Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Intuitive Writer

Roseanna M. White pens her novels beneath her Betsy Ross flag, with her Jane Austen action figure watching over her. When not writing fiction, she’s homeschooling her two children, editing for WhiteFire Publishing, designing, and pretending her house will clean itself. Roseanna is the author of a slew of historical novels and novellas. Spies and war and mayhem always seem to make their way into her novels…to offset her real life, which is blessedly boring. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and through her website.


Ready to talk about math?!

What? No, I’m on the right blog. I promise. And I shall prove to you in a few quick steps that you, you writer out there, may in fact be a mathematician. Ready? (Strap your seatbelt on if you feel the need. But I promise, this road won’t be too bumpy, LOL.)

I’m going to start us off with an intro to a truly awesome man named Blaise Pascal. No doubt you’ve heard of him. He was the “Heart has its reason that reason knows nothing of” dude. He was a brilliant man, expounding on math, physics, philosophy, and faith. I love his Pensees (translation: Thoughts), especially the ones dealing with faith. But it’s also worth reading his thoughts on subjects like math.

In one of these writings a bit too long for me to quote here, Pascal delves into two different kinds of minds—the mathematical mind and the intuitive mind. Here’s the skinny: the mathematical mind goes from step to step to step, making reasonable, logic leaps in a progressive fashion--you can in fact call it a "logical mind" if the word "mathetmatical" makes you break out in hives. ;-) The intuitive mind, on the other hand, sees the answer clearly without knowing the steps taken to get there.

So today, we're going to apply this to writing.

We all know that there are Pantsers and Plotters. And quite a few levels between. And we also all know there are methods galore on structuring your story, plotting your story, winging your story, building your characters, tormenting your characters (that’s totally a legitimate way of putting it, right?), and every other part of constructing a book. But I’m positing here that those methods are for the mathematical mind.

So what about the intuitive?

First, let’s determine if you might just be an intuitive writer. Here’s a little quiz to help you figure it out.

  1. What’s your favorite book on craft?
a. Bell’s Plot and Structure
b. Lamott’s Bird by Bird
c. Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel
d. Craft book? Hmm, I have twenty of them, but I can never get all the way through one...

  1. Where do each of your Three Acts begin?
a. Chapters Four, Twelve, and Eighteen
b. Chapters Three, Ten, and Nineteen
c. Chapters Five, Fifteen, and Twenty-Five
d. My what now? You do know I’m writing a novel, right, and not a play?

  1. What’s the lie your character is telling herself?
a. That she is nothing special
b. That she cannot succeed without help
c. That if she tells the truth, he’ll kill her
d. Lie—wait, I know this one. It’, she...Stephanie! What’s the lie my character is telling herself??

Detecting the theme yet? ;-) If you’re an intuitive writer, you tend to see the story and, whether or not you plot or pants it while writing, have a hard time putting labels on the elements. Oh, you can usually identify climax, maybe a black moment, some of the big stuff. But all the little labels that spring up? You'd rather clean your room or empty the litter box or scrub the toilet than deal with those.

I’m here to tell you that that’s OKAY.

For years, I sat in classes at conference and read blog articles and thought, “Yes, of course, this is how we writers write. This is how we take it up a level or five. This is how we make sure our stories are solid and strong.” Then I’d take my notes, my newly-purchased book and workbook, I’d sit down in front of my WIP...and I’d go blank.

It was frustrating, because I knew my stories had these things. I knew my plots were balanced, that my characters were well developed. And when I emailed Stephanie (my critique partner) for her opinion on these aspects in my book, she could give me the answer in about ten seconds. Did Stephanie know my story better than me? No. Does she have a better grasp on writing? Sometimes I think so, LOL, but it’s not necessarily that. But what she does have is a mathematical mind.

(Insert Stephanie laughing hysterically, calling me all kinds of crazy...) ;-)

But seriously. There are those who know how to organize and label and progress from step to step to step. And there are those of us who just can't. It makes our minds go blank, our creativity dry up, and leaves us frustrated and doubting ourselves.

Now, Pascal himself advocates the perfectly balanced combination of these traits. To put it in terms of writing, it’s the person who can come up with a nearly complete idea and then go through and identify the important parts, tweaking where necessary to make sure each aspect is strong. Those craft books and seminars no doubt come in handy there, but it’s their instinct that helps them apply it wisely and creatively.

