The Sneaky Snake

Before the post, a little news. Some of you may have wondered: I’m restarting my summer workshop this year. For writers from ten through high school age who live not impossibly far from Brewster, New York, it will run on Wednesdays from 1:30 to 3:00 for six weeks starting on July 6th. Interested writers need to commit for the whole time, although if you miss a week the world won’t end. It’s free, my gift to budding writers! If you’re interested, you should call the Brewster library to sign up. You know I’d love to have you.

On December 4, 2015, Nessa wrote, Congratulations to everyone who finished NaNoWriMo! My sister and my best friend’s brother encouraged me to do it this year, and I said I’d try, but it was really only a half-hearted attempt. I ended up with a measly 2,900 words instead of 50,000. :/ I think my biggest problem (besides schoolwork, and all the time-destroying other things I have to get done) is that I’m a perfectionist. I don’t really have an “inner critic,” exactly–I’ve read some less-than-stellar books before, and I figure if people like them, they’ll like mine–but whenever I write something, I always think, “It doesn’t sound quite right,” so I re-phrase it… and re-phrase it… and rephrase it. Getting 350 words in a day is basically a miracle. Anyone have any tips on how I can handle my debilitating writing perfectionism? (Seriously, it took me about an hour just to write this comment…)

Lots of you chimed in.

NPennyworth: I think the only way to do this is remembering that nobody can manage to churn out a 50K word story perfectly on the first try. You may need to take a step back and remind yourself that you can fix it later, but you can’t fix the story if you haven’t written enough of it.

Melissa Mead: I can’t remember where I saw this, who told me, but one writer said that rough drafts are basically putting clay on a wheel. You just pile clay/words on. It’s SUPPOSED to be a big messy lump. Then, when you get to an ending, you shape it into something beautiful.

Kitty: I feel you. I had the exact same problem until I discovered the various word crawls on the NaNo forums. They are super fun and addicting, and I found myself sprinting a couple thousand words a day and enjoying it. My fav is the Harry Potter one: (http://nanowrimo.org/forums/word-wars-prompts-sprints/threads/251242), but there are plenty of others, from pirate themed to NaNo themed, to Mean Girls themed. The full list of those, and other activities, is here: (http://nanowrimo.org/forums/word-wars-prompts-sprints). Maybe try one of those next year, or even just whenever you want to write. When you’re focusing on getting words down so that you can progress to the next “level” of the game, you’ll find yourself focusing less on the quality of the words, and instead on the quantity, which is essentially what NaNo is about. Also, the timed word sprints really help get your pulse and mind racing, so that you’re thinking less and writing more. Especially the fifty-headed-hydra. You won’t have time to even think for that one. They are incredibly fun and addicting, and got me out of a rather large word count hole that I dug for myself after the second week.

That being said, just because you didn’t meet the official word count goal and “win” doesn’t mean that you aren’t a winner. You wrote 2,900 words, which is 2,900 words more than you had at the beginning of the month. You developed a consistent habit of writing, and that’s something you should be very, very proud of. This pep talk (http://nanowrimo.org/pep-talks/n-k-jemisin) and this blog post (http://blog.nanowrimo.org/post/134534953571/didnt-win-nanowrimo-here-are-3-reasons-to) say so themselves. So celebrate! You’ve still accomplished a remarkable feat, and you should be extremely proud of yourself.

One more tip: If you’re under 16 right now, and if you decide to do this next year, you might want to consider joining the Young Writers Program (http://ywp.nanowrimo.org/) instead of the normal NaNoWriMo. It lets you set your word count goal instead of the default 50,000. That might help you finish and officially “win” a bit easier if you’re super busy.

Ann: I have this exact problem, so I tried handwriting for a bit instead of typing on a computer. It’s so easy to go back and fix things on word processing, I think it magnifies the problem somewhat. It didn’t work out for the long term for me, and I think of it as a temporary fix, but as an exercise in not ending up reworking the same page over and over, it really helped me. (Try it in pen if you’re feeling brave).

