Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Gut Busters

I'm officially declaring this Gut Week on the blog. Gut gut gut.

On Monday we talked about how impatience gets in the way of the gut, and on Tuesday... uh.. nevermind, Tuesday doesn't apply, but then yesterday the dominant response to the "how do you know when to listen to your beta readers" was: the gut.

Clearly instincts are absolutely imperative for writers. Good ones will take you all the way to publication and a supplementary income to your day job, bad ones will lead you to write a 1,000 page stream of consciousness memoir written in the second person.

But there's much more to the story than just instincts, because instincts do not just consistently make themselves known in big bold letters. Instead, instincts are a bit like sails on a boat, ready to be blown about by the winds.

The gut is very impressionable! These are but some of the gut busters that can lead a gut to make very bad decisions indeed:

- impatience
- greed
- laziness
- reluctance to kill darlings
- irrational exuberance
- pride
- outside pressure
- delusions of grandeur
- alcohol

The only way to make a gut decision is with a clear head. So before you decide your gut is telling you to just hit send on a 4,000 word query, you might first run a system scan on the gut to see if any these qualities are interfering. And this is just a partial list! Please add your own gut busters in the comments section.

Ultimately: be honest with yourself! A good gut is a terrible thing to waste.


Anonymous Gimp said...

Some must avoid their gut at all cost. Gust busters include:

Irrational fear
Greed / Delusions of grandeur

But my biggest gut-buster is definitely the high I get from starting a new project. This makes me want to rush through my current project when I have a good idea so I can get started on the new one. The new one ALWAYS sounds so much better than the current project. It has that new car smell. It has that new baby softness of the top of its head. But in reality, it's just an idea and I have to tell my gut to shut up so I can continue on the current story.

Guy Stewart said...

I know it's old-fashioned...but then I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy:

sleep on it.

It's what I do and it's served for nearly twenty years of serious writing.

Ulysses said...

Hmm. For troublesome guts, I recommend a good antacid and avoiding the all-you-can-eat bean burrito bar.

However, when you're talking about guts here, you're talking about judgement and that's always a tricky thing to refine. Jim Horning (and a hundred other people, apparently) said, "Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement." Fortunately, good judgement can also come from heeding the warnings of those who know the consequences of bad judgement. Hurray for the human ability to learn from others.

The examples read like a list of the seven deadly sins: greed, sloth, pride, envy... Out of curiousity, I did a Google search on "seven writer sins." It brought up some interesting articles and I wasn't surprised to find many of your selections repeated. I was, however, surprised there were only seven.

I'm particularly guilty of pride, and was on my way to becoming insufferable before I got married. Being told I'm not that great on a daily basis has done wonders for me.

"bad ones will lead you to write a 1,000 page stream of consciousness memoir written in the second person." Oh. Well. Delete key, thou art my friend.

Elyssa Papa said...

I like Guy Stewart's advice. So simple and smart.

Someone once told me that if they have an urge to do something---like send a nasty letter to a supervisor or do something that is run on emotions---they wait 10 days to see if the feeling is still around. If it is, they send. If not, in the trash can it goes.

There have been a couple of times I've ignored my gut instinct and regretted it ten-fold. So, I've learned the hard way---trust my gut instinct, it doesn't fail.

Lauren said...

Writing and rewriting and revising and rewriting the same story, concentrating on all the nice little things like diction and and character quirks and inciting incidents and clever chapter titles and so forth... and then getting to what you think is the final draft, only to realize that you've got major story issues that are going to get in the way of being able to write a decent query letter, and, you know, bringing an enjoyable story to your imaginary readers.

That's sort of the story of my writing life, so far. You can get a long way with a good voice and interesting characters, but if the narrative drive isn't strong enough, and if the plot points don't line up the way you need them to, you're always going to fall short.

Anyway, I'm glad I didn't trust my gut on my current novel and try to sell it on voice and characters alone. I think it would have gone splat.

One more draft. That's what my gut AND my head are telling me now. For once, they're in synch.

Another thing I've had to talk myself out of is attending every writing conference and workshop I hear about. I like to do several of them every year, but any more than that and they start getting a.) expensive!, and b.) repetitive. Plus, you sometimes wind up with advice that conflicts with other advice, and the time you spend reconciling at-odds bits of writing advice is time you could have spent actually writing.

