Challenge,  On Writing

Critical Voice Kills Take Two

I Wrote This As a Comment Response Yesterday…

So thought it would be good to clean up my comment, expand a little and put here so more people see it. It is on the topic of critical voice shutting off your enjoyment of other author’s work.  It is a matter of taste. Read the last post before reading this.

When a book kicks you from the story, it is your taste, not the author’s fault. Always the case.

What that author did is simply 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 when you hate another author’s writing for one reason or another. 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. Your 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 or the craft of the writing.

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) or make of a gun. 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 gun 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.

This happens with all “experts” in certain areas. And it happens with grammar obsessed and polish obsessed and so on and so on. All of them have tastes and when a writer tells a perfectly fine story that drives over the line for the tastes of a reader, fans just put the book down and new writers claim the writer can’t write.

As a new writer, you have to understand the concept of your personal taste and learn how to read for pleasure. As I said in the last post, critical voice will kill your writing and your enjoyment of writing and reading.

Just stop being negative. And go have fun.


  • Harvey

    Thanks, Dean. I suppose in my own writing I take the sense that there are readers on the other side of the page to an extreme.

    To contine the example of the calibers of weapons or other details, I take your point. If I use a detail that is correct (and important to the story), that detail still won’t matter either way to some readers. But to the readers for whom it does matter, if I get it wrong, that fake detail might toss them out of the story.

    When as a reader I am tossed out of a story by some inanity or seriously wrong detail (my taste or my desire for authenticity), it doesn’t matter to me whether the story is from a bestselling writer or a first-time writer.

    As a writer, I understand I can’t account for another’s “taste,” and that’s fine. But I can account for my own level of storytelling ability. That’s exactly why I continue to take courses and learn the craft. For me, that doesn’t mean I’m striving for perfection. For me, it means that I’m trying to attract more readers and dissapoint (run off) fewer readers.

    • dwsmith

      That, Harvey, I completely agree with. And well said.

      How I look at it is that I work hard to keep learning as much as I can all the time because I want to be the best storyteller of the stories I want to tell. And I do my best to get details correct as do you, but I also am aware of the calculation of a missed detail. I am not writing for the three people who will catch an obscure detail that I got wrong in a story, but for the hundreds and hundreds of thousands who won’t notice and be reading for the story I am telling and the characters. So I agree, I work on being the best storyteller I can be at that moment in time on that story I am writing at that time. I know the story won’t be perfect, but it will be the best I can do at that moment in time.

      • J.M. Ney-Grimm

        …I want to be the best storyteller of the stories I want to tell.

        I love that way of looking at it. Thank you for say it. I think I’m finally understanding it, mostly because I’m having so much fun writing my current novel.

        I’ve always loved the experience of telling my stories, but there have been fringes of angst around the enjoyment, and small rivulets of stress, of worrying that I didn’t know enough craft to be doing a good job.

        Somehow, with this one, I’ve left all those worries behind. Which leaves just the pure fun of it all, untainted by angst or stress or worry. And I think it’s because I’m telling this one just for me. Sure, I’m giving it the best that I have in me. But still, at the end of the day, it is for me. And there is a feeling of incredible freedom in that.

      • Harvey Stanbrough

        Dean, absolutely agree. Learn, write (practice), repeat is the best formula I’ve ever found, and of course I found it through you. And that “practice” part means writing the best story I can write at the time.

        I add only that it isn’t really even my story. It’s the characters’ story. I’m living mine, and they’re living theirs. But I’m fortunate in that they’ve chosen me to be their Recorder. (grin)

        I’m down in the trenches with them, writing down what they say and do (when I’m not leaning back in my chair and saying “Wow, I didn’t see THAT coming!”

        And I’m an old guy, so every thousand words or so the characters take pity on me and we take a breather. Then just before we race off into the next scene, I go back about a thousand words and let them add whatever I missed as we were racing along.

