The Journal: Learning the Craft Revisited

In today’s Journal

* Topic: Learning the Craft Revisited
* Of Interest


See “Tami Hoag Giveaway – Two Free Registrations to the 2022 Writers’ Police Academy!” at

I’m not entering the drawing. If you do, good luck. If you win, please let them know you heard about the drawing through the Journal. (grin)

Topic: Learning the Craft Revisited

Matt’s keeping me in topics for the Journal. (grin) As a followup to the email that became “On Learning the Craft” in yesterday’s Journal, he asked two more questions. I thought I should share those with you. I’ve also shared my much-expanded responses:

“Why do you think practicing is the one thing writers least want to do?”

First, it isn’t that they don’t want to practice. It’s that they’re frightened of various bogeymen. The main fear is rejection (= failure), including the fear that rejection will mean the end of their “career” as a writer.

Ahem. Note that most writers who fear this don’t have a career. By the time they’ve written enough to have a career, they understand this is silly.

These writers believe if they submit something that isn’t “perfect” to a magazine, the editor will blackball them. If they self-publish it, they belielve readers will hate it and never buy from them again. Somehow, they either never learn or conveniently forget that what’s perfect for one reader (for example, you or a member of your critique group) is seriously flawed for another, meaning anyone who isn’t you or a different member of your critique group.

Instead of being taught to practice (write the best you can, submit or publish, and write the next story), they’re taught to hover over one work, ostensibly to strive for perfection.

First they revise (a function of the critical-mind), even to the minuscule point of replacing individual words and being sure to alternate sentence structures, etc. ad nauseam.

Then they invite others to critique their work, another critical-mind (CM) endeavor. Afterward they rewrite (CM), then maybe do an “editing pass” (CM) before a final revision (CM) or rewrite (CM) or polish (CM).

Absolutely none of that has anything At All to do with Story or storytelling. Nor does it have anything to do with the craft of writing. And the more you invoke the critical mind to second-guess your creative subconscious, the farther you’ll get from the authentic story your characters are living. [Perios, full stop, mic drop.]

And just as an aside, if that timid, fearful writer takes six months or a year to write and revise the story, garner critiques, then do one or more rewrites — a dedicated professional fiction writer who writes say three or four hours per day will have remarkably different results:

S/he will write six or ten or twelve or twenty new novels in that same time frame. And as a bonus, all of them will actually be the exciting, unpredictable, authentic story his or her characters are living.

Of coure, you’re the writer and every writer is different. So as always, the choice is yours.

Matt’s second question was, “How can one practice a technique while at the same time staying out of the story?”

Good question, but the answer to that one is easier and a little shorter.

First, remember that you aren’t practicing any particular technique. You’re practicing storytelling. But to include a new technique in your next story, first you have to absorb it.

As an example, do you need to “think” about whether to put a period at the end of a declarative sentence or how to spell commonly used words or how to compose a sentence? Of course not. But those things didn’t occur naturally to you. At some point you learned them. Then they seeped into your creative subconscious and now you apply them without thinking about them.

So to include a new technique, first, study the technique, preferably in a story. Think about it, turn it over and over in your mind, then go into the new story with the thought I’m going to apply [whatever new technique] in this one. Then comes the most important part: trust that you’ve learned it.

Once you trust that you’ve learned the technique to the best of your current skill level, you can forget about it and just write the story. The technique will come in through your subconscious when it’s necessary.

Trust is the most important trait for a fiction writer to possess, especially trust of one’s self. Self-confidence is neither cocky nor an impairment. It’s an enabling asset.

And it doesn’t mean you’ll always be perfect. It only means you’ll always write to the best of your ability for your skill level. It means you trust your characters to tell the story that they, not you, are actually living. And it means you will succeed.

Then there’s the Dark Side — The opposite of self-confidence, self-doubt is the certainty that you can’t do something on your own. That is the most disabling mental impairment I can think of for a writer. Self-doubt will stop you cold from doing all sorts of things, including writing fiction.

Yet unbelievably, self-doubt is prevalent and actively taught as a good thing! Many would-be and early-stage fiction writers have been flumoxed into believing they can’t do anything on their own. Even something as easy and fun as recording a story that THEIR characters are living in THEIR mind. Incredible.

There are two bottom lines here:

Everything that has to do with the creative subconscious and the actual craft of writing is positive and forward-looking.

