Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Writing Well Without Writing Perfectly (A guest post from Lisa Kilian)

I have been struggling with a short story for the past six months. 6,000 words continually elude me — well, not the words, the characters. Just when I think I’ve figured them out, I go to sleep, and wake up with a whole new realization.

Now let me clarify: I haven’t just been working on this story for six months. I’ve had other stories come and go, other projects creep up and wash away — but this story just refuses to be finished.

I long ago met the am-I-crazies, and I’ve said howdy-doody to the wouldn’t-it-be-better-if-you-just-gave-up-on-this-ones several times. But the thing is — I LOVE this story. Absolutely 100% love it. And I love the characters, however confusing they may be.

This weird, wicked, twisted love triangle of sorts had been frustrating me entirely until just recently. A few weeks ago, I went home to Austin, TX to hear Robin Black speak on her book, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, a collection of short stories I still to this day salivate over even though I read them last October.

Robin’s stories may qualify as longer than usual for short stories, but the prose is still as tight and succinct as can be. Every word carries weight and leaves me reeling. Naturally, I want to be just like her. And naturally, this is why my own story has eluded me for so long. I am well aware of the it-isn’t-perfect-yets.

Robin read an excerpt of one of her stories and then went on to answer questions. I let a few people go first because I’m always too terrified to start off any Q and As. But I knew what I was going to ask before we even started. Finally, I raised my hand.

“It took you eight years to write these eight stories. What’s that like?” How do you survive? is what I meant. How do you not want to pull your hair out of your head every time you sit down at the computer?

She gave me a great answer. “When I was first starting out, I used to produce stories all the time. They would just appear, one right after the other. Now that I’ve gone to school and learned the craft, these things take much more time because every decision is a much more conscious decision.”

And that about sums it up. Right there.

I started writing a long time ago. Stories have come and gone. I’m nowhere near learned. I’ve never taken any creative writing courses. But after hearing her answer, I couldn’t help but feel like I was on the right track with this story.

So far, I’ve written four drafts. Now I’m on draft five, and I’m rewriting the entire thing from scratch. The difference is that I’ve gotten to know my characters and their story so very well, that I do believe this will be the last draft — even though it’s an entirely new draft.

For six months, I’ve struggled with these characters in my mind, but my struggles are now clearly defined, and more importantly, they’re validated. I’ve been fighting for the right reasons, so to speak.

There’s a fine line between writing consciously and writing perfectly — and I’m in a constant battle to find where that line lies. It’s thin, like a string, and most of the time, I’m certain that I’m straddling it.

But here’s how I know I’m not falling into the perfectionist trap:

Every day I move forward in my drafts.

It may be slow work. It may be tedious. But every day, I progress just a little bit. I’m not on draft one — I’m on draft five. And I’m not confused anymore, I’m informed.

Perfectionism tends to take the shapes of drafts that never end, words written and then erased over and over, and time spent with characters that leave you perpetually confused and frustrated. Confusion and frustration aren’t bad — but after hours spent with your characters, they should never leave you completely in the dark.

I’m confident I’m staying away from the perfectionist trap. I’m really trying. And miraculously, I’ve kept all my hair on my head. I’ve only pulled out a little. At the reading, I noticed Robin didn’t quite answer my internal question of survival — but that’s because we each have our own methods.

My method? I focus on the ending, the feeling that I will be done, and I will have done a great job. I focus on the joy of daily discovery, on writing something that gives me just a little chill.

And when I’m sitting in bed waiting to go to sleep, I read something perfect, and dream.

Lisa Kilian is the author of the blog, What Not To Do as a Writer. Her essays on writing have appeared at Beyond the Margins, Fear of Writing, and Best Damn Creative Writing blog, among others. She plans on drinking lots of expensive champagne when she finishes her 6,000 word story.


  1. "Writing consciously" is a meaningful term. I've just folded it up and put it in my pocket for future (daily) reference.

  2. I've definitely had stories like this, some that I manage to finish, and others that are still waiting for more revisions. For me, it's consoling that you can produce other works while this one is forming. Finishing those other stories probably makes you more prepared to attack this one again. And the fact that you do feel like you are moving forward is also important--I agree. I have a feeling this story will be very special to you once you finish it up. Good luck!

