My biggest mistake was lovin’ you too much
And lettin’ ya know
Now you got me where you want me
And you won’t let me go
– “Don’t Do It”
I could not get Levon Helm’s magnificent singing voice out of my head this week as I waded through a friend’s book manuscript. After rejecting my advice on his narrow-niche project (some thoughts on the cover design and marketing), he now fell into the trap of adding more and tweaking this and that.
The final straw was early this morning, ruining my cup of coffee while I sat and watched it rain from my rural front porch.
“I’ve added this addendum,” the email began. “I think it adds weight to what I’ve said.”
Oh, he added weight, all right. The weight of over-thinking.
You see the problem, don’t you, as a writer? It’s a common malady for writers. Polishing and re-polishing, re-fashioning. Smashing the clay sculpture and starting over entirely. Shaping. Tearing up pages. Burning them.
Writers often can’t let go. They can’t bring a project to the finish line. There are common reasons:
- fear of failure
- fear of success
- too much stock in focus group comments
The first two are self-explanatory. No. 3 – arrogance – I see that one a lot. I as the writer can make it even better, or I just had brilliant thought No. 1,136.
Look, I’m all about getting it as good as you can get it. Think about phrases, single words. Convey the perfect thought. Writing is a craft, yes, but it is also some measure natural ability.
Let it go!
Few of us are in the Writing Pantheon: Twain, Oscar Madison, Shakespeare. Don’t be tempted by that evil idea that you need to add more information because, heck, readers are mesmerized by your voice. Hemingway and Steinbeck had it right: get in, get out.
No. 4 – focus groups – is a bugaboo, as well. I believe a writer can develop objective thinking about his or her writing. Listen to advice, sure, but don’t step into that kitchen with too many cooks. Besides, who knows your writing best? You do.
I am primarily writing for the book author today. I have seen literally thousands of projects in which the author could not stop taking the manuscript back to add, re-fashion, polish.
You will kill your chances with an editor by keeping your fat fingers on a manuscript. Of course, most good editors will slap your hand away, anyway. Yet even they can be sidetracked and distracted by your constant inquiries and efforts to become the next Bill Shakespeare or Oscar Madison.
The particular writer I referenced at the beginning has also passed so many different files of the same project back and forth that I’m not sure what is what. I’m losing interest. Can you imagine what an editor for any publishing house would feel? Lost interest combined with anger.
Far too many times, writers love their work too much and then find that it won’t let them go. They are trapped. In effect, the writing has the writer where it wants him. The thing a writer created becomes the proverbial monster that won’t let go.
For what it’s worth, I have some thoughts, some tips for avoiding this muddy trap:
- Plan the project from the outset. If you have to spend months planning everything from your topic, to genre, to structure, to the editing process … take the time to do that. Planning is something many writers avoid like the plague. Think it through: Will anyone want to read this? What about marketing?
- Pace yourself. I’m a big believer in this, and I’m not talking about faux-pacing that is really procrastination. That’s another column. By pacing yourself, I am encouraging you to bite off only what you can eat that day or that week. Rather than shoot for two chapters coupled with edits in, say, a two-week timeframe, do one chapter in the same period of time. If you are at the stage of cleaning up your endnotes, take it in phases (If my suggestions sound too plodding, just think about how much time you will save this way, rather than trying to pull off a writing project “willy nilly”).
- Don’t listen to that voice that tells you, three-quarters through, that your original terrific idea is now stupid. That’s the devil, or stinkin’ thinkin’, or a bit of bad beef. If you’ve successfully completed the planning phase of your project, you’ll know for sure later that the voice of doubt is illegitimate.
- Relax. I’ve written about this before, but it is an element so important that I tend to repeat. If you will not allow yourself to be ensnared in obstacles to your writing – friendly “update” inquiries, self-doubt due to poor planning, the lure of re-write and then another 100 re-writes – you will succeed because you were able to relax through the process. By the way, an important suggestion for navigating inquiries from well-meaning friends and family who constantly ask, “How it’s going?”: Don’t tell anyone you’re writing a book. Tell them when it’s available on Amazon.
I could do a whole workshop on this topic of not allowing the project to control you. You should control the project. Let me hear from you, if this has been a problem in your writing career.
And remember: When the project begins to talk to you and compel you to divert your attention from finishing because you’re listening to too many stupid suggestions …
Don’t do it!