Critical Voice Kills Everything
Including Your Own Enjoyment of Reading
(and Watching Movies)…
For some reason, early on, writers think they must start being critical about all sorts of things. Books they don’t like because they are not to their taste, certain types of movies, the wrong use of one thing or another in a story by another author.
This is the critical voice, the very thing that works to stop you from writing. And also makes you believe that everything you do must be perfect, therefore you must outline and rewrite and not put something out anywhere until it has been polished to a shine.
The job of the critical voice is to stop you. It has no other function.
And the first sign critical voice is winning is when you allow it into your reading for pleasure. Or your movie and television viewing for pleasure.
What you used to love as a kid you now can’t watch, not because a part of you still doesn’t love it, but because you have become a “writer” and are looking at everything critical. And what you used to love you can now see the flaws.
Deadly to your writing. Writers must absorb story in all forms. And you just can’t do that if you can’t read or watch something for pleasure.
Now, there are far, far too many stupid things in being critical because of your writing for me to even begin to list them all. But let me list a few of the major warning categories.
— When you say, “The top bestsellers can’t write.” You are just about doomed right there. When you say any writer can’t write, you are on the way to being lost. Now it is perfectly fine to not like a story or a book because of personal taste. I have a well-known taste issue with Regency Romances. But the writers in that genre can write. Just not to my taste.
— When you read a dozen stories and not like any of them. Oh, oh. We see this at times in the anthology workshop, writers who flat can’t find a story that works for them. Critical voice hell right there.
— When you write critical reviews of other people’s work. (You really need a life in another field and a long ways from where I might run into your scummy face.)
— You look down your long, pointed, and ugly nose at someone else’s choice of movies or television shows. Again, you can not like something because it is not to your taste, just don’t be critical of others for liking something that is not to your taste.
— You think someone is a bad writer because they use too many of the most recent fad thing to omit like adverbs, paragraphs, or whatever, and think they are a good writer if their grammar is perfect. Oh, oh, you need to toss your Strunk and White out the window because it has infected your mind.
— You are an “expert” in some tiny area of the world and the FICTION writer didn’t get your expert thing right, so the writer must suck and be lazy and so on. Guns and doctor crap people are the worst at this. Military and historical buffs right behind. You might not read the writer because of taste, but because the writer does not match YOUR TASTE does not mean the writer is a bad writer. Sigh…
So, that’s enough. Annoying myself. (grin)
So, the next question should be from smart people is that if you can’t tear apart someone’s work, how can you learn?
First off, you read for pleasure, not allowing the critical voice in at any point. If you get done with the book or story and you flat LOVED IT, that is the book to study.
Again, catch yourself for any negative thought. Don’t allow them. Only positive.
Second, on a book you LOVED, ask yourself how an author did something in the book that you admire. A craft bit, a pacing, a dialogue scene, whatever.
If you liked the plot, outline the book to take that in more. (I have outlined numbers of Patterson Alex Cross books and many other thrillers.)
If the opening sucked you into the story, go back and in your own manuscript format, type in the other author’s opening. (I do this all the time, actually.)
You never tear apart someone else’s work, you study it for what they did right. A HUGE DIFFERENCE.
So I am watching Hallmark Christmas movies this year for some reason, enjoying the heck out of most of them with good characters. Some I must admit I do fast-forward through or turn away from for taste reasons only. But many I have enjoyed. First year in a long time I have had the ability to do this sort of thing.
(Remember, Kris and I novelized a bunch of Hallmark movies at one time in the past, including The Tenth Kingdom.)
As I watch the movies, I have nothing critical to say. I know the pattern, I know when something will happen, and how it will happen. But knowing that doesn’t take away from my enjoyment at all. Perfect entertainment.
Folks, we are entertainers. If you don’t allow yourself to be entertained, and then have fun entertaining yourself with your own work, how in the world can you expect to be entertaining to someone else????
So go have fun reading, watching movies, and writing.
Dean, respectfully, I’m fortunate that you and I have talked about this before, albeit privately via email. I learned a great deal, but I guess I’m still confused. I’m posting this here instead of privately in case it might help other writers.
In my function as a reader, when even a bestselling writer puts something in his or her story that flat boots me out of the story, it’s difficult for me to see that as a matter of taste. Especially if I’ve enjoyed other books in the same genre by that same author.
I’ve often told other writers they don’t really have to suspend the reader’s sense of disbelief. The reader does that when he or she decides to buy the book. What the writer has to do is not buy that sense of disbelief back through misspellings or typos, the use of inanities that flat don’t make sense, an inability (or refusal) to ground me in the story, etc. In short, I believe it’s the writer’s responsibility to keep the reader reading.
