Socrates claimed he had a little demon on his shoulder, whispering in his ear, telling him what to do. No, he hadn't been reading too much Philip Pulman. Nor been watching too many horror films. It was actually the birth of the idea of conscience, that little voice we know we need to listen to that so often gets obscured by all the flatteries and temptations of life.
As human beings we all need a decent conscience. As writers, the Bohemina in us likes to think we can do without. But we all need to cultivate one of those little demons, the quiet voice of the inner editor.
When I first took the plunge and joined writers' critiquing site Youwriteon, about the only thing I knew was that as a writer I needed a thick skin. And the way to show you have a thick skin is to listen to criticism - and you show you are listening by following advice. Besides, what did I know!
Result? What most cynical writers I know call editing by committee/consensus. Only there never is a consensus, so you end up with draft after draft after draft. And eventually you end up with...
You've got it. A headache. And a bit of a mess. And probably writers' block because you're terrified what'll come next.
After a few months, and some success on Youwriteon, I joined what I still think is the best critiquing site in cyberspace, The Bookshed. I was cock-a-hoop because you ahve to apply to get in. And with cock-a-hoopness come cockiness. I went in looking for a fight (as much as a big soft hippy ever goes "looking for a fight"), and my fight of chioce was "the rules". We all know that one, right? From "you need to know the rules to break them" to "rules are there to stifle creativity". So I'd take comments about my plotting and structure. And I'd do the opposite. And I'd rail about the stupidity of rules.
And the result? Well, at the time I thought of it as a postmodern masterpiece. Others saw the 6 narrator, no timeline "thing" that was the first draft of Songs from the Other Side of the Wall as "a bit confused." And guess who was right!
And then, when I got my critique from Harper Collins after successfully getting to "The Editor's Desk" on Authonomy, something happened. I read the crit through, and thought "you know what, that's right." (the editor had very politely pointed out a "certain amount" of introspection on my protag's behalf). And I looked back at other critiques, and started thinking, "that's right" and "that isn't".
I'm a long way from honing "my voice" or, indeed, actually knowing the first thing about this writing business. But I've started hearing that little voice inside every time someone says something about my work. I'm sure it's mostly wrong at the moment, but I hear it and, as with our conscience, we can only go with what we sincerely hear.
The key is to keep listening - and to train it by keeping on submitting ourselves to scrutiny, and to let those external voices and that internal one spark off each other in a dialectic that leaves your little demon a little louder and a little wiser each time.
So my advice. Ask advice from everyone. Consider everything. Listen to everyone. Hard. Until the voice you hear loudest is your own.
All of which is rather like what psychologists these days say about conscience - that we begin in ignorance, grow up dependent on rules, as teenagers rebel against the lot of them, then finally develop oour own take on the world. If there's one thing we need to do as writers, it's take a good look at where we are on that continuum, and keep kicking ourselves in the backsides till we come out as the fully mature end product. Only then will we begin to get to grips with "voice" and "style" all those other questions.
Go on, nurture that little demon, and see where it takes you!