This weekend, I completed the first draft of my third novel. My agent cheered. I heaved a huge sigh of relief. First drafts are grueling for me. Whereas I enjoy revising and editing, first drafts are a slow torture. But if what Hemingway said is true, that the only thing that matters about a first draft is getting it done, then I suppose I should celebrate this accomplishment.
Nothing will prevent you from finishing a first draft like perfectionism. Nit-picking over the exact word, niggling the plot just right, these are for later. Your inner editor will get her chance. But if you let her out of the basement during the first draft, baby, you’re in for a slog. Which is probably why John Steinbeck advised, “Write freely and as rapidly as possible, and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with the flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.”
Steinbeck strikes to the heart of what often slows me down: Rewriting as I go or Editing during first drafts. It doesn’t help that one of my favorite writers, Dean Koontz, does this. In an interview with Brad Crawford in 2008, Koontz said this, “I don’t write a quick draft and then revise. Instead, I write 30 or 40 drafts of each page before moving to the next.” As much as I love Koontz, this has really screwed me up.
It’s been said, the last draft is always the most important. But for the perfectionist, there’s never a perfect last draft. So even the writer who writes “30 or 40 drafts of each page before moving to the next” must, at some point, move to the next. And this is what digs at the perfectionist’s heart: Moving on when you know it can be better.
I know my first two novels could be better. I know it, I know it, I know it. But dammit… I had to move on. Unless you actually believe you can write THE PERFECT NOVEL, at some point you must concede imperfection. In this sense, “the most successful weapon against perfectionism is imperfection.” We must face the fear of a flawed plot, inferior prose, critical rejection, and just plain looking stupid. Finishing your novel means surrendering to imperfection. It is the monster you will never slay.
But there’s something else. Part of my “first draft inertia” is the need to know where I’m going with a story. Not sure this is true of every perfectionist, but it’s one of the heads of the hydra I personally battle. I have a hard time moving forward on a draft if I don’t know how the story ends.
If “stories are relics,” as Stephen King said, “part of an undiscovered world,” and the writer’s job is to excavate the fossil, I want to know if I’m picking at a mouse or a mammoth. It’s absurd, I know. I need to just keep digging. Nevertheless, that’s often part of machinery that makes us perfectionists tick.
E.L. Doctorow once said that, “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Which explains why I so struggle with first drafts. I want to see past the headlights. That’s reasonable, don’t you think? I mean, I never just get in my car and start driving aimlessly — I have a destination. So why in the world should I just start writing a novel without a destination mind?
Stephen Koch, in his excellent book The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop counters this nonsense. He opens with this advice:
It would be nice, I suppose, to begin at the perfect point in the story, in the perfect way, using the perfect voice to present exactly the desired scene. Unfortunately, you have no choice but to be wholly clueless about all of this. The rightness of things is generally revealed in retrospect, and you’re unlikely to know in advance what is right and wrong in a story that has not yet been written.
I “have no choice but to be wholly clueless”??? Egads! Nevertheless, venturing into the “fictional fog,” knowing not what you will find, is part of the “imperfection” the novelist must surrender to. (Note: Koch’s chapter on Working and Reworking: Early Drafts and the Techniques of Revisions is worth the price of the book.)
In the long run, perfectionism may help a writer. That is, if it doesn’t kill them. Finding the right word, nailing the scene, bringing that character to life — this stuff does not happen without some attention to detail. Problem is, too much attention to detail can bleed you to death. At some point, you must cage your inner editor, suture the story, and move on to the next.
Unless you believe you can write the perfect novel, at some point you must concede imperfection. Which is, perhaps, the perfectionist’s biggest problem.