Tag Archives: On Writing

Re-Introducing My Inner Critic

It was four years ago that I exposed readers of my blog to my inner critic. The feisty critter is still doing his thing, but I have to admit that I quite enjoy the antics, and naming them. I love my inner critic more now, because I have learned to trust that judgement.

I still haven’t finished revising my novel. Perhaps very soon …? I offer this slightly revised version of a post first published on Bookword in March 2013.

My Inner Critic appears on a train

I retrieved the first draft of my novel from the drawer after two months and prepared to revise and redraft. First, I engaged in some pencil sharpening-type activities such as printing out good copies of several chapters, buying a dark green ring folder, punching holes, placing all 22 chapters in it and lining up the pages to achieve an impressive manuscript.

I had decided to read it on a train journey. I frequently read drafts of writing by my students’ and coachees’ on train journeys – three hours to Totnes and three hours back to London Paddington. (My grandson believes I live in Londonpaddington. I think I live on the train.) So, I had a three-hour journey to read the first draft of my own novel.

He’s a bit of an animal

I began, reasonably enough, with Chapter One. At this point, my Inner Critic flopped down in the adjoining seat. You’ll need me! he announced. My Inner Critic always turns up and demands attention when I am reading my own drafts. He looks a little like that spicy peperami sausage with threadlike arms and jerky legs and a sharp voice featured on adverts a few years ago. He’s a bit of an animal. And he smells! [IC: Oi!]

I read Chapter Two. I had decided to read the novel all through to get an overall sense of it, before considering the more detailed revisions and redrafting. My Inner Critic kicked his spiky legs back and forth and took in a few sharp breaths. If I had succumbed and looked at him I am sure I would have seen him wincing in a stagey look-at-me-wincing kind of way.

Chapter Three. You started your novel in the wrong place, announced IC. I tried to ignore him and made a note on the third page of the chapter (‘start here’). The barracking continued. Too much summary! Get on with it! I squiggle a line in the margin and made a note on the manuscript. (‘Replace with action?’)

By the end of Chapter Four IC was jumping up and down in the seat like an over-excited schoolboy. He managed to tip up the folder and it fell onto the floor. Some of the pages were creased and others smeared with a little mud. IC jumped to his feet and ran down the aisle whooping loudly. It was the quiet carriage and I am usually on active duty in the Quiet Coach Vigilante Squad so I was a little embarrassed. IC stood at the very end of the carriage, the place where the train manager, as she calls herself, has a little office with a PA system and quite possibly an easy chair or two. IC had his bottom on the door and was bending over with laughter. I reclaimed the folder, and tried to return to my work. But I couldn’t even start Chapter Five because my Inner Critic was stamping down the aisle and when he came to our seats he stopped and held his sides like a comedy clown, jerking with laughter.

A writer, he gasped, pointing at me. Call yourself a writer when you produce chapters like those! And off he ran again, bouncing on the empty seats and jumping up to swing on the luggage racks.

I smoothed down the pages and then stared out of the window. IC approached. Hope I haven’t offended you, he said, possibly noticing my inability to continue reading. On a post-it note I wrote ‘start chapters with dates’. He peered at what I had written. That wont fix it! he announced.

No, I say, it won’t fix it. But it’s a start. Now sit down, be quiet and behave like a grown-up Inner Critic. Huh! he snorted. But he did.

Living with your Inner Critic

Stephen King suggests that reading your draft after a break will be ‘a strange and often exhilaration experience’ (in On Writing, p253). He offers some valuable possibilities: being able to see glaring holes in plot or character development; asking questions about coherence, the work of the recurring elements; finding the resonance in the novel. While he does say ‘if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself’ he gives no advice I could apply to my Inner Critic. [IC: Stephen King doesn’t need an inner critic, whereas you …]

But in Jurgen Wolff’s Your Writing Coach I have found a chapter called Tame the Wild Inner (and Outer) Critic. And there’s a seven-step programme for dealing with this harshest of all critics. [IC: tremble, tremble, NOT!] Actually, there is no trembling required because I already know that my Inner Critic has some really useful ways of helping me. I just hate it when he goes wild.

And since then?

