why gut feelings are a writers secret weapon

Why Gut Feelings Are a Writer’s Secret Weapon

Most writers have better instincts than we may think we do. We just have to learn to trust them.

Now, I’m a developmental editor. My ability to do my job is grounded in my faith in my instincts when it comes to analyzing and discovering the issues in other authors’ manuscripts. I know I have the ability to understand when something is working and when it’s not, and why, and my trust in that ability is why I can be very good at what I do.

But when I put on my writer’s hat,* I’m no different from any other writer as I try to teach myself to listen to that nagging little feeling.

You know the one—the one that tells you you’re not quite as done with your manuscript as you think you are.

The Joys of Rationalization

Somewhere around September or October of 2013, I finally finished the first draft of the screenplay I’ve been working on since 2011. Completing the screenplay, a cryptozoological dramedy, was due in no small part to putting a lot more time into it (go figure), largely on account of my new writer’s group. But also, it’s not unusual for me to take a long time with the first draft. The editor in my head never really shuts up, so I edit as I go. The first draft takes longer, but it usually winds up more polished than your average first draft, so I was quite confident my screenplay was pretty much finished.

Why wouldn’t it be? I’m a good writer. I made several major revisions along the way, addressing issues I had successfully resolved. I even nailed the ending. I discovered the perfect ending a short while before writing it, and I was pretty sure I got it right.

I let the screenplay rest for a week, then I read through it. The pacing was right, and I liked the dialogue. It was good. But it wasn’t feeling great. It wasn’t feeling like the two-years-in-the-making triumph I wanted it to be. During the scenes I knew I intended to be emotionally moving, I wasn’t feeling moved.

But then again, I had been living with the screenplay for a while. I knew every moment of it. How could I expect to be moved in the way of somebody reading it for the first time? Just because I wasn’t really getting into it didn’t mean it wasn’t great.

What Happens When Writers Ignore Their Gut Feelings

This, friends, is called rationalization. It’s what we do when we ignore our gut feelings. Much of the time, we know when something we wrote is not working. We may not know exactly why—that’s why editors like me exist—but we know in our hearts that this manuscript we spent so much time on is not done yet. And we only reach our full potential as writers when we learn to trust that instinct and improve our work.

It took me a little longer than I’d care to admit. I showed the screenplay to a trusted editor and publisher and former employer who didn’t have anything particularly negative to say, but clearly wasn’t wowed by it either. And only a few days later, when I was sitting one morning in the bathtub (where all the great thinking is accomplished), did I truly understand there was more work to be done.

Trusting Your Gut Feelings

Of course, my instincts had known it from the start. I could feel it wasn’t just some paranoid instinct to keep tweaking (which is a different problem). I wasn’t affected by what I had created, and that meant that I had to make it better.

Since then, I’ve tried to listen more readily to my instincts. I finished the screenplay again, and it was better, but it still wasn’t there. This time, I’ve trusted my instincts. I think I’m almost done again, but once I finish, I’ll read through my screenplay again, and if it doesn’t make me feel the way I know it’s capable of making readers (and eventual viewers) feel, I will hopefully trust my instincts once more and dive back in.

The Secret Power of Gut Feelings

The reason having faith in your instincts is so important in this sort of situation is that, when you’re a good writer, very likely nothing will be obviously wrong. You know how to define a character. You know how to write dialogue. You know how to construct a story. Sometimes the issues are subtler than that. There weren’t any bad scenes in that first draft of the screenplay, or the second. There weren’t any stiff lines of dialogue. And I know my screenplay structure very well. But all of that just makes it a lot easier to rationalize the idea that nothing is wrong.

We know what great writing is. We’ve all experienced it. Maybe we haven’t written it yet, but we’ve read wonderful novels from brilliant authors, and we remember how those novels made us feel. We’re not all capable of being Salman Rushdie (or, in my case, Charlie Kaufman), but chances are we’re capable of better than what we’ve done. That nagging little feeling—that instinct—is our brain’s way of trying to convince us of that.

In our hearts, we all know what we’re really capable of. There is no reason in the world to fall short of that. If we learn to trust our gut feelings, we won’t.

*Yes, I do actually have a writer’s hat. It says, “I am a writer. Please talk to me.” I sometimes wear it at book signings, with decidedly mixed results.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever failed to trust your gut feelings about a story–and regretted it?

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About Harrison Demchick | @HDemchick

Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s currently accepting new clients in fiction and memoir at The Writer's Ally.

Comments

  1. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Harrison!

  2. Thanks for the wise words Harrison. The more I write and the more I learn about writing, the more I learn to trust my gut. I’m working on a short story right now and I re-read the beginning last night. My gut said “this part is too much, edit it down.” So today, after work that is what I’m going to do.

  3. Steve Mathisen says:

    Excellent post, Harrison! Sometimes we get so enamored of our own awesomeness as a writer, we rush right past those moments when we know it isn’t right. We try to turn off that part of our internal editor (which we are often told to ignore) and just plow on creating furrows where they should not be. Re-plowing a field is not fun, but if we follow those gut instincts and other landmarks of good writing. We’ll get that bumper crop we want so badly.

