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Jul. 7th, 2014



If inner critics or little worrying voices are too harsh, if the internal doomsayer won't shut up about catastrophic what-ifs, here are a few countering questions:

What if everything turns out OK?
What if I can accept that I'm doing the best I can?
What if the worst doesn't happen?
What if it doesn't have to be perfect?
What if I trust that there will be a solution?

Still having computer issues, so my online presence is spotty, but I am able to post this today.

Feb. 6th, 2011


The third rail

I've blogged a fair amount about the need to write what we need to write, regardless of its reception in the world. And yet, writers can't help thinking about that reception, especially if the topic that calls to them is controversial. Some of the voices of inhibition include:

This will never sell.
Bookstores/libraries will never carry this.
People will send me hate mail about this.
What is my mother/son/wife going to think when they read this?
This isn't politically correct.
What if I offend people?
What if nobody wants to read about this?

The inhibiting voices buy into the notion that there are only some subjects that can be talked about, and they can only be talked about in certain ways, within certain guidelines. And yet, human experience is so vast. Are we really so fragile that we must limit what we read or discuss? And does it make sense to shut off entire spheres of human experience from our literature?

Sometimes, the writer reaches a point where silence becomes more painful than speech, no matter what consequences arise from speech.

People who imagine that writers tackle difficult subjects out of a desire to shock or get attention are, so often, 180 degrees from the truth.

Jan. 31st, 2011


The Learning Never Stops

The bloggers' exchange continues! Today's guest post is by Becky Levine, who visited the blog previously to talk about revising from critique.  I always enjoy Becky's smart, sensible, inspiring posts about the "writing path," and her topic today is:

I’m Pretty Sure the Learning Never Stops
by Becky Levine

Years ago, I submitted some short stories to magazines. Redbook. Cosmopolitan. Good Housekeeping. In return, I received some very simple, standard rejection notes.

I was twelve.

Honestly, I don’t blame the editors.

One thing I know for sure is that I am a (much!) better writer today than I was all those decades ago. I am a better writer than I was one decade ago, five years ago, one year ago. I can list several reasons this fact is true.

• My critique group, all members of which are the height of awesomeness
• Writing books by people like James Scott Bell, Donald Maass & Les Edgerton, who all set off light-bulb moments in my brain
• Various workshops and conferences I’ve gone to, where I’ve learned scattered bits & pieces of the writing craft

But...reason number one that I believe I am a better writer than before is [...drum roll...] I have kept writing.

I know—obvious. Here’s the thing, though. Every time I work through a new stage of a book, or start one of those stages all over again on another project, I can see it happening. The things I learned earlier have stuck, and they’re with me as I write—reminding me, encouraging me, pushing me.

We talk a lot about the evil editor—the one who tells us we can’t do something: we can’t write an interesting setting; we can’t draw a believable antagonist; we can’t create strong dialogue. What we don’t hear as much about is the good editor, the one who sits on our other shoulder. That’s the editor who has stored all our experience, all our understanding, and is offering it to us on a beautiful, silver platter (with chocolate on the side) as we write. It’s this editor who tells us what we can do: we can start this scene further into the action; we can pull the point of view in closer to the hero; we can write dialogue funny enough to make our readers laugh out loud. In public.

This belief that, every day I write, I am adding to my ability—to my toolbox, as Jenn said in her guest post the other day—is one of the things that keeps me going. I may or may not be “good enough” today, but I have a chance to be that tomorrow. Or the next day. And even then, I’m guessing there’ll be plenty more to learn.

As long as I keep writing.

Becky Levine is the author of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, as well as a speaker & freelance editor. Becky writes fiction for children and teens and is currently working on a historical novel set in 1912 Chicago. She blogs at

Oct. 28th, 2010


How the river flows

If you've read this blog for even a short time, you probably know that I'm a big advocate of emotional and mental freedom during the first draft. Or, to put it more bluntly, having your muse stuff your inner critic in a trunk while you're crafting a first draft.

My agent, Nathan Bransford, posted a slightly different take on this today, and rather than taking issue with it, I actually know what he means. So I decided to see if I could differentiate between the inner voices of the picky critic (who should be ignored at this stage) and the useful editor (who may help).

"Nobody will want to read this stupid story."--critic

"That's boring."--critic

"Hmm, if they kiss here instead of there, it makes everything go in a totally different direction."--editor

"I brought them to the store, but now they have nothing to do here. It was more fun back at the party. Maybe I should go back there."--editor

"Don't say that--your husband/mother/daughter won't like it."--critic

"Is that even a word?"--critic

"Should she really tell him now that she's his mother?"--editor

In short, the critic is the second-guesser. The critic may be stifling your creativity by trying to please everyone you've ever known, or may be the one who makes you double-check your word choice and saves you from embarrassing misspellings. Regardless, all the critic's work can be saved for later drafts. Tying yourself in knots over those issues will just stall a first draft.

On the other hand, the editor raises questions about the direction of a story that can help keep it on track. Some people find it better to just keep writing on through the editor's doubts and questions; it's a matter of personal process. But I often find that if I take a little time to backtrack out of a scene that has led to a dead end, or if I think a bit about where the story needs to go next, I can keep the momentum of the book moving forward.

Oct. 22nd, 2010


It's like woodworking

This blog post by Heather Sellers, which she wrote for Powell's on the power of not-knowing, is one of the best pieces I've read about writing in a long time.

I recommend reading her whole post, which makes several good points that I won't repeat here. Instead, I'm going to start off on a tangent by quoting this section: "Creating isn't about inspiration or spilling your guts. Creating isn't about being wildly free. Creating isn't tortured, isn't genius, isn't mystical. When it comes to writing, creating is actually a lot more like woodworking or farming or making a beautiful piece of jewelry. It takes extraordinary focus, attention, and acres of time."

