WRITE YOUR FIRST NOVEL Part Nine: Revising 2
WRITE YOUR FIRST NOVEL Part Ten: Building at Novel-Scale

What Your Inner Critic Doesn't Want You To Know

I know so many aspiring writers who would say that their problem is not getting going: good ideas come along often, and for a while they find it easy and exciting to devote lots of their available time to the project. But "for a while" is the problem: their past is littered with brave beginnings that petered out, half-filled notebooks, unfinished drafts, and finished first drafts that they never revised "for their reader". So I thought I'd pause the Write Your First Novel course, for a moment - I promise I'll get back to it - and have a quick think about this.

The "Divine Spark" - or not

The first problem is the way our culture conceives of creative practice, from interviews and events to the self-help, feel-good rhetoric and movies sloshing around in public space. It's so often a version of the "divine spark" stuff: the Romantics' idea that you are visited by passion which demands to be fulfilled. To be fair, that is almost certainly what drove you to start writing, but the consequence is that when the passion fades, we assume it's a message that this is the wrong project, or we are the wrong writer for it. 

So it may simply be that you need to internalise what all professional authors know: that some days writing is boring, some days it's difficult, some days it's baffling, some days you do it incredibly badly and slowly and stupidly, some days you cut far more than you add, some days you are seized with terror or fury at your own inadequacy to the task - and almost all days you'd be earning more working in a supermarket. When Hilary Mantel was asked if with all her success and experience and prizes, she felt more confident starting a new project, she said no: that with every book you are right back at the foot of the mountain with absolutely no confidence that you will be able to climb it. That is just business as usual, so things being difficult is not a sign that you should give up.


If the reason you tend to abandon projects is that another, more promising one comes along then, like much adultery, it's very likely that it's chiefly about the problems back home with your original relationship. I blogged about the allure of The Other Novel a while back, so I won't go on here.

The Thirty-Thousand Doldrums

This is a more practical form of running out of steam, which seems to be incredibly common in writers of all kinds. I think that many of us, starting on a project, have the story-fuel - the larder full of imagined, remembered and researched material - to last for 25-30,000 words of a story: the first third, say. After that you have to refuel, and I've blogged more about this, too.  

The Inner Critic

But if the reason you give up is those voices whispering that this project's no good, you'll never do it, it's a waste of your time, you're stupid to persevere, it'll never be published, then we're on slightly different territory. These are Anne Lamott's Chattering White Mice: the voices of what Jay Earley calls your Inner Critic. I like that link because it makes clear that these voices are trying to help you and keep you safe . They are just very out-of-date about what you need.

The thing is, writing makes you vulnerable. You may not have the least intention of baring your soul, but here you are, working hard, for a long time, at something difficult, with the intention of sending it out to discover if anyone likes it. You are risking exposure, disappointment, rejection, disapproval, scorn, and humiliation - and the more you've put into the project, the worse those will feel. So to keep you safe, the Inner Critic gets in first, by saying whatever comes to hand which will get you to give up. If "You're bad at writing and you'll never be any good" doesn't work, it says all the other things it can think of that will get you to come back to safety.

Much out there on Inner Critics is quite shouty-fighty: shut them down, beat them, ignore them. It's all very exhausting. The rather amazing Internal Family Systems  paradigm, which Earley is working with, is far more gentle. It begins by acknowledging that the Inner Critic is trying to protect you from all these horrible things: its intentions are good, it wants to help. But what if, instead, it knew that you could look after yourself? What if you could show it that it can trust you to cope, to be OK in the end? Then it could stand down, and finally have a rest - and wouldn't that be nice! And of course you'd get a rest from fighting it.

A potentially gifted writer and I were talking about all this, yesterday, because they'd just felt the energy of several weeks' blast at a new project suddenly sucked out by those inner voices. And I had a revelation.

The Stakes are Getting Higher

We all know from plotting that our stake in a game is made up of two things: what we stand to gain if we win, and how we stand to suffer if we lose. When what you might gain gets bigger and richer then the potential suffering of losing gets bigger, and therefore scarier.

So if the Anti-Writing Demon's job is to protect you from the dangers of writing, then when it smells danger it will start to murmur, and as the stakes rise, the murmurs get louder and more insistent. There's "danger" here, it believes: this project is turning into a Good Thing, you are more and more committed to it, you will finish it, you will it send out, people with power over it and your writing life will read it - and who knows what agonies will follow?

As my friend the thriller-writer R N Morris says, "The longer you go on, the more you have invested in it, so the more you stand to lose. Walk away from it early on and you haven't lost so much." Your Inner Critic and the Anti-Writing Demon therefore team up and work hard to make sure you do walk away.

But what they don't realise is that by this very token, they're showing you that this is a project you shouldn't walk away from: that it has legs, mileage, potential, excitement, value - if you only keep going.

Inside and Outside the Writer's Bubble

In the same conversation children's writer Sarah J Dodd said: "I have realised that my inner critic often prevents me finishing a first draft or going on to do a second. BUT if I wait long enough (3 years in the case of current WIP), I find it has gone away, replaced with Inner Cheerleader who also happens to be sensibly critical but also wildly enthusiastic."

