Perfection in Writing?

Get over yourself. You’re a writer. So write.

Need some help getting over a desire for perfection? Self-doubt, seen in an obsession to perfect your prose in fears of being exposed as an unworthy imposter (we’ve all felt that, right?), can be debilitating. Here are some tips from great writers that have proved helpful to me.

“No matter how hard you work on your writing, there will always be other writers who are better, faster, deeper, more popular, richer. And that’s fine.”
– Jane Yolen

“Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem, in my opinion, to characterize our age.”
~ Albert Einstein

“A book is like a man—clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.”
– John Steinbeck

“Knowing how to work as a farmer has helped me a lot as a writer. You don’t, for instance, have such a thing as ‘farmer’s block.’ If you’ve got animals to take care of, you take care of them.”
– Wendell Berry

“Once the book or the story is written nobody cares and nobody knows what was written on a good day or what was written on a bad day. Nobody knows or cares how fast it was written. (Coraline was written over ten years. That’s an average of about nine words a day.) By the time the book’s been copy-edited and is ready to be published, nobody will know or care or remember which days you enjoyed writing it and which days you didn’t, not even you.”
– Neil Gaiman

“Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she had laid an asteroid.”
– Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), in Following the Equator, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar

“To reach a port we must sail, sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it. But we must not drift or lie at anchor.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes

“Isak Dinesen [Danish author Karen Blixen] said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair.”
– Raymond Carver

That last quote is truly one of my favorites. We all understand that we should write without despair. But without hope? It means that writing is not a matter of wishful thinking, but what you do, one day at a time. It is a commitment not requiring a promise of a wonderful outcome. Perfection of means or confusion of goals? Your goal as a writer is to write, today. It is what we do. Dithering over the perfection of means will hold you back.

You’re a writer. So write.

November Hodgepodge 2013 – Keep Writing!

[Are your fingers flying feverishly on a NaNoWriMo project? Or are you you working on something else? Here are a few quotes to encourage you to keep writing!]

I don’t impose any word count or number-of-hours quota on myself, or have any rules, except one: persistence. Nothing glamorous. No epiphanies. Just revisiting and rewriting. For me, momentum is far more important than inspiration.
– Pam Muñoz Ryan

Write in any way that works for you. Write in a tuxedo or in the shower with a raincoat or in a cave deep in the woods.
– John Gardner

The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside us while we live.
– Norman Cousins

A goal is a dream with a finish line.
– Duke Ellington

“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.
– Bilbo Baggins, in The Hobbit

Keep going; never stop; sit tight;
Read something luminous at night.
– Edmund Wilson

I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.
– Ernest Hemingway

There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.
– Norwegian proverb

[Okay, that last item is not really about writing, but it might help you find an extra ounce of gumption in the face of literary or life’s headwinds.]

Just Say No to NaNo (WriMo)

If you really want to try to write novel in a month, I am not going to stand in your way.

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to commit, sitting side by side (virtually) with thousands of other avid fictioneers, to pen a 50,000-word manuscript in 30 days, starting at midnight on Nov. 1 with 0 words written.

Sure, a few of the impulses behind this zany idea are valid. For instance:

  • It’s good to set goals.
  • It’s good to create a specific timeline in which you commit to reaching a specific goal.
  • It’s good to tell others your goals.
  • It’s good to write daily, if possible.
  • It’s good to try to find extra time to write even if you seem too pressed by other obligations  to have much time for literary creation.

Fine. And the NaNoWriMo challenge may sound fun and possibly productive (at least in October).

But the problem: a madcap, caffeinated dash to write 50,000 words in 30 days and call it a novel is a bit foolhardy.

What is most likely to happen? After a week or ten days, the creative juices will flag. At about the two-week point, you’ll start to seriously get tired.

You’ll ask yourself, should I continue? Some will quit. Others will stiffen the spine, declare they are not quitting, superglue their posteriors to their chairs (or growl at anyone who approaches them in the coffee shop), and plunge along.

It’s just that few good novels are written in this way. I’ve always recommended NaNoWriMo as a good time to commit to writing more diligently. (As is most any time, but November is good, as the fall settles in and our gardens are done and we begin to look at what we’ve achieved this year and hope to accomplish in the near future.)

But make a realistic plan. Please.

Am I being too Midwestern? Too practical?

