Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Strangle Your Inner Critic - John Everson - Biggest Aha! Moments in Writing

The biggest barrier to writing a novel is…yourself.

I learned that when I wrote my first novel, Covenant. I started writing the book sometime in 1994-95, but I didn’t end up with a first draft until 2000. And even then, it was only a 75,000-word novel.  Obviously, I wasn’t writing the book that whole time. For most of that five-year period, it sat in the figurative drawer, because after sweating over each paragraph for a few weeks, I would throw up my hands and throw out the baby. Until a few months went by, and I’d force myself to drag the jaundiced creature back to center stage again to tinker with. I can’t believe how long it took me to get to the halfway mark of that novel.

Fast forward a couple years to 2002. I still hadn’t sold Covenant, but it had been two years since I’d finished the first draft of that book, and since then I had only written short stories.  I decided to join this new thing I’d heard about -- National Novel Writing Month -- to kickstart a new novel. The goal of National Novel Writing Month (affectionately known as NaNoWriMo)  is to write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. At the end of the month, you’d upload your manuscript to be verified that you’d hit the word count goal. The mantra of NaNoWriMo is to squelch your inner critic, and just bull ahead to tell the story you have in your head. Grammar and punctuation and foolish dialogue be damned. Fix ‘em in post.  You don’t have time to sweat the perfect sentence with that kind of deadline, or question why your idiotic heroine would walk into the basement without a weapon when she knows there’s probably a ghoul with a knife down there. Fix it in post.

You simply have to ignore all concerns and bang out 50,000 words in a month. That’s 12,500 words a week. Pretty ambitious for most writers who still have dayjobs.

I had to work a convention the first week of November that year for my dayjob, so I didn’t even have the full month to try to pull this off. But I decided during that business trip that I wanted to do a really stupid thing—I wanted to write a sequel to my first novel, the book I couldn’t sell!  I had a whole different kind of story I wanted to explore within the world of the first book, so I knew the second novel, while a sequel, had to be self-contained, in case Covenant never sold.

Somewhere on or around November 8, 2002, I wrote the first chapter of Sacrifice. I realized quickly that in order to meet the November 30th 11:59 p.m. deadline, I had to average more than 2,200 words per day for the next three weeks. The admonitions on the NaNoWriMo website were key to achieving that—edit later, write now.  I still find myself whispering that advice to myself today when I start slowing down on a project.

Squelching your inner critic is probably the hardest thing a writer can do. The inner critic is the voice in the back of your head that says everything you’ve just written… or wrote yesterday…or are about to write… is utter tripe. Your inner critic can make you stare at a blank screen for those few precious hours you have allocated for writing, or it can make you waste 45 minutes wrestling with a single sentence or paragraph that just doesn’t feel right. It’s a monster time-killer.

Your inner critic is your biggest enemy to rampant productivity. And rampant productivity is what NaNoWriMo is all about.

So back in November 2002, I dug in. I wrote before work. I wrote after work. I probably wrote at lunch sometimes. And during every session, every time the doubt crept up, I had to keep saying, “don’t worry if it’s crap— just get your 2,200 words down today.”

I didn’t have an outline when I started the book— this was a seat of the pants endeavor. I really only had a vague idea of where it all was going. But every couple days I took a few minutes to “backwards outline” what I’d done before, so I remembered the crazy things I was coming up with so I could tie it all together later. Because when you’re forcing that word count, you come up with all sorts of weird ideas and plot departures at 11:45 p.m. that you don’t even remember writing  the next morning.

In the end, I got 50,000 words of Sacrifice written (about 2/3 of what the final novel would become) in three weeks, working right up to the last minute. I uploaded my file on the final night of November, and it was validated by the NaNoWriMo website robots. I had written a novel (or at least 50,000 words of one) in a month. I have the t-shirt to prove it!

Amazingly, when I did buckle down and revisit what I’d written… I found it to be pretty good. I didn’t need to do nearly as much editing and rewriting as I did on Covenant. And the prose had (to me anyway) a charged energy about it. It reflected its writing situation.  I personally think the resulting novel is one of my best works.

So the next time you hear that inner critic whispering that what you’re working on sucks alligator eggs, swat him off your shoulder. Bull forward and tell the story as brash and proud and swaggering as you can. Don’t slow down to look behind you. Just bull ahead.

You can come back to polish the brass and tidy up the house later. But it’s pointless to polish and clean if you don’t have a roof on the place yet!

John Everson is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of eight novels of erotic horror and the macabre, including his latest, the Fountain of Youth thriller THE FAMILY TREE, as well as the Bram Stoker Award-nominated tour de force NIGHTWHERE, the Bram Stoker Award-winner COVENANT, its sequel SACRIFICE and the standalone novels THE 13TH, SIREN, THE PUMPKIN MAN, VIOLET EYES.

John shares a deep purple den in Naperville, Illinois with a cockatoo and cockatiel, a disparate collection of fake skulls, twisted skeletal fairies, Alan Clark illustrations and a large stuffed Eeyore. There's also a mounted Chinese fowling spider named Stoker, an ever-growing shelf of custom mix CDs and an acoustic guitar that he can't really play but that his son likes to hear him beat on anyway. Sometimes his wife is surprised to find him shuffling through more public areas of the house, but it's usually only to brew another cup of coffee. In order to avoid the onerous task of writing, he occasionally records pop-rock songs in a hidden home studio, experiments with the insatiable culinary joys of the jalapeno, designs book covers for a variety of small presses, loses hours in expanding an array of gardens and chases frequent excursions into the bizarre visual headspace of '70s euro-horror DVDs with a shot of Makers Mark and a tall glass of Newcastle.

Learn more about John on his site, www.johneverson.com, where you can sign up for a direct-from-the-author monthly e-newsletter with information on new books, contests and occasionally, free fiction.

Want to connect? Follow John on Twitter @johneverson, or find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/johneverson

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