Monday, June 7, 2010

The Curse of a Perfectionist

The other day I was reading “Song of the Daystar” to my dad (who is not really a reader to begin with) and asked him what he thought of the story. His words to me:

“Well, it seemed a bit flowery; I couldn’t get into the story.”

"Flowery?!" I thought, "After all I've done to make it perfect, now it's too flowery?  I thought it was done!"  :(

Now, granted, my dad is not a reader: “NOT” in all capital letters unless, maybe, it happens to be the Bible. And he’s certainly not a fantasy reader: Heaven forbid he pick up even the “Chronicles of Narnia”, let alone ”LOTR” or “Through the Looking Glass”.


It raised the question in me about whether or not I really was making my prose sound too flowery. Was I getting right to the point? Or was I taking too much time trying to describe everything, just sort of dancing around on point-shoes like a magical pixie to make everything seem wonderful?

Well, knowing my dad, if it doesn’t say something out right then it’s just a nuisance. I love him, but that’s just how he is. He likes the idea of second, hidden meanings, but he would much rather get right down to solving those second, hidden meanings than get all the clues first. He’s an artist, but in my opinion he’s more “straight forward” than I am.

Does this mean my writing is not good enough? Could this mean I have to go back and rewrite?

Well, no. No, it doesn’t. I do have to go through it and edit, check for grammatical errors and spelling typos, but I don’t have to rewrite.

Some of you may be asking, “Then why on earth are you posting on this subject?” But my reasoning is simple. Many writers take any advice given by any random person and immediately apply it to their work. These are the ones who want to please everybody.

I am one of these.

I’m probably at the top of the list.

You see, writers are automatic perfectionist. In real life it may not seem like it: we may leave clothes on the floor, not comb our hair a certain way, leave stacks of books lying around, or not care all that much whether everything is organized on our desk or not. But set us down at a keyboard and we immediately start criticizing ourselves. We don’t want to let our stories go until they are everything they have the potential to be. They must be perfect.

“Perfect!” we scream. And we type, and the keyboard starts to smoke, and eventually the smoke detectors go off, and then at last we have to get up to turn off the screaming buzzing noise that is wracking our concentration. But then we are back at the keyboard, changing things, rewriting, debating with ourselves, trying to make everything “perfect”.

The sad truth is, no matter how hard we work on it, it will never be perfect. It will never be finished. And perhaps, the most gulling fact of all, we will never be able to please everybody.


Once, while reading an interview with one of my favorite authors, I read this quote: “My book will never be finished until my publisher pries it from my fingers, and even then I’ll keep working on it”.

Unfortunately, it’s a truth. I will probably do the same thing. Writers seem to have this need to please everybody, to make everybody happy, and prove to themselves that they are not the computer loving weirdoes that many people think they are.

But we are. Oh we are! And the only way we’ll be able to ever be satisfied with our writings is to come to grips with the facts that we can’t make what we write please everyone.

I seriously thought about what my dad told me. He was only trying to help me, I know. He didn’t mean for his words to sting (even though they did.) I thought about what he said. I considered it. I went back and read over the manuscript.

But you know what I found out?

I liked the manuscript the way it was. I ran it through several critique groups and they enjoyed it as well. I let random people read the prologue and first chapter (which was all I read to my dad). The random people seemed pleased. A few of them made suggestions which I took into consideration. But I don’t need to change the entire book just to please my dad, who doesn’t like reading that sort of stuff in the first place, let alone the fact that his daughter writes it.

Yes, I am a perfectionist. I want my book to be perfect. But I can come to grips with the fact that it won’t be. As long as I’m happy with it and know that I have taken it as far as I can, someday I know that it will sit on a book shelf and people will pick it up and read it: the people who do like what I write. It doesn’t have to be perfect for everyone.

Well, at least I’m still trying to convince myself of that.


Eldra said...

I totally understand what you're saying. I'm a perfectionist as well and I can hardly even move onto the next sentence unless the one before it is perfect. That's probably one of the most annoying things about writing, but it's also wonderful. Imagine what our writing would sound like if we never changed it once after we put it down!

Celebrilomiel said...

Great post, Nichole. =) I liked what you said about filtering critiques and getting lots of opinions.

Galadriel said...

I am not quite a perfectionist, but I know what you mean.

Brad said...

