My ongoing revisions of Southern Discomfort have reminded me of something I’ve known for years. When deciding which path to follow I should trust my instincts.
I don’t mean in the sense of ignoring my beta-readers’ recommendations — while there are some I am ignoring, their criticisms have been mostly right. I’m talking about not listening to my own inner critic.
Inner critics can, of course, be notoriously negative and insecure. But I’m not talking about the inner voice that whispers “your work is crap! You suck! Give up and devote your life to landscaping!” (that is not a direct quote, but you get the idea) but the voice pointing out specific problems. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve found the voice is usually right.
I first noticed this working on the second of my several unpublished novels (what can I say? Even a good internal critic can’t fix everything), Let No Man Put Asunder. I’d worked through one crucial scene and found that I was completely blocked. My gut just clenched when I thought about writing anything further. Eventually I realized it was because my gut knew I’d blown the scene. I went back, rethought it, rewrote it, and finally it clicked (unfortunately it’s lost along with most of the manuscript, which is why it’s taking me forever to rewrite it again).
As a general rule, if my gut tells me something is a problem, I should fix it. Even if none of the beta-readers makes the same objection, it’s worth fixing. For example, in the opening scene of Southern Discomfort, a soon-to-die character makes reference to his wife being out of town. Three drafts back, she played a large role in later events. Two drafts back, she played a small role. This last draft she disappeared completely. And all through the last draft, that bugged me. It felt very Chekhov’s gun — a man’s murdered, he has a widow, but she’s not at all talked about? Or demanding action from the cops? None of the beta readers brought this up as a problem, but still …. so in the current draft, Richard Cannon is single. Problem solved.
It’s different for stuff I’m right on the fence about. I debated having an epilogue showing how Pharisee and the various characters had turned out a year or five years later. The consensus view from my betas was that no, it ends at the right place. Not unanimous, but my instinct is not complaining.
Instinct is not, of course a miracle worker. I’ve written lots of stories I thought were awesome, no negative reaction in my gut — but either editors or beta readers pointed out problems I hadn’t even considered. That’s why I beta stuff, and listen to the feedback. Case in point, I hoped Oh the Places You’ll Go was in pretty good shape, but the writing group pointed out lots of problems and lots of stuff they’d like to see added. I’m now working on that.
Still, my inner compass is an invaluable aid to getting my stories going in the right direction.
(photo courtesy of Pexels, used by permission. Source is Unsplash)