To kick off BPA’s first online writing weekend, novelist and tutor Emma Darwin shared her insights on staying motivated, silencing inner critics and listening to inner editors.
She started by acknowledging that we all want more writing time but it’s not a straight relationship between writing time and words on the page. Many of her professional writer friends don’t find that they write more now that they’ve got the deal and have available time.
We discussed the difference between being INSIDE THE DREAM and OUTSIDE THE DREAM.
While drafting, you’re inside the dream, using your right brain, imagining and evoking, creating a world and its people, getting words on the page.
While editing, you’re outside the dream, using your left brain, being an editor and refiner, a craftsperson, listening to your reader-mind to hear where the words don’t enable recreation in the reader’s mind, monitoring rules of shared usage such as technical accuracy.
Emma stressed that it’s important to know in each writing session whether you’re inside or outside the dream. You should put aside shared rules of communication while inside the dream. Thinking about spelling comes later because it doesn’t matter if you misspell a word. At the creating stage, the last thing you want is someone saying, “Excuse me, you can’t do that.” You can’t switch on the creative brain fully while using your left brain.
We all made notes on what writing set-up works for us. For me, I need a cup of black coffee (or a nice Islay scotch for an evening drafting session). I like a clean, tidy environment with no music. I like to know that I have at least an hour to just write. It’s important to be aware of what works for you.
One of Emma’s tips was not to wait for the perfect time. Looking at her diary for the week, the first thing she does is block in her writing time. “It’s as much about often as about lots. The more times you do write when you’ve planned to, the more you’ll have faith in yourself to do it again. As a seriously aspiring writer, you have to defend your writing time. Declare to the world that you believe in your writing enough to do that.”
We discussed feelings of self-doubt. It’s easy to worry that your project is boring if you feel bored or frustrated writing it, but sometimes writing is boring because you’re having a bad week. It doesn’t mean the project isn’t worth doing.
As well as thinking about whether you’re inside or outside the dream, it’s important to know the purpose of the draft you’re writing. Emma was told early in her career, “You write the first draft for yourself, second for your reader, and the third for your agent (or to persuade people to buy into what you’re doing).” Knowing where you’re at is important too.
More excellent advice included, “Don’t wait for huge blocks of time” and “Don’t wait for the muse.” Emma handed over to Stephen King to get this point across –
“Don’t wait for the muse. As I’ve said, he’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon. or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.” ―
– AND “DON’T FIDDLE”. Emma believes it’s important to know what today’s job is and stick to it. “If an idea occurs for another point in the novel, make a note and come back to it later.” One way to order your time is by setting achievable goals such as the time you’ll spend writing or a reasonable word count. She shared a helpful image: in knitting, it’s easiest to go stripe by stripe. Breaking a novel into achievable sections might be just what you need.
She advised us to start editing either after the whole novel or the whole chapter. “Find what works for you, but it needs to be two processes. For some people, editing is easier than creating the new stuff so it can be avoidance. Or it’s perfectionism. ‘Good enough for now’ is good enough!”
“For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Emma says sometimes writing is boring or it’s hard or it’s interrupted, but none of these are a reason to stop.
THE INNER CRITIC vs. THE INNER EDITOR
Here are some examples Emma gave of the things your inner critic might say to you:
“You don’t know how this bit should go, better to fiddle with chapter one.”
“Crossover fiction doesn’t sell.”
“It’s nothing like the last one so they won’t want it.”
We considered the fact that inner critics are well-intentioned, trying to protect you from digging up dangerous stuff from your psyche, failing, wasting time, or getting too big for your boots. Emma thinks the best course of action is to try to get your inner critics to cooperate. “They’re out of date. Now, adult, self-determining You chooses to risk making yourself vulnerable by writing and having that work read.”
What might you say to your inner critic to get it to stand back and let you get on with it?
“I’m on a journey to being the writer I want to be, and today is a part of that journey.”
“Something inspired me to write THIS story, so there’s got to be something in it.”
“This is my allotted writing time.”
Emma had some helpful suggestions:
“The accounts/parenting/exercise will still get done.”
“Don’t worry. If it doesn’t go to plan, I can and will cope.”
There’s a huge difference between the inner critic and the inner editor. Emma explained that the inner editor helps you to write the book you thought you’d already written. “The inner editor stays in touch with the dream, what you’re trying to do, with an eye on whether the way you’ve done it works. It deals in specifics and practicalities. It doesn’t let you off the hook, but it isn’t judgemental, scornful or sweeping.”
Sweeping judgements don’t help! As soon as you get into specifics, it stops being paralysing and starts being helpful.
Emma closed by asking us to think of a recent problem in our writing and decide what our inner editor (not our inner critic!) would say about it. I think this is a great way to plough on with writing when doubts and distractions get in the way – let’s all turn to our inner editors next time the inner critic is mouthing off.
Emma’s memoir, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, was published in 2019; the Daily Mail described her account of three disastrous years trying to write an historical novel rooted in her family as ‘a fascinating journey…a masterclass’. Her debut novel, The Mathematics of Love, is probably the only novel ever nominated for both the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book, and the Romantic Novelists’ Association Novel of the Year Awards; her second novel, A Secret Alchemy, was a Sunday Times bestseller as well as earning her a PhD in Creative Writing. Emma’s widely-read blog This Itch of Writing gave rise to Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction which publisher Scott Pack describes as ‘essential reading’. She has taught for the Open University and is a regular guest lecturer and workshop leader.