        It’s a wonderful life.

  • Sean McLachlan

    Yes, “experts” can be annoying critics, although oddly the more expert they are, the more forgiving they are. I write a lot of historical fiction, and I’ve gotten criticisms about things being “wrong” when in fact they weren’t or it was open to interpretation as so much of history is. The criticisms usually come from people who haven’t studied much of the era that I’m writing about.
    A good friend of mine is an expert on modern Middle Eastern history and lives in Cairo. I gave him one of my Cairo mysteries that’s set in 1919. I had done a lot of research for this novel. I love reading history so that’s no burden to me at all. One of my sources was a guidebook from 1923. Close enough, I thought. Nope, one of the major squares changed its name in 1921, so I got that wrong. My friend, who has written dozens of academic tomes and articles, didn’t mind at all. As he said, “No one else is going to catch this.” He loved the story and such a obscure historical detail did not get in the way of his enjoyment. Basically, he was secure enough in his expertise that he didn’t have to flaunt it and act superior.

    • dwsmith

      That’s a great expert reader when they have the self-awareness to say “No one else will catch this.” Wow, good one there. Lucky.

  • Vera Soroka

    Well the one thing I don’t like is multiple POV. I bought a book two by an author and just can’t get through because of just that. I’ll get through it at some point. I certainly don’t blame her. I just don’t like that style of writing. Another writer who I would loved to have read her vampire books started doing the same thing. I can take two point of views of which I think the first few books were but then she gave everybody a chapter. Couldn’t do it. It’s just not my taste and I know it.

    • dwsmith

      And Vera, a bunch of readers, including me, will read your post and say, “But I love multi-viewpoint complex books.” (grin) And that is exactly what I am talking about. All of our varied reader tastes. And that’s good because that means all of us writers can find an audience when we write the books we love for ourselves.

  • Ryan

    You have synthesized down why so many writers rewrite, polish, and edit their work to death. Why they only produce one book, story, or article a year. Critical voice. And the deadliest kind of critical voice, the critical voice that’s trying to reach every “taste” under the sun. I love this post, and the last one, because it frees the writer to write in their own way, not worry about sounding like a certain author or person. It frees the writer to enjoy other peoples work and not be so critical because it’s not our “taste.” It frees the writer to have fun! Great job here, and keep on keeping on, Mr. Smith!

  • robert bucchianeri

    I have virtually no first hand experience with guns. And in my mysteries and thrillers I’ve always spent a little time researching and trying to make sure I had the right gun used correctly, but never went to the kind of trouble that I know some writer’s do–consulting with the police, or learning to shoot, or handling guns directly because I too have little interest.
    I care much more about the characterization and setting and plot.
    An example of a writer who I never could get into is Tom Clancy because of his great emphasis and abundance of detail regarding the hardware–bored me to tears. But he did fine without me.
    Just not my cup of joe.
    Kind of freeing to read your attitude…can’t please everyone all the time.

    • Edward M. Grant

      I must admit, I have fired a bunch of historical (WWI/WW2/British Empire) guns with the excuse that I’ll write them into a novel one day; and, in a few cases, I actually have. But with the Internet, there’s really no reason to go that far.

      If your WWII heroine picks up a Webley Mk VI revolver, just go to Youtube, type in ‘Webley Mk VI’ and ten minutes later you’ll know all you need to know about how she would load and shoot it.

      But, yes, if it’s not important to the reader, even that much research is just a waste of time. You point it, pull the trigger and it goes bang is enough detail in most genres. In military or survivalist fiction, not so much.

      And by putting in too much detail for your genre, there’s the risk of confusing readers who think they know about guns when she breaks open the Webley like a double-barreled shotgun, rather than pushing the cylinder out like a modern revolver. ‘Revolvers don’t do that, I’ve seen them on TV,’ etc.