Otherwise, what’s the point of learning depth or suspense or pacing or the five-senses exercise or any of the other techniques we all try to employ in our own work? What’s the sense of doing a bit of research so we get calibers of weapons or police procedures or period clothing right?
When I finish reading a book, I always write a positive review. If I close one because I couldn’t get into the story because it was too “shallow” or too “thin” or too inane, though, I don’t write a bad review. I just wish, privately, the writer had maybe learned the craft better before he or she published that particular book.
On the other side, myself as a writer, if one reader or another doesn’t “like” a particular work of my own, I don’t mind at all. But if they take the time to point out (I’m very accessible) WHY they felt they couldn’t continue to read the story, and if that reason points to a lack of depth or some other flaw, I learn from it and do better on the next one.
I guess to me, “taste” goes more to genre than anything else. It’s why I won’t market an Action-Adventure (war) novel to Romance readers even though there might be a Romance element in the story.
And I admit, in the case of a few bestselling writers, it makes me wonder whether the writer (and or his or her publisher) maybe knew a lot more about marketing than he or she knew about Story and the craft of writing.
Harvey, when a book “boots” you from the story, it is your taste, not the author that does it. Sorry. Always the case.
What that author did is not to your taste, even if a craft thing.
Why does that happen with craft? Because we writers have one way of writing something. When you type something of someone else’s into your manuscript format, we always want to change words or punctuation or word choice. That is our voice wanting to do it differently. But on minor changes, we let it go through our minds and accept and study it. But when the author diverges too far from the way you would do it, strayed over some imaginary line we all have, we call it “bad writing” or basically “that didn’t work for me” and leave the story.
That is what is happening to you. Your taste has a line it will stand and past that it won’t. Nothing at all to do with quality of a story by another writer. All taste.
For example, last night, I was watching a Hallmark movie. Got to a point where I knew exactly what would happen next and I flat didn’t want to see it because it would be uncomfortable (to me). So I shut it off and went to do something else for about thirty minutes, then went back to it and rewound back to the spot right after the uncomfortable (to me) scene and enjoyed the rest of the movie just fine. I am very, very aware of my tastes and what ejects me from stories. Nothing at all to do with the quality of a story. Just me.
And sure, it is the writer’s responsibility to keep the reader reading. But not all readers. That is asking for perfection and there is no such thing. Every story will hold a certain type of reader and push away a certain type of reader. For example, I could not care about caliber of guns (or whatever that is). Not a clue, don’t care, don’t worry about it in my stories at all. I write for myself, so I am certain that at times I make “mistakes” as far as some readers are concerned and I push them out of the book. But that is because their taste does not match mine. Or isn’t close enough.
And sorry, Harvey, I thought you had gotten past that belief that marketing makes bestsellers. It flat does not, or at least not for more than one or two books. READERS make bestsellers that stay over time. But you are asking a lot of that bestseller to always write a book you love, and not make some choice you do not like. Sort of a large ego there, don’t you think? (grin)
Linda Maye Adams
I also think most of us really don’t think about what our tastes are when we read. As writers, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that it must be a writing flaw that’s causing the book to not be good, not that it’s something that’s not to our taste. There’s a popular writing blog where they regularly critique a chapter of a book by a best seller. They aren’t looking to understand what this writer did with craft; they’re picking apart perceived flaws. They did John Grisham one time. He’d used a summary opening in his book. Little more unusual. I’d checked it out for that reason and passed on it because it didn’t draw me (I think you mentioned them in a workshop, so I was on the lookout). The critiquer had no clue what JG had done. Just called it an info dump and was shocked, I say, shocked, to find such a beginning writer flaw in a best selling writer’s book. (Eye roll)
Meanwhile, I read Elizabeth Moon’s Oath of Fealty. There’s a scene early on which is entirely about this one character waking up and experiencing the setting. It runs for about three pages, and it’s riveting! It hits all my reader buttons for characterization. But I can also imagine writers poking at it: Scandal! Terrible! You can’t start a scene with a character waking up! It’s against the rules! And nothing is happening. The story is not moving forward!
BTW, there are scenes in movies that make me cringe. I can like everything else in the movie, but I have to walk away during the cringe scene.
Thanks. Got it.
Dean, thanks for explaining this in detail. I had a few questions similar to Mr. Stanbrough’s, but now I think I understand. And it feels good to have my confusion sorted out.