Here’s what I’d rather that you did in November, towards the goal of writing a good, readable, marketable novel:

  • Commit to writing 500 words a day. (So you’ll end up with only 15,000 words. So what? What if that’s better than a 50,000-word mess?)
  • Commit to finishing a short story each week in November. Four weeks, four stories.
  • Commit to finding a good writing partner. Exchange serious plans, and support each other in a path that leads from here to a good novel, within any reasonable timeframe.
  • Commit to anything that you genuinely feel will push your career forward, in a way that really helps and that doesn’t create a lot of bad habits and mediocre writing.

If you’re a nonfiction writer, you might also check out this challenge by Nina Amir to “Write Nonfiction in November!” (She suggests that you write and publish nonfiction all year.)

Her pitch:

You are personally challenged to start and complete a work of nonfiction in 30 days. This can be an article, an essay, a book, a book proposal, a white paper, or a manifesto. WNFIN [Write Nonfiction in November] is not a contest. It’s an event held for you—so you get inspired to set a goal and achieve it.

That actually makes sense. Follow that lead, for your fiction or nonfiction. Set a good goal. Get inspired. Achieve it.

And enjoy your Thanksgiving . . .without sitting there with a dazed, distracted look, wondering if sending your hero over the Zylchix Mountains on a wild goose chase is such a good idea, but deciding you’ll stay up late and make it happen anyhow . . . because, hey, it’ll take thousands of words to do it. And it’s Nov. 28. And you need 5,000 words to hit your NaNo goal.

Just say no to NaNo. (And yes to more pie!)

If NaNo works for you, godspeed. May your fingers fly. May the Zylchix Mountains ever rise to meet your hero’s step, with the flowing wind of words at his/her back.

[For a few other articles I’ve written dealing with the NaNoWriMo issue:]

Do You Practice Creative Contemplation?

NaNoWriMo – A Literary Feast of Fools?




Time and The Writer

“There is time for everything.” – Amish saying.

1. Ask the right question: What is possible? 

I’m starting a new writing project and want to make good progress this month. A motivational phrase that floats through my mind, one that resonates for me (as a busy person), comes from an Amish source: “There is time for everything.”

Although this may produce an initial snort of derision, it holds a deep truth. What happens is the everything. What doesn’t happen . . . well, those ideas and wishes were merely figments of our imagination. We might envision writing an ambitious work. We might break it down into plans to write chapters and sub-chapters. We might plan to work on it hard. We might try to shoehorn it into a busy lifestyle with long worklists. We might try to get up early to write, or stay up late, or write during breaks during the day.

But what will happen is what will happen. And for many of us, that depends on how much we wanted it to happen.

Let’s agree that what happens is the totality of “everything.”

Is my writing project a high priority? If so, it involves trade-offs. Will I waste time doing less important things? Or will I decide things other than writing are more important?

As Maeve Binchy, said, “Time doesn’t come from nowhere.”

To write, you need to prioritize it.

I often see aspiring writers who bite off more than they can chew. John Gardner recommends starting with short stories to develop craft. I like the advice, because writing short pieces also develops the habit of tackling right-sized bits . . . and finishing them. Short pieces teach you how to work through an idea, try it, and if it works, great. If not . . . on to the next.

I often refer to what I call Ray Bradbury’s method (from Zen in the Art of Writing): Start a story on Monday, and send it off at the end of the week.

All during my early twenties I had the following schedule. On Monday morning I wrote the first draft of a new story. On Tuesday I did a second draft. On Wednesday a third. On Thursday a fourth. On Friday a fifth. And on Saturday at noon I mailed out the sixth and final draft to New York. Sunday? I thought about all the wild ideas scrambling for my attention, waiting . . . confident that . . . I would soon let them out.

Me? I’m an essayist. I write in 1,000- to 2,000-word chunks. It works for me. Focusing on a short piece at a time, I’ve managed to write a number of books, learning to organize my short essays in outlines that lead to longer works.

2. Perfection is the enemy of the good.

The proverb is good advice for writers. How often have we slaved too long over a work . . . and in the process, undermined it by a) overwriting. and b) not ever finishing it? I am not a believer, as some literary types say they do, in the need to polish each sentence before going on to the next.

Achieving absolute perfection may be impossible. The returns (better quality for more effort) diminish over time. As the Pareto principle says, 80% of the results comes from 20% of the work. Yes, try to improve your story . . . up to a point. That point is where you’re fussing over details that don’t matter to the reader, that don’t contribute to the story, and that may well interfere with the real purpose of the story.

Get in, tell your story, and get out. Let the story do the rest of the work for you. If it’s good, it will.

