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Intuitive Writing and Why I’ll Never Go Back to Plotting

What Lies Beneath

The surrealists were on to something when they discovered automatic writing. By shedding the constraints of the rational mind, they were able to tap into the visions dwelling in the well of the unconscious and thereby discovering new truths to explore. Party games like Exquisite Corpse (lovely name) where artists collaborate blindly, perhaps with just their id’s as their guides, show how creativity unleashed is always interesting and often amusing. The “quality” of the results may vary, but what’s useful (for me anyway) about the intuitive approach is it feels like a direct line into the creative brain. This is exactly where I want to be when I’m writing fiction and especially poetry.

Spend any time trawling the internet for writing advice, and you’ll encounter the inevitable plotter vs. pantser debate. Pantser—the name sounds unappetizing—refers to writing by the seat of one’s pants as opposed to working from an outline. I used to be a great proponent of outlining until I just recently tried the intuitive approach on my last few projects. And the results were surprising.

Ain’t gonna lie, I was scared at first. I was an explorer sailing my ship into uncharted territory. But soon I discovered hidden treasures along the way which caused me to release my grip and just allow the story to guide me. Trade winds of fresh ideas filled my sails and I was gliding along freely, not thinking, not planning, just going with the flow. It was lovely. And fun! And before I knew it, three hours of solid writing had zipped by and I didn’t want to stop. Any writer who’s ever forced themselves to push through a writing session knows the difference.

Okay, you might say, that sounds great, but what about the results? Sure, you were having fun, but exactly what kind of unreadable drivel did you produce? Would you be surprised to hear it was some of my best work? Reading it back was a surprising delight. Yes, I had to go back and reshape, but the ideas were there—good ones— and buried not too far beneath, the structure.

Artists like Picasso knew how to paint “realistically” before they became masters of modernism. In other words, the structure may have been abstracted, but it was there. Not comparing myself to Picasso here (ahem) but I’ve studied story structure extensively, including reading Robert McKee’s Story several times and taking his seminar. In other words, I know it well enough to let my thinking side relax a bit, confident that my knowledge of story structure will be residing in my subconscious when the intuitive side takes over.

When embarking on a new writing journey, which side (intuitive or thinking) should be at the wheel and which below deck? After trying both, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to being a plotter.

Which type of writer are you? Have you ever attempted intuitive writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Ten Writing Tips

I tend not to give writing advice because I’d rather leave it up to the true experts, but I thought I’d share Ten Writing Tips that have worked for me in my writing development. Most of these are not original (I’ll try to give credit where I can), but I’ve found them helpful. Here goes:

  1. Writing as Practice – I got this idea from Dean Wesley Smith’s YouTube channel, and I couldn’t agree more. Musicians practice every day, so why shouldn’t writers? Think of writing as practice and take the pressure off yourself. Learn while you practice and develop good writing habits.
  2. Daily Word Count – Set a daily goal and try to reach it. I keep a spreadsheet of my word count, and I’ve been averaging around 2000 words a day. If I keep it up, I’ll have a 60,000-word manuscript by the end of the month. That’s a short novel! It’s not as difficult as it sounds. Don’t wait for inspiration (see tip #1). Just sit down and write every day.
  3. Immerse Yourself in Language – You won’t improve if you don’t read. Read for pleasure, read for entertainment, but read every day. I read for an hour a day at least, and lately, I’ve become obsessed with audiobooks. Immersing myself in language makes me a better writer because I’ve learned to discern good prose from bad, to hear the musicality in a graceful turn of phrase. I may not be as good as (most of) the books I read, but they’ve given me a target for which to aim.
  4. Keep a Reading Journal – This sounds a bit nerdy, but I always try to keep a notebook handy, and when I read an interesting phrase or clever use of an active verb or mind-blowing description, I’ll stop what I’m doing and jot it down. Later, that verb that I never considered may find its way into my manuscript. Read (and listen to) good fiction and learn from the best!
  5. Keep it Active – I didn’t realize how much I was using the passive voice in my writing until I read Stephen King’s book On Writing. Now, I see it everywhere. He also advised against using adverbs, although I see he uses them quite often, at least in his early fiction. The problem with this type of advice is that there seems to be an entire generation of writers who now live in fear of the dreaded adverb or passive voice. Both have their place in the English language. Just don’t overuse them.
  6. Develop Your Own Style Naturally – One of my reader’s pet peeves is overwritten, purple prose that is trying too darn hard to be “fancy.” If I can’t find the story for all the filigree, I’ll put down the book. Each one of us has a unique voice. An excellent place to start developing yours is by writing clear and clean sentences that advance the story.
  7. Use All the Senses – Of all the five senses, I tend to neglect the olfactory variety, which is why I place a written reminder at my writing desk to add a smell every two pages or so. Nothing evokes emotion like a scent.
  8. Mistakes Are Inevitable – When you think of writing as practice, you’ll worry less about making mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable, so is bad writing at times. I once read a book on skiing that advised to always try to ski just at the point where you are falling. I was bruised by the end of my skiing adventure, but I think I improved more than if I hadn’t pushed myself to the edge. When I sit down for a writing session, I try to force myself to write a little beyond my skill level. Sometimes I surprise myself.
  9. Write a Clean First Draft – This tip may seem like it’s a contradiction of the previous one, but if you write a sloppy first draft, you may not be able to repair it in the second (or third) go-around when you can’t even remember what you were trying to accomplish in the first place. This is why I believe that setting an unrealistic word count can be counter-productive.
  10. Banish the Critical Voice – Nothing kills the creative spirit like that nagging, critical voice telling you how badly you suck! Save your inner “Karen” for polishing your prose, not in the creation of it. One way to beat the inner critic is by becoming so emotionally involved in your story, feeling it through all your senses, that there’s room in your writing space only for creative discovery!

Do you have any writing tips you’d like to share? Please leave a comment.