And since I first posted this in March 2013 I have a second grandson, but no students or coaches, I’ve moved down to the West Country and I’ve co-written and published two more books (not novels). I have also learned to quieten the worst excesses of my Inner Critic, even to put him in a drawer [IC: Oi Again!]. But I have also learned to take account of what my Inner Critic is saying, and to improve my writing through this.

Over to you

Has anyone got any more advice about calming and enjoying my inner critic? What does your inner critic do?

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10 things to do when you don’t know what to write.

‘I don’t know how to start.’ How many times have I heard that? When I was working with my students on their written assessments they would often wail (or email) in frustration.

Or, ‘I don’t know where to start,’ they might say.

Or (if they had launched out and begun to work on the essay or dissertation, but ground to a halt) ‘I don’t’ know what to do’. Their writing wasn’t working for them.

I had a range of suggestions I would give them, subsequently brought together in a hand-out for a writing summer school. I am indebted to colleagues for many of these ideas. They were originally intended for academic writers, but they have been adjusted to be relevant to writers of all genres.

69 ten_logo

1. WRITE 2000 WORDS. Write anything. One advantage of word processing is that you can discard any rubbish, even 2000 words of rubbish. But this tactic gets you writing. (Thank you, Professor Dennis Lawton, former director of the Institute of Education, in the University of London).

2. BRAINSTORM to gather as many good and bad ideas, suggestions, examples, sentences, false starts etc, as you can. Include material you are sure you will throw out.

3. FIND A FRESH METAPHOR OR ANALOGY for your main theme in order to open up a fresh set of ideas, using the word LIKE: for example, if you are writing about violence on TV you might develop the idea that it is like clowns fighting in a circus act (that is, we know that no one is really getting hurt).

4. TELL someone (even the cat) in three or four sentences what you are writing about. Then write it.

5. Write a 200 word (MAX) SUMMARY or description of your story, poem, book, blog … Try including why it’s important to you and why it should be important to anyone else.

6. DO A WIRMI if you can’t find the right word or you are getting lost in what you are writing. A WIRMI is when you look away from the text and keyboard and say (out loud if it helps) What I Really Mean Is … (Thanks Chris Watkins! See CARNELL, E., MACDONALD, J., MCCALLUM, B. & SCOTT, M. (2008) Passion and Politics: academics reflect on writing for publication, London, Institute of Education, University of London).

7. READ ALOUD – to the cat again if necessary – to see where you need to improve a draft. It is better if there is an audience who will respond, but not essential. I know of people who have read to their dog, their new-born baby, their teddy bear, a mirror, a tape recorder. They all helped!

8. USE A CRITICAL FRIEND. Show a draft to a friend and hear their responses and questions. It is probably not a good idea to give a raw first draft to comment on. Use your friend when you have got as far as you can and your writing might first benefit from a pause.

9. REMEMBER that just about everyone finds writing hard, including published and experienced writers. It usually involves head scratching, deleting, false starts, lightbulb moments, redrafting, polishing, checking … Who said ‘writing is rewriting’?

10. READ A LOT AND WRITE A LOT. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” ( KING, S. (2000) On Writing, London, Hodder & Stoughton.) p164

 69 ten more

This suggestion might also work for you: How to battle the blank page, defeat distraction and get started writing. It’s from from Kathryn Heyman, of the Faber Academy, and author of the delightful Captain Starlight’s Apprentice.

 Do you have any techniques to suggest. Please add them in the comment box.

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Reading for writers

What must you do to be a writer? There are two things, according to Stephen King in his excellent book On Writing. The first is to ‘read a lot’.

Plenty of writers agree with him. Twenty-two writers provided Dos and Don’ts for the Guardian book Write, and seven of them mention reading. PD James, for example, says,

Read widely and with discrimination.

Hilary Mantel recommends a specific book that has influenced many writers, and I referred to and quoted from it in a recent post about writing routines. She says,

Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible.

Colm Tobin is also specific.

If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane.

And Will Self is typically contrary.

Stop reading fiction – it’s all lies anyway, and it doesn’t have anything to tell you that you don’t know already (assuming, that is, you’ve read a great deal of fiction in the past; if you haven’t you have no business whatsoever being a writer).

