Challenge,  On Writing

Controlling Critical Voice

After Yesterday’s Post…

I got a couple of questions about how I control my critical voice when I do so much teaching, which is automatically generated from critical voice.

A couple things first. If I ever stopped writing for anything past a short life roll, I would stop teaching at that same moment. Sadly, a couple of my mentors became nothing but teachers and never really wrote again. I lost respect for them, to be honest.

Second, I do the teaching to keep learning. When a workshop becomes boring to me, and I can’t learn from it, it goes to classic status or vanishes. Why Kris and I are always starting so many new things. We are learning.

But all that said, how do I control the critical voice that the learning automatically brings in for most people?

It actually boils down to one simple thing… I don’t care what anyone thinks of me. Or of my writing, or methods of writing.

I just flat don’t care.

I have been doing this for over 40 years now and am glad to pass on my learning and observations. But I don’t do it to sell books or make fans or anything silly like that. I do it because major writers helped me when I was starting off and I want to pay that forward.

It is why I am doing the mentoring (even though two spots remain open), I just sort of formally want to be there to help if I can.

Same with these year-long topic workshops. I want to learn those topics. Those workshops will vanish at the end of their time. (Shared World and Licensing Transition…. because I will have learned from them what I needed at this moment.)

But when I sit down to write, I am telling myself a story and nothing more. If it doesn’t sell, I flat don’t care.

If it does sell, I flat don’t care.

If someone hates the story or me, I flat don’t care.

And an interesting thing about not caring, when a person is trying to get attention from me by badmouthing me, they tend to fade away quickly because, as I said, I flat don’t care.

I do the best I can with every story I write. That’s all I can do. Nothing more, nothing less.

And if I allowed critical voice to ever be around, writing would be no fun, so I just don’t.

One thing so many writers forget: This is entertainment. No one dies if a story doesn’t work or there is bad grammar on page seven. It’s entertainment and no one really cares.

You see, critical voice can only come in when you care about something. If you are just playing, having fun, telling a story for just yourself, there is nothing a critical voice can protect you from, so it goes away.

So my critical voice helps other writers learn. But since I don’t care about any results of my own writing one way or another, critical voice vanishes when it comes to my writing.

So all my solutions to those ugly problems that I wrote about yesterday always boil down to one thing. The writers who have those problems care. They forget that fiction writing is just entertainment.

And the critical voice knows that they have forgotten and thus makes it impossible for those infected writers to write.

That is why I am constantly repeating to go have fun with your writing. Having fun flat shuts down critical voice.

So when you shut down critical voice, you finish things, enjoy the process, and move forward all at the same time. Total win.

Just weird how that works.


  • Philip

    This makes me think of a problem I have.

    I feed critical voice sometimes in my reading. I start reading “important” or “literary” books because I feel I should in order to learn from the so-called greats. Don’t get me wrong, I love Hemingway and some others in that tradition, but I could care less about 85% of these type of writers. But I’ll fall into the trap and read them and feel inadequate. Currently, I’m luckily not in that mindset because I’m reading Louis L’Amour (binge reading him for the first time and loving it) and collections of old Black Mask pulp crime stories.

    • Harvey Stanbrough

      If I may, Philip, you might be overthinking this. Read what interests you, regardless of the author, and always read for pleasure. When a section blows you away, mark it. And when you’ve finished reading the book for pleasure, go back to the places you marked and study it (even type it in if you want) to learn what that writer did that blew you away and how s/he did it. Amazing what you can learn from reading the “greats,” from Tolstoy to Hemingway to L’Amour to Allende to Chandler.

  • Susan

    Lately I have been trying to “dial it back to neutral”
    For example if the emotion of writing was a spectrum
    on one end is heavy critical voice, huge importance and making something serious,
    the middle is amused curiosity
    and the other end is writing sloppy (not caring at all)
    Keeping it light middle of the road. That is my current plan.

