Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Dangers of Not Trusting The Creative Voice

Things Stop When You Lose Faith In The Creative Voice…

I watch this loss all the time and hear about it from hundreds of writers over every year. Not trusting your creative voice is deadly.

This came up a couple days ago when I talked about writing clean first draft work by cycling. And how that keeps the creative voice in control and eliminates the need for a critical-voice second or third draft. Got some great excuses. Fun to read.

I just sort of felt sad, actually, because that’s like knowing when a person will die. I can see, over forty years, exactly how long it will take some of these mistakes to kill a writer’s career and dreams. Brutal, sadly, but true.

Think of the creative voice as a brilliant writer with the social skills and attention span of a two-year-old. The creative voice knows a billion times more than your critical voice about writing fiction because it has been absorbing story since you were born.

But the rules, the myths, the fears, you have been taught hold the creative voice in check.

Think of the critical voice as a parent. Come on, you know how that sounds…

“Don’t do that, you can’t do that, stop there, this will be a waste of time…”

Sounds like a parent? Yup. And all negative.

The creative voice, on the other hand, wants to just entertain itself and tell a story. And it knows how to tell fantastic stories if you and your learned parental voice leave it alone.

Anything negative is critical voice.

Keep that in mind.

The Dangers…

Outlining… Absolutely the quickest way to make sure the creative voice won’t even show up. Why should it bother? Your critical voice has already figured out what the book will be, so the creative voice just goes off and pouts, leaving you the hard work of writing from critical voice. And having no fun.

Figuring Out What Is Coming… The moment you bog down and think you need to know what happens next, you make your creative voice angry and it leaves. Why should it bother to stick around? Critical parent voice has taken over because of fear. This is why so many novels stop on page 100 or so. You didn’t trust your creative voice to just figure it out as it went along. Your job to help the creative voice? Just write the next sentence.

Writing Sloppy Drafts… This is totally deadly. You are telling your creative voice that its work is flawed and needs to be fixed later. Think how you would like to live under those conditions. Eventually the creative voice just goes away and you don’t find writing fun anymore, let alone all the rewriting. This is why most rewrite authors who do make it are very short-lived careers. They become a “whatever happened to…” ghost.

Knowing Your Ending… This, to the creative voice, is exactly like you picking up a book, flipping to the last pages, reading the ending, then thinking the book will be interesting to read. This comes from fear, brought on by the critical voice being afraid of “wasting” your time and so on. You know, stuff parents said to you in the real world. If you need to figure out the ending because of fear, you will lose your creative voice almost instantly and the project will lose excitement and mostly just die.

Writing is Hard Work… No creative voice wants to show up with that belief system. That is all a myth and remember, the creative voice is like a two-year-old in nature. It doesn’t want to do anything it is forced to do. So when you keep repeating over and over to make your ego feel better that writing is hard work to be suffered over, your creative voice says screw that and leaves. And then writing from critical voice does become hard work and your books are dull.

The Creative Voice Needs Rest… This might be one of the most deadly of them all, actually. A creative voice can play as much as you allow it for as long as you let it play. Two-year-old, remember? But if you have bought into one of the really stupid myths that the creative voice needs to recharge after an hour or a blazing 500 words or something silly like that, you are basically telling the creative voice it has to quit just when it gets going. Now life issues it understands and waits without issue, but when you are just pulling a parent and saying, “You have had enough now, time to nap,” the creative voice turns its attention to something else. And often won’t return the next day when you want it. Again, why should it? A scary deadly myth.

So there are others, but that is enough for now. Might want to check in with yourself as you read those, figure out which ones sounded right to you, which ones your critical parent voice pushed back on, and which myth you still buy into.


There really is one solution to all of the above and the others I didn’t mention. Let the creative voice control at all times. Let it build up trust that you will allow it to write without parental demands on it.

Anything negative is parent critical voice. “That sucks.” “It really doesn’t work.” “I’m afraid I will waste my time.” And so on.

Or parental demands like “That is hot, I need to write a book in that genre.”

Leave your creative voice alone, folks.

Change to positive. And how do you do that with so much training in the other way? Actually, simply do three things…

1… Stop caring so much about the final product, just do the best you can.

2… Write one draft, clean with cycling in creative voice, and release with a promise to yourself you won’t touch it again.

3… Have fun. Make writing fun again. Make it play.

Then stand back because you will be writing stories you never expected to write and having a blast doing it.


  • Céline Malgen

    Thanks for the reminder, that’s always good!

    I like your image of the two-year-old for the creative voice, but I’ve always felt as if something was off with my understanding of it. Thanks to the discussion yesterday, I think I now know what felt wrong.

