Friday, May 29, 2009

Perfection isn't instantaneous

One of my students, Sameer, from India emailed me today with a problem that many new writers face.

I need your help and guidance in something. There's this plot that has been taking shape in my mind since a very long time now; in fact it's been cultivating since the past whole year. I wish to put it down on paper. The entire plot is ready in my head, but I am facing problems to find the right words, sentences, phrases. I believe I have found my genre, and fiction & mystery seem to be it. This plot too is a fiction story. The problem is, the moment I try to pen it down I do not find it gripping enough. Thus I have three different beginnings to the same story and thus I am stuck.

My queries are:
1. Should I carry on and try to finish my book first?
2. When I am thinking I do find the right words, but somehow cannot put it down on paper.

I'm sure many writers have experienced this, I know I have from time to time. The problem is often down to perception. When you pick up a book in the bookshop, you open the cover and read the first words to chapter one to see if you like it. If it's an author you already know, the chances are you will be captivated by their words and turning the page within minutes. The author has done their job and sold you their book.

But as you pick up the book and read those words for the first time, our minds trick us into thinking that the author just sat down and penned those words in that order. For many writers, this just doesn't happen! Perfection isn't instantaneous - it has to be worked at!

And it doesn't matter what you write, whether it's fiction or non-fiction, writers face the same problems. Here's what I suggested to Sameer.

Step 1. Get your story down on paper. Write the book, don't worry about getting the right words. Books get rewritten, they don't just appear in perfect prose straight from the author's pen. So, just concentrate on getting your story down on paper. If the plot is clear in your head, then it's important to get it written down. The brain can play horrible tricks on you and you may think you'll always remember it, but you probably won't so get it down as quickly as you can.

Once you've written the first draft of your text, then you can go back and try to find the write words. That's when you hone and craft your text. The novelist Jodi Picoult once said, "You can't edit a blank page" and this is so true! As soon as you have something written down, then you have something to work with.

2. It's going to take time to get all this down on paper, but that doesn't matter. It is not time wasted. This is the first part of your investment in creating your text. When someone builds a house they put in firm foundations. This first draft is your foundation. From here you will build upon your text and improve it. No one can see the foundations of a house, but they know they are there. A house benefits from being on firm foundations, and a book benefits from being built upon a first draft.

Once you have those firm foundations, then you can build your text into the highly polished prose that you are looking for. That's when you become a writer. It's not the four walls and a roof built on those foundations that make the house a home, it's the style of decorating that is lavished upon it afterwards that makes the building a home. Editing is where the writer applies the decoration and the style to their text.

So forget about choosing the right words for now - ANY words will suffice at the moment! Fill that blank page. Perfection can be crafted in later.

Good luck.