• My Monday-Morning Quarterback is an A**hole

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 52 comments
    Jun
    20

    Discussion questions: There are many more at the bottom of this unfocused, winding post, but here are a few: Do you ever feel exhilarated during and/or after a writing session only to crash hard the next day? Do you read your WIP as you go, or do you forge ahead without looking back? Do you like to write? What’s the worst thing your internal critic tells you?

     

    Here’s a thing I do all the time, and I’m pretty sick of it:

    Two weeks ago, in an exhilarating session, I wrote a new 3,000-word Chapter 1 of my novel. At the time, I was certain it was one of the best chapters ever written. Not one of my best… one of the best. Ever.

    I’d write a few lines, sit back, take a breath, and nod, smugly.

    I’d write two paragraphs, sit back, take a breath, read them, and nod, smugly.

    I specifically remember thinking at one point, Finally. I’ve finally found my way into this novel. 

    And while I didn’t think anything quite this lame, the gist was: There’s no stopping me now!

    I went to bed that night happy — thrilled, even — and eager to get up the next morning and keep working.

    That’s not the part I’m sick of. I love that feeling.

     

    The following afternoon I sat down to start Chapter 2, but then decided first to read the Chapter 1 I’d written the day before, for a dose of strong inspiration.

    So I read it.

    And, boy oh boy, it was awful.

    And I do mean awful. I hated it.

    And that feeling is warranted: I read it again a couple of days ago.

    Awful.

    I never did start writing Chapter 2 that day. In fact, I haven’t touched the book since.

     

    Late last year we took a look at the ways in which our internal critic derails us. I forgot to mention this one, though it gets me often. My internal critic is an unmerciful Monday-morning quarterback.

    After this Chapter 1 incident, I complained about it over email to my writer friend, who chastised me for rereading the chapter rather than moving straight to Chapter 2.

    “This is why you don’t go back and only plow ahead,” Drew wrote. “Then you have the whole bulk of the finished draft pushing you. You still hate the whole thing, but trashing it would be insane by then, so you just rewrite.”

    But, I wondered, isn’t it equally insane to blindly forge ahead for months or even years just to get a finished draft that “you still hate” anyway?

    Why should I not rewrite Chapter 1 until I get to a version I’m happy with, and then move to Chapter 2?

     

    My internal critic has an answer for that: You’ll never write a Chapter 1 you’re happy with, idiot,” he says. “My entire job, my reason for existing, is to prevent that. And I will. Oh, I will…”

     

    This doesn’t feel quite like a matter of swooping vs. bashing, but it’s in the neighborhood. Does it matter whether you swoop or you bash if, hovering above you always, ready to do his or her own swoop-bash, is your internal critic?

    To be fair, my Chapter 1 situation isn’t only a matter of internal criticism: Drew eventually read my Chapter 1 and found it almost as awful as I did.

    Maybe the question for me is, why do I think in the moment that my work is so good? Especially when I know it’s nearly inevitable that when I reread it, I’ll feel the opposite?

    I suspect the answer has something to do with the pleasure I get from the act of writing. I wrote about it a bit in a 2019 post called “Do You Like to Write?” The product of having written, I said at the time, is for me “hit and miss (and miss, and miss),” but, “I love to write. I fuc*ing love it.”

    That holds true.

    And maybe it can be enough for me? Last Friday (and I plan to write about this in the future) I had my first session with a WBN writing coach, Tom Andes. We talked a bit about the short stories I’ve been writing, and I mentioned that I don’t really care about publishing them. I barely can muster a desire to revise/edit them.

    I just want to write them.

    And if that’s the case, and if I also want to write a novel, I suppose it shouldn’t matter whether I like my Chapter 1. Or my Chapter 2, or any subsequent chapter. Or the book as a whole.

    If that’s true, then maybe Drew is right and I should just keep moving forward without ever looking back.

    I don’t know. It’s something I need to work through.