Linda Maye Adams
I remember when I got locked into criticizing books. Everything I read, I was nitpicking every little perceived fault. So much so that I wasn’t enjoying reading at all. I thought books had gone downhill from the ones I’d read growing up!
One day at work, someone put out some free books on the atrium tables. Nick Carters. I’d read those and enjoyed them but hadn’t seen them in years. Ah ha! I could read books from when they were still good. So I snatched them up, and read them.
And it was an eye-opening experience. The problem wasn’t the books. It was me. I stopped criticizing books and focused on enjoying them. Guess what the next book I read was? The DaVinci Code. On writing message boards, that book is that universally despised. Writers self-congratulate themselves on how superior they are for hating the book. They sneer at the sentence and grammar and make no effort to even understand what might have turned it into a best seller. Some of it is downright jealousy because their book is getting form rejects. They made the grammar perfect to pass an English teacher, paid big money for developmental editing, and this guy who they think they can’t grammar out of a paper bag became an undeserving best seller. There are writers who actively discourage study of successful writers. They say things like “Big name writer can get away with that. You’re not published. You can’t.” A lot of bitter writers out there.
By the way, I like the Hallmark movies, too. They’re a lot of fun.
They are fun.
And yup, I think it was Gosse who said, “If I could write as ill as those voices that haunt me still.”
Or as he also said I think in the same poem Impressions… “Too much afraid of faults to be…”
Remembered that off the top of my head, so I may have a word or two wrong on the quotes, but live with it. (grin)
Thanks for reminding me about that poem, Dean.
T Thorn Coyle
I did not know this poem, and wow, is it a doozy!
Sir Edmund William Gosse
IN these restrained and careful times
Our knowledge petrifies our rhymes;
Ah! for that reckless fire men had
When it was witty to be mad,
When wild conceits were piled in scores,
And lit by flaring metaphors,
When all was crazed and out of tune,—
Yet throbbed with music of the moon.
If we could dare to write as ill
As some whose voices haunt us still,
Even we, perchance, might call our own
Their deep enchanting undertone.
We are too diffident and nice,
Too learnéd and too over-wise,
Too much afraid of faults to be
The flutes of bold sincerity.
For, as this sweet life passes by,
We blink and nod with critic eye;
We ’ve no words rude enough to give
Its charm so frank and fugitive. 20
The green and scarlet of the Park,
The undulating streets at dark,
The brown smoke blown across the blue,
This colored city we walk through;—
The pallid faces full of pain,
The field-smell of the passing wain,
The laughter, longing, perfume, strife,
The daily spectacle of life;—
Ah! how shall this be given to rhyme,
By rhymesters of a knowing time?
Ah! for the age when verse was glad,
Being godlike, to be bad and mad.
And as far as copyright folks, why did I let the poem through? If you don’t know the answer, The Copyright Handbook is in your future.
And this might be one of the best writing poems I have ever seen. Why I quote from it all the time. I flat love the line “Too much afraid of faults to be.”
That describes so many writers afraid to finish a story.
I know a young writer who published 2 novels. Now he rewrites the third one for more than 2 years – no end in sight. But he is the king of critical voice referring the work of others writers (especially, you might have guessed it, bestseller authors). Sad, just sad.
Yes, it is sad. And not a thing anyone can do. Critical voice has a deadly grip once it goes so far.
I remember that this was an assignment in one of the workshops I took from you. I loved doing it in the workshop, so I have continued to do that exercise on my own. Just a few weeks ago I typed out the openings for Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold and A Clean Kill in Tokyo by Barry Eisler.
I adore both those books, and their openings sucked me right in. So I did your typing exercise. Then I looked at each segment (because I felt like I wanted to understand at an even deeper level how the authors had pulled off their marvelous openings), noting what the writer was doing in each, like this:
Setting: rush-hour crowd
Mood: ominous shark fin
POV character: I
Senses: sweating, heat
Setting: unseasonably hot October in Tokyo
Opinion: admiring the spy craft of protege
And so on. I found it useful to see how loaded those opening paragraphs were with character opinion. And also how grounded in setting they were.
J.M., and by doing that you are giving your creative voice to use what you observed when the time is right to use it. Amazingly powerful. And two great writers to study as well.
Love the opening of A Clean Kill.. been meaning to go back through that one. Thanks for the reminder!
Which workshop was this ? (I am interested in taking it).
Dean, isn’t it also true that our subconscious minds (i.e. creative voice) will “study” the techniques and patterns even if we simply read for pleasure without going back and analyzing?
This is an awesome post. You could do a whole book that’s a manifesto against the critical voice.
