Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Writing Wednesdays: Battling Perfectionism and Shutting Up Your Inner Editor

Yay! Time for another Writing Wednesday! First, though, (in case you missed my spam on Monday), I have a new book coming out! One Good Dragon Deserves Another, the long awaited sequel to Nice Dragons Finish Last (which is currently on sale for $0.99!) will release August 1, 2015! You can read a sneak-peek sample here, or pre-order your very own copy on Amazon.

Also, if you clicked any of those links, you might have noticed that I revamped my website. So check that out, too. It's pretty!

Okay, okay, Rachel, enough with the promo. Let's get to the good stuff!

Writing Wednesdays: Battling Perfectionism and Shutting Up Your Inner Editor

Perfectionism is a common curse for writers. It makes sense, too. With so much time and work going into a single product, striving to make it "perfect" is the the logical conclusion. Add in the inevitable writer ego, and it's all too easy for us to get hung up on the little mistakes rather than seeing all the stuff we got right. But while perfectionism is often spun as one of those "good flaws" since it implies a high level of quality control in the final product, the truth is that giving in to perfectionism is one of the absolute worst things that can happen to your writing.

I was on the #NAlitchat podcast last year, and one of the hosts brought up what I felt was a really brilliant observation about this exact topic. She put forth that most writer perfectionist tendencies aren't due to actual perfectionism, but, rather, to fear. Perfectionism, she said, can be just another name for procrastination, because it's easier to find problems than it is to take the plunge and put your work out there to be judged.

Now, of course, I'm not saying every incident of perfectionism is due to fear. If you care about books enough to write them, you probably have high standards, and there's nothing wrong with going over your work multiple times in an effort to make it as good as possible. That's just having pride in your work. The problem comes in when the need to make things absolutely perfect starts getting in the way of actually finishing the book. The most insidious form of problem perfectionism is when you start doing this during the first draft stage of writing, when you shouldn't be worried about editing at all. This problem is so common, writers even have a pet name for it: the dreaded Inner Editor.

The Inner Editor is that obnoxious voice in your head that butts into your writing and tells you you're doing it wrong. That's a stupid word choice. No one will ever want to read this. Real authors don't use adverbs, and so forth.

This litany of insecurities is totally normal, but just because it happens to nearly everyone who tries to write doesn't lessen its negative impact. The Inner Editor monologue can be crippling, especially if you're new to writing and haven't yet gotten enough words under your belt to build up the necessary weight of experience and confidence to shut that stupid voice down. But sometimes even experience isn't enough to save you. I've written fourteen novels, and I still get hit with bouts of the Inner Editor.

So how do we deal with this problem? How do we get over perfectionism and shut the Inner Editor up so we can actually write the damn book?

Sadly, I don't have a single bulletproof answer to this. One of the amazing but sometimes frustrating things about writing is that everyone does it differently. How you get around the mental roadblock that is your Inner Editor will depend entirely on your work style, your personality, and what motivates you as a writer. That said, I've had a lot of fights with my Inner Editor over the years, and I've developed some key self-defense strategies that worked really well for me, which I'm now listing here in the hope that they'll help you as well.

Rachel's Anti-Inner Editor Battle Plan #1: Create a Safe Space
Like I said above, the Inner Editor's criticism tends to revolve around insecurities about other people's judgement of your work, so one of the very first things I did to get away from it was make myself a safe space. It can be a mental space or a physical one, or both! You just need somewhere--a room, a folder, a notebook--where you can convince yourself that your writing in this place will never be read by anyone else unless you allow it.

The idea behind this strategy is to create a safe zone where your Inner Editor's complaints are rendered invalid and, therefore, not your problem. What does it matter if that's a stupid way to write that sentence? No one ever has to see it but me. And if I do write something awesome, I can just copy-paste it into my manuscript, and no one ever has to know that it was the lone survivor of 34 pages of crap.

Personally, I create a safe space for myself by always thinking of my first draft as the practice draft. I subscribe to the theory that the first draft is what you write to learn how to write the book. I'm not writing the book people will read, I'm writing the sludge that I have to work through in order to learn how to write the book. I'm building my mock-up, drawing my sketches, doing my warm-up routine, whatever metaphor you prefer. The important thing here, though, is that I know that the words I'm writing are in no way the finished product. They're vital practice, the rehearsal before the play, the safe place where I am allowed to write crap and make mistakes and experiment. It's only after the first draft, when I've failed forward enough times and ended up with a more-or-less manuscript I'm excited to work with, that I switch mental gears and thinking about my document as a book that others will read.

