Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Wrong Direction

Not One, Not Two, But Three Writers…

Just today, when telling me for one reason or another about a project that they were working on said that they had gone in a wrong direction and had to toss out a bunch of writing. One person said almost a hundred pages.

I seldom say anything when a beginning writer or early-stage writer says that to me. But I figured I could say something here. So if I did say something when someone made that “I went in the wrong direction on my novel…” comment, here is what it would be…

First off, how do you know? 

Now every writer when asked that question will swears they know. And will go on and on about their reasons they just know. (And why I never say anything. Hate listening to stupidity.) But I put it to you, they don’t know.

Remember, the critical voice’s job is to make sure you don’t finish anything, and eventually stop writing. That is the critical voice’s job and when you suddenly come to the realization that you have gone the “wrong way” in a book, that is your critical voice winning.

So how do you know that the wrong way wouldn’t turn out to be something really cool and different and maybe a little bit dangerous instead of the right way, which is dull and boring and safe and makes your critical voice happy?

The answer: You don’t.

But Dean, don’t you say you cut off extra loops? Yes, at times I do when my characters wonder off on a side road and then come back and it makes no difference to the plot.

BUT I NEVER DO IT WHILE WRITING… I finish the entire novel first because that side road might turn out to be really, really important. And often does. I just make note that at that point (on my outline I am making as I go) that it feels like I might have taken a side trip and to check when done.

But I write it anyway, don’t think about, never cut it. And often at the end of the book what I thought was a side trip turns out to be the most important thing in the story.

In other words, unlike many of you, I never let my critical voice win when it comes to writing. Especially in the middle of writing.

False Assumption…

There is only one way to write a certain story or novel. 

That false assumption is what causes so many of you to say “I went the wrong way.”

What in the hell is the wrong way? If there is no one way to write a book or story, then there is no wrong or right way, just the way you pick when you write it.

Trust me, you might be on the right road and your critical voice is fighting to stop you and a very powerful weapon is “You are on the wrong track” thought that seems to echo in your head every time you start to slow down. And that critical voice is trying to make you stop and toss out a lot of words.

Now I understand that your ability is very powerful to come up with excuses on why you are convinced you went the wrong way and just had to toss out all those words. And those reasons (excuses) will sound wonderful to your critical voice because it was that voice that made up the reasons.

But to me, when you spout those wonderful-sounding reasons or excuses, they all just sound like fear and critical voice garbage.

So maybe you should just try the path you are on with a story or novel and see where it heads instead of letting the critical voice dull it down. Because, honestly, even at over 200 novels now, I would never trust that thought and stop a novel because of it. I might back up a page or two and twist off in a different direction. But I never go the wrong way because in a novel or story, there is no wrong way.

Now I will climb off my little soapbox, kick it back under the desk, and do other stuff because I know this will make zero difference. The zen of “going the wrong way” is powerful stuff. And I know, I know, you’ve written three novels or a dozen or whatever and you know better. It’s your story and you know what is right or wrong.

Actually, your creative voice does. But you just won’t trust it.



  • Harvey

    Trust yourself/your subconscious/your characters to tell their own story. So easy to do (and so FREEing and so much FUN) once you break through that critical voice, but so difficult to teach. Thanks for continuing to try, Dean.

  • Vera Soroka

    I’ll also say that some editors don’t know either. One trad author said that they wanted her to take out a character that she did nothing for the story. She stood her ground and said no. This character ended up playing a very important part of the story. She writes into the dark and this character came in out of the blue but editor wanted her taken out to tighten up the story or something. Whatever that means.
    Yeah, I agree, write the story as it comes to you.

    • dwsmith

      Editors, being one myself, can’t help you much at all, if any. So not some editors, all editors. It is your story. Stick with that.