These are great and encouraging! I particularly like the word-sprint and switching-to-pen ideas, which focus us away from feeling bad about being perfectionists and toward action. I tend to get too much into revising, too, when I’m in first-draft stage. I may try NPennyworth’s and Ann’s suggestions to bypass my bad proclivities, or I may start typing with my nose or gripping a pen with my toes. Any words I get out that way will be good enough!

I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: I once read a description of a book–I don’t remember the source, so I can’t quote it exactly–as a long document that has something wrong with it. There are no perfect novels, probably no perfect essays or perfect poems. My next novel, after The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, is going to be set in Ella’s world, so recently I reread Ella Enchanted, which was my first published book, and I’ve learned a few things since then. I’d revise quite a bit if I were starting over. For example, I’ve learned about the placement of the word only. Here’s an example that makes me grind my teeth: Ogres weren’t only dangerous because of their size and their cruelty. It should be: Ogres weren’t dangerous only because of their size and their cruelty. The difference is trivial, but the second is more precise than the first.

The only mistake I learned about from HarperCollins’ copy edits on some manuscript or other. I often see it in the work of wonderful writers, who have less gifted copy editors, but I don’t like to see it in moi! Getting deep into the weeds, I don’t think it’s a mistake when it shows up in dialogue, which reflects how people actually speak–generally with misplaced onlys, but in narration, I like to get it right.

Here’s another foolish move I constantly make as I write a first draft: I fix sentences I’m going to wind up cutting. I don’t know that at the time, but I do know that my most frequent action when I revise is to snip. Perfect sentences on the cutting room floor are useless.

Having said that, though, this may be a necessary part of my process, even a comforting one. I start every writing session by rereading a few of my latest pages, and when I reread, inevitably, I revise. Since I love to revise, since it’s my favorite part of writing, by the time I start on fresh work, I’m in the groove.

For those of you who struggle with this along with me and who are high school age at least, a good antidote may be to read a mystery by Elmore Leonard, whose writing is a marvel of simplicity. I don’t know how much he revised to get there, but he goes for a thing plainly said.

In her comment, Nessa says she doesn’t have an inner critic exactly. I beg to differ. When her thought slithers into her brain: It doesn’t sound quite right, who else is whispering but that reptilian inner critic? And once we recognize him, we can talk back or stuff a sock in his mouth. We can say, You may be right, but let me keep writing and after I type or pen The End, I want to know all about the problems. We can even flatter him by pointing out that he’ll be even more helpful once he knows the whole arc of our story.

Also, by the time we get to the end, he may be so pleased with us (since he is us), that he couches his criticism in an encouraging way.

As many of us have said many times, no two writers write alike. Some of us soldier through a first draft uncritically, without ever coming up for air. Some of us are compulsive nitpickers. We may learn to rein ourselves in, but we may never entirely eliminate our three-steps-forward-two-steps-back methodology. And we should respect that. And let me add that Nessa’s question, even though she took an hour to frame it, was clear enough and poignant enough to elicit the help she got. I say, Good work!

Looking for a title for this post, I googled quotations about perfectionism and found this link: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/perfectionism. I didn’t find my title, but there are lots of gems. I already knew this quote from Oscar Wilde: “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

Here are three prompts:

∙ I’ll try a sprint prompt. If I understand right, there needs to be a reward for success. My reward would be a game of Free Cell solitaire, so pick some time sucking pastime you usually feel guilty about and indulge guilt free for up to half an hour. Here’s the challenge: Write an argument between two friends. You can come up with your own starter line, or use this phrase: Your first mistake was… Write for fifteen minutes without stopping or fixing anything.

∙ Write a page about your WIP as if you were describing it to an admiring friend in conversation. There is nothing to correct, because you’re just talking on the page.

∙ Write the next page of your WIP with your eyes closed. I can type with my eyes closed, although the temptation to look is very strong. Don’t give in to it! If you can’t type with closed eyes, write longhand on paper. If your eyes are closed, you can’t correct. When you’re finished, don’t go back to fix it. Just keep going, eyes open or closed.

Have fun, and save what you write!