Gay romance fiction

Imperfect Words: the unfathomable power of placeholders

by Damon Suede

Sing O Muse of the Glory of Placeholders! Praise be to the power the not-quite word, the crappy quick fix, and the iffy character name!

Raise your hand if you ever sat for longer than 10 seconds straining for the perfect turn of phrase. It's only human.

In her legendary Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott devotes an entire chapter she titles “Shitty First Drafts” to the power of placeholders to keep the internal editor at bay while you put words on the page regardless of quality. Trouble is, writing and revision use completely different portions of the human mind: the Muse and the Editor. Mostly they loathe and impede each other.

Perfectionism paralyzes.

That's not to say I don't believe in good writing, but rather that good writing doesn't happen automagically. Everything starts with crap.

Fiction is inherently internal, personal, subjective. Inviting an audience to muck around inside your imagination for hours at a stretch requires a measure of hubris and insanity. Of course we want to dazzle our readers. Of course we want to live up to our literary forebears. Of course we secretly fear exposure. We get paid to tell lies for living.

I love placeholders.

I originally discovered the power of placeholders in show business. Backstage during a performance there's no time to worry about perfect solutions; duct tape and improv keep shows on the road. On film sets it's even worse when you're spending a meant every minute, dithering and second guessing decisions can bankrupt a production company.

The same holds true for romance fiction, although the traps are more subtle. When you read a great novel you may be able to convince yourself it came out perfectly the first time. It's easy to forget all the people contributing to the success of a great story brought to market.

Are there moments where divine fire funders through your fingers onto the page? Yeah, sure. But you can't build a career out of lightning strikes. A professional writer needs a toolkit capable of handling digression, crisis, and disappointment for their sanity and solvency.

The greatest of these is the magical placeholder.

A placeholder requires no thought, no anxiety, and no wasted time. Once you train yourself to embrace placeholders, you'll develop a system for flagging things that need your attention when the muse does a runner, and it's time for the editor to come out to play. When people tell you that writing is rewriting they're tacitly urging you to love the kinds of quick fixes, silly Band-Aids, and scotch-tape miracles that keep your story chugging along in full view.

Yes, research. Yes, preparation. Yes, structure. But above all things you must catch those wild words on the hoof and nail them to the paper. As Nora Roberts always says, "you cannot edit a blank page."

In a sense, perfectionism is a kind of crippling performance anxiety and renders you just as impotent at the moment of truth . The more you grunt and strain for the effect you think you want, the more you block and mangle real inspiration and artistry. At its best, writing feels effortless and radiant. How on earth do we expect willful constipation and paralysis to illuminate anything?

Nothing comes out perfect the first time. The entire challenge of writing is a kind of alchemical purification that elevates lead to literary gold. Solve et coagulo, baby!

In the length of time it takes you to come up with the perfect adjective, the exact joke, the ideal name for your protagonist, you could have barf up three or four pages which only require a little TLC to sparkle.

Over time you'll learn the traps you set for yourself. Maybe you suck at titles. Maybe choreographing sex scenes freezes you solid. Maybe your nervous tic is renaming your main characters every seven pages. All of those are the Editor sabotaging the Muse.

Once you know your particular bugaboo, you'll bring the right set of placeholders to work with you every day. The moment you feel the big dither take hold or you start second guessing a turn of phrase while you're in flow, without a handy-dandy placeholder and stick it where it fits. Even better, as you do it remind yourself, "I love a great placeholder," before the Editor tries to convince you the right word is on the tip of your tongue. It is, but later.

Think of it another way: no one builds a monument from scratch. They sketch, they model, they hire a team, and they run ideas past the right departments when it's appropriate. The vision is theirs but the revision is shared. The same is true of your writing let your creative self sow a wild garden and then let your practical self come back later to weed, clip, and mulch the beds. Working that way lets the Muse and the Editor work to the best of their abilities in tandem, in solitude.

Love your placeholders and they will love you right back.

A professional development article for writers by M/M author Damon Suede

Copyright 2016. Damon Suede. All Rights Reserved

Originally published as a lecture for Romance University.

If you wish to republish this article, just drop me a line.