Exploding the Perfect Writer Myth

Just this past week, my mom finished writing her first novel. (Yay, Mom!  Everyone please insert loud cheers here!)  Apart from being so stinkin’ proud of her for taking the plunge and diving into this whole writing gig, just on a personal level, the whole process of her taking up writing has been so much fun for me.  My mom has always read my books, and we’ve talked about them, of course.  But getting to connect writer to writer and talk craft and dialogue and book construction has been a blast –especially since it’s not something I ever thought I would share with her.

One of her comments, though, (I think she was mid-novel when she said it) made me alternately stare in complete amazement and snort with laughter.  My mom  said, clearly frustrated with her own abilities, “I’m still in the stage where I have to keep rearranging and rewriting my sentences to get them how I want–rearranging whole paragraphs, even.”

To which I answered, “Are you kidding me?  You honestly think any writer ever grows out of that stage?”

At least I hope to goodness they don’t and that it’s not just me–because with 10 books written, I sure haven’t grown out of it yet.  I am constantly rearranging my sentences as I write them–or a day, a week, several months after I write them.  Sentences that seem witty and wonderful turn out, when I go back through and read them again, to be so pedestrian I would die of embarrassment to have anyone else read them .  Ideas occur to me as I write, new information about the scenes or the characters or the overarching plot I haven’t considered before–which  means I have to cut and paste and rearrange whole paragraphs, and move the conversation about the heroine’s dog to Chapter 2.  That’s just how writing works, at least for me.

Anyway, it was my mom’s turn to be astonished.  As I say, she’s read all my books, and she said, “Really?  You mean your  books don’t just, you know, come out like that on the first try?”

Ha.  And everyone else who has written a novel is probably also laughing hollowly here.   But I also think it can be a common misconception, and a paralyzing fear:  we read other authors’ works, and they seem so good, so perfect, even.  I’ll never to be able to turn out anything that good, we think.  But when we read other authors’ books (unless we’re a beta-reader, critiquing a draft, obviously) we’re only seeing the finished, polished, product.  We haven’t seen what’s gone on behind the scenes: the plot that dovetails so neatly was probably a sprawling, shambling mess at some point in the writing process, and the cause of much pulling out of hair.  The dialogue that’s so snappy and funny–it probably took hours and hours and multiple drafts to get it that way.  That’s actually one of the great things about writing–that perfect comeback that occurs to you at 3 am?  You actually get to go back and use it.  Or as Robert Cormier said, “The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile.”

Is it work to revise and polish and cut and rearrange and revise again?  It absolutely is.  Would I love it if I could simply swallow a magic bean or knock three times on my keyboard and have a perfect book pour out through my fingertips?  Yeah, kinda–and I honestly do even enjoy the revising stage.  But as Michael Crichton wrote, “Books aren’t written–they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

So if you’re struggling, wrestling, frustrated with your own writing skills–know that you’re not alone.  Even James A. Michener once said, “I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I’m one of the world’s great rewriters.”

 

 

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About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.

Comments

  1. says

    Anna,
    You are so right! I’ve often wanted to read the first drafts produced by authors I admire. I don’t think readers realize the many hours spent revising, reorganizing, reimagining, and rewriting a manuscript to get it into shape for publication. And that is before we feel confident enough to show it to a beta reader or a book editor. Your mom discovered what we writers already know: this stuff is hard. Thanks for this post, Anna
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..What Drives Your Main Character?

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  2. says

    So very, very true. I would hazard a guess that for every hour I spend writing I spend at least two rewriting. Once a first draft is finished I read it over at least once more and add/remove commas, restructure sentences and paragraphs, etc, before handing it over to my beta-readers. And even then, in the course of going over their suggestions I find more tweaks to make.

    You don’t stop rewriting until your “final” draft is sent in to be published.
    Marion Harmon´s last blog post ..The Gods, They Are Not Your Friends.

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    • says

      And sometimes not even when you send your books to be published. My trad pub novels I can’t alter/revise now (both nice and frustrating at times) but my indies I can always tweak if a reader finds a typo or something. And there are always typos, no matter how many editors and copy editors you employ!