    • dwsmith

      Wow, Susan, was your comment a light into some problems you need to deal with. Not caring DOES NOT MEAN SLOPPY just as writing fast does not mean sloppy or not rewriting does not mean sloppy. I do the best I can with every thing I write. I shout at writers in NaMoWriMo who just type and write sloppy “first” drafts.

      That is a deadly, deadly issue there, Susan, if you think enjoying your writing and not caring what others think means writing sloppy. oh, oh…

      • Susan

        I think we are talking about different things.
        Not caring about what people think of you or your writing is one thing. That is a helpful belief. That is different from what I am talking about.

        There are viewpoints through which we write. I was calling it a spectrum where at one end is the critical voice, emotion and importance, the middle is amused curiosity, and the other end is apathy and sloppy drafts. I don’t like Nanorimo either. In a sloppy draft you have to deliberately not care what you put on the page and move on. Where as when you cycle you do have to care, but not too much.

        I think the point i was failing to make, was that the window of productivity is to be in the middle of the spectrum – amused curiosity. And if I can ease off the ends of the spectrum and stay in the middle, that is where words are.

        That is what I am trying. Hope I clarified that. 😀

        • dwsmith

          Sorry, Susan, we can just disagree on this. I don’t think there is a spectrum, but if it works for you, fine. But I don’t think that sliding a scale back toward sloppy, lazy writing is ever a good idea. I always always do the best I can, at the top of the scale. Just don’t care what others think about the final product and I have fun, and those two things keep critical voice at bay for me.

          • Jason M

            I gotta side with the dissenters here, Dean. I wrote completely into the dark, no outline on my last book (coming out next month) —
            — and the first act was total crap.
            By the time I finished it, I had to go back and rework the first third of my own damn story to conform with the last two-thirds.
            I hadn’t given myself a clear picture of the setup, I had prepared no character arcs, I had made no tentpole moments — and I paid dearly.
            Next book, I’m going back to a small-to-medium amount of outlining. In fact, the outline for the next one is already done.
            Sorry, but this is my experience.

          • dwsmith

            Jason, sort of forgot that the writer is the worst judge of their own work, huh? And sort of forgot that the critical voice’s job is to slow you down and stop you.

            And clearly cycling didn’t work for you, or you didn’t do that right either. Or maybe you did and didn’t trust it and thought the critical voice knew more.

            I just hope you didn’t ruin the book by “fixing it” but alas, no one will ever know, since you let critical voice and your own ego mess with it.

            And interesting you tried something once, let the critical voice win, and gave up. Maybe if you tried it for a couple of years, and left the books alone and just got them out, you might find you are good at it. Walking is tough the first few times. Too bad you fell down once and gave up.

            Sorry to be so snarky, just wanted people to see how my brain works and why I seldom say anything to comments like yours, but mentally just wave goodbye. Sadly.

    • Rose

      I see the spectrum a little differently.

      On one end, with the heavy critical voice, the writer doesn’t write because they think everyone will hate what they write.

      The middle is inspired writing, where they keep the critical voice at bay.

      The other end is not writing because they don’t have the energy, the story is boring them, etc. It’s not what others think, it’s about the writer and their feelings.

      Like Dean, I don’t believe in ‘sloppy’ writing. If someone does Nanowrimo, or any similar sort of challenge, they don’t have a choice but to write fast and yes, it may not be perfect. But they can always go back and fix it later, if they want. Writing is always a good thing whether it’s fast, slow or medium paced. The point is to get the story out and worry about the other stuff later.

      • dwsmith

        Rose, afraid I do not agree. If you write and tell your creative voice that you can fix it later, instead of making it right the first time through, you will eventually kill the critical voice, it just won’t show up because it knows you don’t trust it and won’t leave its stuff alone. Your way lies a very, very short career I’m afraid. Watched it more times than I want to think about over 40 years.

