The Journal: A Lengthy Preface and a Reiteration

In today’s Journal

* A Lengthy Preface and a Reiteration
* Of Interest

A Lengthy Preface and a Reiteration

Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt is a writer who suffers from a rare disease, an affliction that precludes her from being able to access her creative subconscious or to write from it. (Alicia, my apologies, but I can’t remember the specific name of the disease.)

In a comment on “Another Brief Note on Critiques,” Alicia mentioned a few points to which I will respond here.

But first a pair of disclaimers —

1. If you are unable to either access your creative subconscious or, having accessed it, if you are unable to write what you were given, my comments below are not directed at you.

2. My comments also are not directed at those few who (whether or not they admit it) actually relish the labor of selecting exactly the right words and juxtaposing them with other exactly right words in exactly the right sentence structures, etc.

Actually, if you spend several hours every day in the chair and arise feeling happy and fulfilled at the end of the day with only a few hundred new words added to the story, this might be you. And that’s fine. You probably have as little free choice as those I mentioned in the first disclaimer.

My comments are intended for those who have the ability to choose whether to write into the dark or stick to the safety nets of character sketches, outlines, revisions, rewrites, invited critiques and other conscious, critical mind activities.

Alicia, thanks for the points you made in your comment. I’ll quote you directly and then respond here so others might benefit.

“It takes a lot to satisfy me while I’m working on a scene (a version of your re-reading and fixing before writing on), and if it’s not exactly right, I don’t get the internal cue to move on. | But when I do, I rarely have to go back — because the scene describes what actually happened. I just had to get the words right.”

Okay, please notice, “I just had to get the words right.” For Alicia and others like her, the process she describes is perfectly valid and even necessary. She isn’t rewriting what happened in the scene but rather (I assume) is consciously choosing which words are used and their juxtaposition. Because she has to.

For myself, and for those who have a choice and seek my advice, I will never personally endorse intentionally fashioning a character or scene or story. But again, I don’t have to. I’m fortunate in that I have the ability to choose. The rest of this, really, is reiteration.

Advance Planning — I don’t do it and I don’t recommend it.

I never write a character sketch, for example, and I don’t know my characters in advance unless they are recurring from a previous story. In that case I might know them vaguely, the way you might recognize someone you went to high school with or someone you met at a party a year earlier.

Otherwise, as I do with any other humans I encounter, I know only the most superficial things about my characters when I first meet them: gender, usually, and general physical appearance. Beyond that, I get to know them as I spend more time with them in the story. Again, just like in real life with any other humans I encounter.

I also don’t outline, write story boards or timelines, or any of that. I’m not a controlling overlord. I’m a passive recorder of my characters’ story. As I write, I simply trust that my characters are who and what they say they are, and that the story they’re living will unfold scene by scene as they allow me to witness it.

So I will never struggle to try to “make” a scene or story “exactly right” because deciding anything about my characters’ story is not my place. As an aside, neither do I decide what’s right for my neighbors or friends or adult relatives or strangers or anyone else.

Plus, even if you’re one of those writers who feel you’re within your rights to choose what your characters say and do and how their story unfolds, what is “exactly right” for you will be wrong for someone else. Just sayin’. Your job is to put the story on the page. Interpreting and judging it is the reader’s job.

Besides, whether or not any writer realizes or understands it, no stories or novels are important enough to fret and labor over. Whether the writer labors for months or years to get every word of a novel “exactly right” or simply has fun recording his characters’ entire story in a few short weeks, the finished novel is still nothing more than a few hours’ entertainment for whomever happens to pick it up.

I just happen to believe more readers will enjoy an authentic, organic story than one in which I consciously “created” and manipulated every character, every action, and every bit of dislogue.

Finally, re the old saw that writers are the worst judges of their own work, Alicia also wrote, “[W]riters should be the ONLY judge[s] of their own work. After the appropriate apprenticeship to learn how to do things, and subject to Continuing (self-) Education credits.”

Juicy stuff. And I disagree.

To address the last part first, I’m not sure what an “appropriate” apprenticeship might be, though I do endorse continued research and learning about what works and what doesn’t.

In other words, what affects you strongly as a reader that you can use as a writer in your own works to affect other readers? But again, I recommend you learn with the conscious mind, then simply trust that what you learned will come through as you write with the creative subconscious. If you trust yourself, it will work. If you can’t trust yourself, well then you can review your notes and consciously construct some version of your characters’ story.

Back to the notion of whether writers are the worst or only judges of their own work, no matter how you choose or are forced to write, Your Opinion of Your Own Work Is Still Only One Opinion.

You certainly have the right to speak for yourself whether a particular work (even your own) is wonderful, terrible, or somewhere in between, but you can’t speak for anyone else. So your opinion matters only until you decide whether or not to publish the work in question.

