Last month, we started talking about what I think of as the Traits of the Working Writer. In case you missed that post, here’s a link . To quickly recap, these Traits are what I consider the cornerstones to being a successful writer; probably not absolutely essential… but still really great personality Traits for any writer to have, I think, and ones that you’ll likely acquire at some point on the long, long road to getting published (if you haven’t acquired them already).
Last time, we opened with Reverence for other writers’ work and Respect for your own. And, although I didn’t really focus on it, I think it was clear in that post how these two Traits are at odds. To put it clearly, Reverence and Respect really butt heads during the editing process, when you want to take influence (critiques) from other writers but also want to stay true to your own style.
The head butting intensifies in this post with the Drive to edit your work to perfection … and the Decisiveness that it takes to stop editing your work to death.
The Drive for Perfection…
I have no idea where to even begin with Drive.
To my knowledge… there is no other Trait in a writer that is both necessary for success and completely and totally defeating. As an old friend once told me, “I thought about writing a novel once… But then I never started because I felt foolish.” It was my first day of training at Borders, and the training supervisor at the time shook his head as he said it, looking away. When I asked him what he meant, he said that he just didn’t feel like he’d be able to get it right—that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to tell the story he wanted to.
Now, that’s an extreme example of the negative side of the Drive for perfection; a well spoken, intelligent old man didn’t even want to start writing his novel. But, Drive is a Trait that is always—always—hyper-active in writers and exists in countless forms on every level of the writing process.
… having the one story you’ve been planning for ages. You’ve cycled through several timelines, magic systems, races, and even general plot ideas, all in the name of making it absolutely perfect. Also, you’ve been doing this, and not actually writing the story, for 20 years. Or…
… having the one story you’ve actually written that you’ve since been editing and editing… and maybe rewriting and editing some more because you just know—you just know—that it can still be better.
I can keep going (straight on through Weird Psychoses Town [I personally cannot stop adding / changing monsters in the world of War of Exiles (because there’s always a cooler monster)]), but I think I’ll just stop here. Because, you get the point, of course. But also…
… because the Drive for perfection is definitely not completely bad or else it wouldn’t be on this list of invaluable Traits. It’s really important to acknowledge how far we can let ourselves go with editing and planning but the alternative is just kinda shrugging. Shrugging and looking down at the pizzas stains on your shirt and being all, “Shu’s good enough. Print it. Don care.”
To say it in a better way… as insane as it probably is for me to keep changing monsters (we’re talking full on, vehemently deleting the original version of a monster because the newer monster’s got like, “Ooooh! Like a bunch of eyes!” which I actually said aloud to myself last night, out of the blue), I do it because I honestly think that the new ideas I’m getting are superior and I always—always—want to put superior ideas in my work. So, the writer who’s tweaking that timeline, changing events, is doing it because they know that the new timeline is better—that the new events are more mature or make more sense. The fine editor waits on that manuscript because they know there’s still something that’s off about it.
And, really, that aspiration for high quality is always awesome. Why would it ever be better to just throw in the towel and shove a collection of first ideas at an editor? (“This is the… Adventure of Garry! I dunno… Look… money now?”) Of course, there are people who can very quickly produce fiction without a problem. But, for most of us… ideas seriously aren’t just perfect… immediately—especially not at the start. Seriously, how many of us are big on place-holder names? How many people have just scrawled in an exhausted, “Fart Town” on their map before taking a night or a week or a month to figure out something better? I’d like to think most of us have… not with “Fart Town” exactly, but… you get it.
The Drive for perfection in one’s work is invaluable to a successful writer.
Just like the ability to not take that Drive too far and actually… make decisions.
… and the Decisiveness Necessary to Move on.
There are three things I can immediately say about Decisiveness.
First, Decisiveness is in direct, heated conflict with Drive at all times. I don’t want to go right back into how bad it is to nurse a story to death because we’ve already talked about it. Suffice it to say, Decisiveness is completely reliant on Drive for its description; Decisiveness is anti-Drive—the ability to let go and let a story be and let characters speak and perhaps accept a particular name (or, ya know, monster—whatever) instead of stubbornly searching for a better one despite finding nothing. Essentially, it’s realizing that there is an end to how healthy Drive can be, and it’s right on the corner of Neuroses and Nit-Pick Way. Decisiveness, put most simply, is the ability to decide on elements in your story and stand by them.