    I was kind of imagining that if the creative voice is a two-year-old, then it must have the creative abilities of a two-year-old. Which, to be honest, it not great… In fact, you meant that the creative voice has no inhibition, it just wants to play, like a two-year-old, BUT it still has been reading (or been read to) for however many years you have been on the planet. And therefore it has the experience as a reader of a 67-year-old (in your case), with the lack of inhibitions of a two-year-old.

    I think that realisation will help my critical voice to let go. And also the fact that there is no real danger. I wouldn’t trust a two-year-old to cross a street safely, but why not let the creative voice write a story, if the worst that can happen is that I don’t like the story (and even then, it wouldn’t mean that it’s not good, writers being the worst judges of their work and all).

    • dwsmith

      Exactly, Celine. A brilliant, brilliant ability and part of your mind with the attitude of a two-year-old. Exactly.

  • Linda Maye Adams

    The worst part is that a lot of the dangers are things that everyone routinely tells pantsers they must do. So much so that pantsers typically recommend knowing your ending or identifying plot beats in the story before writing (hullo? Outlining?). I spent YEARS struggling to produce a novel-length work on fiction. It terrified me to submit to agents because I would battle my way up to 50K–90K seemed so far away!

    I understood intuitively that I was having trouble with secondary plots, but I didn’t understand why. So looked everywhere, searching for a piece of advice that would make the light bulb go off. I even tried outlining, and the story would crash and die after three chapters. I’m amazed at the sneering put downs to pantsers now–everyone was like “Well, you must be doing the outline wrong.” No one, not one person thought the culprit was the outlining. It wasn’t until I took the productivity class here that I realized how much junk I was getting that involved outlining, and how many myths were directed at pantsers. I had to dump everything I learned and go back to square one with a fresh eye.

    Some myths told to pantsers:

    1. You’ll come over to outlining once you see pantsing doesn’t work.

    2. All pantser stories are a mess.

    3. Pantsers don’t plot (outliners are plotters and pantsers–implies that pantsing a novel means you don’t have a plot).

    4. Outlining for pantsers (just reading that now makes my head hurt).

    5. Don’t edit as you write. Doom will happen! (Curiously, an important pantser tool to help the story is routinely dismissed by outliners).

    6. Pantsing wastes time!

    7. Pantsers need structure in their stories (read: pantsers will only get structure by outlining).

    8. Outlining does not destroy creativity! It’s all in your mind!

    • dwsmith

      Linda, Yup, and all said with the best of intentions (on the surface) and all designed to kill your joy in writing. Head shaking. And sad. Glad no one has the courage to spout that shit at me. Thanks for posting that because I will be most here have heard a bunch of them.

      • Janine

        “5. Don’t edit as you write. Doom will happen! (Curiously, an important pantser tool to help the story is routinely dismissed by outliners).”

        The common mantra in nearly all writing circles now (not just NaNoWriMo, but I suspect that’s where it got popular) is to never edit or look back on your writing until the first draft is complete. I suspect it was originally to help boost confidence of writers who never finished a novel in their lives, but especially for those that have experience in finishing, this can backfire. How? You have lots more rewriting to do later, because your issues have gone out of control instead of nipping them early. Like instead of fixing that foundation issue that will flunk inspection when it’s easy and cheap to do, you wait until you have a shoddy house.

          • Janine

            It was from Linda’s comment a few posts above mine. I quoted it since I wanted to emphasize that one a bit more. Until recently, I believed it myself, but I’m realizing how destructive it is now since it leads to sloppy writing.

  • Harvey

    Absolutely spot on, Dean. So many writers and would-be writers need to hear this. Thanks. My own personal pariah at times is trying to figure out what comes next. Now when that happens, I get up from my dedicated writing computer and take a walk for a half-hour to an hour. I look around, enjoy the scenery, anything but “think” about the story. When I go back, i sit down and just write the next sentence.

    • dwsmith

      Great idea, Harvey. Folks, listen to this one. I tend to take a nap right at that point. (grin)

  • Kessie

    Does this apply to novels, or only short stories? I have pantsed some very nice 60k novels that turned out all right, but they were fanfiction, and I allow my creative voice a lot more free reign in fanfiction. Alas, fear.

    • Kate Pavelle

      I’d like to gently point out that fan fiction is real writing. I came from fanfic. I wouldn’t be here with over 40 published titles had it not been for my accepting, enthusiastic fanfic readers, some of whom have become close personal friends. Since there are people who look down on fanfic writers, or on writers who came from fanfic. A few point in favor of fan fiction, then:

      – for many, creating a story in a set canon is great training wheels to start writing and actually FINISH something. Craft creeps in over time of one pays attention.
      – fanfic readers are a supportive bunch, and writing chapter-by-chapter for a handful (or a few hundreds) of happy readers is immensely gratifying.
      -writing from behind an anonymous screen name allows one to take risks. Genre expectations don’t exist. WIth no money at stake, it’s just pure fun.
      – Converting a fan fiction into an original-fiction is an exercise in humility, and it teaches a lot about world building and character development. It gives the writer an opportunity to send a thank-you letter to the canon creator for fleshing out all the details… which one notices only because one needs to do the same. It also teaches that redrafting is a better way to go.
      – Excellent fan fiction can be published where IP situations permit it. Laurie King and her Beekeper’s Apprentice, and other books in her Mary Russel and Sherlock Holmes series, is a lovely example of great books that use somebody else’s original characters.

