The Intuitive Writer

A post at The Creative Penn: Intuitive Writing And Book Marketing With Becca Syme

Wait, writing AND marketing?

Well, that is the idea: Do you sometimes just ‘know’ when a story is right? Does something ‘click’ during the writing process and suddenly things make sense? Do you lean into your curiosity and emotion when it comes to writing and marketing?

I think I’d have separated these out into two different posts, but okay. This is actually a podcast interview, but with a written transcript.

Today we’re talking about Dear Writer, Are You Intuitive? co-written with Susan Bischoff, which was one of my books of the year in 2022. So welcome back to the show, Becca.

… [A} lot of intuitives who are writers will have watched movies, read books, listened to oral storytellers who are extremely proficient at storytelling, and they will have naturally intuited the connections between plot points, and then they will write their books according to that intuition. … you’ll be watching a movie, and you’ll see the flavor of a particular line of dialogue that produced an emotion in you, and then you’ll know once you’ve seen that 10 or 15 times, you will know how to utilize that device in your own writing, but you could not describe to me how you do it. 

Yes, yes, this is all true, but why is this worth pointing out? What’s the point here?

Here it is:

The reason people tell us you can’t write without intention is because they can’t. So the people who are … teaching this stuff [eg intentional plot structure such as putting the inciting incident at the 10% mark], have come about their theories honestly. … of course, there should be a complete guide to [being an intentional writer, an outliner], which there is. There’s plenty of them, we don’t need another one. Like, there’s a lot.

What we need is more information about how to be a good discovery writer. Not how to use plotting techniques to correct a behavior that is not incorrect, but how to be a good discovery writer. How to use tools and tactics to get unstuck consistently, things like that, so that we’re not putting undue stress on ourselves. But also, we need to learn how to trust the intuitive storytelling mechanism that’s inside.

Bold is mine, added just for clarity. And as you see, I’ve added or rephrased stuff in square brackets, again to improve clarity since I’m lifting this out of its full context. But I think this is a useful and important observation, that the lion’s share of writing advice is meant for writers who write via outlines, analytically, possibly paying close attention to “save the cat” or other patterns that are frequently taught to prospective writers. I first heard about the “save the cat” thing as “pet the puppy.” Either way, that’s the moment near the beginning of the story when the protagonist is established as sympathetic because he or she does something nice because they just want to; eg, save a cat.

Here’s a pictoral representation of that pattern:

And, importantly, this kind of advice is not helpful to intuitive writers (discovery writers, pantsers). This reminds me of something I said in a recent post, that I’m just as glad there was much less writing advice available when I was starting to write, because I agree with the linked post that analyzing story structure may be interesting, but is not at all helpful to discovery writers; and that telling discovery writers or pantsers that they’re doing it wrong — which I do in fact see ALL THE TIME — is not a great thing to do.

I’m thinking here of the continual drumbeat of advice that goes like this:

–You should outline

–No, really, if you aren’t outlining, you should outline

–You’d be so much faster if you outlined

–You should definitely outline

And yes you do see this kind of dogmatic advice to outline everywhere, on all kinds of blog posts and in all kinds of Quora answers and just everywhere. This is fine for me because I have no trouble ignoring advice that doesn’t work for me, but even I notice how often that advice appears and how absolutely certain of themselves the people who offer that advice usually sound. It’s not fine to continually press this advice on prospective writers who think maybe they should take it seriously when they really can’t and also shouldn’t try to force themselves to do so.

Again, whether you’re intuitive or not, I think you should always be developing your craft, period. But what I would do when you’re getting edits, or when you’re getting feedback on your story, is I would be asking about the quality. Does the quality of the edit match my personal storytelling preference? Because if the editor is telling you, “Hey, you waited too long for the inciting incident,” and when you ask them about it, they say, “Well, because it has to happen at 10%,” then they are not the right editor for you. Like they’re just not.

Bold in the original, and right, this is true, if an editor think the inciting incident, what “save the cat” refers to as the catalyst, has to happen at the 10% mark, then the editor isn’t evaluating whether the story actually works with the inciting incident somewhere else.

