Hey…kid. That’s right: you with the laptop under your arm and the aura of destiny upon you. Come over here. Come closer. Share your lunch with me so you’re following the rules of narrative causality and giving me an excuse to help you. Is that a pastrami sandwich? It is, isn’t it?
I hear you’ve started out on the perilous Journey to Publication and are wondering how it’s supposed to go. I can tell you, of course. I know the secret. There’s only one correct path, and I’ll tell you what it is if you stop hiding those pickles behind your back. I can smell the pickles, kid. I wasn’t born yesterday.
That’s better. Okay, here we go. If you follow these exact steps, you will be able to complete the Journey. If you skip even one, you won’t. Listen closely. Take notes. Why haven’t you opened your laptop? Kids these days. Sheesh.
The steps are:
1) When you are eighteen, write a book. It doesn’t have to be good. It should probably be in longhand. It should also be four hundred pages long, single spaced. The benefit of this is that when you painstakingly type it all up, you will become an astoundingly good touch-typist.
2) Do not send the book out to publishers. It isn’t a good book. Edit it for a year, then put it away and never look at it again.
3) Write another book. You’re probably twenty by this point. It’s a slightly better book, but not by much.
4) Send it out to one Canadian publisher you find in one of those books everybody used to buy: the ones in which inaccurate, outdated information about Canadian publishers was listed.
5) Get rejected. Put the book away forever.
6) Keep writing books. Do not write any short stories. Books are more exciting. Show all the books to your sister and force her to read them. Years later, consider sending your sister a gift basket as an apology.
7) Do not send the books you are writing out. You know they’re not good enough and will be rejected.
8) Build up resentment about how everyone else is getting published, but you’re not.
9) Blame your lack of publishing credits not on the fact that you never send any books out but on the publishing industry’s lack of interest in children’s fantasy.
10) The Harry Potter books exist now! Blame your lack of publishing credits not on the fact that you never send any books out but on the fact that if you did, everyone would accuse you of being a J. K. Rowling copycat.
11) Finish your PhD. Continue to write books and not send them out.
12) Join a writing group. Wonder why you are not sending any of your books out.
13) Start writing and performing nerdy music about Beowulf and Batman. Make a couple of albums.
14) Tentatively, fearfully, with bated breath, write a book and send it out.
15) Get rejected by publishers.
16) Get ignored by agents.
17) Wash out of an Amazon contest that is basically American Idol for books.
18) Get rejected some more.
19) Get discouraged about the book. Maybe the book is not right. Maybe all that practice was for nothing. Maybe you will never be published. Maybe you are doomed to send books out forever and hear nothing in return.
20) Receive an e-mail from a friend who used to be in your writing group and is now a published author with awards and acclaim and so on. She was just in England, winning an award. While she was there, she talked to an editor from a big publishing company, and they somehow started talking about you. He had bought your CD from a table at a convention you were not even attending, and he’d liked it. Your friend said to him, “Do you know she writes novels too?” The editor said, “She should send me one.”
21) Get the editor’s e-mail from your friend and reach out, though your heart is in your throat.
22) A month later, the editor writes back and asks for a manuscript. Ask, in your capacity as someone eminently used to slush piles, “Do you want a synopsis and sample chapters?” “I don’t read synopses,” he says. “Send me the whole thing. I may not get to it for about a month.”
23) Send your manuscript to the editor.
24) Hear nothing for a year.
25) Receive a ten-word e-mail reading, “I like the book. Let me see about publishing it.”
26) Hear nothing for six months.
27) Get a phone call from the editor, who wants to buy the book.
That’s it. That’s how you get published.
No, of course I’m not kidding. That’s the only way. I swear it on these pickles, which are rather good, by the way. There’s only one path down the Journey to Publication. I mean, that’s what you believe, isn’t it? That’s what you’ve always been sure of. You’ve always had the feeling, deep inside, that there has to be some sort of mysterious key that will open the way to the Land of Publication, which is full of unicorns and space cats and parental approval. Why are you even listening to me if that’s not what you believe?
