High Standards, and What to Do About Them

I don’t have ultra-high standards for most things. ‘Good enough’ is my usual, and I usually arrive at that through a complex calculus of examining my time, materials, tools, and the mental and emotional ‘spoons’ I can devote to the project. I’ve also recently internalized the concept that if you don’t tell your audience you made a mistake, most of them will never notice.

Mwahaha!

On the other hand, I notice when I’ve made a mistake or fallen short.

Phooey.

This applies to writing as well as other aspects of life. Last month, I needed a set of shelves, so I could bring my potted plants inside for the winter and park them under the only south-facing window I have access to. Fine, but in my family, one doesn’t buy shelves. No. That kind of project is simple enough that any self-respecting adult builds rather than buying. But I didn’t have the mental energy for a project of even that magnitude. So I went back and forth for a while between buying what I needed and feeling like a failure, and all the agonies of building what I needed, accompanied by the knowledge that, no matter what I did, the end result wouldn’t look like what I had in my head. In the end, I bought an inexpensive writing desk of the right size, sanded and painted it to make it look closer to the image in my head, and called it good. Halfway to success is better than standing back at the starting line, I guess. And the plants don’t care; they’re happy in their new home.

As I said, I’m not usually a perfectionist. But there is a line between ‘acceptable’ and ‘not’, and I hate lowering my standards for success just because having high standards is difficult. If I have an unreachable goal and I can’t reach it, well, that’s only to be expected, though constant, unending failure is disheartening. But if I have a reachable goal, and I can’t quite reach it (and I rarely do, because nothing is perfect) then I get really irritated- ‘this should be easy; why can’t I do it right?’

On the writing front, I have the current WIP- the time travel story I’ve previously mentioned. It’s an insanely complex story, and any version of it that ends up on paper is going to be a pale reflection of what’s in my head. The reader won’t know that unless I tell them, and I’m not too worried that you guys will spill the beans since I plan to publish this under a pen name (if it ever gets to the publication stage). But I’ll know that the story bears little resemblance to what I wanted, and since I actually like this story a lot and would read the hell out of it, that gap between expectation and reality looks like a vast and depressing gulf to me. Almost like the story is a person and I’m letting it down because I don’t have the skill to do it justice.

Then I fall into a spiral of ‘even if it meets my standards, the reader won’t understand or appreciate what I’m trying to convey’ because it includes some subtle emotional concepts and complicated motivations, which leads to further spiraling of the ‘what’s the use of writing it to publication standards anyway, when the whole point of publishing is to communicate a story to the reader?’ type, and so on. Very irksome.

I wish I had a solution. I don’t. So I’m going to keep picking away at the story, and see where it leads me. The nuthouse, possibly.

Anyone else have this problem?

16 comments

    1. Yes. It’s what stalls me in writing. I have 3 different books, that both hit that “not good enough” level, and I have been paralyzed in finishing them (two are more than 2/3 complete, one almost complete). Let me know if you come up with a solution.

      1. My solution: I give myself permission to suck. We learn by the things we fail at, just as much as the things we succeed. As adults, we hate failure, we are paralyzed with fear of imaginary ridicule that could potentially happen for making mistakes, we try our hardest to avoid uncertain outcomes.

        But we had to fall a whole lot of times before we learned how to walk. Embrace the suck, and give yourself permission to be horrible and write the sort of embarrassing failures people gather to talk about until the end of time.

        At the top of many, many pages on notebooks of mine is on the phrase “No One Else Has To See This.” When I get too wrapped around the axle about expectations, I repeat out loud, and to friends, “It’s just a hobby. I don’t have to create publishable stories.”

        And some of the stories I start never work out, and some suck and fail horribly and will never see the light of day… but I learned from each one, and built on that for the next.

        So my advice: take the stories you know aren’t good enough, and say “I will never publish these, so I’m free to experiment with them, and I’m going to practice finishing. Because finishing is a valuable skill that is hard to practice, and here are two excellent chances to do so!”

