What Preys on Your Fiction?

by James Scott Bell

Mrs. B and I like to start our mornings together, early, with a cup of joe and some talk. We take it in the front room where we can hear the early morning birds come out to sing. We have a nice aviary in our back yard—mockingbirds, blue jays, doves, even the occasional oriole. The mockingbirds always take the lead. After all, they can have up to 200 songs in their feathery breast.

One morning a few years ago, eerily concurrent with lockdown frenzy, the music stopped.

Cindy was the first to notice. “I don’t hear the birds,” she said.

We waited. No sound.

The next morning was the same.

We were flummoxed.

Then one morning I went out back with my AlphaSmart and a fresh cup of java. I was typing away when I heard a rustling in the trees. A squirrel jumped out and ran across our wall. Fast. Heading toward another tree.

Because a big old hawk was swooping down on the frightened ball of fur. I rooted for the squirrel. Who found safe haven.

The hawk then perched itself on the corner of my roof, where it had an unobscured view of my entire yard.

It just sat there. Watching.

Could that be the reason the birds were silent?

I went out again the next morning. No singing birds. But presently I heard the loud squawk of a mockingbird. Not in song, but in distress. I looked up.

There, on top of a telephone pole, sat the hawk. A few yards away, on a wire, was the mockingbird, screaming at the hawk in no uncertain terms to go away.

Which the hawk imperiously ignored.

The mockingbird intensified its screech. The hawk stayed put. My theory was that the bird had a nest nearby and was protecting its young.

Finally, the mockingbird kicked things up a notch. It flew at the hawk, flapping its wings as it went by, giving the predator a feathery slap.

The hawk looked puzzled.

The mockingbird flew at him again. And again. The fourth time, the hawk decided he’d had enough, and flew off.

Score one for the little guy!

It took some weeks, but eventually the hawk moved on. And the birds started singing again.

Which has me thinking: what hawks are there in our writing life that keep us from singing our best songs? Here are three:

Self doubt

Every writer goes through periods of self doubt—about whether they have the goods, whether the book they’re working on is good enough. Or maybe they’ve had some success and wonder if they can keep it going. A little self doubt can be a motivator to check your craft and see if you might improve something. But you can’t let it sit there like a hawk.

You will not be shocked to learn that the remedy is to write. Type words. As Dennis Palumbo says in his book Writing From the Inside Out, “Every hour you spend writing is an hour not spent fretting about your writing.” When you’re writing, you’re not doubting. That is, unless this hawk is swooping:

Inner critic

“Danger, Will Robinson!” – Robot from Lost in Space

We all know this voice. “Hold it.” You’ve written a sentence. Or a paragraph. And suddenly you clutch. You want to go back and fix the thing. Danger, Will Robinson! (Boy, does that ever date me.) Listening to that voice leads to Writus Interruptus—the cessation of creative flow.

We all want to write in the flow state. Letting the words come out by following the James Thurber advice, “Don’t get it write. Get it written.” Go back and fix it later.

“Write like you’re in love. Edit like you’re in charge.” (JSB)

If you find yourself prey to the inner critic, you need to get used to turning it off. Do that with the practice of morning pages. See my post on that here.

Risk aversion

Sometimes a writer chasing commercial success will choose a genre and then write safely within the conventions. The problem is, there is enough same-old fiction being produced that such a book will not stand out in any significant way. Heck, artificial intelligence can now spew out competent genre fiction. Are we going to let the machines make monkeys out of us? We need to bring our unique voice, heart, perspective, passion to the page!

Don’t be afraid to take a risk, especially in the first draft. You can always pull things back later, or polish the rough gems…but first they need to be there.

In that regard, I’d like to mention my new writing craft book, because it is all about the “extras” that we love to find in great fiction. It’s called Power Up Your Fiction: 125 Tips and Techniques for Next-Level Writing. It’s up for pre-sale on Amazon now at the deal price of $2.99 (reg. will be $5.99). If you’re out of the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for: B0BZ5WQVXD.

So flap your wings and chase away those birds of prey. Then sing your song.

What preys on your fiction?

45 thoughts on “What Preys on Your Fiction?

  1. I absolutely agree with your three main points, but I disagree with what appear to me to be reversals or contradictions:

    Self-doubt—”Every writer goes through periods of self doubt …. You will not be shocked to learn that the remedy is to write.” I absolutely agree.

    For various reasons, some writing gurus actually instill and propagate self-doubt in writers. Don’t let them. You’ve been absorbing story since before you even knew there was an alphabet. Trust yourself. You really can write a short story, novella or novel on your own. You are cabable. Learn with your conscious, critical mind, and apply with your creative subconscious.

