Embracing your Inner Critic
Any parent understands that young children dislike being told what to do. In fact, they hate it. Does it surprise you that adults aren’t much better at taking direction?
And who’s our worst critic? Usually… ourselves! Those inner battles over our foibles can be downright epic.
But there are times when correction is necessary.
The new year is perfect for that!
Most of us already consider setting resolutions, turning over new leaves, buying that home gym… and actually using it, might as well add a writing resolution to your list.
It’s good to sit down with our inner guidance counselor and review how things are going. Where are you now, and where do you want to be? Have you achieved the goals you set for yourself last year? If not, why not? What can you do to be more successful? And hardest of all… are we having difficulty with introspection (because we’re like a toddler, too proud and stubborn to admit that we need to change)?
As writers, change is so difficult.
After all, that’s our baby you’re criticizing. Our masterpiece, the product of blood, sweat, tears, and who knows how many hours and editorial dollars!
And you dare to suggest that something is wrong with it?
Well, yes… it’s possible.
Our technique may not, in fact, be perfect. And we have to realize that change is a good thing.
Constructive criticism isn’t meant to be hurtful, it’s intended to help us grow! Even if writing is nothing more than a hobby for you, don’t you want your hobby to produce the best work possible? Something you can look at in later years and be proud of?
There’s the Rub
I’ve been writing for a very long time. It started as a hobby and has only recently received serious contemplation as something publishable.
I’ve looked at my files (for the record, I never trash anything) and I’ve tinkered with older stories. Some of them have received a total overhaul, being reworked, rewritten, and twisted into something that is barely recognizable as being that cute little synopsis I typed in college.
But… I can’t stop!
The biggest flaw I battle with as a writer is knowing when my work is “done”. It’s especially hard when I get brave enough to send it out to beta readers, to let other people have their say in what is or isn’t right with my work.
More often than not, they don’t agree!
One reader may look at a particular plot point and say that it’s absolutely perfect and fits wonderfully with the story. Another reader will look at that same plot point and say that it’s trite and entirely unnecessary.
What makes it ten times harder is that the book is mine, and if I don’t get it right, it’s all on me.
Now and then, after having worked on a piece for a while, I’ll hit a wall. It’s not that I have writer’s block, I just have too many choices as to what to do with it.
So what do I do?
Should I do the mature thing and sit down with a pen and paper, chart out my book, and figure out what would be the best choice? Or do I throw in the towel, hit save, tuck it back into its digital folder, then run away and work on something else?
Three guesses and the first two don’t count.
Deciding when something is actually “done” is the hardest thing for me. Even after I hit publish, I’ll find myself reviewing one of my manuscript copies, and I’ll see something I want to change.
I just can’t let it go!
Now, I’m not talking about typos, that should go without saying. I’m talking dialogue, plot devices, even the characters and settings themselves. “Oh, this would have been so much better if she were two years older!”, or that kind of nonsense.
If only I could recognize the fact that perfection doesn’t exist. The book should be mine, it should feel “right” to me. And once it does, I need to back off and just let it be what it is.
Denial Ain’t a River in Egypt
A few years ago, at the encouragement of a few friends, I decided to try NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).
It’s a competition against yourself, and the goal is to write at least fifty thousand words in a month.
Sounds like a herculean task, right?
Especially for a writer like me.
I’ve always been a plantser. Somewhere between a planner, and a seat-of-the-pants writer.
I lean more toward the pantser side of things, if I’m honest, and most of my books don’t start at the beginning.
They start at the middle or even the climax. Once I get down a few basic scenes, I’ll jot down an outline of how the rest of the story should go.
I at least attempt to plan it!
But the only way NaNoWriMo could work was to sit down and write the whole thing from beginning to end.
I spent a few days at the end of October coming up with story ideas, throwing down a “brain on paper” outline of how those ideas would go, then I selected the one that had come the easiest. The one that had the most meat to it, the one I could really dig into and do something with.
You’re wondering if I made it…
Did I really manage to write down fifty thousand words in a single month? Me, a mother of six, (five at the time), sitting at a computer all day long, feverishly trying to write something that sounded at least vaguely coherent while meeting a seemingly impossible goal?
Yes, of course, I did! Thanks to the help and patience of my husband and older kids, I knocked out over one hundred thousand words in the first two weeks.
