Why the Inner Critic Comes out Full Force When You’re Writing Your First Book

It took me two years to write the rough draft of my first novel. Two long excruciating years. I doubted myself at every phase. I hated the way I opened the book. It was too clumsy and awkward. I was embarrassed about the middle. It was convoluted and wandered down too many dead ends. I cringed when I wrote the ending. It was completely cliché and way, way too obvious.

For two years I fought with myself, the book, and all of my ideas about what writers should do and what good writing should be.

Only when it was over and I had put some distance between myself and the process was I able to look back—with that hindsight that is always 20/20—and realize that I’d missed out on a lot of the joy and fun I could have gotten from the experience if I had just stopped fighting.

This often happens with writers and first books. We’re so busy grappling with the voice of our inner critic that our perception becomes totally distorted, and then we can’t see all the awesome things happening in our story as it’s unfolding. This not only prevents us from being in the moment with our artistic work, but it also burns up a lot of our psychological energy reserves. We get into a habit of seeing all the things that are wrong with our manuscript, and none of the things that are right. And after a while, our creative well is depleted and then runs into a deficit.

Writing a first book is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Most of the population does not have what it takes to do it. A writer needs strength and stamina, patience and determination. A writer has to learn how to carefully manage her time, her energy, and her attention. We walk the tightrope of balancing our inner realm of magic and possibility with our outer realm of day-to-day demands and realistic expectations. Most people cannot do this. Just know that right now. So if you are in the middle of writing your first book, or you’ve already written that first one and moved on to others, you’re already batting way above average.

That’s the first thing to always keep in mind. You are already working at a higher level with your creative abilities than most other people. This is reason number one to stop beating yourself up.

Reason number two is that you’re going to finish this first novel one day and you’re going to look back—just like I did—and realize that the process of writing it was a magical, golden time in your creative life. It was a time when you hadn’t yet published anything and so there was no pressure from an existing audience. It was a time when you approached everything about writing with that ever-elusive “beginner’s mind” they talk about on all the Zen blogs. It was a time of pure discovery and imagination.

Don’t waste it on worrying about whether or not the thing you’re making is going to end up looking exactly how you pictured it should  look. The moment you introduce that energy of should  is the moment you look down and then fall off the tightrope.

Reason number three for you to silence that inner critical voice can be explained by taking the stock market for an example. Now, most artists believe that the cycles of our economy have nothing to do with them, and they sure as hell aren’t similar in any way to creative ebb and flow. Not true. In fact, you can learn a ton about your own creative success by watching the stock market.

You see, most people believe that to achieve any success with the stock market they need to buy the hottest, most glamorous stock and then sell it for much, much higher and make an eye-popping amount of money. So they go into it with very set ideas about what the process should look like, how it should feel, and what they should get out of it. Note that there are a lot of “shoulds” in there. But professional investors know better. They buy stock and then they watch it and adjust their plans as the stock flows. So, sometimes the stock tanks and sometimes it shoots through the roof. But most of the time it just swings back and forth a bit between one price and another. If a professional investor bought a stock for $2.00 and then decided that if that stock fell to $1.90 he was going to completely freak out and fall into despair, blame himself and consider giving up on his whole investment plan, how long do you think he would be able to draw from his psychological energy reserves for continuous investing? Not very long. He’d probably be burned out within a month and decide that stocks just weren’t for him.

But it’s not that stocks “just weren’t for him.” It’s that he let his inner critical voice take over and run the show. He blew all of his psychological capital on having an extreme emotional reaction to the natural ebb and flow of the economy. What if instead he had just watched the stock with as neutral an eye as possible and if it didn’t do well that day, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Eh, better luck tomorrow, I guess.” That’s a person who has the fortitude to stick it out with a plan for years and years, and end up building quite a bit of wealth.