Jeanie W said...

An irrational exuberance for killing your darlings could be a problem too.

Diana said...

"reluctance to kill darlings"

At a conference a year ago, I heard an author speak about "the bunny on the train." The idea is that you have this cute idea that doesn't really move the story, but you hate to chop it out because, by golly, it's an awfully cute bunny. This particular author said something like, "It's okay to have an occasional bunny, but you don't ever want board a train only to find all of the seats are taken by bunnies."

koutroulakisfamily said...

exhaustion...not enough much work and stress leads to an ill working "gut"

Lisa Cannon said...

I agree with Guy--a major gut-buster for me is lack of sleep. It makes me overly emotional and weepy and leads to irrational choices.

I once had a knock-down, drag-out fight with my sister, who was moving in as my temporary roommate. We had been up until the wee hours rearranging furniture and unpacking. When I called my boyfriend (now husband) in tears, lamenting that I'd made a bad choice to let my sister move in, he told me to just go to sleep. Immediately. Drop everything and snooze, even though my bed wasn't made and it was sitting in the middle of the living room. He was right--everything did look much better in the morning.

I often think of his advice when I'm tired and stressed and having trouble making decisions.

Dan said...

Here's a gut buster:

Anyone making decisions in the Sacramento Kings front office.

Susan said...

Shyness and self-doubt, definitely busters.

Great list so far.

lotusloq said...

So it seems we're in a gut glut.

Diana, all those bunnies on the train seem like a horror book in the works. It might could work. hmmmmm.

Anonymous said...

I love this thread.
I have a very experienced creativity coach. He and I talk through things.
Recently, my gut told me NOT to write a chapter in a book I had been wrestling with and having doubts about. I felt rushed and wanted my own material to germinate more. It just wasn't ready yet. I also felt I knew too little about the other contributing authors. He wanted me not to write for other reasons (to stay on task with my novel). Talking it over with him, it was easy to decide to withdraw (gracefully of course).

On another note, but connected:
He has had the experience that writers with first novels over 100,000 words often get rejected just on the word count alone being over the 100,000 word mark.
My own gut says a story needs to be what it is. But if it does go a bit (a bit being not twice or drastically more) over that word count, does it really get hit more often with the reject button?

( I also LOVE the "Preview" option before publishing. )

Scott said...

Writing to music is mine. While the right tunes –– NIN instrumental "Ghosts" for my last book mixed with a little Nox Arcana –– can really get you into the zone, I find it can make you lazy about creating the right mood with your prose.

Unless you're selling the book with the CD and you're meant to push "play" at the very first word, I find I create my best stuff when all sounds are off.

Then, if you like, read it back with some sonic atmosphere and enjoy the ride.

Anonymous said...

The feeling of a sense of entitlement is a gut buster in my book as well.

Marilyn Peake said...


I like your statement: "But there's much more to the story than just instincts, because instincts do not just consistently make themselves known in big bold letters. Instead, instincts are a bit like sails on a boat, ready to be blown about by the winds."

In my mind, the following are huge gut busters, black holes that ultimately suck the life out of writing the best possible literary work: Trying specifically to write the next blockbuster best-seller that literary agents and big publishing houses will want based on what’s selling today, and jumping on the bandwagon of the latest, "almost" possible way to sell lots of small press books. The major reason is because the high seas of the publishing world appear to be buffeted by constantly changing winds. A writer’s instincts might be dead-on about the hottest genre or story idea...but, chances are, by the time they finish a project in that "hot" area, it will already have begun to cool off. In regard to marketing small press books, my experience has been that, by the time I start selling hundreds of copies of my books through specific marketing strategies, the market changes in some radical way that removes the distribution channels. Very frustrating! In the meantime, my energy’s been drained, especially if I’m cutting back on sleep – a major gut buster!

Right now, I’m writing a novel that involves futuristic worlds rife with politics and aliens bending space and time, and expect to finish it by spring. I’m trying every day to write the best I can possibly write, while ignoring the gut-busting urge to rush a writing career. The only other projects in which I’m involved right now are submitting earlier work to writing contests and reviewers, and I recently chipped in to have another book video made. I’m trying to turn a deaf ear to all writing and marketing strategies that won’t stand up to the shifting winds of the publishing world.