Imagine it wasn’t true. Imagine the Journey to Publication was different for everyone. Imagine there was no mysterious key, no One True Way, no secret to be heard from a lurking helper figure with a thing for pickles. Imagine every path was different. Imagine luck and connections sometimes helped, but not always, and imagine hard work and determination sometimes helped, but not always, and imagine a writer could be someone who did nothing but write or who did a variety of creative things or who succeeded at eighteen or who succeeded at sixty-three or who self-published or who never self-published or who stewed in self-pity for fifteen years or who didn’t know the meaning of the term “self-pity” or who practised a lot or who never practised at all and was awesome the first time out the gate or who was a social media god or who didn’t even have a Twitter account or who accidentally left a manuscript in a bathroom where it was found by a big-name editor or who sent out a manuscript over and over again for seven years and had it plucked from a slush pile or who found a great agent or who found a terrible agent or who never found an agent or who became an agent out of desperation. Imagine there were a million possible paths, and none of them could be predicted ahead of time.
Wouldn’t that be ridiculous? No. There is one path, and I know what it is. I hope you were listening carefully. Your Journey depends on it. Have fun at the next crossroads, and watch out for wolves.
I can see you have questions. Try not to worry about them. You should clearly know exactly what you’re doing by now.
Goodbye, kid. Enjoy the Journey.
And next time I see you, make sure you’ve got more of those pickles.
To share the story of my publishing journey, I want to describe for you the events of the morning of July 21, 2011 – and to do this, I need to begin by taking you back to 1986, back to when I was in grade 7 and when I first started submitting my work for publication.
I was lucky enough to have workshopped a middle-grade adventure novel that I’d written with the highly-acclaimed Canadian author Janet Lunn who had visited the students of Whitby Senior Public School to run a workshop for aspiring writers. At about the same time, my friends and I were heavily into the hysterically funny books of Gordon Korman. When I learned that Gordon’s first big publishing break had been with Scholastic when he was 13 years old, that was just the push I needed to set me off down my own road.
I begged my poor mum to type out my entire novel – which I was excited to then call a “manuscript” – and to photocopy it for me 3 times. (I may have been an optimistic 12-year-old but even then, I was going to do whatever it took to increase the odds in my favour.) I submitted a copy each to Scholastic Canada, Kids Can Press and Grolier (the only other publishing company I could think of.) None of them wanted to publish it – although they all sent very nice and encouraging rejection letters (which brought me a somewhat odd excitement, knowing they might be – and actually were – the first of hundreds of rejections I would accumulate over my career. It was a significant step for me to get those first few out of the way.)
Over 20 years later – also 2 degrees in English Literature/Creative Writing and 3 kids later – I found myself writing children’s picture books and beginning to tentatively submit again. At this point, I also sent some of my stories to writing competitions, hoping that if my work received recognition, that might help me when approaching a publisher. In April 2009, I sent 3 stories to the children’s writing competition of The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) – a large national competition in which the winners received a nice cash prize and their stories were submitted to 3 publishers. I didn’t win.
But in 2010, I received news that my story “Skink on the Brink” had placed second in the children’s writing category of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick’s competition. This was my first real big break – not Gordon Korman with Scholastic big, but big enough for me to get on a plane and fly out to Fredericton for the awards. Feeling that I had now finally written something publishable, in April 2010, I submitted “Skink on the Brink” to the TWUC competition. Again, I didn’t win.
At the same time, I was getting my work out elsewhere. Using the feedback I received from several contest judges, I had revised my rhyming story about a little girl who asks for a polar bear for Christmas and it had caught the attention of Donna Francis at Tuckamore Books in Newfoundland. And I met Christie Harkin, editor at Fitzhenry and Whiteside at Word on the Street in Toronto. I asked Christie about the kinds of stories she was looking for and we agreed that “Skink on the Brink” might be a good fit. She invited me to submit it to her personally. I rushed home and spent a couple of weeks revising “Skink” before sending it to her. In April 2011, I decided it might be worth submitting the new revision to the TWUC competition yet again.