The inciting incident, as you would expect, is the event that occurs near to the beginning of your story, the trigger that sets your protagonist and the story moving in a different direction. I’m pausing here to ask, what is the inciting incident in Tuyo? That incident doesn’t occur at the 10% mark, does it? No. It occurs at the 0.1% mark, about two pages into the story, when Ryo meets Aras for the first time. In my opinion, that is the actual inciting incident. Good thing it never occurred to me to wonder if that was a good place for the inciting incident.

The post goes on:

And of course, there are intuitive editors, in the same way that there are intuitive writers. And so I would always be on the lookout for someone who is going to ask the right questions of your books, and not someone who is going to only ask structural questions.

Right, and I think the only question that actually matters is: Does the story work as well as it can? If not, what could be improved? And those are not structural questions. The answers to those questions might or might not involve story structure. And this is what we see as the takehome message from the linked post as well:

“Is the story compelling?” is the right question to ask. And I would say, so how do we get there if we’re newer? I would always try to follow the intuition that you have about the way you want to write the story.

And then check your intuition against someone who will tell you if the story is compelling or not. I wouldn’t trend towards trying to outline first, unless you literally can’t think of anything else to do, or your intuition is like, “no, I need to know what the structure is,” and then I would listen to that. it’s possible that you need to experiment. But I would also always listen to your own intuition first, before you listen to teachers, period.

Bold in the original, and wow, is it refreshing to see someone say, “I wouldn’t try to outline first unless you literally can’t think of anything else to do.”

That’s not where the linked post ends — it’s quite long — and I will end with a bit that is particularly funny:

No one knows 100% how a book is going to do because this industry is run by Loki, the god of chaos.

And it is not run by Captain America, the god of logic. I know Captain America is not a god, but like, I mean, you could make an argument. But that’s not how the industry works. It is not predictable in that way. 

And then the post segues into marketing. By all means click through and read the whole thing if you’re interested — this is a good post, not one of the facile short ones that someone tossed on the page in five minutes, but thoughtful and interesting.

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13 thoughts on “The Intuitive Writer”

  1. I really liked Becca’s book, “Dear Writer, You Should Quit.” I blogged about it at the time, but to quote myself, “The book does not actually suggest that one should quit writing, although she does suggest quitting lots of other things, including “Quit Trying to Be Like Everyone Else” and “Quit Focusing on Your Weaknesses.” Were those my two favorite chapters? Maybe. I do know, for me, that reading about writing totally screwed up my ability to write. I second guess myself so much now that I know all the stuff you’re “supposed” to do, and I think I’d be a happier/better/faster writer if I’d never decided I should learn more about it. My intuitive self is a better storyteller than my self-aware self. Alas!

  2. Oh, this is interesting. As an outliner, I’ve always admired pantsers. It seems like a great and wondrous magic. I feel like a horse watching kangaroos–we’re both traveling over land, but in very different ways. (Though I can imagine how frustrating it would be for kangaroos to be bombarded with advice on “how to maintain a collected canter” and “proper flexion at the poll.”)

    Not that I have ever thought, oh, this needs to happen at the 10% mark. (What a straitjacket.) It’s more like “figuring out what happens next” and “writing the story down” are separate tasks that my brain struggles to perform at the same time, so I do one first.

  3. Maigen, I LOVE your analogy and I’m going to do my best to remember it and steal it. That’s a perfect way of expressing how pointless advice is when it’s aimed at the wrong person.

    Sarah, I may have to buy that book! I enjoy books about writing and I love the idea of a chapter called “Quit Focusing on Your Weaknesses.” I think that’s very good advice! It reminds me of something else … let me see … I can’t seem to find it now, but it was about every writer having one specific strength, such as dialogue or description, and that you should lean on that gift as you build your other craft-related skills. I certainly prefer the idea of focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses!

