At the NaNo kick-off party in the Rochester, Minnesota region, we have a traditional activity. I attribute this tradition to one of the Municipal Liaisons who came before me, Tom Harper (a.k.a. improg on the NaNo boards). Whether he created this activity is questionable, but I’ll say he did for sake of argument.
We hold the kick-off in a coffee shop most years, often at Caribou Coffee or Panera Bread. So we’re in a public place, with lots of witnesses, the echo chamber of a thousand ongoing conversations in the background, and the smell of fresh coffee and bakery goods. Everyone is given a three by five notecard and a small envelope. A jumbo box of crayons is placed in the middle of the table.
The instructions for the activity are simple: draw a representation of your Inner Editor in crayon, and stuff him/her into the envelope, keeping him/her sealed there until NaNo is over. The Inner Editor, of course, is that beady-eyed little voice in our heads that tells us when something “isn’t good enough” or “could’ve been better”. All writers have this voice to a degree or another.
Unfortunately, the “Inner Editor” never truly goes away. You learn to live with him, but it’s not always as simple as licking the envelope closed.
The purpose of this little ritual is to help us get out of our own way while writing our novels. To get the Inner Editor to shut up for a month while we play in our worlds and tell stories.
How do I deal with the Inner Editor? I suppose I should clear up something first: I don’t call him the Inner Editor. In fact, he’s not a he, not even a personification. I call that evil little voice something much more sinister… critical voice.
I can hear some of the local writers saying, “Woah! What? You never talk about this.”
Yeah, I don’t. I know. I just smile and nod, drawing squiggly marks on my notecard, and let my co-ML take the lead because she’s the extrovert of the team.
But also because critical voice is a tough subject to tackle, and also ties into the subject of fear. Much of what stops writers from creating stories is related to critical voice and fear working in tandem. We all have these issues, we all fall off from our goals when the inner demons get too loud and boisterous.
Part of my goal with this book is to give you tools and methods to nip critical voice and fear in the bud. It’s not possible to get rid of these problems entirely, but they can be minimized.
Critical voice is much bigger than just editing or rewriting, far more deadly, and more insidious. “Inner Editor” implies a voice that edits the words on the page, which we all do. Critical voice goes beyond that, and passes judgment on the worth and value of the story.
What do I mean?
I’m about to dance and weave around this topic, but I’m a terrible and klutzy dancer. I will step on people’s toes. I apologize in advance. This same warning and apology applies to the chapter on fear.
What Does the Critical Voice Look Like?
You know you’re deep in critical voice issues when you catch yourself saying things like:
“Why should I bother?”
“Nothing I write is any good.”
“This will never sell.”
I could go on with more negative self-talk, but you already know what I mean. Maybe you recognize these phrases in your everyday thoughts and the casual way you talk about your writing. Good! Once you recognize it, you can do something about it.
But also recognize that critical voice is more than grouchy negativity. When you internalize this negative attitude, you start seeing writing as work. If your story is never good enough, then maybe if you just try ever harder and harder you’ll have a magnificent, polished story that everyone will love.
Herein lies a problem: nothing is ever perfect nor can anything ever be perfect.
If William Shakespeare had workshopped his plays, his oeuvre would be vastly different. Imagine the Bard at a workshop. All the words he invented? Stripped out and replaced with more “common” words. The weird triple ending in Midsummer Night’s Dream? Likely one end would’ve been chosen, the others edited out. “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” Why not just say, “What a shame he died like an idiot?”
Greater minds than mine can point out the many imperfections of Shakespeare’s plays.
Nobody is immune or above criticism. Especially self-criticism.
And you, the writer, are your own worst critic. I’m my own worst critic, too. Why? Because as the writer, you already know your story and what you tried to do with it. And stories never quite live up to the original concept in our heads. So it’s never perfect. The words seem dull and uninspiring.
The story will remain dull, even when you attempt to rewrite it and polish it. The tale will start looking like every damn polished rock there ever was. Call that the death spiral.
Here’s a tip: If your first reader enjoys the worst rag you’ve ever written, leave it as is. If the first reader says the novel really took off on page twenty, slice off the first nineteen pages. Trust the reader, especially if he’s not a fellow writer. A trusted first reader, one who is honest and willing to be blunt, is your best friend.
All because your critical voice won’t let you see the novel for the words. Yes, that’s a botched jab at the “forest for the trees” metaphor.
The Zen of Writing
If critical voice is so destructive to the writing process, why do we have it at all? What is it for?
The answer is two-fold.
First, we must learn critically. You’re reading this book critically, deciding whether I’m a good resource for your writing or not, which lessons to take in, what to leave behind. Learning is stressful, frustrating, and tiring at times. Learning how to write is hard, because we have to use this critical voice to master the tools of fiction writing.
Remember to not making the writing hard, only the learning. This is entirely an attitude issue. See writing as fun, something to be savored and enjoyed after a day of work. Just like reading is fun, games are fun, TV is mighty fun. Make writing the same kind of fun and you’ll write far more than you thought possible.
If you’re still in the early stages of learning to be a writer, you might not see the fun yet. Don’t worry, keep at it. Write every day if possible. Make it a habit. Learn as much as you can.
And then shut off the critical voice when you sit down to tell stories. Trust your subconscious to use all the tools you’ve given it. Shoot from the hip, follow your heart, or insert your favorite corny phrase about not over-trying and over-thinking.
Easier said than done. I know from personal experience.
The second reason for having a critical voice is to keep yourself out of trouble. The nagging voice in the back of your head that tells you not to write something… That’s the same voice saying you shouldn’t skydive, run naked in public, or stick metal objects into electrical sockets. The critical voice does an excellent job of keeping us alive and as injury free as possible.
Even in situations that really aren’t dangerous. Such as sitting alone in a room and making up stories.
Right here is the point where critical voice and fear blend together. All of us have something to fear. All fears related to writing are irrational and have little basis in reality. But the critical voice does a fine job at making us feel otherwise.
One of my goals is to help you see your critical voice and fears, so you can better deal with them. You can never entirely get rid of them, you just have to live with them like bad neighbors.
I will give you some tools and pointers on how to adjust your attitude, and minimize the critical voice, so you can approach writing with fun and let loose your creative voice. But first, I need to discuss fear.
Copyright 2015 David Anthony Brown
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