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The curse of a perfectionist

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by ascanius, Nov 25, 2012.

  1. ascanius

    ascanius Inkling

    I have often been asked the question, "how do you draw so good." I usually just tell people that I just do it, I don't know how. In reality I think I am good at drawing, and sculpting now, is because I strive for it to be perfect. I will sit down for eight hours straight without getting up reworking a single line until it is perfect or the smallest shadows of the smallest imperfection on the skin. I know no one else can see it, but I can. I can see every single minute flaw in my drawings, where a line isn't quite right, the shading is just a little to dark or too light. Shades of black and white stare, mocking me for my presumption that I can capture reality with the tip of a pencil or blade of a chisel. For that is what I seek, not to just make a portrayal of life but to bring life to a sheet of paper or a block of stone. I reach for the stars knowing it a fools errand yet I know no other way.

    Now I find this to be a curse when I write. Over and over again I will rewrite aspects of the plot, character details, history, cultural details, scenes, even notes. I can make no headway with anything. I sit down to write and realize I need to fill in the details for one place or another or rethink some plot aspect. This means I have to go back, look at the map figure out everything from economics, culture, language differences, hostilities, the language, architecture, familial relations, politics everything. Then when I sit down to start doing that I realize that I have to then go back and fix other small details for something else related. Right now I am redoing my map, I don't like it there are aspects that don't quite work with the story and I don't like it. I want to create a world that is real. How can I even start writing when I have yet to work out the details of the setting. The story I have in my mind is set on an epic scale covering an area the size of the Roman Empire at it's peak. I have it all there in my head, yet I cannot seem to get it on screen.

    I know, I am the person talked about when people say if you spend too much time world building, plot construction, etc, you will never get to writing the story. Yet I don't know any other way to do it. To me it is like when I draw. I draw an oval for the shape of the face, then two lines that divide the oval into fourths, from there the eyes, nose, mouth, and other major details of the face. Slowly I add more and more details. For me this is the same as world building, I start large then work smaller. Lastly comes the shadows, writing the story, because this is where the subtleties of emotion can be drawn out. All those starting lines are no longer visible yet they were important to get to the end product.

    It's driving me CRAZY. I've tried just writing and it was awful, bland, without character or substance. It lacked depth and direction. This is worse however. The more I work on one aspect the more I see how I need to work on everything else. This is one reason why I like the Dramatic theory, it provides a direction, an anchor point if you will. I'm drowning in details that create the need for more details. I have over 200 pages of notes, world building, maps, character sheets, and history. I feel I haven't even scratched the surface of what I need to do justice to the story I have in my mind. The more I think and work the more it evolves. I've gotten to a point I don't care anymore. And this is all beside that fact that I need to work on the most basic aspect of this all. The quality of my writing, as has been pointed out here.

    I need advice, I don't know how to continue or if I can continue like this. I'm past the point of overwhelmed. Last night I stared at the screen for an hour and was unable to do anything.

    I don't know why I wrote this save to express my frustration and to hope that maybe I am not alone.
  2. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    Everyone has these moments, so you're not alone. There's something called an "inner editor" that never really lets you finish (or even start) anything because there's this need to make everything perfect the first go around. Look around professional author blogs or interviews and you'll see that most authors don't just write a perfect first draft and then get published. That's not how it works. It happens, but not often. If you find the need to world-build, write notes, and all that, there's nothing wrong with that. The key is just to know when to stop and actually start writing. Here's something I do:

    1. I have a notebook by me while I'm writing. In that case, I just start writing, putting in name places, people, etc.

    For example: "Johann trudged across the icy tundra of Horncrawl, his Bazerian steel scraping across ice behind him. He'd find the warlock Grinstark one way or another, if he had to use all his powers as a Stargazer to find him."

    So I wrote this is five seconds and it's not great or anything, but it has a good deal of world-building. Where is Horncrawl? What is Bazerian steel? Who is Grinstark? What is a Stargazer and what powers does he have?

    Well, this is where the notebook comes in.

    1. Horncrawl is an icy tundra in the country of Gorganheim, in the northeast of the continent (just got a country name too!)
    2. Bazerian steel is an unbreakable steel that is very rare
    3. Grinstark is a warlock that killed Johann's best friend
    4. A Stargazer is a man who uses astrology to track their prey

    So just there I did a good deal of world-building. Yet I can still continue to write my story. Now that I have those notes, I know what I'm talking about and can flesh out these details through my actual story in order to help the reader understand what's happening. Very rarely do you see pretty successful fantasy writers do tons of exposition to explain every single detail of something. They just mention it and then let the reader discover more about it through the process of the story.