But most of us lean one way or the other. And there is advice aplenty for those who need the bullet points and diagrams. The other side is much quieter—and for good reason. How, exactly, does one teach a non-system?

Well, I don’t dare to say I can teach it to someone who isn't inclined that way, but I can give you intuitive writers out there a few pointers on how to strengthen your intuition and beef up that mathematical side too.

1. Give yourself permission to not be a labeler.

If you happen to have a great answer to the questions about lies and black moments and acts, great! Use them! Tack them to your wall and go with that. But if you don’t, don’t stress it, don’t fret over it, and don’t waste time that you could be writing trying to figure it out. If methods make your creativity dry up, then they're not serving their purpose, and you need to give yourself permission not to use them. The whole point of these things is to help you. If they're not, then don't feel bound to use them.

2. Learn to recognize the voice of your intuition.

If you’re going to go this route, then don’t slack at it. Does a sentence not sound right or feel right? Don’t be lazy. Fix it. Does one character bother you? Figure out why—and don’t be afraid to ask a critique partner for her opinion. Is a line of dialogue flat? Delete it, replace it. Does your ending feel weak? Rewrite it. Do you feel trapped in the character’s drawing room? Send them out on a mission. After manuscript revision after manuscript revision, I realized that I usually knew what was off long before my critters helped me label it. But I ignored it, and ended up with more work in the end. Once I learned to trust that voice, to know that voice, I eliminated a lot of correcting.

3. Know the Systems.

I’ve never studied the Snowflake or mapped out my Acts, I only made it through a few pages of the Breakout Novel Workbook. But I know the gist of them all, and keeping them in the back of my mind helps me to identify where my weaknesses are and some standard ways of strengthening them. I’ve even tried my hand at various methods of organizing. Index cards, color-coded charts, you name it. I never use one more than once, LOL, but trying them out has helped me in general. Not with labeling, but at least with organizing. ;-)

4. Don’t be afraid to twist the rules.

Sometimes my black moment becomes a bright moment. Sometimes my climax involves the character deciding not to act. Sometimes the lie they tell themselves turns out to be true. Sometimes rules have to be twisted--but first I have to know the rules, so the twist is deliberate and well planned. Never break rules just for the sake of it, but once you understand how they're supposed to serve your story, you can determine whether or not breaking them would serve it better.

5. Trust your instincts.

I wrote, oh, ten or so books before I joined a writers association and learned all the rules. And while I wish (oh, how I wish!) I’d known all these basics of POV and Show v. Tell from the get-go, I also appreciate the rules more because I can look back through my manuscripts and see how I evolved toward them on my own. The last book I wrote before learning about head-hopping didn’t, actually, head-hop. I occasionally shifted POVs when one character left a room without inserting a break, but the scenes themselves were within POV. Still, I needed the Rules to help me solidify those instincts, and to know which ones were right and which ones needed better hewn.

6. Don’t mistake pride for intuition.

My writing has always been and will always be more gut than structure. I do plot—but I don’t examine what part each scene plays. My plotting is more just taking notes on the story that has laid itself out in my mind. Still, I have to be careful not to confuse instinct with knowledge. Knowing how a story should go or a character should grow doesn’t mean I executed it right.

Which takes me back to math class. I drove my teachers nuts in middle and high school by not showing my work. I’d get the right answer, which I thought was all that mattered—but each and every one of them told me that wasn’t enough. Because then, when I was wrong, I had no idea where I’d gone wrong.

The same is true in writing fiction. Intuitive writers will often get it right—but when we don’t, how are supposed to fix it? That’s where we have to learn enough of the mathematical way to keep our instincts in shape. We have to be willing to grant our weaknesses and learn how to shore them up. We have to learn how to apply some of the structure so that we can be wise in what we ignore. ;-) And yes, it’s very, very helpful to have a critique partner who leans the other direction. That way she can help you label when labeling is required, and you can help her fill in the blanks when structure leaves a hole.

In the end, hopefully you’ll end up with a system that combines math and intuition...even if those craft books do gather dust on your shelf.

So which kind of writer are you? Intuitive or mathematical?


  1. Wow. This is a fascinating post. I'd guess I'm an intuitive writer - perhaps it's linked to excessive reading in my youth?? (that made sense in my head...)

