At some point in their career, all writers question whether they are actually any good at the job. Some blithely brush their doubts aside and just get on. Others work themselves up into such a lather of inadequacy that at times they find they cannot write at all.
Unhappily, I fall into the latter camp. A key part of my writing process is about fighting the inner critics who sit on my shoulder peering at my screen telling me that every word I produce is a complete waste of the world’s precious energy. But still somehow I have managed to write eight novels and a couple of dozen short stories.
In case they are of any use to you, here are some of my strategies for dealing with this situation.
1: Give the inner critics a name
They hate being called out like this. I call mine Nigel (left shoulder) and June (right). I imagine them to be middle-aged, opinionated, dressed in a way that is trying too hard to look casual—pressed denims, a neckerchief too carefully-tied to be jaunty, hair tightly sprayed into submission. They both have this constant look on their faces like they are smelling shit, and they are not attractive to look at.
And yes, Nigel and June, I am allowed to objectify you like this.
2: Write fast
When I was 15, I wanted to be an actor. Sensibly realizing that in order to feed myself in between starring at the Royal Shakespeare Company I had better get some sort of secretarial skills under my belt, I learned to touch type. Without giving my great age away, this was when computers took up great rooms to provide as much power as your Fitbit does today. So I learned on a manual typewriter. I LOVED it—I dreamed about typing, I played the letters on the tabletop like a pianist. Indeed, I played the letters on the piano. I can type as fast as I can think, using all my fingers. I can type so fast I have speed-related injuries.
Nigel and June, being pedantic, read too slowly to keep up, so most times I can outwit them.
The acting never did work out. Which is probably just as well.
3. Don’t get it right, get it written – James Thurber
Here’s a life hack that certain British Prime Ministers may like to take note of: If you know you have done wrong, you can often get away with it by apologizing before anyone else finds out. In the same vein, if you say to Nigel and June that what you are going to write is going to be pants, then they usually back off a bit.
“We’ll let her off that ludicrous over-writing because she’s going to go back and make it better,” they may say.
Perfectionism is the absolute enemy of early writing.
To this end, I always call my first draft Draft Zero. I’m the only person who sees it. And Nigel and June, of course, but hopefully my speed ploy has distracted them enough to let me get to the end and they’ve only had a glance. Then they can come out and be as critical as they like, because I actually need them to whack what Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird calls the “shitty first draft” into shape to show to my agent, my editor, and by far my scariest first reader, my husband.
4. Don’t teach creative writing
If you do, Nigel and June suddenly become all learned and knowledgeable. They start going on about comma splices and adverbs and clichés.
LEAVE ME ALONE, N&J. I know it’s wrong and rubbish, but I’ll find a better way to say it LATER.
Unfortunately, rather than office temping, teaching has become my way of making sure I eat in between the odd royalty cheque, so this is a cross I have to bear.
YES, I KNOW THAT’S A CLICHÉ.
5. Have a plan
This has been slowly dawning on me while writing the last few novels. I started out as a dedicated pantser (writing by the seat of your pants, starting with no plan, seeing where your process took you). It works for Stephen King and Lee Child, so why not for me?
While writing into the blue is enjoyable, it is also scary. Particularly if you have a deadline. So over the past couple of books I have increasingly turned to planning in advance, and my two most recent, The New Mother and The Daughters have been quite meticulously plotted, so that I know exactly what is happening in each chapter before I start drafting.
This working with bare story is less about the words and more about the events and the characters. Nigel and June don’t really care about all that, so they tend to get on with other things—perhaps muttering about the state of my writing shed or telling me that the dog needs a walk. So, when I actually start drafting I have more confidence that my writing is serving what I am pretty sure is a sound story. Indeed, I would put The Daughters up there as the novel I have most enjoyed writing, precisely because I knew exactly what I was doing and N&J were quiet for about 25 percent of the time.
6. Accept that this is a sign that you are doing it right
If N&J ever shut up completely however, I will not be celebrating. Questioning the work, pushing for the best possible word, phrase, sentence, is the most important part of writing. Without that, we become complacent and our writing starts to really suck. On the rare occasions that I am caught up in the moment and N&J are not only quiet but I am convinced that I am writing brilliantly, the end result is invariably far from lovely.
So, as with all things, dealing with my inner critics is about balance. I acknowledge their presence, allow them to exist, but I also manage their interventions.
Somewhere between crippling self doubt and overbearing self belief, that’s where I try to pitch it.
“NO, IT’S NOT.” – N&J.