I don’t do a lot of advice posts here. I don’t feel qualified. I’m happy to answer questions in private and chat about writing until you want to duct-tape my mouth shut, but for the most part I keep posts to talking about my work, releases, and whatever else is going on in my life.
Today, I’m going to make an exception.
We’re not going to talk about how to write, how to outline, how to create characters, or how to find an editor. Today is just going to be me sharing one big regret from my life as a writer in the hopes I can encourage someone else to not make the same mistake. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I think it might help someone out there, so here goes.
I wish I’d had the courage to write shitty books.
Does that sound strange? Let me explain.
I’m a perfectionist*. As we’ve discussed before, this doesn’t mean I’m a type-A personality who’s driven to do my best at everything. That wouldn’t be so bad. No, my perfectionism means that I expect myself to be good at everything from the get-go, without practice. Know what that leads to?
A whole lot of quitting. I’ve been like this since I was a little kid. I quit ballet, figure skating, t-ball, and guitar lessons. I wasn’t good at them right away, I had no concept of how to enjoy the experience of being challenged, I didn’t like feeling like a failure, so I gave up.
This is a horrible way to think. It’s stagnant. It relies on natural talent and coasting, and it rejects things like critique and learning from mistakes because it doesn’t want to believe anything needs to improve. Failure is terrifying, and to be avoided at all costs. Failure means you’re NOT GOOD ENOUGH, and to try means to risk finding out you’re an imposter.
I’m not proud of it, but it’s the mindset I seem to have been born with, and one I’m still learning to fight.
So that brings us to writing. I’ve always enjoyed writing, ever since I penned fanfic-ish (okay, direct rip-off) versions of my favourite stories in first grade. It was fun. I had a great imagination.
But I wanted everything to be perfect on the first draft. If I needed to work at it, that meant it wasn’t good enough, and therefore I shouldn’t bother. Criticism and suggestions for improvement made me defensive, and instead of trying to improve my work, I trashed it. Oh, and I expected my work as a first-grader to be as good as a published adult author’s.
Fast-forward to my twenties. I wanted to get back into writing. I started with short stories that I showed to very few people because I suspected they’d tell me they weren’t as good as they could be, and my ego couldn’t handle that. I believed that I had natural talent. That’s fine. Faith in oneself is essential. But I wanted that to be enough. I expected the first book I wrote to be a masterpiece, ready to have publishers swooning all over it, ready to catapult me to fame and fortune.
And I thought anything else was a waste of time.
So in between battles with depression, exhaustion from my day job, and later dealing with more depression (and babies/toddlers/small children), I started a few books.
I never finished them.
Why? Two reasons. First, they started to look like they wouldn’t be great, so I gave up. Second, I had this weird belief that I was somehow wasting ideas if I wrote them before I was good enough for them.
As though I couldn’t scrap them and re-write.
As though I couldn’t revise.
As though writing a not-quite-there-yet book and putting it under my bed to collect dust was shameful, because I wasn’t good enough.
I hated the thought of spending years working on something that wouldn’t be the Best Thing Ever. It seemed like a waste of time. I saw no reward in effort, in climbing a learning curve that exists for everyone but that I thought I should be somehow above.
Feel free to laugh. Really. I wish I could, but all I can do is wish for a time machine so I could slap some sense into to that younger me.
This is probably the worst attitude one can bring to writing: That we are above average, gifted, superior, and above criticism. It’s shooting yourself in the foot before you begin the race, then insisting you don’t need assistance. It’s a sure way to make sure you never make progress in anything.
The funny thing is, writing books that would never have seen the light of day would have been the opposite of a waste of time. Yes, it might have felt that way back then. We all want to believe that every bright, shiny idea that passes through our brains is a gift from the muses, that we are special snowflakes who will just drift to brilliance and fame because we deserve it.
But the fact is that you have to work for it. Years of writing (and finishing) bad books would have helped me write good books sooner. Maybe having a few full novels shoved under my bed would have prepared me to get Bound ready for publication in less than the 3.5 years of revisions it needed. Maybe I’d be cranking books out faster now because I’d know more about my process and how to make things work.
I wasted so much time giving up because first drafts weren’t perfect and because (surprise, surprise) writing is FRIGGING HARD. Yeah. It really is, and not all effort is rewarded equally–or financially. But if you push through, if you finish a bad book or two, you will learn so much more about the craft and about yourself as a storyteller than years of stalling and waiting can ever teach you.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I do not wish I had published a few bad books. I’m actually glad self-publishing wasn’t so promising and cheap back when I was first thinking about writing, because I know the temptation would have been there to publish books that weren’t remotely ready. Back then I was scared to let people see my work, but probably would have published anyway on the strength of my arrogance, and the reviews would have killed me. I don’t think throwing everything we write out there, letting the chips fall where they may, and revising stuff later is a good career strategy or respectful to readers (I know, some disagree with me). There are enough bad books out there, and I’m glad I was forced to wait until I had something of good quality to offer.
But I wish I had those bad books stashed in a drawer. I’m sure I’d be completely embarrassed by them, but I like to think that I’d also be thankful to past me for putting the work in, learning to fail, and letting go of perfection for long enough to actually move toward improvement.
So here’s your advice, friends. If you want to write, WRITE. Don’t wait for your abilities to magically develop to match the potential of this glorious story idea you have (trust me, you’ll have a better one soon enough, and you can always re-write it later). Put in the work writing complete and utter shit. Don’t feel like you ever have to publish it, but finish it and be open to having it critiqued. Be willing to accept the idea that you’re not a gifted genius, and that maybe you have a lot to learn. You can learn. You will learn. But hiding behind “I’m not going to bother if it’s not going to be perfect” will never get you there. Don’t write shit on purpose. Bring your A-game. Just don’t be scared of it not being amazing on the first try.
And then move on the the next thing. I’ve found that finishing each book has caused bigger shifts in my abilities as a writer than anything else, as each new book allows me to apply what I’m learning to a fresh story. I wish I’d finished more, sooner. But you can’t change the past, so what I’m doing now is trying to be open to trying new things, challenging myself, and maybe screwing up along the way.
Happy writing, friends.
*Cool footnote: After I drafted this post last week, I started reading a book called Mindset (Carol Dweck, Ph.D.). Guys, it is talking about me. The fixed mindset is everything I’ve been blabbing about and fighting against for the past few years. I’ll let you guys know how the book is once I’ve finished, but I’m pretty excited. And freaked out. Has she been stalking me? O.o