Every writer seems to want to shut up the little voice that says, “That thing you’re writing? It’s no good.” Just like we want the magic secret to writing a good story, we want to know the secret switch that turns off every negative thing we ever think about our work.
Like a lot of things in writing, the solution is pretty simple…but not easy.
First, let’s define what’s not a problem. If your inner critic doesn’t keep you from writing what you want to write, it’s not a problem.
Louder, for those in the back: Your inner critic isn’t the problem. Not writing is the problem.
Your inner critic is still part of you, a part that sounds like the parent who never believed in you or the English teacher who hated your writing. That awful voice that’s tearing your work to pieces…
…it’s just you.
To be a good writer, you have to pour yourself into your writing, including the parts you don’t like. Where does a good villain come from? Do happy-go-lucky people write good dark nights of the soul?
A good long-term strategy for writing books embraces your inner critic. You can push yourself through a few books while ignoring that voice. (People push through a lot of things.) But you can’t push yourself through a career.
So how do you get your inner critic to work with you, rather than against you?
You can’t think your way through fiction. Thinking is part of writing fiction, true, but it isn’t the essence.
Fiction is a simulation, either of this world or of a world of your own creation. You establish the world, characters, and initial problem, and set some guidelines on how the story works.
You know what else is like that? A game.
You can’t play a game by deciding that you already won…and how. We say, “And in the end, this happens and that happens and this is how the reader will feel, and now I will write my book.”
But you have to play the game by playing it: set up the board, the rules, and all the pieces, and…see who wins.
Some writers play that part of the game by outlining first, then writing; others write first, then step back and make sure they didn’t cheat too badly. You can nudge the board a little, but not too much—readers notice.
Set up your story and then trust yourself to work it out. It won’t be easy. But it’s a lot easier than saying, “Everything I write is stupid.”
Different people will find different techniques. It won’t always feel safe—your best techniques might feel almost physically uncomfortable.
But they’ll be the ones that put the words on the page.
You can’t both improve as a writer and already be so good that you never need to improve.
Part of your inner critic is right: You’re not as good as you want to be.
But, like all criticism on writing, take it with a grain of salt: your inner critic may not know what is actually wrong. Like a bad critique group, it can start jumping to conclusions.
MORE COMMAS! FEWER COMMAS! WOODEN DIALOG! TOO MUCH EXPOSITION! TOO LITTLE!!!
The rules of fiction don’t matter, if they don’t work for you. What you need to learn is what works for you. And your inner critic can actually help with that.
Study other writers’ works. Chew their gristle in your teeth. Your inner critic may say, “I love that!” and start stealing techniques. It may also say, “I hate that!” and come up with creative ways to avoid whatever “that” is. And if you let your inner critic tear up other writers’ works, it won’t spend so much time on yours.
Don’t just read books about writing, though: the chewing has already been done for you.
At some point, life gets to be too much and you can’t get the words done. It happens. Let’s talk about the gray area where you might or might not get words done, and how to get more words done.
You can do that by allowing your deepest feelings move into your fiction.
In some of us, this will result in darker fiction; in others, paradoxically, it will result in lighter fiction. It varies from story to story. When we open the door between fiction and reality, the results can be unpredictable.
These are the stories that allow us as writers to move forward with our lives, to grieve, to heal, to apologize, to regret, to celebrate, to embrace. Stories are how humans make life make sense. Writing a story can be how you make sense of right here, right now.
Stop and listen to your inner critic.
“This is stupid” might mean “I can’t pretend anymore that I’m not hurting.”
“I don’t know what to write next” might mean “I don’t know what to do next, either.”
“My character doesn’t want to do what the outline says” might mean “I can’t make myself fit into my own plans either.”
And then respond to how you really feel in your characters’ actions. Just acknowledging what you’re trying to tell yourself can open a magical door that makes everything you write richer.
What this all comes down to is giving your inner critic permission to be heard. You don’t have to listen uncritically. But please do listen. Your inner critic isn’t there to hurt you, but to warn you that you’re not on the right path. It may not always be accurate, especially if you’ve been ignoring it or if you haven’t done a lot of studying. Your inner critic might be too mad to be fair…and it might be too ignorant to be right.
It can take a while to lower the alarm levels on your inner critic to useful levels. But once you do, your writing will probably feel less like work you have to push through, and more like the enjoyable—and exciting!—game that it really is.
DeAnna Knippling has two minor superpowers: speed-reading and babble. She types at over 10,000 words per minute and can make things up even faster than that. Her first job was hunting snipe for her father at twenty-five cents per head, with which she paid her way through college; her latest job involves a non-disclosure agreement, a dozen hitmen, a ballerina, a snowblower, three very small robots, and a disposable dictator in South America. Her cover job is that of freelance writer, editor, and designer living in Littleton, Colorado, with her husband, daughter, cat, more than one cupboard full of various condiments, and many shelves full of the very best books. She has her own indie small press, www.WonderlandPress.com, and her website is www.DeAnnaKnippling.com.