If you feel a work is terrible so you never publish it but shove it into a desk drawer instead, then your opinion is the only one that will ever matter.

But if you publish the work regardless of your personal opinion of its worth, then others will judge it and form their own opinion. And they have the same choices you had: the work is wonderful, terrible, or somewhere in between. You might be surprised at how many disagree with your original assessment, especially if you thought it was terrible.

And let me tell you, when you trust your characters enough to publish what they gave you even though you thought it was terrible, you win. Not only have you overcome a major unreasoning fear, but nothing beats the feeling of a reader emailing you out of the blue to say the story you thought was terrible is the best she’s ever read and that it reminds her of Hemingway’s work.

So yep, I’ll stick comfortably with the fact that I’m the worst judge of my own work. After all, that only means my opinion of my work is only one opinion and it’s no more or less valid than anyone else’s.

Really, no opinion is more or less valid than anyone else’s. Even the opinions included in this Journal.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “Tomorrow It Starts” at Hopefully after the Expo he’ll resume instruction for the Licensing class.

See “Used Shoes, Tchotchkes, and Books ~ Adventures at a Flea Market” at No clue whether this is good, but the title was alluring so I included it.

See “It’s Too Late to Protect Your Genetic Privacy…” at Includes an interesting graphic.

See “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age…” at But be sure to see PG’s take as well.

Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.

10 thoughts on “The Journal: A Lengthy Preface and a Reiteration”

  1. We couldn’t be more different in our writing – yet we are able to talk bout it without being too dogmatic – I count that as a win, and read carefully what you write, to see what I can steal.

  2. On the topic of opinions, I was watching a video the other day after my daily writing session, and the interviewee (a well established TV writer) said that after so many years one KNOWS if a story works or does not work. He was so sure of it and while I enjoyed the interview and learned from it, that part didn’t stick.

    For me personally I usually think most stories I write are enjoyable, they’re certainly fun to write.
    One particular script however I thought was absolutely the worst thing I’ve ever done. I sent it out anyway and while it never sold, people told me they enjoyed the read.
    I learned from that that while I may think something of mine is horrible, others may not.

    • Hi Matt. I wonder about his definition of “what works”. What works for him personally to gratify him as a writer? What works to impress the right folks in the industry so the script is produced? What works to get a positive response from the audience?

      Whether any story in any format (novel, play, script) works as a story is a matter of mechanice: ground the reader, pulling him into the story; keep him there with a combination of sensory input and pacing; build to the appropriate climax; and add a clear denoument to let him know the experience is over and it’s all right to leave the theater or close the book.

      From my experience, if a story doesn’t “work” for a writer who has much experience at all, it will never be written. I never get farther than the opening of a story that feels like it won’t work. Whether a story works for any other person or group or demographic depends on the genre and how the mechanics above are put together.

      But one truism remains: No story works for everyone who reads or views it.

      • He never specified on his definition, simply said experienced writers will know if a completed work is good or not (he made a point of telling writers to always finish what they start).

        If you don’t mind me asking, how do you know (you personally) when a story won’t work? What gives it away? Or do you only know once you’re finished the opening?

        • Oh, no, I usually know while I’m writing the opening. If I get through the opening, I just keep writing and the story goes where it goes.

          I don’t really make any kind of value judgement during any of it. I start with a character with a problem in a setting and start writing. If somewhere along the way the story doesn’t grab me, I trash it. If the original idea (usually a look on a character’s face or a line of dialogue or the beginning of an event or situation) still interests me, I try again. But most of the time i just let it go. If an opening doesn’t work I usually assume the idea wasn’t ready to be written. If it ever is ready, it will occur to me again someday. Then I move on to another idea.

          • How would you handle a sequel that doesn’t grab you? For example I wrote a Fantasy story a few months ago and enjoyed the process a lot and it ended on a cliff hanger.
            However, every time I go to write the opening to the sequel, it never ‘grabs’ me as you put it.
            How should one go about situations like that?

          • Are you trying to “force” yourself to write the sequel? That’ll kill it in the bud every time. If not, I suggest reading the ending and maybe a little more of the previous one, then pick up where you left off.

  3. I wasn’t forcing myself. I let the story flow organically but for some reason it keeps on, for a lack of a better term, getting ‘stuck.’
    I plan on going back to it in a month or so and trying again. Its a project I’m passionate it about so I don’t want to abandon it.

    • I understand. I’d love to write more Wes Crowley gap series and more Blackwell Ops (the current front runner) and more Nick Spalding and more SF, including a sequel to The Consensus aa well as more novels in the Journey Home series and the Good of the Galaxy series. I have a passion for all of those. But sometimes I want it so much I won’t allow myself to have it. I’ve made it too important that I write that particular story.

Comments are closed.