British Inventor Robert Watson-Watt, who helped develop early-warning radar to counter the initial success of the Luftwaffe in World War II, offered this advice, recommending a “cult of the imperfect,” which he stated as “Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes.”

3. Exclude. Focus. Work.

In Henry Miller on Writing, the gifted author lists a set of “Commandments” that are worth their weight in gold.

  • Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  • Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  • Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  • When you can’t create, you can work.
  • Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  • Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  • Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  • Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

What keeps you from getting your writing done?

Do you know how to exclude distractions, focus, and work on your writing steadily?

Make it VIP, a very important pursuit. Do it, and then go on to other things.

 4. Real desire. No waffling.

Steven Hagen, an American teacher of Buddhism, writes in Buddhism Plain and Simple (1997) about “right intention” or “right resolve”:

Intention to act, for him, means more than wishful thinking.

There’s a story of Socrates testing the true intent of a youth who came to him for instruction. He wanted to see if this young man had the resolve to search for Truth. He took the youth to the river , and, after wading into the water, asked the young man to follow. Once they were waist-deep, Socrates suddenly took hold of the fellow and held him under the water. Naturally, the youth soon began to struggle for air. Socrates then lifted him from the water and said, “When you fight for truth as you fight for breath, come back and I’ll teach you.”

. . .

“Right resolve” is likened to a person whose hair is on fire. When your hair is on fire, you’re not going to weigh the pros and cons of putting it out. If your hair’s on fire, there’s no waffling. You see no choice. You act.

Do you intend to write? Do you fight for the time to write? Do you act on that resolve “like your hair’s on fire”?

5. Accept.

There is time for everything. Will “everything” include . . . that story you’ve been meaning to write?

I could work longer on this piece, but I won’t. My hair’s on fire . . . to finish this and get it to you.

I hope it helps you understand how to find the time to write.

November Hodgepodge – Being a Writer

Don’t, please, get precious about your working methods. . . . The more you humor your inadequacies by compensating with phony environment, the tougher your work will become. You have to be in a mood. I grant that. But if you haven’t the understanding of yourself to be in any mood when you wish – then don’t fool around with the mood business. Be an automobile salesman. I would like you to be able to write as well as you can with pen, pencil, and typewriter, in tree houses, boiler factories, and on subway trains. I insist you must be able to write as well as you can with a stomach-ache, a crying baby, a paving drill going – and on a typewriter that has a non-functioning “e” and an inoperable backspace. If you want and need to. Then – for your regular surroundings – any moderately quiet, well-ventilated room with an ordinary typewriter table and chair will be paradisiacal.
– Philip Wylie (1902–1971), co-author of When Worlds Collide (1932)

I can’t decide for you whether or not you have got to write, but if anything in the world, war, or pestilence, or famine, or private hunger, or anything, can stop you from writing, then don’t write . . . because if anything can even begin to keep you from writing you aren’t a writer and you’ll be in a hell of a mess until you find out. If you are a writer, you’ll still be in a hell of a mess, but you’ll have better reasons.
– William Saroyan (1908–1981), author of The Time of Your Life, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, which he declined to accept.

I believe there are writers who enjoy writing. For my part, I loathe and abhor it. I enjoy immensely sitting in an easy chair before the fire, closing my eyes and rapturously envisaging the sweep, the drive, the sounds, and the fury of the masterpiece – they are all masterpieces at that stage – which I am going to produce. But writing – ah! That is a different pair of shoes! . . . No sooner am I seated at my desk than I want to get up again, to wander about the room, look at the view, eat apples, suck toffee . . . .
– A.J. Cronin (1896–1981), author of The Stars Look Down

I confess, right at the start, to the doubts  – and sometimes outright dreads  – that go with me as I climb the stairs to my study in the morning, coffee mug in hand: I have to admit to the habitual apprehension mixed with a sort of reverence, as I light the incense . . . and wonder: what is going to happen today? Will anything happen? Will the angel come today?
– Gail Godwin (1937–), American novelist

I have no idea whether what I write will be of the remotest interest to anyone else. Some mornings when I read what I wrote the previous day I think it’s fairly entertaining; other times I think it’s pure rubbish. The main thing is not to take any notice, not to be elated or upset, just keep going.
– Maeve Binchy (1940–2012), Irish novelist

[Quotes from Wylie, Saroyan, Cronin, and Binchy appeared in issues of The Writer magazine, in Feb. 1938, Sept. 1938, Dec. 1938 – it was a good year –and Feb. 2000 respectively, and all reappeared in The Writer’s Handbook 2002; quote from Godwin is from “Rituals and Readiness: Getting Ready To Write,” a wonderful article in The Writing Life (1995), a collection of essays by National Book Award winners.]


