Is Perfectionism Killing Your Writing Career?
As y’all know, Spawn is in Kindergarden and now we have this lovely new experience called, “Helping with Homework.” Hubby, God love him, is new at this “being a Dad and helping with homework” stuff and has his own learning curve. He was at the kitchen table helping Spawn write out letters while I did laundry and cooked dinner. After a while, though, I noticed this homework thing was taking a really…I mean really long time.
Finally, I told Hubby I’d take over while he went and got a shower and when I looked at Spawn’s work, I immediately knew what was going so sideways.
Spawn wasn’t (yet) being graded on how well he wrote the letters. He simply had to DO them.
Hubby was trying to be a good dad so he was making Spawn erase “mistakes” and do the letter over. And, YES, the kid had a lot of nice looking Es but it was taking forever.
What Hubby didn’t appreciate being new to this “teaching thing” was that Spawn’s just started learning to write and he is strengthening the fine muscles in his fingers and hands. His writing WILL look that bad for now. It’s no shock to the teacher. And, if his writing doesn’t improve? HA! Doctor!
Anyway, when I took over, Spawn wrote a letter and it was, of course, wonky and too small and off-center, but when he went to erase it, I stopped him and said the words I wish I would have learned MANY years ago:
“Perfect is the enemy of the good. Just keep going.”
Because he left his “mistakes” he then had a way of gauging the letters that followed and as he went, I noticed that his writing got better. Instead of being paralyzed that his writing wasn’t perfect, he was able to move forward. So long as it was legible?
Eh, close enough for government work.
Okay, so all was well and good and then the next day I get an e-mail I’d been waiting for. A year and a half ago, I wrote a mystery novel, but then I got seriously ill with Shingles. Shopping this novel just derailed, but now that I was healthy again? I was ready to get this sucker GONE.
Since we all suck at being honest about our own work, I begged an agent friend of mine to read it and give me a professional opinion. It wasn’t a genre she repped or even especially liked, but she is a rockstar who loves me and I trusted her to deliver the hard truth.
Kristen, don’t quit your day job. Stick to editing.
I sent her my novel about a week and a half earlier and of course had been hovering over my e-mail like a vulture over a baked roadkill.
*hits refresh 920th time*
When I open the e-mail, there is the news I’d been waiting for. My novel was solid and firmly in the submission phase.
Yay, OMG! OMG! Wait….*brakes screech*
Oh crap. I have to write a query letter.
I haven’t had to write a query letter for fiction since the Bush Administration. So there I am, uber-blogger-writing-expert-extraordinaire googling How to Write a Query *hangs head in shame*.
Because self-doubt descended on me like a teenage boy on a pizza. I help with query letters ALL THE TIME. I can write them for other people in about ten minutes. Suddenly, when I had to do it for MY book? It would have been easier to perform brain surgery remotely from space using a Clapper and a vegetable peeler.
Because if I have an opportunity to over think and overcomplicate something simple? SIGN ME UP!
So there I was writing all these idiotic versions of my query.
My writing style can be compared to the works of Janet Evanovich and…
…and the BIBLE because my words were inspired by ANGELS.
Kill. Me. Now.
After the 78th version of this query? I am done. Put a fork in me.
I felt all smart and virtuous telling Spawn to just keep moving, to not get fixated on perfection, but what was I doing?
No agent is asking for a perfect query letter. They want an interesting query letter.
We writers have to be really really careful about worshipping perfection, and I think fiction can be far more vulnerable because it is far more subjective. There comes a time when we simply have to SHIP. Just let it go. Time to move on to something new. We could edit forever. This applies to blogs, books, query letters and eyeliner.
The world does not reward perfect books, it rewards finished books.
Maybe it is time to let go of that first novel you’ve been working on for the last
year three years six years. You know what? Maybe it just sucks and that is okay.
My first novel seriously sucked. Heck, my first novel was being used in Guantanamo Bay to break terrorists until it was banned by the Geneva Convention.
I’ll tell you where the bomb is, just not another chapter of that BOOOOOK!
These days my first novel is in the garage because it pees on the rugs and chews on the furniture.
But remember Spawn and his homework? What was the objective? Finish the letters. It never said to make them super pretty and perfect.
Same with becoming a writer and the first novel.
Very often, our first novel is a learning curve. Just like Spawn is developing his fine writing muscles, we are too 😉 .
The first novel is our first attempt to do something most mere mortals can’t. Can we sit and finish a work spanning 60,000-100,000 words?
Or, in my case? 178,000 words.
Gimme a break! I was NEW! 😛
Yes, I was that writer. The one the agents talk about? It’s me. I am the “Alligator-in-the-Sewer” of the publishing world. I am real. I really queried a 178,000 word novel that was all genres and written for everyone to love and that would make an awesome movie and I already had started the screenplay. Did I mention merchandising?
But what I didn’t understand was that novel wasn’t meant to be queried or even published. It had already served it’s purpose and it took me a long time and way too many fruitless revisions to understand that. One of the best lessons I have learned in my career is to simply let go.
Shop it ship it or kill it but move forward.
Write the first book and move on. Write another and another. Sure, the first one might suck, but each one will suck a little less. We learn by doing. Writers only improve by writing MORE.
Perfect is the enemy of the good.
If we hope to be successful at this writing thing, we must master two diametrically opposite skills—latching on and letting go. We can’t finish if we don’t sink in our claws, but we also can’t finish if we fail to ever let go.
Virtually every long-term successful author didn’t make it with ONE novel. We make a good living at writing by writing MANY novels. But, if we don’t get good at shipping? Odds are we will never be able to write full-time. So breathe and just move forward. It gets easier.
What are your thoughts? Do you find yourself too concerned with being perfect? Do you think you allow perfectionism to feed you procrastination? Are you still trying to “fix” that first novel and haven’t let go? Do you have trouble moving forward?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of SEPTEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.
August’s WINNER is lonestarjake88. Please send your 20 pages (2500 words) to kristen at wana intl dot com in a WORD document. Double-spaced and one-inch margins and CONGRATULATIONS!
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