    It's as if you're watching TV and you see a wizard character throw a fireball. Well, now you know he's a wizard. So the show may reveal more about him as the show goes on.

    2. Set a time to write and write for 1 hour. If you can write non-stop without interruption for one hour, you're in a way "building your writing muscle." Writers have to do this. Even if it's not good, you're finding what works and doesn't work in your style and can maybe find what your really need to get you going on the right path.

    3. Outline. Outlining can go a long way if you let it. I saw this tip elsewhere as well: write about what you're going to write about before you start writing. Wait a minute...What?

    What I mean is, write some notes to explain exactly you're going to write about in this session. "Johann travels across the tundra and fights some ice trolls on his way to find Grinstark." That way you know what is going to happen at least in your writing. Just staring at a blank screen almost never works for me. If I have an idea where I'm going, then I can attempt to get it out.

    Hope these tips help in some way. Being a perfectionist helps a lot when you're editing, but in the actual first draft phase can be quite a hindrance. Take your attention to details and refocus it, so you make each scene the best you can with notes, outlines or whatever other tools you need to make each writing session as perfect as you can make it.

    I think looking at an overall novel can be stressful and overwhelming, so just taking one step at a time may help you.
    Last edited: Nov 25, 2012
    kennyc likes this.
  3. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    I tend toward the other direction. Now, if I have two pages of notes or doodles, that counts as my outline!

    I write from real life, so for me, it's easy to fill in the details, and to do so relatively convincingly in first draft, because, for instance, when I need a king that people don't LOVE, I picture my ex-boyfriend, and give the king just enough of his traits to really annoy me, and then I can write his personality perfectly.

    While my methods might be mind-blowingly loose for you, you could try to take a little from me, and fill in a couple characters with real people to save yourself the time it takes to invent whole personalities.

    Also, what about short stories? Writing a few, like we do the challenges, might get your metaphorical ball rolling and get you writing. While it's wonderful to hae a magnum opus, it takes a half-dozen novels until you start to get really good. Just write, and allow it to suck a little. Then, when you go back and edit, you can easily clean it up.

    I've edited an earlier novel twice now, and there's still parts that suck and read weak... I'm not giving up on it, but the quality I put out now is so much higher, I just want to strangle this 2009 manuscript.

    Best wishes!
  4. Rosered

    Rosered Dreamer

    Didn't Stephen King say: "Don't get it right, just get it written"?
  5. Apparently Voltaire said "the perfect is the enemy of the good" (I say "apparently" because people tend to believe Voltaire said everything) and I like it.
  6. This is, I think, the wrong metaphor. When you sit own and write 200 pages of worldbuilding notes, you aren't laying the foundation to the actual drawing. Because, if you think about it, your "drawing" is the story you haven't even started yet.

    Rather, you're making 200 rough practice sketches - you know, like when you just jot down a lot of doodles all over the paper, eyebrows and noses and stuff, just to get a basic idea of which concept you're going for.

    Only, somehow you've gotten it into your head to get those rough sketches of the eyebrows and noses absolutely perfect. So you never start the actual drawing. Can you, as an artist, perhaps see how crazy that is? That's basically what you are doing here.

    What I'm saying is that you are devoting an enormous amount of energy into perfecting something that doesn't actually need to be perfect, because the worldbuilding stuff is only something you do to get an idea of how to tell the story. For that matter, convincing yourself that this stuff is actually important is doing yourself a disservice, because it makes it harder for you to change your mind later. And you will want to change your mind eventually. Kill your darlings, as so on.

    Well, of course it did. It's the first draft. It's not supposed to be good. Writing isn't like drawing - you aren't expected, or even encouraged, to get it right on the first try.

    See, the problem here is that you'll write something and then immediately decide that what you just wrote was a failure. That's ain't how it works, son. Not writing anything is a failure, whereas writing something terrible is at least a step in the right direction.

    Besides, that has nothing to do with your world-builder's disease. Your story sucked because you haven't spent enough time writing stories. It's not going to get better just because you fiddle around with the maps or outline what the architecture looks like.

    Yeah, writing theory is nice that way. Writing practice on the other hand...

    Look, it sounds to me like you are severely lacking in intuition. Anchor points and direction is fine, but if you don't hoist anchor and let the wind drag you along, that ship won't be going anywhere. If there's one thing I'm sure a good writer needs, it's the ability to write with instinct. Some of the most brilliant ideas I've ever had developed entirely subconciously, specifically because I didn't stop to think about the fine details much.

    Now I imagine that may be scary for someone like you, since it means admitting you are not always in control of your creation. But you're going to have to accept that, or face the very real possibility that you just aren't cut out for this trade.

