Friday, March 25, 2011

Letting Go of "Perfection"

My relationship with a script is closer to a drunken one night stand than a long-term love affair. I finish the final draft the night before in a passionate haze, and wake up in the morning, bleary eyed, looking at a stranger I barely recognize and wondering what the hell I was thinking.

So, it's not surprising that this recent quote from Matt Fraction really struck a chord with me:
"The best comic I've ever written is the one I've just finished and the worst one is the one that just came out."
I'm my own harshest critic. As much as I love a story, characters, or a bit of dialogue, as much as I may have been excited about a project when I started, eventually I'm going to hate it.

Some of this is the nature of comic book production, especially if you're self-publishing. By the time you've written it, had it penciled, inked, colored, lettered, printed--and gone over proofs at every stage--it's natural to be a little tired of it. But that's different than hating it.

I was reminded of this phenomenon recently when Ryan Ottley burned his original Invincible art. Like many others who saw the pictures of the burning via Twitter, I was horrified at first. (OK, I'm still horrified.) But then I paused for a moment and realized I understood, at least a little. While I don't plan to ever burn my earlier work, I certainly have a hard time looking back at it.

Being critical of your own work, to a certain extent, is a good thing. It drives you to improve and to grow. But if you cross a certain line, it may actually stop your growth. It might even keep you from writing at all.

In some ways, this is related to my colleague Paul Allor's article on first drafts. If you get caught in an endless loop of revising but never finishing a first draft, you might have a "perfection" problem. But it's also different in that this sickness can infect your completed first draft, and every draft thereafter.

Where does this come from? For me, it's about self-imposed pressure and fear of failure. I don't ever consciously think "this has to be perfect before I consider it complete." And I've never consciously thought "oh, I better not let go of this script, because if it sucks, it'll prove once and for all that my goals are pipe dreams." But somewhere, deep inside me, I know that's exactly how I feel.

OK, that's a little pathetic. Let's move on.

So, what can you do about this? Here's what's helped me.
  • Learn to recognize the signs: If you're somewhere north of your fifth or sixth major revision, and the story doesn't feel like it's improving, or if you're feeling less and less satisfied, you've probably crossed the line. Set a goal of doing one last read-through and let the damn thing go.
  • Get a second opinion: Every writer should have a colleague or two they trust to take a final look at a piece. Hopefully, this person is not your relative or significant other. (Although if that works for you, more power to you.) Ideally, it's someone who also writes the sort of material you enjoy and can be brutally honest. You're not asking for a critique at this stage. You're just looking for a reality check. If those friends say it's solid, then let the damn thing go.
  • TRY to keep your perspective: This is the hard one. But try to step back and realize that this one story is highly unlikely to make OR break your entire writing career. If you want to be a writer, you'll write many more stories. It's just one story. Make it the best you can, with a reasonable amount of work and revision, and then let the damn thing go.
And when I say "let the damn thing go," that doesn't mean put it in a drawer and move on to the next project that certainly...must...be...better. Let it GO. Post it on your website. Or find an artist. Or submit your pitch to publishers. Let it out into the world. There's a chance the world might not hate it as much as you do. Someone might even love it. You won't know if you don't try.

I don't have all the answers. I still struggle with trying to make my work perfect, and then hating it for not being perfect. But I'm going to keep fighting. And you should, too.


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