      Aside from being a great teaching tool, fanfic writing is fun. Every so often, when my critical voice rears its ugly head, I’m tempted to write a quick fanfic story just to put it in its place.

      • Mel Todd

        I do this too. I have a lot of fanfic followers and sometimes when I’m really down or in the whole “my story sucks” point I’ll write some fanfic and throw it up. It is an immediate mood lifter and lets me think maybe I can do it.

  • Maree Brittenford

    I think a lot of this is why I have such a hard time finishing novels. Like right now, I’ve got probably 5-6k left to finish this novel and I can see how it all wraps up, but getting those words down is hard work. I have written this novel into the dark, but now that I can see the light on the other side it’s so much harder to write.

    I think part of it is that I know what’s going to happen, and part of it is generalized perfectionist fear of finishing things. But I always struggle to get the last few thousand words out.

    Do you have any advice for keeping this bit fun? Most advice out there is more along the lines of suffer and endure.

    • dwsmith

      Maree, when that close to the end, start being afraid of not finishing, which will then cover up the fear of finishing. And yup, the creative voice is done because it knows the ending, so you have to just be disciplined and finish. All of us have trouble with those last few thousand words because the creative voice finds the end, and leaves. You just finish. But be terrified of not finishing. That is the key to solving the problem. Not finishing is not acceptable.

  • mickie dreysen

    Hi, Dean, I throw this out there in case it might help anyone else get a feel for one way to interpret what I understand you to mean by following the creative voice in this way:

    For me at least, this is the voice that says “And then what happens?” Big-eyed, a three-year old’s wonder at the story and where it’s going. That’s where the magic lives. And then what happens… and then what happens…

    Here’s one way I’ve found to capture it. Grab a copy of The Hobbit, and read a chapter out loud, to yourself, to the dogs or the cats or the empty air, one per night. Take your time, do it right, use voices and everything or just go for rolling along and getting carried up. Either way, the wonder of it is waiting there to catch you up.

    Another one that worked for me is Dune. The opening of each chapter, with the Irulan quotes, every night settling in… that’s magic.

    My daughter, when we were first teaching her to read, was fascinated by me reading an illustrated version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to her. She wanted that story every night. If you’ve ever wondered what that book was doing in the pantheon, there’s one way to find the power of it if you’ve never otherwise gotten hooked. The full text version, it’s when the creature pontificates, rails against his creator in full rolling glory, or promises that he’ll be there on the wedding night, that’s where the whole flight takes off.

    I’ll quit my rambling, but that’s where I am with this at the moment, learning to listen for that magic question… and then what happens?

    • dwsmith

      And mickie, the only way to find out what happens next is write the chapter. That is the secret. Write the chapter with that sense of wonder of “what happens next to this character?” That’s what I mean when I say I write a book like I read, always wondering what is going to happen next. And letting my characters figure it out.

  • paladin3001

    Thanks for a lot of clarification. Will work on this. May need to practice more until I get there.

    As someone has said knowing where you’re going can work, there’s times when I have written where I end up somewhere completely different. Learning not to fight that is difficult and trying not to force where it’s going. Hmmm, think a short story needs to be completed this week sometime.

    • dwsmith

      When you don’t think about where you are heading, you can’t know that where you end up is someplace different. Just saying. (grin)

  • Anthony

    I am blocked in my writing. Always the same cycle that repeats itself. It’s horrible.
    I try to write in the dark and between 5000 and 10000 words I start to stress because i am not knowing where I am going and what will be the end, and I say that it is zero compared to others, so I stop .
    I have about fifteen story unfinished as well.
    So I think I may not be a pantser like Dean or Stephen King, maybe I need to trace.
    So I think of some advice I read about writers who says they did not do anything right without tracing. I think about writers who say they need a skeleton before they start writing. I think about books like « Save the cat who say they give a magic formula-formula (which supposedly works on TV and in the movies), telling me that if I use it, I’ll do something not too bad.
    So, I stand in front of my white page trying to build a “perfect” story. A good skeleton with good intriguing well built chapter by chapter. But that bores me or scares me and in the end I do not produce anything.
    Then I retry a new story of 5 to 10,000 words in the dark.
    Then I stop again, etc. It’s the same cycle for several years.
    Really frustrating.
    My creative voice must be completely stifled by my critical voice.
    I do not even know what I really want to write in my heart. I am stressed by the result above all else, always telling me:
    That’s hot, I need to write a book in that genre. ”
    Do you have any tips to help me other than the conclusion of this post?
    Thank you.