NaNoWriMo – A Literary Feast of Fools?

What is NaNoWriMo? A great surge of literary energy?

Or a Feast of Fools?

From their website:

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

In 2011, NaNoWriMo claimed 256,618 participants and 36,843 winners (i.e., those who finished the challenge successfully). As an earlier press release said: “They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.”

As one of the participants wrote:

Every year of NaNo, I feel like a winner, just for taking time for myself to do something I love, and to do it intensely.

I agree that one key element of writing is setting aside the time to write, fueling your core of passion, and dealing with the demands of the often-tiring process. Writing can seem like a solitary struggle: man or woman facing the blank page of infinite possibilities. We all can benefit from encouragement and writing buddies, real or virtual.

So I understand how the cheerleading and sense of community of NaNoWriMo gets the writer’s blood pounding and fingers flying on the keyboard.

Personally, though, I recommend a more measured, stick-to-it approach. For most, 500 words a day and a good 3-month plan will get you further than an intense November.

Is a month-long writing marathon really a good idea for you?

As a writing coach and an editor of books of advice for writers, I’ve studied the techniques of successful authors of all genres and approaches. Only a few writers (Georges Simenon, Belgian author of the Maigret crime novels comes to mind) did anything like NaNoWriMo with any consistent success.

The Encyclopedia Britannica entry for Simenon says “Typing some 80 pages each day, he wrote, between 1923 and 1933, more than 200 books of pulp fiction under 16 different pseudonyms, the sales of which soon made him a millionaire.”

Eighty pages each day! Zounds!

This story about Simenon is attributed to Alfred Hitchcock:

Alfred Hitchcock was said to have telephoned, only to be told by Simenon’s secretary that [Simenon] couldn’t be disturbed because he had just begun a new novel. Hitchcock replied: “That’s all right, I’ll wait.”

Here’s another Simenon story:

So notorious did his speed of composition become, that on 14th January 1927 he signed a contract with publisher Eugène Merle undertaking to spend seven days in a glass cage outside the Moulin Rouge nightclub, during which time he would write a novel which was subsequently to be serialised in Merle’s newspaper, Paris-Matinal.

(The paper folded before the event took place, but Simenon kept the advance and enjoyed the media attention for the planned stunt.)

Of course, I certainly can’t prove that the manic intensity of NaNoWriMo – or being locked in a glass cage for seven days outside a night club to write – will do any serious harm to a writer. Most will probably build up at least some ideas, passages, maybe self-confidence (or not), maybe some progress on a project.

But that’s a lot of energy to spend on something that’s probably better training for pulp fiction than for serious writing aspirations.

My November challenge: ask yourself, honestly, what really works for you? Not what is fun, or a literary adrenalin rush, or a heightened sense of community, or the power of a public oath of commitment (good things in moderation). . . . but what is really going to advance your writing?

For some, NaNoWriMo is going to be the trick that works. No problem! But then . . . what’s your plan for the next three months, and beyond?

For others, maybe a better idea is to look at the principles of setting aside the time to write, fueling your core of passion, and dealing with the demands of the often-tiring process . . . and develop a more realistic schedule to accomplish a good piece of publishable work, and find some longer-term writing friends to help keep you on track.

As I said in my Afterword to The New Writer’s Handbook, Vol. 2:

“One of the oddities of the writing world is that it allows you – in some ways glorifies the tendency – to continue in fruitless ways. To grow as a writer, be more honest about evaluating what works.”

Daily Discipline – The Shadow of the Writer on the Keyboard

Here are six of my favorite motivational tips for writers.

At its best, writing is a daily habit. You are at your desk, on time, each day. You turn in work on schedule – lots of it. Not surprisingly, you get regular checks in the mail: book royalties and payments for articles, columns, short stories, or poems.

But even professional writers have dry spells or need help to keep producing . . . even when things are slow or uncertain. Here are my six favorite tips to get yourself to write. I use them all.

1. Pick a microscopic piece to accomplish next.

Set a tiny goal. Break a larger project down into pieces. Then convince yourself to tackle the smallest bit possible.

My favorite trick is to tell myself I will sit down to write just 15–20 minutes. In fact, once I am at my computer, I’m seldom inclined to stop after such a brief period. Soon, an hour has passed, and I’ve done a good piece of work.