     

    This post has bounced around a lot, and I’m not sure what the focus is. But here are a few questions on my mind, and I’d love to hear your answers, to any or all:

    Do you reread your WIP as you go, or do you forge ahead without looking back?

    Do you ever feel exhilarated during and/or after a writing session only to crash hard the next day?

    How do you typically end a writing session? Do you use a clock and/or a word count; do you write until you reach a specific predetermined point in the work itself; do you write until you’re out of gas; or other?

    Do you like to write?

    What are the worst things your internal critic tells you?

    Do you regret reading this whole post?

     

    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2020 writing project you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. If you have a manuscript that’s ready for some editorial care, check out our various critiquing, editorial, and proofing servicesJoin our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    Elissa Malcohn

    This is a two-part answer, because my current WIP uses a method unlike anything I’ve done before. I’ll tackle that one first for each question. 1a. I reread, mainly to orient myself before forging ahead; it’s analogous to an actor getting into character. Generally I go back and reread two or three preceding installments. With rare exception, I make no changes, and the changes I’ve made have been minor, like a word substitution or transposition. 1b. In past works, I’ve generally read a preceding scene or chapter, usually making more substantive but still relatively minor changes before forging ahead. 2a. I wouldn’t say… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    I guess that you are like me, still trying to find that sweet spot for writing by attempting various things. I’m a hybrid plotter/pantster. I don’t do words per day so much as I do sprints that by the time my day is done, I’ve ended up doing around 2-5K words. Until I’ve gotten story down, I don’t worry too much about the finer details. If my character if flat, I’ll round them out in the rewrite. Missed something, I get it later. I may leave a note in a chapter to add/change/delete, etc, but I don’t stop to edit.… Read more »

    madelaine weiss

    Hello David, love the post, but here’s the thing… For all things in life, including but not limited to writing, we need to make friends with what you are calling your “inner critic.” That part of you has served you for a good long time, helping you to get where you are, and deserves your care and respect for having done so. But now you are shooting even higher and that particular voice, emotionally roughly 5 years old, should not be in charge. What we resist persists, so rather than resist your “inner critic,” you can listen, say thank you… Read more »

    madelaine weiss

    Yes, I am on friendly terms with my ‘internal critic’, which I now think of as more of an advisor. If any of you would like to learn how to manage your minds for more hours in the day, more freedom and fulfillment in your lives – that’s what I do.

    Barbara Mealer

    First of all, I love to write. Editing, not so much. But to write, you need to lock that inner critic and editor in the closet or basement and not let them out until you are finished with the book. I only reread what I did so that I know where i left off and am headed. Only minor editing is allowed and that is for leaving notes to add or delete major points. There is no good or bad. . I don’t worry about good or bad because I know that first draft is horrid. The whole purpose of… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    Correct. When writing, he isn’t allow to come out of that locked space. If you want, make a note of what happened in the last scene or chapter so you know where you are headed and pick up from there. Do not reread what you wrote. That isn’t allowed to happen until the project is completed and you have put it way for at least a month–preferably two. Only then is that editor and critic allowed to read it. That’s when you start making it all better.

    Raymundo

    Hi Dave. Your post is great description of the artist’s struggle, especially the fiction writer. I think there is no “solution,” only strategies for dealing with the struggle and finding your balance. Easy to say, I realize. What helps me is planning, and so I map out the dramatic arc for every scene, making all the notes and references I feel I need. Scrivener greatly facilitates this process. I extend this construction to the totality of whatever I’m writing and it gives me something to evaluate for suckiness before I commit major writing time to it. I then forge ahead… Read more »

    T.W. Day

    A couple of years ago, after a magazine folded, for which I’ve had a column for 20 years, I decided to motorcycle up to Thunder Bay, ON and give myself a writer’s retreat for two weeks to see if any of my old novel ideas still had life. I had two goals; 2,000 words a day before any recreation and to evaluate my passion for writing after 40-some years of mostly columns and essays. About 10 days into the “retreat,” conflicts with the AirB&B property owner convinced me that I’d had enough. The end result was that I easily accomplished… Read more »