  4. Out of curiosity, I tried “Dear Writer You Should Quit” and yep, the correct book popped right up.

  5. Just wanted to say that I loved that Tuyo had its “inciting incident” so early, that was one of the things that drew me in! In fact, my favourite thing about that opening was that the actual incident that kicked off the whole novel happens completely “off-screen” (the drama of Garoyo deciding to leave Ryo behind). We get the info in flashbacks later, but by the time the story starts, we’re just watching the fallout from that one momentous decision, and it’s glorious.

    I once read writing advice by Kurt Vonnegut where he says, “Start as close to the end as possible” and I love books that do this. It’s rare to find. Plus I sometimes don’t have the patience to wait until the 10% mark for the inciting incident, so I’m glad Tuyo took a different approach.

  6. Thank you, Jessica! I’ve heard that advice too, as well as advice to start when the protagonist’s life changes. I’m a bit puzzled by the 10% idea. To me, that sounds like you’re potentially spending far too much time establishing the setting and character. Or rather, establishing the setting and character are crucial things to do at the beginning, but you can do those things just as well after the inciting incident as before.

  7. This idea really resonates! I mean, I like to read about writing, but the prescriptiveness can be off-putting. This just starts to balance it out, and better (to me) than only the idea of pantser vs plotter.

    Maigen, that horse and kangaroo analogy is fantastic.

  8. Argh, if someone made me outline I’d never get anything written. (I tried! Because I thought I had to! And almost stopped writing altogether because any outline-before-the-fact triggers Already Written Syndrome and the outline then becomes the only thing I write at all.)

  9. I outline because its more efficient for me, and I do look at structure a lot–especially when I’m rewriting. When my intuition tells me something is wrong with a scene, analyzing structure can help me pin down what is bothering me.

    I’ve heard authors argue that the Inciting Incident can’t be the first scene, because the reader doesn’t yet care about the character but I disagree–The Goblin Emperor is a great example of a books that start fast and whose character I instantly care about. For my own books I prefer to have my Inciting Incident as close to the beginning as possible, sometimes that’s the first scene, more often it’s by the end of chapter one. When I wrote the first draft of Gate to Kandrith, I started with the Inciting incident, but ended up having to go back and add on two earlier chapters. (The inciting incident was the heroine having to leave one country and go as hostage to another, and I discovered I needed to SHOW her birth country’s corruption and decadence on the page so I could properly contrast it with the second country’s culture and laws.) In short, it really depends on the book.

  10. It definitely depends on the book, Nicole, and I agree, the Goblin Emperor is a very good example of a book that (a) starts with the inciting incident, and (b) starts in exactly the right place. I’m going to have to remember that as an example of a novel that effectively starts building the protagonist and the world with the inciting incident.

  11. That’s a real concern for me too, Irina, though I think Already Written Syndrome kicks on more for me if I talk too much about the story. Taking very rough notes doesn’t kill it the same way, although often I can’t make very complete notes because it beats me where it’s going to go.

  12. The only thing I’ve ever written apart from a 2-chapter crackfic is a Harry Potter fanfiction based around a character who walked into my head and would NOT leave… twenty years ago!

    I am not an outliner. All I knew was the awful starting point, his uncontrolled and VERY dangerous magic, his personality, which book the story is based around (the original plot of which got put through a shredder by C2 of my tale BECAUSE of his personality), one plot point from the middle, it had to have a happy ending, and no sadistic villains because I want to ENJOY my story thank you and if I include sadism I *really* include sadism.

    I had no idea what the ending was going to be.

    And then I THOUGHT I knew what the ending was, having written myself to that point. However. This was only before a barely-even-there character suddenly started screaming I HAVE AIMS TOO AND I’M NOT ABOUT TO ROLL OVER BY *NOT* BLOODY ACTING ON THEM!!! Enter secondary plotline. And then that changed the main plotline. And that in turn made the story even more actually about What The Story Was About. Which I hadn’t realised to its full potential even after I thought I’d written the entire tale. Not before Minor Character Kicked up a Stink.

    If I outlined, I’d be round the twist by now.

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