Monday, 22 March 2010

A Writer's Mind - Exploration and Lessons

I recently finished reading entries about the writing life from Virginia Woolf's diary. Her husband, Leonard Woolf, published these extracts called "A Writer's Diary" - to give the glimpse of the writer, as oppose to her whole life which her complete diaries include.

It was fascinating, and I think it held more than a few lessons for new writers. To save you the reading (though I highly recommend it), I will share a few things that left a deep impression in my mind.


Virginia Woolf was always affected by the reviews. With every book, she told herself she didn't care. She had heard it all, and she was going to keep being an individual. Yet, when the reviews came, they always affected her, and negative reviews had more affect on her than positive ones.


consider how badly negative reviews are going to impact you. Yes, you can't know for sure until it happens to you, but you can guess. How do you handle criticism in life? How do you feel when people don't like you, or say horrible things about you, or call you an idiot? Okay, so maybe no one calls you an idiot, but what if someone did?


Try writing a really horrible review of your book. Now write a fantastic review of your book. If you have time, write several of each. Put them all away together in an envelope. A month or two later, read them. How do you feel? Which ones affect you the most? This is something to keep in mind for later. There are quite a few authors who never read reviews. You might want to be one of them.


Virginia Woolf wrote her book in long hand. Then typed it all up. Then she revised it. Typed it all up. She also sent chapters to friends, and her husband read them all - I am not sure how many typings went in there, but as you can imagine, it was much harder than our computer days.


Rewrites are what shapes words into a story. Perhaps you are the kind of writer who spends tons of time making the first draft as close to perfect as possible - then your first draft is full of rewrites as you search for the perfect word or phrase. But for many of us, who write the first draft in a creative frenzy and then edit and revise, it doesn't mean we aren't any good. It means that a good story comes out of a collaboration of both right and left brain. Creativity and reason combined. Creativity comes in a frenzy, but we need to reason with calm and collectedness. So don't let the rewrites get you down.

James Scott Bell described it best. He said, think of editing as the chance to take a final exam over and over again, and each time you get a better grade. Now if I had that chance in school or college, I would have loved that.

Be True to Yourself

Despite her depression with reviews, despite her attempts to prove that she was no worse than any male novelist, and not limited to women's fiction, Virginia Woolf kept writing the stories she wanted to write. She wrote some things for money like reviews and articles, but her books - her stories - came from her. Despite her fear of them being failure to appeal to the public, she wrote stories for a purpose - to explore her own mind, to explore a technique, to try a new technique, to challenge herself.


Commercial books are perfectly good. And if we are planning to write full time, it is only right and reasonable to want to make a decent living from it. But strive for success while staying true to yourself. You can either be successful because you conform to generic standards, or you can be successful because you create stories that are so uniquely your own and so appealing to the public that they embrace them. Which one would you rather have?


  1. Interesting. One of the suggestions in the course I'm taking is to write a bad review of your own novel, then go through and *fix* the things that you reviewed negatively. I thought that was a productive way to view neg. reviews - see if there's anything in them you could use for next time. I'm not too terribly bothered at what people think of me though, so while I'm sure neg. reviews will bother me a bit, I'm equally sure I can keep my mouth shut and move along.

    As for generic standards vs. uniquely mine - I'll take both, please. :-) I'm perfectly happy to write genre fiction - it's what I love to read *because* of those generic standards. But I want my books to have my unique voice within those standards too.

  2. Jamie,

    I am more like you in that I would probably be able to move on with the neg. reviews, but I suppose this is a case more for people who are super sensitive, and also what I would call "temperamental creatives"

    And again, generic is not so much against what industry accepts - because within reasons for commercial fiction, we all have to mould to industry standards, but it's more a case of writing a story because you think it will sale, or writing a story because you want to write THAT story. Of course - both is the best deal. But it's a question of which one is the driving motive.

  3. Oh write reviews of your book. Intriguing. Welp, right now it would only be bad ones, cause I can't think of any good ones... *sigh* it will come ;o)

    Sounds like a good read though!

  4. Erica,

    I bet when you start writing, you will find at least one positive thing. I haven't actually written it, but I have tried it in my head, and it works. :-))