Dogma is Death and Doubt is Your Friend: How to Turn Your Inner Critic Into Your Best Beta
Yesterday was not my best writing day, or day in general. It actually ended with me getting in at least minimum word counts on both NaNoWriMo novels, but the little bit I managed on Fever Pitch in particular was a huge battle. Sleigh Ride would have been a walk in the park, but I had to focus on the sticky one first, because as I have discussed, it is harder and due sooner. As I am wont to do, I vented my frustration over my day and lack of progress on Twitter and Facebook.
I was kind of taken aback by how many people replied at me, on and off social media, to thank me. The one that seemed to get everyone the most was this:
I thought about that again today in the shower, and I decided I wanted to write this post, because I remember when I was hungry for those kinds of declarations, especially from people I considered successful. It’s still strange when I realize that’s me–I’m always looking up and ahead, more mountain, more climbing, but the truth is yes, I do pretty well. I am moderately, comfortably successful. It’s less about money (though I do enjoy that) and more about where I am in my career. I like where I work, how I work, and who I work with. I know how to get work done and how to help myself when I get stuck. In a lot of ways I’m at the place I always dreamed I could be. Most days I feel like I show up at the mountain ready to climb better and in more interesting patterns, not learn how. That’s pretty awesome, and I’m going to make myself come read this paragraph on the days when I feel like the world’s biggest hack.
Here’s one of the few things I know for sure, though, that got me to that spot, probably the biggest things I had to learn, the staunchest flag I fly. I decide on my own what does and doesn’t work for me, and I consider my internal editor, my sense of caution and doubt, my most crucial writing partner.
I say this because we are in the season of National Novel Writing Month, where the byword is write as much and as fast as you can and kick your editor to the curb. This is an excellent exercise to try at least once, and many people I think will find out a lot about themselves and their work by giving it a try. Some people will find this is probably the best way for them to write.
Some writers, like me, will find out this is the kiss of death.
The thing about rules is they exist for a reason, and whenever presented with a set, I think it’s good to try them on and see how they fit. Rarely does any group or individual make a rule to out-and-out hurt the people who are meant to follow the strictures. No, dogma is generally an accidental or eventual consequence, when the rule isn’t a protective guideline but a fence intending to keep things “the way they’ve always been” or the way the rule-guardians are comfortable with. When it comes to writing, a lot of them are smart. I think writers would do well to not head hop unless they are using that as a tool or because they have the chops to pull it off. (See Nora Roberts, exhibits A-N.) Prologues and epilogues are usually where we step on our novels. Exposition dumps and lack of conflict are often signs of weak prose. Too much passive voice kills pacing, even when the author is skilled at making flat verbs dance. Adverbs are crutches, and so are a lot of adjectives.
I’ve broken every one of those rules except the head hopping, and I’d do that if I had to. Hell, with Marie Sexton I’ve mixed first and third POV in a novel twice. My pile of work rests on the back of many rules followed, bent, and broken in half. Some were wise decisions, some were foolish. All of them, though, were lessons.
The most important tool in my kit is knowing how to listen to myself. The only rules that matter are the ones I make for myself, the ones which suit me, my writing, and my career. Everything else is arrogance and noise, and none of it mine.
