Tag Archives: Your Creative Writing Masterclass

A visit from my inner critic

‘Oh I know what you mean! He’s exactly like mine!’ When I introduced my inner critic on this blog back in March there was a warming response; some readers said my inner critic was just like theirs, others recognised the character I had described as ‘a bit of an animal’ and others gave advice about how to deal with him (it is a him). And at the end of this blogpost I’ll share the best advice I have garnered.


I haven’t blogged about writing for a while, largely because I haven’t been doing much. And that’s because I have been unsettled by moving house (and life) to Devon. But I have been reading about writing. Bird by Bird: some instructions on writing and life by Anne Lamott featured in a list of the ten best books about writing. Bird by Bird is Number One on the, which impressed me because I had already read many of the featured books.

58 Bird by birdI have enjoyed Bird by Bird very much. Anne Lamott is worldly, generous, grounded and she gives practical advice with humour, supported by experience. She has two pieces of advice that are especially relevant to the inner critic. The first is that you only ever need to write ‘short assignments’. She explains:

All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains are still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out of the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car – just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing the woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her. (p18)

This is such useful advice when you are stuck and facing the revision of the first draft of a novel, as I am – just tackle one short assignment after another.

Her second valuable nugget is – remember, all first drafts are shitty. I felt so grateful to her when I read this paragraph about setting out to write that shitty first draft and being deflected by the dreaded inner critic.

What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there’s the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, “Well, that’s not very interesting, is it?” And there’s the emaciated German male who writes these Orwellian memos detailing your thought crimes. And there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion; and there’s William Burroughs, dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant; and so on. And there are also the dogs: let’s not forget the dogs, the dogs in their pen who will surely hurtle and snarl their way out if you ever stop writing, because writing is, for some of us, the latch that keeps the door on the pen closed, keeps those crazy ravenous dogs contained. (p26)

Do you know what she means or even recognise these voices? I too hear such a cacophony and so my first step is identifying them. Here are the ones I hear most frequently:

My school teacher, Mrs Hunt, who wants me to slow down and practise, not write stories that never end. ‘Be reasonable Caroline, published authors have to refine what they write. And be merciful to your readers.’ Actually, Mrs Hunt, these days I love revising and editing and my short stories are all less than 5000 words.

‘This is very derivative,’ says the poet, Laurence Lerner, who damned my poetry 50 years ago. ‘Chopped up prose’ he observed then. He was right. I was devastated. He’s still going strong. I don’t write poetry these days. And my other writing has improved over the decades.

My novelist friend – a proper published novelist – (you know who you are) who says, very politely, very gently, and with affection, ‘hmmmm, one or two nice phrases, but …’ I should make it clear that I’ve never actually shown him any of my writing, so I have no idea what he would say. I am sure it would be very helpful, because he is that kind of person. [Inner critic: so perhaps you should ask him!]

And the voice I recognise as my own, my little Peperami, which says, ‘are you still trying to be a writer? Whatever has given you the idea you should persist since this is all so bad, boring and banal? Nobody’s asking you to write, you know!’ I just have to quiet that one until he gets tired of leaping around and saying the same thing.

58 Chekhov

Here are the strategies for dealing with these voices. I drown them out with my own mantra – I am learning to improve my writing. I write one short assignment after another. Chekhov said (according to Jurgen Wolf in Your Creative Writing Masterclass):

You must once and for all give up being worried about success and failure. Don’t let that concern you. It’s your duty to go on working steadily day by day, quite steadily, to be prepared for mistakes, which are inevitable, and for failures. (p214)

I don’t think it is possible to give up worrying, to stop being concerned about success and failure. It’s not like giving up parsnips or the Sunday papers or red socks. But the Russian master’s observation that you just need to turn up at your writing desk echoes what so many writers say. It fits with Anne Lamott’s idea of the short assignment, and Hilary Mantel’s advice (also in the Masterclass. These quotations are included in the chapter about confidence, and that should tell us something.) This is what Hilary Mantel said:

If you are unpublished, you can still say to yourself, “I am a writer.” You should define yourself as such. (p217)

58 Mantel quoteSo next time my inner critic hangs around too long I’ll say, ‘Go away, or at least be quiet, unless you have something useful to suggest. I have a short writing assignment to do! And by the way, I’m working on improving my writing!’


If you want to be notified of further blogposts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right.


Filed under Writing

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?

If you have enjoyed reading this and want to be notified of further posts please subscribe to my blog. Enter your email address in the box on the top of the column on the right.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Reading, Writing