Aiming for Perfection – As it applies to Fiction Writers by Carole Lander

I recently attended a workshop called 'The Art of Imperfection' at The School of Life in Melbourne. The aim of this session was to help perfectionists find ways of seeing that imperfection is often okay!

As an editor, I have to be a perfectionist. As a non-fiction writer, I must ensure that all the facts are correct. However, as a creative fiction writer, I understand that the process is different and I enjoy that difference. But there are aspects of this side of my life that I'm not happy about.

I got a lot out of the workshop and I'd like to share my revelations with other aspiring writers out there. The italicized sections are the words of wisdom from the workshop. I follow these with my thoughts and notes to self. I hope they help you too.

1. Some of the areas in which people might be perfectionists are: domestic life, relationships, creative life, professional life, reputation and appearance.

For this blog, I am focusing on creative life.

2. Perfectionism can be a good thing. It shows us an exciting image of what the future might hold and helps us strive towards that image. However, when we fall short of what we imagined it can make us very anxious.

As a fiction writer, I spend too much time visualizing myself producing such a great book that it's immediately snapped up by a publisher. I can get depressed imagining the opposite. I needed the rest of this workshop to give me tips on getting through that phase.

3. We can try to better understand why tasks are hard and frustrating and how much work is actually required to do well at them.

There are so many stories of established authors who were not published for years. For example, when J.K. Rowling submitted the first Harry Potter book to a publisher it was rejected but she kept on writing and pitching. When I look at the size of the books in her long series, I am daunted. I may never attempt such a body of work but I can look to her success when I'm struggling with my own.

4. Ambition used to be only for the very few but in the late 18th-century hope was democratised. For example, Napoleon Bonaparte (not born into nobility) became an emperor. Later, the American Dream spread from the US across the western world leading to everyone believing they could succeed. However, in recent years when we're surrounded by images of perfection in the media, it's easy to blame ourselves for not achieving this ourselves.

So many people are aspiring writers these days. I meet them at workshops and we all have that burning ambition to create the perfect story or book. Sometimes I find myself surrounded by people who have had their work published by the big companies. I leave with mixed feelings. (1) YES I can be like them, I just have to keep plugging away. (2) I'll never get there. I need to learn to not compare myself with others.

5. Problems that perfectionism can cause include: despairing too quickly if we don't achieve creatively; frustration due to focusing too much on what we'd like to get done but never do get done; having unachievable goals.

When I attempt a long novel, there are times when I think I will never get to the end. So, if I focus less on the finished result and more on the journey of writing, I'll be less frustrated. And if I stop listening to the voice in my head that says the goal is to be published, I might enjoy the journey even more.

Creativity is such an objective thing. What I like is not necessarily what others like. If a publisher doesn't want my manuscript, it's not personal. There are many reasons why they might reject my book—no market potential being just one. It's definitely an unachievable goal to think I'll be another J.K. Rowling.

6. We can learn to tolerate the stages in achieving a perfect outcome. We can also learn to tolerate stages of imperfection and anxiety along the way by recognizing these steps as mini-achievements.

It's OK to write a story or poem or chapter and see it as a stage on the way to creating the perfect work. I need to accept that some of my efforts will not be very good. If members of my critique group send a list of possible changes, it's for my benefit. They're not trying to belittle my work. I can learn from them. I don't need to feel anxious about their comments. When I get something accepted for, say, a non-paying publication (i.e. not a real publisher!) this is a mini-achievement. If someone even likes my work this is a mini-achievement.

7. We can reduce our ambitions and find satisfaction in small things. By having a Zen approach to life we can slow down and not race to achieve our goals. We'd be better off focusing on the process and not the product.

Yes, the writing process can be arduous. But it also brings a great sense of joy when the words and story flow on the page. Fixing up words and phrases afterwards takes time. I need to allow myself to enjoy this time and not be in a rush to make it perfect. After all, can we ever say that a piece of writing is perfect? Have I ever read the perfect book or story? Well—yes I have but I've also read many that I think could be improved.

I once heard Chloe Hooper (The Tall Man, The Engagement) say that her publisher's courier was at the door to collect galley proofs and she was still finding words and phrases that could be improved. I think of this when I am stuck and desperately wishing I had a magic wand to fix the sentence, plotline, or whatever isn't working for me.

8. We need to be able see the humour in our strivings and laugh at ourselves. The following list is very applicable to writers. It makes me laugh and it puts my writing into perspective.

  • One literary novel, written by a previously unknown author, made money.
  • Four literary well-established writers published in the UK made money.
  • 213 were published but lost money.
  • 2346 were carefully considered for publication and rejected.
  • 17312 were rejected after being looked at for less than five minutes.
  • 25877 were finished but never sent to agents or publishers because writers lost confidence in the worth of the project.
  • 43103 were abandoned after having been worked on for more than a year.
  • 146089 novels, or scenes from novels were sketched and never taken further.
  • 4.3 m people (approx.) thought about writing a novel.

  • 9. Tracking our accomplishments is very good practice. We don't often get pleasure from what we have achieved because we rush on to the next project. So, we should pause and reflect on what we do well.

    I have resolved to write more about my achievements in a journal where I can go back and look at them and say, 'Hey, I'm not doing so badly!' I recommend this to other writers too, even though it means giving ourselves more writing tasks!

    Happy writing everyone!

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    Thursday, 03 December 2020

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