Discover more from Write More with Simon K Jones
Don't worry about it being perfect
Let your work roam free in the wild
In the early 2010s I was working at a software company. It was there that I learned about ‘agile’ working methods, which in 2023 tends to provoke a fair bit of eye rolling.
Back in 2015 I was still struggling to write in a usefully productive way, always flitting between projects and never finishing anything. That was when I started wondering if some of the methodologies from the tech world might be useful in my creative practice.
A lot of tech industry ‘learnings’ have since ended up being less than desirable. Turns out that ‘move fast and break things’, the unofficial internal motto at Facebook for many years, might be advantageous for software dev but isn’t the best approach when it comes to, you know, democracy, or high quality debate, or nurturing a healthy society. 🙄
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Fortunately, I’m not trying to undermine elections. I’m just trying to write fiction at a pace which mean I’ll have more than a half-finished manuscript by the time I’m 90. Borrowing some concepts from the software world has definitely helped: in 2015 I hadn’t written anything of note; as of 2023 I’ve three novels out in the wild and another in progress via this newsletter.
Novels are big. Really, really big. How big? This kind of big:
“Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.” Douglas Adams
Staring from the foot of a novel to its head is like gazing into the unknowable. It’s a mountain that only you can climb, and you’ve forgotten all of your climbing gear. Plus there are lots of smaller, more fun mountains just over there that you could do instead.
Any software product is also insidiously complex, to the point that it’s a fool’s errand to even attempt to create one. Whether it’s a video game or an art program or an accounting tool, going from the point of having no code to having a completed, functioning thing is so difficult to comprehend that it may as well be impossible.
Trying to internalise the entire project is a fast route to madness and despair.
Breaking a complex thing down into smaller chunks makes the impossible suddenly possible. This is working in sprints: small bursts of activity with a defined end point. Compartmentalised pieces of the overall puzzle, which don’t do much on their own but still represent progress milestones.
When writing a book, this could be chapters. I write and publish a new chapter each week, and that’s the focus of my attention. Writing a novel is intimidating to the point of paralysis; writing a chapter is comparatively very easy.
String enough of these little sprints together and one day you’ll find that you have a completed project.
This only works for me because of the principle of sharing early. If I was writing my manuscript, chapter-by-chapter, and storing it in a drawer or on my computer’s hard drive, it would still be very easy to drift away from the project. I’d be forever tinkering, and nobody would ever see the finished thing.
Instead, I write and publish as I go. I share my work publicly, and have done since 2015. This has proven to be a huge motivator for me, to the extent that I’ve written consistently every single week since I started (aside from short, deliberate breathers between books).
This is quite an intense way to write and isn’t for everyone. Most of my traditionally published writer friends think I’m entirely mad, in fact. There are some obvious drawbacks:
If you plan to submit to magazines that require first-publishing rights, this clearly isn’t going to work
If you write your long-form fiction in a non-linear way, you won’t be able to publish it as you go (at least, not in a way that would make sense to anyone else)
There are many benefits, though:
You learn quickly, getting immediate feedback and seeing your work in the wild. This rapidly accelerates your improvement as a writer
There’s a constant, never-ending sense of reward and progress
Every chapter/story/episode you publish is like a mini-book launch, and is a new opportunity to reach new readers1
Writing becomes an ongoing, two-way conversation with your readers, rather than an isolating experience2
You get a built-in measure of productivity: whether you’re publishing daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly doesn’t really matter - the point is to have a cadence of some sort, as that produces a rhythm which in turn creates a habit
It’s that formation of a habit that is so useful. I used to find it difficult to write a chapter each week. The challenge was in being able to produce written work regularly. At some point that changed, though - it’s become a built-in habit such that I write to that rhythm automatically and without really thinking about it.
The weekly publishing is still an important part of it, but it’s more of a fun reward than a looming deadline for me now.
Perfection isn’t necessary
The irony, of course, being that nothing is ever ‘perfect’. The pursuit of perfection can only be an excuse to never actually finish, and to never share your work. “It’s not ready yet.” “It’s not good enough.” “It needs more work.”
There’s another term that emerged out of the software industry: minimum viable product. The idea being that you figure out what the really critical aspects of a project are, and aim for those as your first release candidate. You’re not trying to add all the bells and whistles. It doesn’t have to be extremely polished. A lot of those features are not strictly necessary to the core experience, and can come later.
I try to be very up-front with readers about my serials being works in progress, and how it’s a feature rather than a bug. Seeing how a story comes together, in real time, is all part of the experience. It’s a different thing to picking up a book that has already been completed, and edited, and published professionally. An online serial is more raw, still hot from the fire. My chapters won’t be as polished as something published by Penguin: that’s just a fact. For readers who are OK with that, coming along for the years-long ride offers a subtly different kind of thrill.
And besides - there’s nothing to stop you going back and refining a completed serial, before putting it out as a singular novel. That’s what I did with No Adults Allowed. But that level of polish comes later. First, the thing has to be willed into existence in the first place, and the MVP helps that happen.
Iterate, iterate, iterate
Online serials are inherently malleable. Chapters can be easily edited, amended and improved after they are published. Many readers won’t receive the chapter upon its initial distribution by newsletter, and will instead discovered it weeks or months later.
That’s where iteration comes in, both of prior chapters and those still to come. Iterate with post-publication edits. Prose fiction on the internet doesn’t have to be fixed in stone. Iterate on the presentation, tweaking the design of the chapters to best suit the story and the needs of the reader. Iterate on the story itself, adjusting it over time as you come up with better ideas, and as you witness it interacting with readers. Every story is a conversation between creator and audience, but with an online serial that conversation is happening during the creation itself.
Little be little, step by step, the serial writer climbs up the mountain almost without noticing. It’s enjoyable, even. And then suddenly, they’re at the summit, and the climb is complete. The novel exists. It was almost easy. And all those other mountains in the distance are revealed, each one a future story to explore.
Thanks for reading. This last week has been a rollercoaster of half-term childcare and holidaying, (finally) recovering from this weird long-cold thing, and struggling through daily Inktober challenges. Talking of which, some recent sketches:
It’s worth noting that taking part in Inktober and sharing those sketches pulls me way outside of my comfort zone. It’s another good example of what I’m talking about in today’s article - not worrying about making everything perfect.
Following on from today’s topic, if you want some more nuts-and-bolts tips for serial writing, this is a good place to start:
I’ve also got an ongoing video series if you’re interested in using Substack for your writing:
If you’d like to check out my current weekly serial, which is a science fiction detective caper, you can jump in here:
Have a good week, and if you’re starting your NaNoWriMo journey on Wednesday - good luck.
This doesn’t mean you have to put in the same amount of effort as a book launch every week, though. Thankfully.
Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on your point of view