The Inner Critic Perspective #2: Susan Marshall

The Inner Critic

“Just because you read something in a particular way, doesn’t mean it actually rhymes.”

“Why do you repeat the main character’s name so much?  It’s really grating.”

“I’m not sure why you wrote this story, is there a purpose here?”

I received the above comments—and sadly there were more—from classmates, as part of a ‘peer critique.’ While this blog post is about your inner critic, I’m first going to start with the outer critics, and those comments from years ago…

Unlike most writers, I never ever aspired to be one. I was a librarian, married to an accountant. We were hailed as Mr. and Mrs. Boring. Until seven or eight years ago, I was convinced I didn’t have a creative bone in my body. I would have scoffed at the idea that I would ever write a book.

When I signed up for a ‘Writing for Children’ class, it was for a purpose: to pen a picture book about a child with a disability, similar to my own daughter, who was two years old at the time. Unlike my classmates, I had zero previous literary aspirations and zero experience with creative writing. I was an absolute newbie.

The critique comments were on point: my first picture draft really sucked. But at the time, the negative comments gutted me. One student rightly pulled me aside after class and warned me that, by attempting to write a picture book without ever having written anything else, I was trying to scale Mount Everest without practicing on the Niagara Escarpment first. Her sage advice went unheeded.

After a few unsuccessful attempts to ‘fix’ the story, I threw in the towel. At that point, I tried to run away from writing, but it didn’t stick. And I’ve since learned that once you’ve been pulled into the writing vortex, it’s hard to extricate yourself.

I stopped with the classes. Clearly I was hopeless at writing. But many of the YA stories—workshopped by my classmates—stayed with me. For some reason, those characters and plot lines came alive in my brain during church. And eventually, they spurred my own ideas, which started to compete for headspace.

During those contemplative Sundays, when I was supposed to be paying attention to the priest, a novel started slowly taking shape in my mind. Pretty soon, by the end of mass each week, I had practically written another chapter.

I tried to silence the creative voices. Why would I want to take another stab at writing? #Masochist? But I could not get the story, which would become NemeSIS, out of my brain. Eventually, I succumbed and started writing.

I wrote the first draft of the novel, very quickly, over the course of a few months. It was utterly terrible, and I even I knew it this time. I turned to my sister and a friend, both amazing editors, for advice. They helped me beat the story into something semi-coherent, with the added bonus of consistency in my use of verb tenses. I eventually sought out an external editor, who helped me with some substantive issues. Less than a year from the start, I had a manuscript.

As a proud new manuscript ‘parent,’ my inner critic was temporarily silenced. I started submitting, and bizarrely, saw significant interest from a decent publisher almost immediately. Nine months later, the project was rejected. I then tried to find an agent, with no luck. I submitted to more publishers, and received more rejections.

It took a while, but eventually I had to accept that the initial interest was a fluke. The manuscript—and more importantly, me the writer—sucked.

At that point, I was pretty bummed out because I felt the need to write, was in dire need of instruction, but was too worried about negative comments to sign up for more classes (#Coward).

Staring at a dead end, I eventually put the manuscript, along with the dream, into a drawer. I threw myself into other activities, thrilled to be done with writing.

Unfortunately, my husband continued to drag me to church each week, and try as I might to pay attention, another YA story idea started percolating. I considered becoming an atheist, but in the end, I went back to the computer.

I wrote another terrible first draft of a second novel, but I wasn’t going to submit this one. I knew it sucked, and I sucked, but I was starting to love the process. Writing was my new hobby.

As a stay-at-home-mom, with my youngest starting half-day school, I rationalized that spending my free time writing would keep me out of the mall. And since there was no cost, I waspractically savingthe family money.

Once I finished the second manuscript, I meant to take a break, but instead, I started re-editing the first one (NemeSIS), again. Eventually, I had two manuscripts but no confidence to submit either of them.

Unsure of how to proceed, I became intrigued by a Kirkus Reviews‘pop-up’ ad. As a librarian and reader, I knew Kirkus Reviewshad a solid reputation. And while the indie review was expensive, look at all the money I had saved! I guess ‘the mall’ found me, somehow. In the end, spurred on by atime-limited discount coupon, I took a deep breath and put down a credit card.

Even before I finished the transaction, I vowed to myself that if Kirkuspanned NemeSIS, I would bow out of writing—church be damned—forever. My outer and inner critics needed official confirmation of my literary suckage. Basically, I put my fate as a writer into the hands of a lone book reviewer and braced for the worst.

Months later, when I opened the email from Kirkus, I was confused. I read the review repeatedly, not quite comprehending the words. Despite the tag line, ‘A smart choice for teen readers,’ it took one of my kids to read it out loud, before I grasped that the review was positive. I was stunned.

I suppose it’s exactly as Malcolm Gladwell espoused; I needed to spend all those hundreds (thousands?) of hours —writing, rewriting, thinking, editing, not praying—to gain a basic literary competency. 

And while I eventually managed to get NemeSISpublished, my inner critic is still quite vocal, reminding me just today how badly the first draft of my third (#OMG) manuscript sucks. At this stage, I have some faith that if I keep working away, the story might turn out okay in the end.

Although maybe not, seeing as I’m such a crappy writer. The Kirkusreview was surely a fluke! Hmmmm, maybe I should stop being a coward and take another writing class? But they’re pretty expensive, and besides who needs outer critics chiming in when the inner critic never shuts up?

Wait! What if I spent my time at church praying to become a better writer, instead of ignoring God and plotting books? I could even reach out to St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint for writers and journalists? Nah! As if I could even call myself a writer!

Hey, I’ve got it! I’ll go all-in with Saint Jude, the dude for lost causes, and likely the only one at this point who can help me with my writing…

One of four daughters, SUSAN MARSHALL was born and raised in an estrogen-fuelled household in Hamilton, Ontario. Always a big fan of libraries, Susan graduated with a Library Science degree from U. of T. Naturally disorganized, she quickly opted out of the field, instead working for The Globe and Mail and then Seneca College. Four kids later, she decided to stay-at-home.

Susan lives in Toronto with her husband, three sons, a daughter, a dog, and a cat. Her first novel NemeSIS (think ‘sister bully’) was published in 2017.

Website: www.susanmarshall.ca

Twitter: @sueemarshall

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