Tag Archives: perfectionism

Writing Regrets: The Fear of Failure

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.

Ready?

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.

*shudder*

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.

*cough*

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

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Writing Process Blog Hop: Evolution

I was tagged by the lovely, talented, blogtastic Melissa Janda (hello!) to participate in the writing process blog hop, where we write a post about our own process, then tag three other writers to participate. I admit, I have declined this one in the past because I worried I wouldn’t find anyone to tag who hadn’t done it yet. Thanks to a group I’m in on Facebook, I’ve met some more authors, and here we are.

YAY!

Interesting note: I picked my topic before I read Melissa’s. I pretty well could have copied and pasted hers for mine… but I won’t. 🙂

 

 MY WRITING PROCESS

I wonder whether I’ll ever get to a place where my process is stable, just a regular thing that happens. So far, it’s been all over the place.

There was the ideas-and-that’s-all phase, when I knew I had just the BEST ideas for books that would totally be best-sellers if only I could find the time to write them. I could daydream with the best of them, playing stories through my mind like movies. I thought I had writing talent (people had said so, hadn’t they?), but with depression and a job and a sleep disorder and… well, I never did it.

That was not a good phase. Sure, the imagination exercise was important, but I wish someone had told me that ideas are a dime a dozen, as common as cliches. It’s what you do with them that matters. And “talent” means absolutely nothing without hard work. I’d say the work is more important. Talent is highly overrated, and none of us are as talented as we think we are.

I kind of want to slap past me sometimes.

Then came the trying-to-get-it-right phase, in which I tried to write stories, but my perfectionism pulled up a chair beside me for every session and whispered horrible things to me. You can read more about that here. Essentially what was happening is that she (don’t ask why my perfectionism is a she) had me convinced that I had to get it right on the first try, or I wasn’t a good writer. There was no room for revision. The thought of someone critiquing my work horrified me. No, it had to be perfect before I showed it to anyone.

Maybe it’s obvious to you what happened, but I’ll say it anyway. I wrote first chapters. I wrote a few short stories. And I gave up when they weren’t perfect. I re-wrote those first chapters until I got sick of the stories or lost hope of ever finishing them. I tossed short stories in a drawer, never to be seen again.

Learning experiences, right?

Then came the children, and more (and worse) depression, and exhaustion like I’d never known before, and the writing stopped. I didn’t write anything for about three years save for fat journals that I’m a little scared to read over now.

Next stage: Salvation.

That might be putting it just a little dramatically, but that’s what it felt like at the time, and still does. I learned that the only way I can finish a book is to just write the damned thing without editing as I go, without second-guessing myself. Momentum is the key, and thanks to NaNoWriMo, I finished writing a novel draft in… seven months.

Okay, it’s not exactly the “novel in a month” that we’re supposed to be aiming for, but I had found a method that worked. I mean, the first draft was shit, but it was something I could work with. I learned that you can’t revise what you haven’t written, and until the story is laid out on paper, I can’t see its flaws.

In the 3.5 years since that first NaNoWriMo, my writing process has evolved in great, confusing leaps. I plan more now, but still need three drafts before I’m comfortable sending a larger, more complex work to readers. Two for a novella, so far. Then more revisions. Then edits.

No, I’m not of the “just throw it out there and see if it sticks, and do better with the next book” school of thought. Only my best work makes it out there, and that’s something that’s not likely to change. So though I’ve learned to tell Perfectionism to shut up during early drafts, she still has work to do around the office.

THE BIG BUMP

A few weeks ago, my process got jostled just a little with the launch of Bound.

I told myself that releasing a book was not a big deal. Well, it was to me, and to my friends and family, and you lovely people who have been waiting for it. But I thought we’d party and go home, and things would be quiet, and I’d get right back to work on the second book. I didn’t have big plans for promotions, didn’t want to pimp this book until I had more to offer.

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Yeah, I got thrown off.

Things went a little better than I’d expected, and I found myself compulsively checking sales and Amazon rankings. I hid under the bed in fear instead of retreating to my editing cave like I should have.

BUT. I do have a deadline now, and I need to get back to work. For anyone interested, here’s what the process for my current WIP looks like:

  • Draft one: November and December 2012 (80K words, just getting the story out)
  • Draft two: November 2013 (find flaws, improve the story)
  • Draft three: July and August 2014 (approximately 105K words. Kick the story up SO MANY NOTCHES*. Rewrite/revise each character’s POV scenes separately to maintain flow and voice. Aren’s up next… Eek!)
  • To readers September 2014
  • Revisions October/November 2014
  • To Editor end of November
  • Edits: January
  • Proofing: Early February

After that, it’s publishing mechanics (formatting, cover art, etc). This is an ideal timeline, of course, and I’m sure something will come up to thwart my best-laid plans. But that’s what the process looks like for me right now.

So there you go. That was… lengthy. But maybe you found something that will inspire or encourage you.

LINKAGE

So now I have the pleasure of introducing you to the three writers I’m tagging for this blog hop. I met these fine humans through the Indie Author Group on Facebook (which is a fabulous resource, and blessedly promo-free). Stop by their blogs, say hello, make a new friend! They’ll be posting their writing process stuff on the 21st, but they all have blogs that are up and running right now.

