The fine fantasist Cat Rambo showed me how she knows a story or a sentence or a chapter is working by pointing to a spot about two inches above and to the left of her heart. That may seem odd to some, but to me, it made perfect sense: my own spot is right in my solar plexus. When a piece of writing has come out just the way I had hoped, that spot tingles, as if I had fitted a plug into a socket, or dropped a peg into a perfectly-sized hole.
There's nothing scientific about this, of course. It's an idiosyncratic response to the artist's instinct. Like most of you, Cat and I read books on writing, take classes and workshops, follow blogs--in other words, study our craft. But in the end, all instructive input has to be processed through each writer's inner judge, that intuition that informs our art.
There's an old story about Chinese sculptors who carve and carve and carve until someone takes the work away from them. I might be a bit like that with my novels. Fortunately, I have contracts to organize and direct me (see The Joy of Deadlines) but there is still that urge to polish and prune, expand and trim, rewrite and revise until that moment when I know--in a mystical way--that it's right. Of course we have to worry about word count, and grammar, and spelling and so forth. But when the story has taken its proper shape, it almost feels predestined. To use another sculpting metaphor, it's as if the story was in the stone all along, and we just had to take out the non-story parts.
This can't be taught. It can only be encouraged. Every artist has insecurities, performance anxieties, doubts. It's not easy reaching that point where you know it's right--or I should say, when you feel it's right. But that's a feeling to be trusted. Not blindly, not exclusively--it's not an excuse for bad writing--but with faith in that inner instinct. It can't be quantified, and it can't be formulized. This is art, not science.