Writing by Intuition
by Roseanna M. White
Ready to talk math?! What? No, I’m on the right blog. I promise. And I shall prove to you in a few quick steps that you, you writer out there, are in fact a mathematician. Ready? (Strap your seatbelt on if you feel the need. But I promise, this road won’t be too bumpy, LOL.)
|Blaise Pascal by Augustin Pajou|
I’m going to start us off with an intro to a truly awesome man named Blaise Pascal. No doubt you’ve heard of him. He was the “Heart has its reason that reason knows nothing of” dude. He was a brilliant man, expounding on math, physics, philosophy, and faith. I love his Pensees (translation: Thoughts), especially the ones dealing with faith. But it’s also worth reading his thoughts on subjects like math. In one of these writings a bit too long for me to quote here, Pascal delves into two different kinds of minds—the mathematical mind and the intuitive mind. Here’s the skinny: the mathematical mind goes from step to step to step, making reasonable, logic leaps in a progressive fashion. The intuitive mind, on the other hand, sees the answer clearly without knowing the steps taken to get there.
Is the application to writing starting to come through? Probably, right?
We all know that there are Pantsers and Plotters. And quite a few levels between. And we also all know there are methods galore on structuring your story, plotting your story, winging your story, building your characters, tormenting your characters (that’s totally a legitimate way of putting it, right?), and every other part of constructing a book. But I’m positing here that those methods are for the mathematical mind.
So what about the intuitive?
First, let’s determine if you might just be an intuitive writer. Here’s a little quiz to help you figure it out.
- What’s your favorite book on craft?
a. Bell’s Plot and Structureb. Lamott’s Bird by Birdc. Maass’s Writing the Breakout Noveld. Craft book? Hmm, I have twenty of them, but I can never get all the way through one...
- Where do each of your Three Acts begin?
a. Chapters Four, Twelve, and Eighteenb. Chapters Three, Ten, and Nineteenc. Chapters Five, Fifteen, and Twenty-Fived. My what now? You do know I’m writing a novel, right, and not a play?
- What’s the lie your character is telling herself?
a. That she is nothing specialb. That she cannot succeed without helpc. That if she tells the truth, he’ll kill herd. Lie—wait, I know this one. It’s...um...well, she...Stephanie! What’s the lie my character is telling herself??
Detecting the theme yet? ;-) If you’re an intuitive writer, you tend to see the story and, whether or not you plot or pants it while writing, have a hard time putting labels on the elements. Oh, you can usually identify climax, maybe those Acts, some of the big stuff. But all the little labels that spring up? Those might give you headaches.
I’m here to tell you that that’s OKAY.
For years, I sat in classes at conference and read blog articles and thought, “Yes, of course, this is how we writers write. This is how we take it up a level or five. This is how we make sure our stories are solid and strong.” Then I’d take my notes, my newly-purchased book and workbook, I’d sit down in front of my WIP...and I’d go blank.
It was frustrating, because I knew my stories had these things. I knew my plots were balanced, that my characters were well developed. And when I emailed my critique partner for her opinion on these aspects in my book, she could give me the answer in about ten seconds. Did Stephanie know my story better than me? No. Does she have a better grasp on writing? Sometimes I think so, LOL, but it’s not necessarily that. But what she does have is a mathematical mind.
(Stephanie is now laughing hysterically in front of her computer, I betcha. Calling me all kinds of crazy...) ;-)
But seriously. There are those who know how to organize and label and progress from step to step to step. And there are those of us who just don’t.
Now, Pascal himself advocates the perfectly balanced combination of these traits. To put it in terms of writing, it’s the person who can come up with a nearly complete idea and then go through and identify the important parts, tweaking where necessary to make sure each aspect is strong. Those craft books and seminars no doubt come in handy there, but it’s their instinct that helps them apply it wisely and creatively.
But most of us lean one way or the other. And there is advice aplenty for those who need the bullet points and diagrams. The other side is much quieter—and for good reason. How, exactly, does one teach a non-system?
Well, I don’t dare to say I can teach it, but I can give you a few pointers on how to strengthen your intuition and beef up that mathematical side too.