    Well, then the solution seems obvious - stop world-building. You have more than enough already. You're clearly not enjoying it. You've clearly realized that it's not good for you and that it's getting in the way of your writing.

    So, stop making notes. Don't write anything that isn't the story.
    Last edited: Nov 25, 2012
    kennyc likes this.
  7. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I'm a bit of perfectionist too. I used to draw, but found that the drawing was just an excuse to write, so I cut out the middle man so to speak.

    But let me ask you this. How do you know when your drawing is done? Do you constantly erase and erase until there's a hole in the paper or do you reach a point where you're satisfied with the result and then move on?

    Constructing a story can be like drawing... say a person. Those basic shapes like ovals, cylinders, cones, etc are like the fundamental shape of a story, the three (sometimes called four) act structure.

    As you fill in the rough lines determining the pose of person and what they're wearing, that's like the first draft.

    Now things aren't set in stone yet, because if you're not happy with the rough lines, you can changed them without much loss in terms of time and effort.

    But then as you commit to portions of the drawing, it all starts to come into focus, one line at a time, layer after layer of clothing, shadow, etc. until it's done. That's drafting.

    That's how drawing was for me. That's how writing is. It all starts with that initial roughing out using those basic shapes. I found that one of the keys for taking strides forward in my writing was learning act structure and understanding what has to happen in each of the acts, what belongs in each act and what doesn't. Once I understood that, I understood what pieces I needed to assemble to tell a story. Writing became like making the choice between a cylinder or a cone and how big to make them when drawing fingers.

    If writing is giving you such big problems, I suggest stepping back a bit and try reading some books on writing theory to give you a better foundation with which to work with. One of the key books that helped me understand structure was a screen writing book called Save the Cat. Give it a whirl.

    Now if you're already versed with structure, here are some of the guidelines I use to stop the perfectionist in me.

    - if you find yourself taking out a word and then replacing in in the next pass, there's nothing more you can do for that chapter/section. You're too close to it to be even remotely objective. Move on then come back.

    - if you find that each draft seems to add more problems than it solves then it may bet time to seriously consider moving on to a new project and come back later because you're just putting band-aids onto a shotgun wound.

    - realize that you have limits to your current skills. This means you may only be able to take a story to a certain level with the skills you have. Realize when you've reached this limit and move on. You can always come back. Learn from what you failed to achieve and apply it to the next work. You'll be surprised at how much you've learned by failing, and how much better the next story is because of it.

    I'll stop babbling now.Hopefully there's something in this that helps.
    Jabrosky likes this.
  8. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    Here's an idea: when you get to each scene, try taking the world facts you have and look at them solely as sources for the dramatic questions, such as:

    • why is the hero doing this-- and what are the main reasons no other action would work? ("yes the river is rough, but without the boats we'd have to go through the Endless Desert and the border tensions are spreading too fast to waste time.")
    • why is the villain or antagonist against it-- and again, what other methods have failed him to bring him to this?
    • what things could go wrong now? if the trees are so beautifully lush, what might be hiding behind them? do the heroes get lost, or just take too long pushing through?
    • best of all, can you use this to really justify The Answer to the problem, and at the same time keep it well hidden until it's time?

    Take your many details and your love of extrapolating from one to the next, and pick just a few things to plan out the basic logic of the scene. It will take some practice to see how many dead-ends, backstory points, and so on a given scene needs-- but the key is, once you have a certain number planned, that's all the scene needs for this draft.

    Then write the scene, trying to focus on the tension between the facts. You know why A means B HAS to be true too, so fill the scene with your eye on how A-plus-B forces certain things to happen and how they squeeze things forward. Try to get excited about the pressure that logic creates, that the hero has Nowhere to Run. It might mean writing as fast as you can, and not letting yourself write much about the details of description or history. (If your weakness is changing your mind, make that the one thing you're just not allow to do while you're on a given scene.)

    Like people have said, learning to write is always hard work, discipline, and accepting that the early versions will be ugly. You can use this method to keep going and start seeing the forest your trees make. Then when you finish the scene, or maybe the section or the book, you can go back and add those loving descriptions you raced past-- and hopefully you'll start seeing a balance between detail and momentum.

    But right now, you only need a few of those facts to start you off.
  9. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    I have very similar problems with perfectionism. I edit as I go only to find myself dissatisfied with what I've written so far and end up rewriting the same early scenes over and over again. The argument that you have to press forward and fix things later raises a great point nonetheless.
  10. Leif Notae

    Leif Notae Sage

    The thing is you are accessing two different regions of the brain and it confuses you.

    Writing is the emotional side, the whimsical dance that you take when you move through the world you want to write.

    Editing is very logical, using structure and knowledge to hammer a story into shape.

