Why Writing a Novel Is Like the AK-47 Rifle

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Several years ago, I wrote a non-fiction book about the AK-47 rifle. It was not a gun book, per se, but a history about how this ubiquitous weapon changed the world, certainly the world of war. For those of you who never watch television, read the web or see a magazine, the AK-47 is ‘the gun’ that you see everywhere. It’s what we think an automatic weapon should look like with its distinctive banana-shaped magazine (the part that holds bullets).

It’s the most popular weapon in the world because it is simple, never jams, it’s cheap, and anyone can use it effectively. It is the choice of terrorists, mercenaries and even government armies. (Click here to watch a book promotion video that I made.)

What does this have to do with writing a novel? I’m getting there.

The inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov–the weapon also goes by his last name–knew that it was not a perfect weapon, that it had flaws, but he knew that it could operate underwater or be buried in the ground, dug up a year later, and still work. It’s not a precison, beautifully-constructed weapon like the U.S. M-16 rifle, but it did the job and, unlike the M-16, it didn’t have to be taken apart on a regular basis to be cleaned. In fact, the reason why the AK works so well is because it is not perfect. The parts don’t fit precisely together, so dirt and gunk doesn’t accumulate in the mechanism. It just kicks out the muck and keeps firing.

One of the sayings in Kalashnikov’s Soviet Union was “Perfection is the enemy of good enough,” and I was reminded of this while reading Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It’s a great read for all artists including writers.

An important point the authors make is that many writers are stopped in their tracks because they’re trying to achieve perfection on the first go-around.

They write:

“To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done. Getting on with your work requires a recognition that perfection itself is (paradoxically) a flawed concept…. For you, the seed for your next art work lies embedded in the imperfections of your current piece. Such imperfections (or mistakes, if you’re feeling particularly depressed about them today) are your guides–valuable, reliable, objective, non-judgmental guides–to matters you need to reconsider or develop further. It is precisely this interaction between the ideal and the real that locks your art into the real world, and gives meaning to both.”

Being perfect is a hot button issue for me, and I’ve discussed it in previous blogs. One reason for my interest is that I see too many writers not writing because they’re waiting for that perfect moment, that perfect phrase or that perfect muse to enter the room. That’s not how real writing (as opposed to dilettante writing) works. Real writers write and what comes out is never, ever perfect.

It bothers me greatly when I see writers paralyzed by their work, losing confidence, patience and even perspective because they want it to be perfect. Worse yet, not even starting or quitting because they don’t believe it will end up being perfect.

I know that ‘writing prompts’ are really popular these days so here’s one for you. Write something with the understanding that it will not be perfect. Give yourself permission to make  mistakes knowing that you can fix them later.

The freedom is exhilarating and your work will benefit. Without the constraints of perfection, you will see a marked difference in your book. That’s why National Novel Writing Month spells success for many authors. Writing 50,000 words in a month doesn’t allow you time to seek perfection, but you do rack up the words for more conscious and thoughtful rewriting later.

Kalashnikov said that he wanted his weapon to be better designed, but he didn’t have the skills (he was a tinkerer not an engineer) or the know-how. He just made something that worked and put it out for the world to use.

That’s all you really want for your novel. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to work for the reader. Fix the big mistakes, for sure. The smaller ones, too. Make it as good as you can–don’t cheap-out on the rewrites–and then let it fly.

Let readers decide if it’s perfect or not.

 

 

Guest post contributed by Larry Kahaner. He is the author of more than a dozen non-fiction books and has just finished the draft to his first thriller. Check out more of his posts at his blog.

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24 thoughts on “Why Writing a Novel Is Like the AK-47 Rifle”

  1. Reblogged this on JacobEmet and commented:
    Sometimes, I get too hard on myself, demanding from myself what I would encourage another not to remain focused upon. This was a timely read for me and wanted to share it with my artistic readers.

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  2. I agree completely with this post. I write as quickly as my mind will work. The first draft is sloppy (I write my first drafts on legal pads). I have little notes to myself written in the margins. I’m not sure anyone else could even make sense of it! Then, magically, it seems to transform into some semblance of a story in the second draft. Great post.

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  3. Perfection when writing is something which troubles many individuals. I believe our need for control is a major factor over this too. Very insightful post here.

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  4. Reblogged this on The Green-Walled Tower and commented:
    “Perfection is the enemy of good enough” is a great line. This post talks about writers demanding perfection during the rough draft phase and how damaging that can be, but I was struck by perfection at the other end. I mentioned to my wife today that I was starting the 9th draft of my current novel and she said I should call it done and get it published. I, however, want to give it one more go to polish it up. What do you think? How do you know when a piece of writing is done and when it could still use more work?

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  5. Perfection is the opposite of good! I had a boss who said this often – reminding our team that seeking perfection paralyzes real movement forward- which is true progress.
    Great post, and we need to be reminded, because many of us fall into the trap again and again 🙂

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  6. Thank you so much for this. I am not a perfectionist and have been getting published quicker than a lot of my super picky writing friends. I work hard and do my best to make sure everything is polished, but the work will speak for itself if it says something real.

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  7. Hi Ryan, thank you so much for stopping by at my blog and for the like! I love the way you share your resources and hard-won wisdom on your blog. I thought I knew all the literature about perfection (me being perfect in that way :-)) but I haven’t yet come across “Art&Fear” – so thanks a lot for putting up that wonderful quote.

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  8. This is fantastic advice and a wonderful metaphor. I’m not a gun enthusiast so there’s no way I could’ve ever made that comparison, and I always appreciate ones I’ve never (or could’ve never) thought of. I struggle with perfection myself. If I’m writing and the words don’t seem to flow, I tend to grow frustrated. There are days where I just “don’t feel it,” and I’m learning that that doesn’t mean it’s not worth my time; I may just need some time to clear my head before plunging back it. I will say it’s wonderful that editing can exist, and there’s a reason pencils have erasers.

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