This is true for you, whoever you are. It is actually true for life, but today we are talking specifically about how to craft story, how to get over that horrible moment when we are “doing it wrong” and we feel like a failure, ready to quit. Especially if you are stumbling on this post because of a link or search, please take a moment to look at my list of works and my pile of accolades. I’m no La Nora, but I’m no slouch, either. If you want to get really objective, check out Goodreads, because the ones on my website are things I hand-picked. The point is, I have a respectable list of stories and a crowd of people saying they dig what I scribble. I don’t care if you buy any of my stuff or not–forget that for a minute. Look at that list. That’s thirty years of work right there. Thirty of practicing writing, twenty of applying myself to the study of what makes writing “good.” Four years of playing in the publishing industry pool. Look at what somebody did in that kind of time. And note all that time, all that thinking about writing, about trying rules on and discarding them, drawing some close for a decade and then releasing them back into the wild. About falling in love with authors and mentors and then falling away. The hours I have put into making those two pages are staggering. Since I really can tell you I have thought about or practiced writing at least two hours on average a day since I was ten, many of it more but let’s say average two hours a day, and let’s say a third of them I did eight hours or better: to get to where I am right now as a writer, I have put in at least 50,000 hours. It’s probably more than that, but I can safely vouch for 50,000 hours. This counts reading, English courses in college, teaching writing, actually writing, daydreaming about what I would write, reading about writing, conferences and classes about writing–the whole shebang. According to Macolm Gladwell, I’m an expert five times over.
A lot of you probably are–and if you can’t count up that high yet, then don’t feel bad if this feels hard, because you’re still putting in your time. Let me assure you, even after all those hours and all those books and reviews, this is still very, very hard. In fact it gets harder every time. No sooner do I master one level but the stakes get raised. I could never get bored at my job. Most days I’m lucky just to keep up.
This is a job. Even if you only write for pleasure, writing is still a craft, a skill you can take pride in and improve yourself with. Not all carpenters need to be paid workers of wood. To craft a piece for loved ones or oneself is as valuable if not more so than someone who makes deck chairs to pay the mortgage. No matter why you’re writing, you make the rules that apply to your work.
This is why doubt is your friend, because that voice isn’t some maggot living in your bowels. It’s you. It’s your experience, your sense of caution, your wisdom asserting itself. You need to listen to it, because if you don’t, it’s going to get mean. Listen early and often, because that voice has magic in it. That voice knows what your goals are, your strengths. That internal editor isn’t an enemy. It is you, speaking with your voice.
This is not to say your voice of doubt doesn’t need some training up. It’s not helpful when you’re writing your first novel ever and your internal editor tells you it’s crap. Retrain it. When your inner voice says, “This scene is garbage,” nod and say thanks, that’s about what it should be at this point. Ask your voice of doubt to work in the background so when you come back to edit it, you know how to make it better. Don’t wait for your doubt, either–sit with it sometimes, with a cup of coffee or glass of wine and ask what wisdom it has that you’ve been ignoring.
Because sometimes it’s actually not yelling. I remember very clearly my inner editor telling me in the early 00s that what I was writing was wrong. It was. I was writing heterosexual romance, going over the top emo but also trying very hard to strap myself into the lines–while also trying to fuck them from underneath. I had great voice but reading me had to be exhausting. I was a mess. And I was writing the wrong thing. Now, when I wrote my gay secondary characters that always, always seemed to show up? That critical voice turned into a cheerleader. Do this, it whispered, and sometimes yelled. Write these men. These are your people. Write them. I tried so hard not to listen. Who would buy those books? What publisher, what reader? Who was I, married stay-at-home mom in the Midwest who didn’t think she really knew any gay men at all?
If you know me at all, if you know my career, my journey of orientation and sexuality, what I write and what I am known for–imagine if I had ignored my doubts.
Writing is like teaching: both are careers and skills we’ve all witnessed, and we think they must be easy because we “know” them. We’ve been to school–teaching’s not that hard. We’ve read a book–not that hard. Try either profession and you’ll learn in a hurry that “knowing” makes the skill ten thousand times harder. Go ahead, knock off that novel this weekend, or even this month. Not quite as simple as you predicted, was it?
It’s work. It’s hard, hard work, and to do it well takes a lifetime. A lifetime of studying, practicing, and listening.