    Inner critic—”If you find yourself prey to the inner critic, you need to get used to turning it off.” Again, absolutely. I couldn’t begin to agree more.

    But don’t then intentionally turn it back on and invite it to second guess your creative subconscious. If you teach your creative subconscious enough times that you don’t trust it, ideas will dry up and your characters will refuse to come out and play.

    Risk aversion—”We need to bring our unique voice, heart, perspective, passion to the page!” Again, yes, I absolutely agree.

    But don’t then dilute and eradicate that unique voice, heart, perspective and passion by allowing your own logical, critical mind and the logical, critical “I would have done it this way” minds of others to pick it apart. Defend your work.

    Thanks for letting me provide an alternative view. Have a good day.

      • Oh, not trying to change your mind. I know better. As I said, thanks for letting me provide an alternative view.

        I like the way a friend of mine put it when he told me about your response. He wrote, “I prefer to think of writing a story as less like a diamond and more like a sports game. The Celtics don’t get to cut and polish their play against the Lakers, they just keep practising and play the best they can next time.”

        Moving forward and practicing, that’s what I teach.

        • Having played basketball a good portion of my life, I benefited from some great coaching, and learned the proper fundamentals. Some things got fixed by an experienced eye.

          “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” — Bobby Knight

          • Again, we agree. Mine is football, but the same concept applies. Great coaching (learning from those much farther along the same path) is always beneficial. However, nobody in their right mind would try to force Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, or (more recently) Patrick Mahomes to do it the “right” way. I suspect that would extend to some big-time past and current NBA players too.

            You can revise, rewrite, and polish too much. Otherwise, why ever stop and submit or publish? I revise every single word I write in 800 to 1000 word bites as I go, but I ‘just read’ and allow my creative subconscious to revise if and when necessary.

            I never allow my logical, conscious, critical mind (much less anyone else’s) anywhere near my fiction. If it insists, I get up and walk away for awhile. I constantly practice “turning it off.”

            Good exchange.

        • Diamonds? Writing? Strange analogy. D.H. Lawrence once said (if memory serves correctly) that his job as a writer was to get beneath the shiny surface of a diamond and reveal the carbon.

    • ❦ Well, it’s a matter of balance. We can be so dazzled by our own prose, we can’t see its shortcomings, or we can be too damn critical.
      ❦ Whether you call it the Guardienne or the Boys in the Basement or your muse, our brain’s creative center has no conscience. That is its beauty (when making up stories) and its curse (when editing them).
      ❦ It is important to establish who is boss. An oversized, unbridled Guardienne is a menace to our sanity and sobriety. In the words of RLS and Poe, it is Mr. Hyde to our Dr. Jekyll, it is our Imp of the Perverse.

        • ❦ Yes, he did, during a fever, later creating a second draft from scratch, if you believe the legend that the first was destroyed.
          ❦ RLS traveled in France extensively, and was completely fluent in French and one of England’s foremost students of psychology. In a 1905 introduction to the collected works of RLS, Fanny Osbourne Stevenson attributes his interest in dual personalities to a specific, but unidentified article: “[M]y husband was deeply impressed by a paper he read in a French scientific journal on subconsciousness,” which, she says, “gave the germ of the idea” that Stevenson later turned into “Deacon Brodie,” (1880), based on the life of an 18th Century Scottish official who led a dual life of crime and rectitude.
          ❦ RLS later used his psychological studies for “Markheim” (1885), and ultimately for the dream-inspired tale of Jekyll and Hyde (1886).
          ❦ RLS wrote, as Dr. Jekyll: “With every day . . . I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth . . . that man is not truly one, but truly two.”
          ❦ Carl Jung wrote: “In each of us there is an ʘther whom we do not know. He speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from the way we see ourselves.”

      • That’s the whole point, J. it’s shortcomings according to whom? Everyone, every single reader (critic, editor, publisher) has different taste. “Fix it” for one, you harm it for another. I prefer practice to hovering, and it’s worked thus far over 72 novels, 9 novellas, and around 230 short stories. That’s in a span of 7 years.

  2. Bought the book, where’s the T-shirt? 😉

    Self-doubt–not so much anymore. It’s more of the other two, but that’s because I have my writing routine down. It’s sort of like my morning workout with the weights. Things don’t feel right until I push some metal around. Likewise with the keyboard.

    Inner critic–it must be the perfectionist in me. I spent a career in software development, which demands absolute perfection or things go bad fast. Learned habits are hard to break. I edit as I write, but with self-discipline I keep it to a minimum and stay in the flow.

