Sunday, October 25, 2015

Silencing Your Inner Editor

8:00 AM Posted by Tara 1 comment
You open a new document and poise your fingers over the keyboard. You're going to write a novel, and it's going to be great. But first, you need to think of the perfect opening line. You write a couple of words... but they're awful. You delete them and start again. And again, and again, and again. You write a dozen different opening lines, but they're all terrible. This writing a novel thing is harder than you thought. Maybe you aren't cut out for this, after all. If you can't even get the opening line down, what hope do you have for the rest of the book?

Sound familiar?

That, my friend, is the voice of your inner editor, the source of every doubting, critical, and fearful thought you have while writing a first draft. It demands perfection, and anything less is an open invitation for scorn and slander. But here's the thing: first drafts aren't about getting it right—they're about getting it done. And to do that in only thirty days, you will need to silence your inner editor.

Rome wasn't built in a day

Going into Nanowrimo, the most important thing to remember is that, whether you write them in a month or in a year, first drafts suck. But they're called first drafts for a reason: they're the first. And that implies that there will be a second, and a third, and maybe even a fourth and a fifth. That's when your story will rise from the pile of ideas you threw together in November, and take the shape of an actual novel.

The vast majority of published authors will tell you that it took several rounds of revision to hammer their first drafts into the books you now see in stores. Marissa Meyer completely re-wrote the first draft of her third Nanowrimo novel, Cress, and doubled its word count between the second and fourth drafts. John Green, who admits to cutting more than 90% of the first drafts of his novels, believes that "books are made in revision." On the other hand, Rainbow Rowell kept almost every word she wrote for Fangirl during Nanowrimo, but the book still required a "heavy re-write" before it was finished.

The purpose of Nanowrimo is not to write a publishable manuscript in thirty days, but to write a first draft in thirty days. It will not be perfect. It may not even be very good. But that's okay!  November is only the beginning! What truly matters is that you build the skeleton of your idea; you can flesh it out and dress it up later.

But until then...

Many writers—myself included—have trouble accepting this, and are still plagued by their inner editor as they write their first drafts. Luckily, there are a few ways to placate the demon so that you can write in peace.

Leave a trail of breadcrumbs.

You should absolutely ignore your inner editor when it says things like, "You can't do this! You're a terrible writer!" But sometimes, it knows what it's talking about. When it questions the metaphor that likens your ballerina's arabesque to a dog lifting its leg at a fire hydrant, you might want to listen. But instead of taking the time to think of something better, mark the sentence so you know it needs attention when you get into revision. You could highlight it yellow, or place a hash mark at the start of the sentence so you can easily find it by running a search.

When a simple visual reminder just won't cut it, take notes, but keep them separate from your draft itself. Scrivener's document notes feature is perfect for this, as it allows you to keep notes for a particular scene attached to that scene. If you don't use Scrivener, a Word document or an old-fashioned paper notebook will do, but be sure to cite the chapter and page number of the scene in question so you'll know where to find it when the time comes.

Your acknowledgement of a problem and your intention to fix it later will keep your inner editor happy without breaking your momentum.

Pretend you've already fixed the problem.

Greater obstacles than bad metaphors may try to trip you up in November. You might decide, a few chapters in, that your story would be better told from first-person perspective instead of third, or that your protagonist should be single instead of married with a brood of children, or that present-day Manhattan would be a better setting than 1950s Omaha. Don't waste time changing the 10,000 words you've already written—just pretend that you have. It won't make sense when the Empire State Building suddenly pops up where prairies used to be, but it doesn't have to—yet. You'll have all the time in the world to make that change later, but in November, you need to keep moving forward.

Give it a little leeway.

If you have a particularly fierce inner editor, sometimes the best thing you can do is let out its leash—but only enough to keep it satisfied. Correct typos and grammar errors as you go; it only takes a second, after all, and it'll make you feel better. You might also afford yourself ten minutes at the end of each day to edit, but only that day's work—and only to add words, not subtract. This gives you a chance to improve especially abhorrent sentences, or to add flavor to flat passages. If there's anything you absolutely have to cut, move it to a separate document instead of deleting it; you can still include it in your total word count, and you might change your mind or find a way to re-work it later.

A few more tricks

If your inner editor is still plaguing you, try one of these tricks! 

Write in longhand. 

A clean white screen or a few paragraphs of neatly formatted text can be intimidating. If you find yourself struggling to write the perfect sentence, crack open a notebook, grab your favorite pen, and write in longhand. It feels more like a rough draft, so you have more freedom to let your words flow without worrying about perfection. With no backspace key and limited space to scribble corrections, you're forced to keep moving forward instead of repeatedly reworking a single paragraph. And without the myriad distractions of the Internet just a click away, you'll be able to focus completely on your writing.

There is, of course, the matter of typing up what you've written. You will feel the urge to edit at this point, but don't go overboard; keep it to minor changes, and again, try to only add words, not subtract. If you don't have time to transcribe your work, you can manually count your words, or take an average of three pages' worth of words and use that for each other page you've written.

Employ a mantra.

Choose a mantra that encourages you to keep going, reassures you that you can succeed, or reminds you of your goal. Stick it to your computer screen or the wall behind your desk with Post-It notes. Make it the background image on your smartphone or tablet. Write it at the top of every page of your notebook. Repeat it to yourself every time you have a critical thought about your novel.

A mantra doesn't only offer motivation; it serves as a reminder to get back to work when your attention starts to drift away. The more you reinforce your mantra with positive thought and action, the better conditioned your mind will be to react to it. So don't just shrug it off. If you tell yourself to keep writing, keep writing. Eventually, the words will become a trigger that kicks your productivity into high gear.

Here are some ideas for a mantra:

  • Just write.
  • Keep writing.
  • Don't stop writing.
  • Write now, edit later.
  • It's okay to suck.
  • This is only the first draft.
  • Fix it later.
  • You can do this.
  • Don't give up.
  • Only you can write your novel.
  • The world needs your novel.

Hide your text.

Turn off your monitor or change your font color to white. This will keep you focused on what you're writing at the present moment, as you'll quickly forget about the bad dialogue two paragraphs back, or even your questionable word choice at the beginning of the current sentence.  If you can't see what you're writing, you won't be tempted to edit—and even if you are, you won't be able to! Without the ability to go back, you will keep moving forward.

If you find writing invisibly too difficult, try keeping only a couple of paragraphs visible at a time by adjusting the size of your writing area. Your focus will still be narrowed, but you'll have the context of your current paragraph to keep you on track.

Peace and quiet at last

The very best way to silence your inner editor is to show it what you can do! Fly in the face of your fears, and write that novel! Every word you write tells your inner editor that you aren't listening to its criticism or contempt. That it has no power over you. That it can't stop you from following this dream. And every word you write tells you that you can achieve it.

Leave a comment and let me know your best trick for silencing your inner editor!

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