Young Writer's Scene
Adele Long, Associate Editor,
Issue # 2: 03/01/01
and Using Language in Fiction
aren't written - they're rewritten. Including your own. It is
one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh
rewrite hasn't quite done it.
- Michael Crichton
a good chance that you and your internal editor need to sit down for a serious
I'm not going to tell you to bop him (or her) in the nose and shout,
"Leave me alone, you big lout!"
Though I've heard many discussions that suggest a lot of writers
would like to do this, I think a more diplomatic approach is necessary,
for the very simple reason that your internal editor should be your
talk about why you might want to squelch the internal editor.
(Let's call him "Ed.")
Ed is the person who sits on your shoulder while you write and
says, "What? You're
writing that??" He
criticizes your phrasing, ridicules
your characters, laughs at your plot structure, and holds his nose when
you indulge in descriptive passages.
He makes you feel inferior as a writer --- and on bad days,
inferior as a person --- and sometimes the thought of facing him makes you
avoid writing altogether.
far, Ed sounds eminently squelchable.
Ed just makes your life miserable, why bother to make friends with him? There's one very good reason to start with:
because so much of the time, the annoying little guy is right.
Your phrasing needs improvement, your characters could be better
developed, your storylines are weak, and so on.
proof is in the pudding; unless you are consistently publishing your work
in pro markets, there's probably good reason to suspect that those
external editors (you know, the ones who send out rejection slips) are
being at least as critical as Ed. And
even if you are publishing, you know that your fiction isn't perfect.
There's always room for improvement.
wait," you say. "If
I listened to Ed all the time, I'd never get anything written, much less
know. But Ed can make some
very important contributions to your writing.
If you're willing to give Ed his due and recognize that a lot of
his criticism is accurate, then we can go to the next step:
the negotiating table.
the situation. You know your
writing needs improvement, but in order to improve, you need to be able to
sit down and write without interruption.
You need Ed to shut up for a while and let you get through a
complete story. Though it doesn't seem so at first, the worst thing you could
do to yourself at this point is to find a way to get rid of Ed completely.
Because Ed has a high standard.
He doesn't just want you to write your best, he wants you to write better
than your best. He's the one who's going to push you to aim higher, work
harder, do better. He makes
it hard for you to write those first drafts, true, but he yells at you for
a reason. He recognizes bad
writing. You want him around.
solution is to negotiate a truce in which both sides compromise.
Ed has to agree to keep quiet while you do first-draft work.
He can't holler every time your writing doesn't measure up,
particularly when it has to do with phrasing or syntax or other things
that are easily changed during revision.
If something really bugs him, he's allowed to make a note of it,
but he has to wait until after the first draft before he can bug you about
it. That's his side of the
for your part, have to agree to hear him out once you have the first draft
on paper. You have to sit
back, look at the manuscript, and tell Ed, "It's all yours." When he tells you to change something, listen.
Don't tell him, "Well. . . You're probably right, but I'll see
what everyone else says." He
held up his part of the bargain, right?
You have a rough draft in hand.
Now you have to come through.
Hand him the red pen and let him turn the manuscript scarlet.
doesn't mean you shouldn't also incorporate feedback from one or two
reliable first-draft readers. After
all, Ed may be picky, but he's not infallible.
You do need other points of view.
But usually, Ed is a lot closer to the truth than we'd like to
admit. Nine times out of ten, second-guessing him is just going to
right, so we've started to build a new way of relating to Ed.
First we set aside our egos long enough to recognize that, despite
his bad manners, the little guy has good instincts. Then we set up the terms for a truce so that we're able to
get work done without rejecting Ed's advice outright. So far it sounds more like international diplomacy than
brings us to a couple key factors in the relationship: time and
to Work Together
good friendship takes time. Comfortable
patterns don't pop up overnight, especially when you're in a working
relationship where the emotional stakes are as high as they are for
fiction writers. It will take a while before you and your internal editor get
to the point where you're able to work together enthusiastically, instead
of glaring at each other over the top of your manuscript.
way to improve your relationship with Ed is simply to keep writing. Once you've made your truce and the two of you are getting
along well enough that you can finish rough drafts, write as much as you
can. You'll both start to see
patterns in your writing. You'll
see where you're improving, often because you listened to Ed during draft
revisions, and you'll learn to trust him more.