Which brings me to the morning of July 21, 2011. I was packing for an anniversary trip that Marc and I were taking to Peru when I received an email from Donna Francis saying that she really loved the revisions I had made to the polar bear story and – as I can quote directly because, of course, the email is still saved to my laptop – “I’m ready to send you a contract for review.”
I picked up the phone and called Marc at work and, not long after he managed to make sense of the dolphin noises I was making through the phone, my call waiting indicator beeped. I glanced at the caller ID and saw that it was the Writers’ Union calling. Why would the Writers’ Union be calling? Do they call every author who has just been offered a contract? How do they know? I left Marc while I took the call, the call in which Nancy McLeod informed me that “Skink on the Brink” had won first place in TWUC’s Writing for Children competition. However, I was not to tell anyone until the official press release on July 26.
As you might expect, Marc received a second call from his dolphin-sounding-wife and promised that we would go out to celebrate that evening. In the meantime, I tried to continue packing, avoided friends and neighbours (as I’m not very good at keeping secrets) and posted a cryptic message on Facebook about this being the fifth best day of my life. (You will remember I have 3 children and, of course, the fabulous dolphin-decoder man that I married.)
We went out for dinner and a drink (or three) and returned home that evening with me feeling absolutely euphoric. However, the day was not yet over and, when I checked my email, there was a message from Christie Harkin who had obviously seen my Facebook post. Her subject line was simply, “So you’re having a good day, huh?” Attached to the email was a contract for Skink on the Brink, the picture book.
Now 7 years and 10 published books later, my next book will be published by Scholastic Canada (just like Gordon Korman… well almost.) Fierce: Women who Shaped Canada will be available in January 2019 and will include wonderful art by Willow Dawson. (And I’m starting to wonder if I should be polishing off and revising something that I could maybe submit to Grolier.)
Writing is a solitary endeavour. Most writers find it helpful to be part of a writing community that can help them feel less alone, fine-tune their work, and later, find a place in the world for their writing.
We’ve brought together four writers to talk about how they built their communities and how that has helped them:
CAITLYN PAXSON, writer and reviewer – her work can be found at NPR Books and Quill & Quire. www.caitlynpaxson.com
DOMINIK PARISIEN co-editor, with Navah Wolfe, of The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales and Robots vs Fairies, and Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction with Elsa Sjunneson-Henry. Author of the forthcoming poetry chapbook We, Old Young Ones.
ANDREW WILMOT, author of The Death Scene Artist (Wolsak & Wynn, 2018); co-publisher, co-EIC of Anathema: Spec from the Margins. Freelance editor and reviewer for hire.
CP: I’m going to get started by talking about my writing community journey – if that’s not too cheesy to say – and how I found the ones that work for me and support my writing.
When I think back to my first writing communities, I have to go all the way back to the sixth grade, when I started writing my first novel (a work that remains unfinished and consists mostly of things I stole from the Princess Bride). I knew even then that I couldn’t do it alone, so I rounded up a couple of friends and made them write novels, too, so we could share our progress every day at school and encourage each other. I was the only one who wrote more than a page.
I’d say my next attempt was in college, when I joined a writing club that shared short works with each other. I hadn’t yet realized the impact that genre has on the cohesion of a writing community, so it didn’t really help me the way I hoped. But it planted a seed for me – a desire to find the folks who were writing the same kind of literary and folkloric fantasy that I was interested in.
I found that community though an online poetry magazine called Goblin Fruit. They accepted one of my poems, and then I became friends with one of the editors and was welcomed into the glorious coven of myth and language obsessed word alchemists who wrote for and edited the zine. I started going to fantasy conventions, specifically Readercon, which takes place outside of Boston, and meeting these folks and their friends in person. A decade later, and we’re still friends and, I think, each other’s strongest writing community. I don’t know how I’d write without their support.