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  3. says

    Kudos to your mom! I think we can all identify. And the only way anyone can know is to go through it.

    My mom is 84 and when she called the other day she asked me what I was working on. I’ve been working on a rewrite of my first ms all summer, and told her I was feeling good about the revision work, and was nearing a finished (umpteenth) draft. A tad confused, she asked, “Now what is this you’re working on?” I told her it was book one of the trilogy, and she said, “But I read that years ago!” Didn’t know what to say to that, except, “Love you, Mom! Gotta go.” ;-)

    Give your mom a congratulatory hug for me, Anna. Great post!
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..The Grittiness Factor

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  4. says

    Spot on, Anna. The rewriting seems to break down into two camps: those that blast through, damn-the-torpedos, and come back to rationalize the whole mess and those who stop and massage each sentence during the first draft. Both can work, of course, depending on the psychological makeup of the writer. I do a bit of both by reviewing a page or two when rejoining the fray even from a meal break. Nonetheless, the first draft MS still needs a thorough gimlet edit after a week or two. You?

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    • says

      Alex, I’m more or less the same–I always read through and edit a few pages, too, before picking back up with the writing. If a major edit occurs to me while I’m writing, I’ll go back and get it done. Minor edits, I’ll make myself and note and save it until I’m doing a whole round of revisions.

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  5. Linda Pennell says

    Three cheers for your mom, Anne! And I’m sure she’s proud of you as well. The professionals in any field make it look sooooo easy because they’ve put in many hours of behinds-the-scenes practice. Writing is no different, but don’t you just hate it when your junior high English teacher turns out to be right? Edit and revise, edit and revise, edit and revise…..man, her voice has come back to haunt me!

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  6. says

    “It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

    Thank you. And Michael Crichton. I keep hoping that every major revision to my WIP will be the last . . . On the other hand, each revision has been satisfying. (Sadly the triumph only lasts until I realize there is still a gaping hole here, or over there, or my critique group starts squinting and squirming, clearing their throats . . .)

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    • says

      There are no books that require zero revision–only books that have to be revised *less*. So take heart, not all books will require as many drafts as your WIP. I’ve written books that were in publishable shape with just two drafts . . . and then again, my most recent title required so many revisions that I can barely look at it now without getting flashes of writerly PTSD! Hang in there, eventually you will reach a draft you’re fully satisfied with!

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  7. says

    This morning I am working on the editing notes from my publisher. Now, before I even gave this manuscript to the publisher, I’d rewritten/edited this novel so many times I don’t know how many. I paid two people to read over it and edit it. And still my publisher has notes. It is hard to feel like I can actually write anything.

    It is good to be reminded that this is the way it goes.
    marta´s last blog post ..Speaking of mug shots…

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    • says

      That is definitely just the way it goes, Marta! And every reader brings something different to the table when they read a book, so they will always have different feedback than you’ve gotten before. It’s not that your book was still terribly flawed, just that your publishing house editor had not read it before and thus had not yet added her slant to your mix of feedback. Congrats on landing a publisher, that’s a big step!

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    • says

      Thanks, Jan! And my mom is the one who made me love books and stories down to my very bones by the amount she read to me while I was growing up, so really the gratitude is all on my side.

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  8. says

    Short sometimes comes out all of a piece – a short story, a blog post, an article. Probably because the mind has been mulling it over, rearranging the bits behind the scenes before the piece breaks free. A quick polish, minor changes, and you can’t really see spending a lot more time on it.

    Longer stuff, not so much. Chapters and scenes might work, but the whole shows holes, inconsistencies, repetition of favorite phrases.

    I think it’s because the mind can only work with so much material at a time, varying with the subject matter and the writer’s storage and processing capability.

    Careful planning, plotting, and outlining helps some writers; paying a lot of attention during revision, others.

    And then, at some point, you just have to let it go, say ‘good enough!’ – and move on.

