Nanowrimo for the Anxious: Shut That Inner Critic Down

Like everything related to writing, shutting your inner critic down sounds easier than it is.  However, if you can’t shut that asshole down, you can at least sharpen your tools for cussing it out effectively.  Or, y’know, just ignoring the damn thing.

My critic repeats everybody who told me I’m worthless.  It parrots the attitude of my writing program, which collectively believed the only fiction worth writing was Literary with a capital L.  Sometimes it’s the troll that comments on a story and says it’s a good thing you write fan fiction, because if you want to be a pro at this, you may as well kill yourself.

While I have (thankfully) never received a comment like the last, I think exactly those words–often.  In the end, the inner critic sounds like my own voice and repeats my own thoughts, although these tendencies are a product of earlier experiences.

Anger is my solution.  Who doesn’t feel a little anger at getting hurt?

Art by Limitrofe (CC0)

Know Your Enemy Inner Critic

I’ve heard the so-called inner critic is probably rooted in traumatic early experiences that we eventually internalized.  Certainly, I can trace of a few of my own back to a certain age, time, and environment.  You have to engage with this inner monologue directly if you want to shut it up.

Therapy is expensive.  I am not a good substitute, but there’s one thing I’ve found helpful in developing my own ways to deal with things, and that’s identifying the root of the thought or problem.  Everything else grows from that.

Identify the Source

This memory is still vivid twenty years later.  Talk about staying power.

Some morning during fifth grade, I was sitting outside my classroom and drawing something on a piece of paper.  I don’t remember what.  A princess?  Back then I had a whole series of illustrations for princesses in every country (fuck logic, every country had a princess!), and each drawing paid loving attention to the details of their dresses, crowns, and hair.  So while I was working on my newest princess, this boy came up to me and started talking.  I must have told him to go away, because I was more interested in drawing.

He didn’t like that, so he snatched my paper and ran across the playground. When I finally caught up to him and demanded that he give the drawing back, he held it right in front of my face, ripped it to pieces, and threw it away.

I remember clearly that I felt I had to pretend it didn’t matter.  He wanted to see me cry, wanted to tell me that I didn’t matter, that my work wasn’t worthwhile.  At that moment, I didn’t want him to see that it worked.  I didn’t want him to see that I felt, like a punch in the chest, how easy it was to take things away from me.

For some reason this incident stands out among years of similar experiences.  If I had to sit down and figure out why I think that nothing I do matters, maybe this scene would come up in my contemplation.

Or, instead, I might remember all the times I heard my grandmother tell my mother that she didn’t understand why my mom was bothering to try ____ when everyone knew she’d fail anyway.  (Which was not true, but she heard that every day.  And so did I.)

Or… you get the idea.

The root of the problem will be different for everybody, but knowing what it is has to be the first step.

Steps to Overcome the Inner Critic

I’m going to be brief, because I’m not qualified to give advice on this topic.  My actual strategies have more to do with bribing myself than with addressing underlying issues, of which I have many.

  • Externalize and Challenge Your Critic: Psychology Today suggests writing your thoughts down in the second person (instead of “Nothing I do will ever matter,” it becomes “Nothing you do will ever matter”) to highlight for yourself that it’s an “alien point of view,” and also untrue.  (This is hard work.  When I start down a spiral, I have to stop myself from aiming literally every negative word I think inward.  It requires conscious, continuous effort.)
  • Change the Critic’s Narrative: Better known as affirmation.  Change the words.  If you’re thinking, “I’m such a failure,” change that thought to “I’m not a failure because _____.”  Describe to yourself the ways that you’re not a failure. Example: I often think I’m a complete failure, and try to remind myself that it’s not true; my writing has given joy to others (even though I’m not formally published), I’ve got a good reputation as a contractor, and I’m (apparently) a supportive friend and spouse.
  • Go on the Offensive: Tell it to shut the fuck up.  Ignore it.  Dismiss it.  This voice is not saying anything constructive, so treat it like the troll it is.  Delete its commentary, or tell it that you know it’s just a fourteen-year-old little dipshit, and threaten to direct message its goddamn mother.  Easier said than done?  Yes.  But today, every time my critic tells me this story is bullshit and it’ll never work, I’ll tell it to shut up. I committed myself to Nanowrimo this year.  I’m not going to fuck that up just because some asshole told me that I’m a terrible writer.