    • dwsmith

      Anthony, two things. Stop caring and let writing be fun. The moment you think writing is important and some project is a special snowflake, you are doomed. And that is what you are doing.

      And you need to read Kris’s book about perfection. You have that disease bad, clearly. There is no such thing as a perfect story.

      So yes, your creative voice has left the building because you keep letting the critical voice control.

      So my advice? Stop caring. Just go play. Go tell yourself a story and stop caring about the final product, which you are not getting to by caring.

      So my real advice… Follow Heinlein’s Rules and don’t miss. You do that and the creative voice will return if you leave your work alone and just put it out to readers.

      Flawed work is often our bestsellers. I know most of you don’t understand that, but there is no perfect novel and flawed novels often, by their very nature, find the most readers because the writers let them along. Why? Because those novels are original, in author’s real voice, not some rewritten dull crap.

      So Anthony, follow Heinlein’s Rules and go have fun. Stop caring about final product. It will take care of itself if you finish.

    • Linda Maye Adams

      You also really have to push through in spite of the fear. I’m a natural pantser, and I still have to battle my critical brain screaming, “But I don’t know what’s going to happen next!” Every book it happens somewhere.

      • dwsmith

        Yup, it does for me as well, Linda. A natural part of the process. I consider it a really fun part of the roller coaster. You got to trust that the cars will stay on the tracks. And shock, every time, they do. But I am always laughing and breathing hard when I coast into the station called “the end.”

    • J.M. Ney-Grimm

      Anthony, Patricia Wrede recently wrote three blog posts digging into the details of why writers get stuck, along with some solutions. She’s a successful writer whose career started in the 1970s, and she’s still going strong. She’s written many novels over the decades, and I find her insights helpful. You might check out what she says and see if any of it strikes a chord with you. If Dean will allow the link, here’s the URL to the first of her “Why Writers Get Stuck” posts:

  • Janine

    First time commenting on a post, but I’ve been reading the blog for a while and recently recovered from a writing crash and burn following so many of the myths. Thanks to Dean Wesley Smith for his insight!

    “Outlining… Absolutely the quickest way to make sure the creative voice won’t even show up.” Yes, yes, and yes!

    I’m sorta doing a somewhat unintentional experiment right now. I was never a big outlininer to begin with, but it seemed like I was being pushed towards outlining via peer pressure for a while since everyone swears by it. Earlier this year (before breaking out of the myths), I wrote a detailed 7K outline and spent weeks on it so the story doesn’t need lots of “tightening” later (tightening seems to be another word like “polish” that I’m hearing a lot lately from writers on rewrites, I think that needs to be addressed at some point), and ended up bowing out at around 20K into the draft. It was tired and boring and while I felt like it was supposed to be right at the time (that’s how everyone else does it), it was very wrong. After a long burnout and clearing the myths out, I decided to redraft without an outline (oh noes) and so far, at 34K and no signs of stopping. The story has life and I’m having fun writing stories again instead of feeling like work. Also, I have no clue what’s going to happen in this story beyond the next scene, and I definitely don’t have an ending yet. Yes, in the past, I’ve worried about not knowing my ending because common knowledge says “I have to know it” but not anymore!

    Several myth believers think I’ve lost it and that no outline will spell doom for my story. I counter in my mind that I’ve tried it their way and failed miserably. Let’s try something else. Plus, this will be written as clean as possible, sloppy first drafts have left me with nothing but grief.

    And don’t get me started on all the writers on twitter that talk about how hard writing is.

    • dwsmith

      If you are writing from only critical voice and rewriting five or six times like all the myths tell you to do, then following a book-doctor’s advice and rewriting again, then following an agent’s notes to rewrite again, it is hard work. Stupid work, but difficult. But it makes them feel better because they believe they have accomplished “art” with their book, so when someone says they are working hard at their writing, I just nod and turn away, feeling sorry for them. I write ten times more than they do and I have fun.

  • Bill

    I guess the one part that I always struggle with is the “KNOWING YOUR ENDING”.

    A lot of my stories either start with the ending, (since to me the stories that stick with me the most that I’ve read are the ones with endings that give me the most emotional responses) or I can’t stop thinking about the novel. By that, I mean during the day. While at work or out shopping, or my lord the hours I spend driving I’ll just be thinking about the story and I’ll work it out in my head…an outline even if it’s not written down. I mean once I sit down I let the story lead me but after hours of thinking of path A, it really isn’t hard for it to follow that path. I know I don’t try to think of it like an outline but hours of “what if” can fill out a story pretty quickly.