  • Rob Cornell

    Well, I wasn’t one of those three writers who said that to you, but I might as well have been. 🙂

    I fell off my writing because of some health stuff I’ve been dealing with, and it’s been almost two years since I finished a novel. My critical voice managed to gain super powers during that time, and now that I’m back to writing, it has been a fight. I’m finally about 20k words into a book, and barely a chapter goes by where I’m not convinced I “took a wrong turn.” In fact, this morning I was again considering tossing what I had, then came over here by way of procrastination. Your post may have just rescued 20,000 words.

    • dwsmith

      Rob, read Kris’s blog from the last few weeks and the one coming on Thursday about what health issues do to critical voice and why it is important.

    • Emilia

      Kris’s Writing With Chronic Ilness is a bonus on the Write Stuff 2019 Storybundle. I got the bundle yesterday and started reading Kris’s book. I’m not far a long, but based on what I’ve read and the chapters on her blog I’d recommend the book.

  • Murees Dupé

    Thank you, Dean. I always need to hear a pro say the opposite than what is popular advice. I have many moments where I never know what to believe. Because I don’t always trust my beginner writer instincts (insert grin). I mean, who am I, a beginning writer, to go against what so many experienced, and published writers have to say? Your blog, as well as Kris’s blog makes me feel it is okay to turn my back on what others say are best. Have a good week.

  • Rikki Mongoose

    I had problems with it because I didn’t underdtand genre I was trying to write at.

    Thanks to you, I’ve read the artivles by David Farland (found them by your link) and gotcha! I was looking at fantasy throu the eyes of hard sci fi. Thats why I couldn’t start a story.

  • Samuel Morningstar

    Excellent point! I’ll admit to being more than slightly terrified the first time a story I was writing went off the rails. But, the end result was so much better than what I’d planned that I’ve learned to trust those moments when I suddenly realize I have no idea what’s going on (I generally have no idea what’s going on in my private life. Why should my professional one be any different?). Those moments are probably my muses stepping in; they don’t tell me what they have planned, they just make the twist and watch me squirm. Nowadays, if I don’t get one of those weird twists, THAT’S when I feel somethings wrong…

  • BDS

    Once wrote myself into quite a bind, where my main character suddenly lost the support of the person who was financing her entire mission, bringing the A plot to a sudden, grinding halt. I considered scrapping several chapters in order to “correct” this “wrong path” I’d found myself on , but then I realized that it would be a LOT more interesting (for me and my readers) to see how the character solved this problem herself. This lead to the best twist in the story, and the introduction of a new supporting character who was so interesting I plan on using him again.

    • dwsmith

      BDS… “A Plot”??? What is that? (Don’t answer, I don’t want to know.) But clearly that sounds like a critical voice thing all by itself. Creative voice is like a 2-year-old child. It doesn’t care about A or B, it just wants to tell stories. Since you sort of trusted it and it turned out great, why not give the creative voice the next step and stop outlining by critical voice?

      • BDS

        Don’t worry, I learned my lesson after plotting my first book – I no longer plot or outline. At best, it turns fun into work. At worst, it makes every story feel generic. “Plot” was probably the wrong word to have used above, but I couldn’t think of a succinct word for “what the character had been doing/concerned with up to that point”.

  • C.D. Watson

    You know, sometimes a story just “feels” wrong. That’s not your critical voice. That’s your creative voice raising a hand and saying, no, this isn’t where it should go, this isn’t like your characters at all. If you listen to your instinct and trust it, then you don’t get very far down that wrong road at all and it’s easy to bring your characters back in line so that they can be true to themselves.

    Some of you may disagree, but this is what works for me and it works pretty well. I know the difference between my critical and creative voices. I know when to trust what I’m doing and when not to, and yes, I allow my stories to go down a lot of rabbit holes and am usually (99% of the time) pleased with the direction in the end; I usually end up with a better story, and that’s my ultimate goal.

    • dwsmith

      C.D., I would hate to ask, but back in line with what? What your critical voice wants them to be? And you allow your stories… Wow… I think I will just back away now.

