Saturday, June 2, 2012

5 Times Writers Should Heed Their Inner Critic

I haven't posted in while, partly because of my own inner critic. He can be a good guy, or a bad guy. Sometimes he talks trash: This isn't any good. Throw it away. Why blog? Who cares? Tweeting is a waste of time. Set the novel aside and get a real job. I'm usually a bit too susceptible to his voice when he uses this tone.

At other times he's a helpful partner. The heroine isn't compelling. Her personality is flat, but there's a way to bring her to life, just keep digging.
The inner editor is, indeed, a critic. But whereas in the first example he can make us feel like losers who never should've gone into this writing game, in the second example he whispers softly, and gives us just a pinch of feeling that something isn't right. He keeps up a gentle cajoling, while we rehash, reconstruct, and rewrite several times over, until at last his voice is quieted.

Just as there are those dark moments when we need to tell him to put a cork in it, there are distinct times we need to heed the voice of our inner critic: 
  1. When a character's actions or reactions don't ring true to who they are. When one of them does something "out of character" it causes a bump in the believability of our tale. If we sense it but ignore it, thinking that the reader will brush it off too, we'd better hold on. Listen to the critic and change the scene or the character's response. Be true to who they really are, and ask them if that's really how they would act or respond, or if there's a better way.
  2. When we try to force history or factual details into a plot where they clearly don't belong. History buffs will close a novel tighter than a drum if they think we're handling facts clumsily. Readers of suspense will roll their eyes and toss it in a dumpster if a writer isn't deft with forensic details.  Sometimes we have to heed the inner critic when he's telling us to change the plot to fit facts, rather than trying to force the facts into our plot.
  3. We need to listen when our inner critic scolds us about a scene being too telling, unmoving, or just plain unnecessary. Every scene is like a mini-novel, with a hook, a climax, a response. It must always serve a purpose. Yet it's easy to rely on "telling" during a lagging writing session, or to attach our emotions to scenes that serve no purpose in furthering the story. Sometimes during the early plotting stages of a book, I've visualized a scene waaaaaay before the time it is to appear. I may completely write it out, thinking that when I reach that point in the story I'll be able to drop it in. But by the time I reach that place in the story where I intended to use it, it no longer works. My inner critic has been known to raise his hand, clear his voice, and say, "Let it go." When our inner critic tells us something needs to go, we must listen. We can't be so in love with a scene, a dialogue, or anything that isn't true to the story, that we can't toss it. This includes pet words, phrases, and descriptions. You now the old saying -- kill your darlings.
  4. We need to listen to the inner critic when it might be telling us something is trite, or that it's been done before. If something we write starts to ping our subconscious with the thought that this is kind of like some other novel, then we need to go back to the drawing board and figure out what will make it new and different. It seemed that after Tolkien's Lord of the Rings became the movie series, everybody wanted to write a fantasy about elves and dwarves and sorcerers. That was fine, it was inspirational even. But the trick was to write something that was not Lord of the Rings, but something different.
  5. Finally, heed the inner critic when he tells you a novel is finished, or when it isn't. There's nothing more satisfying to a novelist than typing The End. But an experienced writer knows that it isn't really the end. His inner critic doesn't even need to raise a finger and point anymore, because he knows the end is merely the beginning of the next stage -- rewriting -- which is just more writing. At the same time, experience will also recognize the inner critic saying -- sometimes after a number of rewrites -- Ah, ha! Now it's ready to send out. I have been on both ends. The end that thinks I've listened to the critic long enough and sent a manuscript out hastily, only to be embarrassed later on over a piece of work that wasn't ready yet. And I have polished and shined until the inner critic was satisfied, and knew that, despite future edits, it was now as good a piece as I could make it.

So don't listen to the inner critic when he's merely being cantankerous. But do heed his wisdom, when it will bring your work to a level you can be confident of.

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