Sunday, February 28, 2010

What to do with Your Inner Critic(s)

Since I last posted I’ve been working on something fun that will be taking place in this spot starting next week. If you’re interested in creative people and hearing more about how they work, especially children’s book writers and illustrators, make sure to check back here on Monday.

I’ve also been chipping away at my revisions. I have to say, one of the biggest challenges in writing for me is stifling that inner critic. Critics plural, really. I imagine them all up there in my brain, squished together on a couch (a large couch, there are a lot of them) watching my creative process like it’s their own personal reality show. Chomping chips and spraying crumbs all over the place as they talk, wet rings from their beverage glasses marking up the furniture. Jumping all over each other’s words to point things out:

“How many times do you think she’ll rewrite that sentence?”
“She’s going with that version? The way she had the sentence two versions ago was way better.”
“Pass the chips, Stan.”
“The screen’s not magic, honey. Staring at it like that doesn’t make the words appear.”
“Could this scene be any more boring? Where’s the tension?”
“Stop hogging the dip, Hilde. And don’t think we didn’t notice that double dip.”
“For pete’s sake! What does the character want? Cheesecake, world peace, give me something here.”
“Maybe the character wants boring dialogue. That’s what they’re getting anyway.”

Like that. They’re a fun bunch, aren’t they? So what do you do with these inner critics. I’ll tell you up front, I don’t have an ironclad solution here. But I’ve gathered this much:

The worst thing to do is let them win. You always have to come back to the writing. You can’t walk away forever. If it matters to you, you have to come back to the writing.

You can try to fight them. Sometimes I argue back. Or I imagine gagging them with a bandana and duct tape and locking them in a mental closet so their chatter becomes more like a mumbling hum of bees. But it can be mentally draining to fight these critics, and eventually they work themselves free and resume their spots on the couch.

You could set up a nice bar and try to appease them with booze. But that road can easily lead to a louder and unruly environment, with the critics coming to blows over your excessive use of adverbs. And it’s pretty much inevitable that someone in the mix will end up being an emotional, crying drunk and someone else will be retching in the toilet. By the time they all pass out you’ll be too exhausted and the stench will be too unbearable to get any writing done.

The thing is, as annoying as they are, there is some benefit to having these critics around. Sometimes they offer something worth listening to. Maybe the dialogue could be sharper or maybe that scene is lacking tension. Maybe you do need to knock it off with the adverbs already. I don’t think the answer is to plow forward stubbornly, ignoring everything they have to say, anymore than it’s to run away.

The key for me has been to learn to work with them. What I know about these inner critics:

1) They want me to succeed. Deep down at least. Because they know if I do, they can claim a part of that. The criticism is their know-it-all way of trying to point me down the path they think will work best.
2) You can never please them all. You will never write something that every single one is excited about or interested in. (Especially Stan and Hilde. Those two never agree on anything.)

So I continue to chip away and try my best to tune out my mental characters and tune in my novel characters. Occasionally I have to shout at them to pipe down, or they bait me into an argument. I might stuff them in a closet so I can finally get some peace and quiet. Often times it’s in the peace and quiet that their words resonate most. The relevant ones rise to the top and I might even get excited as I see their point and understand how I can improve a scene. And crazily enough, if the peace and quiet lingers too long, I might even start to miss their constant chatter and bickering. Ring marks, crumbs, and all.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Couple Cool Kid Lit Things

1. If you’re interested in children’s literature and not already following New York Public Librarian Elizabeth Bird’s Top 100 Children’s Novels countdown, I highly recommend you head on over there and check it out. She recently conducted a poll with her readers of their top 10 middle grade books of all time (I submitted mine--prioritizing ten was no easy feat and I immediately changed my mind after I clicked send. But oh well.) This week she’s begun revealing the results, #100-91 were revealed on Monday, and then she dropped to doing five a day bringing us down to #76 today. So far the list looks to be shaping up to be a great overview of chapter books spanning titles published as far back as the 1930s and as current as one of this year’s Newbery Honor winners, a mix of both silly and serious stories, fantastical and realistic. But this isn’t your average “here’s the title and author and maybe a link to where you can buy it, now go on your merry way” countdown list. Oh no. What makes this countdown really excellent (if you’re interested in this sort of thing) is all the historical tidbits and odd trivia Elizabeth Bird has offered up about each title, along with a description and personal reflections from those who recommend the book. If you would get a kick out of learning that The Graveyard Book has inspired a perfume collection, finding out the connection between Doctor Who and The Children of Green Knowe, or seeing the range of cover art for each title, then this countdown is the place for you.

2. Do you ever wonder what goes on behind closed doors as the committees decide the winners of the ALA awards? So do I. And I don't have any answers for you. But! One of my listservs recently directed me to this letter from the chair of the 2009 Caldecott committee to the incoming 2011 committee. It illuminates some of the hard work and preparation that goes into that final discussion. I can only imagine the heated debates that follow.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

When You Reach Me I'll Be Nursing a Migraine

I had plans for a glorious, productive weekend which came to a screeching halt Saturday afternoon when I got hit by a doozy of a migraine that eventually found me spending my Saturday night in Urgent Care rather than at home reclining with my husband and watching 500 Days of Summer as originally planned. Today I nursed a residual migraine, still woozy from the combination of ceaseless vomiting and morphine the night before. The upside of all this is that today it was snowing, the gray soft light a very welcome thing to someone with a migraine hangover. I spent the entire morning reading in bed as snow fell outside my window. I read When You Reach Me in its entirety which lived up to all the acclaim, surpassed it really. As soon as I had heard someone say they didn’t want to describe too much of the plot for fear of giving anything away, I stopped reading reviews and descriptions of this book. (But had still read enough to know one aspect that I wish I hadn’t known in advance. It’s a book I would have liked to have gone into without any expectations whatsoever.) But it was a marvelous read, and I never would have given myself permission to spend all morning lounging in bed on an ordinary day. It’s funny how good things can come from awful situations.