You're right.
Several people offer me advice on my writings, some of which gets incorporated, some of which doesn't.
A huge factor in who gets listened to is whether or not that person falls into the target audience of the writing.
For an extreme example (not that anything like this would ever happen):
If Stephanie Meyer were to ask me for advice about "Twilight", she should take whatever I say with a boulder of salt because
A. I don't like Twilight, and
B. I'm not its target audience.
Ultimately, I'm my own target audience; I write for me, with the hope that others will like the stories that I enjoy telling myself.

Jake said...

Ah, I too, am a perfectionist. I have to have my manuscript PERFECT before I even show it to my father. lol.

Even in the rough draft, I resist the urge to think through every sentence before I write it. I try to convince myself to ignore it, I'll get to the problems in the rewriting. And I think I manage to do it... most of the time.

And I don't think it's too flowery. If THAT'S too flowery, then I wonder what your father would have to say about the Inheritance Cycle. :D Now THAT'S very 'flowery', not that I think so. But compared to your manuscript, it's flowery. :)

Brandi G. said...

So true.

Eventually we all have to just let our manuscripts go, hoping that we finally have reached that point where it's as good as it's going to get. Still, even after I've queried for a story, I realize there's something that I should change. It drives me crazy.

The Writer's Curse: Perfectionism in all words intangible. :)

Jaleh D said...

I doubt my dad would be interested in most of my work. I'm not sure I will ever even show him any of it before it appears on the shelf. You are a brave woman.

You are also very wise to know that you have to consider any advice through the filter of the reader's mindset. For instance anyone showing me a vampire story is going to know from the beginning that I am not a vampire fan. If I don't like it but can't find anything majorly wrong, it's probably okay. Though if you manage to captivate someone outside your target group, you'll probably be giddy with excitement. ;D

Star-Dreamer said...

Jake: LOL! Yeah, I have the horrible problem of wanting to overthink each sentence as well. I just picked up Chris Batty's "No Plot, No Problem" at B&B, though, and it's helped encourage me to continue working on one of my roughdrafts without over thinking it. And I'm glad you like what you've read of Song of the Daystar.

Brandi: I'm the same way. I've sent SOTD to several agents already, but now I'm going through it again. I justify it by saying I'm just polishing it a little bit more, but then I start to wonder if I really am... *shifty eyes* :)

Colleen said...

I don't know if it's so much about taking other people's suggestions (though that CAN set me off) as it is my own brain going back and rereading. Because many people have told me things I wrote in the past were awesome, but when I went back and reread them, I went, "NOT AWESOME ENOUGH."

But still. I am also a perfectionist when it comes to my writing. Obviously. :D

Star-Dreamer said...

Colleen! *tackle hugs*

Heh, I know exactly what you mean. That's my biggest problem. But I don't think you have to worry too much about that... I've read your stuff, and you know I wish I could hijack some of your ideas and make them mine. The problem is, even if I tried (which I haven't... yet *evil laugh*) your characters would most likely refuse to cooperate with me. *le-sigh* In fact, if I know anything, they would probably take my keyboard and beat me over the head with it!

So I won't hijack your stories after all... as long as I can read them, I'll be happy. :)

Jake said...

Ah, yes. I've been editing my first novel for months and months now, nearly a year, and yet I still haven't shown it to my father, much less sent it off somewhere. :P

The plot was very unoriginal when I started it, so I've been doing a huge amount of plot revision. :P

But whenever you say, "Sorry, it's still a bit rough," when you post an excerpt, it makes me wonder what you'd call my novel. XD Compared to yours, it's primitive.

Star-Dreamer said...

Jake: lol! Yeah, but you haven't seen my rough-est stuff yet. I'm forcing myself not to think too much about writing while I'm working out this rough draft... I'm finding that just trying NOT to think too much about it is starting to wear me out. I'm running out of ideas. Last night I only managed 1785 words, when normally I'm ok with typing 2500 in one sitting without any trouble (if I have the time to write that much in one sitting, that is... I usually don't.)

Besides, I'm sure your stuff is good. I haven't read very much of it yet, though. I tell myself that my goal is not to make the New York Times bestseller list (though it would be amazing if I did); my goal is to write the stories that I feel I must tell, and to eventually (when God decides) to become a published author. After that, all I can hope is that readers will enjoy the stories enough to keep coming back... because I will be writing until the day I die which is hopefully years and years and years away. :)