The Problem With Perfect

Trolling the Web this week, I found this recent interview with author Mark Salzman, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing myself years ago. Mark’s work is infused with such a rare combination of intelligence, compassion, and generosity. If you don’t know it, please check it out. You won’t be disappointed.

Among other things, the article I read notes that Mark has been teaching workshops on overcoming “the maddening obsession with perfection sometimes called writer’s block.” That phrase got me thinking about the pressure too many of us put on ourselves when we’re writing.

Perfection is the enemy of productivity when I’m cranking out a first draft. I continually remind myself to not get bogged down in details at this point, to let the little things go and get my arms around the big picture. The perfect (or as near as I can get) language, the exact character nuances and plot pacing will come…just not yet.

Writing, I remind myself, is a process of refinement. With each draft, the story improves. The thing comes into focus. There’s no way to rush this process, and all the worry and obsessing won’t help a bit in the end. So I tell myself:  Just stay with the book and it’ll take you where it needs to go. Just hold on and, drumroll here, enjoy it.  Writing can be an enlightening process of discovery, a revelation even. As writers, we just sometimes need to get ourselves out of the way.




Nothing Up My Sleeve

First person, third person, present tense, past tense, limited narrator, omniscient narrator, formal prose, chatty prose.

In only 55 pages, believe it or not, I’ve tried all of these techniques. And more too. I think there was one version written from the dog’s viewpoint, a la Garth Stein. (Not really. But maybe I should try it.)

So this book has morphed from five rotating, first-person narrators to two, third-person narrators telling their stories far from how I thought they would. And it feels like a better fit, so I’m going with it. I’m not even rewriting the beginning yet either. I simply inserted a few [SWITCHING POV HERE] notes into the prose, and moved on. If a scene isn’t happening for me, I insert [MORE TO COME], then work on one that’s more interesting.

It may seem like I’m creating a giant, winding jumble of words here with no real vision. Actually, though…well, yes. That’s what I’m creating. But working this way keeps me from getting bogged down to the point where I’m dreading the next writing session. And it makes me at least feel like I’m moving forward.

So what I can say about this writing challenge, so far, is that it’s forced me to get the words down, and that’s a good thing. But while I’d assumed (read: hoped) I’d be writing far beyond the 20-minute allotment each day, that rarely happens. I’m still having to remind myself to write, sometimes just before midnight. (And can I just say that a laptop might be in my future? Hauling myself out of a warm bed at 11:40 and stumbling down to the cold office where my ancient desktop PC resides makes me a wee bit cranky.)

So how’s it going for all of you? Are you making progress? What tricks do you trot out to haul yourself from the mud when you’re stuck?


To Like Or Not To Like

Generally speaking, in my fiction I tend to create characters—protagonists, that is—whom I like, or whom I at least sympathize with. Not just understand, mind you, but also feel a certain compassion for. My guess is that this is pretty typical among writers.

But my new central character has got me thinking. I like her, because I know and understand her, even though I’m still figuring her out. I’m not so sure, however, that the great and discerning “reader” we all imagine will like her as much. Is this a problem?

My concern is that in order for the kind of novel I’m envisioning here to succeed, I think protagonist buy-in is necessary. There are famous stories with protagonists whom many readers find reprehensible, but they read on to find out what happens and how it happens. Case in point:


I’m struggling now to refine my understanding of the boundaries between “liking” a character versus “identifying with” him/her versus “reading to find out what the hell is going to happen.” Every story is different, I know. The elements shake out differently. But are there stories where a certain affinity for the star player is crucial?

Advice and insights are most welcome. Please share.


Got Navel?


How many times am I allowed to moan about this book???

Lots, right? I knew I could count on you. Because it’s “sucking the life out of me.”

That is a phrase a friend of mine uses all the time. And I’ve created a character based on her. Too much, in fact, and that’s part of what’s got me so rattled here.

So I ask you: How much do you pull from the real world in your writing? Does privacy and human decency keep you from stealing people’s looks, mannerisms, speech, and actions?

Apparently, I have no such qualms. Everything is up for grabs as long as I can change the names. Of course, I’ve pissed people off by doing that. There’s a reason Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again. Because after he’d looked maybe too homeward in Look Homeward, Angel, no one would let him back in the door.

