Critical voice’s biggest skill is getting us to waste time doing tasks that look like writing but actually keep us from finishing the book. Obviously, this is deadly if you’re sharing your day job with your writing time. Time can pass until you suddenly realize a year has passed and you haven’t started the book!
These are common time wasters that disguise themselves as writing.
Probably the most controversial in this section, and fueled by what all of us see in our day job on a regular basis. Reports undergo multiple revisions, with each person using Microsoft Word’s track changes to put their mark on the document. One of my bosses sarcastically called this, “Changing happy to glad.”
This also lends itself to the thinking that the first draft can be sloppy because everyone is going to change it anyway. So, when the original writer drafts the report, he treats it like he’s checking the box.
For fiction writers, revision becomes a safety net. They hear the mantras of “the real writing starts in the revision” and think of the first draft as this gauntlet they have to get through.
They become overwhelmed by battling with critical voice while creating the story. Revision feels like a sigh of relief because now they can hand the story over to the critical voice.
And it ain’t got a clue what it’s doing!
But it promptly says, “I can create a best seller!”
Of course, that’s not true. But once it dives into the story, it’ll keep finding fault, reasons to revise because that’s what it does.
But critical voice says, “I’m being productive. I’m writing.”
So the writer spends ten drafts in full critical voice mode, or even in that never ending revision loop. It even makes it easy to skip writing regularly because there’s that feeling simmering below the surface that something isn’t right.
For me, critical voice gave me an endless revision and blithely informed me that I could learn craft from revision.
The first became a story that I eventually hated. And learning craft from revision? An outright lie.
It was my first novel, called Remember No Evil (amnesia story, so I hit the low-hanging fruit for the idea). I’d write to the 10,000-word point, and then stall out.
It was frustrating because I could see that I should have plenty of story, and yet, it seemed to have dried up. The place I was stalling out is the one-third point, a common place to fun afoul of fear.
But no one discusses it in any writing book anywhere or how to overcome it. Critical voice gleefully said, “There must be a problem in the beginning! Let’s revise!”
That’s remarkably similar to what happened with the co-writer.
Then I would revise that first section, reach that one-third point, and get stuck again. Rinse, repeat.
In all the time I spent on it—twenty years!—I could have done twenty books and built on my craft skills. Instead, I learned bad habits that I had to unlearn.
It still took more than a clue. I wanted to move on to other books and critical voice kept saying, “But you spent all this time on it! You can’t waste the time!”
Revision is insidious because it’s all around us, in our day job, and from other writers. But if you’re not finishing your stories, that’s a problem.
Submitting to Non-Paying Markets
When I started submitting short stories, the first thing I heard was to submit to non-paying markets to build your credits. This is all over the writing community, and the non-paying magazine encourage it, promising they’ll give you “exposure.”
Though I heard the lectures on “money must flow to the author,” critical voice wanted to believe the “build your credits” version. Especially after I looked through the Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market. At the time, it showed you the statistics for the chances of getting published in various magazines. I’d see a pro-paying one that looked impossible, and a non-paying one looked doable.
I also think the “money must flow to the author” wasn’t quite a sale for me because I was getting all form rejections from paying markets. It’s hard because until you start getting personal rejections, you can’t tell what you’re doing wrong. The allure of getting published at all, even if it is non-paying, becomes a draw.
Especially when you do get something published and you can actually see it or hold it in your hands.
But after taking advanced writing skill courses and practicing the skills I’d learned, I realized that by submitting to a non-paying magazine, I was subconsciously telling myself that I wasn’t good enough to be paid for my writing.
It was an astounding revelation. The point was proven to me when a non-paying literary magazine invited me to write for it. It was on a veteran’s topic, so I entertained it briefly. I visited the site and read some of the stories available. The level I was writing at was better than the stories.
If they don’t pay, they will not get good quality stories. Is that what you want to be associated with?
Critical voice strikes again, and this one plays into a lot of myths.
One of the myths that came out of my family was that you’ll never make any money writing. I had an uncle who wrote during the pulp era. He was never able to make enough money to write full-time. I heard that as a child and absorbed it without realizing there might have been another reason. He only wrote children’s fiction, not a popular genre like mystery.
Another comes from authors who take a year or more to write one book. About 2010, I took a social media course with other writers. I still follow a few of them. One’s written six books in eleven years. Another has done one short story and two books. It’s hard to make sales if it takes years to get one out. By then, readers have moved on.
But it provides the critical voice with that little piece of “truth” to the myth that you can’t make money writing and reinforcing that you’re not good enough.
If you’re writing short stories, submit only to markets that pay five cents or more. When you run out of markets, indie publish.
Analyzing published fiction
This is done under the umbrella of learning how to write, and it’s common among beginning writers.
The writer picks up a best-selling novel, puts on a magnifying glass, and picks apart the words. Usually, the writer declares that the bestseller can’t write because of “flaws” in the writing. The flaws can be anything from a perceived grammatical error to breaking one of the random writing “rules” that are rampant in the beginner community.
On writing message boards, you’ll see the writers foaming with outrage that this writer became a bestseller with all these flaws while they can’t get published.