Everything in writing that comes from the conscious, critical mind is negative and backward-looking.

Which would you rather do?

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “Flash Sale Ends Today!” at

See “Capricious Actions That Cross the Line” at Not about writing but an interesting look at the Association of American Publishers and PG’s always-interesting take.

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.

9 thoughts on “The Journal: Learning the Craft Revisited”

  1. Hi Harvey, thank you for your insights in your latest posts. (And, of course, thanks to Matt for asking the questions that inspired these posts.) I too agree on the learning aspect. I’ve tried to read books on writing, but honestly I’ve struggled with ‘consciously’ applying them to the story. I always felt I wasn’t learning and applying the concepts in the ‘proper’ way. Only recently did I come across a video that talked of intuitive writing, and that too spoke about how WITD writers apply story-telling techniques intuitively and not through a conscious plot outline approach. It is very freeing to hear you say this too, and I’ve heard DWS say this too a number of times about how learning happens using the conscious brain but applying the techniques happens from the subconscious. I’ve read and re-read this post and the previous one, and I’ve bookmarked them for future reference. Thank you for all your teachings!

    As for ‘fear’, I have a big confession to make. I published a short story (~10,000 words) last month. A dear friend of mine read it and wrote to me saying that she loved the story but she was sad because it ended on a sad note, and wasn’t there any way I could give that character a happy ending?

    I wish I’d had Lee Child’s bravado and said “No, that’s not how it happened” and left it at that.

    Instead, I was just so happy that someone bought a book of mine and read it that I promised to write an additional chapter for her. I sat down to write another chapter, and honestly it was quite fun writing it (about 4,000 words that day).

    But I haven’t been able to write ever since. My mind is filled with all sorts of needless fears. “Why do I write sad stories?” “Why did I write a story that made someone sad?” “I should only write happy stories from now on.” “Maybe I should write happily-ever-after romances.” (I don’t even read mainstream romance, though I enjoy fantasy romance or historical romance.) “If I write tragedies, no one will want to read my next book.”

    In fact, I started to write my next book, and after having written a dark Chapter 1, I was typing an even darker Chapter 2, and BAM! That was the end of it. I couldn’t type another word. Something knocked the wind out of me, and I just sat there, staring at the screen, blank, unable to move forward. This was a fortnight ago, and wow, am I still reeling! I tried to counter this by starting new stories, and I ran into the same issue. After a few passages of pushing through, Critical Voice just swoops in to say “This is too dark”, “This is too silly”, “This is too far-fetched”.

    So yes, posting this cautionary tale here in the hope that it will benefit someone at least. 🙂 I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too, even if you only repeat verbatim what you’ve already said a gazillion times about Critical Voice and fear. 😀 I’ve read in many different contexts that it takes about five positive experiences to counter one negative experience, because of our inherent negativity bias that makes us hold on to and revisit negative thoughts that much more frequently (5x) than positive ones. Frankly, I’m quite sick of Critical Voice and playing whack-a-mole with it. 🙂 Any words of wisdom would help!

    • Thanks, Anitha.

      First, I suspect the authors’ critical minds are the source of “it takes about five positive experiences to counter one negative experience.” Because seriously, the statement is a category mistake. Apples compared with orange crates. One person’s negative experience IS another person’s positive experience. And also, negatives are almost always positive in another way. A mother screaming at her child is negative, but if it diverts his attention so he isn’t hit by a truck, that’s possitive. Positive and negative are the yin and yang of emotions. One could not exist without the other.

      Second, critical mind doesn’t know what it’s talking about. It’s warning you away from ssomething that has zero consequences. When you hear it say “This is too dark,” or “This is too silly,” or “This is too far-fetched,” you should laugh and respond (aloud), “But this is not my story. It’s the characters’ story. I must be true to them and write what they give me.”

      Hope this helps.

  2. Thank you so much, Harvey! I love that idea of countering the critical thought with “It’s not my story, it’s the characters.” Thank you for sharing that. I’m going to try it.

    I agree with your point on positive and negative being in coexistence. I was coming from a different context though: for instance, if one gets feedback at work at an annual review cycle, and the manager states a bunch of 5-6 good attributes and 1 or 2 areas of improvement, the mind tends to latch on to the latter much more than the former. Or maybe, a writer who looks at reviews might get much more swayed by the negative ones than the positive ones. The child in your example would likely dwell more on the fact that mom screamed at him rather than feel grateful/relief at being safe and alive.

