Six impossible things

Looking for Perfection

A long time back, I heard a story about a man who wanted a famous artist to draw him a picture of a cat. “Come back in a year,” the artist told him.

A year later, the man returned, eagerly anticipating the masterpiece that had taken the artist a year to create. “I’m here for my picture,” he said.

The artist picked up a blank canvas and a brush, and drew three lines that perfectly captured the essence of cat. As he handed it to the man, the man said, “This is truly a masterpiece. But it hardly took you five minutes. Why did I have to wait a year?”

The artist then took the man into the next room, and showed him thousands of drawings of cats – detailed studies of tails and whiskers and paws, drawings of the underlying musculature, cats in different poses, from different angles. “This is what took a year.”

The underlying principle applies to pretty much every art and every job there is (including writing): if you want to do something really, really well, it takes a lot of time and work at all sorts of details that aren’t necessarily visible in the final product.

Some people make the mistake of thinking that if they won’t use a particular technique in whatever they want to start writing, it’s a waste of time to learn it, or even understand it. Studying different viewpoint types is pointless, because they’re writing a first-person novel, for instance. Others assume that if the master artist had to draw a room full of cats before producing a masterpiece, they must do the same before they are allowed to produce anything. Still others give up in despair, overwhelmed by the thought of a year spent drawing cats or writing different stories or exercises that are not what they want to write, right now.

What they all forget is that the master artist was already a master when he was asked for the picture of the cat. It’s a pretty safe assumption that he’d drawn a lot of other things already (and done a good job of it), or he wouldn’t have been a famous artist and the customer wouldn’t have come to him in the first place. The real lesson is that even a master had to spend a year doing studies of cats in order to produce that final, three-line masterpiece…and he knew it. There is always more to learn.

One must, however, start somewhere – and one does not have to learn everything at once. Indeed, if you wait to start writing until you have achieved excellence in every aspect of writing, from point of view to plot to theme to characterization, then you won’t ever write anything. One doesn’t learn a skill by reading about it. One learns by practicing it.

The truth is, the more you know about different aspects of writing, the easier it is to get the result you want, even if most of what you know doesn’t seem to be directly applicable to whatever you’re working on. It’s worth doing detailed drawings of cat whiskers and ears and paws, even though the final masterpiece only takes three lines and doesn’t include any of those details. Knowing how to draw the fine details allowed the artist to leave them out without worrying that their lack would spoil the picture. But he had to actually draw them to learn that.

The other thing to remember is that writing is a holistic art. We take it to pieces in different ways in order to analyze and improve different aspects, but ultimately it all has to work together.

You can say that this bit is dialog and that bit is description, but some of the dialog bit is characterization and some of it is plot; some of the description bit is also characterization (or plot or setting or atmosphere). Some bits are three or four things at the same time – and the “bits” can be as small as a sentence or larger than a scene or chapter. The person or being chosen to narrate a story affects every aspect, from the way dialog is presented to description and plot; which type of viewpoint (first, second, or third-person) affects all those things again, even if the narrator remains the same in all three versions.

It comes down to a balancing act, between perfection and production. The cat-artist gave himself a deadline; he spent a year drawing cats, then drew the final one and that was it. I’m willing to bet that the next day or the next week, he found himself thinking that he could have done it just a little bit better if he’d done something different, but by then, the customer had the picture; it was done, finished, over with.

Different writers draw that line in different ways. One I know gives himself time deadlines: one year for research, six months for a first draft, another six to polish it up for submission. Another works her stuff over and over until she is sick of looking at it…which coincidentally seems to be after about three months of polishing the first draft. Another sets herself a fixed number of times through the material: once to outline, once for the first draft, once for a second draft, once for the final polish.

Everybody has a point at which they declare the work done and move on. Or else they have someone they know and trust who takes it away from them before they polish the silver plate right down to the copper base.

  1. A related anecdote (which may be apocryphal):

    A group of art analysts were debating about how an artist decides that a painting is finished—when to stop adding details, refining shadows and highlights, and so forth. One of them thought to ask a child who was at that time dabbing paint on a sheet of paper, “How do you know when you’re done, when your painting is finished?”

    “That’s easy!” said the child. “It’s when I get up from the table.”

  2. You’ve mentioned over polishing before. Is there a way to recognize when that’s happening/happened, and is there a way to fix it (other than maybe going back to previous draft)?

    • Recognizing it is a matter of experience, mostly. You can also depend on beta-readers to tell you, if you trust them for that. I’ve used a rule of thumb for years: when I think that I will learn more from writing something new than from revising (yet again) the current thing, I’m done (if I haven’t already reached the “totally sick of this thing” point). And if you don’t trust your instincts/experience, set an arbitrary limit that seems just a little tight: Resolve to do only three passes on any given section/chapter, when you feel like you want four, for instance.

  3. Heh. My daughter, who is a metals artist, described a finished piece of her work as “A series of decisions that I stopped making.”

    I think that applies across the arts, although with pixels, it’s harder to stop because it’s easier to continue.

    Ta, L.

    • My sister who is in fine arts told me once that in her class on learning to be a museum director, they emphasized that they should never send a damaged painting back to the original artist to be fixed (if the original artist is still alive). Because the original artist won’t just fix the damage; they’ll start repainting the whole picture to “fix” things that aren’t actually a problem, and it ends up being a disimprovement overall.

  4. “Some bits are three or four things at the same time” — Absolutely. It’s great fun to try and get as much as possible out of each bit.

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