The Gut. The Bullshit Detector. The Internal Editor. Everyone’s got a name for it.
I’m a geek who grew up on Spider-Man cartoons, so I like to call it my writer-sense. As in, My writer-sense is going crazy!
Your writer-sense is the dashboard indicator that tells you something’s wrong. A plot point doesn’t work. A character needs to be cut. Your book is too long, or your article doesn’t have enough supporting evidence. The writer-sense is one of your most important skills, and you ignore it at your own peril.
But we do ignore it – a lot. Out of laziness. Out of over-fondness for our own writing. Out of fear that changing this or that element will gut our story. But the most common reason I ignore my writer-sense is that I don’t totally trust it. Writers – even “successful” ones, whatever that means – tend to walk around with a big lump of self-doubt caught in their throat. Their writer-sense is like a malfunctioning gland, producing way too much self-suspicion than is necessary. It stops serving as an Internal Affairs auditor keeping everyone honest, and becomes a micro-managing boss.
As a solution, writers generally tune their writer-sense out for the first draft. Like a movie crew on a short schedule, they just keep shooting and if anything’s wrong – well, screw it, just fix it in post-production. Character motivation not ringing true? Fix it in post. Gun in a desk drawer never mentioned before? Fix it in post. Burt Salamander’s ploy for infiltrating the Central Iguana Agency is stupid and contrived? WHATEVER, JUST SHOOT THAT SCENE IT AND FIX IT IN POST.
None of this is really a problem, except when you get too used to tuning out that writer-sense, and this attitude carries into the second, third – or God help you – even the final draft. Join any writer’s group and you’ll hear all the excuses for it: “My internal bullshit detector’s broken,” is a common one, as is “I hate everything I write,” but the old down-home classic is always, “I never know when my writing’s good.”
Let me put this to rest: yes, you do know when your writing’s good. Your writer-sense told you during editing, but you didn’t want to listen. You left all that nasty stuff in there just in case it passed the sniff-test, either because you were too attached or couldn’t be bothered to do the work. Don’t do that to your readers. Don’t reveal all that gross, behind-the-curtain messiness.
You just had a beautiful story-baby, don’t show everyone the afterbirth and claim it’s part of your child.
I recently critiqued a friend’s novel. It was quite good overall, but had some small issues with character dynamics and world-building. Nothing drastic or major, just tweaks and spot rewrites. When I emailed him my critique sheet, he replied that he was already aware of many issues I pointed out, but was glad I’d confirmed that they were a problem. I can’t fault him for that, since it’s the same with me. I know that when he finishes critiquing my novel, I’m already going to know half the things he’s going to say.
The middle sags. Your secondary character’s motivation isn’t clear. There are too many scenes where characters wax expositive. The romantic sub-plot deserves a trip to the guillotine. I know all these things, but I haven’t acted on them. My writer-sense was going crazy, but I wanted a second opinion. In the meantime I’ve let these elements sit like prisoners on death row, hoping for a reprieve that’ll never come. Better to act and be done with it – but I didn’t.
Because the truth is, rewriting can be a hard and painful process. A second draft feels like re-setting bones. To heal the story, you have to break it first, then put it back together with pins and plates. If you don’t, the plot heals crooked and warped, and each successive draft covers the injury with scar tissue, making it more difficult to fix.
With this book, I didn’t trust my writer-sense. I let fear take the wheel and tell me my writer-sense might be wrong, that I might cut something oh-so-valuable that I’d never recapture again. That’s crap, by the way – if you’re smart about it and save your drafts, you can salvage anything that you find yourself missing too much. But here’s the kicker: once it’s gone, you probably won’t miss it anyway.
Listen to your writer-sense. Let it tell you something’s wrong.
Don’t make excuses. Don’t hand your readers half-finished work. Fix your story today so it doesn’t limp through life.
Break your story’s legs so it stands tall and straight.