Since moving to Toronto, I’ve also enjoyed finding community here – both through my fantasy writing network and also through the kidlit network that a friend was kind enough to introduce me to – there’s a facebook group of kidlit authors and illustrators, and we meet up once a month to chat and hang out. I’ve had some great friendships come out of that, and some creative collaborations as well.
JG: I’m not sure why writers are compelled to “find the others,” but we seem to be. Maybe because writing can be such a lonely business. But also for professional development … I mean, who reminds you when grants are due, or to apply to a conference? Other writers. They save you! I have one group I meet with on an ad hoc basis–we text each other to see who’s free to hang out and write. And another one that’s more structured–it meets every Tuesday to write. Three online groups I dip in and out of; we share contest dates and encourage each other. And a Toronto-based group that socializes at a restaurant every month. And of course, my writers’ critique group; we share our work with each other and make specific suggestions about work-in-progress. It may sound like a lot of groups, but each one has a purpose: support, advice, celebration, consolation, expertise. We each write alone, but we get support from our village as well.
AW: Community for me is a bit of an odd thing because, to be perfectly honest, it’s not something I’d ever experienced before moving to Toronto in 2012, at the age of 31. But then my writing career is also a slightly circuitous, non-linear path. I wrote here and there when I was younger, and always wanted to write, but was far more focused on Conservatory piano and painting as career options. The piano faded away by the time I got to university and art took over my life. I didn’t start writing again until a brief period in 12th grade, and then fully when in my final year of undergrad. Later, after becoming entirely disillusioned by the visual art world, I dipped my toes into writing and editing on a more full-time basis (this would have been around 2005-6). And now here we are.
I grew up in a small town in BC, and while I had a great time in university (visual arts for undergrad, publishing for grad school) and spent most of my waking hours in Vancouver itself, I never successfully found or worked my way into a community there, creative or otherwise. Growing up I never went to cons or anything like (what’s up, extreme social anxiety), so, really, it wasn’t until much later in life that I even found people with whom I had more than just one or two things in common. That’s a large part of why Toronto has so quickly become what I think of when I think of “home”—I’m not from here, but the publishing and arts communities here are so much more warm and welcoming than any I experienced out west, or during my years spent in Edmonton and Montreal (the latter being a mere five months, but still).
Because of all this, when I think of community I don’t necessarily think of a large group or organization that I meet up with from time to time, but a select few writers and editors with whom I’ve crafted a very special and open bond. I’m a private person by nature, and don’t freely give of my emotions or inner thoughts (save for anxious rants on FB). I came into this city from the other side of things, as a working editor and former in-house marketing and production coordinator for a small press, and have spent the bulk of my publishing career not as a writer but as a reviewer, editor, and/or publisher, so I actually have a larger community on the non-writing side of the industry. But for those select few I connect with as a writer, it’s a more intimate and less group-focused experience. Even then, we don’t necessarily pass work around like you would in a writing group; we spend most of our time just tossing ideas back and forth, and of course venting about the industry and what things are currently driving us up the wall.
All of this is a very round-about way of saying that my writing has largely been done with the absence of an actual community of writers. For the most part, I work and lead a solitary existence, not unlike The Littlest Hobo but without the excellent theme song. I do, however, have a very awesome and reliable circle of beta readers that I foist my work on from time to time, but only if and when I feel like a project is ready for public scrutiny. As I’m an editor myself, and my very small writing circle is also made up of writers who pull double duty as professional editors, I tend to workshop less and push forward on my own or with input from just one or two trusted sources before considering something “done.”