        Right now on my fridge I have a drawing of a dinosaur with some fishies made by a wonderful young lady who doesn’t quite come up to my hip, no matter how hard she works at growing up. I had to enlist the help of a mom friend to decipher what it was – but I’m not expecting Michael Whelan level art out of her; I’m just tickled she wanted to send it to me, after she moved away with her parents and siblings! And Whelan, Frazetta, Bev Doolittle, Stephen Lyman… they, too, had to do their scrawls and scribbles before they got to be the Names in the art world they are today.

        Go forth and make terrible art, write and finish execrable stories, so that you learn how to write what’s in your head down so the readers see it in theirs, in the odd telepathy we do with a print or ebook medium.

  1. I can spot every mistake in everything I have ever made, and I can tell you if I made the mistake because I wasn’t paying attention, or if I lack the skills to do it better. And amazingly, most people don’t care.

    I will probably miss the subtle emotional parts of your story, but I miss the subtle emotional parts of everything.

    1. Ah, you too have met Amazon’s anti-editor who goes through passages that you swear you’ve gone over five or six times and changes just a few letters to mess up the verb-subject agreement.

      1. The new thing seems to be authors randomly shifting between past and present tense.

        I know present tense is the new hot kiddie fad, but that’s a hard “nope” for me. Along with “ima gunna” and other txtspk garbage that are seeping into publication.

        1. sigh

          That was one of the things I did in my chapter of Atlanta Nights. I couldn’t manage to pull it off for the whole chapter. . .

  2. The novels in my head are amazing. Pulitzer-worthy, or even Nobel Prize worthy. Yeah, I know that those prizes have been reduced to garbage that generally serve as a “Do Not Read” warning, but MY book would be so amazing that even the politically correct illiterate Philistines who give out the awards would have to recognize it as The Greatest Thing Ever.

    My actual books? Well, I like to think I’m getting better. I know I’m not the worst writer out there.

    I understand not wanting to write a book because you feel that you can’t do it justice; I felt the same about my most recent book, which is not nearly as awesome as it should be. But I don’t think that I, at least, can just put it off. Ultimately, a book that I didn’t write because I was waiting to be worthy of it is just a book I didn’t write, and there’s a good chance that I’ll never write it.

    1. Good writing is nice, but it’s second to having a good story.

      There are a lot of books on my shelves – many of them by Name authors – that are poorly written. Some verge on incoherent. But the author’s vision and story are good enough to overcome that.

      It doesn’t matter how good your writing is, if you can’t grab the reader and yank him into the story.

  3. More relevantly:
    Does anyone NOT have these problems?
    (And can you share your secret with the rest of us? Please?)

  4. I’m not immediately aware of any writers who thinking their book is as good as the story in their head (okay, there is That Guy, whose book(s) leave me going “this is what you think is awesome? Uh… is this propoganda to convince the rest of us or are you really that sad?”)

    That said, I cling to this: the more I write, the better I get at translating what’s in my head to what’s on the page. And sometime it’s just the little details, not the major things, that bring out the story-in-head and translate it better on page to story-in-reader’s-head.

    Earlier this year, as part of preparing for print, I went back with the intention of doing of heavy-handed hack and slash and major rewrite edit pass on the book that readers disliked most of everything I’d released.
    ..I didn’t need to. It was a good story, solid bones; it just needed a little clarification here, a few extra words there, a tweak here and there to make intentions and emotions more clear. I expected a major overhaul, but it just needed fine-tuning and polish. Everything was already in there, I just hadn’t learned how to make it clear enough for others to see.

    If I wrote it now, I’d do it differently, but it was a solid work. So after the polish, I left it alone and republished it, and the reviews that have been coming in since then are much happier. I’m happier; I feel like it’s the best that story is going to be. And that’s what I’d encourage for yours: write the best story you can right now, and set it free. Everything you’ve learned along the way will make the next one even better.

    And if really bugs you, promise yourself you’ll come back in 3 books, and see about an edit pass when you’re doing a box set/omnibus. Then let it go.

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