  4. Definitely. I recently had an opportunity to co-author with a very well known writer. The only thing I had to show her was a mystery novel I’d completed about four years ago (I took a bit of hiatus after that). I knew I’d underplayed the conflict in several key scenes, but I let her see it anyway. And those were exactly the scenes she nailed me on. Mind you, she’s a great lady and gave me all kinds of help, but she decided I wasn’t quite ready for the co-author project. Fade to me kicking myself in posterior. Had I held off sending her my novel until I’d fixed the issues I knew were there, things might have been much different last year. No regrets. I’m moving forward and have learned to listen to my gut as well as those who’ve been doing this for a lot longer than I have.

  5. Hi Harrison

    Excellent post. You’re absolutely right about the way we can use our “knowledge” of the rules to talk us out of listening that that small, still voice.

    When I run writing classes, I get the writers to shut up and listen when receiving feedback – however wrong they think it might be. It’s not always easy. Writers naturally want to justify their decisions, but all they’re doing is blotting out their gut feelings.

    My rule is, the quieter the voice in my ear, the more important it is to listen to it. The other rule is, the more my heart sinks when I hear it, the more right it probably is!

    • Harrison Demchick | @HDemchick says:

      Charles, that’s how workshops always worked best for me too. It’s no mystery why we get defensive about our work–even when it’s our own nagging little voices we’re defending ourselves against. We’ve worked hard on our writing. We put a lot of time into it. There aren’t many people who *want* to have to do more.

      But–we do. Because if we don’t, we’re settling for less than what we’re capable of. And as an editor, few things thrill me more than seeing the authors I work with put the time and effort in and create, from a flawed first draft, something wonderful.

      http://www.ambitiousenterprises.com
      http://www.facebook.com/yourambitiousenterprise

  6. I am a firm believer in processing out the emotion in writing. Not the emotional connection and experience IN writing, but processing it OUT of the writer.

    What you experienced was a tamer version of this process, though there are other methods to exercise the emotional attachment and looking at the piece the way you should, but that’s probably an entire post itself.

    You are right though, your instinct should be obeyed. If you don’t have faith in your work, you have a harder time fighting for it when it is under fire.

    Thanks for sharing, much appreciated!

    • Harrison Demchick | @HDemchick says:

      Hmm . . . that’s an interesting take, Matthew! The funny thing is that emotion is also what can sometimes help us realize that something is wrong. If you’re not emotionally gripped by your own writing, then you can’t really expect anyone else to be. And I know that’s not exactly what you mean–you’re talking about looking at your own work objectively–but I think there’s a limited extent to which we can ever be fully emotionally removed from our work.

      Fundamentally, that’s why we seek feedback from others. No matter how careful or well-practiced, we can never be entirely objective.

      http://www.ambitiousenterprises.com
      http://www.facebook.com/yourambitiousenterprise

      • I would humbly and gentlemanly disagree with your last statement there: You can look at your work objectively and you have to in order to do the edits you must. If you cannot withdraw your emotions and look at it for what it is rationally in structure and format, then you will never achieve what you have set out for you.

        Expelling the emotions on writing is critical. And it doesn’t have to be about writing either. It could be the fact I started the last sentence with the word “and” that gives you a flashback emotional reaction to when something negative happened to you while they said the word “and” repeatedly.

        Emotions and the brain are tricky masters, but you can overcome them if you know what to do and how to do it.

        • Harrison Demchick | @HDemchick says:

          I hear you, but I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one. You do need to be able to approach your work with as objective an eye as you can, but it’s still something important to you that comes from you, so there’s always that connection. You also know your intent, which is something your eventual readers won’t. Someone else’s eyes are crucial.

          I agree that we need to endeavor to look at our work objectively, but I don’t think we can ever be truly objective.

          http://www.ambitiousenterprises.com
          http://www.facebook.com/yourambitiousenterprise

          • And this is why there are so many frustrated writers out there because they choose not to look at it objectively. Whether or not it comes from inside your mind, you still have to do what is best for the story, much like as a parent you must do what is best for the child.

            I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have less frustrated writers or even people who don’t WANT to write because of the cold and calculated efforts it takes to write something than letting people work themselves into an emotional frenzy and wonder why no one wants to buy their story of a lovable refrigerator with an ice box filled with gold and nothing to spend it on except for the heater it couldn’t love because of societal standards.

  7. Great article, Harrison!

    I find that I won’t even write the full manuscript if it doesn’t ‘click’. Lately I had that horrible thing where I’d push out a couple thousand words, feeling like I was transcribing the phone book (it was so boring), and I’d bin it. I did this about eight times before I started on my present WIP. EVERYTHING clicks in this piece. It’s just right, and I’ve pushed out 17,000 words of it in under a week.

    I definitely agree – gut instinct is everything!

  8. Such a helpful post. Thank you so much!

  9. I didn’t even get through the first draft before I was second guessing myself. I hid what I had and ignored it for almost a year. I’m back at it now but with a different angle and a different attitude. I WILL wait until the second draft before deleting anything.

  10. You are SO right. My gut is telling me that I need to cut, cut, cut from the opening pages. I need my main character to meet the love interest sooner. Now…to make it happen…that’s where the hard work comes in! Thanks for the reminder to listen to my gut.

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