Going Off the Rails

They say that teachers teach in order to learn.

It makes sense.

It also applies to changing habits.

When writing fiction, I, and several others (each word is a separate link you must visit), are constantly preaching the gospel of letting the subconscious creative voice do its thing and tell the story it wants to tell.

The critical voice, on the other hand, is to be ignored as much as possible.

And that’s tough. Why? Because it is relentless. Because it takes a vigilant mind to combat, and like the Terminator, can never truly be killed.

You can probably guess where this is going.

Yes, my critical voice got me on my latest story. Almost fatally.

I was able to fight it quite easily in the beginning. Those first few pages always seem to fly, because there’s not enough meat yet there to be critical about. Then I hit that inglorious, dirt-in-the-mouth middle and I swore things were going off the rails. I decided I needed to back up (critical mind), needed to outline the story (critical mind), and needed to make sure it all made sense (critical mind). And then my frustration only continued to grow from there as my critical voice was given permission to just have at it like…like me sitting in front of a plate full of chocolate chip cookies!

There’s a keyword if you look back at the above paragraph (no, not cookies).


My story was going off the rails and it needed saving.

Do you see the problem there?

When you read a good story, do you say, “Wow, that stayed perfectly within my expectations and I was not surprised by any of it. It remained completely on the rails. Can’t wait to read the next tension-less book!”

That is the problem with trying to put a story on rails. That is the problem with trying to make something perfect.

Sure, I guess staying on the rails is an impressive feat on its own. It takes an element of skill and plain ol’ doggedness. It can even be admired for what it is: a well-constructed piece of emotionless, hotel room artwork.

But do you know what else takes skill and plain ol’ doggedness? Getting out of one’s own way.

I know which skill I’d rather work on.

Going back to the story: I was convinced that I needed to know what was going to happen next.

And that’s where things tend to fall apart. I didn’t need to know. I needed to trust the subconscious. I needed to let myself be surprised. I needed to tell the critical voice to kiss off, because it doesn’t know bupkis about building–only tearing down.

Oh, what that character did/said makes no sense? To who? The critical voice who obsesses over safety? The critical voice who is trying to protect my fragile ego? The critical voice who would rather I stop writing completely instead of trusting me to put it all together by the end?

No story is perfect, and by a desire to make it so, I kept myself from moving forward. I kept myself from continuing to learn in order to get better at the craft.

Just as a warm bed feels good, so does the safety of the critical voice. But it’s a trap. If I don’t get up and go to work, I don’t get paid, and I die a miserable death because I gave in to the seductive comforts of the short-term.

A little hyperbolic? Yeah, I guess. 🙂 But you get the point. If I don’t write and finish what I write, then I’m forever stirring the same pot of word soup until the flavor has completely evaporated.

That’s when it’s over. That’s when it becomes all for naught.

I submitted the story to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine today. It’s either the second or third straight mystery story I’ve ever written, so I’m not expecting much. If I get a rejection, no biggie. I’ll self-publish it and hope it finds a reader or two hundred.

Keep fighting the critical voice, my friends.

Trust yourself.

Trust your art.

Hop off the rails.


8 thoughts on “Going Off the Rails

  1. Excellent post, Phillip. Every time I think I’ve conquered the critical voice, it pokes its head out to tease me again. Usually, it’s in the form of thinking about my story when I’m away from the keyboard and trying to work out where it’s going next. I hate knowing what’s going to happen, yet critical voice still teases me with this nonsense. Anyway, great post. And I hope all is well.

    1. Thank you, Tony!! Yup, I think the critical voice loves to give us that false sense of security, then he pops right back up when you least expect it. He makes an excellent antagonist. 🙂

  2. Harvey StanbroughJune 21, 2019 at 3:40 am

    Good post, Phillip. And just FYI, you can still find the full content of How to Quiet the Critical Voice at https://hestanbrough.com/quieting-the-critical-voice/.

    1. Appreciate it, Harvey. And thanks for sharing the link. Time for re-read! And hopefully others will check it out as well.

  3. Most excellent, Phillip! I love the idea of going off the rails ?

    1. Thank you, Marie! It’s more fun that way! 😀

  4. Robert J. McCarterJune 26, 2019 at 3:48 pm

    Good stuff, Phillip.

    So I’ve come to enjoy that “going off the rails” sensation. It’s scary, but it means that the story will be surprising and interesting.

    Not all the time, mind you. I never get through a story without thinking it’s all crap, but you just gotta keep going.


    1. Thanks for stopping by, Robert! Great to hear from you. I hope you are doing well.

      Yeah, that sensation has definitely become more and more endearing. It really does take a lot of time and practice just to get used to the feeling, but I think it’s well worth it. At least it has been so far. I look forward to getting back into the story every day, and even when I don’t, it’s easier to talk myself down from the ledge. I’m going to start keeping a written record of the stories I written that I think stink, yet others have liked, and see if that doesn’t nudge me to get back to work when the doubt hits.

      BTW, I’ll be in your neck of the woods with my wife and son in October and would love to grab a meal or something. I’ll reach out to you on Facebook with details.

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