The Perfectionist Writer’s Struggle

There’s no misery quite like being a perfectionist writer. We want—expect, even—our story to spring like Athena fully formed from our skulls onto the page. In our heads, the story is perfect. Alas, when we try to make that perfection concrete by writing or typing it, everything crumbles.

I think this is partly to do with perfectionism and also partly to do with… How can I phrase it?… People for which most things come easily, people who aren’t used to having to redo their work… They have a particularly difficult time with the idea that their first draft will not and should not be their last. I am one of these people. I say this not to toot my own horn, but to show that having things come easily is not a wonderful trait. It makes me lazy. It makes me more whiney when I do encounter obstacles because I’m so used to sailing over them. It makes me want to to declare my first draft to be my final draft because of course I did it perfectly the first time.

And of course that isn’t true.

People who have spent their school days working hard in order to succeed have a much better chance of greater success in the long run. They’ve developed a work ethic and a willingness to continue hacking away at something until they get it right.

So maybe “perfectionist” isn’t exactly the correct word here. Though perfectionist writers have their own set of problems. They keep wanting to tinker with a manuscript indefinitely because they want it to be perfect. In that way, they’re rather the opposite of the ones who are so sure they are one-and-done. These perfectionists don’t want to let go. They’re often convinced there is some set of rules or a mathematical equation that, if they check everything off the list or get the right answer, then their book will be perfect. And only when it’s perfect will it be ready to query or publish.

What each of these types of authors has in common, however, is that in both cases the authors need to be comfortable with the idea of imperfection. The Type 1 author needs to be willing to admit a lack of perfection, and the Type 2 author needs to be willing to live with a lack of perfection.

NOTHING AND NO ONE IS EVER PERFECT

You’re going to find a typo in the final, published version. Or you’re going to re-read it and wish you’d written a sentence differently.

And no, you didn’t write it perfectly the first time.

I have never, ever been sorry that I went back and edited and revised. In every single case the book has been better for it, no matter how much I bitched and moaned that it was fine—perfect—the way it was.

It won’t be perfect. Ever. Your job is to get it as close to perfect as you can, up until the time that continuing to fiddle with it has little to no ROI. It becomes a waste of time rather than a benefit to the work… or the author. In fact, eventually the work and the author begin to suffer for it. Part of being a writer is learning to find the sweet spot of having rewritten/edited it as best you can and not going any further.

Part of being a writer—a big part—is learning to live with imperfect. Both at the start and the end of your project. And in yourself as well.

No One Asked for Your Book

Here is a harsh truth for starting writers (and maybe even for those who’ve been at it a while): no one asked you to be a writer. That’s something you signed up for, for whatever reasons. But you can’t be surprised or angry when your sense of entitlement is undermined by the utter lack of interest and/or attention for you and your work.

I’m saying this because I’ve heard so many new(ish) authors say, “I worked so hard and then no one cared.” Hell, I feel that way almost all the time! But then I remind myself that there are billions of books out there competing for a limited number of readers. Think about it: how many of your friends and family and coworkers read? For pleasure, that is? And when they do read, how many of those people read the genre(s) you write? In some cases, it’s a very small market. And that market—those readers—can be difficult to reach because of all the noise. By which I mean, there are so many books out there, so many authors yelling about their work, and readers have learned to tune most of it out. Being seen becomes increasingly difficult. Being read even more so.

In a society that has petted us and told us we’re all special and unique, we’ve created a sense that there is constantly a spotlight on us. With Facebook and Instagram and so on, we cultivate “audiences” and become stars of our own shows. Or so we think. But if everyone is thinking about themselves and their “show,” no one but you is thinking about you. Or your book.

“But I deserve to be successful!” By whose metric? I know we’re all told that if we work hard enough we’ll succeed. Eventually. But the truth is, maybe you won’t. You can work hard and not get an agent or publisher. You can work hard, self-publish, and not sell. It can and does happen. All. The. Time.

Bottom line is, no one asked for you to add more to the growing pile of unagented manuscripts or self-published books. No one is going to miss you or your work if you don’t write. They’ll find other books to agent, other books to publish, other books to read. So if you’re going to be a writer, do it not just because you want to, but because you have to. Because you can’t not write. Don’t tie yourself to a specific outcome for your work. It’s fine to set goals, of course. But be prepared with backup plans if you don’t get that agent or don’t sell x number of copies.