Would I like to experience more community as a writer? Some days yes, some days no. I know that’s not much of an answer, but it’s true. I do sometimes wish I had more writers to regularly bounce ideas off of, but I also know myself and my idiosyncrasies. I know how much I love silence and privacy when working, and how I recharge in solitude. And I know, sometimes all too well, of the predators and bad faith individuals that operate in our industry, especially on the spec side of things, and that knowledge does colour my interest in being part of certain writing groups and/or going to cons. Also, I know how much I doubt the quality of my first drafts, which, to be fair, read like cobbled together messes of ideas and bits of dialogue I desperately want to work into the narrative somehow. But I guess that’s part of writing as an editor: you understand that the first draft is just to get the ideas on the page. It’s after that, during the first self-editorial pass, where the clusterfuck of loose threads and concepts actually becomes a story.
Sorry. That was a mouthful. I tend to ramble.
DP: Gaining access to a writing community was one of the defining moments of my life, both personally and in terms of a career. Early on I found it difficult to think of myself as a writer. I wrote, certainly, but it was never something I pursued with any real drive. Conventions changed that. My first con was Worldcon in 2009, and while I was too shy to engage with just about anyone, I was deeply inspired by the passion I saw on display at panels. While there I somehow managed to approach an editor I admired, Ann VanderMeer, and we struck a friendship. Ann was my first real connection to the field, and her friendship and encouragement drove me to seriously pursue editing. My next convention wasn’t until 2012, but there I met a group of writers who would become some of my closest friends and some of the most positive influences on my writing. That was the first time I had a core group of people around me who wrote, and even though we were all separated by considerable distance, the sense of community was powerful.
Seeing the people around me succeed, drive themselves to push their writing, made me want to improve, want to generate more writing of my own. It also helped that many asked for feedback on their work, and offered feedback in return. Access to community forced me to put greater thought into my craft, and the type of work I wanted to generate. Up to that point I had always put great care in my editorial projects, but I tended to devalue my own writing, to play it a bit safe because I wasn’t submitting much of it. Being lazy, or safe, or uncritical, became increasingly difficult as I saw my friends develop. I didn’t want to waste their time, so it drove me to do better. It reinforced the idea that all writing is in dialogue with other work in one way or another, which can be easy to forget when you’re completely on your own. Essentially, finding my community turned one of my interests into a passion and a career.
CP: Now that we’ve described how we found them, I feel like it might be interesting to talk about the logistics of how we stay in touch with the communities who support our writing. For me, it’s a really wide range of interactions! For my local Toronto community, I tend to mostly use facebook – groups and private messages, and then in-person meet-ups. For my wider community, it’s a little more varied. In addition to the expected social media connections, I try to do regular skype dates with writer friends. With one friend, we actually do cheerleading sessions over skype – we read each other our work in progress and gush about all the things we like about it. It serves a very different purpose than a critique – it’s to help us get through the hard times! I also belong to a Slack chat of a small group of women writers, and try to occasionally meet up with people in real life for working visits. On a very practical side, the clients of the agency that represents me have a facebook chat group where we can talk about our experiences and cheer each other on. That’s a community I wasn’t even looking for and don’t participate in very much, but I get a lot of insight from belonging to it. It’s sort of funny to me writing all of this out, because it makes me sound like a real social butterfly, when in fact I am a socially anxious introvert! But I think that the key thing about all of these communities that support my writing is that there isn’t a lot of expectation or obligation involved. They are there when I feel like I can engage, but they don’t judge me if I need to step back, and there always seems to be someone there to help anyone who is in need.
JG: I agree with Caitlyn — I think most of us are introverts. But we’re so often called upon to do extroverted things, like speak in front of groups and push our work on social media. The rules have changed in the publishing industry. Publishers don’t do all of the publicity; most of the time it’s up to the author. And that’s precisely why “finding the others” is so important, I think. Doing something a bit scary is a lot easier together. I touch base with other writers on Facebook and email, mostly. Facebook Messenger is really good, because there are loads of times I want to ask another writer something, but don’t have their email address. If we’re friends on Facebook, then I think that kind of gives you permission to reach out to them about a writing issue–Messenger allows for that.
