Have you ever gone into a restaurant, looked at a menu and knew immediately what you wanted...and then started to notice other stuff that also looked good? If so, and if you’re anything like me, you chose something other than your first impulse and often times regretted it. Especially if your significant other ordered what you'd originally wanted and it's better than what you ended up with. I’ve decided that, as far as menus go, I should stick with my first choice. If my first instinct is the French toast, I won't order ham and eggs.
I’ve also found out—the hard way, the way I discover almost everything—that I need to follow my instinct when I write, too. One time when I got into deep trouble with a story, it was because I forced myself to follow the synopsis, even though my gut was yelling, “No, no…” I turned the book in and ended up rewriting it during revisions, because my instinct had been correct. Fortunately, my instinct had a pretty clear idea of what should have happened, so I was able to revise it successfully.
When I first started writing, I enjoyed following my gut and writing into the mist, but that was when I didn’t have a deadline. If I wrote myself into a corner, I had time to get myself back out. Now if I write myself into a corner, I’ll be staying up late getting myself back out. But after a period of being nuts about planning and sticking doggedly to my plan (in order to get the prescribed amount of sleep), I realized that it was okay to follow instinct. I had been afraid to go with the gut because of the aforementioned late nights if I made a mistake, but some of my best stuff seems to appear out of nowhere.
For instance, when I wrote my latest book, which I am now editing, I had a hero who was self absorbed in the beginning of the story. For reasons dating back to his childhood, he needed to compete and he needed to win. Unfortunately, he’s suffered a potential career-ending injury that he’s in denial about. He’s deeply into himself, his comeback, his need to compete, at the expense of everything else, which doesn’t make him great hero material—unless of course he is redeemed.
In my plan, the heroine redeems him, but in chapter three he drives home after a confrontation with the heroine (who has his horse and won’t give it back) and his cousin is parked in front of his house. (At this point I say to myself, really? His cousin’s there? Who’s his cousin?)
Come to find out, his cousin has helped him out in the past and now she needs someone to watch her teenage son while she takes a temporary job.
(I’m surprised at this turn of events and think, “A kid? Are you sure you want to write about a teen? I mean you spend almost every day around teens…”)
The teen stays in the story. He’s fourteen years old, kind of a character, and is used to hanging with adults. He’s totally comfortable with the hero, who is totally uncomfortable with him, but is now forced to think of someone besides himself. His world starts to open up because of this kid. He’s still focused on winning, but he’s also learning to enjoy other aspects of life. Because of his relationship with the kid, the heroine, who wasn’t a fan in the beginning, sees a different side of the hero and begins to realize that he’s a pretty good guy after all. None of this was in my synopsis, but it seems to be working.
So...hurray for writing—and making menu decisions—from the gut.
How about you? Do plan or follow instinct? Or both, depending on the situation. I'll give a copy of my December book, Crossing Nevada, to a randomly selected postee.