He'll see where you have persistent problems, often because he didn't
catch something, and he'll realize that he has things to learn too.
Mutual respect will develop when you both realize that the other
one has something important to offer.
you want to get to the point where Ed can start participating in first
draft work again. Just as you
need to learn from Ed when you do revisions, Ed needs to learn from you
about the process of putting a story together.
Ed's good at sounding the alarm when there's a problem, but he
needs to move beyond criticism and learn how to offer workable solutions
to problems when he sees them.
the two of you feel more comfortable with each other, it will be easier to
bring Ed in during first drafts. Instead
of shouting "That stinks!" when he sees a problem, he'll be able
to pull up a chair and offer practical suggestions.
"Jack would never do that.
Have him walk out instead."
"You're letting the tension dissipate.
The reader is going to lose interest right here unless you pick up
the pace." You might
take the suggestions; you might not.
But you'll be more likely to fix a problem when it occurs instead
of waiting until the second or third or fifth draft.
This is why some authors, as they gain experience, find that they
write slower but do fewer revisions.
this is good and well, but what about writers that don't have an
Editor? What Internal Editor?
all of this sounds like a foreign language to you.
Maybe when you sit down to write, you're pleased as punch with
everything that shows up on the page, and you don't have any problems with
voices in your head telling you what an awful job you've done.
If that's your situation, I can think of two possible reasons.
could be brilliant. If this
is the case, you're pleased with everything you write because everything
you write is fantastic, and you'll start selling (and winning awards, I'd
imagine) so fast that the rest of us will be crying into our keyboards
alternative is that you don't have an internal editor.
In order to figure out how to develop one, let me step back from
this anthropomorphism for a moment and specify what I really mean when I
talk about the internal editor.
Back and Moving Forward
the internal editor "Ed" is convenient and a little cute, but we
all know that there really isn't a separate entity hiding out in our
heads. Whenever I talk about
Ed this or Ed that, you know I really mean you.
The human brain is an amazing thing, and sometimes it really does
seem like we have multiple personalities (like Ed) who push and pull us in
here's fact of the matter: Ed is you.
Ed is your sense of what's good and what's bad in your fiction.
Ed represents your instincts about storytelling and language and
motive and style. The
internal editor is the same part of you that gets annoyed with silly
movies and badly written books, but it hurts so much when we see the same
shortcomings in our own work that we try to distance ourselves a little
from the criticism.
you want to develop your instincts --- whether you want them to be even
better or whether you don't have them much to begin with --- there are
lots of ways to go about it. The
best way is to read widely and continually.
Read all kinds of books and short stories: difficult, easy,
exciting, boring, exhilarating, perplexing, old, new, popular,
impenetrable. There will
certainly be some books you like better than others; spend time figuring
out what you like and don't like in other people's work.
involved in a critiquing circle and learn to take apart a story and
understand its structure, its strengths, its weaknesses.
Learning to analyze other people's work will be invaluable when it
comes to understanding your own fiction; make the most of this
close attention when people talk about what they liked about a particular
book or movie, and ask them lots of questions about their experience of a
story. Different people like
different kinds of fiction; figure out why it is that a story thrills some
people and bores others.
Positive Side of Negative Instincts
most important thing for you to take away is that your negative instincts
can be one of your most valuable assets.
As long as you can keep your "internal editor" from
paralyzing you, having a sense of what doesn't work (and, as you mature,
knowing how to overhaul such problem areas) is what can move you from
frustration to success.
Trust your instincts, learn to sharpen them, and when that contract finally arrives in the mail, you and Ed will be able to congratulate each other on a job well done.