    I’m not really sure knowing the ending has really “stopped” me like probably many of the other reasons you mentioned, but I’ve just always tried to think how it is possible to write and NOT know the ending. I’d really like to do that one day. I mean I guess if I could possibly write like you describe, have the story unfold literally like a novel that I’m reading and not writing myself…that would be wonderful.

    I just can’t imagine it.

    • dwsmith

      Bill, you are thinking about it and that is the first step. And if the writing is fun and not critical, then you have found a way for yourself to make it work and that’s nifty. But when things turn critical and you stop in the middle of books, your method might be the reason and something to look at if that happens. Hoping it never does.

    • J. T. Hall

      Bill, if your “endings” are like the kind of endings I typically know at the beginning, they’re probably vague, as in maybe you have an idea of a scene between particular characters in a particular setting but not much behind that. At least that’s what I start with. It’s like this castle you can just barely see in the distance because it’s all covered in mist so you know you have to take a certain route to get there, but until you get there you have no idea *exactly* what it will look like or be like. To me, that’s still pantsing.

  • Elena

    I’m not one of those people who has been writing fiction since I was young. I only started writing fiction two years ago, and I did just what you said: wrote for fun and enjoyment. I write for children, and my kids and the other kids that have read my books love them. They’re fun, and magical and filled with wonder. But this year I wrote my first middle-grade novel. I think it turned out alright – it is my first novel – but my very first review said my writing is “unsophisticated and choppy” and the themes are too adult for children (there is an evil mother in the story – it just flowed out that way). This review hit harder than I expected and now faced with writing the second book in the series I feel crippled. I’m worried teachers and librarians will judge my books as “not being good enough” and therefore my real readers (kids) will never get to read my books. This article was so helpful to me – reminding me to return to my creative voice and give it permission to play again. And not to care what my sales numbers are, or what other people think. Thank you!

    • dwsmith

      Elena, and right there is the reason no long-term writer reads reviews or even cares about them, even though I know all the beginning indie writers care.

      And always remember that it is one person’s opinion and not who that book was aimed at, so what to they know anyway?

      So folks, don’t review books unless you are giving them a positive review and NEVER read reviews. Period.

  • Chong Go

    I found that knowing a bit about genre expectations really helps me move the story forward. It doesn’t feel like outlining, just more like just choice points as the character and setting are developing, where I come to a junction that has any number of possibilities about what might happen to the character next.

    One of the most fun things about writing into the dark is when the characters just go off on their own! After your genre workshop, I started writing a Dirk Pitt type character, with the idea writing the story around D.B. Cooper’s lost money. As I focused on the character and setting, and just let it flow, it turned into a Romance! Lol. Never had a trace of D.B. Cooper. 🙂

  • Tom


    You (and the commenters) have convinced me to give writing in the dark a try. I’ve “tried” in the past, but never really let my creative voice have free rein. One thing Ive always let hold me back is my decision to use a computer to write. I’m 25, I’m supposed to use technology, right? But I find I can type way faster than I can think, and in moments when I pause typing, my critical voice jumps in and takes over. Writing by hand has always allowed me to write exactly as fast as I can think, its just not “efficient” (although, ironically every time I convert my WIP to a document on my computer I give up shortly thereafter …)

    Question for you though… In the past you’ve placed a strong emphasis on practicing and learning. You’re always practicing on every project you write. How do you balance deliberately practicing a technique or honing your skills (which is a critical decision, right?) without letting critical voice derail the story?

    • dwsmith

      Practice, for lack of a better way of putting it, is an environment you write the story inside. I want to practice cliffhangers, say. I study some ahead of time, then go into the metaphorical room that is cliffhangers and make the idea of cliffhangers a presence in the book. Not critical thought, just part of what I give the creative voice permission to play with. Like in some rooms in has certain toys and in other rooms it has other toys.

      But the key is to study first, then forget it and go have fun. Another aspect of practice is that it takes the pressure of being perfect off the poor story. And allows you to have fun.

  • John D. Payne

    This method really appeals to me, but I feel like I’m not doing a good job implementing it. On a previous novel, I tried writing into the dark, but I didn’t really cycle. So I got it done, but it didn’t really come out clean. (I don’t really want to go back and revise it, because that sounds super tedious, but I would like to try re-drafting it some day.)

    With my current work-in-progress, I am trying to write into the dark WITH cycling, and I feel like the end product is much better. But it’s taking a really long time. I was often hitting a thousand words an hour with the no-cycle book, but with this one I’m lucky to get 500 words. And I don’t have a lot of hours because I am a full-time dad with three small kids (1, 3, and 5) and I also run our family business. But the book is super fun, and I am having a blast writing it, so for now I’m just plugging along as best I can. And I keep telling myself that one page a day means a nice fat novel in a year. (Some smart guy showed me that math on that a while back. Thanks, Dean!)