Sabrina Giles is a Paranormal Romance author (expanding into other genres with her works in progress) who blogs at sabrinagiles.wordpress.com. Her novel Ensuing Darkness is available now at Amazon and Smashwords.

Mariella Hunt blogs at Baiting the Muse Trap (mariellahunt.com). She will be publishing her YA Urban Fantasy novel Dissonance and a collection of short stories this year.

Sabrina McClure is a new, indie author who writes paranormal & mystery novels. She blogs at authorsabrinamcclure.wordpress.com. Her debut novel Hades Sent is available now.

 

 

*This is why I don’t release early drafts. Even if they’re “good enough,” I know that they could by so much better.


Back to the Drawing Board?

Not quite. But I’m doing something I said I was done with.

Revisions on Bound.

Not editing. Not perking up scenes that aren’t quite there yet. I mean actually ignoring everything that’s already there, going back to square one and figuring out the best way to tell this story, and THEN seeing whether anything can be salvaged from the original.

This is terrifying. I thought I was done with that. I thought I had my story, that it was just clean-up from this point on. After all, people have liked it, right? Some have even loved it. So it’s good enough.

The thing is, good enough isn’t good enough. I can do better. No matter how it hurts, I’m going to make this thing the best it can be. If that means “killing my darlings,” ripping out scenes that I’ve spent so much time and effort on but that don’t contribute to the best work I can do, then so be it. If it means that I don’t feel ready for this thing to see the light of day for another 6 months… well, that will hurt a lot, too. But I’m not doing this to get published (even though, hello, that’s a huge dream of mine). I’m doing it to tell a story, and what’s the point of putting it out there if it’s only good enough?

It can be tighter. It can be sharper. The stakes can be higher. Everything can mean more to my characters, and therefore to my readers.

I’ve complained before about my perfectionist tendencies, but I think that right now my old frenemy Perfectionism is doing me a favour. As long as she’s not making me feel terrible for not getting it “right” the first time (which she totally will, but I’m used to that), she might actually help me do something better. If she’s telling me that I can do more, that to not at least try would be settling for less than what I can achieve, I can accept that. I still want to punch her in her smug, stupid face, but for once, I don’t think she’s wrong.

Am I rambling yet? Because I just decided this, and I’m still a bit freaked out.

So here’s what I’m going to do, for those of you who are interested in that sort of thing: I know my story inside and out (and inside-out, for that matter). I know my characters better than I know most of my friends. I’m going to print out the full current manuscript and lock it away for a while, and I’m going to start over. I’m going to find a stronger starting point, I’m going to raise the stakes, I’m going to make things harder on everyone involved. I’m probably going to cut characters. I’m going to keep the story tighter, and I hope get down to the 90,000 word range. When all of that planning is done I’ll see what I can salvage from before, but this isn’t a conservation project. Much as it will hurt to lose the lovely dialogue I worked so hard on, the scenes I’ve set that mean so much to me, it’ll be worth the sacrifice if it makes a stronger story.

It’s all a learning experience, right?

EDIT: I wrote this last Thursday. I’ve thought about it, I’ve planned it out. A lot can change, but I’m actually surprised how much of the original structure really works, with some changes needed to accomplish the aforementioned tightening, sharpening, and general shitting on characters’ heads to make things more interesting. I’m re-doing the first few chapters.

Aren’s my biggest problem, as expected. Asshole.

Still doing a complete rewrite, but I’m really happy to say that the last version really just needs plastic surgery, not a transplant into some kind of android body… or whatever. Science Fiction’s not my thing, I don’t know how that works.


Here’s Why I NaNo

November approacheth.

There was a time when all November meant for me was thinking about Christmas shopping and being jealous of American Thanksgiving- not because ours isn’t amazing, but because we spend it too early and have nothing festive to do in November. November is cold. November is grey. November is frigging depressing.

I wish I could remember when I first came across the term NaNoWriMo. I’m sure it sounded mysterious, and that I had no idea what it meant, but that’s all I remember. That, and looking it up and going “OMG I AM SO DOING THIS.”

You see, National (international, really, but I’m not going to nit-pick) Novel Writing Month was exactly what I needed. The goal is to write 50,000 words of a brand spanking new novel in a month. You can have that be the end, though that would be an extremely short novel, or keep going right off of the end of that diving board into what for me turned into 99,000+ words at last count. They don’t have to be 50,000 GOOD words, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. Some people don’t see the point of writing 50,000 words that are just going to need to be re-written in December. I absolutely agree. I see no point in writing 2,000 word descriptions of what’s in a character’s pockets. But let me tell you why it was and is so important for me.

I think know I’ve mentioned my perfectionistic tendencies before. I’ve wanted to be a writer for a long time–since first grade, actually, when I got a taste of the magic that was in-school publishing. The problem is that perfectionism isn’t a gentle voice whispering in your ear, “you can do better, I know you can! Let’s do this, let’s revise this, let’s make this amazing!”