First of all, give yourself permission to not be a labeler.
If you happen to have a great answer to the questions about lies and black moments and acts, great! Use them! Tack them to your wall and go with that. But if you don’t, don’t stress it, don’t fret over it, and don’t waste time that you could be writing trying to figure it out.
Next, learn to recognize the voice of your intuition.
If you’re going to go this route, then don’t slack at it. Does a sentence not sound right or feel right? Don’t be lazy. Fix it. Does one character bother you? Figure out why—and don’t be afraid to ask a critique partner for her opinion. Is a line of dialogue flat? Delete it, replace it. Does your ending feel weak? Rewrite it. Do you feel trapped in the character’s drawing room? Send them out on a mission. After manuscript revision after manuscript revision, I realized that I usually knew what was off long before my critters helped me label it. But I ignored it, and ended up with more work in the end. Once I learned to trust that voice, to know that voice, I eliminated a lot of correcting.
Know the Systems.
I’ve never studied the Snowflake or mapped out my Acts, I only made it through a few pages of the Breakout Novel Workbook. But I know the gist of them all, and keeping them in the back of my mind helps me to identify where my weaknesses are and some standard ways of strengthening them. I’ve even tried my hand at various methods of organizing. Index cards, color-coded charts, you name it. I never use one more than once, LOL, but trying them out has helped me in general. Not with labeling, but at least with organizing. ;-)
Don’t be afraid to twist the rules.
My heroine’s black moment in my latest WIP turns into a bright moment halfway through the scene. My climax is characterized by the hero choosing not to act. Her lie is, in fact, the truth—which is an issue she has to deal with. Don’t mix it up for the sake of mixing it up, but if your gut says your story needs to throw convention out the window, then somebody pull up the blinds!
Trust your instincts.
I wrote, oh, ten or so books before I joined ACFW and learned all the rules. And while I wish (oh, how I wish!) I’d known all these basics of POV and Show v. Tell from the get-go, I also appreciate the rules more because I can look back through my manuscripts and see how I evolved toward them on my own. The last book I wrote before learning about head-hopping didn’t, actually, head-hop. I occasionally shifted POVs when one character left a room without inserting a break, but the scenes themselves were within POV. Still, I needed the Rules to help me solidify those instincts, and to know which ones were right and which ones needed better hewn.
Don’t mistake pride for intuition.
My writing has always been and will always be more gut than structure. I do plot—but I don’t examine what part each scene plays. My plotting is more just taking notes on the story that has laid itself out in my mind. Still, I have to be careful not to confuse instinct with knowledge. Knowing how a story should go or a character should grow doesn’t mean I executed it right.
Which takes me back to math class. I drove my teachers nuts in middle and high school by not showing my work. I’d get the right answer, which I thought was all that mattered—but each and every one of them told me that wasn’t enough. Because then, when I was wrong, I had no idea where I’d gone wrong.
The same is true in writing fiction. Intuitive writers will often get it right—but when we don’t, how are supposed to fix it? That’s where we have to learn enough of the mathematical way to keep our instincts in shape. We have to be willing to grant our weaknesses and learn how to shore them up. We have to learn how to apply some of the structure so that we can be wise in what we ignore. ;-) And yes, it’s very, very helpful to have a critique partner who leans the other direction. That way she can help you label when labeling is required, and you can help her fill in the blanks when structure leaves a hole.
In the end, hopefully you’ll end up with a system that combines math and intuition...even if those craft books do gather dust on your shelf.
Leave a comment to be eligible to win Roseanna's latest exciting release, Ring of Secrets.
Leave a comment to be eligible to win Roseanna's latest exciting release, Ring of Secrets.
Roseanna M. White pens her novels under the Betsy Ross flag hanging above her desk, with her Jane Austen action figure watching over her. When she isn’t writing fiction, she’s editing it for WhiteFire Publishing or reviewing it for the Christian Review of Books, both of which she co-founded with her husband. Her latest book, Ring of Secrets, takes the readers to Revolutionary New York and into the historical intrigue known as the Culper Ring. www.roseannawhite.com