On the one hand, I think us navel gazers get a bad rap. navel gazingYes, we can be self-absorbed and even downright offensive in our depictions of the people and places around us (the truth hurts, no?). Yet even though I dream of living in other cities, traveling to other countries, and meeting people from all walks of life, I find it hard to write beyond my own yard. Even my own house. Because that’s where life resides.

On the other hand, there’s that pesky problem of stifled creativity. How much do you take out from what’s real? How much do you put in? How much is story-worthy anyway?

Today, I let the character tell me. I was finally able to step away from the persona I thought she possessed, and let her do something totally out of sync with what my real friend would do. She came up with a strange thought, spoke it out loud, other characters reacted in a stunned but believable way, and I sat back and said, “Huh. That was cool.”

Whew! Big sigh of relief. Because she’s starting to push me around now, and tell me that she’ll take over from here on, thank you very much. And I couldn’t be happier to let her.

Thomas Wolfe understood the easy lure of the familiar, but also the delicate maneuver of turning reality into story. And he was willing to deal with the aftermath. (In fact, when he later wrote Of Time And the River, many of those people who were mad about Look Homeward, Angel were ticked off again—but this time because he left them out of the book.)

So if you’re at all into writing about real life, I say go ahead and steal from your world. It’s your world, after all. It’s your own damn navel too. And when you’re ready, hopefully your imagination will take those ideas and spin them out into something bigger.

And, huh. Wouldn’t that be cool?


Prop Me Up

I came across a very interesting essay by author/writing coach Steve Adams on Glimmer Train’s website. His advice is thoughtful, and I particularly like his notion of “transitioning into a creative state” when you write. That is what happens, isn’t it? Writing means putting aside the every day concerns of life and honing in on the creation of something that is imbued with great meaning and purpose—for the writer at least. It’s a transformative process.

Steve offers some great tips to help writers make that necessary transformation. The coffee shop seat that just “feels” rights, the mandatory cup of tea, the right background music or complete silence? Every writer has a different prop. What are yours?

Here are a few things that help me let go this world and enter into a fictional one. I’m grateful for each one.

  • A corner table in a coffee shop where no one knows me. Being around strangers—without having to engage with them—creates a private public space that I find stimulating.
  • A view of the natural world. Even if I’m just looking out on my own backyard, feeling my connection to a larger, more permanent and self-sustaining system comforts and reassures me.
  • A pet in the room. Dogs are fine when they’re sleeping and their occasional doggie sighs punctuate my work. But cats are best. Their composed, quiet observance gives me confidence. Their dignity is admirable. Cats are nearby but not overwhelming, companionable but not crowding.



Do you Shift F5?


If you use Word to write your documents, like most of the free world, Shift F5 is the best little trick ever.

I used to put symbol markers in my long writing projects. At the end of each session, I’d slip in an asterisk so I could search for it when I revisited the piece to find where I left off. But when I started to use asterisks to denote breaks in time, that got confusing. I finally settled on a percent sign, which I would never use in regular text and was easy to find. This worked great, except I’d forget to delete it, and have a sentence like, “She turned off the light and shut the door.%”

Uh. No.

So I may be the last person on the planet to discover Shift F5, but I’ll relate this news just in case you also live in a cave. Hold down these two little keys when you first open your Word document, and you will be magically spirited to the exact spot you were working on when you left off. No hidden symbols! No searching for your last entry (and invariably getting caught up reading old stuff when you should be WRITING).

Shift F5 has made this book just a little bit easier for me to work on. And it’s got me to thinking about all the things–large and small–that we struggle against as we try to squeeze in some kind of writing every day. To be able to effortlessly skim past what’s been done before and start fresh where we left off is not only convenient, it’s kinda’ breathtaking.

Because, Jay Gatsby aside, it really may not be such a hot idea to relive the past, getting lost along the way.


Better to look ahead to the next great thing. That won’t happen if you can’t get past your beginning pages.

So I’m going to do my 20 minutes (or more!) now. And see if I can Shift F5 my way to accomplishing something.

What keeps your writing moving forward?


(P.S. So psyched to have a shot of Robert Redford in a post! Didn’t see that one coming.)