    T.W. Day

    For the last 40-some years, I’ve written technical articles, essays, and magazine articles; almost always under 1200 words. Since retirement, I am enjoying freedom from invoicing and collecting from clients and I try to do as little work for pay as possible. I’m satisfied with the creative outlet I get from 3 blogs. I misspoke when I wrote “t I was bored stiff with the activity and end result.” That was in reference to my attempts at fiction or long-form writing. I’m so habituated at editing to 900-1200 words that I don’t seem to be able to maintain my interest… Read more »

    Cherylann

    First of all, I hope everyone is well and safe. I went back to work, going from zero to 10-hour days. I am calling it “screen and clean”. We have to temperature check everyone and clean constantly. Even on this schedule, I have written more in the past two weeks than in the previous three months. I am exhilarated, but also confused. No crash yet, just working on a rewrite and moving forward. As I am not working on chapters in order, I only review a little previous material for orientation. I am happiest when writing whether for publication, myself… Read more »

    Cherylann

    David, it is all about tone. The tone I hear with not working up to my potential is poison. I will now talk back to that voice and thank it for thinking I have potential. I never thought of that. Thanks so much for the suggestion.

    Doug MacCullagh

    David, I don’t know if this will be any help. I am so green I need a lot of work to get up to the level of Novice. I find writing to be a little frustrating since my fingers are so much slower than my brain. I usually have a certain (variable) amount of time to write, and I stop when I run out of time. That may mean writing a sentence, a paragraph, a page, or more. I may reread that and make changes, correct typos, or leave notes, but I press on with the rest of the story.… Read more »

    Doug MacCullagh

    I never needed the critic to doubt my talent as a creative writer. My interest first showed up as a preteen, and my parents spent years telling me what a bad idea that was. I still hear those voices, and I am nearly 60. Some years back, I read a published tale set in WW II. It was basically a good story, but the author missed several opportunities to make it better, and followed a thread or two that detracted from it. He got published anyway, and that got me wondering. I can never be as Great as my parents… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    Tell your parents thank you very much but it’s my life now go away. If your fingers don’t keep up with your brain, try dictating the story. There are a lot of good speech to typing programs out there. (Dragon is on of the more famous of them [and expensive]) Just remember that until you have written (and edited) at least a million words, you are still a beginner. Like I told David, start at the beginning and go to the end without judging the worthiness of the work. You can do that later when you are fixing it up.

    Doug MacCullagh

    Yup. I like being a greenhorn, working up to novice, hoping to become a beginner. It leaves me free to admit I don’t know what I don’t know, to ask for help, to learn, to grow, all without any baggage. This is fun, whether I come up with a readable story or not. Of course, I hope I do come up with a book people will enjoy reading, but at the moment the goal is to finish and polish the story so that it is the best it can be. I surprised myself by becoming a very capable computer programmer… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    it is, but I can’t remember who said (or wrote) it. I still consider myself an experienced beginner since editing is my biggest bugagoo that I’m working on this year. I’ve made good headway with a ton of help. My favorite Master Class was James Patterson. The second was Dan Brown (specific of suspense and thriller writers). I’ve worked with the story grid and several of James Scott Bell’s books, along with a couple of editing classes. Once I get the big problems fixed, the rest is a lot easier. I have learned that perfection isn’t necessary unless you’re a… Read more »

    david lemke

    Hi Dave, Years ago, I’d read a writer’s rule to not rewrite until the first draft was done or you’d never finish. I generally break that rule if I’m in a writers group, because I need to have something to show. I would take the 4 pages or whatever I needed for the group and clean it up so it would be readable. I wouldn’t worry about style or any big-picture issues. I just didn’t want them to focus on spelling, punctuation, and wrong or empty words; so I clean those up. Occasionally I would have something that wasn’t working… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    The truth is that until over 70% of the people have had the virus, it will keep coming back….no antibodies to stop it. It’s like all the other flus and should be treated the same…stay home if you are sick, wash your hands, keep the hands away from your face. With that said, I get the issue with they groups. Luckily, I have several completed manuscripts that I can use for my critique group. I edit multiple times then push it out to be critiqued while working on the next chapter. Hopefully you get back into writing soon. Meanwhile go… Read more »