Second, it’s incredibly important to foster Decisiveness so that you can be comfortable with moving on to the next step with your projects (whether it’s from planning to writing, writing to sharing, or sharing to submitting) and actually grow as a writer. Because going in too hard with Drive can happen at every turn in the writing process. It can, and often does, play on a sentence level; I know I’m not alone in just hating one sentence and walking away from my work for hours because I just can’t figure it out. I really, really wish I had a statistic for how many times the solution was going back and just deleting that sentence, scene, or chapter altogether and starting fresh. But the point is, there’s always another entity—a third party in the battle between you and the outline or you and the manuscript. And, in my experience, that third entity is always just a point of view. That point of view should be Decisiveness stepping in and being all, “… You sure that ending isn’t okay?” and, most commonly for me, “If you don’t like this scene, delete it all and start again after you decide the optimal angle to take it from.”
Third,… and most dramatic,… at some point, Acceptance may mean that you just have to call it. Literally, at some point, time may completely run out for you and you may just have to face the music and—just—decide. Not because someone’s holding a gun to your head, but because you’re like me and want to be a novelist first and foremost and you know that the Successful Novelist window is one that absolutely closes. Whether for financial reasons or family reasons or what have you, time eventually just runs out or becomes so narrow and cluttered with everything else in life that it’s way, way less possible to get through it. It doesn’t mean you can’t still be published, but putting out a series of books absolutely requires a large portion of time. And, for us, that really, really means actual writing time—actual years spent punching keys and finishing stories (all the more difficult for us Fantasy writers with our 300-900 page manuscripts). Maybe this sounds over-dramatic, but, to be honest, it’s taken me 9 years to finish the one book. I have 11 more planned at this point. That math doesn’t add up to normal human years.
Which means that, for me, the time has come. Decision time.
Finding the Balance
The very best that I can give you when it comes to balancing Drive and Acceptance is a summary of how I decide on things now. Because I have always been crazy about letting ideas mature, but, as I said, I have no time for slow, casual months of idle brainstorming now.
So, for me, there is no more contemplating the pros and cons of a particular name for weeks—no more wondering if maaaaybe I want the one city to look old or swanky. No, it’s down to one shot decision making time based entirely on theme, plot, character, and every other element that makes up a story. It’s down to “What name works with this character’s personality/power/theme?” paired with, “What do I think sounds awesome?” Very often, I find myself looking at something I’m not sure about and bringing Reverence and Respect into it; “Do I not like this because it’s too much like someone else’s work?” or, more often, “Can I live with this being my style, published under my name?”
Whatever decisions are made like this, they’re made in tandem with my editing and are worked in—quickly—where they belong; and, of course, it’s important to note “quickly” because, for me, part of Drive having such a stranglehold on my process was the idea that making whatever finite decisions and subsequent changes would take a ton of work. It doesn’t; the start of my editing session a few days ago was changing the name of one science from Alchemy to Mnemography. Making that change, along with changes for related nouns (“Alchemicals,” “Alchemical Belt,” etc.) took a grand total of two minutes. In total, from realizing “Alchemy” didn’t make sense to deciding that I like “Mnemography” a lot more, I probably spent about ten minutes trying out different names, five minutes looking up “mnemo” to figure out why my brain threw it at me, and twenty minutes shooting an email about it to another writer, during the writing of which I decided I loved it… regardless of asking that other writer for opinions about it (“Which dress do you think I should wear? This one, or thiiiis one?”). Maybe this is cheating, but I also decided all of the related nouns for the science in that email. So, overall, from Drive to Decisiveness and execution, it took about thirty seven minutes. It’s not always this smooth, of course, but the goal is always to have as little time between deliberation and execution as possible.
And on the note of it not always being easy, maybe you noticed that I’m saying all of this after talking about neurotically changing monsters. And, obviously yes, I totally am still Driven to make things perfect, but the key is that I don’t let Drive stop me anymore—I don’t write in a monster that I hate and then get salty about it and ignore my story for a while; I have a full cast of monsters already in the book that I already like, but when an alternative idea for one comes up, I dive in and change it as quickly as I can, or, if the stars align and Escribyr, the Dwarven God of Writing, smiles down on me (up at me?), the monster isn’t actually in my book and I just spend twenty minutes editing one entry in my world glossary file and I’m done.
And I don’t want to keep ranting about this, so, the point is, Drive should never, ever stop a writer, and the way to make sure it doesn’t is to be Decisive.
If you are the kind of writer who second-guesses everything—if you are a slave to Drive like I’ve been—then just know that the decisions you’re considering and the changes you’re putting off making can be done in seconds. Those elements you aren’t sure about that are keeping you from actually writing your story can be sorted out in an afternoon. All it takes is devotion to finding an answer, some Acceptance, a little sprinkle of Respect for your own work on top, and a side of You Don’t Have Forever, Dammit—Write Already.
By the way, yes, Escribyr does wield a quill pen that has a massive warhammer on its feather end. How does that even work? I’ll let you decide.
As always, thanks for reading! And come back around the middle of the month for the final article in this series, in which I’ll discuss the Understanding that not everyone will love your work… and the Awareness that you might be infatuated with your own story. It’s gonna be good!
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