    Risk aversion–my reading tastes are all over the place, and my writing tends to follow suit. I’m juggling standalone historical thriller with contemporary vigilante crime series. Two different-sized markets and readerships. Right now I’m back to the historical and the flow is on, so I’ll stick with it to the end (which is already in place). The series will probably do better long-term, but my heart is in an assassin chase through 1947 Los Angeles. Problem there is, I actually remember some of 1947.

    Thanks, Jim, for the hawk-eyed perspective on a Sunday morning. Affirms a lot for this writer.

    • Thanks, Dan. I like the way you put it, that the morning doesn’t feel right until you’ve put down some words. Ditto.

      Just FYI, I love 1940s Los Angeles, which is why I set my Bill Armbrewster stories there. Go for it!

    • I remember 1947 Los Angeles. My dad’s ’47 Cadillac. A man knocked unconscious with a blackjack next to a bar near the Leimert Theater. A car full of gangsters driving down Crenshaw towards some late night criminal confrontation. The mansion across the street where Jack Dragna lived. The murder scene below our house. My mother’s Iver-Johnson revolver that Detective Sergeant Ray Hopkinson told her to buy. The sociopathic kid who set a house on fire and poisoned his sister’s Wheaties. The sexual predators. I should write a book.
      “. . . It was foggy that night as I drove my black ’36 Ford up La Cienega into the Baldwin Hills, heading for the X on the map. The fog was thick, thick as a bowl of day-old oatmeal at an all night diner . . . “

  3. In the areas of inner critic & self-doubt, I offer one other RX: write a book with someone.

    I’ve been writing for a couple decades. Obviously, left to my own devices, I’m in no hurry & veer toward the low risk of writing my stories and keeping them to myself instead of putting them out there. My inner critic is harsh & has a habit of telling me “you haven’t revised enough yet” or “you haven’t researched enough yet” etc.

    Within the last year, I began writing a book project with someone. Now the grand experiment is not yet complete as we’re still in revisions so it’s not yet published. I typically would not dream of doing so highly personal a thing as writing with another writer. My main motivation was that I wanted to write but instead of life slowing down, demands on my time keep increasing–so sharing all the tasks involved in writing a book seemed a good way to move forward.

    But it has had the unexpected benefit of helping squash the inner critic & self-doubt. I now have someone besides myself that I am responsible to–someone else’s schedule & goals to be mindful of so I can’t self-doubt myself into a quagmire. And it forces me to put my first draft work in front of someone without holding onto it for eons until it is “perfect”. And what we are finding as we both improve is that over the course of time, we are learning to blend our styles into a cohesive whole.

    And a side note on birds, I had the most wonderful experience a few weeks ago. It has been very cold in Arizona (I know, I know, other folks don’t think AZ is cold) but we had a brief warming period & I had 3 doves come perch on my balcony. They were eating up the warmth sitting there basking in the sun. What a blessing! A great thing to see as I can often hear birds, but rarely do they settle in for a visit like that. 😎

    • “And what we are finding as we both improve is that over the course of time, we are learning to blend our styles into a cohesive whole.”

      I had this same experience co-writing three historical novels with Tracie Peterson. We developed a voice together, which enabled me to write three more on my own. These are the Kit Shannon books, which begin with City of Angels.

      Speaking of doves, a couple of years ago Mr and Mrs Dove set up a nest in the eaves on our front porch. We got to watch the whole thing develop, and little doves pop out of the eggs. Mr Dove was always on the lookout for predators. He did his duty honorably.

  4. Jim, birds must be on the collective brain this spring. Here in MT, migratory flocks are returning. Yaay! Two days ago, a gorgeous Chinese pheasant wandered past my window. Yesterday evening,10 wild turkeys waddled through my yard. Vees of Canada geese are honking overhead in the sky.

    Crows raise holy hell when a hawk dares enter their airspace.

    The best defense against my inner critic is a deadline. Gotta get that article to the editor or a new post up on TKZ. Too bad I’m not as diligent meeting self-imposed deadlines with my fiction.

    Looking forward to your new book!

  5. Terrific post, Jim. All three have preyed on me in the past. Self-doubt especially during the long months of working on my first mystery, and the inner critic toward the end. Surprisingly, risk aversion wasn’t an issue this time. In for a penny, in for a pound, I guess. I knew what I signed up for when I decided to write a library cozy mystery set in the 1980s rather than the present day with a cast of quirky characters, and my own sensibilities about story, humor and mysteries, and what libraries are really about.

    Feedback from my beta readers is coming in, and so far, they are loving the book. I was too close to it for too long, and that’s when the inner critic can really have a field day.