I know some will say that readers do ask for books from their favorite authors. If something ended on a cliffhanger, people might literally email and ask for the next book. Agents and publishers continually ask for books from their best-selling authors because, hey, those authors make money for them. If you’re one of those, congratulations. This post isn’t meant for you. For the rest of us, though, until we’re someone’s (really, more than someone’s, lots of people’s) favorite author that moves thousands of copies per year, we’ve got to just do for ourselves. Until readers are clamoring for our work, we have to have the clamor inside of us. And I honestly believe that clamor produces quality writing, far more than a sense of obligation ever could. So even if you do “make it,” I hope that clamor continues in you. That you don’t write because you’re expected to, but because you still love it.

The Long, Slow Death of a Writing Career

I last put a book out in October. Almost a year ago. Used to be, writers put out a book every 1-2 years, sometimes more, and that was not unusual. Even “fast” writers took a while because the publishing process was a long one: write a draft, send it to your agent, who would send it out to publishers (or, if you had a standing publishing contract, just on to your editor)… Sell the book, rounds of editing, production/design, the marketing team gearing up, advance review copies sent out, and then finally the book would be published. And then the author might do a book tour or something, which took time away from writing the next thing, and so the next thing waited a bit longer to get written, and the cycle started again.

No longer. Particularly with self-publishing, authors are now expected to be content mills. Churn, churn, churn. Never mind quality; quantity is what matters. There are so many more authors now, too. Our names and our work get lost in the neverending pile. If you don’t put something out every 3-6 months, you’re easily forgotten. Even those who claim to be fans won’t wait. It’s a bit like running a marathon and not having anyone to cheer you on. After a while, you’re tired, you’re sore, and you’re wondering why you even bothered. Sure, maybe you like running, or maybe you think of it as healthy, but there are plenty of other things you also enjoy and other ways to be healthy that aren’t as painful or spirit breaking.

I’ve watched my sales slowly decline over the past few months. Part of the reason is that I’ve given up trying to market my work. It’s expensive, it’s time consuming, and the results are often disappointing. It was very fortunate that Publisher’s Weekly reviewed Brynnde; it’s become my best-selling book to date, and I can directly draw a line between the PW BookLife exposure and that success. Alas, they declined to review Faebourne, my latest, and that book has struggled. I’m sure I could pay BookLife and other outlets to review it, but paying for reviews feels sketchy to me. And, again, any outlet with significant impact charges a lot of money.

I also downsized my social media recently, which probably contributes to my decrease in sales, but so much of it was too toxic and bad for my mental health. If I have to value something, my personal wellbeing will be a priority every time. I needed to cut out the people who were always asking for help but never supporting me when I needed it. There were an awful lot of them.

Amazon continues to make it more and more difficult to be seen, and their ads can be expensive too. They have authors over the proverbial barrel, and I no longer trust them.

All in all, the collective situation does not motivate me to write. And since we know that authors these days need to churn out content faster than ever before in order to be successful… It just isn’t going to happen. It takes me a long time to write anything even when I’m excited about it. Now that I no longer am, I’ll finish the next book in, oh, never. And a day.

IWSG: September 2019

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

Q: If you could pick one place in the world to sit and write your next story, where would it be and why?

A: I really want to go to Japan and am making plans to visit next year. I think I’d love staying there for a few weeks to write. The utter difference in culture would, I think, make an interesting impact on my work. I’d enjoy absorbing the atmosphere and letting it permeate my writing.

Books: Revolutionary Girl Utena by Chiho Saito

I love Touga Kiryuu. So much so that the one and only time I went to an anime convention, I cosplayed as him. But at that time I’d only ever watched the anime. I’ve owned this really nice box set of the manga for a few years now, and I finally decided to read them.

Me as Touga Kiryuu c. 1998

Shoujo Kakumei Utena is a pretty strange story. Utena Tenjou [note: I’m writing the names in the English order of given name first] lost her parents when she was young, and while grieving her loss one day, she went wandering through the city and fell (or nearly fell?) in a canal or river. But a “prince” saved her. He gave her a ring with a rose seal on it and promised they would meet again some day. Every year she receives a letter from the prince. Finally, some seven years later (Utena is now 13), he says they will soon meet.