No, perfectionism is a horrible bitch who sits there filing her nails and laughing at you for trying. She sneers at your efforts and says, “Really? That’s the best you can do? That’s not good enough.” Worse, she adds, “You know, if you can’t do it perfectly the first time, you shouldn’t bother trying. What’s the point?”

This led to a string of abandoned attempts at stories and novels. Even when I liked them, Perfectionism was there laughing at me as she sat there drinking something pink that contained enough alcohol to fell a sperm whale, telling me that it didn’t matter. I wasn’t old enough, experienced enough, or GOOD enough for my work to have value.  A smarter person might have realized that you can’t just wait to be good enough, you have to work for it. I, however, decided that my work was worthless because it wasn’t brilliant or awe-inspiring, and I gave up. I never got more than two chapters into a novel before it got tossed for not being good enough, or before my internal editor (not the mortal enemy that Perfectionism is, but she gets in the way a lot) started suggesting that we make some changes before we moved on. And then a few more. Between Perfectionism on one shoulder and The Editor on the other, I was completely stuck.

And then came NaNoWriMo, which gave me permission to tell those two broads to shove off for exactly 30 days.

The goal of NaNowriMo, as I’ve said, is not perfection, so Perfectionism wasn’t allowed to say anything about it.  The goal was (and is)  to get the damned story out where I could see it. I could promise my internal editor that at the end of the month she could lose her sh*t on 50,000 words and revise to her heart’s content. It wasn’t a no, just a not now. She agreed (if somewhat grudgingly)  to bugger off for 30 days. I still don’t know where she went. I know she came back to check up on me a few times, but for most of that month she left me alone.

The word count goal was important, too. 50,000 words. 1,667 words a day for 30 days. It’s a big goal, but it’s  a short one. I could give myself permission to do that, or at least to try, and if it wasn’t great or perfect, so what? It was an experiment. An experience. It was fun and crazy, and it was permission to let my imagination go absolutely bonkers without worrying about the end result.

And what was that end result? If I recall correctly, it was 55,000 words, which I lost about a month later in a software-related accident that I’d rather not discuss. But here’s the beauty part: it didn’t matter. Well, it mattered at the time, when I was screaming and cursing and crying, but I’d learned something that helped me move on.

I’d learned that I could do it.

I had the story in my head, and I’d written a good chunk of it once. There was nothing that was going to stop me from doing it again, and it was better the second time. My subconscious chewed at that plot for months, frequently checking in with the conscious mind for opinions, but mainly just churning away at night, when I was out walking, when I was on long drives. My characters fleshed themselves out in my mind, and there were some massive shifts in every aspect of that story. The words flowed more easily the second time, and I got another 20,000 or so words down before Camp NaNo opened in August. And then I gave myself permission to get another 50,000 out that month.  And then I finished the story.

And oh my stars,  that feeling I got when it was DONE.

Of course, it wasn’t done. It was far from done.  I still had to put it aside and let it breathe for about 6 weeks, then let my internal editor have a crack at it (and boy, was she PISSED about how long it had taken). And then… well, all of the ripping apart, the revising, the things that were cut and the parts that were grafted in to make a monster that then needed serious plastic surgery from Ms Editor… that’s another story that you probably have no interest in hearing. But that’s how it goes, and that’s part of the fun. Part of the magic.

NaNoWriMo taught me that you can’t edit what’s not there, that it’s OK to make mistakes, and that I could give myself permission to just write for the joy of it, not because I had to produce perfection. I will never produce perfection. But I made a world, a story, and characters that I’m proud to say are mine.

In two years I’ve gone from someone who could barely write a page without despairing over its deficiencies to someone who wrote a damned novel. Not a published novel; maybe not a great novel. But there’s value in the doing of the thing, in the process of creating and imagining and solving the problems that become visible after every read-through.

So here I go again. I’m letting a few people read the first book (they won’t all finish it, but that’s OK), and I’m ready to continue the story. I will give myself permission to take the time I need to get 2,000+ words out every day, knowing that at the end of the month I’ll be on my way to… more revisions. Yaaay.

BONUS FEATURES (NaNo’s, not mine)

The 50,000 words of not-perfection isn’t all of it. I just didn’t want to drag this thing on for too long. If you’re interested in giving it a shot, there’s also the forums to consider, where thousands of people from all over the world meet to talk about their books, to share their triumphs and commiserate over the hard times. There are places on the forums to find help when you’re stuck, to ask what the airspeed of an unladen European swallow is, or to find a name for that character who just won’t tell you. If you want to find other people who are writing erotic zombie literary fiction kind of like you are,  or just to kill some time between bursts of brilliance (or not), the forums are your place. There are people there who want to be your writing buddies, who will give you a good swift kick in the pants when you need it. There are the winner’s goodies: a nifty printable certificate and discounts from various sponsors.  And there are the pep talks from authors. I still have the one from Lemony Snickett saved in my e-mail because I loved it so much.

And did I mention it’s free?

For someone else’s reasons why you might want to try it (ie- not my reasons for thinking it’s super duper), here’s a blog post that’s not mine. You’re welcome.


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