Does anyone here use any other social media to say in touch? LinkedIn?
AW: Honestly, most days I forget LinkedIn even exists, except to job hunt. But then I exist on that site more as an editor than a writer. For me, because it’s such a small group of just my nearest and dearest, we just use FB messenger and texting, and get together at this point almost every weekend, writing or not, just to hang out. We also email back and forth quite a bit as we work together on a magazine and have edited for one another, so basically it’s less like a writing community and more like a writing marriage (which is probably a weird way of putting it since the other two are actually a couple and I’m the permanent third wheel, but you get my drift).
I do have a community of writers I know through social media (and many in person), but I don’t write with them. We speak with one another and help promote each other’s work the way you do anyone you might follow on, say, Twitter, but I do not consider it a writing community in the sense that I write with them, in person. But I find, for myself, that I want the writing to be a mostly solitary thing, and that only when something is “ready” do I want to engage with a larger assortment of people, to garner feedback and/or support.
DP: Like most of you messenger/email have been hugely important to me in terms of remaining in regular contact with other writers, but, while it sounds archaic, actual letter writing has also been really powerful for me. Messenger and email have that instant gratification, which can be useful for immediate concerns, but I have a few penpals who are writers, and taking the time to engage with them in a thoughtful, slower method of communication has been really lovely. Because I work online so much, switching to a paper letter, and knowing the person won’t see it immediately, also seems to force my brain to think a little differently. It’s actually a nice writing exercise, in addition to being a valuable means of meaningful communication. In terms of community, I also love having physical tokens of my friendship with other writers — sometimes it makes it feel a little more tangible than something online, which feels like it’s there one moment and gone the next. It helps me feel physically connected to that community and to those people.
JG: Beyond writing, there have been tons of things my writing communities have helped me with. Freelance work, for instance. I have gotten jobs from other writers, and I’ve recommended people in my writing communities for jobs as well. Not just writing jobs, but things like invigilating (overseeing exams) and other work that helps fill in the gaps between books.
DP: Attending readings has also been key to the development of my community. I really enjoy listening to authors read their work, so for me it’s worth attending readings just for that, but the social engagement before and after the actual events have lead to some important friendships, as well as some professional opportunities. My health often makes it difficult for me to attend readings, but when I do I almost always encounter someone new and interesting. Some of my best conversations about the field have been with brand new folks at readings. People I’ve met at events have also introduced me to work I might not have encountered otherwise, and through casual conversations I’ve learned about great writing opportunities, new grants, and new festivals.
CP: I think for me, the most important thing I figured out about building a writing community was that it’s basically just making friends. I think I started going to conventions and meet-ups with this idea that I was “networking”, but ultimately, I just ended up getting to know folks and finding that I genuinely liked them. When we started helping each other in the way that communities do, it just felt like a natural progression of the relationships we developed.
I think we can all agree that there’s no one right way to build a writing community – it’s a matter of connecting with people on the same path as you by whatever means work for the level of engagement you’re looking for – whether it’s online, in person, or a combination of the two.
Thanks to everyone for sharing their experiences and thoughts – we hope it will be helpful for anyone thinking about seeking out a writing community!
There’s a voice in my head that rules and which has ruled since as far back as I can remember. It’s the voice that told me stuff like:
You’re not smart.
You’re not enough.
I listened to this voice without awareness as I grew up and I believed without questioning, and whenever anyone said anything that was negative or made me feel bad – (comments like: You’re selfish; Share with your brothers; What’s wrong with you?) – my inner critic validated these judgments, confirmed how selfish I was, lowered my self-worth even more and grew in dominance.
When I considered the possibility that I wanted to be a writer, my inner critic told me what it thought of that career choice. I listened. I believed. I made excuses why writing was a bad idea. In high school I studied books by D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and E.M. Foster, and when I read their bios, all I saw was how unhappy their lives were and I came to a conclusion: I decided that writers – ALL WRITERS – were unhappy people. I wanted to be happy. And so I buried my desire deep, very, very deep. And guess what.
