Here's a few choice bits from my friend Steve's piece "Finishing Flawed Fiction And Processing Piecemeal Prescriptions" (if that isn't enough alliteration for you, Steve's full name is Steven Savage, haha):
... [the process of writing ] could have been faster if I hadn’t spent time editing as I went, chapter by chapter until the halfway point. In short, I actually aimed for quality too early. ...
When I write fiction in the future, I think I need to accept that my initial effort is basically going to be like a piece of alpha software. Good planning and thought can make it a very good alpha, but my focus should be to get it done so I have enough to work from. Many things in fiction writing only become apparent once you have the whole picture. ...
I can accept that fiction starts imperfect because of all its factors and charge ahead, admitting it won’t be perfect. It’s just that when the imperfect version is done, the perfect version follows more easily.
Steve and I actually debated this particular approach in the early stages of his writing the book. I was of the opinion that editing as you go was a bad idea, because it would interrupt that initial flow of things that needs to operate without censorship to be really effective. He wanted to give it a shot, and since I'm not his daddy (I don't even play it on TV), off he went. Now he realizes that was a bad idea.
I'm not citing all this to lord it over him, but rather to reflect on it as it happened in my own work as well.
Back when I was old enough to vote but not quite old enough to drink, I collaborated with someone on a writing project. The other person was about my age, and was still struggling with the idea that you needed to find exactly the right words, the first time, every time. I was of the mind that anything beat nothing, and that you had to start somewhere to be able to go somewhere. Very little ever came of this collaboration, as you can imagine.
It's easy to pooh-pooh perfectionism in others and not see it in yourself, though. With me, some of that takes the form of struggling with the embodiment of a particular idea in a story. There's some theme or issue that I want to write about, and I grind my teeth and chew the inside of my cheek because I can't find the right general type of story to put it into. The end result is the same kind of perfectionism of the unattainable, and it takes me a while to loosen up my grip and accept that it's okay to take more than one stab at the concept — that you can even produce multiple works that are various attempts at same, each with their own individual merits that might not be visible when you're in the grip of just trying to make things Perfect.
Another thing that comes to mind on reading Steve's notes is that the process itself can also feel like perfectionism. Incremental editing and refining stops being about trying to make the work better and more about a kind of virtue performance to one's self: See, I care so much about this work, because I'm willing to re-read and re-edit it as I go along. But more often than not, that just produces work that's lifeless and edited to death.
There's this romantic idea that a piece of creative work has to be forged in total silence and secrecy — that the author has to go into his cave and hibernate for months and emerge with a masterpiece from the head of Zeus. But the opposite of that is no more true — the idea that creative work can be made a totally public endeavor. Or that the complementary opposite of raw inspiration fed to the page in one go is white-glove meticulousness for every word. There was no extreme sickness here; extreme remedies aren't needed.
Many of the old aphorisms about creative work come to mind, chief among them that creative work is never finished, just abandoned. Every finished work is necessarily tentative, a step in a greater direction that in some ways can only be continued by others. These limitations don't constitute a prison, but rather a runway; we need that narrow, straight strip to build up enough momentum that we might be borne aloft. If only for a little while.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind