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I have a story I want to write and I have the scenes in my head. Because of this, I keep judging and rewriting the first part because I'm never satisfied with it. How do I get over this perfectionism to keep moving forward?

  • This is the biggest problem I have with my own writing. I either force myself to stick to a schedule and crank out a completed story that I later think is rubbish, or I write the first few chapters, spend the next few years polishing them to perfection, and never actually write the rest. – F1Krazy Dec 12 '19 at 17:07
  • I am in the same boat. I tend to start my writing sessions by reading over the previous chapter or so, which sucks up time and usually leave me frustrated with a single sentence or paragraph. – skippy619 Dec 12 '19 at 17:11
  • Hello Leila, welcome to Writing Stack Exchange! I'm sure many of us can relate to your question. You can reach out to your friends and family and ask for their opinion. Sometimes if they're satisfied, you're satisfied! – iiRosie1 Dec 13 '19 at 1:45
  • Rename it "Groundhog Day 2" (or N) – Russell McMahon Dec 14 '19 at 10:57
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I rewrite obsessively; I have rewritten a scene a 30 times. Here is what I have learned.

First: I might be trying to make this scene do too much work, so I can't get it to flow smoothly and still do that amount of work. This is particularly true in the beginning of the story. It is also particularly true if you keep wanting to add details and explanation to the story.

The problem is that the beginning has a huge load of information to dump on the reader: They don't know anything about the characters, the setting, the plot, or anything else. And I am trying to find ways to explain all that in a casual introduction, that just isn't working.

The solution is to write more stuff. My typical formula for an opening is to open on the MC (Main Character), give her a "throwaway" problem to deal with (not the main problem, not a battle, just an issue from her normal everyday life), AND have her start interacting with somebody else ASAP, like within the first two pages.

So I do not try to fill the reader in about everything in the world. I've got about 15% of my story do that, in a 100,000 word story that is 15,000 words, and that is about 60 pages. The beginning of my story is designed to tell readers something important about my MC, introduce them a little bit to the setting (that's why I give her a normal everyday problem or irritation to deal with), and show readers how she deals with other people with their own aims. That will show them something about her personality. It doesn't have to be everything.

If I have magic in my story, I don't even have to introduce THAT in the first ten pages. Readers give us leeway for a few dozen pages, they are accustomed to learning what they need to learn about your setting over the course of dozens of pages and multiple scenes. So we prioritize; I want to introduce what is most important about the MC, her setting, and her ability to interact with others. It is okay to leave some details of these things unsaid, if those details are not important to this particular scene. We devise scenes for the character to reveal important information, we don't just depend on them to happen.

Second: Maybe the scene I chose is just wrong. I'm forcing something on the character that she doesn't want to do; or if you want to be more technical, subconsciously I know her, and the way I have her behaving in this scene doesn't fit the personality I think I know.

I need to spend time thinking if I can use some other scene to convey the information I want to convey. That might start with me analyzing the scene, and trying to figure out what the heck I think is the most important thing for the reader to take away from the scene. Am I trying to reach a plot point that my character isn't really ready for? I might be rewriting because I sense there is something wrong, with the way the scene gets done, or the way my character acts in it, or just the logic of the scene. Why does she agree to a date with a new guy in the office, without knowing anything about him? Is she actually that impulsive? Is she actually that needy, or that horny? Am I forcing her to say yes when she should be disdainful, because the guy doesn't know a damn thing about her but what she looks like?

Third: Maybe I am missing a scene, before it, or after it. This is like "making it do too much work", but the reason I am rewriting is because I should have had earlier scenes that showed the key information needed to understand THIS scene. I frequently find this to the be case, and I have moved my opening "back in time" three times in a book. What I thought would be a good opening was actually Chapter 3, and Chapter's 1 and 2 had to be written to actually GET to Chapter 3. Which then was streamlined and turned into a good scene, because then the reader learned the context that they needed to know back in Chapter 1 or 2, and I didn't spend a lot of time explaining, which slows down the narrative and bogs down the reader with stuff to memorize.

Fourth: A lack of imagination on my part. I've written a scene, and it sounds boring. If I'm not overloading the reader, then the problem is the scene itself doesn't seem to DO anything, and I'm trying to pretty it up. I need to imagine something better than the scene I've got. Again, this is deciding, analytically, just what the point of the scene is supposed to be, what is the reader supposed to learn from it? What does it DO? Explain something about the setting? About the character, or her relationships? About the plot, the "main problem" the character must solve? Or advance a sub-plot, a romantic issue, or fixing a broken relationship, or dealing with some minor problem or complication? Or introducing any of these things?

For me, obsessive rewriting is okay, but I want to know why I am obsessively rewriting. What is wrong with the scene?

On some key scenes, I accept it. For example, if the scene is where my MC meets a love interest, I might rewrite that scene until, on a read through, I simply cannot think of anything to change, not a word, not a punctuation mark.

Hemingway claims he rewrote his ending scenes over twenty times.