One of my favorite mantras is that writing is not a performance art. You don't ever have to show anyone your work until you're happy with it. And while this sort of thinking can definitely lead to a downward perfectionism spiral where you never show anyone your work, it can also be a source of strength and confidence. By taking away your Inner Editor's platform, you're putting yourself back in control. You're the one with the power who has the final say in everything. You're the writer, which is the same as being a god within your created worlds. All you have to do is find a place where you're comfortable embracing that power, and your Inner Editor doesn't have a chance.

Rachel's Anti-Inner Editor Battle Plan #2: Accept That There's No Such Thing As A Perfect Book
One of my favorite bits of author coping advice I've picked up over the years is the habit of going to the Amazon or Goodreads page for my favorite novel, the one I believe is absolutely perfect, and reading the one star reviews. The point of this isn't to drag down my favorite work--so far as I'm concerned, those one star reviewers are Wrong McWrongpants from the city of Wrongville where everyone's wrong--but to remind myself that every book, even the ones I think are brilliant, even the lauded classics, have things people can criticize. This doesn't they're bad books. I obviously think they're amazing books. But no book, not even the top 1% of the best, is perfect to all readers, and, therefore, mine doesn't have to be, either.

Understanding that it is provably impossible for a book to be "perfect" was a huge step for me in battling my Inner Editor. I'm a detail oriented person, and I tend to get really down on myself about what are arguably very minor, subtle things. Going bad review surfing, while sometimes infuriating (how could anyone say that about THE LAST UNICORN? Don't you people understand that book is a masterpiece!!!???) is, for me, a vital exercise in perspective. It's almost too easy to get so wrapped up in our own work, we forget that our readers are not us. Some of them will fixate on flaws we never noticed as a reason to give a terrible review, some won't care at all, and there's nothing we can do to predict or change that. All we can do as writers is our best, and even that is inherently flawed.

Once I accepted that and realized that my Inner Editor's criticisms were both correct and completely irrelevant at the same time, it was a lot easier to tune her out and focus on what was actually important: writing a book I was proud of.

Rachel's Anti-Inner Editor Battle Plan #3: Get Lost In Your Own World
If you've listened to/read any of my advice/ruminations on writing, you probably already know that I'm a huge believer in the idea that writing should be fun. I mean, we're basically playing a very high level game of make-believe, creating worlds where we are gods and best friends and devils all at the same time. That's heady stuff, so much so that one of the three breakthroughs of how I went from writing 2k a day to 10k was to get excited about my work, but what I didn't talk about there was the fact that embracing this fundamental creativity of writing has become my single best defense against my Inner Editor.

When you're suitably excited about something, nothing can bring you down. Take your favorite series/band/sports team/whatever. Are you going to stop being a fan just because someone else said the thing you love was stupid? No way! F the haters!

Now, take that same level of "I love this and nothing you say can change my mind" and apply it to your writing, and you'll find that Inner Editor's commentary matters just as little as the people who try to tell you that our favorite whatever is stupid. This doesn't mean they can't have true criticism (nothing is perfect, see battle plan #2 above), but, and this is the secret, you don't have to care. If you really focus on getting excited about your own world and writing and characters, that excitement, that love and passion for your story will not only shine through your words and get your readers excited as well, it can also be an iron wall against Inner Editor nagging.

I call this being your own biggest fan, and while it can definitely be taken too far (you don't want to fall so in love with your voice that you become blind to actual weaknesses you need to address), I believe it's a vital part of the artist side of being a writer. After all, if I don't love my books, why am I writing them? If I don't care, why should anyone else? So don't be afraid to really dive into your world and embrace whatever you think is most awesome. Let yourself be a fan for your own world, and you'll reduce that Inner Editor to just another hater.

Rachel's Anti-Inner Editor Battle Plan #4: Let Go and Move On
This is the final stage of beating your Inner Editor. For me, this part happens in the later drafting stages, when I've already used the strategies above in the battle against my Inner Editor. Unfortunately, for me at least, my Inner Editor rarely stays beaten. So long as I have insecurities about my work, she'll always rise again, and so the final stage of any writing project for me is learning to let go.

For me, at least, this part never gets easier no matter how many books I write. Even now, five years later, there are a million things I still itch to fix when I think about the Eli books, but I can't. Those books are done, beyond my control, and that's okay. Are they perfect? Of course not, but there are still thousands of readers who love them despite all the stuff I know I messed up. Think of your own pleasure reading. Do you expect every book you encounter to be perfect? No, you just want a good story that will move and entertain you, a book worth reading. That's as it should be, because the only person who will ever care about true perfection in your books is you.

This is a lesson I have to relearn on every book. There are always so many things I could fix, and asking strangers to read your work never stops being terrifying. At the end of the day, though, every writer, even me, has to let go, because if you don't, that book will never be published.