Erik Hedstrom said...

I'd like to "second" the pride issue. It is my main gutbuster... just wrote a short story on this very subject. Its called download and can be read on my blog @

Janet said...

Some very good wisdom in that post, Nathan.

How old did you say you were? I think you're doctoring your photos.

Vancouver Dame said...

Anxiety attacks brought on by deadlines looming could cause poor judgment -contests, writing submissions, anything due that isn't finished. My gut advisor has never let me down yet, and I've been sorry when I didn't listen to it. I follow a 3-day rule for deciding on important issues with dire consequences. (usually the spark has died or become a flame by that time).

the Amateur Book Blogger said...

Gut buster: Action taken in the wee small hours based on impromptu gut decision. Save as draft. See if you still want to send/post at 9am next day. All good reminders. Great post.

Erik said...

The addition of alcohol to the list is an especially funny one, given that I live just down the hill from F Scott Fitzgerald's life.

I do think that, overall, people need to feed their intuition so that it can grow proportionally to their intelligence. That means it has to be exercised appropriately, too. That's a lot of what I mean by "a strong half-step back".

ken said...

A constant gut buster for me is overthinking. I often lose momentum and the creative edge by spending too much mental horsepower on things like marketability, overuse of cliches, too many gratuitious sex scenes (or not enough), whether or not I made something up or stole it from Conrad, too many Princess Bride references, too many characters named Paco and Depardieau. Of course this makes me emotional and weepy, so I use one of Nathan's gut busters, alcohol, to counteract my befuddlement.

Anonymous said...

I let my characters deal with:

- impatience
- greed
- laziness
- reluctance to kill darlings
- irrational exuberance
- pride
- outside pressure
- delusions of grandeur
- alcohol

And make sure I identify the goal obstacles and outcome.

Drugs and alcohol not wise after the age of 30. Any character still partying
by choice and not forced to indulge by situational
expectations always gets killed by accident or stupidity unless that one incident pushes them across the goal line to a safety zone.


Anonymous said...

Great advice! Thanks for another great post. Personally I don't see the exuberance, fear, and other emotions as irrational. This business is a roller coaster ride. And let's be honest, it takes a certain hubris for anyone to presume they can create art that people will want to buy. A wall full of rejections is enough to temper the grandiose delusions of even the most ambitious writer. And yes, I know this from experience.

I'll keep this list tucked away in the back of my mind as I plug along, hoping the next rejection will come with just one or two sentences of actual advice.

jeanoram said...


Betty Atkins Dominguez said...

Fear of success.

Christina said...

"consciousness memoir written in the second person."

I've never laughed so hard. Could it also be a chose-your-own-adventure? We could chose which life choices the memoir writer should make.

Mary said...

A wise post, Nathan.

Our guts don't think. So when a value judgement needs to be made it is better to use analysis and logic. Otherwise, one might end up as a hedge-fund manager. (Sorry, poor joke.)

marye.ulrich said...

Gut feelings of being overwhelmed and inadequate.

When I walk into a bookstore and see the millions of books on the shelves, I think everything has already been said--at least twice.

A Paperback Writer said...

"bad ones will lead you to write a 1,000 page stream of consciousness memoir written in the second person."

Thanks, Nathan.
Today has been extremely unfunny.
I needed that.

Sophie said...

I have just re-read the post and understand it now I've read it properly. First time I thought it said "instincts are a bit like *snails* on a boat." It seemed a very deep simile- one I was beyond fathoming at past midnight my time.

Ryan Field said...

I think "grief," too, can alter gut decisions. When you're in the process of grieving, there's no way to think clearly.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Going to second Guy Stewart, and also suggest putting it aside for a week instead of just sleeping on it. It's amazing how many fixes come when you look at something with fresh eyes after a few days.

Margaret Yang said...

Guts week. Cool! I can hardly wait to see what you're going to write tomorrow. "This week in publishing guts." Tee hee.

Jeanne said...