This reminds me of the section in Bird by Bird where Anne Lamott says, "People tend to look at successful writers ... and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars ... that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated."

I think most writers I know would agree with much of this. Typically, we just don't sit down at the keyboard and starting pounding out a story while an angel whispers in our ears. So why does this myth, or fantasy, persist?

What's true for me is this: a small percentage of the time, it really does happen that way. Once in a while, lightning strikes and the words come faster than I can type them, and more than that, they feel right. Now and then, doubt takes wing and a divine glow fills me and I love what I've written. I suspect most other writers know this occasional bliss.

It's natural to want to live in that space all the time, instead of the other two spaces which I mostly inhabit. Of these two, the first is the workmanlike space Sellers describes--full of the repetition, the smoothing of sentences, the rearrangement of paragraphs. It's not as exciting as the room where the angel whispers, but it's pleasant enough. But the other space where writers live is the horrible, doubt-infested room where the internal critic and all inner obstacles lurk. It's where second-guessing happens, where ideas have to be pulled from thick sludge an inch at a time, where plot problems and crutch words and unnecessary adverbs crouch. Who wouldn't want to leave that room to go back to the magical room where words flow like champagne from a fountain?

If there's anything encouraging in all this, I think it's the knowledge that just showing up regularly and putting words on the screen is all that's required. And that a story that feels like it's been chiseled from granite with a plastic spoon may be just as good as a story that flows easily from our fingertips. And that there's always a chance the lightning may strike again--it may strike next week, or tomorrow, or five minutes from now.

In case you need any more inspiration this weekend, here are two other posts that I found uplifting:

Liz Garton Scanlon on "YES!"

Cheryl Renee Herbsman on what to do when all the waiting gets you down

Sep. 27th, 2010


Letter from the Muse

Dear Writer:

I've noticed your internal critic getting out of hand lately, and I'm here to inform you he has met with a little accident and somehow ended up stuffed in a trunk. (Funny how that happened.) He won't be bothering you for a while. We will drag him out later when we need him to edit the manuscript, but if he keeps mouthing off there won't be a manuscript. And the whole reason I'm throwing these ideas at you is so there will be a manuscript. I'm not doing all this talking just to exercise my jaw, you know.

Carry on.

Your Muse

Apr. 2nd, 2010


The internal critic

Writers often speak of the internal critic, the voice that sometimes tries to squash our deepest work with messages such as:
"Don't say that."
"That's not nice."
"That's not lady-like."
"That's disgusting."
"That's embarrassing."
"What will people think of you?"

Such statements are mostly useless.  The internal critic is most helpful during revisions, when opining thusly:
"That's boring."
"How many times are you going to use that same metaphor?"
"Ditch the adverbs there."
"Is there actually a point to this scene?"
"That's too sudden."
"People don't really talk like that."
"This scene is shallow.  Go deeper."

My policy for the internal critic is this: During early drafts, the internal critic must be stuffed firmly into a box--and sat upon by the Muse, if necessary. During revisions, the internal critic comes out, but should restrict itself to messages of the second type: messages about improving the writing, not about judging my worth as a person.

There's another side, maybe a flip side, to the internal critic, that I don't hear discussed as much.  Instead of, "Don't say that because people won't like it," the messages sound like this:
"You have to have a happy/sad/ambiguous/fill-in-the-blank ending."
"Do it that way because that's what people expect."
"So-and-so wants it to happen this way."
"If I do this, X will like it."
"If I do this, Y will like me."

If the first set of messages is about fearing disapproval, this latter set of messages is about seeking approval.  And it's natural to want approval, but it's deadly to art.  Ironically, when writing is truest to its own theme, when it doesn't listen to the part of us that just wants to make people like us, then that's when it's most likely to resonate with an audience.

Of course, I'm not saying that we shouldn't listen to feedback or accept critique.  As with the internal critic, there are valuable messages we get from external critiquers, and we can usually recognize them on a gut level.

Mostly, I find this process to involve the conquering of fear: by gentleness, trust, vulnerability, courage. And sometimes chocolate.

Oct. 8th, 2009


So let your muse out of the closet and hand her a glitter cannon

"Love your material. Nothing frightens the inner critic more than the writer who loves her work. The writer who is enamored of her material forgets all about censoring herself. She doesn't stop to wonder if her book is any good, or who will publish it, or what people will think. She writes in a trance, losing track of time, hearing only her characters in her head."

--Allegra Goodman, "Calming the Inner Critic and Getting to Work," from Writers [on Writing] Volume II: More Collected Essays from the New York Times

Jan. 4th, 2008



I have been revising.  And revising, and revising, and revising.  I am in the middle of editing a novel, and I am working on a couple of short stories.  Each project provides a nice break from the others.  When I can't take one of them any more, I switch to another.

One byproduct of the revision process is doubt.  A paragraph that sparkled when I first wrote it seems, upon the 15th rereading, to have lost its magic.  I become convinced that these characters I love will evoke nothing but yawns from  the rest of the world.  Even if the story ideas are good, am I doing them justice?  Did I find the right ending?  It's hard to tell if this is clear-eyed criticism or just fatigue.  

The inner critic helps identify trouble spots.  The inner critic tries not to let me get away with crap.  The inner critic keeps me working when I might get lazy.  But sometimes, one must stuff a pillow in the inner critic's mouth and listen to the story.  

I'm at a point in the novel where the characters are giving me some new answers.  I've uncovered a couple of layers that I didn't know about during the last draft.  About my best work, I tend to have the eerie feeling that I didn't write the story, it wrote itself.  My first duty is to get out of the way.