    And THANK YOU for telling me I don't have to fit my story to all the rules. I tend to read the rules, and then stress over making sure my story covers them all. Instead I should be going with my gut... if it feels weak, it probably is and I should fix it! The rules are helpful for exposing the weak points, though; for example, you mentioned the lie my character is telling herself, and I hadn't thought about that (it's a good point).

    Thank you for the excellent post, Ms White!

    1. Exactly right! The rules and systems can be fabulous tools--but when they start killing your creativity, that's when you need to remember that the purpose of a tool is to help you, not to hinder you.

  2. Fascinating post! This is a really interesting idea, and I don't think I've heard it before. Thank you for sharing it with us, Mrs. White.

    I think I'm a mix??? I can't write a story until my head's worked out how everything is going to happen, but I can't physically outline it out until I reach that point either. (And boy do I need to outline, or I forget *everything*.) But I also know which parts of my story are the inciting incident, the midpoint, lies vs. truths...And if something feels wrong to me, there's almost always a way to make it better.

    One of my English books said that people who read a lot throughout their lives can have a highly trained "inner ear" which tells them if the style and word order, etc., could be phrased better. I'll bet this also applies to character development and plotting if you work hard enough at it.

    1. I have the same problem finding the perfect time to outline, Lily, and you're last statement is very true. I have a mathematical mind, as I am obsessed with structure, rules, and dictionary definitions, but I think reading and writing experience has taught me to be both mathematical and intuitive in my writing.
      Thank you for this post, Mrs. White! Since I am first and foremost a mathematical thinker, sometimes I have a hard time understanding and appreciating those who think and write differently than I do. I should find it easier now that I've read this!

    2. I had never heard it put this way, either, Lily. =) And balancing the two is ideal!

    3. Olivia, I think we all scratch out heads at people who do it differently, LOL. But hey, working to understand those weird OTHER people is research, right? For that character who thinks the same way... ;-)

  3. "But what she does have is a mathematical mind. (Insert Stephanie laughing hysterically, calling me all kinds of crazy...)"

    Indeed! I think this is the one-and-only time I have ever been labeled mathematical :)

    So many good points that I don't really know where to begin on a response. I've taken an interesting journey of starting out very intuitive (never plotted, and even turned up my nose at it on a regular basis) and over the years I've moved more toward the logical side. I wonder how common that is?

    One thing that really jumped out at me as a person who used to be a total pantser is the fact that you can't really teach a non-system. This is something that I've really struggled with because I wish there were more resources out there to help pantsers along the way. But I think (at least this was true for me) that a lot of the labely/logical/plotty type tools can still be helpful resources for pantsers. We just tend to lean on them more in edits. When the gut says something is off, like you mentioned.

    I feel grateful for my front row seat of watching you develop stories. I think it's helped me to be smarter and more inclusive in my teaching about writing. Thank you for being with us today!

    1. The funny thing being that I always claimed to half-plot. But to me, plotting is just writing down the story as it's laid itself out in my head. It's not making it conform to set points laid out ahead of time. So is that really plotting? I have no idea, LOL. But if I try to use the 30 scenes or whatever...I end up writing nothing. (Case in point, Giver of Wonders, which sat with 0 progress for a year...)

      So I've come to the conclusion that there's no right way, except the way that WORKS FOR YOU. =)

    2. I'm going to bring my Story Genius book to the retreat so you can see it. That's the next method I'm trying because it's more about cohesive character motivation and the internal journey than it is plotting the story. I think you might at least find the method intriguing.

  4. Wow, that was great. It helped settle a couple things in my head, like, "I wonder if I'm doing something wrong...I can't label everything!" I know I'm a pantser, but I always kind of assumed that even pansters should be able to label all their story elements. If you ask me what my lie is, where my acts are, um...can I get back to you on that? I'm so glad I'm not alone!!

    So, yes, I am definitely an intuitive writer. I keep the rules and guidelines I've read in the back of my head, but it just doesn't flow for me to sit down and actively think about how to fill in each label...kind of stresses me out and makes my mind go blank.

    Anyways, thank you very much Roseanna! :)

    1. And I'd say that intuitive writers can plot, but not necessarily label, LOL. ;-) By instinct anyway. We can of course learn, and in so doing come to balance out our processes, which is great. But definitely don't stress yourself out about it!!

