Monday, 19 December 2011

P is for Perfection

Perhaps, somewhere out there is a perfect manuscript.  If you ever see it, do let me know because, as far as I'm concerned, there is NO SUCH THING.  Yes, there are books we love to bits and can read and re-read with as much pleasure every time, books that make vivid pictures and create characters we believe are real, but perfect?  No.  

Reading is so personal that there can never be a perfect book for all readers: what I love, you may think is so-so, and your friend may not bother to finish.  This may seem obvious as a reader - you probably have direct experience of reading a book that a friend has raved about and wondering why.  It might seem so obvious that you may be wondering why I'm bothering to write about perfection.  

The trouble with the idea of perfection is that it can be crippling to writers.  First, it makes it harder to begin writing.  The book in your head is so perfect, it can come as a shock to discover it doesn't turn up as perfectly formed on the page.  It can also be crippling to discover that, if you manage to get something written, not everybody else thinks it's as wonderful as you do.  

Perfectionism stops you getting work finished, because then you have to DO something with it - and risk it being rejected.  So much easier to say you're still working on your ms, getting it perfect...

Here's my cure for perfectionism:

1.  Join as many critique groups as possible and submit work.  The sooner you stop being fussed by feedback (good, bad or indifferent), the sooner you'll get over the perfectionism issue.

2.  Join a book group or ask some friends for their opinions on books you love.  Take on board that not all books please everyone.  

3.  Write for your own pleasure, and not for any other reason.  That way you can't fail - if you like it, that's all that's needed - other people liking your writing too is a bonus.  

4.  Join a writing class which does exercises.  Approach them in a playful spirit - it's only an exercise after all.  Some you'll get 'right', others won't work for you, but that's not the point.  

5.   Work out if your inner editor has a face and/or name.  A lot of writers are nervous around writing because of a negative experience with a parent or teacher in their childhood.  If that's you, develop a method of telling your inner editor to shut up and go away - quite a few people find that simply saying 'shut up' is enough.  

6.  I hereby give you permission to write rubbish.  In fact, I think it's compulsory.  Think of it as creating the raw material for the piece you're working on, like a sculptor kneading the clay and making the maquette for the final bronze sculpture or an artist making preliminary sketches.  If you're in any doubt along the way, tell yourself that it was good enough for Raphael and his cartoons: it's good enough for you.  

7.  Never go back until you've written The End.  This is nigh impossible for former teachers, especially English teachers, who have the impulse to mark all work with a red pen, including their own.  It must be resisted.  

8.  Remember that nothing good was created without the risk of failure or making a fool of yourself.  

Finally, remember that in many areas such as recording music and typography, perfection can be achieved because of computers and digital methods. But us humans aren't perfect, and we don't like the chilly coldness of perfection.  We prefer the warmth of fuzzy edges, and designers and musicians are now finding ways of putting imperfection back into perfection.  

Truth is, perfection is boring.  So throw caution to the wind and write your ms with all the imperfect heart you can muster.  It'll be so much better for it. 


Patsy said...

Imperfection is something I can do!

Chris Stovell said...

Once again, some excellent tips... I'm going to explore #5 to find the face of my inner critic. She/he is pretty intimidating at times!

Shauna said...

So true on so many levels. I know the book in my head won't be the one that makes the page, but it's frustrating (and hurts) when it appears so far removed from the one I imagined.

Penelope Alexander said...

Number Seven - groan! Yes! And the reason why NaNowriting can be rather helpful...

Sarah Duncan said...

LOL Patsy!

Chris, gotta watch out for that inner critic. They can be really mean...

Shauna, if it's any consolation, I think most people feel the yawning gap between what they're thinking and what ends up on the page. I certainly do, but you just have to plough on through it.

Penny, yes, NaNo is brilliant for giving permission to write rubbish. Is it because it's got such strict parameters re wordcount and deadline? Whatever, if it works for you, then do it!