Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Good Enough...Isn't

I'm not a perfectionist. Truly. I don't scream if my spices aren't alphabetized or if someone changes the order of how the cds line up. I don't vacuum everyday. (Although that just may make me a sloppy housekeeper.) I don't hit the roof if my kids' bedrooms aren't magazine-perfect. But when it comes to my writing? This is when my heavily cloaked perfectionist pulls off her hood, opens her mouth and screams at the top of her lungs. It's somewhat off-putting.

When I was still running my theatre company, we had a motto: Good enough isn't good enough. This applied to everything; the sets, the costumes, the music, not to mention (let's hope) the acting and the directing. This motto seems engraved on my soul and I've realized its reverberations are what's holding me back from finishing my manuscript.

I've read so much from so many of you about finishing that first draft and worrying about the mess later. First drafts are supposed to be ugly; that's why they're the first drafts and not the final drafts. Intellectually, I understand this. Putting it into practice is something else entirely.

To my credit, I am taking baby steps. Writing which would have perished under the almighty power of the delete key (bless its heart) now sits unsullied. I'll get to it later, on the second go-through. I'm beginning to forgive myself for not writing perfectly immediately. Beginning. I so desperately want this manuscript to be good that I want it good right now. I want to be able to read my pages and have the urge to pat myself on the back, not the urge to slam my head through the wall.

I like writing this manuscript. I like my plots and my characters. I like that it's a challenge. I do not like not meeting my own expectations. I refuse to lower them, so I'm learning to have patience.

This first draft is the first rehearsal. No one expects an opening night performance at the first rehearsal (or they shouldn't anyway!) Good enough isn't good enough. Words to aspire to. Let's see how I feel when I get to the final dress rehearsal. I'm hoping my motto will be well-served.


  1. Elspeth - I'm so glad that you see the first draft as a "run-through" that doesn't have to be perfect, even if a lot of you wants your work to be perfect the first time. I think the essence of good writing is reflection. To reflect, one has to have something to reflect on. That means that one has to have a first draft - however unrefined it may be - before one can make it better. That's the way I see it, anyway...

  2. Maybe this will help. When I write a first draft, my goal is NOT to have something good (I know, counter-intuitive). My goal is to finish quickly, on schedule. That's my only goal. Any good words or decent sentences I've bumbled into are purely coincidental. I find it's much easier to "craft good writing" from writing that's mediocre, than it is to craft good writing looking at a blank screen.

    I mean, you're going to have to go back and revise anyhow, multiple times.

    Just my two cents.

  3. I agree with Alan. I think your thinking of it as how a play works is what will make the difference for you. Your first draft is like the first read through. Not even the first rehearsal, but only a read through. So you have first rehearsal, then first rehearsal when you know it's going right, then dress rehearsal, then a preview performance, then opening night. After which you might still tweak here and there.

  4. "I like writing this manuscript. I like my plots and my characters. I like that it's a challenge. I do not like not meeting my own expectations. I refuse to lower them, so I'm learning to have patience."

    You're so right on the money w/ this post, Beth. Keep telling yourself these things, and maybe your better angels will scream down those perfectionist demons ("and for once I think your better angels will have a fair fight," says Toby)

    That, and what Alan said.


  5. Margot; You're absolutely right; you can't refine writing that isn't there.

    Alan; You're so smart. I shall take your words to heart. It's getting it done that counts, not perfection. Not yet, anyway!

    Carol; I thought about comparing it to the first table read. I think I've hit upon a comparison that may work for me. Tell me why I didn't realize this earlier???

    Elisa; I'm certainly not Barlet. But perhaps this will help my better angels shout down those demons.

    How is it that TWW has an appropriate quote for every occasion. Oh yes, I just remembered who wrote it. He who can be on set and still deliver another screenplay in an obscenely short period of time. I need what ever he's drinking. (which, let's hope is something non-alcoholic!)

  6. Good for you, trying it both ways will help you find your prefered modus operandi. I've tried it both ways and found I'd get stuck in "perfectionist's block" when I self-edited every sentence as I wrote. I literally had to give myself a firm time limit to be able to shoot through a first draft without looking back. Now I'm sitting here with two messy revisions but at least I can look at them from a "whole picture" point of view.

