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.

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…

Starting Over?

Lately I’ve felt that my life is in transition. We’ve recently moved house, renovations are in the offing, and the kids start school on Monday. Much of my time and energy has been focused on domestic things. I haven’t written more than a couple paragraphs in months, and I can’t seem to settle on any one project. Nor have I felt the particular drive to write.

Part of me wants to tear it all down to the studs. Dump my Twitter, my Facebook, this site. Unpublish everything I’ve put out there. I don’t even know why I feel this way, except that there’s a desire for a clean slate.

And then what? I’m not convinced I’m going to continue writing. I have a long list of half-begun projects and a number of works that really need to be edited and re-launched, yet… zero motivation to finish any of them. I suppose I could just leave everything as it is and still walk away, but taking it all down feels like the equivalent of tidying a room; leaving all my books and sites up makes me feel like I’m leaving behind a mess. I don’t like to do that.

So I don’t know what I’ll do. I won’t scrub my stuff until I’m sure it’s what I want. In the meantime, I’ll keep doing stuff around the house and with my family. There are far worse ways to spend one’s time.

Art/Artist

Most media, barring things that are biographical or autobiographical, are designed to be consumed in the absence of the artist. When you read a book, the author is seldom there to explain his or her work. When you watch a film or television program, the actors and directors and screenwriters and producers are not whispering in your ear… unless you’re playing the commentary track, I suppose. The musician shouldn’t have to explain the song’s meaning. Even stand-up comedians, who often pull from personal experience, are editing the stories they tell; as the audience, we laugh, but we never really believe we’re hearing the whole thing.

However, with the rise of social media, and with greater access to authors and actors and comedians, etc.—with the popularity of those commentary tracks, and with the growing sense that the person with the most trivial information somehow “wins” because it proves he or she is the biggest, best fan—we seldom consume media without knowing something about those who make it. Sure, some of these creators remain coy, but many more have embraced Twitter and Instagram and whatever else is popular these days. One can communicate with them, one can chase them and their work all over the Internet, collecting facts and tidbits like squirrels collect nuts.

But what happens when an artist or creator is an asshole?

“Never meet your heroes,” the old saying goes. The unspoken conclusion being that you’re bound to be disappointed by their simple humanity. But when your favorite author or actor is not only human but in some ways seemingly subhuman… What then? Are you allowed to like their books or movies or TV shows any more?

It’s the age-old conflict: separating the art from the artist. Can you?

Art isn’t created in a vacuum; each contributor puts something of him- or herself into the work. Why else do we spend high school lit classes deconstructing things like The Great Gatsby? Every time we had to read a book in school, didn’t we also have to read that little biographical paragraph about the author? And who decides what to tell and what to leave out of those?

Back in the day, it was okay to like Woody Allen movies. Now you can like them, but only if you feel guilty about it. Many more people would rather just not watch than have to feel that way. But they can’t erase the fact that they have seen some of those movies. Do they say, “Well, I watched those before…”? Does watching or reading something by a disgraced artist make you complicit in whatever caused their downfall?

It’s an honest question. I’m not defending Allen or any other condemned creator. I really want to know how people feel about this.

My understanding is, largely, that not buying books by, or watching movies by, artists who have behaved badly is a form of boycott. “Don’t give them your money,” seems to be the underlying notion. Of course, most of them have plenty of money already, so… But what if you borrow the book from the library? Or watch the movie on a streaming service you subscribe to? Are you not meant to patronize these artists at all because to do so suggests tacit endorsement, not only of their work but their life choices?

I, for one, end up having a tough time enjoying work by “bad” artists because I can’t forget what they’ve done (if I happen to know). It lingers in the back of the mind. It taints the things I used to enjoy, like food that’s starting to go off. You might still can eat it—it’s not so far gone—but it tastes wrong. I mean, even if it’s something as minor as having read that this or that author was rude in a situation… Maybe I can excuse them, depending on the circumstances, but if I hear that it happens regularly… When I read a book by them, I won’t be able to not think that this writer is a jerk. And knowing a jerk has written the book I’m reading definitely dampens the enjoyment. Sometimes I might even transfer those feelings to the book’s characters and think they’re all jerks, too, because of course a jerk writer can only create jerk characters, right?