I take unique pleasure in the fact that my tastes are diverse. In the last month alone, I’ve read and loved Andre Dubus (so called literary), Philip K Dick (SF), David Goodis (old pulp), a Batman comic, and a Harlequin romance by Maureen Child. All great fun, and I’m convinced they all make me a more capable writer!
Philip, absolutely. The creative voice absorbs story and techniques all the time. Our job is to get out of its way and let it use the techniques.
“You are an “expert” in some tiny area of the world and the FICTION writer didn’t get your expert thing right, so the writer must suck and be lazy and so on.”
Or you’re committing a crime.
You can add to these some British Regency romance readers and writers. (I realize you’re unaware of these because you don’t like Regency. (grin) ) These people have fits over minor “errors”, like saying “fall” instead of “autumn”. (At the time, everyone said “fall”), “gotten” instead of “got” (“gotten” goes back to Tudor times), “trash” instead of “rubbish” (Shakespeare used “trash”) and “sidewalks” instead of “pavements” ( I don’t know about this one). They also get all bent out of shape if the author makes minor historical errors
All the Regency authors I know take pains to do their research, but there will always be errors. Also, a lot of them are Americans, and don’t know the minor details of today’s British idioms, which are different from those of 200 years ago. If the story is good, everyone should be lost in the story instead of having conniptions over a word or two. But when I said that, and that it’s fiction, I got my head bitten off.
You can write the most historically accurate story in the world and it can be nothing but boring. Write an entertaining story, do your research, clean up what you can, and go forward.
Dean, does this include Stephen King? He’s on record many times for saying other bestselling writers are bad writers. His favorite punching bag is James Patterson and has taken a few pot shots at Dean Koontz. Personnally, I am a fan of both Patterson and Koontz and enjoy damn near everything they write.
I recently finished a couple of cozy mysteries, a genre I never had any liking for.
Among my pet peeves are sci-f stories that get bogged down when entire chapters offer a master’s thesis on faster than light travel.
As you know, I’m a huge fan of your Cold Poker Gang series. Those stories just hit the ground running and don’t let me up for air.
But the Stephen King comments about other writers comes off as trash talk to me.
Yeah, pretty much King thinking his own shit doesn’t stink. Trash talk might be a better, more polite way of putting it. (grin)
I personally think Koontz might be a better crafts-person than King. Koontz keeps the craft under control and often invisible for the sake of the story. King is just King and his voice is always there. Both are fantastic but Koontz in ways is easier to study but harder at the same time. Patterson, on the craft level is just a master at what he does. And he writes all over every genre, which is cool as well. Koontz does that as well. All three are worth studying. But study the books of theirs that hit you and that you enjoy, not something you struggled with. Always study what you love in taste.
Listen to Dean, folks.
Critical voice takes the joy out of life.
It’s taken me years to dig myself out of the black hole of self critical thinking. It eats a person up from the inside out.
It never really goes away, either. But being aware of it is a huge step toward removing it from the center of your life.
Think like a little kid and just enjoy being in the moment.
Misery, I was surprised to learn, is optional for artists. There’s a whole lot of fun to be had making things up and learning new things.
We’re allowed to have fun.
Really, it’s true.
“Second, on a book you LOVED, ask yourself how an author did something in the book that you admire. A craft bit, a pacing, a dialogue scene, whatever. […]
If you liked the plot, outline the book to take that in more. […] You never tear apart someone else’s work, you study it for what they did right. A HUGE DIFFERENCE.”
^ Thinking back on this part of your post this morning I realized it fits in really well with how I try to improve as a visual artist. Find work/artists you love, study what they did and how they did it, and adopt the things you like into your own work through practice. You’d ***never*** study a master artist to nitpick him/her!
(And if artist X does feature Y really well or often, but not Z, well, you find another artist who does Z well and adopt them, too! Choose from the whole buffet of artists!)
I can’t finish any of the major authors books anymore, but I see why the stories they tell have wide appeal and craft. I love their earlier works when they were young and hungry, but my belief is they are all now such major operations they go through tons of rewrites and edits and let all these opinions in. I saw interviews with King where he basically admits to letting 20 somethings at his publishing company dictate changes to his stories.
They are not to my taste anymore because they are too polished.
Well, that’s one I haven’t heard before. Might want to check in with yourself on that one, jaran. Just saying…
I can’t finish hollywood blockbusters either anymore because they are so obviously stories by committee’s of marketeer’s.
Learning about “save the cat” destroyed my movie watching enjoyment. Every hollywood blockbuster has a “save the cat” moment.