      • dwsmith

        Frighteningly enough, I am a very good shot, taught by a family of Idaho hunters. (Hated hunting and never killed anything, but they taught me hunting when I was young, including bow.) What I got the most out of when I was out with my family was the old gold mines. In the late 1950s the mines mostly were still open and abandoned and kids like me could go into them. (Yup, stupid I know.) And my grandparents lived in those old mining towns back in the 1910s and told fantastic stories of what it was like. We would go up to an old, abandoned building in what was left of a town and they would talk about what it had been and what they had done in that building when they were young.

        So ever want to know where my Thunder Mountain series came from, now you know. My grandmother was an Edwards. A part of her family founded Edwardsburg up in the Thunder Mountain region of the Salmon River.

        So I know and love this stuff, including old west guns and historical details. And I do my best to get them right to make the reader feel like they are there. But past that, the story wins. Always.

  • Linda Maye Adams

    When I was working on the first book in my sci-fi series, I put an Army officer in charge of the military space cruiser. Pretty much, I was in the Army, and I got tired of seeing every science fiction book have only Navy and Army was nowhere to be found. My creative brain wanted to see Army have some space adventures.

    I was telling a jewelry vendor about it one day. She’s a Sci-Fi fan and sells at all the regional cons as well as at where I work. She was adamant. Army officers could not command spaceships! They did not have the technical knowledge. It was a very spirited discussion (she didn’t like the children being on board Next Gen either). I went home and thought about it. I did not want to make the character Navy. Nope, nope, nope. Wasn’t happening. But I also recognized that I might need to add something more (a combination of setting and maybe an early attempt at information flow). So I made him the first Army officer to command, established there was a glass ceiling for Army officers, and that all the other officers judged him solely on what service he was in. And also that he wanted command, so he’d gone out and gotten all kinds of experience. It actually added a lot to the character and the setting because it made me think more about what I was doing with his character.

    Are there people who will object to having an Army officer in command? Probably. It’s my world, and my characters.

  • Filip Wiltgren

    Dean, I agree with your point, but I have to take umbrage at the “reader’s fault” part.

    Yes, if you don’t like something, it’s a matter of your taste. You’re not right for the story. But looking at it from the writer’s perspective (which we can do just as a easily as from a reader’s perspective), it’s the writer’s fault for not providing a story that suits you – it’s BOTH reader’s and writer’s fault, at the same time.

    Now, as a reader, it’s pointless to argue whether a writer is good or not. But for me as a writer, it’s of great value to look at the “flaws” (note the quotation marks) that make readers dislike my works. Because if I fill my book with “faults” and try to sell it to that audience, I’ll fail.

    So if I just look at it as the reader’s fault, I’ll never learn who my work is for, or what I’d need to write to suit a particular reader/market/segment. Like if I try to sell romance without any love I’m not going to succeed.

    But, as with everything, there’s a flip side: no matter what you write, there is someone, somewhere, who will absolutely love it.

    But there’s a danger in that way of thinking, which I’ve seen (and I’m sure you’ve too) among the kind of beginner who never seems to improve, and can’t understand why. Because they do view it as the reader’s fault. That they as writers are brilliant and blameless. And thus they don’t need to improve their writing.

    Well, that was a long brain blast. And if people don’t like it, I guess it’s the reader’s fault 😉

    • dwsmith

      Never said it was the reader’s fault, as in the reader is stupid or some such thinking as that. I just said, basically, that all humans have tastes and those tastes run to all levels of story, from topic, genre, content, craft, and grammar.

      And if a writer thinks they are good enough to not have to learn, that writer is lost.

      So sorry, don’t agree with you thinking you have to go out to write for readers. To have a long-term career, which is what I talk about here, you write for yourself first. You don’t write to market or some imagined reader. And how do you know that you are filling your work with “faults” as you put it or not?????? You don’t have a clue, trust me, and neither do I because writers are the worst judges of our own work. So your ways leads to trying to make everything perfect and the next step is the end of your writing, so extreme caution there.