  3. I find myself willing to spend more time with my stories these days. Yesterday I told my agent that she won't get to see the novel I'm writing now until next year because I think the rewrites will take a long time. Once that idea would have wigged me out but now I think it's just fine. I don't mind spending a long time working on a single piece these days and I embrace the idea of multiple drafts. I don't even think about perfection these days; it's not a useful concept to bring to the making of art.

  4. Thank you for this post, Lisa! It's so frustrating when writing takes longer than you want because it's just not fitting that vision you wanted. I agree with Davin that this story might end up meaning more to you than most of what you're writing otherwise because it will teach you something very special.

    Everyone writes differently, as you know, and some things come faster than others. I don't believe for a second that if it takes longer, something will naturally be better or higher quality, though. It might be that you just learned more and progressed more in your craft overall. It sure sounds like your story is going to be fantastic, though. :)

  5. "I don't believe for a second that if it takes longer, something will naturally be better or higher quality, though."

    I totally agree with this too. I've had stories I really like that work as a first draft and other stories that just barely hold together even though I've worked on them for years.

  6. I like those stories that pop into my head more or less fully-formed, and I just write them down. Probably I like them for that very reason, and they aren't actually very good stories. I'm a much better novelist than I am a short story writer, because I won't work on short stories for more than a week. After that I have absolutely no idea what to do with them.

  7. Scott, I don't spend much time on my short stories either. A week or two at most. Sometimes I'll fiddle longer with them, but it's just fiddling.

  8. I've spent months. Months! MONTHS! Moths!

  9. Davin, that's just how you roll. No worries. You probably learn more in writing a short story than I learn in writing a novel.

  10. Michelle: Yes, but you and Davin do good work in short fiction. I used to think that my short stories were little bits of brilliance; now I realize that they're just clever--shiny but empty. Frankly, that knowledge is liberating because it lets me concentrate on long-form fiction, at which I think I have some chance of success.

  11. Davin, how many moths do you spend on the average story? Have you tried butterflies instead?

  12. Butterflies are always better than moths.

    Scott, short fiction is where I discovered that I could actually write. I will always have a soft spot for short fiction.

  13. For some reason a different part of me steps forward when I write short fiction. It's like I let myself play more and write MORE, if that makes sense.

  14. Wow, Lisa, I can SO relate to this. I have a "long short story" that I struggled with on and off for a year, and then moved on to a couple of other short stories and a novel. (Somehow, the novel came together with a LOT less hair pulling). I think in my case there was something off in the short story, pieces there that I needed but not all together, not there, not like that.

    The very brilliant Alexander Chee once wrote on his blog, to paraphrase loosely, that once you borrow an idea from one piece, the borrowed-from piece is never quite right. When I read that, I thought, exactly, and gave myself permission to take what I needed and move on.

    But it sounds like your piece is right and I'm glad it won't let you go. I admire your dedication.

  15. Does anyone think writers are sort of optimized for one form of writing over another? Do you lean more towards short or long fiction, maybe because your brain works a certain way? I've always been minimalist. Whenever I learn a lot about a subject matter, I constantly reduce it down. Maybe that's why short forms come more easily for me. My long fiction always seems to be multiple shorter works spliced together.

    Once, during my Hawaiian shirt wearing phase, I walked into a butterfly house and was swarmed.

  16. Davin, I think that might be true that we tend toward one or the other, but I also think it's possible to do both well. It just takes a lot of work. I know that even my longer fiction doesn't feel "long" or "epic" in any way. It's usually pretty simplified, like a short story. At least in my head it is.

  17. Davin, I do think writers are optimized for one form or another--not that they can't do both well.

    But what does this mean: I feel like I took to the novel more organically, BUT I write in short chapters from several povs.

  18. Thank you so much, you guys!

    I do believe writers are better suited for certain types of writing. After banging my head on my desk trying to knock a novel loose, I've decided to stop that and just write short stories. I've been much happier ever since. :)

  19. There is a certain sense of constricted freedom when it comes to writing. It's easier when you just don't think about every little detail of a story. However, if anyone has ever edited anything, you know that at some point, thinking about every detail is necessary.

    I save the thinking for later drafts. So far, it's worked well.

  20. I do believe writers naturally gravitate toward one form or another. I've always found short stories difficult. Most of my short stories are really the amputated limbs of novels.

    Tara Maya
    The Unfinished Song: Initiate -- Nook, Kindle UK, Kindle US , FREE

  21. Tara Maya, I think you just found the title of your short story collection.


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