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Entries in perfectionism (5)


Banish the perfectionist

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch, some really wonderful words of wisdom about how perfection is the enemy of the good:

Is the story perfect? Of course not. No story is. Not a one. No matter how many times it’s “polished” and “fixed” and “improved.” No one can write a perfect story.

If such a thing existed, then we would all read the same books and enjoy them equally. We would watch the same movies and need reviewers to tell us only which movie is perfect and which one isn’t. We would buy the same comics, again, going only for the comic that is perfect, and ignoring all the others.

Am I telling people to write crap? No. Because the choice isn’t between crap and perfection. Those are false choices.


I also think that writers need to understand that they’re not writing for one editor or agent or for a small subset of people like a critique group. Writers write for readers.

And it’s up to the writer as to how to find those readers. As Sarah Hoyt said in last week’s comments, ask yourself, “How will this book best reach its audience?” The key words here are “book,” “reach,” and “audience.”

Not “How do I impress Editor A?” or “How do I get an agent?” But how does this book best reach its audience?


The question should never ever be, “How do I write the perfect novel?” because the perfect novel or short story or play or article or essay does not exist.

Read the whole essay here.

That you're writing for your readers, not your writerly peers or agent or editor, was a dormant bulb in my head that just blazed to light. If ever you needed permission to write straight from the heart, bypassing your inner critic almost completely, this is it.

Definitely worth a full read if you have time this sunny (at least here in New England) Friday.


Reflections on Week Ten

[Read the completed story here!]

This one was shockingly not at all difficult for me. Is it that Microfiction Week detonated all my blocks and barriers, or did Dean Wesley Smith's advice inspire me to better discipline, or both? Whatever the case, I seem to have a much easier time with nonfiction than I do with fiction. Writing Week Five's story (once I knew what to write) was also a great experience. 

I drafted this a bit differently than the others: probably for the first time ever, I put no pressure on myself for this thing to make sense. In my half-hour each morning I would just try to capture a few moments or feelings I remember having during my year as an adjunct college professor. These little scenes were in no order whatsoever, and I didn't have any idea how each of them (or any) would fit into a larger narrative. (In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott advises trying to describe only what you could see in a one-inch by one-inch picture frame. Without realizing this at the time, it's pretty much what I was doing here.)

Once I had over 2,000 words, I printed it off and cut each vignette into a separate strip of paper. Then I launched a hostile takeover of the kitchen table, as can be seen below:

[Yesthose scissors are pink.]

I know I've read a few times that this is a great way to revise a story, but of course I've always been too much of a procrastinating perfectionist control freak to actually give it a try. I'm glad I didI was pretty easily able to group the slips by chronological sequence and emotional throughline. Several of them didn't fit anywhere, and that too was quickly apparent. And some others were created in revision to bridge gaps. 

I'm pretty happy with the end result, but kind of sad that I had to stop. I didn't touch at all on all the plagiarism (unintentionial and the other kind) I encountered, or the challenge of teaching non-native English speakers something I barely understood myself. At some point down the road, once I have some distance, I'll probably revisit this piece and expand it, maybe even submit it somewhere. 

Anyway, give it a read and tell me what you think!


How to be a professional writer

Awesome post from Chuck Wendig about how to make a living being a writer:

And so, I figure, it’s time for some general tips on not just being a writer but, rather, being a professional writer. Further, being a professional writer who can do more than just buy an annual steak dinner with your earnings.

Here we go.

Speed: Learn to write with some zip in your fingers. A thousand words per hour is a good base level and not at all difficult to achieve.


Time: Learning to write well and with some speed means this takes time. Do not expect to be one of those “overnight successes,” a creature as rare as a Bigfoot riding a unicorn on a saddle made of leprechaun leather. A writer’s so-called “overnight success” is just the tip of the iceberg exposed, while the rest of the writer’s time and effort and narrative R&D exist in a massive glacial mountain beneath the darkened waters. Just because the writer appeared on the world’s radar doesn’t mean that poor fucker hasn’t been working his fingers bloody for quite some time.

No, Really, I Mean It: This can be a slow process. It was about a ten year journey to go from “freshly-minted, ruddy-cheeked penmonkey” to “battle-hardened full-timer with stories wound into his bloody beard-tangle.” Be ready to invest the time and effort.

