A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted the following: 'Beginning to wonder if I spend so much time editing because I'm scared to attempt the next step. Sometimes perfectionism is just an excuse.'
Since then, for various reasons, I haven't been able to spend much time on my writing projects – editing or otherwise. My laptop is gradually gathering dust in a corner. And with that enforced break has come a chance to reflect on the truth of what I said.
As with so many things in life, I have come to the conclusion that it's both true and false.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be as good as you can be. I don't have much patience with people who make no effort to learn how to spell, punctuate and construct a sentence properly before they go rushing off to find a publisher for their masterpiece. I know quite well that my own skills have improved since ten years ago when I first finished writing a book. If I'd tried submitting back then, I would have been terribly premature – and I know I would have ended up disappointed. Luckily for me, my own self-criticism prevented that disaster. I wasn't ready. I could do better. Some of the ideas were good, but the whole thing needed work. I would start again.
Trouble is, I still feel that way now. And it's become the weight that's holding me back.
No matter how good I get, I always know I could be better. That goes without saying. Even the books I love most aren't perfect. But somehow, I've let that turn into my excuse. Every compliment I get, every comment from a reader along the lines of I love this sample and am longing to read more, settles briefly on my skin and then slides right off again. It makes me smile for an hour or two, but its effect doesn't last. I don't believe it, not deep down. Whereas criticism, well, that lodges in my flesh like a tiny barbed dart, and I believe every word. See? There were three things Reader X didn't like about it. That means it's not ready. If it were ready then there would be nothing to dislike.
Nonsensical, I know. The subjective nature of opinion means there will always be something to dislike. Perfection is an unattainable goal. But now I'm confronting this honestly, I realise that's the very thing I like about it.
See, I've always been a dreamer. I guess that's why I became a fantasy writer in the first place. And the thing about dreams is, they're safe. They're in the future. By definition, they haven't happened yet, and that means they still could. Pursuing perfection keeps me in that comfortable place between coming up with a goal and actually trying to make it happen. As long as I'm attempting to be perfect, I can claim to be working towards my dreams without ever being forced to test their robustness. I'm like a scientist who beavers away at a hypothesis and never carries out the experiments that would prove or disprove it.*
Because what if I try and fail? What if I get the book as good as it can be, submit it to publishers and agents large and small, and none of them are interested? What if I decide to go the self-publishing route and watch the book sink into obscurity, selling only five copies (and those to my pets)? What if it turns out that the one and only ambition I've had since I learned how to read will never be achieved? What if I've been wasting my time?
Faced with questions like those it's easy to sit on a project, polishing and re-polishing endlessly, safe in the knowledge that my dream could still come true. Safe in the knowledge that if I haven't tried, I haven't failed. But let's face it: never trying is really the worst failure of all. I'm failing to believe in myself and what I do. I'm failing to have the courage to put myself out there and get knocked back. I'm failing, miserably, to stare rejection in its mad little eyes and say At least I gave it my best shot.
And so, finally, it's time to put down my red pen and take the plunge. I have to overcome my own fear of failure and face the fact that my dream may only ever be a dream. Maybe I'll get what I want. But if not … well, 'tis better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all.
* Yes, I know it's not actually possible to prove a hypothesis. Allow me a little artistic licence, please, science bods. Your geek is not my geek.