  5. Great post! I think I'm more of a mathematical writer. Or a little bit of both??? I always have a little plot to go by, because I know how I want the story to go, but I also don't follow the rules very often. My lies are normally there, but I probably don't follow the three act structure. So, I'd say both.

    I also would love to know what craft books you do recommend. I've never had one but been wanting one for a while now, just not sure what to buy. Anything would help! :)


    1. I'll respond, Lena, since craft books aren't really Roseanna's thing.

      Jill and I wrote the Go Teen Writers book, which is more of a "what to do once you've finished your first draft" kind of book, but it could also apply to first draft stuff as well:

      Two classics and personal favorites of mine are Stephen King's On Writing and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. I don't know how old you are, but both of them have strong language in them, just so you're prepared for that.

      On Writing:
      Bird by Bird:

      James Scott Bell has some fabulous stuff out there. My personal favorite of his is The Art of War for Writers:

      Writing the Breakout Novel is another good one. I have both the book and the workbook, and you could probably get away with just the workbook:

      A recent crush of mine is Story Genius by Lisa Cron. I haven't yet written using this method, so I can't yet say, "This works!" but it's definitely shaken up the way I think about stories:

      Hope there's something in there that works for you!

    2. Thank you so much! I will look into to them :)

  6. Oh my goodness, THANK YOU, ROSEANNA.

    I'm definitely an intuitive writer. I've never been good at listening to "how" to write a novel. I just instinctively DO it. Anytime anyone tells me that my story fits well into a this structure or a that structure I'm like "Um... okay... I guess it does now that you mention it... but I definitely didn't consciously PLAN it that way!" It always seems like my story knows better how to write itself than I do. XD

    Anyways, due to this, I've always been depressed by "writing rules" and "how to write" and structures and even a lot of the (no-doubt useful to other people) posts on this blog, because I never clicked with rules and mathematical ways of doing things, and they always make me feel... well... stifled, like you said. I started ignoring said rules and structures and continued writing intuitively, but I figured I was being a rebel by doing so and that no other "real" writer would dare to do that, and so obviously I will never make it as a "real writer"... So THANK YOU for this post and showing me that it's a thing. :D It made me so happy. ^_^

    1. DEBORAH! I thought of you throughout this entire post! <333 I'm so, so glad it encouraged you. It pointed out something I *knew* about intuitive writers but didn't know how to express. I'm just happy that someone finally described all this!

      I think I'm a blend? Like others have been saying, lots of reading helped build my intuition. I get a gut feeling when something isn't lining up right, or when the writing just clicks. But I probably lean more toward the mathematical side, because I love organizing and labelling and reading craft books (and blogs like this one)! There does come a time when first drafting that I have to ease up on the planning side and just let go so I can see where the story takes me. LOL, it seems like writing is yet another area of life in which I'm a hybrid!

    2. Deborah, so glad I could help put words to it!! Now, as someone who resisted writing rules, I can tell you that some of them ARE necessary to learn. (Don't headhop, show vs. tell, vivid writing, etc.) But the thing I love about those rules in particular is that they're where you arrive naturally with work. So they're just a shortcut. And I do always love a shortcut. ;-) But story rules? *Insert me blowing raspberries* They can be USEFUL. But they're a tool, not a goal, in my humble opinion. At least for writers like us. =)

      But I'm here as proof that intuitive writers can TOTALLY be "real writers."

    3. Tracy, if we're going by Pascal (and why wouldn't we, because he's awesome), a hybrid is what we should all be aiming for! The perfect mind, according to him, is one who has the intuition to tell us where to go and the logic to tell us how to get there. =)

    4. Deborah, I'm so glad this post was here for you! When I write posts I try to be mindful that there are lots of different types of writers. But like Roseanna said, it's hard to teach a non-system, so I know I end up talking to plotters much more than pantsers. I feel touched that you stick around regardless, and I'm glad Roseanna was able to encourage you. You are, indeed, a real writer, my friend.

