To be honest, I have no right to presume this is some kind of universal truth which applies, without exception, to every wordsmith out there. I have no right to presume it applies to a noticeable majority or really, in fact, to anyone other than me. However, I thought I’d share it because I’ve noticed a tendency in a lot of young (in terms of experience rather than age) writers I’ve talked to towards perfectionism (and yes, Mister Drood, I am looking particularly at you). Everything has to be perfect, or as close as possible. A project–story, novel, novella, whatever it may be–has to be right. Well, my secret is this: Everything you produce should be the best possible thing you can produce at the time, but that doesn’t mean everything you produce has to be great, or even good.
Let me see if I can illustrate what I mean. As I’ve mentioned before, I keep a notebook. I use it to jot down, organise, develop, play-test, prod, poke and otherwise abuse ideas. I use it to make notes when I’m researching, I use it to doodle when I’m frustrated or stuck, I use it to write to-do lists. There comes a point where an idea needs to be written down in it. Sometimes it’s just a line, sometimes it’s an almost formed narrative complete with characters, dialogue, scenes that need to be included and the particular feel I want a story to have. This is the ‘empting the jigsaw pieces onto the living room carpet’ stage and sometimes I have a pretty good idea of what the final picture will look like, and sometimes I just have a particularly shiny piece that I don’t want to lose.
When something’s in the book, it gets developed and pieced together. Seeing it all in an articulated, tangible form lets me manipulate the ideas, see holes and see connections.
At some point, I realise it’s ready to start writing. It’s a feeling, the sense of something filling the space that’s been allotted to it.
The writing itself goes through several, similar stages. The first draft is my draft, with all the odds and sods, oddities and rarities, sharp edges and gaping holes that happen when you’re flying blind. The second draft plugs the holes and smooths out the edges, and the third draft is refining and sanding and polishing. It often takes more than three drafts to get there, but those are the basics. The third draft then gets sent to slush piles or kindly readers, and amended and altered on the basis of any feedback.
So, when something starts to get written down, there are two processes each with three stages (Notebook: Initial ideas; development; connections and plugs; Draft: My draft; working draft; refinement). At every stage, I put my all into what I’m doing. Even the thought of doing anything less than that has me with my whip in hand, lashing and shouting obscenities.
However, at any stage I can walk away from a project. In just my latest notebook, I have three stories in the ‘ready to write’ stage that probably won’t get any further (The Middle Finger of God, A Charm of Unknown Origin and A Fistful of Gunthers). At no point in all the time I was thinking about, manipulating, developing, re-arranging, agonizing over, researching, doodling, fantasying about or dreaming of these stories did I think, ‘It’s never going to get written, so what the fuck’.
I have stories that have reached the third draft stage that probably won’t get any further (How to Hold A Butterfly, A Werewolf Named Chakra). I have stories that have been sent out to slush piles that probably won’t go out any more (Men of Straw, The Ash Princess, The Balloon Maker’s Wife). These are all stories that I have loved and put my heart and soul into. These are all stories that, when I finished them, I sat back and thought, ‘yep, this is the one that’s going to make me famous’.
Just as there comes a point where I can ‘feel’ that a story is ready to be written, there comes a point where I can ‘feel’ that a story hasn’t got a spark. It can come at any stage in the process. Unfortunately, there’s no ‘rule’, no limit. For example, Men of Straw was retired after being rejected once. Restless has been rejected over ten times, and I’m still sending it out. Restless has the spark and so it’s simply a matter of refining and finding the right market, but Men of Straw is just… missing something.
You see, the truth is that writing is like any other skill: The most reliable way to get better is to work and work and work and fuck up and fuck up and fuck up and work and work and work. It doesn’t matter whether the idea you’re working on at the moment is going to win a Hugo or even make it into a draft. What matters is that every time you sit down to whatever part of the process, you’re XP is slowly going up, point by point, softly softly catching the monkey. Of course, it’s important to go through every stage of the process. If you want to walk, it’s no good spending a lifetime practising lifting your right foot off the ground and never getting any further. Like walking, writing is a combination of many different individual processes which all add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. Every time you sit down to ‘write’, you’re taking small step after small step up the mountain and maybe you won’t get to the summit on this trip, but you’re still getting there. And then, when you least expect it, you’ll reach the mountain top and level up and sit back and wonder at the marvel you’ve somehow managed to create on the page.
Writing is a way of living. Focusing on a single objective is as daft as focusing on any other single objective in life. Like anything else, once you reach it life goes on. Finished projects are waypoints, not destinations. Tying yourself up in the quest for perfection is like deciding that you’re going to have the ‘perfect’ drive to work in the morning (and, of course, being to scared to set off in case you fail). The only way to get that perfect drive is to keep going in every morning and trying and fucking up and trying one day, if you’re really lucky, you’ll have your perfect drive. But you’ll still have to drive in to work the next day.
Trying and failing is a part of the process, and every step you take counts regardless of what the final product ends up looking like.