Choosing Imperfection

Those of you who know me in the real world will not be surprised to learn I’m something of a perfectionist.

Not the useful sort of perfectionist, who can clearly see the editing road between the imperfect mess of the present and the perfect – but still timely – future. No, I’m the sort of perfectionist who can read the same paragraph eight times, and change the same word each time, knowing nothing more than “it’s not quite right.” I can know what is wrong, but I often don’t know why.

This level of navel-gazing is not conducive to progress.

It’s been better for me than I thought it would, asking my mother to read my novel. There is something liberating in having someone – anyone – who is not me reading it. She has been positive, as well, about receiving new chapters; it’s always motivating to have someone telling you they want to know what happens next. She has also managed to reinforce my own impressions of the piece: in almost every case, when she has pointed out a weakness, it’s one I was already aware of. So while I may not be able to objectively view my work, it seems possible that my judgement of where its flaws are is not entirely off-base.

This has made me realize that it’s actually useful to me to have her read it before I believe it is perfect.

Editing had been threatening to paralyze me. I was stuck on Chapter 4 – an important passage, and not awful as it stood; but tonally not quite true to my character, and far, far too short. I tried to think of how to make it longer, or how I could integrate some of the changes I was planning to make later, and I got nowhere for days. At some point, I realized I was trying to weld this short chapter onto what I had already handed off to my mother – because, of course, those chapters would not change.

Except that they would change. I already knew this. I had some feedback from her, and some thoughts of my own. I was stuck trying to make Chapter 4 the perfect followup to my existing Chapter 3. I’d lost sight of the larger task of storytelling.

Once I got past this little speed bump, things went much better. Chapter 4 stayed short, but got folded into the end of Chapter 3. Chapters 5 and 6 were combined to make a new Chapter 4.

I’ve now revised 23% of my novel. (This would be more impressive if I didn’t have a rewrite of Act 3 still ahead of me – but really, it’s not a bad start.)

I have let go of the idea that my revised first draft is going to be a whisper away from what I finally publish. I’ve even let go of the idea that the details will be fully baked. If I’m left to my own devices, I’ll be rearranging details until I’m 90. On the other hand…if I can get different perspectives on the novel’s flaws, I’ll have that many more signposts to help me get out of the weeds.

It’s been liberating. I don’t think the revisions I’ve done since I made this decision are all that bad – and they have taken me much less time. I feel more like the story is actually coming together, acquiring a much more solid and satisfying form. It’s still in need of coaxing here and there, but it’s growing. It feels much more natural, writing it this way, than expecting it to morph instantly into a fully-grown, perfectly polished novel.

Previously I’d told myself I’d revise 1000 words a night. Given that some of it needs no revising, and some of it requires complete rewriting, that seems a meaningless metric. Better to commit to working every day, to making sure I have time set aside to get this done. When I’m done rewriting it this time, I’ll need to rewrite it again. Better to get in the habit now.

There are days when this whole deal feels tenuous. Like at any point I’ll run into a wall, and the entire fabric of the novel will just unravel, and I’ll be left with nothing. But there are some days when I think maybe, just maybe, I really can mold this thing into a good, tight, solid story. And oddly enough, it’s those days when I decide that for now, at least, it doesn’t need to be perfect.

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