These brief points were collected from short pieces in the Guardian Review.

33 Guardbk Write

But what is the purpose of reading for a writer – apart from enjoyment? You might be looking for models, as Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, tells us

Hemingway studied as models, the novels of Knut Hamsun and Ivan Turgenev. Isaac Bashevis Singer, as it happened, also chose Hamsun and Turgenev as models. Ralph Ellison studied Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Faulkner described his debt to Sherwood Anderson and Joyce; EM Forster, his debt to Jane Austen and Proust.

I’ve read some of these, know the names of others, and had to look up Sherwood Anderson (I am ashamed to admit). I’ve got some reading to do!

Geoff Dyer, in his contribution to the Guardian supplement How to Write Fiction, suggests that reading will ‘inform, stimulate and invigorate your writing life’. (Note: not just your writing, but your writing life).

Reading is not just part of your apprenticeship; it continues to inform, stimulate and invigorate your writing life – and it is never passive. … One’s reading does not have to be confined to the commanding – and thereby discouraging – heights of the truly great. Take a look at what’s happening on the lower slopes, even in the crowded troughs.

I especially like Dyer’s advice to look at the lower slopes and even in the troughs, as well as the heights. What works, what doesn’t, what feels authentic, what is hackneyed, clumsy, elegant, elegiac, poignant, daring – we read to find these things. That’s why it is never passive.

Passive reading, then, is not enough. Read with a consciousness of technique, says Ursula K le Guin. Read  the classics in order to learn what a writer can do with the English language. For her book, Steering the Craft, she turned a workshop into a self-guided set of discussion topics and exercises for writers. ‘Reading with a consciousness of technique in mind, would be useful as well as enjoyable,’ she suggests. She goes on to show how in chapters on sound, sentences, point of view, with examples from such classic texts as Jane Eyre, and by Virginia Woolf and Mark Twain.

I particularly like two how-to-write books that feature reading.

First: Jurgen Wolff’s Your Creative Writing Masterclass, which draws on the expertise of writers of novels, screenplays and short stories to provide material for his masterclass.

Charles Dickens drops in to demonstrate how to create exciting characters, Ernest Hemingway helps you figure out how to write concisely and powerfully, and Jane Austen shows you how to warm to an unsympathetic character…

The chapter on conflict, for example, refers to John le Carre, Ayn Rand, Elizabeth Bowen and Raymond Chandler. A wide choice, and some names recur.

Second: Reading Like a Writer: a guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them was written by the felicitously named Francine Prose. She argues for close, slow and careful reading in this way.

With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses note, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted,

And she demonstrates the value of close reading by exploring the opening paragraph of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find. And so on, through chapters about sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue and gesture, each liberally illustrated with examples. Each one a reason to read more. And she includes three pages on books to be read immediately, including Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway and others already mentioned. Nothing by Sherwood Anderson however.

33 F Prose

Have you heard the advice to aspiring writers that they should not read while writing? The argument is that they will be influenced by what they read. I wonder why it is considered a bad thing. My writing would definitely benefit from the influences of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Taylor and, maybe, from Sherwood Anderson. And we are not writing in isolation. The very words we use have been wrought by use, their meanings shifting with use by speakers, readers and writers. We write, so to speak, into the tradition of previous writers: in forms, structures, conventions, techniques, vocabulary all of it. Think of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. She is sending up the gothic novel, but she is also writing about reading and its influence. Or we are writing to challenge the traditions, or boundaries. Think of the writers who consciously forged new forms like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, for example; or who experiment with time lines (Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man); or with our established ideas of what fiction is (WG Sebald) and so on.

I am just finishing the revisions of a co-authored non-fiction book. (More on this in later posts). Our editor asked us to give our draft manuscript ‘more edge’ and I found a great example in Charlie Brooker’s I can make you hate. Reading his columns helped us understand how to engage the reader more directly, to find a hook for the chapter, how juxtaposing apparently unconnected things (eg: Nick Clegg, Maxine Carr and the go compare tenor; Nick Clegg and Pudsey Bear; patriotism and chocolate) can pique interest and make serious points with wit. We didn’t want to imitate his style, but we learned from his approach, and I got to fume about a number of topics (but not to hate).

