I qualify to write this because I’ve wrestled with writer’s block all my life, long before my first book was published. Yet I have finished innumerable writing projects — reports, articles, blogs, non-fiction — and published them. My 50th novel is hovering in the wings.
When I hit a writer’s block, therefore, you’d expect me to say, “Uh oh, been here before, I know I can beat this.”
And sometimes I do.
But the trouble is the demon block changes shape from book to book. Hell, sometimes it changes from chapter to chapter.
For me, the perfectionist aspect of block is one of the worst. And part of the problem is that a secret, shameful bit of me quite likes the idea of being a perfectionist. It sounds superior. Rigorous, even. It says I’m a Writer With Standards. And I’ll work hard — all night if necessary — to get the job done.
A brilliant (and honest) editor blew that one out of the water. “If you don’t stop tiffling with that damn book,” she said eventually, “I’m going to come round to your house at midnight and remove it. Possibly at gun point.” (I can hear all my writing friends raising a cheer.)
What’s the Answer?
Perfectionism is a lifelong condition for me. I can avoid it only if I write fast and have both a vicious deadline and an editor red in tooth and claw, waiting.
Lacking those, I have found it helps to:
- tell myself it’s a novel, not the cure for global warming. Until I believe it.
- re-engage with the real world. Cat being sick will do it. Hugging a tree is nicer.
… is there is no such thing as a perfect novel. Revising is a trade-off between clarifying, honing and cutting out the boring bits (which every book needs) and vitality.
Beware those people who tell you that your ms should be the best you can possibly make it. By the 40th draft, you may just have polished the life out of it.
Do the spell check, sure.
Make sure your ending relates to your start in a meaningful way.
Don’t tinker with the journey between any more than you feel (NOT think, feel) you have to. Gut trumps head every time.
Forget perfect. Keep the energy flowing.
If it explodes, the readers might just love it.
Sophie the head-hanging Perfectionist
(NB Joanna added that descriptive bit since it’s the nearest she can get to “editor red in tooth & claw” for Book 50)
It would seem that perfectionism is a way to avoid reality, at least by what I understood. If making a thousand changes is a way to avoid doing something with the book then I need to think hard and in fact have been wondering if my fear is taking me there time and time again. I made the changes because of rejection letters but am realising that I may be turning a wolf into a panther instead and I am not sure I need a cat, even such a nice one. I couldn’t resist using your shape-shifter analogy. Interesting blog!
Rejection letters can be helpful, Barb. But they’re not a blueprint. It’s the same with Editorial suggestions. I know when they’re right because they make me want to start writing at once AND they take me back into the story with the next step already forming in my mind. Gut trumping head again, you see!
Oh, don’t hang your head, perfectionism is good in small doses. Thank you for this post, it’s encouraging to read the experience of someone who knows the condition. And I heed your advice about that damn, damn, damn 40th draft.
By the 40th draft, you’re down to the sub-atomic level and have lost all sense of perspective, Beth. Believe me, I know. The only thing to do is send it to an editor. Or walk to Timbuktu and not read it again until you get back.
Would it help you to know that Ben Franklin (U. S. statesman, but well respected in Britain) once said that the perfect book will never be published. I was handed this statement to ponder early in my training as a copy editor. Sure — we need to do our very best, but then we need to cut line and hope for the best.
I always remember the Browning poem Andrea del Sarto. Think he may even have subtitled it ‘called the perfect painter’ – poor chap drew beautifully, but never made his subjects live in the way that Rafael or Michelangelo did. And he knew it.
I think the oyster needs grit. And, as you say, there’s always the law of diminishing returns. By Beth’s (and my) 40th draft you’d need a microscope to see any improvement.
Doesn’t stop me getting into mega tiffle mode, when the fit is on me, though.
I so understand the story about Oscar Wilde looking tired. In the morning, he said, he had taken out a comma. In the afternoon, he put it back.
Timbuktu it is then! (Girds loins)
Having suffered for this through the last year I appreeciate your post, Sophie. I’m going to write a short story next n the hopes that it won’t take fifteen months to finish. 🙂
I so sympathise, Liz. It’s a miserable place to be and hell to haul yourself out of. Never seems to get any easier, either.
Much look forward to reading your short story. Where will I be able to do that?