Thursday, October 6, 2011

From the Mind of a Guilt-Ridden Perfectionist

by Maggie Barbieri

Hello, it’s me again. You get me two days in a row. Why? Because a guest blogger is a no-show, undoubtedly felled by an over-packed schedule and a failure to keep everything he or she had planned to do in a neat little row in his or her mind. I can totally understand. Remember, I’m the girl who still uses a paper planner and writes down EVERY SINGLE TASK that needs to be tackled in a given day. Some days, I cross everything off the list. Others, I may cross one thing off and leave a trail of broken, self-imposed promises on the page, my neat little handwritten notes a sad reminder of what I didn’t accomplish.

But back to memory. I pride myself on having a good one, although sometimes, I’m human, just like everyone else. (My husband and kids will guffaw mightily if they read this. They know for a fact that I’m human.) Curiously, I can go to the grocery store three times a week and always fail to come home with two products that we use in great quantity here: toilet paper and peanut butter. Despite my best efforts, I usually get everything else I’ve gone into the store for, and forget these two crucial items. The result? I end up buying them at the local mom and pop and spending at least triple what they would cost at the store. It’s like I have a mental block against toilet paper and peanut butter, two items that have never done me wrong. My lack of attention to purchasing them is confounding.

Writing a mystery series—and I’m knee deep in book 7 as I write this post—requires a good memory as well as some handwritten notes. For me, I have a host of characters who live in my head—Alison, Crawford, Max, and Fred, predominantly—but others who make an appearance very now and again and require my attention so that they can tell me their back story and let me know how they would react to a given situation. For instance, I have a kid right now in the new book, the name of whom Alison can’t remember. His name? Alex. Why? Because that’s what his great-grandfather’s name was, the great-grandfather who came to this country from Russia with just the clothes on his back and currency that converted to three dollars. Is this germane to the story? No. But Alex told me his backstory and I need to be attentive to that. Now, if Alex happens to reappear in a future book, I’d like to say that I will remember this backstory verbatim, but there is a slim chance that great-grandfather will have come to this country from Poland with the clothes on his back and currency that converted to ten dollars. Why? Because my brain is crammed. With ideas, with characters, with plots, with the reminder that I need to buy peanut butter and toilet paper the next time I go to Shoprite.

Why am I telling you this? Well, it’s simple: sometimes I get messages from people who have spotted an inconsistency in one of my books. In an earlier book, someone may have had black hair, and in a subsequent book, it’s a shade lighter. All I can say is that I do my darnedest, really I do, to make sure that these types of inconsistencies don’t happen. Fellow blogger Susan McBride told me that a famous author—who shall remain nameless—once wrote an essay about this very issue. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, that he does his best, but his goal is to tell a good story. So what that character A had a brother in book 1 and then three sisters and no brother in Book 6? It doesn’t matter to famous author. He wants you to enjoy his books for their story, not specifically for the continuity.

I’m not there yet, in terms of attitude. I’m still trying really hard to make everything as consistent as it can be in every book I write, but I, like other authors, make mistakes, and sometimes, forget things. (See: peanut butter and toilet paper.) I’m a perfectionist, really I am (insert husband and kids guffawing) so it pains me to think that I’ve missed something. All this to say that we’re all doing our best to make sure every t is crossed and every i is dotted and that everyone has the same number of siblings and the same color hair every time we publish a new book.

And if you see me around town, do me a favor? Remind me to buy toilet paper and peanut butter, please?

***Breaking News!!! Physical Education is available for pre-order at Amazon now!!!


  1. That's why I love writing don't have to remember near as much as you do when writing a series! Honestly, it'd be impossible to recall every little thing. I love that George R.R. Martin article where he says he can't keep track of everything (and he doesn't let that bother him). Anyway, I think you've done a fab job with the series, and I adored PHYSICAL EDUCATION. Ah, and it's on sale just in time for the holidays. I know a sister in particular who'd enjoy getting a copy under the tree! ;-)

  2. Please add "talking guilt-ridden author off the ledge" to your list of job responsibilities as my friend. Thanks for the shout-out! Your sister gets an autographed copy! Maggie

  3. I once sat down with a book group to discuss Bulletproof Mascara and they wanted to brought up some pretty arcane points. And thing was, the details changed between drafts! I couldn't remember where things ended up in the final draft. I finally just shrugged and said they'd read it more recently than I had. Then they wanted to discuss my typos... yeah. Not my best day. Anyway, not to sound cliche, but I feel your pain!

  4. Bethany, your feeling my pain makes me feel so much better. The things that slip through the proverbial cracks are what keep me up at night. My cliche for all of this is "misery loves company" because it makes me feel better to know that other people have the same issues. We do our best--and that's all we can do. Maggie

  5. Oh, wow this Post is great for me to read. I'm a perfectionist, too and I love series and I write them. I get so bogged down in the details and writing every little thing as notes (like hair color and number of siblings and so on) so I can be perfect. End result? Much longer between publishings than need be and there's probably a mistake or two anyway.

    I would never want the attitude that I don't care but I'd like to cultivate a nice, healthy, 'oops, but that's okay, no one's perfect' attitude. A good, solid story will satisfy most readers and the ones that pick out every little problem usually enjoy doing so, so it doesn't detract from the good story. (I speak as one of those nutjobs. As a kid I was proud of every mistake I found in print. Today, it's getting sad.)

    Thank you for this Post - it's lightened my day and taken a weight off my shoulders. Another reminder to take a breath and write the story.

    And my memory is so bad that even when I take my shopping list (sometimes I forget it), I invariable forget something on the list. How is that possible? I have my pen and check everything off as I go. And yet...I still miss one or two things.

    Go figure...

  6. Jennifer, nice to know of another kindred spirit out there! When I tell you that I actually lose sleep when I find or have a mistake pointed out to me, you can believe me. It kills me. But I can only do what I can to make sure that no mistakes get in there and if one slips by, I have to accept that I am not perfect. Maggie

  7. Hey Maggie - did you buy the peanut butter? I'm thinking peanut butter cookies sounds pretty awesome about now.

    And I totally understand the perfectionist thing. The two of us can go to therapy together:)