I’d actually finished a manuscript! Something that I’d only done three times before in over fifteen years of writing. And it was pretty darn good if I do say so myself.
Then, the trouble started.
I had to edit it, and even for an experienced writer, that’s no mean feat.
Aside from the obvious grammar and spelling errors, I had to decide if it was too wordy, I had to eliminate the dreaded “passive voice”, I had to contract everything humanly possible (though I had one character who had the quirk of NEVER using contractions in his speech) and then, when all of that was done… did I actually like the story?
Were the characters believable, were they sympathetic, or were they just plain sappy? Did the plot work? How about the villain, was he a good villain, or just an obnoxious brat that needed to be slapped down, so at the end of the book the reader is like “yeah, they won, hurray… I wonder what’s for dinner”?
I’m an amateur pianist, and something I learned years ago was to not over-practice a piece. It always came out sounding mechanical, flat, and lifeless.
Writing is just like that.
I’ve read books that were factory-perfect, nary a grammatical flaw, and entirely predictable. I don’t want my books to be like that, but I also can’t let my books come out full of errors, jumbled timelines, a vague, undefined setting, or any of a thousand other literary sins.
So… how do I stop?
In this particular case, I set a goal for myself to submit to Kindle Scout (which is now defunct). I needed to meet a certain deadline, so I worked on the story enough to meet the deadline, then threw it out there. After that, I put it up on Draft 2 Digital as a self-published work.
It was probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.
My first book and it definitely wasn’t ready.
But I was proud of myself because I’d actually finished a project! I was a published author! My dream had come true, and even though I hadn’t the faintest clue what I was doing, I had a book out there with my name on it!
It was a learning experience. And I have learned so much more since then.
Would I say I know what I’m doing? Um, no. Not entirely. But I know better now, and after publishing my second book, I’m ready to do this thing “right”.
I just need to figure out what “right” is.
Practice Makes Perfect… or at Least Tolerable
I have a third book that I’ve completed and sent off to beta readers. I’ve received some good feedback, and I know a few things in the book that definitely need to be changed.
But I’ve found that when I change one thing, three more will need editing as a result. It’s a domino effect, and I have to decide, once and for all, what “finished” should look like.
I’ve spent so many long years just putting words to paper (or to hard drive, as the case usually is), that I really want those words to mean something. I want to publish more of my many projects, I want to share the worlds I’ve created. I have some characters that have been with me so long, they’re all but real. And I’d love for others to meet these wonderful friends of mine, but how can I do that if I just can’t stop writing?
The pantser side isn’t doing me many favors. And yet I can’t abandon that entirely, because being able to sit down and just write is one of the greatest joys of this business.
I don’t think up stories, they come to me on their own.
I just need to be better about planning. I need to chart out my plots, I need to outline my characters and define their traits, and I need to be sure my settings are easy to visualize without being overly descriptive. Nothing like wading through three pages of description of a character’s house, right?
The next thing I need to do is to stop being afraid of my ruthless side. the side of me that has no problem slashing the word count, editing out the fluff, getting rid of scenes that do absolutely nothing for the plot, and eliminating extraneous characters that seem to have no point other than comic relief.
Wait, didn’t I just say I needed to do less, not more?
The reason for my biggest flaw really does come down to poor planning. If I can get better at planning my book beforehand, making sure that everything works before the story starts flowing, then maybe I’ll have a clearer idea of what the end product will look like.
I need to be sure that when the words “The End” appear on the page, the manuscript contains what’s necessary, and nothing more. What is the story I’m trying to tell? What drives the story… is it the plot or the characters? When the reader finally puts the book down and goes to write that all-important review, what do I want them to be feeling at the end?
Left Foot, Right Foot
This year, my resolution is to send my inner toddler to time-out, find a planning technique that works for me, and use it.
I need to finish some projects, even if those projects are nothing but practice pieces, and I need to teach myself to be satisfied. No project will ever be perfect, and that is the hardest thing for me to accept.
But it can be “right”.
When it’s “right”, when the story has been told the way it should, it’s time to set down that pen, send it off into the world, and be happy.
I can’t let perfection be my enemy.
The journey of a thousand miles doesn’t begin with that first step. It begins with the right plan. It’s time to go find it.