It’s almost New Year’s Eve, but you’re not waiting for the ball to drop. You’ve already made your resolution: 2019 is the year you’re finally going to write that novel. Yay!
Of course, in all honesty, you’ve made this resolution before, haven’t you? (Come on, just admit it already.) But this time, it’s going to be different, right? No more excuses. No doubt about it. That bad boy is getting written!
Well, good for you! That’s a great goal and I wish you much success in your endeavor. However, before you go prancing into 2019 with big plans and high hopes, perhaps you should take a minute to consider why you haven’t written that future bestseller yet.
Maybe your idea for your novel is so blindingly spectacular that you’re afraid whatever you actually put down on the page will never measure up. Maybe you did start writing, but after three migraine-inducing hours of staring at a blank screen, you only managed to produce two sentences. And they both sucked. Maybe you even sweated and cried and bled your way through an entire chapter…only to chuck the whole thing out later because it wasn’t “good enough.”
If this sounds like you, then you may be a perfectionist…and it just might be crippling your writing.
First things first: if this is you, don’t despair! You can overcome the obstacles perfectionism presents and even learn to use it to your advantage.
The hardest – and most important – thing any perfectionist must do when writing the first draft is to let go. Your first draft will not be perfect. It can’t be. It shouldn’t be. Rage at the heavens, sob uncontrollably, binge-eat chocolate-covered pretzels – do whatever you have to do to help you come to terms with this painful truth.
Give yourself permission to be messy, to color outside the lines, to melt six different crayons together and make a new color. Letting go is terrifying, but it can also be incredibly freeing. Just ask the blond lady on this water bottle:
In case you can’t see it in the picture, the water inside this bottle actually IS frozen. Cute, huh? 🙂
The first draft is the time to lock perfectionism in a cage. I mean, definitely give him some food, a bowl of water, a chew toy, a blankie, etc. – you don’t want to kill him. You just want him to take a nap for a while. He’ll probably whine a bit, but don’t worry – he’ll settle down eventually.
Here are a few practical tips for combating perfectionism in the first draft:
1.) Throw it all out there.
In the photo at the top, the author is having difficulty deciding which verb to use. She’s trying to choose the “perfect” word for the way Miguel moved down the hallway, and she’s stuck on that sentence because she can’t make up her mind.
Wanna know something cool? She doesn’t have to make up her mind! The author can simply write out several options, leave them all in the sentence, and move on to the next one. Then, during a later phase (usually the first round of editing), she can choose which word feels the best…or maybe come up with something else even better!
I do this all the time when I write. Indecision is a progress-killer, so if I can’t decide, I just throw it all out there. You can do it with single words, or with whole sentences and paragraphs. It looks like this:
Miguel walked/strolled/moseyed down the hall, unconcerned about the envious stares following him.
When I go back through to edit, the perfect word will usually jump out from the pack.
2.) Just skip it.
Remember back in high school, when you were taking a math test and didn’t know the answer to problem number five? What did you do? You didn’t spend your entire hour agonizing over that pesky fifth question, leaving the other thirty-five unanswered (at least, I hope you didn’t). No, because if you did that, you’d fail the test. So, you just skipped it, moved on to number six, and then came back to five later, if you had time.
That same strategy can work for writing. If you’ve been working on the same passage for days or even weeks, and just can’t get happy with it, my best advice would be to skip that passage and move on, knowing you can come back and fill it in later (thankfully, writing a book is not a timed test).
I did this with one scene in Scars – the part where Jack tells Lily about the werewolf attack. I just could not get through that scene. Everything I wrote seemed like crap. It was holding up the whole rest of the story. Finally, I just skipped over it and came back at the end. And guess what? It was totally fine. 🙂
The skipped scene DID get written and the story got published in this lovely book. It all worked out! 🙂
Of course, in order to do this, you must have a general idea of what’s going to happen in the scene, because it impacts the rest of the story. E.g. if you’re skipping the chapter where Rosario tells Kevin she has heat vision, then don’t write him as completely shocked/flabbergasted in the next chapter when she melts the tires on the bad guys’ getaway car.
3.) Free Writing
Think about this like a mini NaNoWriMo. Set a timer for five, ten, twenty minutes – whatever fits your schedule – and just write the whole time. Don’t go back and make corrections. Don’t stare at the page thinking about the perfect phrase. Your keyboard should be clacking the entire time. Or, if you’re old school, your pen should be scratching the page continuously. If it’s totally quiet in the room, then you’re not writing.
It may not be pretty, but for extreme cases of perfectionism, this will at least get words on the page. Words that can be rearranged and molded into something beautiful later. If the blank page is your worst enemy, this exercise can help.
Once that brutal first draft is done, you can finally let perfectionism out of his cage for a little while. Let him run amok all over your book, gobbling up those nasty typos, poor word choices, pointless paragraphs that don’t move the story forward, etc. He’ll be thrilled! Just don’t leave him out too long. If he can keep you from writing your book in the first place, he can just as surely keep you from ever submitting or publishing it.
Learn to know the difference between editing something and editing it to death. (If you’re re-reading for the fiftieth time and obsessing over the tiniest phrases which sounded good ten readings ago, you’re probably in “death editing” mode.) Remember how hard it was, in the beginning, to accept that the first draft wouldn’t be flawless?
This part is even harder, because now you have to face the fact that your novel will never, no matter how many times you and your editors go over it, be 100% perfect. Because you’re not perfect. And those tiny little imperfections you’ll never completely erase? They might just be what your readers relate to and fall in love with.
So, when the book is finally the best you (and your crit partners and betas) can make it, it’s time to do that scary-wonderful thing again: let it go.
The year 2019 is coming. You’ve already made the resolution. Now, you have to decide: Do you want to be the person who had a fantastic idea for a novel in 2019? Or do you want to be the person who actually wrote one?
Best wishes in the New Year!