      • Filip Wiltgren

        Allow me to expand a bit:

        My ability to read and enjoy stories far outpaces my ability to write the kind of stories I have enjoy (putting the whole being a terrible judge of our own work aside). I’m writing along, and the story stops (I WITD, BTW). It doesn’t help no matter how much I rip out of the story, how far back I go to start over, the story is dead because I’m not good enough to see what I need to put into it in order to create the kind of story that I like.

        And when I read, it doesn’t help me to see and retype the great scene I read if I can’t put on my thinking hat and analyze that scene A works because of what the writer does in scenes X, Y and Z.

        I don’t know what know, maybe I’m thick, but without the ability to spot the “successes” and “flaws”, and why they make the story work/not work, I’m unable to feel the story I want to write.

        And to do that, I need to acknowledge, at least to myself, that there are conventions and in order to go outside the conventions (or not), I need to first know what they are.

        • dwsmith

          Filip, fantastic excuse to not finish stories. Actually one of the most creative I have heard. All critical voice, of course. You have given that critical voice great power and excuses to stop you and you are letting it win. Sorry, really is that simple.

          You know how you finish a story? When you get stuck, just write the next sentence. And then the next. Don’t think about where it is going or the final result, just write the next sentence.

          You think you know what you want in a story but you are never giving your creative voice the permission to write it and really find out.

          So well done on one of the most creative reasons to not write I have ever heard in 40 years. But my suggestion is to break that quick and never repeat it, even to yourself. Heinlein’s Rule #2… Finish what you write.

        • Harvey Stanbrough

          Filip, let your characters tell the story. After all, they’re the ones who are living it.

          You can write in one of two ways: You can be that almighty Author on High, controlling every little aspect of what your characters say and do… Or you can roll off the parapet into the trenches of the story and run through it with your characters.

          The second way is a lot more fun. That’s writing into the dark.

          I don’t even see myself as a storyteller. I’m only the recorder whom the characters have invited along to record their story.

          I run through the story with them, just trying to keep up. I write down what they say and do, and every thousand words or so the characters take pity on me (I’m an old guy so it’s difficult for me to keep up) and we all take a break.

          Just before we’re ready to race back into the story, I cycle back through the previous thousand words to let the characters add anything I missed as we were racing along. Then we’re off and running into the next scene, and the next, and the next.

          And seriously, after “follow Heinlein’s Rules” and “trust your subconscious,” the best advice I ever got from Dean (or anywhere else) is “when you get stuck (or the story ‘stops’), Just Write the Next Sentence.”

          All writers are different, but this has worked for me through 37 novels and counting.

        • Linda Maye Adams

          Adding to what Dean and Harvey said:

          It sounds like you have a sneaky critical voice. Once I started crossing off the obvious critical voice stuff, mine got really sneaky and subtle. I’d be writing along and suddenly derail and get stuck. Often I had to backtrack simply because critical voice tried to take control of the story.

          It can also really mess with you. I have to reread my entire story periodically because CV starts nudging me and whispering, “This isn’t that good.” And I started believing it! I find I remember the story wrong, and it isn’t until start looking over what I wrote and realize that it’s pretty good.

          • dwsmith

            Exactly, Linda. Critical voice is always negative. Always comes out “This isn’t good.” Or “It needs to be fixed.” That’s how you tell you are in critical voice mode.

            And another factor that most don’t think about and I maybe should write about. Critical voice trick is to make it feel mandatory, important, need to be done right now!!!! Creative voice doesn’t care about time. But critical voice does. Think kid time sense and parental time sense and you can catch the critical voice in that mode as well.

  • Kenny Norris

    I finally get it. I mean it’s been dancing there, in the open, for the last little while but for me it was something above that helped me link 2 things together.

