On February 3, 2010, Horsey at Heart wrote, ….I sometimes get so caught up with the idea of publishing someday, or showing my work to others, that I think it needs to be ABSOLUTELY PERFECT, even if it’s only a rough draft. It’s annoying, but I can’t seem to stop feeling that way.
This isn’t a question, but I think perfection is a worthy topic. Thank you, Horsey at Heart.
Seems to me there are people at each of two ends of a spectrum with everybody else somewhere in the middle. Some believe that whatever they write is wonderful, no revision needed. This may be a happy state to live in – unless it covers oceans of unexplored self-doubt – but self-satisfaction rarely produces fine work.
Then there are the tormented writers who are never pleased with their writing. Their critical selves are always powered up, hovering at the elbows of their creative selves, questioning every word choice, reviling every plot decision. These poor people have a terrible time producing any quantity of work and then showing it to anyone, much less an editor.
The rest of us are too hard on ourselves sometimes, but we can also applaud when we pull off something difficult. The truth, which I talk about in Writing Magic and have probably mentioned on the blog as well, is that there is no such thing as a perfect book. It is as impossible to write a perfect book as it is to be a perfect person.
This is a good analogy, because both writing and living are works in progress. We don’t throw up our hands and stop trying to be decent people just because we know we can’t be perfect ones. Living and writing require self-criticism, but in both bashing ourselves over the head for our mistakes is a bad strategy, and so is endlessly excusing ourselves.
I’m feeling a little preachy, but I’m going to keep going. Suppose I tend to be a tad judgmental, and sometimes I may hurt the feelings of people I love. What I might do (if it was really me we were talking about here) is to recognize the situations that inspire me to rush to judgment and to breathe deeply, maybe be silent for a while and consider if I could try a different response and what that new response might be.
I’ve mentioned that I’ve had trouble in a few recent books with making my main character likeable, and I’m having exactly that difficulty in the one I’m working on now. So I’m keeping the issue in mind. Is Elodie annoying the reader right now? I’m asking myself.
Keeping an issue in mind is different from beating myself up. I’m not thinking, Darn! I spoiled her. I’m only asking and then I’m figuring out how to have her not be irritating.
Some of you have been reading the blog for a while or have read books about writing. You know yourselves as writers, the terrific things you do automatically and the other things that are a struggle. Keep the struggle issues in mind as you write, as I do, sort of as a checklist. You can write them down if that helps you remember. You can think about them as you write. But if that chokes off your flow, you can bring them in when you revise.
I was in New York City yesterday, my favorite place to walk. So I was loping along, thinking of the blog and the topic of perfection, and my mind jumped to the scene I’m writing now, which introduces two hermits. There have to be hermits in the story, or at this point I think there have to be, and I hadn’t introduced any, so I decided I had to go back and write a hermit scene, but I have pretty good forward momentum going, and I resented backtracking and wanted to rush through the scene. As I walked I realized I hadn’t shown the reader what the hermits look like, and the scene will be hard to visualize without being able to see them, so I started to think about hermit appearance, which was fun. I am telling you all this because it’s an example of making your inner critic your collaborator instead of the enemy.
On the other hand, the day before yesterday I looked at some of my favorite of my poems, and I didn’t like a single one. I wasn’t thinking, How can I make this better? I was thinking, Yuck! So I decided it wasn’t a good time to reread my poems. When I’m feeling hopeless while writing a book, when I’m thinking that it stinks or that I don’t know what I’m doing, I tell myself to shut up and wait till I’m finished. When a story is in the middle of itself it can go any way in the world. Judging it then is only detrimental. And judging in a global way while you’re revising is also detrimental. But it is useful to think, More dialogue here, or, I can trim this, or Show where everybody is here.
And judging in a global way when you’re all finished is detrimental too. That’s the time to celebrate.
Here is the mantra: Specific criticism, good; global criticism, bad.
There are two areas, however, where you want to approach perfection before you show your writing around: grammar and spelling. English is tricky, and you may not get absolutely everything right, but try. Make friends with a usage book. I use two, Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage and Fowler’s Modern English Usage, although Fowler’s is more British. And when you look up a word in the dictionary, be sure to read the usage note if there is one. A great and fun book on grammar and usage is Woe Is I or for kids, Woe Is I, Jr. by Patricia T. O’Conner.
I promised Pambelina to name some writing books I like. Most of them deal to some degree with the curse of perfectionism. I think they’re all okay for a middle school audience. If you’re younger, check with a parent or librarian. Every one of these books was instrumental in my development as a writer. My fave is Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser. The others that I love are: Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott; Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones, both by Natalie Goldberg; Spider, Spin Me a Web by Lawrence Block; Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (old-fashioned in expression but modern in ideas). For writing poetry, if you’re interested, there are The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms edited by Ron Padgett and The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. This last one is for high school level and above. If you are writing for children, Barbara Seuling’s How to Write a Children’s Book and Get It Published is excellent. When I was starting out, I practically wore out the print with my eyes.
No prompt today, except to write – in a positive way – your personal checklist of aspects of storytelling you would like to keep in mind, which you can add to and subtract from as your writing changes. Have fun!