I am playing the NaNoWriMo game this year, with two different novels at once. I am not playing by any rules but my own. For the sake of the game and my own timeline, I’d like to finish both by the end of the month, but if I can’t? If my doubt tells me following that rule will give me a bad book or create more work? “Winning” goes under the bus so fast it’ll be dead before it realizes what went down. I already broke the rules by having one of my books being one I’ve been writing since May. You will note that’s the book that I’m at almost 20k on day four. I break NaNoWriMo rules daily. I delete all kinds of things. Before I’m done this month on Fever Pitch especially, I’ll probably delete twenty-thousand of new and old words. Yesterday I deleted five thousand words I’d written between Friday and Saturday and ten more that I’d written in August. This morning I opened Sleigh Ride, the one I legitimately started on November 1, and cut one thousand words and added another two. I condensed things I know my editor will ask me to later. I cut and expanded a section I realize I’d rushed.
Maybe you say, “Yes, but you’re published and you write all day and you’ve done this before, so you can break the rules.” I submit to you that I’m published and I write all day and all the exceptions because I break the rules. Or rather, I write my own.
It is not the case that if you write what you want and what you feelz in your precious special snowflake heart, the world will line up and behave like you want it to. Walking off the beaten path means you might not end up where you thought you would. You might, for example, write in a trope you didn’t know was even a thing, and though you originally wanted to be published in New York, you might be at the point that your agent is trying hard (and failing) to get you to submit things to New York houses which are begging for you. You might look like “a fast writer” when really you only average 3-5k during active writing periods, which aren’t often, and that’s when you write all day long and don’t do laundry or anything else, and that is absolutely overwriting a novel by 100-300%, with sometimes two of three novels’ worth of dead matter beneath your finished manuscript. It’s writing thirty thousand words and cutting twenty. It’s jumping down ten rabbit holes and routing through three plot lines and fifteen characters before you find the two people and one storyline that is right.
Being a successful writer is figuring out and owning the fact that your voice isn’t just in your story. It’s in how you write, when you write, and why. It’s every single part of what you do. It’s why unless they’re literally copying sections of your story, no one can plagiarize you, because let me tell you, twenty gay romance authors could write a cross-country May-December coming of age erotic trucker romance, and only one of them will be this. Your stories are yours because you are your story.
If you’re embarking on your first NaNoWriMo and it’s hard, and the rules aren’t working for you? Listen to your doubt. Not that you suck–it’s probably not saying that. Listen closely. Is it saying the rules are wrong, or that writing is hard? Is it saying this fast schedule isn’t good for your voice, your story? Then okay. You tried this way, and it’s not your way. You don’t jump off a cliff, you go find a new road. Is your doubt fixated on the fact that everyone else seems to be having success with something you cannot? What’s underneath that? What unique, amazing voice of yours are you squashing because you’re trying to be like everyone else? What bloom inside yourself are you missing because you’re so focused on one kind of goal you’re missing an even more beautiful, personal one?
I have known much doubt. I have sat with bestsellers and despaired I would ever be one. I have looked at publishing houses and feared I would never find mine. I have watched crowds of other readers and worried I’d never have any of my own. I’ve felt the horrible, aching pain of knowing I had important, powerful stories inside me I feared I would never be talented enough and strong enough to serve. I have felt like the red-headed stepchild, the lonely island. I have known doubt crippling and blinding, despair so deep I nearly gave up writing entirely.
I stand here today on this mountain of work I have achieved, this career, this life, these stories, hand in hand with those doubts. I’m a midlist author at best. I would be in trouble if I had to live entirely my own salary–or at least, I’d be a lot less comfortable. I may never tackle the mountains I originally set out to scale. Yet I’m happy. I’m successful, in my way. I write what I love and love what I write. I have readers and followers and awards. I got all this by listening to and honoring my doubts, the voice inside me. My friend, my advisor, my second set of eyes, my friend. My self.
If you want it, you can have your own mountain. It might not look like what you dream of. It will probably be better, even if it ends up smaller than you had hoped. Whatever it is, it will be yours, and that’s worth more than any rule, any dogmatic stricture that promises to keep you safe but really only holds you down. Listen to your voice, your doubts. Try on some rules. Throw them away, collect them back again. Listen, learn, try. Write.
Get out there and climb, however and wherever suits you best.