I was inspired to add this chapter after reading Stephen Covey’s book and discovering one of the habits involved critical voice. He never used any of the traditional words like ‘inner critic.’ From there, I found a rabbit hole of some aspects of it that I hadn’t thought about.
Our image of critical voice is often what TV and film gives us. On the TV show NCIS, Agent McGee was a best-selling writer for a few seasons. In one book, he tangled with critical voice, typing “The” on his ancient Royal typewriter. Then he would glare at the word, yank the page out of the typewriter, and crumple into a ball. That ball went into an even bigger pile of paper balls.
Critical voice is a terrible time waster. You suddenly have four hours of time available, start writing, and end up with only fifty words on the page.
But when critical voice is dominating, it’s hard to see its influence.
It’s even harder when it’s subtle.
When 2021 rolled in, I took an annual review workshop from Forte Labs (they discontinued unannounced the following year). Between the impact of COVID-19 and the success of writing a short story a week for an entire year, I thought it would be good to see where I was at.
Instead, I learned something I didn’t expect.
I wasn’t treating myself the way I would treat a child.
Of course, that’s critical voice. But it was very eye-opening because we don’t always listen to how we treat ourselves, sometimes right down to the very words we say.
Writers are terrible at it. Pantsers get it even worse because outliner writers constantly tell us we don’t know what we’re doing, prime critical voice territory.
You’ll have heard all these examples, and have probably said some of them to yourself. The negative words are bolded:
The worst part about this kind of critical voice talk is that it becomes self-fulfilling. Saying your draft is shit gives your critical voice permission to take control.
When you hit the revision, you see the impact of that, and it confirms your fears. Now you believe it’s true that first drafts are shit. The more you fix, the more you find, and the more your critical voice digs in.
These words the critical voice tells you are always negative. Sometimes it’s subtle. During the day job recently, I was tackling email. I auto-piloted straight into reactive with the email. Unfortunately, bad habits are never far away.
Critical voice popped up and said, “I’ll never get through all these emails!” I only had one screenful of emails, so you can see how critical voice blows things waaaayyyy out of proportion. But it was being fueled by interruptions in chat. I’d start on one email, someone would interrupt with a text. Go back to the email, another interruption. Get the email out, start on the next one, and then another interruption.
It took a little time for me to get a clue. I stopped and wondered why I wasn’t flagging emails and archiving them. Once I did that, I felt more in control over what I was doing. The critical voice gave me a raspberry and retreated.
The obvious negative words are easy to spot once you’re aware of them. But critical voice can get pretty sneaky and slide in when you’re not paying attention.
Plot was a way mine got into my stories. First, let’s define plot since a lot of writers use it interchangeably with story. They’re not the same thing. Plot consists of the events that happen in the story. So if you’re writing a mystery, the murder of a crucial witness is plot.
Some years ago, as I was wrestling with critical voice on my first novel and feeling like I would never solve the writing problems, I agreed to co-write a thriller with another writer. It started out fun, then turned messy when our critical voices collided. We broke up, and after was a difficult time for me.
My creative voice felt like it had been punched and pummeled by the whole thing. Critical voice’s role was to get creative voice going again in another book, Rogue God. It was both a good thing and a bad thing because it made the book special.
Critical voice took over the writing of the story. Rogue God was running too short for traditional publishing, so critical voice kept adding more and more plot. It made the still too short novel incredibly convoluted, twisting it into knots and those knots into more knots.
It’s also the book that got me in deep with the writing message boards and most impacted by bad advice. The more I looked for help to solve the problems critical voice was causing, the more bad advice I got that helped feed critical voice!
I finally redrafted the book to jettison all the baggage, though I later retired it. Critical voice was obvious right away. The deciding factor was that when I reread it to check for typos, I expected it would be better than I remembered. That’s been the case with every story. It wasn’t with this one. But I learned a lot writing it, so I’m not complaining.
It got me to Crying Planet, which was a huge win because I’d dumped all the trauma that led into Rogue God.
Now I’m writing the fifth book in my GALCOM series. I’m focusing on practicing tags, both for the characters and the spaceship setting. It’s been a lot of fun doing them, and it’s forced me to let the setting develop.
Critical voice started freaking out because several chapters had gone by and “There’s no plot! The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” It tried to wrestle control of the story and steer by plot several times. I’ve had to drop those words and step back a scene to get control back.
Rogue God took nearly five years to write because it was a constant battleground with critical voice. My recent books have been measured in months.
But I also find I have to be careful of what writers I associate with. Many of them are mired in critical voice and probably don’t know it.
