On Writing, Part 3: The Breakthrough Moment™
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What a way to start my first day back to full-time writing.
The other day, I wrote a little about deleting things and starting again the other day. Yesterday morning, I deleted all of the writing I’ve done on Marlowe Kana Volume 4 to date and started over. Two-thirds of a book went into the recycle bin. It sucked. And by that, I don’t mean the writing I’d done sucked. I mean the process of realizing what I had done so far wasn’t working, excising it, and watching months worth of writing wisp to vapor… THAT sucked.
It always sucks. I had to do this with Volume 1 three times, and Volume 3 once. The reasons vary. For Volume 1, I had to eliminate from the earth entire swatches of bad writing. Terrible writing. I mean, truly awful & repugnant scrawling of a rank amateur who wrote fiction the way one writes a blog post about going to the local “it” restaurant… Boring, procedural, and relevant mostly only to the writer in a way that stories about babies are relevant only to the parents telling them.
In this case, the writing itself wasn’t particularly bad. The plot points are still in my outline. The character progressions are likely not changing. The storytelling itself was competent — at least an order of magnitude above my first strikeouts on Volume 1. But re-reading the work… Something just wasn’t right.
It didn’t flow. It didn’t connect. It definitely got the points across and advanced the plot, but it just felt like there was no heart. So, I killed it.
I learned the hard way long ago that adding heart to a story after it’s written is like hanging a heart-shaped pendant around the Tin Man’s neck and hoping he passes for human. It doesn’t work. The story is stiff, and randomly juts into emotional territory in an effort to convince the reader that they are supposed to care. And it sucks.
But, the writing I’d done so far wasn’t worthless. There was a lot of great stuff in there. I worked out a LOT of things I’d been confused about or needed to elaborate on since finishing Volume 3. I developed characters well past where they were when I started. A lot of hard, necessary work was done. And that gets me to the most important lesson I’ve learned since starting the journey of writing fiction 2 years ago, and the larger journey of writing in general 20 years ago:
It all counts.
This is the process, like it or not. Sometimes you have to recognize when you need to rewalk a path you thought you already trod, because you know somewhere along the way you missed a step (or, worse, skipped a few).
All the work I’ve done on Volume 4 is not wasted, it’s just not going to make the final draft. But it had to get done. It had to exist in order to build the foundation for the next draft, which I can already tell you is immeasurably better despite only being 3/4 of one chapter (so far).
I feel very passionately about Marlowe Kana; enough to quit my job and focus on the series full-time, hopefully for a very long time. I want to get it right — not perfect, but right. And that means deleting the writing that doesn’t work for the series. It means doing homework. Lots and lots of homework. It means rework. It means polish. It means learning everything I can, not just about the characters and the world and the plot but about the process of bringing those things to life.
It sucks. But it’s the good kind of suck.
It’s also not perfectionism. I am not striving for perfect. I don’t believe in perfect. I don’t think it actually exists, except as a mythical enemy against the process of making things. Perfect is an excuse. It’s a reason to give up. And what’s more, it’s boring. Even Brian Eno says so:
But that doesn’t mean I’ll settle for “good enough” either.
When Volume 4 is done, it’ll have flaws. It’ll be rough in places. I’m still figuring this whole process out, so of course there’ll be mistakes and places I could do so much better with, say, ten or twenty years’ experience. But that’s not what I’m after. I don’t want flawless. I want it to be right. And right now, the writing I’ve done so far is a step toward getting it right. I have to be okay with that. And I also have to be okay with the flaws it’ll ship with.
This journey is every journey. You know what you know right here, right now, because of what you learned along the way. You can’t know a thing until you’ve learned it. You also owe yourself better than settling for less than what you know is right.
So, you do the best work you can at any given moment, and never settle for less than that. When something’s done, let it be done and move on — but don’t call anything done until you know it’s the best you can do.
And I’m not apologizing for using another Matt Hardy gif. I love him, and will continue to use them as long as they’re relevant.
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