As for that ten-year-old dipshit who tore up my work, I’m over it:

Tell your Inner Critic to stay annoyed!

Stay annoyed!

Inner Negotiations

These two sections are almost completely separate, as it turns out.  I think it’s helpful to understand where your critic comes from because knowing that helps you resist the negative message, but only the first point addresses that.

When my critic is especially harsh and keeps me from writing, I might try one of the following techniques:

Pep Talk Your Inner Critic Into the Ground

I’ll talk about this more in the next entry, but if you’re telling your critic to STFU, you should also come at it with positive talk–even if you don’t believe what you’re saying.  Try to encourage yourself.  Talk to a friend or family member who is supportive of your writing and get some encouragement, maybe.  You didn’t pledge to join Nanowrimo because you thought you weren’t up to the challenge.  When you challenge yourself, sometimes the road is all uphill for a long while.  But whatever your reasons, I assume you’re here because you want to be.

If that isn’t true, you might want to rethink your participation in Nanowrimo.  It can be fun, but it’s a steep goal, and if you’re not into it, the experience is all drudgery and pain.

Generously Address the Inner Critic’s Issues

If you feel like being tolerant–or if you think your inner critic has a good point about something–take the time to examine the problem.  Maybe you’re bothered by how the plot is progressing, and the critic’s recent tirade was inspired by your misgivings.  Every once in a while the inner critic might bring up something worth exploring instead of just being a jerk.

There’s Something Missing

Maybe the chemistry isn’t there between your novel’s dream team.  Maybe you’ve realized that you really need to address some backstory, or character motivation, and you missed the opportunity twenty pages back.

Nanowrimo isn’t the optimal time to start rewriting portions of your book.  I have friends who never finish their stories because they’re too busy rewriting the intro to be perfect, and… I get it.  Really.  I was that writer at one time.  Then I realized I wasn’t producing anything, and also that I hated writing when I did that, which isn’t conducive to more writing.  So consider this:

  • If you realize you missed an opportunity, or something isn’t working, take some time to brainstorm potential solutions and maybe outline how you’ll solve it with the next draft.  Don’t start rewriting now.
  • When you think the story is veering off course and you’re not comfortable with that, it’s okay to stop and refocus.  Write a synopsis of the story as you see it now, or try to put together an elevator pitch.  Ask yourself if going offroad is such a bad thing.  You could be onto something interesting.
  • Pause for some world-building, character sheet editing, or other related tasks to jog your brain into action.  Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint what’s bothering you (and your critic), but thinking about the project, while not worrying about the next few words, can help.

Promise yourself you’ll finish this story before rewriting it.  You’ll never know for sure how it’ll turn out, or whether your ideas truly work, unless you see them in writing.  The problems in the intro might pale in comparison to what comes up later.  And, while that’s a scary thought, I bet that your solution to those problems will require reimagining your intro anyway.  You’ll get there.

You (and Your Inner Critic) Are Bored

Usually this means you’re not into your story.  But if you were into it at the beginning, then what’s really going on is probably that you lost your initial inspiration and hit the part where you start slogging.  Professional writers assure me (via pep talk emails) that this happens to everybody.

Regaining Inspiration

If you’ve lost the inspiration you had when you started, there are a few things you can do:

  • go back to the beginning of the story and read what you already wrote.
  • if you brainstormed your idea with a writing friend, read those conversations again if you can.
  • you can also go back to your notes (well, if you have any) or the original inspiration to your story, if an outside work/event/object was involved.  For example, every time I watch Last Exile I want to write a story about that kind of world.  If my Nano book this year is one of those, I’d go watch an episode or two of LE to regain some of that feeling.

Character or Plot Issues

Maybe you’re not excited about the story right now because you’re puppeting your characters into situations you planned.  My first drafts are nothing but puppeting because I’m trying to figure things out.  (I want the character to do this, because it seems like it’ll work for the story.  Only, would she really do this?  Well, let’s try it and find out.)   Usually this also means that you’re not getting any real character voice, chemistry, or like… any conflict whatsoever.  It does for me.

Problem is, I’m not sure how to address this problem outside of editing.  We’re not supposed to do that during Nanowrimo.  You can, but rewriting entire chapters will kneecap your progression pretty hard.