I think this is fascinating, because we usually think of drawer-time giving us distance to be less wildly enthusiastic, less "in the bubble", and more able to stand outside the story and see objectively how it's (not) working. Inside the bubble, to keep what Rose Tremain calls the "anarchic, gift-conjuring, unknowing part of the writer's mind" working freely, we have to shut of the "knowing" part, the premature "editor", the judging-too-soon part of our minds.

But Sarah's experience suggests that Inner Critic voices - which sound so like our teachers, twitterers, workshop mates and industry gurus - are not real, objective voices carried into the bubble, but produced inside it by our own subjective selves. Maybe it's our more "knowing", "editing", "judging" parts which would know the Inner Critic's judgement for the untrue or unhelpful thing it is - except that being in the bubble requires us to shut out those useful, knowing parts.

So what does this all mean?

  1. The fact that your Inner Critic is chattering is not a sign that you and/or your writing are pointless.
  2. The core creative process may, by definition, make it difficult to police inner, critical voices, and discern whether whether it's your Inner Editor being helpfully and sensibly critical, or simply a protective spasm by your frightened Inner Critic, designed to stop all movement. 
  3. It's tiring and unhelpful to keep overcoming or shouting down your Inner Critic, and it's certainly unhelpful to scorn yourself (i.e. let your Inner Critic scorn you) for failing to cope with it. It's actually doing its best to protect you, as your back muscles are when they seize up. Acknowledging its efforts and good intentions, while reassuring it that it can trust you to cope if anything bad happens, may be enough to get it to calm down and take the day off - or at least go back to whispering.
  4. The shoutier your Inner Critic becomes, the stronger the sign that this project is not only not pointless, it's all beginning to get very pointful: that it has legs, that it's substantial, it has potential, the work is worth it: that it's better, not worse, than you've done before.

So maybe you'd better get on with it.


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Sharon Ferroni

Dear Emma:

WOW WOW WOW WOW. I can't say enough how I NEEDED (yes shouty-capitals) to read this today of all days. My nickname for myself is the 'Queen' of the unfinished story. I am in my 60's & do all of the things you mention in your article. My loud, boisterous Inner Critic keeps telling me I am too old to write from a younger persons vantage point, not good enough, not writing in the proper genre, silly, sometimes too erotic, blah-blah-blah until I am nearly in tears.

A story I have been working on for LITERALLY 5 years with my sister is still only 1/4 of the way through. It is a story line very dear to our hearts. We have often talked about the fact that it just seems to get more important, more interesting, & better as we improve our writing but the end game of being published seems to slip further away with each editing setback or personal issue at home. Writers do have lives don't we?

Have you ever spent years on something that you feel is so organic & worth writing that you can't seem to give up, no matter how hard it is to complete? That seems to be our problem. We just don't think anyone else but us will be interested in it by the time it actually reaches any kind of publication. Is that the problem? Should be writing just to write? Not worry about publishing or not? IDK.

We would be grateful for any feedback or advice you might have at this point. Maybe just knowing other's take forever to get something done as well is what we need.

Thanks so much. Sharon


Another inspiring post Emma. I found it all changed once the royalties allowed me to write full-time. I now think of writing as the best job I've ever had.

Priscilla Bettis

Timely and helpful post. Just yesterday my IC was complaining about my horrid prose and why, after all this time and effort, it hasn't gotten better.

Rose Yates

Excellent advice, thanks Emma. Really interesting way to look at the inner critic.

Emma Darwin

Hi Sharon - oh, I think you're so not alone in being stuck in this loop! Some thoughts, always bearing in mind that I don't know you and your sister, or the work, I would say:

Write what needs to be written. If it needs to be written, then it doesn't matter what other people think of it. It needs to be written for you.

Finish it. That may mean accepting that some of the words you write are placeholders for when you know what the right words are. [Don't forget you can always make a note, in square brackets, say, for easy searching later, that these aren't quite the right words. That appeases the Inner Critic, while not rolling over to its judgement] It also may mean that you need to pause the producing of the text, to think a bit about where you're heading for, and the main stages of how you're going to get there. (Notice how I'm not saying "planning" because that can sound too concrete and inorganic)

Worry about absolutely everything except finishing it, later. You can change every single word in second draft, if that's what it takes. But you won't know what the changes will be till you've finished it. See the "for their reader" link at the top of the post for a bit more about that.

When you do know what it will take which you haven't quite got the hang of, consider stepping aside from the text itself, and working on certain craft skills, or ideas, using material not in the book. Write a short story about something different, take a poetry course, brainstorm, freewrite, mind-map, whatever. That way you're free to explore and practice, without the constraints of having to fit the boundaries of the actual book.


Emma Darwin

Glad you like it, Tony! Yes, I think if being paid for your work at all is the first thing that can disarm the Inner Critic, being paid enough to live on is the next one. "There - see, IC? You don't have to worry, I've got this. You can relax."

Emma Darwin

Dear me, Priscilla! The poor dear IC must be really, really worried about how dangerously good this is to be saying that kind of thing...

Emma Darwin

So glad it's useful, Rose.

It certainly took me by surprise, when I realised you could turn the whole thing on its head and regard it as a positive sign. And the thought that it's actually built into the system, not one's own failure to cope or a nasty external thing, is oddly freeing - at least it is for me. OK, it just comes with the territory.

Sue Purkiss

Really interesting approach! Thanks, Emma.

Emma Darwin

You're welcome, Sue.

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