Now we’ve established the only “important” thing in writing is attitude, let’s move on to another road bump that will stop writers from being creative. Perfection.
The common advice on the NaNo forums is to never look back in your manuscript. Never change or edit until you reach the end of the story, because you’ll get stuck at the earlier chapters trying to make them perfect. Instead, take notes on what needs to be changed (e.g. change character’s yellow shirt to blue in Chapter 7, so on). I’ll return to this “common advice” later in the book. For now, understand I agree with the reasoning behind this, but disagree with the methodology.
All authors, especially so in the early years, are susceptible to the siren call of perfection. If only the story is perfect, readers will love it! And the critics will say bubbly nice things! And it will hit a bestseller list! And…
Here’s a dangerous truth you won’t like: nothing is ever perfect. No book in the history of humankind is immune to harsh criticism. Number of rewrites doesn’t matter. Some would argue the more times a story is rewritten, the worse it devolves. And skill and pure talent won’t make a book perfect. I idolize writers like Elizabeth Bear, China Mieville, and Jim Butcher. All of them have flawed books in their oeuvres. (And to my eyes, the flaws don’t matter too much.)
Perfection is paralyzing. Try to be perfect, and you’ll never accomplish another thing in life. Perfection is what keeps first drafts in trunk, forever untouched and never sent to market, and it also keeps wonderful books from being written in the first place.
I highly recommend the book The Pursuit of Perfection by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. It’s a tiny book, not even a hundred pages, and worth its weight in gold. If you can’t afford the book, find her website (easy to find with a Google search) and look under the Business Resources tab. Go to the Business Rusch Publishing Articles.
At the moment, Rusch’s blog is a bit of a mess as she’s redesigning her website. What you’re looking for are the three articles that comprise The Pursuit of Perfection: “Perfection”, “Careers, Critics, and Professors”, and “Writers and Business”.
Read those articles for free on her website. Think about them. Your eyes will be opened. Rusch is far smarter and a much better writer than yours truly; her work can speak for itself.
The point I want to make here is this: perfection is every bit as deadly as critical voice and fear.
What do we do about this problem? Like everything in this book, it’s an attitude shift, and a battle that will happen between your ears.
A big danger is in peer workshops and writing groups. Always learn from those further down the road than you. Workshops and writing groups have value in camaraderie and motivation, I’m not arguing that. But unfortunately, finding long-term professionals at these gatherings is difficult. Workshop peers will have problems similar to your own, and often won’t even realize it.
Attend the workshops and events, learn what you can from your fellows. Just don’t take their critiques to heart. They don’t have your voice or your vision, so don’t let them be a part of your writing process.
Instead, find a trusted first reader. This is a friend or family member who reads like a reader, without the angst and confusion of an aspiring author.
In my bumbling early days of writerdom, I made friends with a woman and fellow scribe. She is a free-spirited sort, with a disposition to tarot and yoga. Her writing style is fluid and easy going, and odd. Strange occurrences are normal for her characters, and her settings are dream-like.
We agreed to exchange stories for critique. I have no memory of what I sent her, or what her response was. I do remember my response to her story.
Saying I was harsh is probably an understatement. I ripped her tale to shreds. I made many, far too many, red lines in the document. I told her how to rewrite sentences in the way I would write them, with no regard to her voice. I had not a damned clue what voice was in those dark days. I wanted her story to be grammatically correct with proper word choices, even at the cost of stripping away the childlike sense of wonder in her tale.
Our friendship fizzled afterwards.
I regret that to no end. Even after I’ve re-established contact with her, however fleeting, we are not close like we had been for a brief moment. It’s enough to know she’s safe and happy, but the friendship was badly tarnished with my critique.
These days, I only allow a select group of people read my drafts. They understand I don’t necessarily incorporate their line edits (when their word choices and phrasing don’t match what I would say) or their critique. I remind them I mainly want a thumbs up or thumbs down, and any typo or clarification fixes.
With crits… I only use critique to figure out what I need to work on with the next story. Each tale has something I’m trying to improve or learn how to do. I never rewrite based on feedback from people who live outside my head, and I tend to ignore the worst of negative responses.
Do I fix things in the second draft? Oh, of course. I make mistakes all the time. Typos, misused words, problems with clarity. I fix crap like that. But I leave the story “as is” more often than not, because I’ve learned to respect my creative voice and all the goofball things it comes up with.
My creative voice is far smarter than my critical voice. The critical voice wants things to be perfect. The creative side just wants to tell stories and have fun.
Learn to trust that voice. Listen to it, and don’t squash it underneath the weight of presumed perfection.
Copyright 2015 David Anthony Brown
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