Beware of Ergot-Poisoned Writing Advice

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Bumper Crops of Fungus

It’s Nanowrimo! Holy gods where has the year gone? I feel like just yesterday I was saying Happy New Year to folks.

Ok, so, it’s November and I’ve apparently been abducted by aliens this year because that’s the only way to explain all the missing time. I’m also recovering from seriously heavy burnout. Slowly feeling more like myself, but trying not to push it. Pushing it leads to more burnout.

And because it’s Nanowrimo, we have a new crop to harvest! A new crop of writing advice!

Like all harvests, some of it is good, some of it is bad, and some of it is of dubious quality. Be careful before you dig in; you don’t want ergot poisoning. (Actually…ergot is a hallucinogen, so it might help you come up with things to write. GO FOR IT! No, don’t, don’t ever take advice from me. Or do, whatever, I’m not your supervisor.)

Floating out there in cyberspace, I saw one particular part of writing advice that I needed to comment on. (I don’t remember where I saw it; I just know I saw it. Also it’s not an uncommon piece of advice to get tossed around.)

It said something along the lines of “it’s no good writing a bunch of words if you have to toss most of them out.”

Hoo boy.

Yeah, so, this is wrong. I mean, in my not so humble opinion, obviously, your mileage may vary, but so, so wrong.

Whatever words you write are good! I don’t mean they’re good, like good to read; you might be writing crap of the highest order. I know I do, and often. But they are good in that all words you write are part of the learning process.

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Writing isn’t one of those things you can study a bunch for, cram the night before, and ace the test. You can’t read blog after blog or book after book on “how to write” and then just sit down and vomit out a novel that’s perfect in every way. That’s not how it works.

If you write 50,000 words this month you have to toss out completely, that’s fine. You know why? Because writing those words taught you what doesn’t work. After writing those words, you have a better idea of what not to do — which tells you better what to do. Or at least tells you what to avoid.

We learn from our mistakes far more than from our triumphs. If all you did was perfect writing, then you’d never advance as a writer. And with writing, half the fun — ok, more than half — is in the journey.

It’s like that story that roams around online that I have no idea of the source for, but it’s about the pottery class, where the class is divided into two halves and one half is told that they’ll be graded on ONE pot, but it has to be PERFECT, and the other half is told they’ll be graded on how MANY pots they produce, so quality doesn’t matter.

What ends up happening is the half of the class that spends all their time trying to craft the perfect pot fails, and the half that churned out pots all semester end up making perfect pots by the end.

Because they learn from their mistakes.

It’s a very rare human who can write a perfect first draft. I’m not going to say it’s impossible, because fuck I don’t know all the people in the world. But it’s pretty close to impossible.

‚ÄčAbandoning Perfection

I had to teach myself to abandon perfection in my first drafts. Bellica‘s first draft was actually really good, because it took me 13 years to get from beginning to “the end”. In that time I rewrote it approximately 30,000 times.

But it still needed a bunch of editing and even more rewriting before it was publication ready, and even then…nowhere near perfect.

Of course, when I read it now I think it’s not perfect because I’ve written more since then and grown as a writer. I see bits where I could have done better. I also see bits where I think “I can’t have written that, it’s too good.” Which tells me that a) my self-doubt is legendary and b) I do have the chops to do this, and will only continue to get better with time.

If someone had told me back when I started on this journey to be a novelist of epic fantasy that fresh words didn’t matter if I had to toss them all out at the end…well, Bellica never would have been finished. I’d still be agonizing over every sentence, every period, every bit of italics or bold, wondering if it’s perfect enough. I’d be trapped in Writer’s Purgatory, a place from which there is little escape.

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It’s hard for me to abandon perfection. I’m a natural perfectionist. I like things to be just right, and when they aren’t, I feel like a failure. But clinging to perfection is harmful to me, and to my writing career. Clinging to perfection is what’s fueled my writing dry spell for the past 2 years. After my stress-induced hiatus, I couldn’t get back to writing because I couldn’t write in my first drafts what I saw in my final, published works (which I had to reread, to refresh my memory for the next books in the series).

I was so scared of not being able to get my writing up to standard that I struggled to write at all.

Imagine if I’d not been clinging to perfection. Imagine if I’d not let that bumper crop of fungus infect me. From the Ashes would likely already be finished and I’d be working on book 3 in The Borderlands Saga, or maybe even done with it.

Imperfection is Holy

There’s this story I like, that helps me get rid of my dangerous perfectionism thinking. It’s a story of rug-weavers who make sure their patterns have tiny imperfections in them — a misplaced color, a jolt in the pattern, almost imperceptible at first glance but there all the same. The reasoning being, only god is perfect, so their rugs cannot be.

I like this idea because it makes me think of imperfection as an act of holiness, of devotion to the powers that be. It’s no secret to you that I am religious; I’m pagan and Anglican, flipping between polytheist and henotheist mindsets depending on what day of the week it is.

I like the reminder that we cannot achieve perfection, and that is okay, because being imperfect brings honor to those who are. (Even though gods are probably not perfect; they’re also beings we can’t really conceive of in their entirety, so they may as well be perfect from our human viewpoints.)

Perfectionism is a dangerous disease. Like ergot it can cause hallucinations, convulsions, and death. Don’t eat writing advice that’s contaminated with it. Don’t let that fungus into your brain.

Write your words.

Write good words, write bad words, write any words. The only way to get better at anything is to practice it. Booklearnin’ will only take you so far, fellow Type-A Hermiones of the world. Get out there, wave your wands, and unintelligibly shout “wingardium leviosa” to your story.

I promise eventually you’ll make that bitch fly.