This is the ultimate goal of beating perfectionism, the reason (other than your own mental health) that beating your Inner Editor is so important. We only have so much time to write in our lives. If you let yourself get hung up on perfecting a book that's already 99% done, you'll lose all those books you could have been writing. You can polish and polish and polish until you can't stand the sight of your own words anymore, but at the end of the day, you still have to let that book go free in the hands of readers. If you don't, if you let fear or obsessing over small details hold you back, no one will ever read it, and that would be a great tragedy, indeed.

I hope these strategies help you with your own battles against your Inner Editor. If you struggle with perfectionism, please know that you're not alone. Thousands of writers at all levels of success struggle with these exact same issues, but the ones who make it are the ones who find a way to look past all the minor tweaks that can seem so stupidly important and focus on what really matters: telling your story and getting it out into the world!

There will always be more books to write, and I look forward to reading yours.

Thank you again for being my reader, and I hope you enjoyed this edition of Writing Wednesdays!


Sarah said...

Thank you so much for this. I've been stuck to the point of thinking about giving up recently - I'd be thrilled to be writing 2k words a day, much less 10k, which is no way to build a career -- and the reminder to get excited about my worlds could not have come at a more timely moment. I need to stop thinking about structure and start thinking about fun and joy!

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I struggle with perfectionism and/or fear so this post was extremely helpful. I'm starting to get my writing mojo back, finding the joy in the creative process, again. :)

Bookmarking this post for further reference!

Tami Moore said...

Excellent post, and very timely. Advice I've heard before, but it's so easy to to forget!

Veronica Sicoe said...

I love this!

I've stumbled over you (har-har) through your book 2K to 10K, because I'm a perfectionist and currently fighting a serious battle with my Inner Bully. He's not even an Editor. He's not making any useful comments at this time. And because of him, I tried to use your wonderfully DUH!-triggering book to bully myself into optimizing my output --- when in fact, I should step back and focus on having FUN again.

That's what stuck with me the most. It's been haunting me these past few days, and last night, when I almost got drunk on your enthusiasm via the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Marketing Podcast, I did just that. I stepped away, took a deep breath, and then knocked my Inner Bully's teeth out.

So this post is fantastically timely for me.

Thank you so much for being you, being outspoken, and reminding me why I love doing what I do.

Unknown said...

Ugh, I needed this. Editing feels like driving down the motorway at 25 mph, pulling over every mile to sob into the steering wheel.
I find the hardest part of all is getting excited about my writing. When it's good, and it's in the zone, and it pours out, it's wonderful!
But as soon as I open that next scene, and look at those top paragraphs...I stall.
It's not perfect, I know that. Maybe it is fear. But how do you fall in love with something that terrifies you!?

Rachel Aaron said...

I'm so glad you guys liked it so much! This is still an issue I struggle with every single book. I don't think it'll ever go away. So long as writers have doubt, the Inner Editor will always return! That's why I just focus on methods to deal with/manage the voice rather than try to get rid of it all together. Feeling like you suck really does seem to be just a natural part of writing, which means the trick seems to be learning to write and enjoy your work despite that.

The best, though, is when you finish something and legitimately love it! There's nothing an Inner Editor can say to that!

Again, so glad this helped. Thank you all so much for reading! ^__^

that kid said...

I'm still struggling through my 1st draft...basically what I have is space that I need to fill because I wrote my character into a vitally important corner (which I hate -n-) and now I need to figure out what to do with it.
Basically this article is a huge help. Thanks! :)

Rebekah said...

the way I found to both limit crippling perfectionism in a first draft as well as force me to edit is to use a manual typewriter. it makes me think a little bit more about the words I'm going to use and type because I know I can't just delete them and start over. but if I do mess up I can't get rid of it so I just have to keep going. I can save that part of editing for later when I have to type the first draft into the computer by hand. I know there are scanners and programs to do this automatically but typing it up by hand forces me to edit as I type it in as well. And I've always enjoyed editing more when I can scribble across the page, for some reason that physical part of it helps me to enjoy it's much easier to keep going when you already have a large chunk of writing to work with.

Rebekah said...

the way I found to both limit crippling perfectionism in a first draft as well as force me to edit is to use a manual typewriter. it makes me think a little bit more about the words I'm going to use and type because I know I can't just delete them and start over. but if I do mess up I can't get rid of it so I just have to keep going. I can save that part of editing for later when I have to type the first draft into the computer by hand. I know there are scanners and programs to do this automatically but typing it up by hand forces me to edit as I type it in as well. And I've always enjoyed editing more when I can scribble across the page, for some reason that physical part of it helps me to enjoy it's much easier to keep going when you already have a large chunk of writing to work with.

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