I ran afoul of this—just went with the crowd. I didn’t know any better. My only experience with studying how to write was school. English teachers taught me to analyze stories exactly the way I was doing it.
Eventually, I found myself thinking that the quality of fiction had gone really downhill since the books I had read growing up. It felt very discouraging!
One day at work, someone left out some old Nick Carter and Mack Bolan books on the table. I’d read a lot of those from the time when I thought books were better.
So I snatched those up, thinking I was going to prove my point.
The books were okay, not spectacular.
Maybe the problem was me, not the books.
So with the next book, I decided to simply read it for fun. That was The DaVinci Code.
If you’ve been to writing message boards, this is a book that the writers foam at the mouth over. Many of the writers despise it being so successful.
I read it, I enjoyed it. I even thought about why it became such a success.
But it was a huge wakeup that I was the problem, not the writing.
I’ve seen another writer on Twitter who rails constantly at how disappointing books are. She analyzes like this all the time, has been doing it for fifteen years, and won’t stop. But she doesn’t enjoy reading.
Yet, she wants to write and wants the books to sell. I’ve read her samples as a reader. I can tell she’s not enjoying writing either.
You’re writing along, getting into the story.
A new idea!
It looks so shiny and exciting, and just have to write it right away. So you veer away from the current story to jump into the new story. You start writing it, get into the story, and bang! Another idea you have to jump right on.
I used to call these flash in the pan ideas. They’d get me all excited and I had to write the story right now. I’d stop on anything I was working on to jump in…and end up with a field littered with abandoned starts.
This is the critical voice because it jumps in at just the right time to keep you from actually finishing anything. You end up wasting a lot of time starting stories and never actually finishing anything.
You get one of these, find a place like Evernote or even just another part of Scrivener and drop the idea into it. Chances are, when you return to it later, it’ll have lost its shine because you didn’t fall into the critical voice’s trap.
This one’s going to be controversial. Developmental is a paid, in-depth review of your writing. It might focus on plot holes, characterization, or theme.
It’s often presented to writers from an emotional perspective: “You have to do the best for your book (baby).”
That’ll appeal to your critical voice because it’s more revision. Critical voice will find ways to justify keeping control. It’ll all sound very reasonable, especially when your critical voice tells you this will help you get published.
A writer friend submitted his literary science fiction novel to a developmental editor, who charged him $6,000. Going in, he thought the book was pretty good. He just wanted to bring it up to the next level.
Then he received the edits…
It was very apparent the editor hadn’t understood the book at all. The editor even condescendingly said, “You pantsed this, right?” and he’d outlined it. (Developmental editors are often very anti-pantser.)
He was very demoralized…just the same as we get with critiques. He ended up ignoring the developmental edit he’d paid for and publishing the book. But he also hasn’t written anything else since, either.
I’m sure the above experience is why agents are now asking for writers to have their manuscripts professionally edited before submitting them. It’s a backdoor rejection.
The agents figure a huge chunk of writers will have my writer friend’s reaction to the developmental edit and give up. Or they could look at the cost and give up. Or critical voice could mire the writer in revisions for the next ten years.
The effect is all the same and prime critical voice territory. The book doesn’t get done.
What’s the worst that will happen if you get developmental editing and send it to an agent? They send you a form rejection.
What’s the worst that will happen in you don’t get developmental editing and send it to an agent? They send you a form rejection.
Critical voice doesn’t want you to know that.
As always, some very thought-provoking stuff! I’m greatly enjoying this whole series!
That said, one line from this essay disturbs me. You wrote, “It’s hard because until you start getting personal rejections, you can’t tell what you’re doing wrong.”
Sometimes – perhaps even many times? – “you” aren’t doing anything wrong. Sometimes, the editor already has a similar story in the pipeline. Sometimes, the editor had a bad day and rejected everything that came across thon’s desk that day. Sometimes, your outlook on life (as expressed through your story) doesn’t match the editor’s and therefore won’t make it past thon’s personal biases.
All that is a long-winded way of saying, there’s no way of knowing whether “you” are doing *anything* wrong. Sometimes, your story just doesn’t match the editor’s wants/needs/outlook that day.
Serendipity plays a far larger role than we often like to admit.
Looking forward to the next installment!
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I think the percentage rejected for already having something similar is much smaller than most people think. The editor has to have read enough of the story to tell that, which means it would have made it to the second round.
The first round is where you get most of the form rejects (though I’ve gotten them from a second round). The first readers reject anything where it clearly doesn’t fit within the guidelines (i.e., wrong genre), the writer didn’t follow any of the guidelines, and craft issues evident in the first line/paragraph. DWS said in the days of paper submission, he’d pull out a tri-fold submission from the envelope, see the first line and reject the manuscript without ever unfolding it further.
As readers, we do the same thing. We open a sample of a book, read a few sentences. If it grabs us, we buy the book. If it doesn’t grab us, we pass on it.
Writers want to believe that the editors are reading the entire manuscript. The ones in KJA’s Slushpile Memories said they started out trying to give every story a chance by reading the entire thing. That quickly went away because if they can’t get past the first paragraph, it’s not going to get better.
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