Writing the first draft of a novel is like playing with finger paints: messy, colorful and fun. Painting with our instinct, creating images of whatever we fancy without worrying what the grown-ups will say, allows us to find our voice, get to know our characters, and allow the story to unfold. While the Inner Critic is a valuable player during the revision process, she has no business being in the room during the finger-painting stage.
It’s nearly impossible to finish a first draft if our Inner Critic is standing over our shoulder, breathing her stale coffee-cigarette breath down our necks, waiting to pounce if we write a cliché, put a comma in the wrong place, misspell a word or fail to find the perfect name for our character. So we type, delete, type some more, read and re-read what we wrote, eventually deciding everything we’ve just written is rubbish. We stare in frustration at the cursor, blinking like a stop light, forbidding our entrance to the land of successful writers.
The Inner Critic is what makes us fear the blank page and then feel shame about the little we manage to write, eventually causing us to drop out of the race.
NaNoWriMo™ excels at helping writers keep the Inner Critic away through a host of online resources and local events. Every November, contest winners have to complete one simple task: Write a novel in 30 days (50,000 words).
This means you have to write 1,667 words a day during a month with of one of the biggest holidays of the year. As it turns out, writing an insane amount in a short, specified period of time without going back to edit or worrying about the quality of the work allows writers to bulldoze past the Inner Critic.
“I love [NaNoWriMo™] because it teaches you to turn off your inner critic,” said Alicia Grumley, two-time contest winner and writer of young adult “twisted” fairy tales. “You can edit 50 thousand words, but you can’t edit a blank page.”
Here are some tips that helped Alicia turn off her Inner Critic:
- Don’t touch the backspace button.
- Put your font in white so you can’t see it, which keeps the Inner Critic from editing it.
- Realize that the ONLY goal is to write 50 thousand words. Even if you scrap them later, at least you have something to scrap.
Lilliana Rubio, who is writing a sci-fi post-apocalypse adventure, found the local events to be key to helping her win the contest this year. Rubio wrote 5,000 words at the NaNoWriMo™ Harry Potter Cup, during which four houses compete to see which team can write the most words in a series of ten to 15 minute “sprints.” As a production assistant at the Indiana Repertory Theater, Rubio’s schedule varies and may include 12-hour shifts. “Even though you say you don’t have time to write, there’s always time. Even 15 minutes is really useful,” she said.
At similar events, the losing team participated in “sabotages,” which required participants to do strange things while writing. Through this process, I learned that in a 5-minute sabotage, I can type 78 words using only chopsticks, 123 words while tied to another person with a decorative scarf, and 181 words while balancing a book on my head. Although it sounds silly, this valuable exercise taught us we could write anywhere, anytime.
As a result, I was able to push past my Inner Critic, whose relentlessness had stopped me in my tracks 15 years ago when I attempted to write this novel. I not only won NaNoWriMo™, but I now have a solid first draft of the novel I started so long ago. This is 50,000 words of new material on top of what I’d already produced, which I didn’t even think was possible, especially with Thanksgiving Day, a vacation, two overnight figure skating competitions and a full-time job.
Now that I have a solid first draft, I welcome back my disciplined Inner Critic who, with red pen in hand, will meticulously chisel away at the strange clay figure that is my first draft, doing her best to give it the shape, structure and form needed to transform it into a work of art.
After spending a couple of decades as an international and domestic nomad, Jennifer Malins returned to Indiana four years ago and now works for Indy Reads as Vice President of Program. If she’s not reading a book, she’s either writing her novel or preparing for a figure skating competition. She is also a health nut, so if you meet her, you’ll be sure to get some unsolicited health advice as well. (Hide the doughnuts!)