Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Of Hitler and Overthinking

Source.  Copyright Westwood

You know that saying (I think it’s a saying, anyway) pressure makes diamonds?  Well, let’s just say that I’m not carbon (well, actually…).  What I’m saying is that I don’t do so well under pressure.  It’s not that I break down and hide under tables.  When I find myself under pressure, my perfectionism kicks in and I overthink, leading to a horrible product.

I remember that my Afrikaans teacher in high school gave us an assignment to write a story about one of several topics, one being something along the lines of “Die monster wat hom jaag” (the monster that chases him).  I thought about it a bit and came up with a possible concept.  So I asked my teacher if I could make the monster in the theme be kleptomania (the irresistible compulsion to steal things) and thus make the story about a man fighting against his disorder.  She seemed delighted at my idea and said that she looked forward to reading it.

We got time to prepare (and outline) for a few days beforehand.  After creating an expectation of delivering a good product, I started researching (this was for a 300 word story).  I looked all sorts of things up and overthought every possible aspect of the story that I possibly could.  I ended up with a lame attempt that included a German kleptomaniac that just sat there and thought and eventually killed himself in the exact (read, EXACT) way Hitler killed himself (why Hitler?  I have no idea).  Basically, nothing happened and it was very lame.  I got a mediocre grade and to this day, I feel like a moron for handing in such a piece of trash after creating an expectation of something great.

In another class, we got an assignment for a story that we had to complete in one period (maybe, but regardless, I didn’t plan it at all).  I wrote something and gave it in and got a good grade and some encouraging comments from the teacher.

In the first example, I had pressure to create something great and a long time to think about it and in the second one, I had pressure in the amount of time I had and had created no expectations as to how good it would be.

Don’t overthink it.

Back in 2009, I took my first step in becoming a writer by signing up for NaNoWriMo.  Against all odds, I somehow finished 50k words in a month.  I was surprised and relieved.  I didn’t think I would be able to write a novel length manuscript.  I just didn’t have the will.  But I proved myself wrong.

Because of the reasonably short timeframe, there was no time to overthink anything.  My fake novel had so many plotholes in it that it looked like a South African road, but it was done and it didn’t stink (too much) for a first draft.

This is not about outlining and (as Donald Maass calls it) organic writing.  This is about worrying too much about getting the finer points right.  The correct shade of blue the police cruiser should be, the number of switches a pilot has to flip to start a Cessna’s engine.  The best way to symbolically make a reference to Hitler.  Leave all that for later.  That’s what revision is for.  First you write your draft.  Your first draft, or as some call it, your zero draft.  It will kind of suck, and it might be wrong on the procedures a detective has to follow, but at least it won’t be boring—and that is a pretty good start.

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