Writers and the inner critic

One of the international speakers at the recent Adelaide Writers Week was crime and historical fiction writer Sarah Dunant.  I managed to catch her talks several times. I didn’t take too many notes but I did record one significant statement she made.

Writers: tell the inner critic on your shoulder: “Leave the room, close the door and I’ll invite you back in when I’ve written and we’ll analyse it together.” Sarah Dunant 2010

The inner critic plagues many writers. Sometimes it is like a demon sitting there so belligerently that the writer is frozen by inaction.  Feelings of not being able to write creep in, along with their cousins telling the writer that he or she will never be a good writer. ‘You’re only deluding yourself,’ they cry. Try something sensible, like bomb disposal or rocket science. Go become something easier like a brain surgeon.

Self doubt and  self criticism is common. Writers need to shrug them off and just write. Get down the story, let it take on a momentum of its own and just get it written – no matter how rough it seems.

Then when the first draft is finished, invite the critic back into the process and go through your writing  meticulously, mercilessly and ruthlessly until the writing is so polished that it sparkles  like a well-cut diamond.

Good writing.

Sarah Dunant at Adelaide Writers Week 2010

Sarah Dunant at Adelaide Writers Week 2010

Some thoughts about weeds and words

I needed to do some weeding in the garden recently. Our rose bed was in danger of disappearing into a jungle of tangled weeds.

Weeding in the garden is so satisfying; in a very short space of time you can see the results of your labours. The garden bed looks much better very quickly. The plants you leave behind – presumably those you want to keep – give a huge sigh of relief. ‘There is a sun after all,’ they say. Weeding improves the garden.

Too often we allow words to grow like weeds in our writing. Many words creep in unannounced and unwanted. There is the danger that they can choke out the good words. At their worst they can rob the desirable words of all the necessary moisture and nutrients for growth. Your story can wilt and die.

Be ruthless. Pull out all unnecessary words. Edit relentlessly.

And your writing will be allowed to bloom into its full potential.

Good weeding – and good writing.

Quiet please: I’m using a chisel on my novel

It is said that Michelangelo, when asked how he had sculpted his masterpiece, David, replied, “I looked at the stone and removed all that was not David.”

Not a bad description of the novel revision process. From the mass of words you have created, you’ll take away all that is not your novel. You’ll chisel and add, touch up, and cut, but in the end what you want is your story in its purest form.

And only you can decide what form that will be.  Kelly’s Picks:  Write Great Fiction: Revision & Self-Editing October 26, 2009 by  Kelly Nickell

Quiet please everyone – I’m using a chisel on my novel.

Not literally, of course. Metaphorically this is beautiful. I’m currently on the 4th draft of my novel for children set in Nepal. After so many drafts I am still astounded at the changes that are occurring, and the alterations needed. This editing and rewriting stage is crucial  if I want my story to be the very best it can be.

Sometimes it’s just a word or two here and there. Often a whole sentence needs to be chipped away; it adds nothing to the story so out it goes. Occasionally a whole paragraph or even up to a half page needs to be removed to reveal the underlying beauty. In many cases a simple rewriting of the sentence will suffice.

No going back

With a sculptor there is no going back.

Once a piece of stone has been chipped off, it’s gone.


That’s pretty drastic, but that’s the reality. Once committed there’s no going back. Bit like life really.

Writers can go back

Writing is different. If I cut something out and later change my mind, I can always go back and resurrect that which I’ve cut out of a story. I keep back copies of each draft, so it is relatively easy to bring back to life something I’d previously eliminated. I don’t do it often, but it’s reassuring to know I can go back if needed.

Writers can add

Something I am finding with my current novel is the importance of adding words, sentences and whole paragraphs to enhance the story. I do this strategically, always with a very critical eye and asking myself that important question: ‘Is this crucial to the story?’ If it is mere padding to get to a word count, there is a fundamental problem with the story. Sculptors don’t have that luxury; they can’t add a new bit of stone.

Time to cut and run; my chisel is getting cold.

Good writing.

Related articles:

  • Writing a novel – more articles in a series I’ve written about the processes I used to write my current novel.

I am grieving over my novel

Writing a novel – a writer’s journal: part 21

I strangely find myself grieving.

I am grieving over my finished novel. That may seem a somewhat strange reaction to finishing my novel for children last Tuesday, but that is exactly how I feel. For almost nine months this story has been growing within me-and I didn’t plan the gestation period to be nine months, but that has an oddly significant synchronicity to it.

Much of my planning and thinking over the last nine months has centred on the novel and its characters. In particular, the last two months has seen me totally focused on getting the first draft done. I worked long hours on the story during that time and finally the first draft has come to an end. To carry the analogy even further, I almost feel like I’m going through some form of post-natal depression. Weird.

I was so caught up in the creative process of the developing story that the ending came with a real let down. It’s finished. What was going to happen to my characters now? They had come to life on the pages of my printed out manuscript-and now their lives have been cut short.

Now comes the messy part. Just as a new mother has to deal with a new born baby and the messy bits-the muck of excreta, the insistent demands to be fed, the restlessness of sleeping and waking-so too the new born novel screams out for attention. Before my novel can emerge into the wild, imposing, critical world for all to see, it demands my total attention again, and again, and again.

It needs a firm, disciplined and yet loving hand to mold it into shape. It has flaws that need correcting. It has errors that need elimination. It has aspects missing that need to be inserted. It has inconsistencies that need righting. Above all, it needs daily attention and assistance until it has reached maturity and I can wave it goodbye and send it off to a publisher.

Oh dear-I can see another day of tears looming, the day my baby leaves home for good.

I think I’d better go and get pregnant with another story.

Related articles:

  • Writing a novel – an archive of articles detailing how I went about writing a novel.

More about rewriting and editing a novel

Writing a novel – a writer’s journal: part 20

Rewriting and editing: is there a difference?

There is a fine line between rewriting and editing. One of my lecturers is quite adamant that there is a huge difference. I see them as distinct but closely related. What you call them is not important. It’s the process that is crucial.

By rewriting I mean going back over the whole text and literally rewriting whole passages – perhaps even whole chapters. In my case, there should be a minimal amount of this as I strive for my first draft to be very good. Blogging – as well as many aspects of the course work for my MA – has taught me to write quickly and accurately. It comes with experience – the more you write the better you get at it.

Despite that, I know that there are quite a few passages where I need to scrap what I’ve written and rewrite afresh. My supervising lecturers, (and fellow students) have pointed out that in the early chapters I have managed to have an inconsistent and shifting point of view which is confusing to the reader. It is very important to be consistent with POV in children’s books.

In some cases only a sentence or two need rewriting; in other areas it can be as much as a paragraph or part of a chapter.

There will also be some cultural elements relating to my setting (Nepal) that I still want to include. My first draft was just getting the story down. This element of the rewriting is more fine tuning the story, adding local colour, cultural references, locally used words and expressions and so on. I’m striving for authenticity; all I have at present is the plot. (Perhaps that is being a little harsh on myself! I hope you get the point.)

Editing on the other hand is a distinct discipline. In this stage I will look at all the nitty-gritty elements of spelling, punctuation, word usage, grammar and sentence construction. It really is a nit-picking stage. Basically being an editor with a big red pencil. A bit like how I marked students’ work when I was a classroom teacher in another life.

The editing process is also distinct from the proofreading stage. This last stage is checking that everything is totally correct, that there are no typos and the finished manuscript is perfect in every way. You don’t look for elements of style or even grammar at this stage.

Good writing.

Related articles:

  • Writing a novel – many articles extensively outlining the process I went through while writing a novel for children.