      See, folks, why I never say anything on this topic because every writer I know is absolutely sure they know what they are doing. But the moment you are allowing something to happen in a story or making characters get in line like sheep headed to sheering, your critical voice is in complete control.

      Creative voice never wants characters to be in line, creative voice want them to be free and creative. And creative voice never allows anything. It just does and moves on.

    • Harvey

      CD, what works for you works for you. Probably everyone here is at a different skill level and different level of trust in themselves and their subconscious mind.

      My two cents is that although every writer is different, they all fall into one of two camps.

      In one camp are those who are the clean, bathed god of the story. They direct everything to one degree or another from on high. After all the writer is telling the writer’s story.

      In the other camp are those like me. Every morning I roll off the parapet of the trenches of the story and drop in alongside the characters. They look at me. “You ready?”

      And I lie. “Of course.”

      And off they go, racing through their story. I stay with them as best I can, writing down what they say and do, and I never know what’s going to happen in even a scene until I run into the scene (saloon, office, campsite, space ship, ’49 Ford, etc.)after them.

      It’s their story, not mine. I’m just the very lucky Recorder they invited along for the ride.

    • Kristine Kathryn Rusch

      I hope you keep those “wrong” directions. I often start over or in a different place, and eventually, those wrong directions reveal themselves as part of a future book or a later scene in the book.

  • Robert J. McCarter


    “No Wrong Directions” sound kind of like the heart of writing into the dark to me. You’ve got to trust the creative voice and have fun and follow along.

    The last story I outlined, quite a few years ago now, soon deviated from the “plan” and that was the best part. If the outline had been the “right” way, all of that would have been lost.

    And how boring is it to write something that has a right way and a set path. I want to be entertained and surprised by what I write.

    Good stuff. Thanks!

  • Edmund de Wight

    I was still outlining in advance (silly me) on my last novel and right in the middle of act 2, my protagonist made a stupid decision to go beard the bad guy in his den when it was not even close to when I planned. I decided to see where it went and ended up with one of the more powerful emotional scenes in the book and created a better path to growth of the protagonist and her sidekick than I had planned. The rest of the outline was thrown out!
    I try very hard to NOT listen to that voice shouting ‘wrong’ and I now write into the ‘dim’ – I have some idea of what the overall plan is but not the details so technically not writing fully into the dark.

  • Mark Kuhn

    Dean, your “Writing into the Dark” book is the main reason why 75% of my other writing books, the ones that preach outlining especially, were donated to the library.

  • Kate Pavelle

    OK Dean, a serious question here. I’ve been plugging away on Book 7 of a series and there is a lot going on, and the book is getting long. As in, yawn, no end in sight even though the actions have to happen and it all makes sense. I can’t even list the writing and publishing deadlines I’ve already blown. So I decided to start it the middle and wrote a stand-alone story in that world, just to rekindle the fun, and I was giggling silly while writing that story. Writing that one was no problem at all.
    The question: that story would fit within the book, even though I can just refer to what they achieved in two sentences. I can feel my publishing brain kicking and screaming (Expensive to narrate! EXPENSIVE TO NARRATE!) while my writing brain wants to have fun. Would you reintegrate the story into the book as a new chapter and just live with an extra-long book?
    (In retrospect, I’m probably doing the Great Challenge insanity to insert extra energy into a project I’d been hoping to be done with half a year ago, grin.)

    • dwsmith

      Kate, that’s an artist question and only you can answer that, and there is no answer. Got a feeling you are over thinking that one.

      And you realize your “publishing brain” is just your critical voice in hiding trying to stop you and winning, from the sounds of it. Remember, bringing publishing into your writing is always a critical brain mistake. It will always stop you and make you doubt yourself.

      Negative is critical voice. Positive is creative voice.

      • Kate Pavelle

        Yeah, my Publishing Brain is a sour-faced bitch in uncomfortable stiletto heels and too much make-up. She’s inefficient and always has all these stupid objections. I oughta fire her ass.