Interesting you mentioned alcohol. It's funny how "creative" some writers feel when they drink. That is, until the next morning when they read their work. Can be pretty embarassing.

This reminds me of an old Hemmingway interview I read in which he said that "contrary to popular opinion, he didn't drink while writing." He also said he "could tell when a writer was on his 2nd drink by the change in tone on a page."

The interview was done during the later part of Hemmingway's life.

I found the interview interesting because I'd always heard that H was a big drinker, and that a great deal of his work was written "under the influence." I wondered if he was being honest about his habits?

For me, the gut busters are lack of confidence, and a fierce sense of privacy. I tend to be my own worst enemy.

Years ago I wrote a very personal story. It was something I planned to attempt -eventually. My professor, friends and family were urging me to "get with it", and start writing. I wasn't sure that the timing was right but I decided to go for it, and write just for myself, and not for an audience. I felt it would be good to begin but i wanted to keep it private. I was in no rush to be published.
Then, I allowed someone in my life to read a few chapters. The feedback was very positive. But, despite their encouraging reaction, I knew the story needed more work and I wasn't ready to share it with others. But, this person took my work from my desk while I was on vacation and gave it to a "friend in the book business" without my permission. When I returned and found that this complete stranger had read my story, "loved" what I wrote, and wanted to "help me" - I freaked out and tore the entire thing into ribbons.

My gut told me not to allow one weird experience to stop me from writing, but I just felt too violated and haven't written since.

I'm trying to rebuild my skills by blogging about whatever comes to mind each day, and not judge myself about how silly or shabby it is. Which is also my way of overcoming my privacy issues.

This site is extremely informative and helpful.

booktapes said...

I tend to write better when I'm really, really tired. I think that factors in to my gut in that where my brain leaves off, my gut kicks in.

Juliette Dominguez said...

My top 2 gut busters are fear and self-doubt...I try and leave these two honeys outside the door when I'm writing...

Scott said...

Thought of another one: role models and influences. Why they can be good things, holding someone's writing in too high esteem can lure you away from your own strengths and get you forcing someone else's words, plots and voice onto the page.

So in a way, it's "false gut" syndrome. We all imitate at the start, but sometimes we may not realize we're still doing it to some extent under the surface.

Maris Bosquet said...

Gut tells me, Yech, it's gotta doesn't doesn't work. I often kill darlings in the interest of arc and momentum.

My biggest gut buster is overdosing on empathy--deliberating how my characters react to conflict in their lives. I'll spend all day writing something but by nightfall I'll read it again and go, "Yech, it's gotta doesn't doesn't work..."

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

Imagine my dismay when a post labeled "gut busters" did not have any exercise tips for how to effectively tone my mid-section!


Well, from a writing perspective, I'd have to say my biggest gut-buster is lack of distance. Once I give myself some time away from my work, and then come back to it at a later date - I can always see it more clearly.

Steph said...

Holy crap, I have to keep one eye on my reader or I end up the forty-first commenter or so late to the party I don't comment at all. I'm afraid I've been lurking...

As a copyeditor, my gut's put to the test countless times. I often meet up with new decisions to make, and the thing that keeps me waffling is fear: fear of actually inserting a mistake into the ms, of making a decision and then later changing my mind and having to go back and undo all the changes, of wrongly advising a client...even though in the end, clients are happy and everything is wonderful. I've been doing this for years, but the same fears still hit with every ms. Every writer is different and each presents interesting little dilemmas. I'm learning, though, to go with my instinct. It's usually right.

N W Wemmick said...

I believe the "Will it sell" is a biggie. Probably moves in the same circle as greed, but when you are passionate about how a story should develop and then think about if it is marketable or not can sometimes stall the work from growing organically.

I have begun to go back to what I used to do as a child an write for myself, if people "get it" they must be my audience.

I have to say this process has been beneficial so far.

Kylie said...


That made me laugh. That's why you save the bourbon for after you judge the contests here, huh, Nathan?

JennyLu said...

not having the right tools at the right time is a gut buster for me. I carry a mini digi recorder for the times I need to write but can't

b luis grey said...

My beer belly!

James K said...

I find that overanalyzing can get me into a lot of trouble.

