Pull back the curtain and see how a suspense writer puts the thrills and chills together.


Hello, dear readers! I hope you had a fantastic weekend.

You know the old saying, “if you can’t do something right, don’t do it at all?” While this may be an admirable philosophy in some cases, when you’re a writer, it can lead to disaster.

Very few writers love their own work all the time. In the midst of a first draft, it is normal to have attacks of self-doubt and be convinced that you’re the worst writer of all time and that everything you’re producing sucks. If you keep writing, this feeling will pass. It may return, but you just type right through it. Writing a novel is a little like climbing a mountain. It’s tough, it’s scary, and there are plenty of obstacles. But you can’t look back, and you can’t look down. The only way to get to the summit is to keep putting one foot–or in this case, one word–in front of the other. Once you get to the top, you’ll be glad you put in the effort.

The secret of success in writing, as Anne Lamott says in her wonderful book Bird By Bird, is to give yourself permission to write a “shitty first draft”. She doesn’t mean that you should strive to write your worst, but that you shouldn’t worry so much about the little grammar and spelling errors, terrible dialogue, inconsistent characterization, lackluster settings, or pacing. You can fix this later, when the first draft is done. No one is going to see your first draft but you, so who cares if it’s not your best work? You should only care that it’s finished.

In my experience, there are two kinds of writers. There’s the type that follows Lamott’s advice instinctively, and plows through a first draft, knowing they will correct and tighten, lift and tuck, later. Then there’s the sect that labors over a first draft like they are painting a masterpiece–every word has to be absolutely perfect along the way. They constantly edit their work while they write, producing few very pages each day in their dedication to cleaning up yesterday’s efforts. The most successful of these writers take years to finish a book, but spares themselves the agony of rewrites (or so they think). However, the vast majority get so discouraged and fatigued that they never finish anything at all.

It never fails to amuse me how often people act like being a perfectionist is something to be proud of. “I would have finished that novel,” they say, “but I’m too much of a perfectionist.” As if they are held to a higher standard of quality than those of us who pound out less-than-perfect drafts and then polish our story later. Perfectionism is actually another word for searing self-doubt, which can be caused by a fear of failure. These are the people who call themselves writers, yet never write a word, or who finish a novel but never send it anywhere because it is always less than perfect. I once knew an English major who was convinced he was the modern world’s finest writer. He never wrote anything, though–probably because he couldn’t handle finding out that he wasn’t as great as he thought.

Perfectionists aren’t limited to the writing world–they’re everywhere. And rare is the perfectionist who isn’t stymied by her conviction that everything must be perfect. It leads to procrastination, depression, and a general lack of productivity. Giving yourself permission to be less than perfect is one of the kindest gifts you can give yourself.

And I’ll tell you a secret….wait for it….

No one is perfect! And no book is, either!

So being a perfectionist is perpetually setting yourself up for failure.

How about you, dear readers? Have you overcome some perfectionist tendencies in yourself? (We all have them, to an extent.) How did you do it?

Thanks for reading!
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  1. Cat Connor

    I write! Don’t think about it, just write the story. I actually think doing something like Nanowrimo or one of the Backspace 30 day challenges can help teach a writer to JUST WRITE.
    First draft is a first draft – the final product can even differ greatly from my ‘polished’ final draft. It’s the joy of having a wonderful editor. 🙂

  2. A. Harper Dooley

    I completely agree… and so do all the unfinished masterpieces in my hard drive! 🙂

  3. Story Teller

    Thanks for your comments! Cat, it’s great to hear from a successful, published author who has discovered the importance of telling that picky inner editor to shut up while you write the story.

    @ AHD – too funny! You *are* going to finish them, right? RIGHT?

  4. Chris

    Those of you who believe yourselves perfect are very annoying to those of us who actually are. 🙂

    I definitely had perfectionist tendencies in school, and I’m not sure I ever got over them completely. My essay rewrites consisted of little more than minor word changes and basic sentence restructuring. In my defense, my procrastinatory tendencies often meant that I was typing the first word of the 12-page essay the night before it was due, and in those situations there was simply no spare time for a substantial rewrite.

    I’m still more of a perfectionist than I should be when it comes to some things, but I’m trying to be more relaxed. Perhaps I should intentionally make speling misteaks?

  5. Kim

    Perfectionism is an excuse to not finish anything that involves risk so therefore you will never fail…. however this is a paradox because the act of not finishing is failing in itself.

    I am a perfectionist about some things (projects and writing) but not about others (the degree of cleanliness of my house). I agonize over the written word in particular but I’ve become comfortable with the shitty first draft. If you are not obsessive about your story/plot and are not sure what is coming next, you are always going to write stuff that doesn’t fit or isn’t needed later (as well as all the awkward crap you mention above).

    I am also obsessive about interpersonal stuff. I don’t want to make a mistake and cross lines with people and my interactions with them. I am correct in reading people 90% of the time but that 10%…. leaves me in agony.

  6. Story Teller

    Thanks for your comments, Chris and Kim. I think the key is to strive to do our best, without trying to be perfect. Finishing a project is better than striving to be perfect and never accomplishing anything.

    Also, since we’re our own worst critics, our impression of our own work can be inaccurate. Recently, I procrastinated on the wording for a brochure because I wasn’t inspired. Finally, I just decided to bang something off, and my boss LOVED it. What seems not so great to us is often wonderful to someone else.


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