    So mostly I am dealing with my time limitations, but there is one problem I bump into. You always say to write a clean and complete first draft, and that if you get an idea of a scene (or a snippet) that needs to go in the book you should write it immediately. (If I understand the concept correctly, this is what you call being un-stuck in time relative to the narrative.) My difficulty is that often I don’t have time to write it all down when the creative voice spits out an idea. Maybe at that moment I’m feeding a sleepy baby and the best I can do is jot down some quick notes on my phone. Sometimes these ideas pile up and then it might be week or two before I scrape together enough time to write that scene or that chapter. And when I get there, sometimes it feels like my creative voice has already run ahead and here I am trying to reconstruct that thrilling action sequence or snappy dialogue that was so fresh when it first hit my brain.

    Any ideas for how to hang on to that creative spark, and not get left behind my impatient inner child? (The outer ones are a whole different kettle of fish.)

    • dwsmith

      Creative voice doesn’t mind delays by life stuff if you honor the creative voice and get to it when you can. It knows you are honoring it. It’s when you spit at it and say its work is bad and needs to be fixed later that it flees. So life stuff like that will be fine when you get to it and do it when you can. Just watch the negative thoughts. Keep it all positive.

      Here is how to see the difference… Critical voice. “That sucks, got to fix it.”

      Creative voice… “Oh, that would be fun if it went that way.”

  • Nate Johnson

    When I am writing I put myself in the place of sitting around a campfire and spinning a story for my uncles. My dad and his four brothers were the best story tellers. All combat vets and outdoorsmen. They took pleasure in out doing each other. The only way to impress them was to be creative. They would sniff out a contrived, planned story. To them, the story needed to be created in the moment.

  • mickie dreysen

    I tripped over something else reading all the other comments. It’s that we’re the ones who get to discover a million new ways to answer “now what happens?”. There’s no such thing as a wrong answer (well, except for the one that doesn’t get written…)

    Extended digression on the mechanics of plate tectonics (hello Michener…)

    Where’s the peyote? (Hunter S. Thompson)

    Aunt Marge comes to visit… somebody let a troll loose in the dungeon (Rowling)

    Let’s throw in an extended gross-out revenge joke (King, The Body aka Stand By Me) or, maybe the evil monster is really a million year-old alien spider from Beyond (It) or what happens if someone sets off a bomb in the closet (The Stand)…

    Too literary? Bring in the zombies. Not literary enough? What’s the heroine think when she sees butterflies hovering over a field of flowers (or moonlight on an open ski run)? Maybe someone sends our hero a polite (and oddly worded…) email to visit their humble country home in a hidden part of Romania.

    Know the ending? Write it backwards. Columbo enters saying, “Oh, there’s just one more thing…” and now, ok how did he get there? And what did the crook do to try and throw him off?

    It can be as outrageous as we can imagine, or as subtle. Play with symbolism, invent a language (on the fly no going off to write a dissertation), look for a portal to one hundred years in the past that someone left sitting in the third booth over in the diner and don’t ask the waitress on the night shift, she’s lost three customers this week…

    It’s all on the table, *at any time in the story*. The only thing we have to know is what keeps us hooked on the story. What brought our butts to this chair, and how do we keep it bouncing along ’til the end?

  • Jason M

    Dean, I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. Why is it that you don’t recognize all the famous writers — career writers — who DID revise? Why is that? Do you have a personal issue with revising? Or can you see the utility of revision for some people who are not yourself?

    Here’s a few quotes:

    “The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.” —Neil Gaiman

    “By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” —Roald Dahl

    “Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” —John Updike

    “I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” —Truman Capote, Conversations With Capote, by Lawrence Grobel, 1985

    These are all career writers. Question: What is preventing you, Dean, from at least *acknowledging* that there is a different way of doing things? Me personally, I do 1.2 drafts — one clean draft followed by a quick rinse for plot points and typos — so I’m actually more on your side of things. But clearly there are ways to go about this — real ways that lead to lifelong success– but you don’t want them discussed. Why the echo chamber? Why not examine both sides of the debate and agree that both sides have merit? Is it because you worship the pulps so much that you’ve been blinded to other ways of working? Incidentally, I’m sure you don’t remember me, but I went to your business master class two and a half years ago, so I’m not a fly-by-night troll or anything. Cheers.

    • dwsmith

      Jason, I love your examples. Truman Capote, who wrote a couple books and became a celeb because he couldn’t write. Hmm, wonder why. John Updike… A book every few years.

      And Dahl…? Why did you pick literary writers? They have to shout to people that they work hard and they aren’t allowed to write quickly because the literary establishment would crucify them and they would lose their teaching positions.

