During a recent conversation with the wonderful Linda Urban, we agreed that we’ve developed main characters that display traits and characteristics similar to our own. Though we have never experienced the same trials as our protagonists, we feel what they feel and understand how they react to those trials because part of us would react in the same way.
Lizzie is a just-turned-twelve-years-old girl navigating the tribulations of the Great Depression alone. (Or so she believes…) By contrast, I am a just-turned-thirty-three-years-old writer navigating the trials of Authordom with the aid of many kind souls. (Thank goodness for that!) So what in the world could we have in common?
It just so happens that the same personality flaws that hinder Lizzie on her path to stop herself and her mother from losing everything, including each other, are the same personality flaws that I struggle to overcome as I traverse the path to publication and the drafting of my next book.
I know, I know. I’m not supposed to believe I have any flaws. But truthfully, I’m painfully aware of my flaws from sunup to sundown, day in and day out. What are they?
1. a perfectionist.
I pick apart each tiny thing that relates to my writing. For example, I am an unrelenting pre-plotter. Why? Perfectionism makes me a control freak. I must know what is going to happen and when (at least the large plot points). I have to see it outlined, study it, critique it, ponder it, and then, and only then, can I begin to write actual words. I need to know my characters, hear their voices, see them walking around and interacting with one another inside their world.
I’d give anything to be one of those blessed writers able to take a concept and produce a first draft in a matter of weeks. But I am not. I hammer out a first draft over the course of a couple of months, each day returning to what I wrote the day before to polish sentences and clarify themes and motivations. It is a long and arduous process fueled by perfectionism.
This can be good or bad. Before Every Day After was acquired, my stubborn personality was good. I refused take no for an answer. I believed in Lizzie’s story, and I wasn’t about to give up on it. End result: perfect editor and impeding publication.
But now that I’m working on Book 2, this characteristic has displayed its ugly side. Once I get an idea or a character inside my head, I can’t give up on it until it has been fully realized. I feel like giving up on an idea would be a type of failure. Again, the whole perfectionist bit.
Recently my editor and I had a phone conversation during which we mutually agreed that it would be best to put my then WIP aside and work on a book more like Every Day After. I had been pulling out hair and teeth in desperate attempts to make the project work. The project had wrestled me into a severe case of writer’s block. Now that I have moved on to a new project, I feel a renewed passion for story and writing. Still, before I hung up the phone I told my editor that after I’d completed this manuscript, I would try to tackle the difficult one yet again. I’m too stubborn to let it go. It bothers me. There’s a challenge to be had in making it work, and I intend to come out the victor.
I am my worst critic. Occasionally, this causes me to shut down. Perfectionism also feeds self-criticism. I want everything I do to be perfect, and I get frustrated with myself when it’s not.
Anne Lamott talks about silencing our inner editor in her brilliant book Bird by Bird. This is something I struggle with each time I sit in front of the keyboard—whether in pre-plotting or actual writing. Every decision, each word, is up against Ms. Self-Critic. Shutting her up is a full time job.
Lizzie displays all these traits—many spurred on by her father. (Note: my own father was not this way.) She refuses to let herself fail, and in so doing she becomes hyper-focused on her own problems, just as I do more times than I would like to admit, because once I finally make it into “writer mode” it becomes all too easy to tune out family and friends. Sad but true.
What about you? What traits—good or bad—do you share with your main characters? Do you struggle to overcome in life what you allow your characters to overcome in fiction? If I’ve learned one thing though writing it’s that life is harder than fiction.
Laura Golden is the author of EVERY DAY AFTER, a middle grade novel about a young girl learning to let go and find her own way amidst the trials of the Great Depression. It will release on June 11 from Delacorte Press/RHCB and can be pre-ordered through your favorite independent bookseller or online retailer. Find out more about Laura and EVERY DAY AFTER by visiting her website or following her on Twitter and Facebook.