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On the uses of writerly proprioception

We’ve talked in the past about something I call writerly proprioception: the sense of relative shape and position within a story, the sense of where stuff is in relationship to other stuff and how much there is (but relating to one’s story, not to one’s body). For me this is a very literal analogy: it feels like knowing that my left knee is x many inches from my left foot because, well, because. Because you just know that. Because it’s your leg.

(My actual proprioception sometimes gets a little messed up–go neurological symptoms, sigh–so I guess that part of the analogy is possible too.)

But recently I heard the advice, “Don’t keep writing just to keep writing”–that is, don’t add on words to a section for the sake of adding on words–and I think that’s mostly good advice? but I have a caveat.

If you’re adding words to a scene of your story/book/whatever because you have a word count goal for the day and have not yet met that goal–or because you know that it’s very difficult to sell adult novels unless they reach a certain length–that’s not likely to result in quality fiction. If the scene is done and you haven’t met word count*, the correct answer is to finish the scene and start another scene.

But. If your writerly proprioception is telling you that something else goes there–if your writerly proprioception is basically saying that there’s a gap between your foot and your knee–sometimes writing more in that spot and seeing what emerges is really, really useful. If the actual words you write don’t contribute, you’ll have to take them out again. But if you know there needs to be something there, and you don’t know what yet, writing to get to it is a perfectly reasonable method, and at that point, by all means, keep writing just to keep writing.

Recently the current project (Itasca Peterson, Wendigo Hunter! filled with fierce eleven-year-olds and their grandpa!) did that to me. I could feel that Chapter Two was not done. And so I kept writing, and up popped a subplot that has implications in Chapters Four, Six, Nine, and Fifteen. I said, “We’re having an infestation of what?,” and then I just altered the outline and went on doing it. Because my sense of shape and structure knew there needed to be something there, and when I kept writing, there it was. Boom.

In the past I’ve told myself I could edit that kind of thing out later. I have learned better than this. I have had structural mice and load-bearing bears. The things I didn’t know I needed are the least removable of anything in a piece of fiction, basically. That is the brain doing what it’s trained to do. That is the part that’s smart about story asserting itself in the face of the part that thinks it knows what’s going on. Listen to that part. You’re working hard to let it out.

*And if word count is a good way for you to self-motivate. It isn’t for me, and I have known a lot of people to get hung up in various ways on word count. But I also know that it works for some.

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