It’s only been two and a half months since I declared 50,000-word victory in last year’s NaNoWriMo, and I have already forgotten its most important lesson: the pursuit of imperfection.
You’ve all heard the expression, “the pursuit of perfection.” It’s an imperfect expression in itself in that, usually, this malady of thinking we must make art perfectly and on the first try, really has nothing to do with pursuit at all, but more to do with feeling frozen in our tracks by the enormity of all the details that must be worked out in order for a project to be realized successfully.
And if we are to be honest with ourselves, it’s really a form of laziness. We let this desire to make something perfect keep us from beginning a difficult project…but we also let that be our excuse. Oh, look, this artist is being conscientious. “I want to do justice to my art.”
Seems to me that the secret to a successful creative project is not in the word “perfection,” but in the word “pursuit.” If you are actively pursuing your project, then you’re not stewing at the starting line, trying to figure out how to take the first step.
NaNoWriMo really made being imperfect perfectly acceptable. In fact, it is expected that a NaNoWriMo manuscript be ugly, scarred up, and full of errors. And mine is exactly that, with asterisks and edit notes littering the exposition, dropped subcharacters, constant name changes, et cetera. But it resulted in a story I’m proud of. And now I have a draft of my story to work with instead of just an idea or a concept. I jumped leagues ahead with this novel in the one month I spent NaNoWriMoing than I ever did over two years of planning the damn thing.
All these results just from changing the goal of the writing. With NaNoWriMo, the goal is about word counts, tallying up units of vocabulary, letting our characters have long conversations, exploring exotic settings.
By changing the goal from nailing down a close-to-publishable manuscript in the first draft (because I’m lazy and don’t want to commit to doing several drafts), to simply adding up the words, the sentences, the pages regardless of mistakes, I ended up with something I’m proud of, something that has real potential instead of just an unrealized concept.
Anyhoo, I bring this all up because I’ve gotten myself caught in the perfection trap once more. It all started with a pretty straightforward short story idea. But as I started to develop it, it became clear that there was a series here, something fun, and something I really don’t think I should ignore. These are the gifts of the Muse. Even if she brings you fruitcake, you tell her, “Thank you, Mistress. May I have more?”
So it took me a few days to commit to writing the series. Then I started to get into the research, which led me into the whole I-don’t-want-to-start-writing-this-story-until-I’ve-got-everything-figured-out. I mean, what if I get my protagonist out to the Great Barrier Reef and have the ocean temperature all wrong, which screws up the science, which… fuhgeddaboudit. All that doesn’t matter.
In my own pursuit of imperfection, I have discovered two things:
1) There’s nothing you can screw up so badly in a story that can’t be fixed. This isn’t brain surgery, thank God.
2) You can’t ever plan it all out, every detail. Nope, can’t happen. And you don’t want it to happen. Trust me. There are flashes of lightning hidden in each story that can only be discovered by writing your way to them. And you know that feeling when you round the corner of a piece of exposition and there it is, that flash of genius, that character you never realized had it in him to — boom! That’s the magic all of us writers are looking for when we sit down. It’s in writing, not the planning.
So I’m going to go write the story now. I accept that I will have to fix the mistakes that I will inevitably make. But I just can’t read any more about the damn Great Barrier Reef, and I’ve got other projects I want to get to. So I’m putting my characters on a boat, and we’re going out to the reef together to see what’s what. And I’m bringing my lightning rod.