If you’re like me, this will drive you insane.  As such, I go back to my brainstorm technique, pictured below.

It's POSSIBLE your inner critic is trying to tell you something useful, like this.

Here’s a raw, ugly screenshot from my Scrivener file for a visual novel I’m writing, titled The Angelus Key.  It encapsulates my primary problem in pretty much every rough draft I’ve ever written, except one.  Your problem might be different than mine, but the same general steps can apply.

  • Identify the problem and write out exactly how you intend to fix it next draft.  Example, censored because I’m paranoid:

Tell your inner critic that it can shut up now.

I have a long, point-by-point list.  Since I know the script has to be rewritten anyway (I’ve already changed my mind about a lot of stuff), this list allows me to acknowledge the problems, solve them, and still move forward with new scenes in the current draft.  Because I know there’s a plan for fixing the story, I’ll be able to relax slightly.

  • If possible, you might note down how you can integrate these solutions into your draft from now on, i.e. you continue writing chapter five and start applying these concepts as you go.  Pretend that the first four chapters have already been modified.

That Awful Middle Stretch

Harkening back to the first point, it could be you hit that middle section that everybody hates.  The exciting stuff is behind you, there’s more exciting stuff about a hundred miles down the road, and in the meantime you have to figure out how to get there.

I’ve got no solutions for this, won’t lie.  This is where I start using bribery to get myself to write.

What if I Can’t Fix This?

I worry about that all the time.  But by pausing to outline or brainstorm solutions, you’re proving you can, in fact, fix the problem.  Give yourself some credit and consider that maybe your inner critic is overreacting.  The story is within your control.  By the time you finish it, you will also be a better, more experienced writer who knows how to work.

Bribe Yourself

Sometimes nothing else works, and I resort to bribing myself to get the damn work done.  It’s a thing, if you choose properly appealing rewards.

Note: this is not about positive thinking or celebrating your accomplishments.  It’s about tricking yourself into doing something you don’t want to do, period.  Your favorite things might be different than mine, but I can only use myself as an example.

So, let’s make a deal, self.  If I finish my 2000 words today, choose one:

  1. bake some cookies.  (I can’t buy mine because of dietary restrictions, which means I get to do more work.)
  2. order dinner in tonight.
  3. have an extra ration of eggnog.  (What, you don’t ration yours? Uhhh…)
  4. go out tonight and by a stupid, froofy coffee drink.
  5. indulge in extra play time in Neverwinter or ESO.

If I meet my weekly milestone of 12,000 words, I get to do one of these:

  • buy that book I wanted to read. (Fuck yes, Kingdom of Ash is out!)
  • buy that game I want. (Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky)
  • put something decadent on the dinner menu for the next week, like ribeye.
  • go to Samovar for lunch on Sunday.

Unfortunately, given transportation restrictions (we only have one car) and the work week, there isn’t much we can do on a weekly basis besides retail therapy or some kind of special dinner.  However…

If I Win Nanowrimo ™…

  • take a day trip to Japantown
  • or a day trip to the city, period
  • or a trip to the Botanical Gardens
  • and maybe make a purchase I’ve been planning for a while, that is more lifestyle/household related, and which makes my life easier.

Same restrictions will probably apply, but we can plan a bit more broadly.  For example: I don’t get to travel because I don’t have the cash.  However, I DO really want an air fryer, and there’s that nice pair of shoes, that nice sweater, or…

Something desirable will drive my motivation when nothing else will.  Usually.  As will the promise of chocolate.  If it doesn’t, I’m having one of my bad days, and that will involve other coping mechanisms, most of which will not include writing.  That’ll set me back.

And that is why I included five days off in my Nanowrimo plan: because I know myself well enough to realize it’s going to happen, one way or another.

Do you have any techniques to deal with these situations?  I’m always game to hear different points of view.  This shit doesn’t always work for me, but it’s the best I’ve got right now.

This entry is late thanks to Nanowrimo.  Oops.

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  • Do you have any type of pointers for composing write-ups?

    That’s where I always battle as well as I
    just end up gazing empty screen for long period of time.

  • Thank you for this. I think it’s my inner-critic which has been holding me back from writing for so long. And my perfectionism. Trying to get over myself by REALLY doing NanoWriMo this year!