How to develop a writer’s instinct

7225227442_7d643b97ea_zHow do we develop a writer’s instinct? How do we get the confidence to strike out creatively? How might we become more original in our writing?

I’m thinking about this because the other day I heard an interview with the British actor Peter Bowles. He explained that much of the time in acting life, he’d try to second-guess the director. When his character seized a sword or opened a letter, he’d be trying to figure out how the director wanted him to do it. Partly this was survival – after all, he wanted to be hired again. And he had a team player’s instinct to collaborate and please. However, he was aware that he was missing a fundamental connection – with the author of the text, and what they wanted.

But, said Bowles, this all changed when he put on a mask. Yep,. he couldn’t see the director any more but that’s not as fatuous as you think. It narrowed his awareness to just him and the text. And then it was as if all doubts vanished; the white noise of other people disappeared and he was suddenly certain of the emotions and truth in a dramatic moment. He knew, from inside, what to do.

It strikes me that writers spend a lot of time second-guessing. We’re surrounded by muddling influences. What’s popular in the market, what our favourite authors recently did. Suggestions from our extended writing family. Even, requests from our readers.

Writing has never been so connected. We can bust out of isolation, join social writing communities and cheer each other through Nanowrimo. As soon as a chapter leaves the brain, we can offer it for comment if we wish. Oh I’m not saying it isn’t fantastic to have support and guidance. If I disapproved, I’d hardly bother you with my weekly volume of bloggery. I love the world wide web of creativity we have. But no one knows a work’s bones as well as its creator. Are we taking enough quiet time to discover its deeper, instinctive truth?

I think there’s a part of writing that cannot be social. It must be done alone, unplugged and in a safe space. That’s how we strike out and find true inspiration – for the direction of a story, the meaning of a setting, the innate humour in a scene. It’s how we develop instincts we can rely on and a voice that’s indubitably our own. It’s how we become original and authentic.

Like those actors, there are times when we need to put on the mask and see what we find.

Thanks for the pic Douglas R Witt

TINY NEWSFLASH Continuing the theme of creating our own space, I’ve revamped my author website with a new design and some extra pages, including Why I self-publish and a picture tour of my writing process.

Let’s discuss in the comments: Do you take time to retreat with your work? What do you do to cultivate your writer’s instinct?


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  1. #1 by acflory on September 23, 2013 - 12:11 am

    Like Peter Bowles, the mask I put on is the character itself, and to do that I have to block out everything from the real world. Music helps enormously, but for me the main component is time, and internal quiet – not thinking about paying bills or washing clothes or cooking dinner, or handing in assignments.

    For the last 8 weeks I’ve been doing a fairly intensive course that necessitates learning the /language/ of the field I’m trying to get into. The writing has suffered. This week I’m on holiday and I’m praying I’ll get the time and inner quiet to put the mask on again.

    • #2 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on September 23, 2013 - 8:23 am

      Hi AC! ‘Inner quiet’ – yes, doing this properly does require a state of immersion. I can quite see why it worked for the actor to put a barrier around his face.
      Music is, of course, one of my favourite ways to do this too.
      Hope it’s not too long before you reconnect with your character again. I wonder if anything might have changed as a result of you immersing in a language? The punctuation around the word hints that it might not be a foreign tongue but something else, perhaps more conceptual. But all languages tint the way we think. Just wondering.

      • #3 by acflory on September 23, 2013 - 11:49 am

        You’re very perceptive Roz. I’m updating my training qualifications, and the language is a dialect of English called Officialese. Sadly I’m still at the stage where I have to translate both language and concepts into something I can understand. The whole process plays havoc with vocabulary as we know it. 😉

        That said, I did manage to spend the whole of today behind the mask and I feel wonderfully refreshed!

        • #4 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on September 23, 2013 - 6:51 pm

          Aha, jargon. English but not as we know it. Usually it is constructed with alien sensibilities about word sounds and sense. I sometimes freelance on a medical magazine and when I have to edit copy from health policymakers I feel like I’ve been imprisoned with a worm that’s destroying my pleasure in words. 🙂 Worse, I had a good run on the magazine just as I was in final edits on my novel. I was grateful for the work, of course, but I had to read poetry as rehab.
          Glad you have managed to reset, and good luck with the qualifications.

          • #5 by acflory on September 24, 2013 - 12:02 am

            YES! Isn’t it awful? I once had to translate between English, Hungarian and French because none of us had a common language. Frankly that was child’s play compared to this. Or perhaps I was younger and more resilient then.

            I don’t read poetry per se but I do love haiku. I might try reading some after my next assignment is in. Thanks for the tip. 🙂

  2. #6 by mgm75 on September 23, 2013 - 8:47 am

    I agree with acflory, I tend to put on the character’s mask – especially for the key events that would create a conflict for that person.

    Because I write science fiction, I also tend to imagine myself in the world, thinking about what it would look like, feel like and how I might exist in this world.

    I think immersion is the key. If you can’t immerse yourself in your own work then you can’t expect anybody else to either.