You might see this more obviously with the day job. Everyone’s overwhelmed, and there’s always going to be someone who tries to pass the blame. Seems like a common pastime to say, “It’s not my fault. He did it.”
Pure critical voice.
We’ve all had that person who doesn’t follow through with a task and then tries to assign blame.
For me, other people’s critical voices ignited mine. It’s one of the aspects of social media that’s toxic for writers.
Because of the bad advice I was getting online, I thought I couldn’t produce a book long enough for traditional publishing. So I agreed to co-write a book, believing it would solve that problem.
To be fair, it was the best I had available to me. Initially, co-writing a book was a lot of fun. There was a social aspect to it you don’t get with writing normally.
What I didn’t know then—many years later, another writer identified the problem—was that the co-writer feared success.
He could happily fantasize about marketing the book to best-seller status.
If we submitted the book to agents and it was rejected, that destroyed the fantasy.
Me? I was like, “Let’s get this done and submitted to agents so we can work on our next one!”
I blundered into his fear, and his critical voice struck back.
It started by trying to sabotage the story. He complained that something was wrong with the first chapter. When I asked for specifics, he said, “I don’t know! But something is wrong and we have to fix it!”
I couldn’t see how we could fix a problem in the first chapter if we didn’t know what the problem was (Problem Solving 101 from the day job).
He then fussed about sending queries, preferring to network with the agents in person to get a foot in the door. This didn’t make sense to me. We’re in a fiction dead zone. We’d be more more likely to run into aliens at a cocktail party than a literary agent.
It became a battle to get the book finished. As we neared the end and I readied a query letter, his critical voice turned nasty, regularly picking fights with me.
I was at a complete loss for how it had gone from fun to a battle. I literally couldn’t see either critical voice, though I can now. My own got involved to protect me and gave as good as it got. It had a job!
Then I did the hardest thing I’ve ever done with my writing. I walked away from a finished book to save my creative voice. I was terrified that I might never be able to write again.
Unfortunately, my critical voice didn’t want to give up the ground it had already taken. It turned back on me again when I tried to write the next book. I was so mired in it, I couldn’t see it for a long time.
But it hides everywhere, including even in critiques.
Critiques are another place that gets the critical voices of others involved. It’s one of the reasons why they’re often really bad options. A lot of writers like them because it takes them back to when a teacher told you if you were getting the answer right.
Some people also enjoy the feeling of superiority when they inform another writer of problems in their story. I was on a Facebook group where one writer zoomed in and sternly lectured writers who had typos in their posts.
The moderator jumped in and said not to do that. The writer’s response? “How else are they supposed to learn not to make typos if I don’t point it out?” The moderator banned the writer.
Critique groups are often all beginning writers. If you’re lucky, some of them have finished a book. But their critical voices have read all these various writing “rules,” so they lecture and admonish. Some even see their role as being harsh to prepare you for the realities of publishing. This means they can let their true nature come out under the pretense of “helping” you.
Yeah, we all know what that looks like.
Worse, the rules can vary, depending on the group, or even the writer. A writer friend reported she’d been in the “critique group from hell.” The person in charge sneered openly at genre writing. My friend was writing a fantasy, so she got his critical voice with the speakers cranked up.
The problem with these is that if you’re already absorbing the bad advice that’s everywhere, it all sounds reasonable. You doubt what you’ve written.
In the early days of co-writing, the co-writer asked a romance writer to beta-read our thriller. “She’s published!” he said.
I was doubtful because romance and thriller are opposites. I think he envisioned she would recommend us to her agent and the story would be a best seller. Heck, everyone imagines this for their first book.
Reluctantly, I agreed. What harm could it do?
We got two pages of comments back, single-spaced. They were scathing.
I read them once, put them down, and came back to them a couple of days later so I wasn’t reacting emotionally. It was obvious she hadn’t liked the book and couldn’t figure out why. So she spent two pages trying to justify it by nitpicking.
Sometime later, we found out why. She was vehemently anti-gun and should have passed on the story entirely. She knew it was set during the Civil War. It was pretty unrealistic to assume there wouldn’t be guns in a book set during a war.
We both dismissed the comments for what they were.
But when the co-writer’s critical voice pushed back at me toward the end, he returned to this old critique and declared it was a call for action to fix the story.
When you mingle with other critical voices, it makes you second-guess everything. Your critical voice says, “They commented on it. It must mean there’s a problem.”
Suddenly you’re changing the story based on what everyone else is saying and somewhere along the line, you lose agency of your own story.
With our limited time because of the day job, spinning our wheels with critical voice shouldn’t be an option.
But how do you identy critical voice?