Well, no. Of course not. Writers create all kinds of characters. But knowing something about the author creates an overlay to anything you read by them. Same with actors; suddenly, every role they play is colored by that personal knowledge. Instead of diverse characters, you begin to see them all as similar because they are connected by this mental tint.

It’s enough to make one not want to ever know anything about their favorite authors, actors, etc. Isn’t it?

How do you feel about these things? Do you refuse to support certain artists because of their past behaviors? Is ignorance bliss? Is ignorance even possible in a day and age in which information moves so fast?

On Decoding

Monty Python had a skit in which Graham Chapman was a guest on a talk show, and when he was introduced as “Raymond Luxury Yacht,” Chapman gently corrected, “It’s spelt ‘Luxury Yacht’ but it’s pronounced ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove’.” It’s a funny punchline not only because the names are so ridiculous but because it’s seemingly out of nowhere; who reads ‘Luxury Yacht’ as ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove’? Those letters don’t make those sounds, not even in a liberal interpretation. Right?

I promise I’m not changing subjects when I mention that, in getting a degree in cultural media studies, we talked a lot about encoding and decoding texts (“texts” being our word for any film or television, whether a scene, an episode, or an entire series). It’s simple, if narrow-minded, to say there’s only one correct way to interpret something. It’s facile, however, to say there’s no wrong way to do so. You can’t [reasonably] look at ‘Luxury Yacht’ and decide it really means ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove.’

Almost anyone who went to school has a story of a lit teacher who had very fixed ideas about the symbolism or imagery in a book or poem. Something they’d been taught, or something they especially felt invested in for whatever reason… Maybe they’d read a biography of the author and had drawn a conclusion based on information about the writer’s life. Whatever. Film and television fans can be just as aggressively rigid about how they see and interpret what they watch. And the more they love a show or movie, the more they dig in. At least in my experience. If and when another viewer, or even a writer or actor or producer on the show or movie, contradicts them, these fans double down. They insist that their reading of the text is valid. (Sometimes they insist that theirs is the only valid interpretation.)

The wonderful thing about books and films and television programs is that they are open to a variety of insights, and once they leave the authors’ hands, the writers (and actors, and directors, and producers) no longer truly own them. What’s encoded is one thing, but what’s decoded is truly personal and therefore necessarily biased. This is why fans fight so hard—because validation of their reading is a kind of validation of self.

BUT. As with Luxury Yacht vs. Throatwobbler Mangrove, not all interpretations are reasonable. In this day and age, when people readily consider their personal opinions to be as valid as hard facts, this statement can be difficult to swallow. Yes, you are allowed to see whatever patterns you like in the wallpaper, but sometimes the patterns really aren’t there, no matter how much you insist they are. You’re desperate for the wallpaper to be yellow stripes—you love yellow stripes—but if it’s pink flowers… Trying to convince others it’s really yellow stripes is a waste of time and energy. You’re only going to end up frustrated and angry because you’re trying to turn what’s there into something that it isn’t.

This is, one supposes, where the joy of fan fiction comes in. When writing fanfic, one can change the wallpaper and make it whatever one wants it to be because there really are no rules. If you want to pronounce Luxury Yacht as Throatwobbler Mangrove, in fanfic you can. You might even find other fans who will nod and say, “That’s a neat way to read it.”

As for the primary text, the source text, whatever you want to call it… There are rules. They’re pretty flexible, but they do have limits. In sketch comedy, you can turn Luxury Yacht into Throatwobbler Mangrove. But if you were watching an actual news program and someone said that? It wouldn’t fly.