    Congratulations to your mom – writing creates awesome feelings.
    ABE´s last blog post ..Added PRINCETON’S DANCING CHILD (Mystery) to free short stories

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    • says

      That is very true! And you’re absolutely right, there are many different ways to edit/revise, just as there are many ways to write a novel. I agree, writing creates completely awesome feelings!

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  9. Christi Craig says

    Excellent post, and – yes – congrats to your mom! I’m so glad I’m not a brain surgeon, so glad that writing allows me to be imperfect through the first, second, seventh drafts. Frustrating as it is, it does take off some of the pressure.

    Love all the quotes you included as well.
    Christi Craig´s last blog post ..Bread, Books, and Coffee

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  10. Denise Willson says

    This is why communities like WU are so important, because non-writers don’t GET IT. I’ve learned not to explain myself…just smile and nod.

    Thanks, Anna, and kudos to mom.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  11. says

    Wow.. this is so apropos right now.. with my friends and I on the cusp of new endeavors for NaNoWriMo in just under 2 weeks. This was a wonderful reminder and affirmation for me of just how much in common we all have when we read other’s finished works. Thanks Anna!

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  12. says

    I, too, am grateful for you and the other writers who post here on WU. It’s refreshing and reassuring to realize, “Oh, other people do that, too?” Writing a novel really is dizzying in the reshuffling, culling, inverting, topsy-turvying we do.

    I think of the process like walking through an enormously overgrown briar patch (like the one growing up around the sleeping beauty’s castle) with a machete, carving a path and then slowly but surely switching to pruning sheers and then smaller scissors. Meticulous however one looks at it and very sweaty work, but worth it in the end.

    My current novel is on its sixth and sort-of-final version, and it’s taken a lot to realize multiple versions of a novel isn’t a bad thing – it’s making sure the cake bakes all the way through. And making sure that it does and knowing when it is, finally, fully baked is gold.

    Thanks!
    Jillian Boston´s last blog post ..Adventures in Logophilia Day 38: chimera (jillian)

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  13. says

    This is the kind of advice that kept me from giving up – knowing that ALL authors go through the same steps, the same crappy drafts. Thanks for reminding us all again that we don’t suck – this is all just part of the writing process.
    Vicki Orians´s last blog post ..Behind the Curtain: The Acrobat

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  14. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Congrats to your mom. And yes, wouldn’t it be an alternate universe where everything written came out perfectly the first time?

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  15. says

    I have heard from several reliable sources that the late Robert Parker never revised. Perhaps he was the exception to prove the rule for the rest of us. Of course, now that he’s gone, I suppose his mantle becomes available. Alas, it won’t be mine.
    I’d be horrified to show anyone the first draft to either of my books.
    Mari Passananti´s last blog post ..Blogging from the Left Coast

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    • says

      I hadn’t heard that about Robert Parker–so interesting, Mari! Though I wonder if he did revise as he was writing. You can be re-working sentences/paragraphs as you go without moving into another official ‘draft’. Maybe for my own ego’s sake, I just don’t want to believe that anyone can get it right on the very first try. :) But I’m completely in awe if Robert Parker really did.

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  16. says

    A book is never finished, only published.

    It must be great to have someone so close to “talk shop” with who can truly understand what writers go through to make it look so effortless.

    It even goes beyond the re-write. Once the book is published it becomes, “When are you writing the next book?”

    I also have a book suggestion to add to your Craft Corner:

    Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain

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  17. says

    When I first got into writing it was on the marketing and technical side. The 2 women training me told me that a work is never done it just reaches a point of “good enough”. That if the person you have reading it cares about you and/or the work it can always be improved on. That has helped greatly as I’m learning to write fiction and it comes back heavily red-lined. Friends who simply say its great get moved to after its published readers as right now I know I have too much to learn for what I’m writing to be great. I’ve always been a bit baffled by people who think they can write once and publish. I’m sure their are rare exceptions who can but…

    Much credit to your mom. I’ve been having similar experiences with my mom as she joined a writers group just before a friend asked me to co-author a book. It’s a great bonding experience.
    Tasha Turner´s last blog post ..Social Networking Works

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  18. says

    Absolutely spot-on, Anna. I have to remind myself all the time that perfection isn’t going to happen and that good writing isn’t always easy. Nice post.

