As you might know, I’m fond of horses. For years I’ve been taking dressage lessons, with mixed results. One instructor used to yell at me: ‘you ride without feeling what the horse is doing’, but I recently started with a new instructor, who told me, to my surprise, that I had very good feel.
Here’s where this is relevant to writing – writers also need to develop feel. It’s how we know when our work is finished.
And to return to the saddle for a moment, how could I get two such contradictory opinions? Who was right?
Both were. Because, actually, I was ‘feeling’ all the time. I was noticing everything I should, but I didn’t know I was feeling anything important.
Applying this to writing, I remember – distinctly – a time when my writing turned a corner, when I learned to take notice of gut feeling. If a line was off, or a word was not precise or evocative enough. If a story moment was dull or predictable or wrong. If a passage was self-indulgent or a scene went on too long. I realised I had always felt and noticed these things, but I had not known I should trust them and act on them. The ‘feel’ was there. It had been all along. I just had to listen.
When we’re learning something – anything – a lot of it is mechanics and rules and principles. For writing, we learn what plot structure is, what character arcs are, show not tell, how to plant a theme, how to add subtext, how to present dialogue.
But alongside those technicalities there is another level, a more individual, inspirational level, which holds a work together.
This comes from deep in you, from the way you’re wired. If you listen to it, it’s where you develop your distinctiveness, your aesthetic, your style. It’s not learned, it’s already there. There’s craft, which is an exoskeleton, and then there is soul, which is how you are in your deep interior, a human being alive with questions and mysteries and curiosities. It’s how you have always been.
What should you learn to listen for? Here are some suggestions.
- Is that word or line perfect for the feeling you want to give the reader? Sometimes, I go to the thesaurus and read lists of synonyms until I find the word that fits more truly.
- Is that plot development or character action a little awkward? What should you change – the event? Or should you explore more deeply the characters’ reasons, both conscious and unconscious? Do you feel they’re doing the right thing, but you haven’t yet understood the reasons?
- Is the pace dragging and do you want that? When you read a scene, does it seem to repeat a previous story beat, and is that irritating to you or pleasing?
- Is something missing? Will the piece – or the book – flow better with an extra paragraph, an extra scene, an extra chapter? If you reorder some of the scenes, will everything click into place?
These are gut-level judgements, but if you learn to listen for them, they will start to speak up. You will start to write more by feel, and use your craft with originality, style and sensitivity. Listen also, for when the piece runs smoothly, when you can read a passage or a chapter – or the whole book – and feel everything is just right, just so.
PS If horses are your thing, you might like my novel Lifeform Three.
PPS My novel Ever Rest has won an award! See the pic below.
There’s a lot more about writing technicalities – and gut feeling – in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.