    • #7 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on September 23, 2013 - 10:51 am

      ‘If you can’t immerse yourself in your own work you can expect anyone else to’ – great point, mgm! Readers pick that up, along with how genuinely interested you are in a character, whether you approve or disapprove of them, care passionately about the issues. There’s no substitute for connecting with your work.

  3. #8 by Katie Cross on September 23, 2013 - 2:12 pm

    I definitely agree! Writing is not, and cannot, but written or done for other people. We may even think we are doing it for someone else, but really are just doing it for ourselves. I also think that the best way to hone our instinct is to write.

    • #9 by mgm75 on September 23, 2013 - 5:00 pm

      Writing is not, and cannot, but written or done for other people.

      And you can usually tell those that are written purely to be sold – they lack passion.

  4. #11 by Rodney Ballenden on September 23, 2013 - 4:28 pm

    …I go around muttering and mumbling and in real time conversations play games with “immersed” characters. At some point does the brain then say “okay so who are you” and switch to the immersed character….who you are not?

  5. #13 by Teddi Deppner on September 23, 2013 - 11:12 pm

    This hits home, Roz. I’m working on a storyline that is closer to an episodic TV series than a traditional novel, and I find myself floundering to “feel” the plot flow. I start doubting myself, because I’m not following that classic three-act structure that I’ve spend so much time trying to ingrain in my head.

    And yet the times I’ve tried to stuff this story back into the traditional novel mold, it lost all its sparkle and went dull in my mind’s eye.

    Love the idea of simply putting something over my head and letting the world disappear and my story become more real than reality. Like those childhood nights when I sat cross-legged under my tented covers with a flashlight and read until the book was finished.

    Thank you for saying what I felt in my gut. Sometimes it just helps to hear someone else say it, confirm it, give permission. Off I go…!

    • #14 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on September 24, 2013 - 8:47 am

      Hi Teddi! What an interesting observation. I’ve also found myself in situations where conventional writing principles would suggest I’m doing ‘wrong’. But when I spend time with the novel and think about it in its own terms, I know it’s the right approach for the work.
      Have fun in the writer’s tent!

  6. #15 by Leanne on September 24, 2013 - 3:36 am

    I love this. I agree 100%. Authenticity anchors that which we write… yet if we are so busy living in the noise we never give ourselves a chance to hear our own voice. And then we must listen, yes? Suppress the urge to judge ourselves and instead explore what lives in our core and have the courage to let it inspire us to create.

    Anyway, beautifully said! Thanks so much!

  7. #17 by danholloway on September 24, 2013 - 1:54 pm

    Very wise Roz. I think this is what I was trying to say about the danger of praise – we look for, and respond to, affirmation. And that makes it incredibly hard to hear the actual creative voice in our head

    • #18 by Teddi Deppner on September 24, 2013 - 3:55 pm

      Dan, that’s a keen insight. Even praise can lead us off course if we start to steer the ship by it.

      Thanks for the reminder!

      • #19 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on September 24, 2013 - 7:41 pm

        Absolutely, Dan. We don’t stay the same people all our lives. We develop as artists and human beings. Although it’s fantastic when our work touches people, we have to make sure we’re still listening to what touches us.
        But isn’t flattery wonderful….?

  8. #20 by samanthastier on September 24, 2013 - 6:38 pm

    I love that Bowles put on a mask to essentially tune out what wasn’t helping him develop the natural voice from within — “The truth of the dramatic moment.” And it’s true that there is a deeper connection to the text that is gained by writing alone that you simply don’t get when it becomes collaborative, though of course that has other benefits.

    Great post! Really enjoyed this.

    • #21 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on September 24, 2013 - 7:43 pm

      Thanks, Samantha! I often pick up a lot of useful insights from actors. I suppose they have to go mining for truth in a similar way to writers. And they have to learn to trust their inner compass when they could follow a thousand possibilities.

  9. #22 by Rachel Walsh (@RachelCWalsh) on September 25, 2013 - 11:54 am

    Roz, putting on the mask is exactly how I write. Shut in my office, internet unplugged, answering machine on, the music of choice for my manuscript playing softly (somewhat oddly for my Victorian London setting, it’s Ennio Morricone’s “The Mission” soundtrack at present, but hey, it’s working!) … glad to hear I’m not alone in this. 🙂

    • #23 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on September 25, 2013 - 12:25 pm

      Ennio Morricone for Victorian London? I love that! Our creative intuition operates on a different plane from the logical and the literal. For My Memories of a Future Life, which features a classical pianist, I was channelling rock, pop, avant-garde vocal… anything that seemed to cry out with the spirit of the book. And for The Mountains Novel I’m listening to a rather indoor-titled album called Living Room Songs. But internally it makes perfect sense.
      Thanks for putting down the mask and reaching out!

  10. #24 by andreagraywriter on September 26, 2013 - 10:58 am

    For me it is absolutely necessary to completely retreat into my own world, brain, thoughts. Only this way I am able to trigger corners in my brain that allow me entry to thoughts I never could reach while being ‘in the open’. The mask thing is a good analogy. Blinded eyes, closed ears. Like in a trance.

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