For the sort of thing I’m about to say, I spend way too long trying to work out the right opening line. In the end it didn’t matter, because this post is not about reaching for perfection, but not doing so. I’m not advocating that we strive for mediocrity, or set a hole-ridden plot of flaws and cliches as our goal. We should instead be working toward completion, errors be damned.
It’s a lesson I have to keep reminding myself of, and one that even when I believe it, I only sort-of do. When NaNoWriMo comes around, I give myself a slight reprieve from the internal editor that wants every sentence to be perfect, and every word to be essential – but it still wants the first draft to be 90% of the way toward a final. I can skip over a word and write it in caps so I don’t lose momentum, but I’m very conscious of making sure everything still belongs.
When you’re working to a deadline, whether be a self-imposed one, an actual one, or the iffy in-between NaNo deadline, you’re forced to sacrifice a little bit of perfection for the sake of having something to hand over. Nobody gets it right the first time every time, even if your final draft ends up a 99% match with what you did write to begin with.
If you write out something hastily it does show to yourself, but possibly not to others. It may not grab you as interesting, but you don’t know what details will stick with people. The first thing you write out may only cover the basics of what you want the scene to convey, but the most important thing is that the scene gets out. You may have time to rewrite it later, especially if you’re not working to a deadline.
It’s an easy thing to test.
Write out a scene of your novel without planning it too much, just enough to get the barest details on the page. When you’re done, do something else for a little while, then return to your writerly spaces. Write the scene again, though different. Again, don’t think about it. Perfection can still wait for another draft. There’ll be occasions when the first attempt is better, but it won’t always be so. You can always rewrite it.
This might be something only I’ve experienced, but I doubt it. There’s nothing special about my experiences or methods as a writer, and I’ve laid them all bare here for any that wanted to try them out, just in case. Our imaginations are constantly grinding away, giving us details and making real the intangible concepts we begin with. Writing down the first draft makes the story more real than any plan does, and allows our imagination to start making associations with everything that becomes a fact of our worlds.
The details can change in time. The King might be a Queen in a later draft, but the Squire’s loyalty remains. Without, we know the Squire will be tested and tempted, but we’re not sure what the exact challenges they receive will be. We know there is some sort of magic, but it’s the first draft that has it manifest in elements or ghosts or enchanted rainbow macarons.
Nothing you write is immutable. It can all be changed. It’s only truth for your story for as long as you keep it so, and if it’s wrong, that’s okay. It’s okay to be wrong. Risk the mistakes so you can discard what doesn’t fit, and allow your imagination to focus on what doesn’t work. Until you’ve got a wrong story, you don’t know enough to fix it.