    There’s a book called The Power of Unpopular, it’s a business book about how you want to _turn off_ some people. This means that you’ll be like Marmite (a British toast spread) either people will love you or hate you. If people are merely indifferent then you’ll only be liked half-heartedly. What you want is to invoke strong feelings.

    I’m thinking of those true fans. People who’ve visited the Harry Potter Studios (I worked at a hotel near there) many times and still enjoyed going. Those who came back with the wands and other ‘junk’ from the gift shop excited that they’d been.

    Isn’t that what we want: true fans who preach about our work whenever they get a chance?

    Okay so the cost is that we get a few haters, or a few trolls, but who cares. We get to have those who love us.

  • BDS

    So if I’m “kicked out” of ANY story, that is my fault (due to taste) and NEVER the author’s? Not sure I’m buying this argument. There are many, many stories that are excellent but not to my taste (just read one by Kris as a matter of fact – terrifically written but didn’t appeal to me; this is an example of a story that is good but not to my taste), but that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m thinking of stories where the author’s skill level is such that you can’t even follow the story or understand it, or it is so full of technical errors that the narrative becomes confusing. Surely that isn’t attributable to “taste”. (And I do appreciate that many cannot/do not differentiate between something that is legitimately unskillful and something they simply don’t like, so if this was the point you are trying to make, please disregard this comment.)

    • dwsmith

      BDS, well, you have a certain level of skill (by your definition) required to hold you in a story. AND THAT IS TASTE. Your taste.

      For example, for me, I find it almost impossible to read massive paragraphs where the writer doesn’t understand pacing and can’t find the return key to save a life. Does not mean that the writing is bad, but to me it is. And that is my taste. Nothing more. (Why I find it almost impossible to read articles or stories in the New Yorker.) For many writers, that is a lack of skill. For others it is a choice. But it is my taste either way that stops me from reading them.

      So folks out there can’t read a story if some grammar is wrong. Others can’t if dialog is done differently. Others if they can’t follow a plot. You blame the writer. Writer did the best they could with the knowledge they had at that time. You either read it or not depending on your taste.

      One more point. In the anthology workshop each year we have to reader between 250 and 300 short stories. I read like an editor. If the writer doesn’t use depth and suck me into the story through the character, I stop reading and reject the story. My taste. I have discovered over the years that other editors in the same workshop don’t have that same issue and will read into a story that I can’t read. Their tastes differ from mine, nothing more.

      • allynh

        Dean said: For example, for me, I find it almost impossible to read massive paragraphs where the writer doesn’t understand pacing and can’t find the return key to save a life.

        H.G. Wells is a perfect example of that. He will write page after page of one paragraph. Glug! I so want to take, When the Sleeper Wakes, from Gutenberg and break the story up into smaller paragraphs.

        Just read Casting the Runes, by M.R. James and he did the same thing. Vast paragraphs filling page after page. I’d post a sample, but it’s close to a thousand words. Yikes!

      • BDS

        Thanks for responding. I will say, when I used to watch movies for a review site I used to write for, I quickly reached a point where I couldn’t enjoy ANY movie because I was always nitpicking. It didn’t entirely ruin movies that were to my taste, but it was definitely distracting even then, and it sucked a lot of life out of everything else that wasn’t entirely to my taste. Haven’t written for that site for years and only now am I starting to be able to enjoy movies again.

  • Matt

    My takeaway is, Shakespeare’s works aren’t any better or worse than any other writer’s works. Shakespeare’s works simply appeal to more people’s tastes, accounting for his popularity.

    Substitute any writer’s name for Shakespeare’s, e.g. Hemingway, Faulkner, O’Connor, Chandler, your great aunt Ida, etc. and the statement remains true. Someone, even if only Aunt Ida herself, will always prefer Aunt Ida’s work to Shakespeare’s.

    The imperative: Stop chasing success by writing to your perception of other people’s tastes.

    If Shakespeare or Aunt Ida allowed critical voice to shape their work to fit their perceptions of other people’s tastes, we might not have the work of either.