Guess I’m a snob lol.
jaran, just worried that attitude is dangerous to your writing is all. It is a perfection attitude and it will eventually stop your creative voice cold. So caution.
T Thorn Coyle
Some people adore literary fiction and gorgeous language use. There’s nothing wrong with that. But when those same people turn around and sneer at bestsellers (like a literary writer friend of mine recently did) it annoys me.
I was a story snob in my early writing days. I also killed my fiction that way. Either I abandoned my novels 2/3rds through, or labored over a short story for a year (courtesy of a writing group where some folks worked on the same project for year after year after year. And we critiqued chapters as they came out. Yikes). I stopped writing fiction all together and went into non-fiction where I had some decent success.
What I’m interested in now is storytelling, and I feel grateful for that.
So my question is: if the “save the cat” trope makes for a good story, why is that a problem?
Another big movie trope is what Roger Ebert called “the fruit cart”. Once I knew to look for it, I immediately saw that there’s an important pacing reason for the fruit cart showing up where it does.
Storytelling has had tropes and tricks since folks first sat around a fire.
What I’m attempting to do now –as I voraciously read in genres I didn’t used to be drawn to– is to see what works for me. What hooks me in regarding character development and what is just not to my taste. I read opening chapters of even more books. If they don’t grab me, I nope out.
Lately, I’ve been sick, and watching The Great British Baking Show. Once I watched several episodes, I began looking at the story structure of the show. Because it is there. It’s the same every time, with variations because the characters change and therefore emotional responses etc change. But the show is so hugely successful because they figured out a story that works –even though all it looks like is eight people in a tent, baking cookies and cakes.
So thanks, Dean (and Kris) for your continued insistence on storytelling and entertainment. It has helped me loosen up my critical voice (which was trained into me in childhood about *everything*) and enjoy a lot more, including my own writing process.
Ohh! I’m so thrilled I got a whole blog post as a response, as well as all the comments! Thank you!
I’ve been thinking about redefining things I have been calling bad writing as not my taste. It changes things so much. In fanfiction communities there’s a word ‘squick’ which refers to something you find uncomfortable for some reason (like the scene in the movie you mentioned I’m guessing) and there’s a very strong culture of ‘your squick doesn’t make the story bad.’ It’s something I’ve neglected to carry over to reading original writing. Calling stuff I don’t like a squick re-frames everything and makes me realize I’m just imposing the expectation of conforming to my taste on another writer. When ever I put down a book I’m going to remind myself that it’s not that it’s bad, it’s just squicking me.
I’m going to try some of the exercises you suggested, but I realise that I’ve been doing one of them already. For a while now a friend and I have been taking turns choosing a favorite book to read together, with a focus on something the other person would never read but we think they’ll like it. She recently chose Twilight, and with how much that book is demonized I expected to hate it. I was surprised by how much I liked it. Some of the romance !squicked! me, but I could absolutely see why it was such a bestseller. My most successful rec to her was a underappreciated Dean Koontz anthology called Strange Highways. (any Koontz fans, look it up, it’s amazing!) She kept messaging me stuff like “it’s so gothic!!” (she loves gothic novels) and “oh wow this sensory detail!” (something I really hadn’t looked at that way) It’s awesome to be able to discuss a book with a friend and have another perspective on why a particular book is good. And it makes the whole thing more positive to know that the book the other person recced is a personal favorite. You don’t want to trash on your friend’s faves, so you look for the good stuff instead.
Thanks so much for the extensive answer. This whole thing is so thought provoking.
The timing of your post was interesting, Dean. Shortly after reading this, I went to see Aquaman yesterday. Spoiler: I didn’t like it. I was bored out of my mind—hated it—spent most of my time picking apart all the things that the director had done “wrong.”
The kid sitting next to me had a very different experience. He was clearly very in to everything going on. As soon as the credits rolled, he turned to his parents and yelled “That was awesome!!”
Different audiences. And I realized then it wasn’t a bad movie. Wasn’t a movie for me, that’s all.
I spend so much time in my writing in my own head trying to get every detail “right,” when I should just be telling the story. There will always be people who (like me yesterday) will rip apart even my absolute best work because they don’t want to be entertained by the type of stories I want to tell. I need to forget about them, and write instead for that boy in the theater. Someone who _wants_ to be entertained by the type of stories I want to tell.
All that to say: Thanks. I needed this reminder.
Exactly, Tom. Tell the stories you want to tell (and keep working to become a better storyteller of the stories you want to tell) and readers will come. That really is how it works.