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Writer's Digest presents an excerpt from my webinar for them, 'Three Secrets of the Greats: Structure Your Story for Ultimate Reader Addiction.'

Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers, interviews me about storytelling, writing, independent editing, and the difference between literary fiction and genre, with an impromptu exercise on her own Work-in-Progress.

Editing client Stu Wakefield, author of the Kindle #1 Best Seller Body of Water, talks about our work together on Memory of Water, the second novel of his Water trilogy.
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Hi Ms. Mixon, I’m 15 years old and I’ve loved to write ever since I can remember, but for the last two months or so, I’ve been stuck staring at a blank page. Whatever I try to begin seems stale and tacky, and my narrative voice has become awkward and grating. I’ve tried stream-of-consciousness writing, writing in different genres and styles, going outside to hunt for ideas, and even simply describing whatever happens to be going on around me, but nothing seems to work. I’ve had dry spells before, but nothing like this, and I hate that it’s sucking the joy out of something I love so much. Please, can you help me?—Heba

    Ah, Heba, perhaps you’re not clear on exactly what you expect to produce. You’ve tried a lot of great writing experiments, and yet. . .what went wrong? Surely you produced some words? That counts!

    It’s possible you’ve picked up an Internal Critic recently, and their constant commentary on your writing—in the process of getting it down—is the problem. Were you in a class about two months ago in which someone inadvertently taught you to self-edit as you write? Or did somebody give you negative feedback on your work? To excess? When you weren’t expecting it? Is there someone now in your life trying to ‘assist’ you to become better without actually knowing how such ‘assistance’ works? Have you met someone recently you would like very much to impress?

    When I was 15, my dad was extremely ambitious for me. He gave me oil paints and an easel and then tried to critique my amateur, untutored attempts at painting (based on watching an afternoon TV show he called “The Happy Little Painter” in which a fairly competent guy demonstrated painting with lots of asides about ‘happy little strokes’). The problem was that my dad isn’t a particularly happy little person and was even less so back then when he had a house full of angsty teenagers. So you can imagine how very helpful his criticism of my painting was. “Why can’t you do it like that guy on the show?”

    Not enough little happiness in the world to answer that question.

    Eventually the process degenerated into him asking me why I wasn’t Nadia Com?neci, the Romanian 14-year-old who won three Olympic Gold Medal in 1976. Which was perhaps the least helpful critique I’ve ever gotten in my life.

    I did not become a painter (much less a gymnast). However, he left me alone about writing, so I did become a writer.

    The best way to begin your cure is to disassociate yourself from whatever is causing you to read your work as “stale and tacky,” “awkward and grating” as you write it. I mean, maybe it is. Who knows? But who cares?

    Write for the love of the writing. You can write standing on your head backward with the wrong hand, if you like, and so long as you’re enjoying it, nobody gets to say you’re doing it wrong.

    In Dodie Smith’s lovely 1930s novel I Capture the Castle the brilliant-author father has been suffering a dry spell for ten years when his children finally lock him in the castle tower with a cot, some food, and a typewriter and refuse to let him out until he types something. He types pages and pages of, “The cat sat on the mat.” Weeks on end: “The cat sat on the mat. The cat sat on the mat. That cat sat on the mat.” Eventually this evolves into a novel exploring the acquisition of language by a young child. From that simple beginning.

    Keep writing whatever you feel like writing. Let it be terrible and don’t worry about judging it. Just write it if it feels like being written.

    Avoid trying to ‘say something.’ Focus on recording tangible details. Flannery O’Connor described writing as recording whatever stimulus you receive through your five senses. Go ahead and record that—in long, excruciating detail. Everything. Unedited. The more stuff you write that you know you’ll never use in a publishable piece, the greater your freedom will grow. You can write anything! Garbage! Tripe! Vomitous spew! You betcha! And all great writing grows out of that freedom.

    You’ll never run out of material to describe in your immediate daily experience. You’ll never run out of dialog to record that you and your friends and family say all day long every day. Keep a detailed journal. It counts!

    Read books you love. Don’t try to mimic them. Just read them, enjoy them, use as they are meant to be used—for the sheer pleasure of reading. When you don’t feel like writing, don’t. Go out in the world and have adventures. You’ll write about those whenever you’re in the mood.

    You’re very young still—you’ll go through a lot of ups & downs as you work your way through life with this craft at your side. So don’t worry about it, just claim it in your own unique, individual, quirky-&-boring, tacky-&-refreshing, cliche-ridden-&-special way. Sometimes more quirky—sometimes more boring. It’s okay! Let it be that part of your life where you get to screw up as badly as you darn well please, and nobody can stop you.

    Your skills will improve. By osmosis, if necessary. And then when you’re an old, crusty, opinionated professional like me. . .they will still be there for you.

    Your writing belongs to you. Nobody else.

    Also see: 2 Tricks for Breaking Writer’s Block in One Day.





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    2 Comments

2 Responses to “Eliminating the internal critic: for young writers”

  1. Hi again,

    Thank you for your help! While I have been writing for a good long while (since I was about six,) and so have had time to adjust to my internal editor and to accept criticism, I really do appreciate your advice.

    I guess I’ll just write vomitous spew until it isn’t quite as disgusting, right?

  2. Victoria Mixon said on

    Absolutely, Heba. No matter how long any of us has been writing, we still all struggle with periodic bouts of horror at what we’re capable of putting on the page. I’ve been at it for thirty years now and can still give myself chills.

    🙂




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Authors


MILLLICENT G. DILLON, represented by Harold Ober Associates, is the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles. She has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb. Read more. . .


BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s best-selling debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by PanMacmillan. Read more. . .


LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth. Read more. . .


SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway. Read more. . .


STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited Wakefield's second novel, Memory of Water, and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water. Read more. . .


ANIA VESENNY, represented by Beverly Slopen Literary Agency, is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights, and her second novel, Sandara. Read more. . .


TERISA GREEN, represented by Dystel and Goderich Literary Management, is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series. Read more. . .


GERALDINE EVANS is a best-selling British author. Her historical novel, Reluctant Queen, is a Category No 1 Best Seller on Amazon UK. I edited Death Dues, #11 in Evans' fifteen popular Rafferty and Llewellyn cozy police procedurals, which received a glowing review from the Midwest Book Review. Read more. . .


SCOTT WILBANKS, represented by Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, is the author of the debut novel, The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster, forthcoming from Sourcebooks in August, 2015. I'm working with Wilbanks on his sophomore novel, Easy Pickens, the story of the world’s only medically-diagnosed case of chronic naiveté. Read more. . .


LISA MERCADO-FERNANDEZ writes literary novels of love, loss, and friendship set in the small coastal towns of New England. I edited Mercado-Fernandez' debut novel, The Shoebox, and her up-coming The Eighth Summer. Read more. . .


JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with Dunn to develop and line edit her memoir of reconciling liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland. Read more. . .


LEN JOY is the author of the debut novel, American Past Time. I worked with Len to develop his novel from its core: a short story about the self-destructive ambitions of a Minor League baseball star, which agents had told him to throw away. Read more. . .


JEFF RUSSELL is the author of the debut novel, The Rules of Love and Law, based upon Jeff's abiding passions for legal history and justice. Read more. . .


In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.

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