    Even if we’re biologically wired like this to focus more on the negative than the positive, I am now quite excited by the idea of countering this negative impulse with detachment (not my story, but my characters’) or by intentionally seeking the positive in a situation.

    I read Kris Rusch’s post today on the attitude of optimism (+ pragmatism + cynicism) required to have a long-term career in the arts, and it seems quite apt to our discussion too. Clearly, this is something I’m going to have to work at. ‘Intentional optimism’ – I’m going to repeat that pair of words in my head going forward. Thank you so much for so generously sharing your insights! The more people like you and DWS and Kris repeat these truths, the more the penny begins to drop for newbies like me! Thank you! 😀

    • Yes, “intentional optimism,” or perhaps even “intentional detachment.” I’ve become adept at being detached. I seldom worry about anything on which I can have no real impact, and of course that includes my characters’ lives and their stories. See today’s Journal entry too. I’ll be posting it shortly.

      • “Intentional detachment”. This is priceless. You’ve said this countless times but for some reason it’s only today that I get it. We can’t have any real impact on our characters’ lives and their stories! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Looking forward to today’s journal entry.

        • Thanks, Anitha. Glad it helped. Kris Rusch mentions the same thing in her post too in the first couple of paragraphs, though what I call “detachment” she calls “pragmatism.” I used her take on attitude as the quote of the day today.

  3. Hi Anitha (and Harvey 🙂 )

    I have three thoughts on your comments. I, too, wrote an extremely emotional book (The Door at the Top of the Stairs) and over the years have found exactly what Harvey is saying. Some people go into despair after reading it while others say it changed their lives. You just never know and can’t let their reaction hinder or help your writing in any way. Just follow your characters around and report on what’s going on. You are not responsible for how the book affects your readers, but you are responsible for getting the book out there if those characters have chosen you to write THEIR story.

    Second, it’s probably my own quirky personality, but just as a person doesn’t stay down in depression 100% of the time, neither did my characters. My characters introduced humor into the story, which readers said allowed them to “come up for air” before plunging back into the darker emotions. Can you experiment with seeing more in your characters’ lives than just the darkness?

    Which brings me to my third point. I signed up for DWS’s short story challenge and I’m getting more out of the exercise than I thought I would. One important aspect I’m learning, even after writing for fourteen years, is to just let go and enjoy. I thought I had that down, but I didn’t. By writing a short story a week and realizing it doesn’t matter if anyone reads it or even likes it, I’ve been freed to experiment more with style and pacing and such. And, perhaps most importantly for this discussion, I DON’T CARE IF THE STORY WORKS OR NOT and neither does anyone else.

    I hope you get back to enjoying writing your stories, Anitha. And tell your critical voice to go sit with its face in a corner while you write.

    • Hi Alison,

      Wow! Thank you for taking the time to share your experience! <3 Your comment encourages me tremendously. As you perceived quite rightly, I felt bad that my story made my friend sad, so it is quite freeing to understand that the reader's reaction is neither my responsibility nor even in my control. Thank you for highlighting that. It's something I need to remember.

      Thank you for mentioning that about your characters, because now I see that even in this book of mine, not all was dark and dreary. There were many moments of levity too. Somehow I had shut that all out of my mind and just latched on to my friend's response to the tragic ending. It's so true – one doesn't stay in depression 100% of the time.

      Wow! How awesome you've taken up DWS's short story challenge! My mind was more focused on the pressure of having to complete a story a week that I simply couldn't see the benefits that you've outlined. It sounds sort of similar to the fact that the busier one is, the more one tends to get done, simply because there is no time to indulge Critical Voice in all that's going on. I am quite encouraged to give the challenge a try.

      Thanks to Harvey and you, I actually managed to write a few hundred words today, and it has been very enjoyable. I also noticed a pattern of mine. Whenever I come out of the doldrums, I'm on such a high that I tend to set grandiose goals, as if to compensate for the time lost in the melancholy. Of course those goals are not met, and over time that sends me straight back into the doldrums. Strangely, today I set a small goal and was simply thrilled to meet it (even though Critical Voice tried to tell me otherwise). Small, sustainable steps for the long run. I wish you and Harvey too many more years of enjoyable writing. Thank you so much for your encouragement and wisdom! 🙂

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