      And Neil? You actually used Neil. (grin) Trust me, if I wasn’t doing these workshops, if I was concerned with readers instead of helping writers, I would be saying basically what Neil says because readers have the same myths, so he has to carefully play to those myths. But notice, Neil never once said he did a second draft. (grin) Nope, not once. Read that again.

      You might as well have quoted Hemingway to me. He claimed he did hundreds of drafts to get writers to leave him alone. He claimed he wrote standing up. And so on and so on. Look at Hemingway’s history if you want the truth, not the hype. He was a war correspondent who wrote fast, one draft. He started all the myths about himself because he liked to be thought of as bigger than life, and writing hundreds of drafts standing up made him seem larger than life to the baby writers.

      So why don’t I recognize famous writers who don’t rewrite? Because I am not a literary writer and sort of think they fall in the class with English teachers. And most of them despise writing, but love the celebrity of having written. And almost all long-term commercial writers, which is what I teach, basically do one clean draft and release and move on. They all claim in public other things, but I know hundreds of them and have talked with many about their real process. And that is what I teach.

      Besides, I teach writers to enjoy writing and have fun. But if you want to make it painful and hard work, be my guest. We can talk in twenty years.

      • Jason M

        I mentioned those people because they were the ones quoted in the article. But your response shows that you’ve got a mindset of us (so-called real writers) v so-called literary authors/English teachers. I’m not making any such distinctions. It’s all the same to me.

        Also, I already wrote above that I’m a 1.2 draft writer. Why would you call that “painful”? Maybe it’s painful for you, but for me it’s actually JOYFUL to go thru my list of plotted changes that I’ve amassed during the first draft and then insert the stuff. Maybe your memory is so much stronger than mine that you can juggle hundreds of setups and payoffs in your brain in the first draft. (Doubtful, because I remember you complaining about your faulty memory to the business class.) Or maybe your fiction is just plotted “thinner” than mine. Or maybe you’ve just been doing it longer, so you have other tricks you rely upon.

        Whatever the case, I”ve already been writing for twenty years in a variety of formats, and ghost regularly (both fiction and nonfiction), so clearly something is working for me.

        • dwsmith

          Jason, clearly it is working for you. And when out in public I tell people I am a three-draft writer. And it is the truth. I write the one clean draft. I turn on my spellchecker and do that, which is my second draft. (20 minutes for a novel.) And then I have one first reader read it (my wife) and I fix the typos she finds, which is my third draft. (Another twenty minutes at most.) Three drafts.

          Remember, I am hear to try to help writers break out of the myths. Seems you have broken out of them enough to make it work as a commercial writer. So on that we are agreeing.

          And yup, I do make a distinction because I admire the commercial writers, those writing for readers as entertainers, not those writing for critics and their own navels.

          • D S Butler

            To be fair, Roald Dahl is most well known for being a children’s author. Fantastic books. I grew up reading them. Sounds to me like he cycles when he says the beginning of the book is edited x times. Perhaps his rewriting is actually cycling? Also I think Dean has said Kris does a fix it draft or something similar.

            I know Dahl also wrote some adult stuff and short stories etc, but the kids stuff was not literary. He was the greatest children’s author IMO. BFG, Fantastic Mr Fox, Charles and the Chocolate Factory, the Twits, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda. The man was a genius! Just amazingly fun stories.

            All that said, I am now approaching writing Dean’s way. It is more fun. I love reading about author’s processes but I do take articles with a pinch of salt because it must be tempting for the author to tell the public what they want to hear.

          • dwsmith

            It’s not tempting, DS, it is critical to their careers. They must tell readers and audiences that their work has value, that they struggled over it, that it was “work” and that they did many drafts. Otherwise readers and editors would not buy it.

            And when out in public, with readers, all of you should do the same thing, even if you are doing one clean draft and moving on.

            I once got a rewrite request early on in my career from an editor. Very simple stuff, but the editor had spent a lot of time with a long, single-spaced letter, typed out.

            I did the revisions in less than a day, was about to send it back when Kris stopped me. And reminded me of the perception I was dealing with. So I wrote another novel for the next two weeks for another publisher, then sent in the rewrites I had spent a day on, telling the editor how good the comments were and how I had really worked on it. The editor had to think I had struggled and worked hard on her comments. Only way my rewrite had value.

            And I am going to do a blog about this tonight, using this letter, if sounds familiar. (grin)

          • Mel Todd

            Dean – this makes me feel a bit better. I don’t have a critical voice, not really. I have a “you suck” voice, but once I write a sentence unless I A – write something a bit further down that needs to change it or B – realize I went the wrong way and delete it (while I am in the scene) I almost never change anything. I’m trying to get better with cycling, but swear me and comma’s are always at odds.

            But I basically write it. I do a spell check/grammar and then to my beta who finds where I typed he instead of her, or but instead of put, and fix it. Then I’m done. I HAVE to do the grammar spelling cause my fingers don’t always keep up with my brain and often I’ll read the sentence for what I know it SHOULD say not what it DOES say.

