Liz Sheffield has been a writing student and editing client of mine over the last few years. She is a blogger and freelance writer focused on the topics of parenting, wellness and leadership. Her essays, articles and short fiction have been published in national and regional publications, including Brain, Child and Family Fun. Until recently, Liz spent more than 11 years writing, editing and designing training materials for Starbucks. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two young sons.
Please welcome Liz Sheffield
This year, when I asked the young writers in the early weeks of my National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) workshop to tell me what their inner editors say, the kids (ages 8 to 11) didn’t hesitate to respond:
“That’s no good.”
“You can’t spell.”
Ouch! Our inner editors develop at such a young age.
These fifteen students are part of the afterschool NaNoWriMo workshop I’m teaching at my son’s elementary school. A few years ago, the Office of Letters and Light (OLL) – the group that oversees NaNoWriMo for adults – created the Young Writers Program as well as a NaNoWriMo curriculum for kids and youth. It’s the same concept (write a novel in a month) but with a word count goal that is reasonable for each young writer.
September and October are all about training. In our weekly lessons, we discuss topics such as the inner editor, main characters, plot and setting . The goal is that by November 1, these students will be able to write their novels in 30 days. In order to succeed, I know from personal experience, the first step is to get their inner editors out of the way.
“Next, we’re going to draw these inner editors,” I continue after hearing the feedback from my students’ inner editors.
Villains wielding swords, with scowling faces, missing teeth and furrowed brows evolved on the blank pages of the kids’ workbooks.
“Now it’s time for these inner editors to take a hike,” I told my students.
I walked around the room with a shoe box covered in bronze-colored paper. After the last editor was in the box, I closed the lid and wrapped metallic string around and around the box to lock it.
“Is that barbed wire?” a sixth grader asked, incredulous.
“Yes. Star-studded barbed wire.”
The box rattled in my hands. I could hardly contain the energy inside the bronze-covered shoe box.
“These editors are desperate to get out,” I warned, “but if we want to write a novel in thirty days, we can’t let them out until December 1.”
Some of the younger students looked worried. (Okay, so maybe the shaking box was a little bit much.)
“Are we going to let these inner editors out of the box?” I asked.
“No way!” the kids hollered, a few boys adding an air-punch for emphasis.
If keeping their inner editors in the box is the one thing my students learn through this NaNoWriMo experience, I’ll be thrilled.
And, they’ll be decades ahead of me.
I have a powerful, demanding and often hope-dashing inner editor who has played a leading role in my writing life: You’re going to use that word? Who will want to read this? You can’t write. You don’t have an MFA. You’re not old enough. Wait, you’re too old, it’s too late. You don’t have time.
I’ve heard this voice for years, but it wasn’t until I took the NaNoWriMo challenge myself in November 2010 that I understood the power my inner editor had over my creative process.
My sons were age two and six, I was working full-time in a corporate cube and commuting an hour each way. Since college, I’d been too busy (drinking beer, teaching ESL in
romancing with my future husband) to write. Skeptics, including my inner
editor, told me I had no business taking on the challenge of writing a novel,
much less attempting to write one in thirty days.
I signed up anyway. And I wrote 50,064 words in 30 days.
“How did you do it?” everyone asked after I came out of the NaNoWriMo fog.
The answer was simple: I told my inner editor to take a hike.
During NaNoWriMo, I gave myself permission to write a less-than-perfect novel. I ignored the thoughts that I had to come up with the “perfect” first sentence, find the “perfect” time to write, or labor late into the night, attempting to format a document so that it was “just right”.
With thirty days of practice, I gained confidence. My inner editor got quiet.
"Don’t look at this early stage for every sentence to be perfect—that will come. Don’t expect every description to be spot-on. That will come too. This is an opportunity to experiment. It’s your giant blotter. An empty slate, ready to be filled."
These encouraging words in Jasper Fforde’s pep talk to participants in the 2010 NaNoWriMo rang true. Having sent my inner editor on a hike, day by day, word by word, I was able to fill the empty slate.
My creative self took over. I added a hospital to the setting. My protagonist befriended a homeless teen. The plot twisted and turned in ways that my inner editor would have avoided (and admonished) but which I welcomed. I finished on November 30 with a novel that wasn’t perfect, but that had a beginning, a middle and an end. A year after I finished NaNoWriMo, I read what I’d written. While there are revisions to be made, I can say that I like what I wrote. (Take that, inner editor!)
As my students prepare for their NaNoWriMo adventures, I hope that locking their inner editors away in that shoe box will bring them the same sense of freedom; that they will embrace the time for creativity.
Most creative folks will agree that keeping the inner editor at bay is difficult. In fact, since I banished mine two years ago during NaNoWriMo, I’ve noticed my inner editor creeping back into my writing world.
But I’ve had enough. I make my way to the garage in search of the box covered in star-studded barbed wire. There’s got to be enough room for one more inner editor in the shoe box in the garage: mine.
Note from Lisa: NaNoWriMo begins on November 1. You needn't write a novel during the 30 days; it's also a great way to generate around 50,000 words towards any manuscript or writing project, keep track of your progress, and commit to a regular writing practice. For the math-challenged, 50K words in a month works out to about 1,670 words per day.