Sunday, November 3, 2013

Disabling the Inner Editor

Recent posts here on The Writers' Vineyard highlighted the importance and value of skilled editing to make a piece successful, especially a novel-length work. As we start November and National Novel Writing Month, I decided to consider a different sort of editor.

Many writers call it the inner editor or inner critic - and both titles are a bit unfair. If mine is anything to go by, it's often not truly editing or critiquing. When done well, these are generative activities intended to make a work better. My inner editor is a horse of a different color. (Although, like a good "real" editor, it just shuddered at that cliched metaphor.)

My inner editor can, at times, make my work better. But like the older operating system and browser on my MacBook, sooner or later, it becomes stuck and unresponsive. Instead of that little perpetual spinning pinwheel on my Mac, my inner editor creates a perpetual spiral of doom. 

No longer is it "hey, this scene lags a little; how can you pick up the pace?" No, it's "how did you ever convince yourself you could write?" Ideas go from being "unworkable in this story, but great fodder for a different one" to "the worst idea ever, and, moreover, the last idea you'll ever have." Sentences and phrases lose their ability to be tweaked into building blocks of sweet prose; they are hand grenades of bad writing, poised to blow up a whole body of work. 

I's time to reboot, to disable that inner editor run amok, and go back to generating raw material. For the last three years, NaNoWriMo has been the single most effective - and pure fun - way for me to do it. When I have to write fifty thousand words in thirty days - an average of 1667 words a day - the sheer volume disables the inner editor's spiraling criticism of doom. Not that it goes away entirely. It's there, buffering in the background. But I get permission to ignore it. 

Of the fifty-thousand-plus words I've created each of the past three Novembers, probably close to eighty percent of them need editing. I think there are some writers whose first drafts are a lot closer to perfection. I'm not one of them. But the twenty percent of my work that stands up in the cold hard gaze of December might not exist if I left my inner editor turned on all the time. More importantly, for me the sheer pleasure of letting a story pour itself out on the page, and of knowing there are thousands of other people around the world doing the same thing, reconnects me to the deep joy I experience when I lose myself in the creative process. 

So as of December first there's me - haggard from too little sleep and too much coffee, disoriented from spending hours in the alternative world I created, ready to catch up on laundry and turn my inner editor on again. After her long rest, she's ready to help polish my work instead of demolishing my morale. 

By the way, I'm writing this about a week ahead of posting time, and I'm still unsure what my 2013 NaNo Novel will be. But the manuscript I began in my first NaNo, back in 2010, will become my second published novel: You, Jane will be released by Champagne Book Group in 2014. It's in the hands of a skilled (real) editor now, and I'm eager to have her assistance in making it the best book it can be.

Elizabeth Fountain is the author of An Alien's Guide to World Domination, available from BURST Books and Amazon. Follow her on her blog Point No Point and on Facebook at Elizabeth Fountain, Author.


Big Mike said...

My IE has evolved and matured as I accumulated more and more titles under my belt. I find I do the right thing instinctively and commit fewer newbie mistakes. Yet,the labor to complete the work has intensified to a battle between me and my muse often feeling as is I'm walking in molasses.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Liz Fountain said...

Oh boy, I can relate to that "walking in molasses" sensation. I sense a short story here, a la Battle of the Titans or Godzilla vs Mothra: The Muse vs the Inner Editor vs the Writer. Is it a battle to the death? Who will win??

Thanks Big Mike!

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

I have a bad habit of editing too often as I go along. The other Molasses induced speed bump

Anonymous said...

I love NaNoWriMo for that. I've been doing it since 2008. I don't think I would have ever finished a book without that push. So now I have four rough draft novels, one that I'm working on self publishing from my second bout with NaNoWriMo and am working on my sixth book. I can definitely relate to the inner editor creating a "perpetual spiral of doom." My inner editor thinks it's more like DOOM. Happy writing!

Liz Fountain said...

Julie, I have spent way too many revising hours doing line edits that can wait - at least until I know if those lines will survive the revision!

And Sonya, thanks for joining us here at TWV! Congrats on your completed novels, whatever shape they're in. Happy NaNo-ing!