Utena transfers to Ohtori Academy, an elite boarding school whose symbol is the rose. In so doing, she stumbles onto a strange ritual performed by the student council (of which Touga is president). They duel for possession of a girl named Anthy Himemiya, who they call the “Rose Bride.” They think being her groom will give them powers “to revolutionize the world.”

It only gets weirder from there. At some point the center of the story ceases to hold and it begins to make less sense; the threads of story are pulled too thin to form full connections. That said, I still really love these characters. Utena is perhaps the least interesting (as is sometimes the way of main characters); the council members are far more fascinating. The angry Juri, the sweet but sister-hounded Miki, the obsessed Saionji… And of course Touga. My favorite. In the manga Touga proves to be even better because he’s given more depth of character, which I appreciate. But I do also much prefer the character designs in the anime.

This manga doesn’t take long to read, and it’s worth reading if you don’t mind a story where you walk away unsure of what exactly happened. There are many “side stories,” too, with maybe alternate universes or??? They’re all good, but they in some ways contradict the main manga. I guess it’s just the author playing with her toys and trying new things with them. Fair enough. If I had characters this amazing, I might do the same.

Books: In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin

I’ve never read any of Rankin’s books before; I happened upon this one in a library display. It looked interesting, so I borrowed it. And for the most part it was interesting. Though I don’t know if it was so interesting that I’d go read any of the previous books in the series.

So there’s this retired Scottish police detective named John Rebus. And there’s a DI named Siobhan Clarke who is kind of his protégée or something? She catches a murder case that for twelve years has been a misper (missing persons) but now a body has suddenly turned up. And Rebus worked on the original inquiry. So… yeah.

Even not having read any of the other books, I was able to follow this fine and discern/infer enough not to be confused. The mystery was a pretty good one, with Rebus getting a B plot in which he gets to poke around in one of Clarke’s old cases too. I guess my problem was that I didn’t particularly like any of the characters. They’re pretty dry, even at moments when they (I think) are supposed to be witty. So I don’t know that I’d want to revisit them. Then again, I read on Goodreads that this is something like the 22nd book in this series, so maybe the characters have simply atrophied. Maybe they’re way more interesting and engaging in earlier novels.

Anyway… an okay read, but nothing I’m in a hurry to devour more of.

The Unpopular Truth

Much of the posts aimed at writers (and creatives in general) are bent toward one thing: encouragement. “Don’t give up!” and “Follow your dreams!” and all that. Which is good. Sometimes. But just as important is knowing when to accept reality, when to adjust your sails, or just plain quit.

A year or so ago, a young man wanted to meet to talk about screenwriting. Over Panera, I had to gently break the news that, no, Sony was not going to read his Sonic script. His only interest was in how to get it to them; naturally, he did not want to hear that it was fruitless. And sure, I suppose if he made the right connections and met the right people… But to do that, he needed to either get an internship or write something original that got attention before he could then make a play for a known property. That’s a lot of work, and there’s no instant gratification in that scenario, so he wasn’t interested.

Nor was he interested in anything but his one script. I see this sometimes—writers with “passion projects” that they focus on. A good writer needs passion in order for his or her work to have impact, but having only one script or manuscript is the same as buying only one lottery ticket. You might win, but your chances are better if you buy several. I’m not advocating gambling, but writing is a gamble. You put time and effort into something that may never get published or produced. You’re betting your time will be worth it but, sadly, sometimes it comes to naught.

Your odds get better, though, if (a) you work on more than one thing, and (b) you’re realistic about your chances, the market, etc. That young man with the Sonic script had reduced his odds to nil by having only one script, and that being based on a copyrighted property. At best it might be a good spec sample for people to see his writing ability. But these days specs are less in demand; it’s better to have original content and ideas.

And sometimes you just have to stop chasing the white rabbit. No one wants to hear that they should set a project aside, “trunk” it as some writers call it. That maybe it’s not ready for prime time. That maybe wait for the market to change or… *ahem*… maybe it’s just not that good. Which doesn’t mean the time was wasted! No time spent writing is wasted because practice is so important. But not everything you write is going to be worthy of publication or production. That’s the thing people don’t want to hear or believe. That sometimes you just need to quit and move on.