    Here's the alarming thing: Your first draft is supposed to be lifeless and horrible. I know, that's shocking.

    You make it better with the editing. You make it better when you look at it with fresh eyes and see the hints of ideas you left yourself along the way, sort of like a word bread trail.

    Yes, you will NEVER get anywhere if you lock yourself up with being perfect out of the gate, because no matter how you get to that point, you are using the wrong side of your brain to figure this out.

    Write. Just like you draw. Do it without thinking, without caring, leave hints here and there on what you want to do, and then come back to do it again. These actions will show you perfection.

    Besides, the energy you exert by being perfect the first time is at least 3-4x the amount you would exert by writing the first draft listless and edit it once or twice.

    EDIT: Also, this came to mind while nuking my veggies. The reason why you are anxious when you write but not when you draw is because you have a plan when you draw. When you do art, you have something in your mind, an "outline" if you will, of what you will make. This is why you are awesome at art.

    Writing is much like this concept. You need an outline, structure in your story to help you along the way. This way, even if you think you are doing horrible, you can look at your handy "writing road map" and know you either have a bad story, or you can adjust things on the fly and make everything better.

    I blame that insight on the radiation
    Last edited: Nov 26, 2012
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  11. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    I'm having the same trouble right now. I've got to print my piece for my writing group in less than an hour, and it sounds terrible to me.


    EDIT: I don't know if it was posting here or the rapidly approaching deadline, but I took another pass through the scene. I made a bunch of changes and feel much better about it now.

    Just in case posting your problem here possesses some kind of mystical quality, I'd recommend trying it :)
    Last edited: Nov 26, 2012
  12. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    I wonder if writing our first drafts longhand with a pen might be more conducive to the type of "don't edit as you go" writing process advocated here. Of course you could still hesitate before writing words on the paper, but at least once you write them you can't backspace them from existence.
  13. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

    Technically you could if you had white-out/liquid paper, but yeah. XD
  14. Jess A

    Jess A Archmage

    Lately I think everything I've written is crap. It's sloppy.

    But most artists are their own worst critic.
  15. kennyc

    kennyc Inkling

    Do you have a web gallery? Link to your drawing? I'd love to see it.

    (will read the rest of thread and add my two cents on writing if anything to add)
  16. amadhava

    amadhava Scribe

    I saw the title for this thread and thought it would make an amazing book title as well!! Can you imagine it? A world where you curse someone to be a perfectionist, and they end up focusing so much on the minutiae that they cannot get to the bigger picture at all! And then, you would have to think of a counter for this - if you can come up with your counter-curse for this, maybe you can put it to use in your real-life :). Sorry, my brain is a little scrambled and I tend to think of myself in a book quite often...

    So either you counter-curse, or you shield. Now, to shield, you have to be very conscious of exactly what you are doing. So when you sit donw to be your "perfectionistic" self, and you realize it, leave the world building, and start the writing. Realize that the writing might suck, but tell yourself that that's ok. Everyone's first draft sucks when they re-read it... that's how you grow. And, to counter-curse, you have to tell yourself (when you're not writing, but just having a brain ramble), that being a perfectionist is not always a good thing. The reason I am stating this, is that if you have written this post, it means that even though it is frustrating you, being a perfectionist is still a good thing in your dictionary. You have to get rid of that idea when it comes to writing first drafts.

    Hope this rather tangled paragraph helped :)
  17. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I do think perfectionism is a problem for writers, particularly starting out. No work is perfect. Nothing you put on paper can ever achieve the 'perfection' of the vision you have in your head. Writing is by nature an imperfect expression of thought and idea. It is one step removed from the thing itself. If you insist on perfection, you'll never get anything done.

    I disagree, though, that all first drafts are bad. Most of them need work, I admit, but I've sold stories that were first drafts on at least three occasions. I think for a short story a first draft can be a final draft. For a novel, I suspect it is much less likely.
  18. amadhava

    amadhava Scribe

    I bow down before experience... :) Since I have never gotten to the point of submitting my stories, I wouldn't know if first drafts could or couldn't get accepted. So I will correct my statement: My first draft sucks everytime I re-read it.

    This is a good reminder not to stray into generics when not necessary - thank you Steerpike! :)
  19. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    Most of mine do. But often they are not as bad as we, the authors, believe them to be. Someone mentioned above that we are our own worst critics, and I think that is always the way with art :)
  20. Zireael

    Zireael Troubadour

    Well, I've found the best cure to revising a story ad infinitum is to submit it somewhere, where people will point out what really needs improving and what doesn't. I'm prone to correcting what's good by inserting what's bad - happens to me in exams, too ._.

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