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    • says

      I think one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard on writing is that the novel is intrinsically a flawed form–complete perfection is impossible. You could take that as discouraging, but I actually find it both liberating and encouraging. Since perfection is impossible, it takes the pressure off to be ‘perfect’ and makes me just want to strive for making the story the best I possibly can.

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  19. says

    Congratulations to your mom, Anna! That is so cool.

    This is why I could never do what some writers do: share chapters of my work as I write it. Are you kidding me? Nobody reads my writing until my eyes are bleeding from the number of revisions I’ve done–and then I still have half a dozen more to go from the suggestions of my beta readers.

    This complete crap first draft is, by the way, exactly what NaNoWriMo is for (coming up in only 12 days!). I know it’s not for everyone, but it does get 50,000 words of that terrible first draft out in the open. If you haven’t written something first, there’s nothing to revise.

    Thanks for a great post!
    Sarah Woodbury´s last blog post ..Welsh Rebels

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    • says

      Thanks, Sarah! Yep, except on rare occasions when it’s forced on me (and even then I really don’t like it) I never share around incomplete drafts of a WIP, either. Even during the first draft, the story changes so much by the time I type ‘the end’–and that’s not even taking into consideration the other 12 drafts I do before I feel ready to share!

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  20. says

    On my ninth rewrite. ;) But on the plus side, I’m finding as I transcribe edits made on the hard copy into electronic version, I am trusting what I had on the page already. So maybe like a cat, this novel’s used up all its lives!
    Cari Noga´s last blog post ..Glasses girl

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    • says

      That’s always such a good feeling, Cari, when you can trust what you have. Kudos for you for pushing through all the earlier drafts to get to this point!

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  21. says

    Ha! I’m currently revising (again) a short story that I wrote several years ago, and it’s alllll about the rearranging of sentences and paragraphs. And eliminating unnecessary description. And angsting over whether there is enough description, or I need more background, or whether this detail is important, and so on.

    I know my first drafts have gotten better with time, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Each time I conquer one issue, I discover a whole new one that I have to learn to perfect. I can’t imagine that will ever go away!
    Kristin Laughtin´s last blog post ..Happy National Information Literacy Awareness Month!

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  22. Cathryn Cade says

    Love this post, good reminder of how far I’ve come that I saw your lovely mom’s comment for what it was – a newbie misconception.

    We have to be willing to write doo-doo in that first draft.

    La Nora said ‘I can fix anything I write, but I can’t fix an empty page.

    She’s right!

    best,
    Cathryn Cade

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  23. says

    The funny thing I find is that I think of *myself* as a “one-shot” writer. By the time I finish a piece I’ve convinced myself that it really fell onto the page like that. Then I look at my notes and drafts and realise that every sentence, sometime every word, has gone through a hundred iterations.

    I’ve come to think of this as protective amnesia. If I was fully aware of how laborious my process is it might put me off, but this blissful delusion that I get it right the first time gives me the courage to start new projects. Has anyone else experienced this feeling?
    Cila´s last blog post ..Love Enough

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  24. says

    Writing is rewriting, always and forever. That should be our slogan. It’s also why I love to let a story sit so I can come back to it new and slashing and revising doesn’t feel like a personal affront at that point.

    Thanks for this chuckle this morning.
    Malena Lott´s last blog post ..The Dark Side of Being a Writer

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  25. says

    I am inspired by anyone who writes so kudos’s to your mother who has once again proved that creativity trumps age. I am not writing a novel but a family history and have rewritten every sentence more than once. I thought it was ready to go, gave it one more reread yesterday and revised it once again. As a newbie, I wondered if it was just me editing over and over again so this post was extremely helpful. I feel a little better about all the rewrites. Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts.

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