That doesn't mean that I go rushing into things, but sometimes, after agonizing over a decision, I end up right back where I was at the beginning. Then again, maybe the journey's what makes it the right choice...

Anonymous said...

I meet a lot of people--not writers--whose guts tell them if they write a 1,000 page memoir "they know it would sell". Because their lives have been "so interesting". And they have twenty years full of journals. About their lives.

I know these people. They are dear-hearts, every one, but not THAT interesting. My guts cause me to want to snort. But my manners cause me to smile and nod, and even bite back the words, "Yeah, good luck with that."

Merelyme said...

This has been a really fun thread to read. I would say for me...writing for an audience or for reaction is a gut buster.

Katzie said...

It may have been said already, but I'd add insecurity and uncertainty. It can be easy to get confused when someone second guesses something that an author felt so confident about before sending it out to a beta reader. I've found that's helpful to breath deeply, clear the mind, and then try to refocus to look at the piece with fresh eyes before trying to revaluate. I've spent days working on revisions and then ultimately wind up scratching the revision because what I had originally was better. Sometimes the gut does the talking, but it's easy for the brain's insecurities to get in the way.

Michael Yin said...

good books

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

Nate, I dont trust myself, let alone trust anybody. which makes it more difficult for me as a writer. Ugh. sometimes I don't know if my writings SUCK or if they're alright.

Lady Glamis said...


And overwriting.

Enough said.

JES said...

Ultimately: be honest with yourself!

Well, yeah. But as Ken (early) and Lady Glamis (recently) said, in different words, I think the biggest gutbuster is self-consciousness. The writer sits there thinking, Okay now -- I'm going to... I'm going to... write a query! and immediately gets all in a sweaty lather about the "self" being presented in the query.

As though it makes sense to have one self for the query and another for the book.

nona said...

But Nathan, what about "In vino veritas"? lol

As far as getting too wrapped up in problems, stress, or when I simply need to get away from my script, I go for a nice long ride on my bicycle. I imagine that it's just like riding a Harley only maybe not quite as fast, cos I'm the engine. It's the best way to oxygenate the grey matter and clear a head there is . . . i've been doing it since i was a kid.

bryan russell said...

In vino veritas...

"He reminds me of someone... me! Now I know I hate him."

Ah, couldn't resist. All answers come by way of Tombstone, Arizona.

Write the book, get an agent to be your huckleberry, and no worries. Hakuna Mattata (If there was audio, there'd be an Elton John segue here...)

Scott said...

Right now I'm looking for reasons to jettison a dossier style prologue, but every time I read it, I find it to be some of the funniest and pithy stuff I've ever written. I'm literally infatuated with the first paragraph and am considering printing it out and rubbing it all over my body.

What gutbuster spell am I under? Anyone? Help?

Robena Grant said...

And the Elton John segue ... Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me ...
but, back to gut buster's.

When we let our brain outhink our gut. I love Deepak Chopra's advice on questions/instincts. He says ask of the heart because the heart always knows. I use this often. I ask a question then sleep on it and within a day or two the answers always comes to me.

AR said...

I would add: your insinct, or "gut" can be informed unconsciously by your reading material. If you read the best books you can find you will learn to love good writing. Your gut will respond. :)

Kate H said...

I think the biggest gut-buster for me at this point is discouragement/ depression. When I first started out it was impatience combined with unrealistic expectations. Now my expectations have been lowered to approximately the center of the earth, and I have trouble getting underneath them to find some hope. From this vantage point, everything I write sounds like it was written by space monkeys, and stupid ones at that.

Hokey as his verse sometimes sounds, Kipling had it right when he wrote, "If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same . . ." Dispassion is what we need for the gut to function optimally.

GeekyQuill said...

Scott, I think I have the answer. You're suffering under selfbrilliance-infatuation. I had the same malady the other day when I wanted to eat a particular scene in my manuscript. I controlled myself. One of my kids did catch me kissing it, though.

phanindra said...

fantastic superb..ur thought process,can we chat sometime?

nancorbett said...

Writing with the aim of being published.

The story has to take its own course.

Bearlytimetoscrap said...

hmmm I sometimes think I enjoy killing my darlings too much. Cause then I cry and make other people cry and at least that's something.

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