Thursday, 26 April 2007

Being realistic

I have been very busy this week. 'They' have decided to have an internal inspection in college next week, so I decided to do a state-of-the-art, all singing, all dancing lesson on the geology of dams and dam failures. (AS level geology, if you really want to know.) So I started off with the draft of a nice simple lesson then I decided to add a Google Earth section and then a nice little exercise with six diagrams of different dams with potential problems. ‘No sweat’, I said ‘I will dash them off.’

Take this as a piece of advice: you never ‘dash off’ diagrams on the computer. Possibly, if I was using CorelDraw day in and day out, as I once did I might have been faster. But it took hours. Computers really unlock the perfectionist streak in me. You do a diagram and realise that it could look so much better with the rocks angled just a few more degrees. So you tweak and prod and push. And there’s another 10 minutes gone. PowerPoint isn’t much better. You know the sort of thing: you decide to match font size across all the diagrams; then you go for crisping up that slightly blurry image on slide number five and the creation of that really eye-grabbing image on slide eight. And so on.

I mention it here, because this, of course creeps into books, and the writing of them. Because a book is now never entirely cast in stone until that moment when the publisher presses the print button, there is always the possibility of tinkering.

One of the most useful things that I have ever learnt is what I call ‘identifying the point the curve flattens’. I think I learnt it in the days when I had a thing for hi-fi and used to listen and long for various bits and pieces. The idea runs something like this. You get garbage for £200; a modest system for £300 and quite a good one for £400. But at some point the curve starts to flatten out so that to substantially improve on a £500 system takes not £100 but £200. And to substantially improve an £800 system takes another £400 etc. The wisdom goes therefore, that you identify the point at which the curve flattens and purchase there. I have no doubt this wisdom is the basis of some best-selling self-empowerment book.

The principle, though has, I think, a broader application and it’s worthwhile considering in these days when we have so many pressures on us that our precious time is taken away from us. We need to be able to identify the point in any project where it is going to take an awful lot of extra work to achieve anything like a substantial improvement. And that’s the point at which we quit. We give up being perfectionists and aim instead to do the best we can without a ridiculous overspend on time and other things. In a way, I’m sure this is some sort of spiritual gifting: the ability to distinguish the truly and eternally vital from that which is merely temporally – and temporarily – valid. Christians, more than most, are probably inclined to be perfectionists. (Isn’t that why we are Christians? we have failed to meet up to the perfect standard of God’s law. ) It seems to me that perfectionism in a writer is a perilous thing and the bigger the dream , the greater the risk. For us speculative fiction types, with our galaxy spanning visions and casts of dozens, perfectionism is a very perilous matter. To define and describe such created worlds in appropriate detail is a no light task.

I mention it now because all being well, this time next week I will be starting to apply myself to the final book in a great crescendo of activity that ought, God willing, to bring me to its completion by the start of August. And that is only going to be achieved by me taking on what is possible, rather than attempting the utterly impractical. Your prayers would be welcome!