            Okay I do sometimes do the “repetitive” check. I have software that tells me and I have a bad habit of picking up a ‘tic’ during a novel. This recent novel was that EVERY character started half of their dialogue with “So,…” That I did fix, but I’m working on stopping myself from doing that as I write. Again getting better at cycling.

            As to plotting – I do a road map. I’m writing long novels (100k plus) with multiple characters so I have to do a they are going here sort of thing that often changes as I write. But if I get to a what next point I glance at my road map and go “Oh yeah, so something needs to happen to send them towards X”. Granted, I’m just as likely to say “I don’t think X works anymore, so instead they’ll have to go to Y.” Update my road map and keep going. Often my finished worked has nothing in common with the original road map, but having an idea of where i want to go makes it so I don’t wallow too much, I just let myself take side journeys.

            Shrugs – not your method exactly as I do like to know what my novel is going to be about… but, I have got to get better with the cycling. Makes the grammar checks faster.

    • Joe Sumner

      Neil Gaiman’s first successful (and award winning) gig was a monthly comic called The Sandman which he wrote for many years and without a single “guest writer”. The artists had to draw this full length comic *every month*.
      “Sorry guys, you can’t have this month’s script. I’m letting it age a few weeks in my drawer.” Do you think that happened? Couldn’t have.

  • Kate Pavelle

    Hi Dean and Kris!
    A new question regarding series and out-of-order writing. I wrote a piece a while back, and my readers clamored for knowing “what came before.” So, okay. I was inspired by that, and decided to do a prequel. And another, and another, and a few short stories to book. The original work is now Book 4 of the Disorderly Elements series.

    I had to take Book 4 from a 28K novella to a now almost-finished 40+ K novel. It took some doing. I tried to stay in my creative voice as much as I could, even as I dropped in references to characters that had not existed in the prior version, and as I redrafted whole plot points, motivations of the villain, and so on. It was a rewrite, no doubt about it.

    Except, Kris writes out of order, and Kris doesn’t rewrite. So… the $60,000 question. How do you not rewrite if your prequels change the sequel, Kris? And do you ever feel hemmed in by the existing book’s content, or do you just figure you’ll redraft if need calls?

    Thank you 🙂 (Dean, you don’t seem to write out of order but please shed light from your POV. And, this is not my typical process. Usually I write in order.)

  • Rob Vagle

    Kate has a great question. I have written out of order and reached a point where things are murky (the scenes aren’t connecting) and I find it hard to determine if the critical voice has stopped me, or is the creative voice trying to tell me I took a wrong turn somewhere.

    That can be frustrating which can hurt the fun part of writing.

    • dwsmith

      Yeah, writing out of order has a set of problems all its own. I avoid it at all costs, but still ended up in the mess once or twice in 200 novels.

  • Paul Cwiakala

    Great post, and one that got me thinking again about my process and how I do things. Reading your blog helped convince me to move away from outlining, as to date I’ve only completed one outlined project (another one I finished was also outlined…but then I ended up throwing out the last third and redrafting it in the dark in order to actually finish it). I’m much happier now writing without an outline. 🙂

    What got my attention, though, were your warnings to avoid thinking about what’s coming or the ending…now, my thoughts about endings (if I have thoughts at all) are always just sort of vague ideas or possibilities, but trying to figure out what comes next is something I’ve always done and never once questioned. Yet, now that I think about it, having over-thought about a particular scene or a particular project before writing it has always been one of the biggest impediments to my writing. I think I must’ve danced around this for years, because I remember while working on the first novel-length piece I ever finished constantly telling myself to not think about sequels, to just focus on THIS story, because so many times previously I’d failed to finish anything lengthy due to getting more interested in writing the finale of Part 3 when I’d barely gotten to the end of Page 1 of Part 1. I’d be bored of the whole project before I’d even started, I’d already told myself the whole story from start to finish.

    So, I think that’s something I’ll need to work on. Thanks for pointing it out! 🙂

  • Janine

    Something I’ve been realizing as of late, most of the “writing advice” on the internet (and off) is from a critical voice perspective. It’s about how you can insert sub plots, know your plot points, and how you can put in symbolism, etc. A lot of writing critique groups I was a part of would recommend reading a bunch of how to writing books or articles to improve your writing and reading actual novels seemed like a secondary thing. This rushes everyone into outlining their books and rewriting them over and over, thinking “just follow the advice given on these blogs and you’ll be set!” I listened to them for a while and of course my writing regressed. Everything seemed mechanical and had no voice or passion. Not until I started reading on a regular basis again and grew less dependent on writing blogs did things sorta pick up for me again. Reading “Writing Into the Dark” really opened my eyes to this fact.