On listening to your inner critic

So, this is not a blog post about Jessica (Wait! Don’t wander off!) This is a blog post about knowing when to listen to your inner critic (I know, I know, not nearly as entertaining and I would be tempted to wander off, too).

Still with me? Thank you muchly. I was thinking about this in light of the fact that I am nearly finished with a novel I have been in process with for about a year. So you know what that means: rejections up ahead! Of course, it is entirely possible for me to avoid the rejections by continuing to work on the novel. A person can work on a novel indefinitely and feel like she is making progress when really she is just stalling.

So. Over the weekend, I made what I thought would be the final pass on the novel. I knew I needed a more satisfying ending, and I worked one out, and I knew I needed to fix the first chapter, and I fixed it, and then I printed the complete manuscript (I like to get the feel for a novel on the page, not just the computer screen) and when I re-read it, I discovered that the whole thing sucked from beginning to end.

Now, you may wonder why I hadn’t noticed this before. After all, I have been working on the novel for a year and I’ve been publishing for more than fifteen years, and you’d think a professional would notice a thing like that. You may also wonder if I was deeply alarmed by this diagnosis. I can assure you I was not. That is because I Have Been Here Before. And in fact, “OMG! This novel SUCKS EGGS!” seems to be an inevitable part of the process for me. I hope it is not for you, but from my admittedly nonscientific survey of writer friends, it is likely that, if you are a writer, you suffer from this malady yourself, at least now and again.

Here is what I do. I read the novel with pen in hand, taking copious notes. This is a discouraging process, because my inner critic cannot help jeering at me (“You mean you did not NOTICE that you used the SAME ridiculous plot contrivance TWICE in one novel when ONCE would have been too much?”) but I let my inner critic have her say. I don’t care how savage she gets. I note it all down, and then I cry quietly into my pillow for a while.

After that, I put my notes away and I don’t look at the novel for at least two weeks. I don’t try to fix anything that’s wrong with it. Then, when I am feeling more sane, I get out the novel and the notes, and I make the revisions the book really needs. Then I’m done. I mean really done, with just one more read-through for typos before I lay in chocolate and wine to get through the rejection process.

How do I know that? How do I know that *this* round of revisions is the last? I know because of the viciousness of my inner critic, and the hopelessness with which I view the manuscript. Earlier in the process, when I am not nearly done, I feel a lot more optimistic. (“Oh, there’s a plot hole! I can fix that in a jiffy! Who gives a rat’s ass about this character? Well, I’ll just add a few charming foibles and we’ll be all set.”)

I know this about myself and the process because I have been through the process before and sometimes I have come up short—I stopped too soon. Other times I did not, and someone sent me a contract and a check. But if I don’t eventually stop, I can’t get that contract and that check. So the key is to reach the point of existential despair, and then I know I’m set.

If you have a more rational process, I would love to hear about it.

A few of my favorite things

LESSONS IN MAGIC
A CERTAIN KIND OF MAGIC
THE IMPROBABLE ADVENTURES OF A MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN
DOJO WISDOM FOR WRITERS

6 Comments

  1. Wow. I know it's important for everyone to find their own process. I would edit mine to death if I didn't stop myself.

  2. That makes me laugh.

    I too set things aside when I've decided they're too awful for words. When I come back to them after a day or two (we're talking copywriting, here; nothing so long as a novel), often I find the work is nowhere near as terrible as I'd thought. Sometimes it's even quite good, and it only needs tweaking and proofing.

  3. Well, am not a writer, dry corporate reports & idle musings on blogger aside, but I'll read anything you put out there, egg sucking & existential despair aside. So there!

  4. I have a related problem: writing story proposals for magazines and then, just when I think I've got a terrific story framed in a sell-able way with an irresistible hook (or character or surprising contrast), I send it to a close writer friend or three. Their honest appraisals hurt — it's often clear they are not as enamored as I about the story. I let myself wallow for a day, but then I have to fold in their responses with what I'm trying to convey. It's all good in the long run. But that "I don't know what the hell I'm doing" moment is tough every time.

  5. How reassuring! I didn't really think I was the only one who mutters 'this is such shit' as I write, but it really helps to hear that someone whose writing is genuinely good does the same thing. Just part of the package, I guess. Thanks for the laugh and the reality check.

  6. This is why I don't write. My inner critic has such a stranglehold on my voice I can't even get my writing on the page in the first place. I believed the vicious things the critic said. I'm trying to push past that now.

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