2019 So Far

Well, here we are at the midpoint of the year. How has it been for you so far? I have to say, a lot of my friends are struggling with a deluge of incidents and situations. When it rains, as they say…

As for me, this year so far:

  • Put our house on the market and sold it
  • Bought a new house
  • Started a new nutrition plan… then dumped it
  • Had surgery
  • Moved
  • Enrolled two of my kids in their new schools (one of them is staying at his current school)
  • Daughter graduated from elementary school
  • Oldest son celebrated his bar mitzvah
  • Was long listed for a RONE award but couldn’t garner the necessary support to make the short list, so I quit writing
  • Helping my son plan for his student ambassadorship to Japan in October
  • Planning my own trip to Japan for next year with my best friend

I know the RONE thing makes me sound petulant, but it was really just the straw that broke the camel. I’ve been trying for years to get friends, family, and readers to act on my behalf, even just to leave reviews or spread the word about my work. Because if an author can’t get even their closest loved ones to vote for them in something, how can they hope to make it? Over the years it’s become increasingly clear, however, that I can’t get anyone to support me. And since I can’t do it on my own, I’ve shut down that side of my life. Actually, I’m pretty sure my family is happier now that I’m more focused on them anyway.

So then what do I have to look forward to? Well, again, mostly family stuff:

  • Prepping my son for band camp
  • Family vacation
  • School starting
  • Pool renovations
  • Having the house painted
  • Finalizing my son’s plans for that Japan trip

That takes me through October, at least. We may or may not do anything fun for Thanksgiving or winter break. I guess I still have a birthday to look forward to? And some theatre tickets… Also another year of being on the PTA board.

I suppose my career crashing and burning still puts me better off than a lot of people. But I don’t have to be happy about it. And I know filling my time with house and family will only go so far. I mean, I don’t want to be one of those mothers who lose their identities in their kids and then fall apart when all those kids grow up and leave home. (Assuming they leave home, which I certainly hope they do.) But yeah. The year has definitely been one of big shifts, some in great directions, but some… not so much. Guess we’ll see what the back half brings.

Television: Game of Thrones, “The Iron Throne”

I’m not really going to focus on this episode specifically so much as discuss… Well, anyway, let’s look at why some people were angry with Daenerys’ arc, etc. At least as much as I understand it, though I’d be happy if others would weigh in via the comments. (So long as you remain polite and respectful.)

Dany spent the first few seasons struggling, gathering, strategizing. She became a powerful woman, and she became what many considered a possible savior to free the Seven Kingdoms from Lannister evil. Certainly she felt that way, that it was her destiny to rule, and she persuaded enough people to back her. So when she skewed toward becoming a tyrant herself, many people felt this was out of character for her. Many were upset that this strong female character was being eclipsed by Jon Snow, the “rightful heir.” Jon being painted as a completely good, decidedly uncomplicated guy who “always does what’s right.”

But, truly, Dany showed tyrannical tendencies early on. She’s always been ruthless and focused on her singular goal. So I didn’t find it out of character at all, really. And I can understand the irritation about the way women are portrayed in GoT. The ruling women were invariably autocratic, though their motivations were always different. Cersei wanted power for power’s sake; Dany truly believed she would remake the world as a better place.

What about Sansa and Arya then? The bone of contention there is that both became strong female characters through a certain amount of personal trauma. My understanding of the backlash is that women in GoT are never just strong in their own right. They’ve been beaten into swords by enduring the heat of the fire and the blows of the hammer against the anvil. The underlying messages of: “A woman who wants power is bad” and “a woman cannot be powerful unless she’s been traumatized or disowns her gender” are problematic. The narrative of “this nice [white] boy will save us” is also not great.

Still. I have no real problems with the way the story played out except that it felt rushed in the final couple seasons. A bit more character development could have saved everyone a lot of vexation, so that things like Jamie’s departure from Winterfell wouldn’t have felt so abrupt. The past couple season have barreled through plot points, which I feel is part of what has left some viewers unsatisfied.

I am not one of those viewers. While I can wish differently for some of the characters, realistically this feels fair. (To me, anyway.) It feels true to the nature of the show and to the world as it has been built. This was never a fairy tale. It’s always been a story about how people who want power probably shouldn’t have it, and what happens when they get it and are greedy for more. It’s a story of how any one person (or family) holding that power creates ever more problems. And yet… despite much upheaval, the system remains largely the same. People live and die, wars are fought, and the world goes on. For better or worse. It balances itself.

The wheel doesn’t break. It just turns.