    5. @Tracey: Aww, that's so sweet you thought of me! ^_^ And you're definitely a fabulous hybrid, my dear! ^_^

      @Roseanna: Yeah, I've been writing for 10 years now so I'm hoping I'm arriving at some of the "real" rules naturally without having to force myself. XD I grew up reading SO much, as a homeschooler, that (as somebody above mentioned) I think I have something of an "ear" for what's right... hopefully, anyway. :P Anyways, thanks! ^_^

      @Stephanie: I understand! And I'm actually a plotter, I just plot according to my own inner compass, instead of by traditional structures... which, oftentimes the inner compass points intuitively the right way, but I don't know WHY, like Roseanna mentioned in her post. :) Haha, I keep getting drawn back from time to time just to see what's going on over here--I can't help it. XD And aww, thanks so much! ^_^

  7. I think I'm a little bit of both. A lot of times I go by my feelings and what seems right in the scene, and I don't tend to follow the rules. :|
    I've had a hard time lately figuring out how to put leaves on the branches of my writing. I feel like my writing tree is dying. I feel like I can't fill the scene to express the real emotion of the story. It drives me crazy. I keep going blank, and nothing seems to be helping. :(
    If anyone has any ideas on how to really make the scene come alive, then I'd love to hear it. :)
    P.s. Thank you Mrs. White for the wonderful post! :)

    1. A couple tricks to filling out the emotion of a scene. First, pay attention to physical cues people around you give, and put some of those in there. Things like cradling an empty coffee cup for the security of it when the conversation is emotional. Or when anxious, my hands get busy--I'm more likely to do dishes when I'm nervous than any other time, LOL. Hands curl into fists with frustration. Things like that can bring emotion into the room on your page even without actually mentioning any emotion.

      Another is to show the dichotomy between what people say and what they really think. This is one of my favorite tools. =) Here's a quick example from my WIP:

      Jules crouched down too and flung his cello’s case open with far less care than usual. “Would you just shout at me? Rant and rail as you usually do? I cannot handle this ice, mon ami. It is unlike you. It worries me.”
      Lukas closed his case, fastened it, and stood with it in his left hand. “There is nothing to rant about. You saved my life.” And he couldn’t forgive him for it until he knew it hadn’t cost his mother and sister theirs.

    2. Thank you so much! Wow, your WIP's great!
      I will definitely use these techniques in my WIP. It also helps to act your scene out (for em at least). I will probably interview my family to see what they felt of did in certain situations. Ya'll always have so much great advice! :)

    3. If you ever feel that your scenes are getting boring or mundane, you may want to update your style. I'm not saying to change your writing altogether (that wouldn't help much), but pinpoint what you're stuck on and try to... add to it. Vary your word choice. Think of what YOU do when you are in a situation like your character's. But also keep their actions within their personality...
      I hope this helps you, LHE! :D

  8. Wow. This is very interesting. I think I'm an intuitive writer who has been trying to pin herself down more lately. I can do the 'proper' things, but it just takes more panic and stress and lots of time for me.
    When I first started writing way back, I hadn't taken any kind of English/grammar class, but as I wrote (and read), I ended up starting to pick up the ways of proper grammar without even knowing the 'why'. When I did start an English class, I ended up thinking it was loads of fun because I had been doing so much already, and finally I got to figure out the why.

    1. Isn't that fun? And that's what rules are designed to help us do--teach us WHY we're doing the things we're already doing, or should be doing. Those kinds of rules I highly enjoy. =)

  9. Oh my gosh... this post makes my life finally make so much sense!! I am a very mathematical person in almost every area of my life, but NOT WHEN I WRITE. I didn't really understand it for a while... I read writing blogs and a few craft books, but I could never figure out how to apply all the labels to my own writing.
    Once, after I finished writing my first book, I realized that I could not identify my MC's character arc--at all. I started believing that my book wasn't good and so I moved on to something else. But when I went back and re-read it, I realized that it was in fact very good and that there was nothing wrong with my MC. Now, I am a bit better at identifying labels than I used to be, but only after I'm done writing the story--long after I'm done with it.

  10. Interesting!

    1--a: Bell's Plot and Structure. And Art of War for Writers.
    2--I have Three Act Structure, but right now I think Act One ends about halfway through Chapter Two.
    3--d: Lie--wait, I know this one. It’, he...Stephanie! What’s the lie my character is telling himself??

    This WIP is very one-step-at-a-time. I basically figure out what happens in each chapter right before I start writing it. I have no idea what going to happen in Chapter Ten or Seven or even Three. But...
    ...with a different WIP, I have pretty much the entire story figured out, and I know just about every plot turn. All I really need is to write it. True, it's partly because it has a very detailed atmosphere, but it's just so different from the other one.

    So "I'm feeling rather funny and I don't know what I am!"

    ~ Gracelyn