Friday, October 4, 2013

Perfectionism in Writing

In my last blog post, I wrote about my youngest son, the rocker, and what I learned from his experiences.  This time I want to write about what I learned from my middle son, The Perfectionist.
My middle son is a scholar.  He’s been a fifty year old man in a little body since the day he was born.  He is also one of the kindest people I have ever had the pleasure to meet. But he is a Perfectionist (with a capital “P”).  He is careful.  He is thoughtful.  He weighs his options.  He thinks before he acts.

Being too much of a perfectionist can be deadly to a writer.  It could make you write and rewrite the first paragraph of your book so many times that you never move beyond it.  It can stifle and stagnate your writing, but a little perfectionism is a good thing. 
Here are the lessons I learned from my son, The Perfectionist:

1.       Planning is important.

Before my son writes anything for school, he spends a lot of time thinking about it and planning it out.  He told me once that he has the essay written in his head before he puts a word on paper. 

I do this as well, to a certain extent.  I have my books mapped out in my mind before I begin to write, but I leave some room for surprises.  Once, one of my characters died, and I didn’t even realize it was going to happen until I was typing the words.  It was unexpected, but it was what needed to happen in my story.  If you leave no room for these beautiful little twists and turns, your writing might be flat, but if you don’t plan things out, it could be even worse. 

I imagine my story outline to be like the skeletal structure in a body.  It is the base, the strong center that holds everything together, but it can move and bend and reach.  If you had no skeletal structure, you would be a lump of flesh.  If your story has no structure, it is like a lump of something else.

2.       The devil is in the details.

My son is detail oriented.  He notices things that other people might miss, and details are important to him. 

I’ve always been a big picture kind of gal, but I’ve learned from my son that it is the details, and consistency within the details, that are important.  The details are the paint of your writing, what brings out the color and depth and interest in your characters and your setting.  Too much detail can make a perfectly good manuscript into something unreadable.  Too little can make it read more like a synopsis than a book.  Find the right balance where you are painting your story, but not turning it into a muddle of TMI (Too Much Info).

3.       Hard work is the only way to get it done.

 My son doesn’t take shortcuts.  He works and works and works, and then he’ll work some more.  He wants everything to be, if not perfect, than as close to perfect as he can make it.

His work ethic inspires me.  Sometimes I look for reasons not to write.  There are moments when even doing the laundry sounds like more fun than facing my book.  But I know the only way I will finish it is if I work, and the only way I’ll improve as a writer is by writing.  Sometimes, when the couch is calling my name for a nap I don’t really deserve, I think about my son, grab and espresso and get back to work.

4.       Being a little Vulcan is a good thing.

My Perfectionist is able to separate his heart from his head.  He can look at things, including his own work, subjectively and not emotionally.

This is something I’m working on as a writer.  Every once in a while, I catch something that I wrote that is purely there for decoration.  It serves no purpose, other than the fact that I like it and probably think it is funny. 

Sometimes I wish I had my son’s logical Vulcan brain.  It can be very hard to separate what is there only because I love it and what is there because it is important to the story.  I’m getting better, but I’m still guilty of it sometimes. The needs of the plot line needs to outweigh the needs of the writer. 

5.      Perfectionism doesn’t have to be boring.

My son waves his nerd flag proudly, and with great panache.  He collects funny t-shirts.  He is the school mascot.  He has the most comical role in the school play almost every year.  He carries his perfectionism into these activities, and uses it to improve them.

There are things about perfectionism that will come in very handy for you as a writer, and aren’t boring at all.  Perfectionists make sure their work is finished and polished before they send it out.  They care about spelling and grammar.  They adhere to deadlines.  They check and double check the rules and submission requirements.  They are an agent’s (and an editor’s) dream come true. 

At times it is hard for a true perfectionist like my son to really enjoy the writing process.  I understand this completely.  Math is logical.  It makes sense.  It is clearly either right or wrong.  Writing is not like that at all.  No matter how many times you read and polish a manuscript, you’ll still find things you might want to change.  It can feel like a never ending process, and there is no right or wrong answer.  And as far as submitting your work is concerned, it is strictly the opinion of the person reading it – whether it is good or bad, whether it sells or doesn’t.  There is no formula of success for writing, and don’t let anyone tell you any differently.  You can work very hard and write and excellent book, but there are no guarantees.  It is often very random, and completely left to chance. 

Perfectionism, like dark chocolate and fine wine, is good in small doses, but too much is a very bad thing.  I think I’ll have a bit of dark chocolate right now, and then get back to work on my manuscript.




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