Author Alwyn Hamilton, on why you should forget perfect and just have a go #UnpickingPerfection
I wrote six books before I wrote my first published novel, Rebel of the Sands. At least, that’s the number I tell people.
I’m actually rounding down. I should really say “I wrote six books… give or take a dozen other books I half-wrote” but that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
Those six books still exist, on my old laptop, on the USB key I used to rescue files from the laptop before that when I dropped it and it wouldn’t turn back on. But even now that I have ‘broken into the publishing world’ as they say (which makes it sound like a heist), those books are never going to see the light of day. Because what I’m talking about here isn’t rejection. This isn’t a case of Stephen King’s The Long Walk being turned down and then published later when the world recognised his brilliance. I didn’t even submit those six books anywhere. Because I always knew they weren’t good enough.
I knew it as I was writing them. One lacks any plot tension, another has characters with no real backstories or motivation, the last one had a flimsy world that you could poke holes through just by squinting too hard. But flawed and unpublishable though they are, those six books are far from worthless to me, because they were practice books. And I couldn’t have written Rebel of the Sands without every single one of them.
Of course I didn’t think of them as ‘practice books’ as I was writing them. I went into each and every one with the mind that they might be on shelves someday, that this time, this book, might be “the one”. But still, there’s something strange to me about the way that we think about writing.
Maybe it’s because it looks a lot like work, that people don’t think you can just have it as a hobby. You wouldn’t ask a friend who plays a musical instrument when they’re due to perform at the Royal Albert Hall or someone who plays tennis on the weekends when they’re going to Wimbledon. And yet we constantly ask writers, ‘is it going to be published?’
Maybe it’s because it looks the same whether you’re doing it well or badly. You can hear pretty quickly when someone is not ready to go to the Royal Albert Hall. And Love, 15, 30, 40, Game Point tells you pretty quickly what level someone is at with tennis. While the act of writing looks the same whether you are doing it well, or badly.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because, after the age of six or seven onwards, most people with the benefit of primary school can write. Everyone can put a pen to paper and write out “Once upon a time…” And from that point onwards everyone is created equal. And so everyone thinks they should be able to write a good book, off the cuff. If they just tried. Why, though?
If I was waiting for perfect, I never would have got good
Just because music, painting and football don’t look like work, doesn’t mean they aren’t or that the people practicing them haven’t worked hard. I mean, sure we hear about prodigies, your Mozarts and your Picassos. But you wouldn’t watch the Olympics and expect anyone to be standing up there without years of work. That’s the whole point of those montages with dramatic orchestral scores that they show us of the athletes before the events. You don’t go to the theatre and open a program to find the credits totally blank under the lead actor’s name. If you pick up a book on a bookshelf, there’s a good chance there are hundreds of thousands of words that aren’t on those pages, but that are propping up that book anyway.
In writing, we hear only about the successes. The end result. But that doesn’t isolate them from the work, or from failures.
I said those six books weren’t wasted. That’s because every single one of them taught me something. They taught me to get better at something by failing at it once. Or more than once.
I knew it wasn’t perfect as I was writing it. I knew it was hard as I was writing it. I did it anyway. I wrote it in all its imperfect messiness. And I finished it. Because the thing is, if I’d stopped because I was bad at it, if I was waiting for perfect, I never would have got good. If I hadn’t pushed through the awkward, uncomfortable feeling of fumbling my way through it, I never would have reached the part where it feels amazing to have finished something, and be proud of it.
I hope as you read this, you don’t think I’m saying you can’t be good something or accomplish something great. I’m saying you almost definitely can’t without practice and it’s unreasonable pressure on yourself to expect to. And that’s not just true of writing, or gymnastics, it’s true of almost anything in life – you just don’t think of it that way. Whether it’s starting a new relationship, socialising in a new environment, being thrown in the deep end at a new job. If you don’t turn up for the date, make yourself go to the party, and just hit send on that first incoherent email to your future job already, it’s never going to stop being difficult and scary and awkward.
So I guess, take a page out of Nike’s book and… just… do it. You’ll be bad at it at first. And you have to deal with the badness and the discomfort and push through and learn by doing. In order to get to the good.
Alwyn Hamilton is author of Rebel of the Sands, the first in a trilogy “packed with shooting contests, train robberies, festivals under the stars, powerful Djinni magic and an electrifying love story”. Get your copy on Amazon here.
Image: Manjit Thapp