  • Sam

    How do you manage the doubts? I’m working on something, not too far in, and I’ve tried to redraft it and kicked it to the curb already. I’m afraid that it’s boring and is going to a dull place and readers won’t like it. I’ve tried to pick it up again, but my critical voice is so vocal about it that it’s not fun to write. I’ve read Kris’s blogs on the subject (I’m a patreon supporter), but when I can’t get excited about what I’m trying to write… what do I do? Do I just power through and hope that it gets fun again? Can you eventually overcome your critical voice by letting your creative voice run and play?

    • dwsmith

      Sam, you are right, that is all critical voice. You are making that thing you are writing so important, no one could write it. Making writing important, especially the end product of writing, kills all joy. You are making something up. It will never be perfect, it will only be the best you can do at that moment in your skill learning.

      Also, you might be writing the wrong thing for the wrong reason. You pick it because you thought it might sell, or pick it because it was a hot topic? Or did you decide to write it because it sounded cool and is in an area you are passionate about reading.

      But either way, you got to stop making the writing important to shut up the critical voice. Read Kris’s blogs the last few weeks and this coming Thursday to see more about where critical voice comes from. And realize that if a story doesn’t work, no one will hurt you. Just put it out and write another one.

      • Sam

        Thanks for the response, Dean. You’re right, I am making this too important. It is a story I’m writing because I thought it sounded cool, but I’ll admit that I’m also trying to please a certain audience with it, which… I know I shouldn’t be doing. But it’s hard to stop myself.

        • J.M. Ney-Grimm

          …I’ll admit that I’m also trying to please a certain audience with it…

          That’s an art killer for me. I’m learning that I have to write to please myself or I freeze and can’t write at all.

          Until recently, I’ve been free enough from the desire to please an audience that I could just ignore that tendency. That changed when I became enamored of a series idea and embarked on book 2 for it.

          All my other stories had been standalones or only tangentially related to an earlier book. This was my first experience with telling a sequel adventure following the same two characters.

          I kept finding myself wanting to please the readers of the first book. And every time, it would stop me cold. Then I’d remind myself (forcefully) that I was writing book 2 for me, and if the readers of the first book didn’t like the second book, so be it.

          I succeeded in throwing that supposed audience out of my head, and I did finish the manuscript, which is now going through my pipeline to publication. But I now have a better understanding as to why writers with some success under their belts just…stop. I think it may be harder to throw the audience out of one’s head after success.

          • dwsmith

            Yup, Kris and I call that “Having people in your office.” At times all of our offices get real crowded and only thing to do is toss them out and close the door.

  • Jason M

    Why do people throw away big chunks of their writing?
    It baffles me.
    If I wrote those words, they’re my words.
    Minus some light editing, they’re done.

    • Scott Gordon

      Yes, thank you. I’ve thought the very same thing.

      When Dean mentions that he sometimes cuts out several chapters I just cringe. That would be awesome bonus material of some sort or could possibly be reworked into a new story.

      Absolutely I throw stuff out from time to time, but we’re talking about a sentence here, a paragraph there, not whole chapters.

      Given enough practice using the Writing into the Dark technique for novels, perhaps I’d also arrive at that level of comfort. For now, DOH!

  • Susan Davies

    I believe Heinlein’s Rules exist so that we don’t invalidate our voices and our work.
    Note Heinlein’s Rule #2 “Finish Your Work”
    More than a few times I thought I was doing the wrong thing.
    And when that happens, I still have completed it, made it as good as I can.
    When I don’t know what is going on, I believe the thing to do is to become an Explorer.
    Let your subconscious win. You don’t know what its trying to tell you.
    I sympathize but I would say at least finish it. Don’t get sucked in by the vacuum.
    My two cents.

    • Scott Gordon

      Yes, your subconscious is trying to tell you something. Very important insight.

      Never give up on anything.

      Finish what you start, always, and you’ll never second guess yourself.