    I’ve pre-ordered “Power Up Your Fiction” and can’t wait to read it. Have a great Sunday!

  6. Great story of the hawk and the birds. We live in a wooded lot and have many birds, and frequent red tail hawks looking to sneak up on the squirrels. The crows are the alarm system. When a hawk flies into their territory, they create a lot of noise.

    The biggest thing that preys on my writing is distractions. No matter how many problems I clear from my plate, another one (or two) crop up – rental repairs, trees falling and blocking the trails in the woods, banks merging and requiring new accounts to be established, etc. etc. I set aside the time to write, but my brain wants to work on solving the problems. I find the most success if I write in the mornings before the cares of this world take up residence in my head.

    Good luck with your new book.

    • A good reason to write first thing, Steve. The cares of the day can pile up fast. The Nifty 350 is what I try for…it often keeps going…but even if not, it’s easier to meet my quota later on.

  7. Good insights for a Sunday morning, Jim. When I run into these three punks-self doubt, risk aversion and especially my nemesis the inner editor I’m reminded of Sir Francis Drake’s maxim (well, maybe he said it) “How can we doubt victory, when our cause is just?”

    When I’m outside in the morning lately I can hear a couple of woodpeckers at their task and I know spring is coming. My personal good luck charm has always been the cardinal. If I see a cardinal, good. If I hear his song, better. If I see him and spot his lady friend, that’s a trifecta and I know I better get to the keyboard quick because something good is coming.

    We do have wild turkeys here up along the Neil Smith bike trail-Congressman Smith was a grand fellow-which means if I want to see them I better haul the twelve dollar Cannondale out of the garage and air up the tires.

    I’m deep into Sol Stein’s “Stein on Writing” cand it gets high marks.

    • Stein on Writing is one of the earliest craft books I gobbled up. He was a legendary editor who made many a writer better, which they freely acknowledged.

  8. I’m enjoying your new book, Jim! (I have an ARC…) It’s like having you in a little tiny classroom across from me on my desk. 🙂

    The Gormans do something similar in the mornings. We sit side-by-side on the couch, drinking coffee, and talking about nothing in particular. We call it our Staff Meeting, and are frequently joined by Hoka-The Smartest German Shepherd in the World, who fancies herself the CEO.

    I’m frequently the prey of all three of these demons. It’s hard to write with abandon when the hawk of inner critic, self-doubt, and risk aversion are zeroed in on me. But just admitting that it’s there, watching, helps me to flip it off and keep moving forward.

    Happy Sunday!

  9. Good morning, Jim. The birds of prey make for a thought-provoking topic. I can relate in different ways to each of them.

    Self-doubt. This is the biggest and scariest bird of prey for me. It swoops in suddenly and without warning. “What if this story isn’t as good as I thought it was?” But I have a wonderful defense. I talk to my husband who is my most ardent supporter as well as my most constructive critic. He scares away the self-doubt so I can get on with the job-at-hand.

    Inner critic. I am a perfectionist by nature. I believe it’s what led me to software development where I doubled down on the desire to get it right all the time, every time. I’ve loosened up a lot since those days, but this bird of prey lurks inside me and keeps me from getting too sloppy.

    Risk Aversion – I’m risk averse in certain areas of my life (e.g., finances), but I love experimenting with writing. I realize that means I’ll make mistakes, but I hold on to the quote by Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Besides, what do I have to lose?

  10. At the moment, my biggest hawk is inner critic. It’s my first time doing revisions, and that critic is whispering that this version has to be better than the last. Just because you’re writing whole new scenes doesn’t mean you can just let it flow and make mistakes. It needs tighter pacing and no tangents.

  11. Love it, as usual, Jim. We have a pair of bald eagles in the neighborhood, and I have the good fortune of having one of their favorite trees visible from my office. They’re magnificent, and as disdainful of us humans as they should be. Nothing like being fixed with that golden-eyed stare and then ignored. But what I really love is nesting season, when in their cruising about looking for breakfast, they get too close to somebody else’s nest. There’s nothing like watching tiny by comparison starlings and swifts dive bombing at the big guys. Even saw one hit once, and the eagle actually wobbled for a moment. But kept going.

    So I guess I’m saying that sometimes that inner critic might steal your focus, but that doesn’t mean you have to crash and burn over it. You just keep going.

  12. Fantastic advice, Jim. The worst for me is my inner critic. Perfectionists can always find something to improve. Self-doubt isn’t a problem anymore…until about two minutes after I send the ms to my editor. Will she like it? Hate it? Did I lose my touch? 🙈 #writerslife

    Speaking of birds, my crows faced off with a massive vulture today!

Comments are closed.