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On the uses of writerly proprioception - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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On the uses of writerly proprioception [Apr. 20th, 2015|06:35 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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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.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2015-04-21 12:06 am (UTC)
I don't think I've heard you call it proprioception before, but that's an excellent analogy. I will have to remember that the next time I'm floundering to explain how sometimes you can just feel the shape of the story and how maybe these two things need to be brought closer together and no, you can't add detail about X over there, because there isn't room for it.

And yes, sometimes you keep writing and the weirdest things pop out. I didn't know Satomi had killed her own doppelganger until the words went onto the page. And to this day, I have no idea how the final confrontation would have played out without that.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-04-21 12:27 pm (UTC)
Yeah, when you tell people the stuff you didn't know, they get really confused and sometimes upset and ask how you could have written the thing without knowing that. And the answer is, you couldn't, because it didn't work right, but you could start writing the thing without knowing whatever it is, and that's different.
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[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2015-04-21 05:40 pm (UTC)
Well, and there's knowing, and there's knowing. When stuff like that comes out of left field, it's because my subconscious had figured something out and not told my conscious brain yet. I suspect -- but can't say for certain, because this is all going on where I can't "see" it -- that the "start writing" stage of things is a necessary component to getting my subconscious to do its thing. Either that's me working through the inchoate mess until it becomes choate, or else it's me tripping along doing nothing at all in particular but that little detail I dropped in there turns out to imply all kinds of stuff I didn't realize until it was in place.

Or something else. Because really, what do I know? I just work here. :-P
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-04-21 12:25 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that's just it: I make an outline and adjust it. That's how I work with this sense. I really have a hard time imagining how I would work without it. Clever unknown skills indeed.
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[User Picture]From: genarti
2015-04-21 05:42 pm (UTC)
I remember trying to explain to a friend how I conceive of plots -- and I'm not particularly good at plotting, but in this case I just mean the story shape, the pacing and size and scope and what needs to go in one bit to get to the other parts I know are coming. And I was flailing my hands (particularly useless since this was in LJ comments) and making shape-gestures in the air, because to me it's like a four-dimensional shape -- there's heft, there's movement through time, there's springiness and resilience and layers of construction, it's like a dance crossed with an AutoCAD diagram rotating in midair. Proprioception is a much better way of putting the "I mean, it's just shaped like THIS and you can move it and know that things need to go THERE or it'll bend all wrong, right?" feeling.

I make an outline and adjust it too, but making the outline involves a lot of staring into space while thoughtfully poking the story-shaped phantom limb.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-04-21 04:40 pm (UTC)
Yes, thank you!
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From: diatryma
2015-04-22 12:25 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure how this relates to my own writing, but I can tell when a story is missing something. Usually it's novels, but sometimes I'll be critiquing a short story and oh hey you need a scene here with the birds. With novels, it's usually the ending-- too many bounces, not enough climaxes, things like that (and usually romance novels, now that I think of it). It's a weird sense.
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[User Picture]From: mkille
2015-04-22 03:32 pm (UTC)
Very interesting! And also encouraging. Because in my own work (not a writer) I rely very heavily on what I guess could be called interpersonal or organizational or systems proprioception. And I've generally learned to trust that it's my brain doing what my brain is trained to do, as you say--though I also keep a strong second-guessing eye on it, because drafts and editing are not as applicable concepts in my work--but it also has caused me fits because I work in a field that expects one to be able to package explanations of successful practice into an hour-long workshop or 10-page journal article. And there is literally no possible way for me to do that. (The blank looks in response! The "okay, but..."s!) And I have felt like a failure. Now, not so much. So. Thank you.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-04-22 04:50 pm (UTC)
Glad to help!
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