    *Using the term whole picture loosely here :)

  7. Deb; That was exactly the rut I was falling into. I'm trying very hard to move ahead towards that distant finishing line. I'll worry about how nicely I got there later.

  8. Uggh. As a recovering perfectionist, I just want to pat you on the shoulder. All that 1st draft ugliness kinda makes me uncomfortable. But I'm with Alan now--strict time table. That's the only way for me to make it through the darn thing!

  9. Ever since I deleted 15,000 words about 1/3 of the way into my novel (because I'd messed up my plot line), I've been more conscious of keeping the story right, even though I don't worry about the smaller stuff. I still say we need to keep writing, keep putting words down on paper, but I work from a broad outline now to keep my story on track.

  10. That's the thing...if we try for perfection in the first draft, we never get anywhere. Perfection comes from the second draft...in revisions.

  11. Winnie; I think I'm going to add a timetable. Anything to get through!

    Patricia; I have an outline, without it I'd be nowhere. I'm not off track, just too concerned with every word being the best one I can choose. I'm trying to just write.

    Stephanie; Exactly! For me, though, it's much easier said than done.

  12. Applying your theatre experience to the process of your WIP sounds like a recipe for success. I feel better if what I've written is presentable. I can't just whip out plot lines willy nilly, but then I am a major control freak.

  13. Elizabeth; Let's hope I've hit on the recipe! I'm a fairly decent cook... Plot lines are never a problem, it's the actual writing where I get bogged down.

  14. It's hard not to want to be perfect from the get-go. Eventually, I learned to keep writing, putting it down on paper (on screen), even when it felt all wrong, and I wanted to scream.

    What helped me was to know others felt this way and didn't write perfectally from the start. I had always assumed I was the only one who wrote crappy first drafts.

  15. I subscribe to the Alan Orloff School of Thought with this one. I throw it on the paper. It's a disaster. I fix it after I'm done writing the first draft.

    Good luck! And...if it works for you to edit as you go, that's what you should do! We all need to just do what works.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  16. Oh man oh man! Elspeth - there is a social work saying that has made its way into the world of psychotherapy and that is "good enough mothering". In my therapy practice the 'Be Perfect Driver' comes up all the time. It seems productive and good in our society but it kills some of the goodness from our work. The thing that works for me is to avoid all manner of qualitative comparison and say that I'm telling myself the story in the first draft - like a kid telling you the plot of the movie - it's in there but it ain't poetry. So first I tell me, then I tell you and three other people and then I tell those fuss-budget editors and publishers and with their polish (that's my dream) I tell the world (or that of it that wishes to partake). When my Be Perfect Driver comes out - it is NEVER happy so I don't finish things. It wants me to stop telling myself the story and start frigging with the formatting (yep!) and taking courses in comma placement. Perfect (the word) used to mean to finish. Weird eh? I love hearing your process, if we could only just love the process - that would be swell.

  17. I've gotten better at my perfectionist tendencies by realizing that the first edit is not going to perfect the ms. I do at least two and usually three edits, so I've finally become comfortable with "the process" and realizing the first time through is merely Step One. :)

  18. Carolyn; Thank you for letting me know you too do not write perfection from day 1.

    Elizabeth; Alan seems to have a lot of followers of his school of thought! Oh, Great Orloff! I'm going follow your example. Here's hoping.

    Jan; Everything you wrote in your comment makes a great deal of sense. Thank you for sharing it with me.

    Karen; You are one of the kindest people I've *met*. Thank you for your wonderful words.

    Crystal; I think the word 'process' is the key. It's not one step, it's a process. Thanks for leaving a comment!

  19. I do worry about the first draft when I'm writing. I can't write stuff I know will be deleted later - what's the point? But I'm learning to do a better job of just pushing through.

  20. I'm with you on this one. I can write a 60-70K word first draft ms in about 2 months, easy. but I'll spend the next 3-4 months self-editing, rewriting and polishing the thing before I'll even send it to my editor. I don't like being embarrassed onstage. Hey I have a background in acting, too - mostly HS & college, but I've done some community theater and appeared in a couple low budget movies. Great fun.

    Marvin D Wilson


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