Saturday, November 13, 2010

Do it once, do it right

Ghosts of Innocence badly needs reworking before it's ready for another round of queries. I want to do it, otherwise it feels like pulling the plug on someone's life support. Giving up. That is not what I want for my baby. All the same, it is taking me forever to get my head into serious revisions. I'm forcing myself to do it, but it's about as easy-going as persuading a nine-year old to eat broccoli.

The problem is, all my life I've been a semi-perfectionist.

When I excelled at math in school, I used to push myself harder and harder to expand and simplify equations in as few steps as possible on paper. So instead of doing a simple step at a time, and writing out the results each time, I'd do two or three things at once, manipulating terms in my head. It was a discipline, but also a matter of pride, to see how far I could push myself and still GET IT RIGHT.

When I started programming professionally, in the days when we had to share three terminals between twelve of us and our programs were written out on coding sheets to be keyed by another department before we got to run them, I thought nothing of writing out a thousand lines of code and damned well expecting it to compile cleanly first time, and produce some recognisable results on the first run.

Even in my painting I tend to work methodically from one part of the page to another, laying down precise and finished segments of the whole, to which I have no intention of returning once I'm happy and have moved on. And once I sign my name to a painting, that is a significant declaration and I never make changes after that point.

And, surprise, surprise, my writing process is much the same.

OK, reality is not quite as rigid as I may have made it sound.

When I went on to university, math became much more an art of puzzling and insight than manipulation, so it became a whole new game.

The predictable world of mainframe COBOL dissolved when Microsoft introduced the world to operating environments so complex and so poorly architected that the law of unintended consequence lurked around every corner. And with more interactive tools, programming became a step-by-step exploration of incremental development.

Even in the more enduring world of art, if a painting isn't giving the visual impression I want, I'm not averse to reworking large parts of it to knock it into shape. Until I sign it, of course.

So, where does the "semi" come from in "semi-perfectionist"?

Well, I put a lot of effort into doing things right first time, so going back and redoing something in any substantial way is simply not part of my usual thinking process. It's an exception rather than the rule. And my willingness to do so depends hugely on the effort already invested, and the effort of making a change.

If I cut a piece of wood the wrong length, it pains me to set it aside and start again. I live absolutely by the "measure twice, cut once" rule. If it's just a simple cut, it's the waste more than anything that troubles me, but if I've spent time making some awkward angles or cutting rebates then I'm more inclined to seek ways to use what I've got rather than rewind to the start. That is why I can't lay claim to the title "perfectionist".

At the other end of the scale, I don't have too much trouble with reworking a painting because I find it a relatively easy process. I'm fully at home in my medium and can see where I need to get to.

But when it comes to writing, and especially telling a story, this is not something that comes easily. Sometimes I throw words on the page and they flow easily, but more often it is a slow paragraph-at-a-time affair. And I'm rarely satisfied with the results so whenever I dry up, my eye casts back over the words I've written, tweaking here and there. Whenever I sit down to a writing session, I start off by reading a page or two back from where I left off to get back into the flow, and I often pause to edit, refine, reword, before moving on. Sometimes, entire sessions end up as little more than moulding while the clay is still soft instead of adding new words to the page.

While I regard a work as "in progress", I'm one of those people who constantly edit as I go. This is new and unusual territory for me. It is slow, it is painful, but I'm OK with that. It is editing, not revising. It is still a part of the "first time" for me.

In this sense, I'm probably closer to a perfectionist than in many other areas of creativity.

All the same, when I wrote "The End" on my first draft, it felt like signing a painting. Mentally, I flipped a switch and the time for change was past.

Add to that the shedload of sweat and tears invested and, when critiques start rolling in, am I going to give up a single word of it, one solitary hard-won turn of phrase, easily?


Suffice to say, revising hurts.


  1. I never realized how similar our two processes were until now, Ian. In writing, at least. I, too, suffer from the inability to revise. I have the same stubborn streak that you have, being unable to go back and revise something that I already mentally affixed my signature to.

    However, in the last year or so I have finally overcome this obstacle somewhat. These days, not only can I admit that what I wrote was just a rough draft, but now I can actually make significant changes on the rewrite while barely feeling the sting anymore. This is mostly due to the fact that, of all the stories I've written, the only ones to sell are those in which I've gone back and rewrote the content almost completely.

    To me, that was a wakeup call. So now I look at revisioning as more of a welcomed art form rather than a hindrance. It's still very painful work . . . you're right about that . . . but I'm actually getting better at it. I think if you really stick with it, you will too with time. The benefits are just too immeasurable for "almost" perfectionists like us to ignore. :)

    P.S. -- Yes, I edit as I write, too. Even now. Not so severely where it hinders me writing new content for the day, but I definitely do reread the last two pages from the night before and find myself tweaking before I even begin writing the new stuff. I can't help it.

  2. That's interesting, David. I don't think I've quite reached the stage of seeing revision as a "welcomed art form" :D

    I know it's a necessary part of the process, but knowing in the head and feeling in the heart are not the same things.

    I have no problems with micro-level polishing. Typos, lack of clarity in phrases, whole sentences or paragraphs that need rework are OK. It's the larger structural and universal changes that are difficult for me.

    Apart from the mental view of seeing the work as only a draft until it's actually been published, I think the biggest hurdle for me right now is that the art of writing itself is difficult. I envy those who can't type fast enough to keep up with the words pouring out of their heads. Maybe that's like saying I'm not cut out to be a writer, but the stubborn streak in me says I'm not quite ready to give up on that challenge just yet ;)


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