Having read the amazing book How We Decide, my money is on this not being some mystic power but a carefully honed subconscious sense of when I have done the best I can do. And believe me, I wasn't born with this. Marie Sexton seems to have been, and I do hate her a little bit for it, but she's pretty awesome, so I try to get over it. Me, though, I had to put in twenty years of first writing for myself and then wrestling with rules and systems and tropes until my internal radar was honed, and then I think there was a good five years' worth of learning to let go and trust that inner voice.
To me, that's the most important part of writing. It's easy to get stuck on the idea that we have to get it right—well, we do. It's just that "right" is utterly, utterly subjective. And I think the weakest writers are the ones with no or a poorly functioning inner compass. The ones who long to write cheesy, schmaltzy stuff others will call bad writing, so they refuse to listen to their hearts and never write what they want in hopes other people won't call them cheesy. Fuck, the world needs some cheese. Somebody's got to bring it. If it's your calling, cheese on.
I don't know what my calling is. All I know is that I can see the story in this weird shape-like form, and it only works when I'm tunneling into the right veins. I love to read reviews people write, from professional to amateur to Goodreads to whatever, and I read the "didn't like" ones the most closely. I'm always trying to find something I just didn't see, that I can learn from and do next time. Truth, though? While other people have honed into the same weak spots I saw, the fixes they say would have "made it better" I almost always know would have resulted in me never finishing the book. The fix would have made it okay for that reader, which is fine for them, but it would have made the book discordant to me, which means it would be wrong.
This was the hardest part for me to learn, that I had to be the arbiter of my story. I crave feedback, and I seek it very seriously during the beta phase, and I am always asking my editors to push harder at me. I argue back, yes, but I always want that push. Sometimes there's just no real answer. LIke the opening to Nowhere Ranch is more narrative than I wanted, but nothing else I did worked, and Roe always went discordant in my head, so I pared down as much narrative I could and said it was the best I could do. Miles and the Magic Flute had this LOTR ending that wouldn't quit, and I tried and tried to pare it, but that book was as fragile as a snowflake. In the end, the betas liked it, and I trust them, so I said it would do. (People have complained about that ending and even called it LOTR! I toast them with my coffee cup, sigh, and move on.)
I used to despair about doing it "right," wanting "right" to be an objective measurement the majority of the world could agree on. What I had to learn was that even if there is such a thing, even if other authors can see and respond to it, for my part, it must always remain veiled. Time and time again I can only do my best, and my best will always be something that keeps me from seeing what a broader consciousness' reception of it would be. Which is good, because if I could see it I'd try to tweak to it and kill the story.
Because the most important aspect of my process, if you can call it that, is listening to the story. Right now I'm working on A PRIVATE GENTLEMAN, moving forward after weeks of churning my wheels. What was hanging me up? I had one of the main characters wrong. The slightest tweak, but it made all the difference. I wanted his motivation to be one thing, but he would only work if it was slightly tweaked. The move was as subtle as a millimeter's turn on a radio dial, but without that adjustment, the book went nowhere. This is why I can't outline. Outlines are all about logic, about how I would do the book, not how the book must be according to its own terms. The only time I outline is when I'm stuck, and it's largely to help flush out my wrong vision so I can start to see the right one.
Sometimes I hate my process. Because when I'm stuck, I can't send my story to someone, let them suggest a new idea, and run off inspired. The best I can do is get confirmation that the parts I think aren't working truly aren't. Sometimes I can use the suggestions given by others as a sort of discordant twang that motivates me to find the true answer. Last year I sent my 2/3 finished story (DANCE WITH ME) to Marie, who said, "Yeah, it doesn't work," and she suggested I had two stories and to cut it in half. It was a wise suggestion. Very logical. And the story got so furious over the idea that it finally started to tell me what it wanted, and then, voila, I could finish. And then a beloved beta gave a final tweak that gave me the last piece of the puzzle, and it was done.
There are things that I do, specifically in editing, that are a lot more logical and refined. Like I always work on the opening scene over and over again, honing it until it gleams. I deliberately layer things. I deliberately make beginnings and ends line up. When a story doesn't naturally arc and move through a traditional plot scheme a reader can follow (Special Delivery, I'm looking at YOU), I go back in and put in props that will help the reader. So I do use craft. I do use logic. I do hone, and I do work my fingers into bloody nubs.
But if there's any consistent cornerstone to my process, it's that it's nebulous and irregular and I must do it entirely alone. Sometimes I still resent that a little. But like my height and my shoe size, this is a part of me, and it's something vital for me to accept if I want to succeed. And that was the hardest and most important lesson about my writing that I ever learned. And am, honestly, always re-learning and accepting all over again.