Accompanying most of the writing advice out there that’s usable (as opposed to the elitist, snotty bullshit that practically only tells you you’re doing everything wrong and you should just forget employing your pathetic command of language in public altogether) is the very wise and conveniently vague recommendation that you should follow your gut.
That’s the rule of thumb, follow your gut. Unsure whether this rule or that guideline helps you write better? Go with your gut. Can’t decide whether to rephrase that paragraph yet again or just drop the whole story and move on to knitting doggy-sweaters? Give in, go with your instinct, you know, listen to the great intenstine.
But what did our gut do to deserve that amount of trust? When did it become a legitimate aid in the decision making process? And what happens when our gut is about as reliable as a butt-naked smurf trying to do a back crawl in a tequilla puddle?
Let’s lay it out. What are the possible courses of action , and does our gut-feeling really beat them?
In case of emergency, throw a tantrum and then –
Do more research
Assuming you’ve done at least some research beforehand. Whenever you’re at a crossroads and don’t know whether left or right is the right choice for you, or that suspicious pathway that trails toward a dark cave paved with what looks like human bones, the first thing you should do is research. Find out as much about every option as you possibly can before you start walking. Nothing beats knowing what’s around the corner, and contrary to what zealous pantsers might tell you, research isn’t procrastination.
If you find out that all paths end up in the same place, then yes, go with your gut. It won’t matter which one you chose and the differences between them will be mere entertainment. But be assured, without knowing where you want to go and what makes each path different, any choice you make isn’t “following your gut” but pure laziness. So don’t wonder when you walk for half a year and land right back where you started.
Ask a competent person
Maybe the situation you find yourself in isn’t a simple left-or-right choice, and there aren’t five gazillion hits on Google when you search for related stuff. So what now? Head out and find yourself another writer (or editor, agent, publisher, exorcist) who has had some success, or at least more experience dealing with the problem you’re facing, and ask them. Go ahead, don’t be shy. Write them an email. Send them a Facebook message, Tweet, postcard, whatever. A self-made collage out of cat pictures and manuscript snippets, smeared with glittery lipstick and drenched in musky cologne, titled Road To Success: Interrupted.
Don’t think your shit is worthy of their attention? Are your palms sweating when you type their name into the To: line? Guess what! People love to be asked for their opinion. Absolutely love it! They need it, crave it, get high on it like it’s powdered catnip. If you know somebody who’s opinion would really help cast a new light on a clinch you’re having, don’t hesitate and just ask them. But do so in a respectful manner, don’t crawl up their ass or stalk them on their way home. Be sensible. Build them a shrine and send them a video of yourself sacrificing chickens in their name. That’ll get their attention.
And if you can’t think of anyone competent to ask for advice, then go with the next alternative.
Poll your peers
Just put up a blog post or status message and ask your fellow writers for help. Check out the forums, writers’ platforms or social media groups. Or pop the question at a writer’s conference, or at the Sunday book discussion. The writing community is one of the most
hyperactive interactive and helpful communities out there. People will break into a stampede to give you advice about writing, and you don’t even have to be famous to get their attention. Just state your problem clearly, and post a friendly public invitation to get some valuable input.
If all else fails, there’s always the trial-and-error method. This works particularly well in finding out which POV is more suited to your story, which voice and beat sounds better to you, which chapter length or amount of description tickles you best. Try all of them out before you write a whole draft in the wrong POV (or the wrong setting). It’s better to waste a week testing out three different POVs to find the right one, than spend a year writing a manuscript that’s stale because of the wrong character’s perspective. It’s only through experiment that you can really see the difference between the options you have. Listening to some vague gut feeling telling you to pick one or the other on a whim really isn’t the best idea in this case. Your gut might change its mind with more tequila, and then what?
After several uncomfortable situations in the course of writing my WIP (especially the first version of it which I beat into a crumpled lump, shot with a potato-gun into a dumpster, set fire to the dumpster, then dropped the dumpster out of a plane and drove over the wreckage with a compactor), I realized I’m somewhere right of the middle. I research a lot, ask the guys I admire or check my fellows, and then try out the remaining options until I figure out one or two I can go with. Then, and only then, do I run the choice I’ve made by my gut and check for approval. It’s the best way for me to make sure that I’m not heading for a cliff, and it’s also a way to fine-tune my gut, so that one day it will be more reliable than all other options put together.
So how about you? Do you have a natural genius behind your belly-button, or do you prefer to go about things more systematically and train your gut?