Periscope Depth

you wanna know if it doesn’t hurt me

In the whiteboard of the largest conference room here at MicroMachines, there was, for months, a quote by President Eisenhower:

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.

This quote resonated with me because it encapsulates the odd blend of neuroticism and indifference with which I approach life. I never stop anticipating events, but when it comes to execution I’ll take “good enough” over “perfect” any day.

When I produced the quiz show Quickly Now this past May at ImprovBoston, I knew in my head how every detail of the show should be paced. First we do the intros, then we do the ring-in round, then we do the round where people arrange placards on a board, etc. But when it came time to produce the show, I couldn’t get all the materials I’d envisioned. This didn’t bother me. No cheap easels on which to hang placards for round 3? Post-It Notes will do. Only three buzzers for a panel of four contestants? Place on buzzer for every two contestants and have them fight over it.

I do all my stressing on the front end (lead-in, prep) so I don’t have to stress on the back end (execution). This has worked pretty well for me so far. Except when it comes to writing.

A first draft is the embodiment of the “close enough” mindset. If you obsess over every detail in a first draft, you will never get it done. The first draft is when you dump all the Legos on the table. You only start building the house in the second (and successive) drafts. First drafts thrive on enthusiasm and momentum. Sit down, every chance you get, and pound on the keyboard.

The later drafts don’t work that way. In the second and successive drafts, you need to start grinding. Examine every paragraph and ask what it contributes to the story. Examine every sentence and ask what its place is in the paragraph. Examine every word and ask if it belongs in the sentence. Do this for every page of a 300+ page manuscript. Then eat drain cleaner and die.

This kills me because, to my mind, it’s exactly backward. If I had a good outline, or if I had a compelling vision, I shouldn’t need to rework! The hard stuff comes first; the fun stuff comes second. First the anal retentive planning, then the relaxed execution. You sweat in practice so you don’t bleed in the match. And all the other cliches.

The idea that I have to sweat over something, breeze it out, and then sweat over it again, paralyzes me. Imagine running a marathon and then walking back over the course, picking up every cup you dropped. That’s what editing feels like to me.

So if my regular blog posts slack a little in the coming weeks, forgive me. I’ve got a novel in its second-and-a-half draft right now. I’m critiquing my passion. I’m second-guessing my enthusiasm. I’m doing surgery on my own abdomen, extracting the useless lumps of metal while Jean Reno and Michel Lonsdale look on.

You can let me know if it’s worth it.

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