You keep churning stuff out, even as I procrastinate

I'm having my habitual Trouble Getting Started; yesterday I shamelessly focused on beta tasks, today I may be reduced to cleaning the linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom.

To further heap opprobrium upon my own irresponsible head, I shall link to Kristine Rusch's excellent post on why perfectionism is a bad business strategy (because it leads you to not write books. You know, like how I'm not writing books right now).

The notion that a truly talented writer should be able to turn out a perfect book without actually working on their craft reminds me of the research on raising intelligent kids so that they will actually be successful (that's a PDF): If you tell them that school should be easy for them because they're smart, you are basically denigrating the value of hard work. As a result, when they come across something they don't understand right away, they 1. don't know what to do, and 2. are too embarrassed to apply themselves.

From the article:

Mistakes crack [these children's] self confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so.... [S]uch children shun effort in the belief that having to work hard means they are dumb.


Rusch writes that this kind of belief, when applied to writing, is pernicious both professionally (less books = less readers) and personally. The damage on a personal level comes from believing that talent, like intelligence, is an unchanging attribute:


A talent is, by its very definition, something you’re born with. Either you have it or you don’t. As the précises for the University of Iowa states, it can’t be learned. It can only be “encouraged.”

Of course, if that were the case, then writers couldn’t improve. They would have the same ability at the beginning of their careers as at the end of their careers. Study, classrooms, research, practice, none of it has any meaning whatsoever in the face of Great Talent.


I am also going to argue that this belief is bad for literature. As I've noted before, authors tend to be judged on their highs, not their lows. Most people don't realize this, because they read, say, Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, Catch-22, and Go Down, Moses.

And then they stop there. They think, "What amazing genius!" and feel very small.

Don't stop--take your favorite books and read everything by those authors. Mansfield Park. Hard Times. Anything Joseph Heller wrote that wasn't Catch-22.

Yes, even Sanctuary, but don't say I didn't warn you.

You want two-dimensional characters? Books devoid of story lines? Characters and story lines brazenly and badly recycled from other books? Novels that manage to be boring and offensive at the same time?

Do it. Knock those writers off the pedestals you've put them on in your mind. Be bored and miserable as a reader--that will help you as a writer. You'll realize there's a whole slew of legendary writers who probably wouldn't have ever amounted to much had Max Perkins not been around to lend a hand.

If you produce a less-than-perfect book, so what? You're in good company! On to the next one--hopefully it will be better!

The main problem with tinkering and retinkering with a flawed book is that it almost never helps. Most of the time the problem is fundamental to the conception of the book: You really don't have a story there that's going to work. You thought you did, but you don't. Tightening up the prose in chapter 23 is not going to make a difference.

You either have to scrap the whole thing completely, like I did with my first novel, or you "scrap" it by publishing it, which at least gives you a chance to see if maybe there's some value there. Either way, you have to get it out of your head, be done with it, and start anew.

Let's put it this way: If I had a chance to speak confidentially to the person who wrote that mismatched novel, what do you think I would tell them?

1. "You never should have published that! It's damaged your reputation forever and ever! Your career is finished!"

2. "You should go back and revise it."

3. "You're so funny; your next book should probably be about something lighter. You could even do a lighter apocalypse book--have you read Good Omens?"