I WAS NOT HAPPY.
Later, when I embraced writing and realized that this was where my passion lay, my inner critic mocked me.
What will people think of you?
What do you have to say?
Who do you think you are anyway?
Stay and be a secretary. It’s a safe bet.
That started another struggle inside me and for a long time my dreams ran parallel races with the fears my inner critic threw at me.
What if people laugh at you and criticize your books?
I was at a crossroads.
If you limit your choices only to what seems possible or reasonable, you disconnect yourself from what you truly want, and all that is left is a compromise
Author of The Path of Least Resistance
The truth is that refusing to take action for whatever reason – especially toward the thing that creates a fire in your soul and which at times can seem so scary you want to crawl into a tiny space and hide – leads to a hurt that is so much more encompassing and powerful than fleeing.
Running away never works, especially not in the long term. At some point a person has to stop running, even if from pure exhaustion, giving the thing from which you are trying to escape time to catch up. And then the inner critic has a heyday. First it berates you for trying to flee, laughs at you for your feeble attempt, then tries to reel you back to safety, to your comfort zone, where “everything will be all right and your fear will take care of you, don’t worry.”
No man is ever whipped, until he quits in his own mind
Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
Here’s the thing, and this took me years to learn. The perspective of the inner critic is founded, among other things, on misconceptions, false premises and limiting beliefs that we pick up as children, in the media, from our surroundings, and which we consciously, but mainly subconsciously, agreed to adopt as truth.
For a writer, the inner critic isn’t born with the desire to create stories. It comes at you from all sides based on the choices made, the beliefs, stories and limitations accepted whether deliberately or unconsciously. It’s all-inclusive.
So a belief as simple as I’m not enough is in fact ‘enough’ to fuel the inner critic to beat up anything remotely positive. In the worst-case scenario, it can make a person atrophy and not bother trying. In the case of a writer, it’s the I’m wasting my time mantra that pops up while writing, or the why bother song that constantly blasts you when rejections start coming in and you want to give up and quit.
I realize now I can never run away from my inner critic (or even my ego). Nor is it of any use to hate it, or get angry at it.
Now I face my inner critic head on. I acknowledge it. I tell it there’s nothing to worry about. I’ve become the one to console it, to make it feel safe by convincing it that ‘fear’ can be used as a springboard for action if approached in the right way.
This is not a ‘one time fix all’ scenario. At times it doesn’t work instantly. But I’m aware. And awareness is power.
My inner critic has become my sounding board and I bounce all the negatives right back at it, with as much love as I can muster. Always love – because anything said and delivered in anger will only bounce right on back at you.
The only failure of mind comes from worry and fear—or from disuse
The Secret of the Ages – Robert Collier
ANN MARIE MEYERS grew up in Trinidad and Tobago in the West Indies. She has a degree in languages and translates legal and technical documents from French and Spanish into English. She lives in Toronto, Ontario, with her husband and daughter. Meyers is an active member of SCBWI and serves as the facilitator of a bi-monthly children’s writing group.
Although Ann Marie initially started writing for adults, when her daughter was born she kept getting ideas for stories that would appeal to kids. Her first children’s book, a middle grade fantasy entitled Up In The Air was an Amazon best seller.
Unfortunately, my inner critic is alive and well. I can see him, crouching in the corner of my office. I picture him as a Gandhi-like figure—only he’s mean-spirited—who beams negative thoughts into my head as I write. Right now, he’s rubbing his hands together, preparing to strike.
Things I’ve noticed about him:
He never sleeps.
He never takes his gaze off me.
He strikes when I’m at my most fragile. Sometimes, it’s right after I didn’t get a grant or a book contract fell through. Maybe this writing project stinks, he says. Maybe you’ll never get it right.