Your creative work is your way of building wealth in this life. It’s not always going to look like what you think it should look like. A lot of the time it’s going to seriously challenge what you believe about yourself and what you’re capable of as a writer. It will swing back and forth with its own natural ebb and flow. Your job is not to control the swing. Your job is to learn to flow with it and open yourself up as much as possible to let more of it come through.

Writing that first book is the writer’s first time learning how to open herself, and how to go with the ebb and flow. The more you appreciate where you are with it and all the beauty and joy it has brought into your life, the faster you will learn.

It’s time to let go of the fight, and get with the flow.

Read this next:

On Roald Dahl, the Right Audience, and Writer’s Mindset

The Way You Think Is Directly Linked to Your Writing Success

Why Writers Should Listen to Readers, Not Publishers

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7 Comments

  • Reply Jeri 15 August, 2016 at 1:55 pm

    This post rings so true with me as I gear up to consider whether or not I want to take another stab at drafting my first novel. I make excuses and tell myself maybe I’m just not a long-form writer, but really it’s just me creating another excuse 😉

  • Reply Mary Gorden 15 August, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    Ah, the inner critic. It too has learned from this experience. It now dribbles some praise into its criticism. “You wrote that sentence a long time ago, you write better now and know how to fix it.” Final review before hitting the print proof button is not the time to be changing sentences.

    You are right, though, there is something special about the first book. It is a personal best. No question about it.

  • Reply Julie Holmes 15 August, 2016 at 3:11 pm

    So true! My first book took years. Granted, I was still in elementary school. My second book took years as well, through high school, then college. It used to take so long I’d get discouraged before I got to the end–and I knew what the end was!

    I cured myself of the first draft inner critic by participating in NaNoWriMo, because if you can’t muzzle that inner critic, you’ll never make 50,000 words in 30 days (especially with a full-time job and a family). Sure, that just means the first draft is craptastic, but it’s done. And subsequent revisions do take time, but you can’t revise something that isn’t written.

    Okay, forgot where I was going with this 🙂 Anyway, the beauty of the NaNo challenge is knowing you CAN write a whole book in a month. Revisions, well, that’s a whole ‘nother story 😀

  • Reply Cynthia Franks 15 August, 2016 at 6:37 pm

    I love how you characterized the struggle we all fight between art and life. This is a great blog post. Never heard the writing process compared to the stock market before, but it’s a good one.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 16 August, 2016 at 1:43 pm

      Thanks Cynthia! I’ve been on a quest to challenge my belief systems lately and so I started reading about the stock market, which was the most boring (to me) topic I could think of. What really surprised me is that I ended up enjoying this completely new realm of knowledge!

  • Reply Alison Brodie 16 August, 2016 at 5:02 am

    I started writing as a hobby. I got an idea and just carried on. I didn’t tell anyone I was writing, I didn’t say “I am going to be a writer”. I did it from pure pleasure and enjoyed every second. When I had finished I thought I would send it to an agent. The agent accepted it immediately and got me a two-book deal with Hodder & Stoughton. This is when the problems started.

    I HAD to write the second book. QUICK. But I had no ideas! None! I panicked, my brain fogged. It was a nightmare. I eventually finished it and to my amazement it actually got published. But I had lost the joy of writing. It was years before I picked up a pen again. Ever since then, I’ve written for my own pleasure, with no deadlines, no big corporation hovering above me. I’ve become an indie author publishing on Amazon KDP which works perfectly for me.

    Writers cannot write well under pressure. That is a fact. For first time writers I would suggest they don’t talk about the book until it is finished. Talking about a book you will write is easy. Actually finishing a polished manuscript is not so easy. Good luck all you newbies! It’s a tough journey, but such fun!
    Alison x

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 16 August, 2016 at 1:41 pm

      I totally agree with this, Alison. I always urge my clients not to talk about their first book with anyone, unless it is someone they deeply trust, like a supportive best friend or a spouse. Once you tell too many people that you’re writing your first book it’s easy to be overcome by self-doubt and that inner critical voice.

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