And even tiny sessions quickly add up.

2. Pick a specific time to be at your desk working – and write it down!

Studies show that choosing a specific time in the near future when you intend to tackle a task can double the likelihood that you will actually do it. Writing down that intention further increases your chance of success.

So, for the coming week or month, set a goal – perhaps to write 500 words a day. Personally, I set a modest target of 2,000 words a week, which gives me flexibility to write most but not all days, or to write shorter or longer in each session. Then, I block out four hour-long writing sessions on my weekly planner. I tend to prefer to start around eight o’clock in the evening for most of those, so that’s my target time to be at my desk, ready to write.

3. Create a Positive Metaphor for Starting to Write.

I like to have a mental picture of what happens when I sit down to write. My image is based on the concept of flow; I know that once I start writing, the words will flow. For me, the trick is to get that going.

So, as I sit down to begin, I focus less at that moment on the desired outcome — writing, say, 500 words – and just hold in my mind an image of getting going.

For me, it is the metaphor of the faucet. This is what I “turn on.” I know I have that simple if imaginary switch. I sit down, turn it on, and the writing begins. My mental image is one of reliability; it reminds me that I have creative forces, I have unseen reserves. I just need to get the words moving and out into the light of day.

Others may choose different images or metaphors, such as a visit from a muse. For me, the idea of a muse seems too external and unreliable. As a professional, I know that the main thing at first is not quality but a certain quantity of decent output. Bruce Holland Rogers, author of Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer, a great book on the writing process, hit the nail on the head when he said, “My own motto during [a first] draft has been, ‘It doesn’t have to be good. It has to be done.’ Good comes later, in revision.”

4. Bribery

Self-bribery – you can call it positive reinforcement if you wish – is an essential part of my writing life. During the day, it involves strong coffee. Pouring a cup of java means it’s time to get back to my desk. After five, the liquid turns into a glass of a dry red wine. A small nibble of chocolate is a nice complement.

A more puritanical approach would award delectable morsels later, after the work is accomplished. Personally, I’m in favor of small pre-rewards. I grab one and go happily to my computer. Like a good Pavlovian, I salivate, sip, and write. Again, for me, the hard part is sitting down, especially when tired in the evening after a day of editing other people’s work.

Besides, a bit of dark chocolate and a nice earthy Rioja is now recognized as a healthy choice. Yes, there is a kind god in the heavens, after all.

5. Have Two Projects Going.

As a creative person – with passion for writing but some resistance to writing under pressure – I love to have multiple projects underway. Unless a deadline is imminent, this gives me a choice of which I want to work on at a given moment.

In truth, it’s often the other project than the one I planned to tackle when I first sat down. (For instance, I didn’t plan to work on this piece when I first drafted it some months ago! But considering my choices, it suddenly had a lot of appeal.) Serendipity works for me; it makes me productive, if not predictable.

The ability to choose helps to prevent writer’s block. If I hit a wall on one project, finding myself without enthusiasm or good ideas, I just close the file and switch to another project. You’d be surprised how often the avoided problem works itself out smoothly when revisited later. Don’t wallow in projects that are stuck; look for ones that are most exciting.

6. Write, schmuck!

This is from award-winning fantasy novelist Peter Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn and other novels. In an interview a few years ago, he told me that he posted this sign in a prominent place over his desk to remind himself just what his job was. It’s a Yiddish version of the Nike slogan, “Just do it.”

In the Midwest, our version is: “The cows aren’t going to milk themselves, you know.”

This is not an affirmation. It’s a little swift kick in the butt.

I heard another rural Midwestern version somewhere: “The thing that makes the crops grow best is the shadow of the farmer on the field.” For writers, this translates to the shadow of the writer on the computer keyboard.

Some of you, of course, may prefer positive affirmations.
I will write well.
I will finish my big book project by the end of this year and see it on the store shelves in the bestseller section soon after.
I will send a flood of short stories to the best magazines and have them begging for more.
I have published much and will publish much more.
I’m better than other writers at telling my stories.
I am writer, hear me roar.

Yes, I am a writer. Often, though, this means being a tired writer. But I know that a session at the computer, once I get there, makes me feel better. It perks me up. I just often need a little boost to get me there and get me going.

I hope these small suggestions help give you a boost, too.

The cows aren’t going to milk themselves, you know.

Blog Post by Philip Martin, director of Blue Zoo Writers and Great Lakes Literary ( and author of How To Write Your Best Story and A Guide to Fantasy Literature.