Posted On September 12, 2016 by Print This Post

Imperfect Words: The Unfathomable Power of Placeholders by Damon Suede

Welcome Damon Suede with his latest and greatest post – placeholders! Do you use them? Despise them? Damon’s here to tell us why they’re GREAT!

DamonSing O Muse of the Glory of Placeholders! Praise be to the supremacy the crappy quick fix, the not-quite zinger, and the iffy character name!

I love placeholders.

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.

Raise your hand if you ever sat for longer than 10 seconds straining for the perfect turn of phrase. It’s only human and once it becomes habitual it can seriously gum the works.

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 and calumny. We get paid to tell lies for living.

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 mint every minute, dithering and second guessing decisions can bankrupt a production company.

booksThe 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 thunders 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.

books5_THEMEYes, 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.” Better to put something, anything down that approximates the story you want to tell than to resign yourself to cycle of creative constipation and panicked straining.

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 stress about 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 barfed up three or four pages which only require a little TLC to sparkle. Nothing gets you nowhere. Start with something and you stand a much better chance of getting everything.

book2_THEMEOver time you’ll learn the traps you set for yourself. Maybe you suck at titles or dialogue. Maybe choreographing sex scenes or fisticuffs freezes you solid. Maybe your nervous tic is renaming your main characters every seven pages or spectacular tableaus. All of those give the Editor a perfect opportunity to sabotage 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. Procrastination in excelsis.

booksThe truth is, nothing is ever perfect. As Paul Valéry pointed out, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Aiming for perfection is noble; expecting perfection is insane and/or naïve. That’s not to say you want to leave temporary fixes and half-assery in place, but rather that embracing your first instinct and writing forward will teach you to draft fast and revise mindfully once you’ve gotten a handle on the project.

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.

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Join us on Wednesday for more great writing info!!

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Bio: Damon Suede grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen for two decades. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him on Twitter, Facebook, or at DamonSuede.com.

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9 Responses to “Imperfect Words: The Unfathomable Power of Placeholders by Damon Suede”

  1. Procrastination in excelsis. Love it! What a great post with a novel approach to shutting up the editor until needed. Thanks, Damon.

    Posted by Ann Warner | September 12, 2016, 12:58 pm
  2. “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. Nothing gets you nowhere. Start with something and you stand a much better chance of getting everything.”
    Ohemgee…you read my manuscript, right? I’ve rewritten my first chapter so many times that I have just that…a first chapter. My perfectionism does paralyze me and it’s a sad story. My two CPs end our conversations saying,’just write the story’…how can we critique nothing?
    Thanks for a brilliant and thought provoking post. “Screw perfection” will become my mantra.

    Posted by M. Lee Scott | September 12, 2016, 1:25 pm
  3. The funniest placeholder: Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, the laziest slave in Rome, thought he found a way to buy his freedom. If he could ferret out a way for his young master to marry the virgin in Gloriosus’ house, the young master would pay him a lot of money to do so.

    In his wild wheelings and dealings, Pseudolus has to convince someone he is trustworthy. He says he is a soothsayer.
    “Hold on,” he says. “I will say the sooth.”

    Posted by Jim Porter, Sr | September 12, 2016, 4:15 pm
  4. Wonderful advice! I will; use it to drown out my internal editor. Thanks!

    Posted by Carrie Nichols | September 12, 2016, 5:20 pm
  5. Evening Damon! And great post as always…the first paragraph had me laughing out loud….=)

    I use placeholders a lot, and mark them with asterisks….when I KNOW there’s a better name than John, I just keep going but write ***John***…that way it catches my eye when I go back through and try to fix the placeholders….it always makes it stick in my memory so when I’m up at 2am and can’t sleep, I’ll suddenly think SYLVESTER!! and that’s what goes in that placeholder….

    Thanks for the post Damon, fab as always!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Peters | September 12, 2016, 10:05 pm

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