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Monday, July 18, 2011

Shutting up your internal editor

I've wanted to write books since I was in grade school. I asked for a typewriter for Christmas when I was in the fourth grade and attempted my first novel in the sixth. I've started many books over the years and for a very long time never finished one. I've got files on saved disks going back four computers full of unfinished manuscripts, stories I butchered during excessive revision. I remember once deleting everything except one sentence, what I now know to call a darling, when that should have gone and the rest stayed. I started novels and then discarded them in favor of other ideas that I thought I had a better chance at completing. Of course, I never did. When I think of those stories and the underlying concepts, I still get excited. They were fun ideas. Why couldn't I finish?

Because I didn’t know how to let go and move on. I didn’t know how to assimilate the critiques of my peers while protecting my voice, then make changes and… move on to the next chapter.

Moving on with a story is a difficult thing to learn. And I've discovered it's something I have to learn over and over again. There is one section in my last book that is infamous in my critique group. I know other writers who get mired in doubts, from relatively isolated issues (maybe I should start this chapter in another point of view) to major issues (structural, character changes, or the very worst—abandoning the book altogether).

This is not a new topic in the writing community; it's written about often. Many refer to it as Shutting Up Your Internal Editor.

Well, that's easier said than done. And for many writers, it feels impossible. This blog is for those writers. I am here to tell them how I figured it out (which may or may not work for everyone, but I hope will help someone). For me, it’s a little like riding a bike. Once you get the hang of it, you might occasionally lose your balance, but you never forget what it feels like, so you can get started again.

Flash challenges.

Roughly five years ago, I joined an online speculative fiction writing community called Liberty Hall. I don't know if they are still up and running since I haven’t gotten a return message from them. I hope they are. LH was awesome. They had a weekly timed flash challenge. Writers logged in, were given a prompt, and then had one hour to complete a story and submit it. I committed myself to this weekly challenge. The psychology worked for me—if I turned in something awful, so what? I could give myself the excuse that I only had an hour to write it. And let me tell you, my first flash challenges were stinkers. Each flash story was put into a group and was critiqued by the other writers over the course of a week. I sighed over the awesome ones, took my lumps on my submission, and then… started all over again the next week. LH, and me with it, moved on to a new flash prompt, a new story.

I didn’t rework and mangle the thing I had written until I abandoned the idea in favor of a “better” one. I let it go and learned what it felt like to do so. Eventually I had some decent stories. And I even started getting a little recognition (people could vote for things like best characterization). Soon I couldn’t wait to do the flash challenges. I had allowed myself to suck (and I did suck), and then I wasn’t so bad, and once in a while, I did something cool.

I now apply that same psychology to my daily word count. I make it as good as I can, take (and am grateful for) my critiques, and then I move on to the next chapter. Only occasionally do I stop to completely rework until the page bleeds (I see my critique partners nodding)—but I aim to move on. And when I have more of the story to work with, suddenly those localized issues become much clearer. Five years ago I couldn’t get past chapter three. Flash forward and Shadowman, the third book in my Shadow series, releases this September from Kensington Zebra.


Judith Ashley said...

Thanks for an informative post, Erin. My first book took years and Cherry's Challenge to finish. Now, I write the first draft straight through...then I go back and read it for typo's, etc. and Then I have someone else read it.

Whatever it is we do in our lives, we have a way of approaching it - that's our process. Knowing it, owning it makes our lives easier, I believe.

Sarah Raplee said...

This has been a problem for me, for sure! I didn't give up and start another book; I stubbornly went back and 'fixed' the first one for years. :)

I figured out that i have to write a sucky first draft in NaNoRiMo style, with NO revising until I reach the end.

The Flash Challenge idea sounds intriguing; think I'll give it a try. Thanks for sharing your experience.