’m scared of pretty much everything.

In these cases however, the Fear manifested as a doubt in myself rather than the story – I couldn’t tell if it was because I’m an utterly worthless individual who has no sticking power and can’t hold down a job for more than four years, (the average was a lot less) or whether the plot/scene setting/character action etc had a problem.

I’m older and uglier now

I have a lot more words under my belt. Hundreds of thousands of the little darlings, and I’ve done a lot of work on how I can write at my most efficient and effective level. As time has gone by, I’ve learnt not to panic when that slowing and stopping and head scratching and general sense of doom arises. I’ve even started to realise (these things take a long, long time for me) that in practically every case, it’s because I was moving in the wrong direction.

It even happened today.

I’ve got back into writing book two after a few weeks of being distracted by such lovely things as the launch of my first novel, writing and releasing a short story every week, Christmas, the SFX Weekender, colds and, you know, life. But there was a resistance to diving back in beyond the entirely natural nervousness that’s always there just before starting to write anything. After an epic planning session and discussion with afore mentioned better half, it became clear that I’d been thinking ten different things needed to be fit into the last thirty thousand words of the book, when in fact, it was a lot less.

Until that was resolved, and until the proper shape of the final third or so of the book was clear to me, that resistance was protecting me from rushing into writing in the wrong direction. That, my lovelies, is what I mean by writing instinct – it’s on an intuitive level.

So is it writing thousands of words that develops this instinct?

Well, it wasn’t just that for me, though I firmly believe that finishing every single novel I’ve started (writing my fifth now) has been a great education in learning how to weather these ups and downs. It’s also the rhythm of writing that has helped.

You see, as I’ve said before, my first drafts are always better if I write regularly, six days a week, with a goal word count for each day and each week.

I’m realising now that this has been a massive help in developing a writing instinct, because when I’m working to a rhythm, I sit down and hammer the words out regardless of whether I feel like it. Once my mood is disassociated from my ability to progress through a first draft, it’s easier to spot a genuine signal from my writing instinct to stop – even before I consciously know that something is wrong with my current path through the story.

But don’t read this and think you have to do the same

Please, for the love of all things fluffy and gentle, don’t think mine is the only way to think about this, I’m just sharing what I’ve experienced along the way. This is where I am right now, and how I think I got here. If it resonates with you, or if something is unclear, please share or ask away in the comments.

And if you too have had a traumatic ballet experience, feel free to unburden yourself here too :)

P.S. Sorry about the ballet stuff Mum. x

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{ 8 comments... read them below, or add one }

  1. Tony Noland says:

    it’s been almost impossible to know whether that grinding to a halt is because there’s something wrong with the story, or something wrong with me.

    How well I know this feeling….

    Great post, Em, thanks.

  2. Eden Mabee says:

    I was with you as soon as you mentioned ballet and tap…. For me, it was guitar because my parents wouldn’t get me a piano. But you were speaking for me right there.

    Thanks, Em.

  3. Jo Hall says:

    I’ve been there, and it took me a long time to get to the right place too. I’m still not sure some days… :)

    • Emma says:

      Hehe, neither am I! But I think the period of time between grinding to a halt and the lightbulb moment is shorter than it used to be. Sometimes. ;)

  4. John Wiswell says:

    Writing thousands and millions of words can help build intuition for functional and worthwhile stories, but I feel reflection on what you’re writing and how it’s working is what turns the pure wordcount into progress.

    • Emma says:

      I’m not confident in my ability to reflect on my writing in any intellectually rigorous way, for me it feels much more instinctive. I think it’s inevitable that patterns are discovered, both good and bad, and altered accordingly. I also think that writing tics can be identified and removed, and things tightened etc. But I know I can’t read things through and see good points and bad points in the way my editors and beta-readers can. That’s why I love them.

      What your comment highlights to me is how different we all are in the way we approach the writing life, and hooray for that!

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