Thursday, February 17, 2011


I was recently reading a blog which featured a post where an aspiring author posted the first page of her manuscript and opened it up for critique. Among the posters was an agent. It was amazing how many tiny things the agent found just within the first few paragraphs. Two issues in the first sentence!

Little details that when reading it seemed obvious, but I know as a writer I would never consciously think to check.

Last week Sinead was commenting on Eileen’s post regarding what to reveal and what to hold back in her latest suspense novel and Sinead said you have to rely on your instinct. Excellent point.

Now – I’m not going to lie – I don’t think I have great “life” instincts. In poker when my “instinct” tells me to go all in – I do and usually lose. I’ve gone with my “instincts” when dating… no good there.

Career decisions? Currently still pending.

But my writing instinct seems to be intact because with every point the agent brought up – I instantly went back to the first page of my submission and tried to see if I could find the same mistakes - I hadn’t made them. (I’m sure I waited until the second page to commit all my errors.)

However it got me to thinking about how much I simply rely on this…”whatever” to write a book. I don’t sit and analyze each sentence and break down how it works or doesn’t. I just write. Hope it’s okay. Fix what I can and move on.

All this time I’ve been relying on writer instinct I didn’t know I had. It is sort of like realizing you have a super power. Something that makes you different from everybody else.

Now we as readers and writers know… instinct will only take you so far. You have to combine that with hard work and dedication, study of your craft, blah, blah, blah…

But still it was interesting to learn that imbedded in my brain somewhere must be some deep rooted writer’s instinct which helps me get from page to page without making the most obvious errors.

The question is – Is it born in us? Or did we develop it through reading without knowing? Or can we develop it over time by just continuing to write and receive feedback?


Maureen McGowan said...

Damn you and your super powers! Kidding.

Someone famous (might even be Stephen King) says that you can learn to be a good writer, but great writers are born. (He modestly puts himself in the good camp, not the great camp.)

I do think a lot of it is instinct learned from reading, and reading a variety of genres and different writers. But on the other hand, a HUGE percentage of aspiring writers are avid readers, so it can't just be that, because those common problems are so, well, common.

I read a lot and I remember my first attempt at an opening scene (Sinead might, too) and it had a great opening paragraph... then a couple of pages of backstory. If I was such a great reader, why did I think that was good? It seemed obvious once someone told me my mistake, but I made it...

Stephanie Doyle said...

True... I mean I make stupid mistakes all the time.

And as often as I read great writers... I'm still not one.

I guess what I was trying to say - is that I don't think so much about what I do. And yet I have had books published.

Somehow that doesn't fit.

Eileen said...

Lucky you! Andy says my super power is taking offense at things.

I do think a lot of it has to do with reading a lot, and more importantly, reading critically. Unfortunately, that has changed the reading experience for me. It's no longer the pure pleasure it used to be.

Maybe it's like the difference between drinking and drink too much? When you just gulp the wine down looking for the buzz, you don't get to appreciate the subtleties of flavors and chemical balances. When you gulp down the stories without stopping to look at how they work (or why they don't), you don't learn anything from them craft-wise.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Gulping wine down to get a buzz... I wouldn't know anything about that. ;)

Jen said...

My first post here, eeek!

I've been in the pre-planning stages of my first attempt at writing a book... which for me, entails reading "how-to" books like they're bibles, stalking blogs (hee hee), rereading my favourites more critically, and generally procrastinating any actual WRITING.

I've always had the instinct for good technical writing, I think. (I hope). Good grammar, writing things that "sound" right, etc. This has always made writing non-fiction super easy for me - I've pretty much never revised a school paper in my life. No idea how I acquired it.. I always figured it was because I love to read.

However, I am SUPER nervous that this will not translate to fiction. I'm confident that I can string well-sounding sentences together, but I haven't the faintest clue if I will know what to write, or when.

Does that even make sense? Is there more than one kind of writer's instinct?! :P

Sinead M said...

Jen, it will translate. And being super nervous is a really great thing, because it makes you analyze every part of the work and remove ego from it.
Reading what you love is a great way to learn, because we take it in subconsciously, and apply it even when we don't realize it.
Good luck with starting the book.

And Steph, your instincts are great. I'm 2/3 of the way through your book and it screams great instincts and skill. It's really pretty spectacular.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Jen - first welcome! So glad you found us.

2nd - listen to every thing Sinead says about writing.

Writing is a skill. You have it if you can do technical writing. Now you need to find voice. What you sound like as a writer.

And the only way to do that... is to write. Good luck!

Sinead - you just made me cry a little.

Molly O'Keefe said...

I read this great quote that was something along the lines of " A true passion usually comes with the ability to see it through."

And I think whether that means people are born being great writers or with the willingness to learn. I don't think i'm a great writer either, and my instincts can be iffy, but I will say in my defense that I have long ago lost my ego in order to try and get better.

And frankly, I'll take that over just talent any time.

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