The Reader’s Instinct

So, I failed to complete short story in time to meet an anthology deadline, in the lead-up to Christmas and New Year.

Don’t get me wrong, finishing the story was very achievable.

I really liked the characters I created; I relished the predicament I’d dropped them in; I even loved the character arc my protagonist was taking.

I was more or less at the climatic scene.

So why did I drop the story a hair’s breadth from the end?

My instincts told me it didn’t feel right.

And I’ve learned to listen to my instincts.


Some years ago, I took part in the Australian Horror Writers’ Association’s Mentorship Program.

(The single best career move I ever made! If ever you’re presented with an opportunity to take a mentor, grab it.)

I was lucky enough to land Kaaron Warren as my mentor — one of the sentinels of modern Australian horror.

The number one lesson I learned during my time with the program was to trust my instinct.

We worked on a story I had been kicking around for a couple of years; a story I liked, but felt uninspired about finishing.

I knew, deep down, it was missing something.

And I was convinced that I couldn’t see what it was.

Kaaron steered the story in the right direction, or rather, she opened my eyes enough for me to find the direction the story should head.

I had to completely re-write an insipid opening, flesh-out the tragic heroine, find some more sinister villains, and lean into the horror elements of the story.

It was quite a bit of work for a story that I had considered finished.

When the dust settled, I had a tangible, engaging and very creepy story.

And, I realised, that I had known all along what was wrong with it, and simply refused to admit to it.


All writers are readers first — or, if not, they should be.

Stephen King says that without this baseline of how others write, without first developing this passion for the written word, a writer cannot hone their own instinct.

This is true of anything.

At one point in my life — rather a large point; ten years, to be exact — I worked as a veterinary nurse.

When I started out, volunteering at a handful of animal hospitals around Sydney, I had no idea what I was doing.

The medical jargon was a foreign language, hospital policies seemed illogical and alien, sick animals behaved in ways that I’d never expected.

But I was immersed in the industry.

By the end of that career, my instincts were as sharp as a #10 scalpel blade.

I knew which animals were likely to lash out and could take measures to minimise them doing so; I knew which policies were universal and could adapt quickly at new hospitals; I could break any medical-babble down into layman’s terms for pet owners.

I needed to allow myself time and experience to baseline my knowledge.

The same is true of writing — except the experience is attained, first and foremost, through reading.

Unbeknownst to me, I’d spent the first 40-odd years of my life already absorbing the insight I needed to become a writer.


When I write now — as opposed to the angst-riddled scribblings I did back when I first caught the bug as a teenager — I have the experience of decades of good and bad reads to fall back upon.

I know when something I’ve written is not good — when it lack authenticity or my voice or strength of language.

I listen to — and oft times even heed — that inner voice.

But what’s the difference between listening to my instinct and my self-doubting inner critic?

Mary Robinette Kowal says that all writers have a reader’s brain.

When we get bored with or easily distracted from our craft, it’s because our reader’s brain — our reader’s instinct — is trying to tell us that something is lacking from the story.

A common response from my reader’s brain to my work is to stare blankly at the last thing I’ve written, unsure how to proceed.

This usually means I’ve backed my characters into a dead end plot.

To fix this, I back my story up to the point where my characters last made a decision and have them make a different one.

Sure, it may take the story in a different direction to the one I originally planned, but my reading instinct is usually a lot happier.

And I am getting better at taking my instinct’s reactions on board.

Self-doubt is a nasty, more insidious inner voice.

It simply tells me my writing sucks, that I have no talent, and that I’ll never amount to anything.

Mostly I ignore it, when I remember — some days I even have the courage to tell it where to go.

I made the decision a few years ago that the quality of my stories is more important than the quantity I produce.

Even if that means a glacial career trajectory.

So finding this instinct and heeding it has been a very important part of learning my craft.

That doesn’t mean I always get it right — there are stories I’ve abandoned, stories I’ve completed but utterly ruined, and stories I’ve completed but retired after years of submission failures.

But those that have made it through to the publishing gatekeepers, I think, have been my best.

And my instincts played a big part in the writing of each one.

I will get back to the story I dropped the ball on before Christmas.

I just need some time alone to listen to what my reader’s instinct is trying to tell me.

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