Another tactic used by writers is to put the scene aside for a week, work on other things, then rewrite that scene from a blank page and memory; to see what was memorable about it. That's what is probably important about it, and in comparison you can see what superfluous elements you have included. Then decide to NOT include them, but explain them either earlier in the story (creating new scenes if you must), or later in the story, or not at all.

I am a discovery writer, each of my scenes flows from what I think is the smartest thing for each character to do next to advance their cause, and let the chips fall where they may. But that is not infallible, and I end up having to backtrack and rewrite a lot. Often I have to add difficulties, or find a way to make the smartest thing to do actually backfire. Or to prohibit that smartest thing, by putting a roadblock in their path, some bad luck or disaster in their path, so their "smartest thing" isn't so great anymore.

That demands being a little brutal with your scenes, employing the writing adage "Kill your darlings". This means, you may love the scene, but you have to get rid of it because it is ruining your story. You can of course save it elsewhere, lift some descriptions or dialogue from it to use elsewhere, but some scenes (particularly wish-fulfillment scenes) are just too easy, and need to be justified by hardships and struggles to be dramatically useful.

5

There's nothing inherently wrong with perfectionism, but you can try to channel it in a more effective way. Consider that each element of a story depends on the rest—you need your early parts to effectively set up your later parts, but you need to have those later parts at least partially written in order to see how to do that most effectively. Pacing is essential to the flow of a story, but a single section can't do much to vary the pace and keep the reader interested, and the preceding and following sections can have a significant influence on how quickly you want to move. Problems with consistency of theme and character won't be noticeable without a larger body of text.

In short, you can't get that first section perfect until you write the rest of the story. Instead of rereading and thinking of how it could be better, remind yourself that you don't have all the tools yet. You know it's not done—it's just a first draft. Set the revising process as a reward to yourself for finishing, and use that impulse to go back and fix things as motivation to continue forward so you can reach that point.

3

One possible way to do this is to write the end first.

This has some hazards; some people, having written the end, will find it difficult (or seemingly impossible?) to write anything else on that story.

Another way, since you say you have all the scenes in your head, is to take a stack of index cards (or headings in your word processor, or cards in a writing aid like Scrivener or Organon) and write a one sentence summary of a scene on each card. Once you have all the scenes on cards, print them(if needed) and mark them with numbers (so you can undo the next step later) and shuffle them thoroughly (like a deck of playing cards).

Now take the top card off the deck and write that scene. Repeat with the next card. If you're using writing aid software, you can write directly on the software card.

When you come to the bottom of the stack, you'll have all the scenes written, so put the cards back in numeric order if needed, and (also, if needed) shuffle the scenes you've written into the same order.

Now you're ready to revise.

1

This is what drafts are for. You don't need to get it right the first time... just at publish time.

I approach every scene in my stories with the questiosn "Where are we? Where are we going? How do we need to get there? What do we need right now?" The first sets up the general setting of the film and it's place in the narrative, the second establishes to what we need to end the entire scene. The third establishes what this scene does to move the narrative to the conclusion. The fourth asks for what do we need to satisfy the end of this scene."

Think of every scene as a mini-story in you overall narrative. What's the conflict of the scene and what is the resolution.

1

I've had this problem, going over and over again. Then I get to the next chapter and go back and re-write the stuff I'd already "perfected" in the previous chapter.

The way I've overcome this is by doing NaNoWriMo this year.

I failed NaNoWriMo (I didn't write enough words) but the important thing is what I learnt... I managed to get past that constant re-writing cycle and instead of re-writing I've restrained myself to only go back and make a few comments on earlier chapters.

I've progressed much further into my novel than I've ever done in the past, simply by aiming to write as many words as possible in a short space of time and not focus on a perfect novel (yet).

Obviously my novels no where near perfection and I know when I get to the end I'll need to re-write it all but I'm hoping I'll only be re-writing once rather than serveral times. Once the whole story is down I won't need to keep going back on myself.

I'm not sure if my problem is exactly the same but I hope this helps you avoid the same pain I went though.

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Have someone else who has writing and criticism experience (not just a fellow writer -- being able to give good feedback is a skill unto itself), and see what they say. Talk with them about why you keep re-writing: what are the points you don't like? What is missing? What doesn't work?

Getting an outside perspective will probably give you insight into exactly what you're trying to accomplish with the re-writes, that you haven't been able to so far.

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I'm a fan on an idea I heard from Michael Connelly if I get stuck on a particular scene and can't seem to move forwards beyond it. He starts rewriting at the beginning of his book, building momentum as he moves forwards to wherever he was stuck. If he gets stuck again, he again restarts completely from the beginning, working like a battering ram to get through.

I've started using it myself and it generally works to avoid getting frustrated and spinning my wheels having accomplished nothing in limited time. Because you'll generally have to rewrite the beginning more anyway, this works quite nicely most of the time. So instead of rewriting just this one scene, restart from the beginning instead. If you already obsessively rewrite everything, this isn't the best advice, but if you're stuck at a particular point in the process this might help.

I'd also suggest that maybe you should outline instead, so as to give you a better idea where things are going if your problem is fitting the scene into the rest of the story.

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