When your story says you’re doing it wrong, trust it

I had worked on the sequel to The Unwanted for a long time when I set it aside. Before I decided to give it a rest, I printed it out and made a bunch of edits. After I entered those in the file, I printed it out again to reread.

(Most of my creative writing students would cringe at that last sentence. I’ve observed they despise wasting paper. I admire that about them. If only they knew how many trees I’ve killed.)

So, after I reread what I’d written, something felt… off. I couldn’t figure out why the changes I’d made weren’t sitting well with me.

What was I doing wrong?

The answer came to me while I worked on a lecture about how to create an outline for a YA novel. I had reached the part of the lesson where I discuss some of the distinctive characteristics that make a novel a YA novel: “As a general rule of thumb, YA novels are often (though not always) written in the present tense to convey a sense of immediacy and/or urgency to the action, and to immerse the reader in the events and the narrator’s point of view.”

Now, it should be noted that The Unwanted was written in past tense. (Maybe I was doing it wrong at that point.) Both my novels are in past tense. And I had made the conscious choice to write this one in past tense, too. I had stylistic reasons for it. But preparing that lecture made me face the fact that it just didn’t work.

I refrained from smacking myself in the forehead, because the thing is, I knew it didn’t work.

As I wrote new scenes, I sometimes had to backspace in order to change a present-tense verb to past tense. But no, it was something I was doing to make a stylistic point. I can’t remember what that point was now. But, I wound up saying to hell with style and started over in present tense.

I’m used to second-guessing myself, in writing as well as so many other parts of life. And I should maybe know better by now, but clearly I have more to learn on that count. My point, and I do have one, is: Learn to trust your instincts. Or put another way, the story you’re telling knows what it wants to be.

Listen to it.