I’ve also noticed that he’s subtle. He doesn’t directly suggest that my project stinks. He plants the seed of self-doubt. Then he waters that seed until it germinates and grows into a weed with deep roots. Until I’m saying out loud to my family, “This writing project stinks. I’ll never get it right.”
His voice becomes louder then. Deafening. Maybe all your writing stinks, he says.
If he’s timed it right, I start to feel small. Too small to talk back to him. Too small to write my stories. “My writing stinks,” I say to myself. And I believe it.
The weed he planted forms tubular roots that become new weeds. In the corner of my office, my inner critic smiles. It’s a crooked smile worthy of a dastardly villain.
The thing is, my home office is supposed to be my creative space. It has my most treasured writing books, my uncluttered desk—just the way I like it—and a cozy chair for reading and pondering. I’ve carefully curated my office to be a place where I can experiment without judgement. So, who let my inner critic in?
I can’t help it. He’s a part of me. Believe me, I’ve tried to get rid of him.
I’ve shoved him outside my office. But he lurks in the hall, waiting until he can sneak in again.
I’ve barred my office door with sixteen (metaphorical) padlocks, installed (metaphorical) gun turrets and hired (metaphorical) guards to patrol the perimeter of my safe space.
But when I settle at my desk to write, he’s back in his corner.
I’ve learned that my inner critic exists wherever I am, and I cannot banish him no matter how hard I try. This means I have to co-exist with him. Even though he serves no useful purpose that I can see. Even though he’s an evil villain who’s constantly plotting against me.
How do I co-exist with something so vile? Here’s what I figured out:
I accept him. Okay,I tell him.It’s you and me, here in this office. And I’m going to write, damn it. So, you can sit in your corner and beam negative thoughts at me. But I’m going to be over here, writing.
I out-shout him. This is a great writing project, I say really loudly to myself. I really like this sentence. And that one. This part needs some re-writing though. Soon, his voice becomes background noise. It’s like I’m trying to write in a noisy café, but the woman at the next table is loudly describing her recent medical procedure in gruesome detail. So, I put on my noise-canceling headphones, and I get to work.
I regularly weed to remove negative thoughts he’s planted. To do that, I examine my thoughts about writing to figure out if they’re truths or misbeliefs. For example, does all my writing stink? Well, no, since I’ve had writing successes. If the evidence doesn’t support the thought, I ponder what new thought I can form that is based on the evidence. When I form that new belief, it’s a more honest one.
My belief is that writers are made of strong stuff because we battle the darkness on a regular basis. We follow our characters through impossible situations, we feel their trauma, we honour their pain. Because of that, we have the inner strength to endure our own inner critics.
I believe that each of us also has a source of good inside us who can help keep our inner critics at bay. Who, you ask? I expect you already know the answer.
My writer’s intuition hovers in another corner of my office. She has shimmering wings and a magic wand. She knows when I’ve written a beautiful sentence. She recognizes the moment when a plot point slides into place and completes my story. She’s waiting to beam honest writerly truth into my brain, if I’m not too busy listening to my inner critic.
The more I learn about writing, the stronger my writer’s intuition gets. Most of the time, she doesn’t even see my inner critic. He’s hardly a blip on her radar.
KAREN KROSSING wrote poetry and rants as a teen and dreamed of becoming a published writer. Today, she’s the author of seven successful novels for kids and teens, and she runs writing workshops to empower emerging writers. Her recent titles include Punch Like a Girl(Orca),which was runner-up for the Kaywell Books Save Lives Award, and Bog,(Fitzhenry & Whiteside), which won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award. She is currently enrolled in an MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
PHOEBE CHIN is an art therapist and multi-disciplinary artist who is looking to specialize in end-of-life care in Toronto. Her life and work are heavily influenced by her navigating intergenerational trauma, intersections of faith and queer identity, and living with mental illness. Facilitating creative spaces brings her deep joy. You can find her musings and figuring out how to take better care of herself on Instagram, and past writing on her blog.
“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 MARSHALLwas 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.