As for petitions to rewrite things, well… I think in the day and age of social media, where there is more contact than ever before between fans and (sometimes) content creators, fans feel entitled to dictate the direction of the shows they enjoy. And that, to me, is unmerited. Fans aren’t in the writers’ room, they don’t get to pitch the story lines they’d like to see. That’s what fan fiction is for. And I’m sure there’s about to be scads of GoT fics.

More Writers, Fewer Readers

What to Do?

I’m currently reading iGen by Jean Twenge, which discusses all the ways the iGeneration ( b. ~1995-2012) is different from previous generations. There’s a ton to unpack, and I’m not even very far along in this book, but as a writer I wanted to focus on the data that shows this generation doesn’t read. At least not for fun.

Are we surprised? Not really. Attention spans are getting increasingly short, cut into tiny slices of memes and video clips and text messages. As per the anecdotal evidence Twenge cites, most members of the iGeneration find reading boring because it requires them to sit still, be quiet, and pay attention. The result are slumping SAT scores in reading comprehension, which Twenge says we shouldn’t ascribe as either “good” or “bad” but… I can’t help thinking it’s bad. We want critical thinkers and problem solvers, but the up-and-coming generation can’t be bothered to work their brains that hard. (Twenge suggests ebooks that include videos and are written in very short chapters/info bursts, but really? We have to dumb things down for these kids?)

Okay, okay, so I’m an old fogey. That’s beside the point. In a world where (for good or ill) getting published is easier than ever, we have more content out there than ever, too. And we have fewer and fewer readers interested in buying or consuming that content.

Hmm.

“What about all those YA novels that sell so well?” you ask. Well, turns out it’s a lot of adults reading those novels and not that many, er, young adults.

“But older people still read!” Yeeeesss. But we need new readers to sustain publishing. And not just new content, since there is clearly plenty of that.

“So just write stuff they want to read.” Yeah, except they don’t want to read anything longer than a listicle.* Hell, short stories try their patience.

*Here’s an interesting tangent: iGen’ers don’t party as much, aren’t as into drinking or sex. So all these “old” people writing books for them… Books that look like something out of the 80’s, with parties and sex and alcohol… These books don’t reflect the current teen experience. Write a book entirely in text messages and memes and you’d be closer to the mark. And they’d be way more likely to read it. Especially since it probably wouldn’t take as long as reading it in prose form.

Bottom line/takeaways: the youngest generation isn’t reading books beyond those assigned to them at school (and sometimes not even that much). They have short attention spans and aren’t interested in an activity that takes time, patience, and concentration. We have more books and writers than ever and fewer readers. [Yes, I know those who do read often read avidly and voraciously, but again, we need new readers in order to sustain writers and publishing.] Already magazines and newspapers are desperate, and publishing is next in line; only people writing pithy (and short) articles online will be safe. And because trends move more quickly than ever, even then one is only likely to be a brief success.

Where am I going with this? Well, to be honest, I haven’t been writing much lately anyway. I’d already seen success (as I personally define it) as unattainable for me. So this data only reaffirms that I made the right choice by walking away. The situation is only likely to worsen.

Then again, once enough writers quit the field, those left might still find an audience, eh? Good luck out there!

The Romance is Gone

First off, sorry for being absent. I had surgery and now I’m in the throes of a house move. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for writing or blogging. And the truth is, I don’t feel much like writing these days. Despite having a number of projects on hand, nothing is speaking to me.

Or should I say no one is speaking to me?

I was trying to get to the bottom of why I’m not feeling the urge to write. In the past, I’ve had times when I don’t feel like writing, but the pressure builds up in me until I can’t not write. But this feels different. I’m oddly content, even though I’m not writing.

And I have all these WIP, filled with pretty solid stories and characters, but…

Ah. BUT.

I like a lot of my current characters. But I don’t love them. And that, I’ve discovered, is what I really need in order to feel pushed to write. I have to be totally, head-over-heels in love with my characters. (Or at least one of them.) And right now I’m not. I’m the author equivalent of single.

So what I need is a new romance with someone fictional. Until I find him or her, though, it appears I won’t feel that drive to write. Oh, I could try to force it, but we all know that love really can’t be manufactured. That’s true in fiction as much as in real life.

The right one will come along… Eventually…