Deadly Perfection – Why It Kills Writers (and our novels!)

“A poem is never finished – only abandoned.” – Paul Valery

Have you ever been frog-marched to a particular session at a writing conference because your writing friends are absolutely convinced you HAVE to be at that session?

OH. Good. I’m not alone! 🙂

Last Saturday, I attended the Nimrod Writer’s Conference at the University of Tulsa on Saturday with a group of fellow writer friends. One of the sessions was cleverly titled, “How do I Know When I’m  Done? Strategies for Revision.” That’s the one I was forced to attend. Seriously. You’d think I had a problem with finishing novels or something . . .

This was a panel session, meaning that four authors held a discussion with the audience about their revision strategies and – yes – knowing when you’re done. Three were fiction writers; one was a poet, so they had varying points of view about this issue!

For me – as for many, many, many writers, maybe even you! – perfection is the siren call. We know it’s a siren call. We know that by following it, we are abandoning all else. We know that by trying to find it, we’re risking running ashore, having our novels crash and burn, having ourselves crash and burn. That’s what sirens do. They make you destroy yourself. Perfection is a Siren. She’s insidious and seductive, and she makes you think one more draft, one more set of rewrites, moving this scene here and tightening this, creating a better motive for this character . . . ad infinitum . . . and then it will be done because it will be Perfect. 

I am a perfectionist. I know whereof I speak. I also know that perfection is not achievable. So did the panelists. But for them as well, it’s a siren song that’s hard to resist. So how do they do it? Well, as one put it, “Perfection is the enemy of the paycheck.” When you’re a published author and on a deadline, you just don’t have time for perfection! It has to get as close as you can get it by the deadline, and then you have to let it go. (Though at least one admitted that when your intuition tells you the novel isn’t right, you should listen to your intuition . . . because otherwise, your lovely, sweet, supportive editor will call you and in the nicest voice possible, say, “Oh, honey . . . NO.”)

However, for poet Patricia Smith, it’s a little different. She has more time to work on her poems. She performs her poetry live, and so she gets feedback on it constantly. Or, as she said, “Perfection is fluid, it changes from audience to audience. Perfection is a shifting thing, depending on the needs of the people I’m writing for.”

So perfection isn’t a realistic goal. So . . . you’re off the hook, right?! No edits! No rewrites! One draft and you’re done! Right?

WRONG.

Perfection may not be achievable. But in today’s world of publishing, we have to get as freaking close to it as we possible can. Your first draft, as my friend and novelist Debra Dockter says, is a sandbox; you put up railroad ties and pour in the sand, and then you get to play in it. Revisions. Revisions are where we pull out ideas of theme, deepen character motivation, establish settings. Or, as one panelist put it,

“Revision is where the magic is.” 

But. How long those revisions take is another matter entirely. If you’re on deadline – well, in the words of one panelist, “Deadlines are a great way of knowing when you’re done.” You might get a small grace period, but you’ll be overnighting that thing to New York in the morning for sure.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2What resonated with me, though, was the comment made by one author on the panel. She said the danger of taking years to write a novel is that we grow, change, learn. We’re not stagnant. 

This one made me sit up and take note. That’s why I put my handy-dandy nota bene icon next to it. I know this. I know this firsthand. I’ve seen my writing grow and change over the years – yes, since I’ve been working on this series! I’ve gotten older. My perceptions have changed. The core of who I am hasn’t – but my writing style, my world-building, my word choices, have all changed. And my characters have, I hoped, kept pace a little. Grown and deepened as well.

But that’s the problem. Every time we evolve, we look at the novel with a slightly different outlook. And that outlook makes us go back to revisions. Some are good. Some are redundant, unnecessary. Who can say if taking nine years to write a novel is good or not? Maybe it takes that long for some writers to mature into their voices, to develop the skills to pull off a novel. As Patricia Smith put it, “Sometimes things don’t work because they’re asking for something we don’t know how to do at the time.” We mature as writers. We figure out solutions to things that were unsolvable a year ago, two years ago.

And at the same time, we run the risk of putting off the inevitable.

So I’ve made a commitment to myself. And now I’m putting that on paper. My novels will not be perfect. That’s a hard, bitter thing to accept, but I guess I can work up to that. What I HAVE to do, though, for myself and my characters, is get the damn thing done. Finish this last round of edits, and take a deep breath, and send it out into the world, knowing it won’t be perfect. Knowing there will be rejections, and maybe an offer, and if there are offers, there will be more rewrites, more edits.

