Lower Your Standards: getting through the book’s babyhood

In honour of my son’s fifth birthday the other day, I present a Parenting Metaphor. (This really is a post about writing, not a kiddy blog. Bear with me.)

My son was born 17 months after my daughter, and as parents of ‘two under two’ will know, this is a bad time. I recall my husband coming home to find me sitting on the floor, crying, holding a crying baby and a crying toddler who had just wet herself copiously over her brother, me, and the floor. (Which is what we were all crying about.) It was not good. So I called my friend Natalie, who speaks wisdom.

KJ [wails about disastrous house, empty cupboards, nappies, failed breastfeeding, unsleeping children] I just don’t know how you’re supposed to DO everything! How do I do it?

Natalie [audible shrug]: Lower your standards.

This is, quite seriously, the best advice I have ever received.

‘Lower your standards’ doesn’t mean ‘leave the child in a dirty nappy while you go to the pub’, of course. It means that you turn ‘playing educationally with your spotless children in an impeccable house while a casserole cooks’ into ‘playing with your children’, and the hell with the rest. It means you get the important stuff right. The rest of it can always be done later, when you have time – and if you never have time, that’s probably because it wasn’t really important. Pick it up if it starts to smell.

‘Lower your standards’ got me through early parenthood. The house did not fall down, nobody got cholera, the kids survived and so did we. We lowered our standards, and cleared up later, and you know what, it’s worked out pretty well.

And ‘lower your standards’ is also excellent advice for your difficult first draft. (Subject to deciding that it’s worth writing at all.)

  • Forget that blasted descriptive passage. If you need it, it will come, later. If you don’t, aren’t you glad you stopped trying to write it now?
  • Conversation not working, but you know where it needs to go? Force it. Leave a space if you have to. Don’t get bogged down. If it’s really where the book is going, it’ll come to you, and you’ll probably find out what your characters wanted to get at in fifty pages’ time. It doesn’t have to be perfected now. It will probably change anyway.
  • Realised you want to do a thing which requires going back and seeding all the way through the last fifty pages? Make a note, and do it later. Don’t go back and fiddle and overwrite. You can do that forever.
  • Your Edwardian heroes are on a train to Berlin and you need to find out the name of a station they stop at on the way? If it’s not plot-shapingly crucial, just put [STATION] in the MS and do it later. Do not break your writing flow to mess about with 1904 Continental railway timetables. (I’m talking to you here, KJ.)
  • Your subconscious will work with you, but it needs something to work on. If you just get the full story nailed, I guarantee that the little character notes and pertinent descriptions and seemingly trivial vital details will sing out on second draft. Like careers, manuscripts make most sense with hindsight.

Of course, your standards need to shoot back up in the second draft, when you remove the awkward transitions, and see, in the glorious light of a completed story, why that scene didn’t work and this conversation doesn’t flow. That’s the point where you start to get it all right. And when it comes to editing stage, your standards should be those of the Tiger Mother from Hell. Your finished book should be as perfect as you hope your finished offspring will be. (Hahahaha.)

But in the baby-and-toddler period, sometimes you just need to concentrate on keeping the damn thing alive.

Do you agree? Disagree? Are your standards too low even to engage with this conversation? Let me know!

10 replies
  1. Blaine D. Arden
    Blaine D. Arden says:

    Your Edwardian heroes are on a train to Berlin and you need to find out the name of a station they stop at on the way? If it’s not plot-shapingly crucial, just put [STATION] in the MS and do it later. Do not break your writing flow to mess about with 1904 Continental railway timetables. (I’m talking to you here, KJ.)

    I do this ALL the time :) I also do this when I have a Dutch word in mind and can’t find the English equivalent. Or names of people! So glad to see I’m not the only one 😀

    As for kids… mine are 3yrs apart, but… I SO know the feeling. the toddler would be complaining about the baby ruining his block-art (or something like that). Makes me so glad they’re all 19+ now (though… still living at home – can’t have everything)

    Reply
  2. K R Green
    K R Green says:

    I’m glad I read this tonight.
    I’ve failed to do this too many times with my main work in progress.
    Finally, at the end of December, I gave in and printed my whole manuscript off. Now, I [hopefully!] won’t be able to get so bogged down in tweaking that perfect first sentence, so that I might get through the whole novel.

    “Realised you want to do a thing which requires going back and seeding all the way through the last fifty pages? Make a note, and do it later. Don’t go back and fiddle and overwrite. You can do that forever.”
    ^ This is what I’ve not yet done, but recognise now that I need to do.

    Fingers crossed I can remember this when I actually sit down to go through it.

    Reply
  3. KJ Charles
    KJ Charles says:

    Thanks for comments, all, glad this is helpful! I’m serious that ‘lower your standards’ is the best advice I’ve ever had – it provides a path through all kinds of situations where you’re actually standing in your own way.

    Reply
  4. louharper
    louharper says:

    That’s exactly how I write. I give myself stage directions, leave notes like “check this,” “find better word,” “add earlier,” and a bunch of others. My first drafts are rougher than sandpaper.

    Reply
  5. Blaine D. Arden
    Blaine D. Arden says:

    Realised you want to do a thing which requires going back and seeding all the way through the last fifty pages? Make a note, and do it later. Don’t go back and fiddle and overwrite. You can do that forever.

    I learnt this from Michael A. Stackpole years ago (2004/2005?) when I listened to his podcasts. He always said: “Make a note, fix it later.”
    This really helped me in my writing. My first drafts are often a big mess (but they’re my big mess!), but not going back keeps me going forward :)

    Reply

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  1. […] Lower Your Standards: getting through the book’s babyhood KJ Charles on how accepting less than perfection helps you battle through a first draft – and incidentally, bringing up children. […]

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