    Tadd

    I don’t know if it’s weird, but I write my entries twice. I hand write on paper at work, because a laptop isn’t feasible (and I like hand writing!). So when I take over from the last session, I do read back a bit to know where I was in the narrative, but not really to decide if it’s ‘good’ or not. The second time I write it, is copying it into Scrivener on my PC, and I do minor edits/word choice changes to make it sound more better. :D In the regard of deciding if my work is good… Read more »

    Tadd

    Yee, some of his books are 400k words…lol! I’m not sure how he does the drafts, but his website says he’s on draft 4 of his new book, so there must be a lot of polishing going on somewhere! He writes big epics and smaller ones, but apparently they’re all connected in one big universe, so I imagine theres a LOT going on there. (I just bought a few of his books, but haven’t read anything yet.) Now get in there and build up that pencil bump, soldier! Let me see your writing face! (I guess it’s probably not like… Read more »

    Mary

    Two times I’ve drafted novels in a single month. I could not have done that had I not been participating in NaNoWriMo (where you challenge yourself to write, with no preparation, up to 50,000 words of a novel or writing piece in a single month). Both times were a “one-day-at-a-time” experience, never knowing if I’d be able to repeat it the next day. But I did, because I always said to myself that I can bail at any time (to reduce the pressure). The first time I did NaNoWriMo, I wrote 1,667 words/day. The second time, 3-4 years after that,… Read more »

    Mary

    “The only things I like to revise are the stories of my past, the ones I tell myself.” (quote by me, just now) Thanks to one of Write By Night’s coaches, yes, I AM in the process of revising the first novel, and I hope at some point the second one as well. I will say the discipline of sitting down to write (not unlike getting the energy to work out) is an effort, but once you’re in, ideally a flow will take over and that’s the part I like, and that’s the part that leads to the “having written”… Read more »

    delconte

    Let us not lose sight of the fact that writing a novel is not a sprint. It is a marathon. Long, arduous, and full of pain-staking decisions and lip-biting. You should revel in the fact that you began a novel, completing its opening chapter. Lest not we also forget that novels are written and rewritten and rewritten. I would encourage you, as others have, to move forward. ALWAYS move forward. It’s a show of progress. There is something psychologically satisfying about saying I did something. When we train, we perform repetitive actions, or reps, to get the most out of… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    Good idea there. Another thing, it might help to plan ahead. have a basic plan for where you are going to go even if it’s nothing but one or two lines for each scene/chapter. Work out who your characters are including that villain. You can pantser from that, but you might just need to know the basics of what your story is to keep going.

    Susan

    Hey David, This is long. Well, the first thing that came to mind when I read about your experience with your Monday morning quarterback was a saying that I am paraphrasing and which has been variously attributed but I heard first as being a Sufi principle: Before you open your mouth to speak, ask yourself three things–Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? Tell that to your critic. Especially tell him (or her?) to be kind. My problems with writing lately have not been with the writing itself. I’m generally satisfied, but I do work a chapter over… Read more »

    Susan

    PS: Just read a little more of that Toni Morrison: “Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.”

    (Look, there it is again, that word ‘ineffable.’ Look at that last sentence, all those f’s. I have goosebumps.)

    Erica Craig

    I find it very counter productive to re-read anything until I have finished it. Then I like to put it away for a few days, weeks or even months, depending on the length of the work before I take it out again and edit. That’s worked for me!

    Erica Craig

    It feels a little like someone else’s work, which means I can be more critical!




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