How to Tell When Your Work Actually Isn’t Good vs. A Distortion from Perfectionism

As per my plan, last week I finished a complete draft of my children’s book.

And as I wrote its final line I paused, gave a slight nod, and said out loud, “Well, I sure do hate this.”

I’ve always loved the first third of this book. I’ve always loved the second third. I’ve never been able to nail the final 33%.

I’ve spent lots of time out on dog walks, dictating to my phone, talking out loud about how the book should end. What properly ties up the story? What imparts the right message? What’s going to resonate with kids?

I thought I had it figured out, so I wrote the ending out. First I wrote it in prose form. Then I turned it into poetry. Was pretty happy with some of the rhymes in there too. (I enjoyed the idea of the main character’s mommy dealing with a work tsunami, in particular.)

But when it was done… nope. Swing and a miss. The message is muddled and convoluted. The path I took for the character to have his epiphany was weak.

This moment has now happened to me with every fiction draft I’ve completed. I am never, ever happy with them.

Which makes me wonder whether there really is always something major wrong with my drafts — or this is the negative side of my perfectionism rearing its head.

And… how do I know the difference?

This is still something I’m working through. I don’t want to write seven drafts of every book, especially since those last drafts barely affect the book.

I once watched a documentary about the making of an episode of South Park. Their process involves going from episode idea to finished product in a week — an insane turnaround time for a TV show. But they stand by it because, as Trey Parker says at one point, he could tinker with the episode endlessly and maybe make it 5% better. Instead, it’s smarter to just get it out the door as is and move on.

I don’t have a TV production schedule. So how do I know when to stop?

I’ve decided on a new rule.

I’ve decided to give myself three drafts from now on. There’s the first draft, which I’m allowed to hate. The second draft, where I’d better fix everything from the first draft. And the third draft, where I can punch up the story and the humor and take care of any problems that are still nagging me.

Then I’m done.

To see what I’ve been working on each day, check the Work Log.


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