Read the rest here!

Much of this advice is reassuringly similar to Dean Wesley Smith's, right down to the writing speed of 1,000 words per hour. (Though the advice later in the post about self-publishing is wildly different.)

No one in any of my dozens of writing workshops has ever suggested that I try writing quickly, but man oh man has it solved a lot of my problems re: being a procrastinating perfectionist. 


Writer's block, according to John August

From John August, screenwriter (Big Fish, Corpse Bride, Go):

“Writer’s block” is an overused term. When a writer claims to be suffering from it, he is usually wrestling with some combination of three common problems: procrastination, perfectionism, and fear. “Writer’s block” is a romanticized catch-all that distracts from these real issues.

Screenwriters can use a range [of] techniques to get over the hump, from setting a kitchen timer, to breaking work down into manageable chunks, to writing in an order that makes sense for the way you work.

The rest is here, along with an episode of John August and Craig Mazin's Scriptnotes podcast.

I think this is probably true—I've suffered from all three of these problems for as long as I can remember. In my case, the perfectionism (and fear that whatever I create will not meet these impossible standards) leads to procrastination, which later becomes either a last-minute rush job that actually turns out okay (but burns me out) or abandonment. 

If only I could have overcome this during my college years instead of continuing to rely on deadlines (self imposed now, and not nearly as scary) to motivate me. But I am trying not to be too hard on myself. August's suggestions here are good, and I'm looking forward to listening to the podcast to see if he has any others. 


Reflections on Week Three

[Read the finished story here!]

I talked a little bit in a previous post about why this week's challenge took longer than an actual week. Week Two was also a bit of a trial, but I really let Week Three knock me off the rails. My procrastination is the type that comes from perfectionism, which may be the most crippling kind. Throughout school, I'd let my fear of producing something substandard paralyze me until the night before the assignment was due, when finally my options were reduced to "just do the effing thing" or "fail this class." I could never start until those were the stakes. Almost every semester was this way for me, and evidently I'm still doing it.

But it's okay, right? This is why I created this blog: to revisit all of these false starts and, in doing, create an ironclad writing habit that is impervious even to my own crippling thought patterns. There may be bumps like these, but the important thing is not to walk away. I'm going to see this through, for my resolve is fierce. You can feel its ferocity through your screen, can't you? It burns. Yes. Yes...

So anyway, this particular prompt was tough going because I hated the dialogue, I hated characters who would speak this dialogue, and I didn't have anything useful or unique to say about the subject matter. I didn't want to write a judgy story about how someone can use the fact of less-fortunate people to make others feel bad, but meanwhile neither is he or she doing anything to help. I especially didn't want to write something where two people banter back and forth about homeless people and which of them is the more Samaritan-like. 

The best I could come up with, for awhile, was this:

"What? You're afraid of homeless people?"

"No, I just didn't want to disturb him."

That seemed like a considerate, reasonable response to Marcy, but for reasons she didn't understand she was annoyed by her old high school friend. She found herself asking aggressive questions like this all weekend, hoping maybe to find reason for her indignation.

"So what if he had been awake. Would you have sat on that bench then?"

"I don't know. Probably not."

"Why not?"

"I don't sit next to strange men."

Blah, blah, blah. I couldn't get away from the prompt and make it my own, until much later, in the shower probably, I was thinking about a time early in my freshman year at Emerson when an older black woman came up to me and told me she thought she was going to die. Immediately I dismissed writing about this, because no part of me ever wanted to be a writer who wrote the words "black woman." I just felt like you'd immediately get all kinds of ideas about me and my attitude about race and income and who knows what. That I'd have to bend over backwards explaining that it was a detail, not an example of something I think to be a universal truth, and in my explaining all of this I'd unintentionally reveal some ignorance or prejudice I didn't even know was there. Better just to avoid that anecdote altogether, I thought.

That got my wheels turning. Which was worse: to write about a strung-out black woman who I tried to help or to never write about anything other than white people because I'm terrified of saying the wrong thing? And this became, in a way, the guiding theme for the story I finally ended up writing, which came to me pretty easily once I started it. I don't know if it's the best thing I've ever written, but I accomplished what I set out to do here, which -- finally -- is perfection enough for me.

Onward to Week Four!