If we ever want to be published, we have to accept the sad fact:  our novels are never finished, only abandoned. And although I known this blog post isn’t perfect, I’m publishing it anyway!

(And just so you know we’re not alone, here’s a few links to other articles on overcoming perfectionism in writing!)

https://thewritepractice.com/writing-perfectionism/

https://www.craftyourcontent.com/writers-perfectionism/

https://mandywallace.com/writing-perfectionist/

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Log Lines and Story Flaws – Kristin Lamb

I don’t do this often, but this amazing blog post by Kristin Lamb about log lines and how they can help you not only figure out the gist of your story and it’s major conflicts, but also help you stay on track as you write it, is just amazing! Check it out:

https://authorkristenlamb.com/2018/09/fatal-flaws-story-structure/

Novels: Putting the Puzzle Together

Everyone has metaphors for the writing process. Myself, I’ve already written about how writing a book is like restoring an old car (https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/is-your-novel-a-rust-bucket-mine-is/), and this week, I came up with another metaphor for my young adult novel.

What I’ve got is a Ziploc bag full of puzzle pieces. I don’t know what the puzzle should look like. I don’t even know if all the pieces I have are from the same puzzle! One thing I’m sure of:  I do not have a complete puzzle.

So how do you put together a puzzle with no picture and no guidelines?

Good question. But this is how I often write novels. I get scenes in my head. Snippets of dialogue. A character doing something. They come to me, often as ephemeral and insistent as a wisp of smoke. Forcing me to notice them. (And sneeze.) And from there, the scene evolves. It may be a page or two. It might be twenty pages. Either way, it’s a scene. I don’t know exactly what happened to get us there, and I may not be sure what comes after. But I’ve got a scene in my head, and I write it Then And There, before it evaporates. Because once it evaporates, it’s gone and it will never come back.

soapboxNota Bene:  If a scene comes to you don’t think you’ll remember it later – you won’t!!!!! You won’t remember the exact dialogue, the exact sequence of events, and you’ll lose the magic of that moment. Just drop whatever you’re doing and go write it. Then. And. There.

So I write these scenes, and then I get to put them into some semblance of order, and then I get to figure out where the missing pieces are. Maybe I’ve got some sky, but only a handful of leaves to tell me that a tree should be there. Or maybe there’s supposed to be a covered bridge in the picture, but all I have is the road leading to it, and a bit of the roof. But if I know what should be there, I can figure out the rest.

And that’s what I have now. Is this one book or two? I can’t even tell you that much! When I started my first urban fantasy novel, it was one novel. That was it. One very simple novel. It’s since evolved into at least a six-book series and although I know exactly what’s going to happen, getting it started has been the issue, in large part because of the way I write – in these puzzle pieces. Where does this scene go? Before or after this one? Wait – who’s this person????!!!! Why are you in my novel???!!! I did not invite you!

You have to trust the process.

A few years ago I had a character – Shannon – walk onstage and make herself at home. She was about as welcome as a cockroach in a wedding cake, but she insisted on staying, and my MC, Erin, insisted on interacting with her. Now, I cannot imagine the novels without her. She is the perfect foil for Erin, and her choices and actions make life interesting for everyone. Had I not trusted that she had a place in my novel, if I had been completely welded to an outline, I’d have jettisoned her – and my novels would have suffered as a result.

Nicky’s story has been a little different, in large part because I’m working within a historic framework. I want to keep it as close to ‘real’ as I can, which even includes using actual newspaper articles from 1924. But there are scenes that need to be there, and I have to trust that Nicky has given them to me for a reason. The question is – as I read through the entire thing – where do all the scenes go? What’s missing? What has to go in that I haven’t written yet? And . . . is this one book, or two?

I’d only ever imagined writing one book. But the more I look at what I’ve done and what I have left to do, if this is one book, then it’s going to be as long as Harry Potter #5.

Still, I have to trust that I’m doing the right thing. E.L. Doctorow is credited with one of the most famous sayings about writing:

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Since Nicky’s a rumrunner, this is very appropriate. 🙂 Sometimes, I feel like I’m driving like James and Richard in the Bolivia trip:  I’ve got two flashlights taped to the hood of my car! Not even headlights! Then, you just have to trust that the road is still there, even if you can’t see it very bloody well.

So if you’re not an outliner, if you can’t stand the thought of being shoehorned into a plot line, don’t feel you’re alone. Hey, at least someone didn’t just dump a bag of puzzle pieces in your lap and tell you to get to work. 🙂