        • Dave

          I’m glad I wrote a messy rough draft on my first novel (but only the first). My critical voice at that time was more focused on “you can’t write a whole novel and if you do it’s going to suck.” I needed to prove that I could start and finish a hundred thousand word project. I did it and ended up getting an agent with it after several intensive revisions, for all that was worth. (Ironically, it’s the only book I’ve ever written that isn’t published.)

          I very much regret that I didn’t have Dean standing beside me as I started the second novel, telling me to cycle and not write messy, telling me to protect my creative voice and ignore most of what writers are told. I look back at the two million words I’ve published since then. If I had written cleanly, I’m sure I’d easily have twice that number. And the process would have been much, much, much more enjoyable. Revisions are tedious and soul-crushing for me.

          And I’ve learned one thing for certain. If you don’t protect your creative voice then your writing will get hammered when you hit a rough spot in life (family struggles, health, etc.). Hammered.

  • Deb Miller

    Thanks, Dean. I think you’ve just given me the answer to my question about how to read my stories in the anthology workshop. 🙂

  • Teri Babcock

    I just flat don’t care.

    This is one of those abilities that is essential to a career writer.
    A lot of people who measure their success always by someone else’s metric — and if you do that you can’t help caring about what other people think. In fact, those people wouldn’t be able to understand the message of this post, because to not care about other’s opinions of their work means to not care about their work at all. In their reality, there is no possibility to care about the work, your craft and your learning for its own sake.

    • Kate Pavelle

      And this includes family members. Ignoring family is very, very hard. Many of my writer friends write in secret and under pen name just to avoid the issue.

      • dwsmith

        Wow, how sad that a person can’t stand up for themselves with their family. Of course, my mother always thought my writing was a little hobby and I should go get a real job and I didn’t see her the last five years of her life. If your writing is important, you fight for it, not hide it.

        • Cora

          Thanks Dean. I’m another “little hobbyist” in my family. Right now I just don’t bring it up and I’ve gotten really good at non-committal noises. And I’m building up my inventory and gearing up to putting a variety of things on the market. It’s not their business, it’s mine and I’m doing it.

  • Kate Pavelle

    It is. One of the genres I write is gay romance and my husband, who’s an all-around awesome guy, was mortified. This was before marriage equality and a gay presidential candidate, but we had some hard discussions. “I won’t try to censor you,” he said, with that unsaid “BUT.”
    “That’s good to know, because I didn’t escape communist Czechoslovakia just to be censored in my writing,” I’d replied back then, rather tartly. Over the years, I slowly moved my gay rom under a separate pen name, but it’s no secret. Part of the reason is separating a still-controversial genre with occasional explicit content from mainstream fiction, and part of it is his comfort level. I used to be invested in letting in all hang out and damn the consequences because “I’m in American and I can do whatever I want,” but I toned my ego down from the level from that of a teenage emigree.
    He’s adapted, too. Sometimes, a “shocking” reality takes getting used to. Just yesterday he helped me format a complex document so Jutoh likes it better, and it has several gay rom stories in it. His only comment: “Hey, I found I typo, can I fix it for you?”
    People learn and grow. It’s important to give our family a chance to do that, and to give them the benefit of doubt of being capable of so much love that they will slowly adapt even if they have an initial bad reaction. (And if they won’t or can’t adapt, then you might as well know up-front.)

  • Melissa Proffitt

    Dean, I read this post when you first published it, and I read it again today because I just realized this morning that my critical voice was why I was struggling with the book I’m writing. I had been enjoying it, and then I hit a point where I just didn’t feel happy about it and I couldn’t tell why. And it turned out I was looking at the structure (not a smart thing to do when you’re supposed to just be writing, because who cares) and thinking “but what if readers think this is boring?” And you’re right–why on earth should I care if readers think it’s boring? I’m writing it because it’s a story I like, and if nobody else likes it but me, that’s not the end of the world. (Not to mention that those what-ifs are just stupid, because not only do they mean I’m caring too much, but I have no way of knowing what other people think, so I’m getting worked up over nothing, twice.) So I’m going back to the book remembering why I love it.