Perfectionism & Criticism

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A couple of years back, a self-published author asked me to read and then review their e-book. “It’s nearly perfect,” they said. “I’ve had it edited by a friend of a friend who’s an English teacher.

“How honest do you want me to be?” I asked.

There’s the rub. How honest? Just so you know, that “nearly perfect” editing resulted in a piece with gross grammatical errors and often laughable word usage. I wrote an honest review and before posting it, sent a copy to the author. Never heard from them again.

Growing up, I learned that making a mistake was the worst thing you could possibly do. I know I’m not alone because perfectionism—not the immobilizing kind but the quality of believing in one’s unquestionable faultlessness—runs rampant. Everybody may be saying “nobody’s perfect” but who admits to making errors? And above all, never apologize.

In my last paid job—one that lasted almost twenty years–I spent about fifty percent of my time writing business proposals. At least ten people, and sometimes as many as thirty, reviewed and critiqued what I wrote.

Without commenting on the lack of efficiency inherent to that process, one benefit I gained early on was how to take criticism, both constructive and ridiculous. For my own sanity, I adopted an attitude of learning when faced with the errors of my writing ways.

For example, should I have used “I” as an object instead of “me”? Really? But instead of arguing with that particular (repeat) grammar offender, my attitude of learning led me to take the time to look it up. I’d explicate, using expert citations, the grammar of subjects and objects and first-person pronouns.

I learned something and, hopefully, so did my critic.

That same approach has helped me grow as a fiction writer. It goes beyond “learn from your mistakes” to Miller’s Law: “In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to find out what it could be true of.”

So critique me. My long-held mantra still works. I’m far from perfect. I’m open to whatever you tell me because it may make me a better writer.

 

Writing Every Day

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This past March 7, I participated in #PitMad, a Twitter event in which writers pitch finished novels to agents. While I didn’t get a bite, I did join #WritingCommunity and followed a number of different writers.

Living where I do—rural Kansas—I don’t get to interact with many writers. We have a local writers’ group, but it’s sparsely attended. So meeting other writers online has been a real treat for me.

One question I see asked frequently is “how do I write every day?” And I’m amazed that some folks write at all. What with the day-job, the kids, and other various commitments, I can’t imagine finding time to sit in a quiet place with yellow legal pad or laptop.

At my last job, all I did was write. Business proposals, grants, web articles, email tips, the CEO’s blog, internal and external newsletters … you get the picture. I’d stop at the local coffee shop on my way into the office. When arriving, I’d sit down at my desk, take that fortifying first sip of joe, and write. I’d leave the office after eight (or ten or twelve) hours of writing, and drive home, only to repeat the next day. Because I wrote to short deadlines, it wasn’t unusual for me to write all day, every day. And no time, usually, for editing.

My writing—getting the stories in my head into words on a page—was impossible. After that writing-heavy workday, I’d had a surfeit of writing.

Once I left that job, though, I found I’d developed the habit of daily writing. Getting words on paper—my words now—was an imperative. Like brushing teeth or exercise or bedtime, writing had become an essential of everyday life. My theory is that if a person wants to write every day, it can be done through habit formation.

There are tons of books written about developing habits. My personal favorite comes from Prochaska and Norcross, Changing for Good.

Once a person moves into a state of readiness for change, it’s a matter of toughing out the ninety days or so that it takes to develop a positive habit.

Warning: if a person is already overextended like I was, maybe the first step is to let go of other commitments. Just saying…

And now for my finding an agent update. Five queries have gone out the door for The Last Summer Queen. Another goes out tomorrow. Wish me luck.

 

Morning Naps

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I used to sit down at my desk by 7AM and write. I might work on a 1,000-question business proposal, tips on stress management, articles to improve health literacy, or the CEO’s Blog. I’d write for eight to ten hours. Sometimes 12 if we had a huge proposal with a short timeline. 

No such thing as writer’s block for me. What I learned was to put something—anything—on paper. If I had time, I’d go back and edit, revising as needed. I usually didn’t have time. 

You want discipline as a writer? Try a business proposal worth millions of dollars that HAS to be at the printer by noon.

Writing fiction is totally different. Time doesn’t matter. I spend a few hours on a piece, then tuck it away to ‘chill’ before editing. At some indeterminate later.

The downside? Revision seems to be never-ending. 

This morning, I’m struggling to figure out whether to keep chugging away at the latest work-in-progress, or stop and rethink the outline. Meanwhile, the cat is sleeping in the office chair.

I’m thinking about joining him.