Books: Zucked by Roger McNamee

Almost everyone I know is on Facebook. My friends, my family, the people I used to work with, people I went to school with, other authors I’ve met… In particular, if you’re an author, you’ve been told you simply must have a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. presence. And I’ll admit that when I deleted my Facebook page a few months ago, and left pretty much every FB Group I’d been a member of, I saw my sales plummet. But I also so my general life satisfaction and happiness go up, so…

But this isn’t a book about how Facebook and other social media impacts your happiness; there are plenty of other books and studies that do that. Zucked is about how Facebook (and Google, and Twitter, etc.) undermines democracy and is generally dangerous to the population.

That’s right. Dangerous.

To be clear, though I deleted my author page on Facebook, I do still have a personal account. This is because I live far from where I grew up, far from family, and my friends are spread across the globe. It’s also because all my kids’ schools lean on Facebook to disseminate information. See, Facebook has made itself practically indispensable. And there’s no other platform like it because Facebook squashes or absorbs all competition. Unregulated, Facebook is pretty much a monopoly.

And while we all think it’s great that Facebook allows us to keep in touch with people—people who otherwise would never email, so you’d pretty much never hear from them again—and/or snoop on old friends and flames, we need to remember that it’s a business not a charity. Facebook connects people at a price. It’s free to join, but you pay with your personal information, which Facebook sells to anyone willing to make them rich for it.

At this point, I’m sorely tempted to delete my Facebook account, but the damage is done. I exist in their system, and my profile has surely been sold many times over. That data, once sent out, can’t ever be called back. Who knows how many copies of it exist?

But here’s the thing: I absolutely won’t let me kids sign up for Facebook. Or any other major social media platform. For their own safety (cyberbullying being a real issue) and so that they can hold on to their information until the day we have legislation and regulation to protect them.

If any enterprising startup would like to make an ethical site that connects people, or if such a thing exists, I’d love to hear about it. I’d much rather pay a monthly or annual fee to protect my data than sign up for a free site that sells me as their product.

Oh, but what about the book? This was one of the clearest explanations of how these platforms do business and how bad actors (like the Russians) are able to use those business models to their advantage. Points deducted for the “History of Silicon Valley” chapter, which gave me flashbacks to my college days when I had to take a bunch of history of media classes. That bit was mind-numbing, and I don’t think it contributed much to the overall case against these platforms. It was meant to give context, but… meh. I ended up skimming that bit.

Still, anyone who has Facebook, anyone who uses Google or Instagram or other major platforms, should read this book. McNamee has decades of experience and lays things out neatly. An enlightening read.

Another 20 August

A long time ago, I wrote a screenplay titled 20 August. It did well in competitions and had a number of indie directors show interest in it. I had several verbal agreements, but of course they came to nothing. Such is the way of the biz.

Most indie directors, I’ve found, want to write their own material. I’ve been told as a writer that I should just direct my own movies. If you want something done right, as the saying goes. But I’m old-fashioned enough not to want to direct a movie. I’ve worked on film sets; I’ve witnessed the hassle. I just want to write and let someone else do the rest.

20 August was designed to be fairly low budget with limited locations. It’s a small drama that examines how the pressure to be successful by society’s standards can lead to misery. I’ll admit that for every two or three people who love the screenplay, I’ve found one who hates it. The subject matter appears to be somewhat divisive. That actually makes me happy because it means the content is striking a chord somewhere. It has impact.

For a couple of indie director friends, I did a short form version at their request. I thought for sure that a short could at least get made. Alas, so far no joy.

I haven’t written anything for screen in years now. Books are easier; movies require a lot of people to say “yes,” but I’m the only one who has to green light a book [assuming I self-publish]. Anyway, my computer won’t run my old Final Draft 8 anymore, and I’m too cheap to upgrade to a newer version. Why should I if my screenwriting goes nowhere?

It’s amazing to me, though, that a script can get so much great feedback, be inexpensive to make, and still get passed over in favor of… whatever else. Someone on Quora asked me whether quality was all that matters in the success of books. I said no to that, and that’s true for movies too. Neither publishing nor filmmaking are meritocracies. The good doesn’t automatically rise to the top. It’s all about connections and being able to sell yourself as well as your work. I guess I’m not so great at that bit.

Still, every 20th of August I find myself thinking about it…