33 Ch Brooker

Let’s return to Stephen King.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way round these two things that I am aware of, no short cut. (On Writing)

So the second rule for writers is ‘Write’. There are only two rules.

What books are inform, stimulate and invigorate your writing life?

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Introducing my Inner Critic

I retrieved the first draft of my novel from the drawer after two months and prepared to revise and redraft. First, I engaged in some pencil sharpening-type activities such as printing out good copies of several chapters, buying a dark green ring folder, punching holes, placing all 22 chapters in it and lining up the pages to achieve an impressive manuscript.

I had decided to read it on a train journey. I frequently read drafts of writing by my students’ and coachees’ on train journeys – three hours to Totnes and three hours back to London Paddington. (My grandson believes I live in Londonpaddington. I think I live on the train.) So, I had a three-hour journey to read the first draft of my own novel.

I began, reasonably enough, with Chapter One. At this point, my Inner Critic flopped down in the adjoining seat. You’ll need me! he announced. My Inner Critic always turns up and demands attention when I am reading my own drafts. He looks a little like that spicy peperami sausage with threadlike arms and jerky legs and a sharp voice who was featured on adverts a few years ago. He’s a bit of an animal. And he smells! [IC: Oi!]

peperami

I read Chapter Two. I had decided to read the novel all through to get an overall sense of it, before considering the more detailed revisions and redrafting. My Inner Critic kicked his spiky legs back and forth and took in a few sharp breaths. If I had succumbed and looked at him I am sure I would have seen him wincing in a stagey look-at-me-wincing kind of way.

Chapter Three. You started it in the wrong place, announced IC. I tried to ignore him and made a note on the third page of the chapter (‘start here’). The barracking continued. Too much summary! Get on with it! I squiggle a line in the margin and made a note on the manuscript. (‘Replace with action?’)

By the end of Chapter Four IC was jumping up and down in the seat like an over-excited schoolboy. He managed to tip up the folder and it fell onto the floor. Some of the pages were creased and others smeared with a little mud. IC jumped to his feet and ran down the aisle whooping loudly. It was the quiet carriage and I am usually active in the Quiet Coach Vigilante Squad so I was a little embarrassed. IC stood at the very end of the carriage, the place where the train manager, as she calls herself, has a little office with a PA system and quite possibly an easy chair or two. IC had his bottom on the door and was bending over with laughter. I reclaimed the folder, and tried to return to my work. But I couldn’t even start Chapter Five because my Inner Critic was stamping down the aisle and when he came to our seats he stopped and held his sides like a comedy clown, jerking with laughter.

A writer, he gasped, pointing at me. Call yourself a writer when you produce chapters like those! And off he ran again, bouncing on the empty seats and jumping up to swing on the luggage racks.

I smoothed down the pages and then stared out of the window. IC approached. Hope I haven’t offended you, he said, possibly noticing my inability to continue reading. On a post-it note I wrote ‘start chapters with dates’. He peered at what I had written. That wont fix it! he announced.

No, I say, it won’t fix it. But it’s a start. Now sit down, be quiet and behave like a grown-up Inner Critic. Huh! he snorted. But he did.

Stephen King suggests that reading your draft after a break will be ‘a strange and often exhilaration experience’ (in On Writing, p253). He offers some valuable possibilities: being able to see glaring holes in plot or character development; asking questions about coherence, the work of the recurring elements; finding the resonance in the novel. While he does say ‘if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself’ he gives no advice I could apply to my Inner Critic. [IC: Stephen King doesn’t need an inner critic, whereas you …]

But in Jurgen Wolff’s Your Writing Coach I have found a chapter called Tame the Wild Inner (and Outer) Critic. And there’s a seven-step programme for dealing with this harshest of all critics. [IC: tremble, tremble, NOT!] Actually, there is no trembling required because I already know that my Inner Critic has some really useful ways of helping me. I just hate it when he goes wild.

Has anyone got any more advice about calming and enjoying my inner critic? What does your inner critic do?

6 Comments

Filed under Writing