Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Critic Within

You've probably read blogs by other authors about dealing with negative feedback: rejections and bad reviews. I can confirm that it really doesn't matter how long you've been writing, or how many books you've published. Having work rejected still hurts, even if the editor softens the blow by telling me she actually liked the story but found it wasn't appropriate for the target publication. A negative review will put me in a funk for days—even when all my other reviews of the same book have been favorable. Either one can take the joy out of writing. For a little while, at least, I find myself thinking “Why bother?” We writers are sensitive folk.

There's something even more debilitating than negative feedback from an outside source, though. I'm talking about the internal voices who tell you that you're no good, that your writing is boring and pedestrian, that your characters are flat and your plots are limp. I don't know if all authors deal with these voices. I do know that I'd be far more productive without them.

Usually my inner critic is at her snarkiest when I am just about to get started on something new. I may be excited about my ideas and enthusiastic about diving in—then the internal monologue begins. Didn't you just read a story with a similar premise a few weeks ago? Why can't you come up with something original? Another romance about a reunion with an old flame? Ho hum. Male/male sex? Aren't you the copycat? Just jumping on the bandwagon just because everyone says it sells. Etcetera, etcetera, on and on, until self-doubt pretty much drains away my energy for writing.

I'm going through this right now. Total-E-Bound put out a call for holiday shorts and I thought I'd try to submit something. I've found in the past that having a release around the end of the year tends to translate into increased sale as well as giving me lots of fodder for blogging. I kicked around a couple of ideas and settled on a tale based very loosely on some personal experiences. It's supposed to be a M/M/F ménage about a busy career woman who hooks up with an old high school friend at a Christmas party, then discovers he's living with his male lover.

As soon as I sat down to write, the critic started nagging me. “Where's the drama in this story?” she complained. “These characters—they're just like anyone you might meet on the street. You call this guy a hero? He's only five nine, for heaven's sake! And this stuff about him being bisexual. Come on. Who's going to believe that?”

I resolved to ignore her and wrote my first sentence, my first page. The story begins with a kiss. All well and good. But then I have to introduce the characters and provide some information on their history, while trying to build the tension.

“Where's the sex?” my critic sneered. “You're nearly 3000 words into the story and all you've managed is a kiss?”

“Shut up,” I told her. “The sex is coming. I have to set the scene first.”

“Hmph. You're going to run out of word count before you get the guy and the girl together, let alone bring in his lover.”

“Leave me alone! I know what I'm doing!” I responded. But then I began to worry that she might be right. Maybe I needed to cut some of the back story. Maybe I should have started with the sex scene and then used a flashback to show how they got into bed.

No. I refused to let her influence me. I tried to reason with her. “Let me get the first draft down,” I said. “I can revise it later, if I decide the story needs to move more quickly.”

“You won't have time,” she told me sourly. “You'll end up leaving it as is and then you'll be sorry. The story will get a wimpy heat rating because it doesn't have enough sizzle. Maybe it will even be rejected. Or it will be accepted and then panned by the reviewers.”

“This is romance, remember?” By this time I was getting pretty pissed off with her nagging. “The relationship is more important than the sex. Now leave me alone and let me write.”

She threw up her hands and went off in a huff, shaking her head and muttering dire predictions. I've discovered that the only way to deal with her is to ignore her. I finished my chapter and decided to stop for the day. I knew that it would be easier the next time I sat down to work on it. Once I'm into a story, it begins to write itself, but the first few thousand words can be torture.

This happens pretty frequently—not all the time, but often enough that I'm pretty tired of it. I wonder if other writers have the same difficulties. The trouble is, I can't completely dump my inner critic. Sometimes she's right. Sometimes her comments lead me to revelations that greatly improve my tale. When she gets in a negative mood, though, she puts me through hell.

I guess it's like marriage. You take the bitter with the sweet. All I can do is keep writing and try to live with her.


Erastes said...

Heh. Oh dear - it's too familiar to be funny. *pet pet*

Lisabet Sarai said...

Yeah, I know I"m probably not unique in this. But I just wanted to vent!

Susilien said...

I've always preferred a book that starts with falling in love slowly instead of hard and fast. I like to fall in love with the characters instead of jumping into bed with them.

Only listen lightly to that inner voice that critiques.

Good luck with the story. I look forward to reading it after the holidays.

Susie (from Carol's group)

MC Halliday said...

Lisabet, I read somewhere that all authors have a nagging doubt about their current WIP. My inner critic usually starts speaking up midway through with the same, unhelpful analysis: This is crap.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Lisabet! At least now I can feel Im not alone in that! Im my worst critic and I cant tell you how many times Ive stopped a story for just the same reasons youve listed!

HUGS to us all! And we keep going forward....!

Kari Thomas,

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, all,

I just went back to look at this post and I was amazed at how many comments you've left. Thanks so much.

@ Jude - I find deadlines help, too. I can't be a perfectionist if I don't have time ;^)

@ Gayle - Thanks! I agree with you, about the build-up, but lately nearly every romance I read has the hero/heroine (or hero/hero) in bed (or on the table, in the backseat, you know...) in the first chapter.

@ Susie - Thanks for shuffling on over. I have no idea whether this will be accepted (my inner critic says "bah humbug!") but I hope that you're right.

@ Angela - It's rough because sometimes I AM wrong about how the story should flow. Once I've started with a certain trajectory, it's very difficult for me to change, even when it would improve the story. But I'm more likely to believe an external crit partner than my snarky inner critic.

@ Marie - Hello! Yes, "crap" is one of my critic's favorite words. (BTW I'm loving "I came up the stairs".)

@ Cassandra - I hear you, darlin'. Just put in your earplugs and WRITE!

@ Kari - Maybe we authors should swap critics. Perhaps mine would be more polite if she were in someone else's head!

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