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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