Inner Editors and Inner Critics
There's good, and then there's good...

On Centre Court

Judging by the comments on the previous post, (I nearly said 'last post' in the cause of linguistic simplicity, but that could mean at least two other things - such is the necessary nerdiness of the writer!) Inner Editors and Inner Critics, the discussion I linked to touched some tender spots in other writers too. Writers Girl's right, of course, a chill pill's what's needed for your Inner Critic. The difficulty is in recognising the IC, because s/he's a master of disguise. And then there's getting him/her to swallow the damn pill. After all, anyone with enough confidence in themselves to write in the first place can ignore him, can't they, let alone someone who's bagged a prize, a contract, a royalty cheque?

Well, yes, as they say, and then again, no. I won't rehearse here what was said on Bookarazzi, but as Vanessa says (and Rachael implies) in the comments trail, it is weird how success, which ought to boost your confidence, can knock you for six (it seems) as thoroughly as failure. The thing is, just about anything can fuel your Inner Critic, because it's had a lifetime's practice. Picture you've spent hours on? Blue Peter competitions have thousands of entries, pet, you mustn't be disappointed. 95% in the exam? Pity about the other 5%, maybe next time. Gorgeous new frock? Well, you don't want to be over-dressed now, do you? First serve on Centre Court? What will your coach/father/fans/tabloids/posterity think if you screw this one up? No wonder we then can't enjoy the party or hit a ball straight. So it's child's play for the Inner Critic to seize on writing successes, and use them to make its own horribly convincing protests in the cause of furthering its own agenda.

In The Market for Ropes I was ruminating on what thinking about the book trade does for your writerly sense and confidence. Even when you hit writing success of any sort - first little poetry competition win, published story, two-book contract, or even (presumably) big novel prize win - that success still, in a way, comes from outside. The most confidence-boosting success I've had was meeting an agent and then an editor who really 'get' my work. They're almost as 'inside' it as I am, and their knowledgeable, detailed approval tells me that what I write works for others. The least confidence-boosting, I well remember, was when my editor emailed that they were buying the front and inside front cover of The Bookseller to promote The Mathematics of Love. I've worked in the book trade and I know what that says to the trade about my book and how my publishers see it. I was thrilled to bits and deeply grateful and yes, I have framed the cover, though thanks to the Great Study Move it still hasn't got as far as the wall. But that morning I looked back at the raw, exploratory, very ugly-duckling first draft of the new novel, and thought, 'Oh, help, they'll never buy The Bookseller for this!'

That was because it was a purely book trade - as opposed to writerly - success: an external judgement about how that book fitted with all sorts of market forces and tastes which are nothing to do with my creative mainsprings. Setting out to write another book that will be worth a Bookseller cover is the worst possible recipe for finding the true heart and drive of the new novel. As is writing to garner reviews as approving as TMoL's, or avoid the less-approving, or please the occasional reader who found TMoL 'hard to get into,' or to get on shortlists for... Oh, no, I'm not a debut novelist any more, those prizes are closed to me.

And maybe that's the other side to it. For years, perhaps, your drive has been to achieve something. And you do. So what now? There's a deafening silence from your publishers who are, very properly, busy publishing books rather than telling you daily about every minute production decision. And there's a struggle-shaped hole in your life which qualitatively if not quantitatively you could call a bereavement. Something that dominated your best thinking, harnessed and drove your most selfless (in some ways) and certainly most personal impulses, has gone. The personal is suddenly laid out naked for public consumption and judgement, you will no longer be able shelve your failures and move on, and what's more, can you do better, next time? Can you? Now there's potent fuel for your Inner Critic! We blame the book trade's economics for demanding bigger sales for each book, but it's far more fundamental than that, I think. It's hard-wired in almost all of us, because onward-and-upward is the default drive of the Western consciousness: simply doing the same, again and as well, is not good enough.

Perhaps that's why an old hand of a novelist said to me, 'Don't worry, the second is the worst. It'll never be as bad again!'. I'm only just moving on from this stage myself, and I'm certainly not sure what the answer is. In the end we writers can't guarantee, to ourselves or our publishers or the world, that the next thing will be bigger and better, a career move onward and upward. All we can guarantee is that we will try. And our trying won't bear fruit if we're trying for the wrong things, any more than you'll hit a ball just where you want it on Centre Court if you've got one eye on the Daily Mail reporter. 

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