I just ran across this quote from Gene Weingarten, Pulitzer-winning columnist for the Washington Post:
“A real writer is someone for whom writing is a terrible ordeal. That is because he knows, deep down, with an awful clarity, that there are limitless ways to fill a page with words, and that he will never, ever, do it perfectly. On some level, that knowledge haunts him all the time. He will always be juggling words in his head, trying to get them closer to a tantalizing, unreachable ideal.”
I’m not normally a subscriber to the “tortured artist” model of creativity. I love my job, and I’m lucky to have it.
But there are days when I’m one of Weingarten’s “real writers.” I can’t stop going over the words of a chapter, a page, even a paragraph, trying and trying to reach that “tantalizing ideal.”
Today is one of those days. I’m working on some “banter” at the beginning of my book — a quick and witty exchange of dialogue between the hero and the heroine. It’s a conversation that defines not only their personalities, but the conflict that makes it seem impossible that these two could ever get together. If this novel was a shirt, this conversation would be the hanger that holds it up.
Banter has to be fast-moving, it has to be witty, and it has to carry the reader on a sudden and intoxicating roller-coaster ride. Kristin Higgins is a genius at banter. So is Jennifer Crusie. The old Tracy and Hepburn rom-coms were loaded with banter.
Banter has to be just right, so it’s easy to get mired in the editing and fall prey to the demon of perfectionism. I’m very, very familiar with that demon. Perfectionism is the reason I never wrote more than a few pages before I hit my midlife crisis. I had never finished so much as a short story, because I would go over and over the first paragraph, trying to make it just right.
It was a problem for me all through my school days, too. If I had to write a paper on a famous writer for English class, I’d start by reading all the author’s works, taking careful notes. Then I’d start on secondary sources, taking more notes. By then, the paper was a week late, the teacher wasn’t offering any more extensions, and I’d be forced to throw together a few thoughts and hand in something I knew was substandard. Of course, the teacher had no clue that I’d worked so hard. All they saw was a shoddy paper, handed in a week late.
A lot of aspiring novelists suffer from this same problem, writing and rewriting their first ten pages, going over and over the same words, struggling to make them shine. That’s why it’s a rule of mine to always move forward, no matter how tempting it is to go over those few paragraphs just one more time, because surely, surely they can be better, they can be brilliant, they can be perfect!
But today, the demon got me. It’s not such a bad thing. It is important to me that my books are as good as I can make them. The words do matter, every single blessed one of them. And since I’ve got the novel nearly finished, it’s totally appropriate to go back and edit with care and precision — as long as I balance that with moving forward.
But editing two pages in one day is not moving forward.
Ah, well. Tomorrow will be better.