Getting it Wrong and Letting Go

Getting it Wrong and Letting Go

Yesterday I sent the fourth draft of my book off to my editor. To be entirely honest, I don’t know that I’ve ever written four drafts of anything. I am remarkably lazy about editing. It’s odd, as much of a perfectionist as I am, I am still way too prone to read something I’ve written and go “enh, good enough” when I should push something further. In some respects, at least. I run out of patience when explaining some plot points, so I handwave a little too much. That particular bad habit, I have to admit, I probably picked up while writing fanfic. I am incredibly grateful and lucky to have had some fantastic editing on this book, with an editor who hasn’t let me get away with my handwaving. Which is good, because this is a super plot-intensive book. It’s a super everything-intensive book, really. As she’s said “there are a lot of moving parts”. Each subsequent draft has focused on knocking different sets of those moving parts into place.

I’ve never worked in layers like this before, i.e., okay this draft focus on the plot elements, okay this time focus on deepening the characters, etc. It’s been revelatory to me, because as a perfectionist, there’s always this notion of having to get everything right at once. Having the freedom to not do that, to know that after this draft, there will be another, that there’s still time to fix everything, has let me write something that’s way beyond anything I’ve written before.

This book has been an exercise in letting go. When I was first starting to really write, and first learning how to edit, it was very difficult for me to let go of plot points that weren’t working. It’s as if, when I wrote the first draft, that became “canon”, to steal a fandom term. It was carved in stone. That is what happened in this universe and it is immutable. I don’t know why that was so hard for me, but talking to other creators, they’ve had similar issues. As if you’ve finished a work and therefore, no other major changes are allowed. This isn’t exactly a “kill your darlings” situation, it’s almost bigger than that. When you’re editing, it’s one thing to say “oh, that line of dialogue doesn’t work, I have to rewrite it.” It’s something else entirely to say “the whole first half of this book is setting up a different book than what happens in the second half, so I have to pick one of those books and rewrite the other half.”

That’s terrifying. The first time it happened to me, I literally cried. When I was writing As Lost as I Get, I rewrote the first act two or three times before I got it right. I’ve lost track of how many versions there were of my hero and heroine meeting up. I wrote some glorious scenes that never saw the light of day. But it made it easier the next time. This time. By my count, I’ve written over 200,000 words on the book I just turned in. Final word count on the book is looking to be right around 90,000-95,000. I wrote twice as much material as I wound up using. I’ll be honest: I HATE THAT. It still makes me feel like I’ve wasted time and effort. What I have to do is take a breath and remind myself: all writing is practice. And in the case of this book, I often needed to go down a wrong path in order to find the right one. And more than that, the more I wrote, the more I came to understand my characters.

And that it’s okay. No one who reads this book is going to ask me how many drafts it took and judge me for my answer. No one is going to ask how much I wrote and then had to toss aside. And it’s served as a valuable reminder, when I feel overwhelmed and inadequate in comparison with other writers: I’m seeing their final drafts and comparing them to my rough drafts. I don’t know how many drafts it took to get there, or how many words they wrote and had to chuck out.

It’s turning into a cliche to say you have to give yourself permission to suck, and that’s valuable, but on a less drastic level, there’s an immense strength in learning how to let yourself get it wrong, then recognize that you got it wrong, and let it go rather than hanging on to the wrong bits. That sometimes it’s much more productive to give up on what’s broken and start over rather than try and make the wrong bits fit where they don’t belong.

I imagine there’s probably a life lesson in there somewhere too.