Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Perfect Enemy

My husband likes to say “perfect is the enemy of good.” 

In the writing world, perfect is the enemy of publication.

(Before you choke on your chai latte, I’m not advocating shipping out your fresh NaNoWriMo manuscript on December first. Not even close! Bear with me here . . . :D)

You spend months (or years or weeks) writing your novel. You spend days grinding out words, getting your story on paper. You spend afternoons frantically scribbling your latest epiphany on random receipts from your purse while waiting in the carpool line, and nights typing the scene that blasted fully formed into your brain as you cobbled together dinner. You give up tv, sleep, and the hope that the laundry pile will ever shrink to acceptable levels, and anything else that has room to give so you can write--because you have to.

And when you’ve worked and struggled and dug your characters out of the deepest, darkest holes borne of your sleep-deprived writerly state, you type THE END. You feel absolutely giddy (which may or may not be related to the fact that you haven’t slept in weeks.) But you’re DONE! See, you tell your spouse, your best friends, your mother or anyone else who will listen, or maybe you just tell yourself: there it is! In Times New Roman font!


And yet, it’s just the beginning. 

If you’re lucky, your first draft is good. As in, a good start. It’s readable, full of promise, peppered with potholes and speed bumps and missing bridges and all the other things that clutter the writing road on the way to a polished draft. 

So you step back, and let your manuscript marinate for a few weeks. AND DON'T PEEK. (And for goodness sake, DON'T QUERY. Fight the urge any way possible. I recommend chocolate. :D) Two weeks pass, maybe three. Then you open up your Word document, and there on the very first page sits the title and your name. And you think, Oohhhh… so pretty.

And you start reading. You waffle between Oh my gracious, this is amazing! I wrote this? to the much more frequent Holy crap, this IS crap.  I wrote this? Some people (like me) edit as they go, others read through all the way then dig in.* Either way, you edit. You revise. And you send your edited first draft to your beta readers, your all-important crit partners.

And then you wait--again. You pass the time drafting your query, stalking following agents on Twitter or Querytracker or their blog, and compiling your all-important query list.

You get your feedback, and naturally, it’s all over the place. But some is consistent, and that reveals where work is needed. Sometimes it's an inconsistency you missed, maybe it’s a spot you already suspected had a problem. Maybe no one will notice, maybe it’s not that BIG a problem. But it is, and you fix it. You listen to the remaining (and conflicting) critiques with an open mind and then you revise. You dig back in, fix any lingering potholes or build a bridge you didn’t even realize was necessary--all while keeping your vision of the story intact (after all, it’s your novel :D).

Maybe you need another round of crits, maybe not. You’ll know whether fresh eyes are needed; trust your writer’s compass--both in handling the crits and knowing when your novel is done.

Here’s where perfection can become your enemy.

Let’s recap: at this point you’ve (1) finished your manuscript, (2) let it marinate, (3) revised and polished it, (4) sent it to crit partners and listened to their feedback, (5) revised and polished again based on your critiques, and (6) possibly repeated numbers 4 and 5.

Meanwhile, you also have a carefully-researched list of agents who might be interested in your YA vampire-werewolf-love-triangle-set-in-a-dystopian-future-where-the-vamps-and-wolves-must-fight-zombies-in-an-arena-and-only-one-suitor-can-survive. (Ahem. Or whatever.) And you have a concise, hook-y, query letter ready to roll--personalized, natch.

Anyway, if you’re not careful, as you hit Step 6 and polish your novel until it sparkles like Edward in sunlight, you might slip from revision, which is meaty, into tinkering, which reeks of stale Diet Coke. Flat, with a bad aftertaste. You might tinker so much that you either (1) suck the life and voice right out of your novel, or (2) never submit your manuscript, because it’s not “perfect,” or both.

How do you know if you’re tinkering? You change paragraphs back to their original form, and back again. You obsess over word choice beyond what is healthy, or helpful. You hear that little voice in the back of your brain, but it’s not perfect, and you can’t bring yourself to hit Send. The black hole of tinkering can kill your novel, and even worse, it halts your growth as a writer. Because at this point, you're actually at Step 7. 

You're ready to hit Send or move on.

I know it's tough, because you frequently hear: "Don't query until it's ready." And I agree with that statement 100%. Premature querying is a sure-fire way to shoot yourself in the foot. But then again, so is not querying at all. There comes a point when your manuscript IS ready, when you have done everything humanly possibly to make it the very best it can be. Hello Step 7! :D This is when you, the writer, should make a call. Send those queries, go the indie or self-publishing route, or move on to the next book, because maybe *cringe* just maybe, it’s your next book that will be “the one.” But you won’t get there if you’re still tinkering with this one.

So stop.

Stop tinkering, stop obsessing.

Stop trying to make your manuscript perfect.

Because it will never be perfect. Nothing is perfect. (Even J.K. Rowling’s amazing Harry Potter books contain a typo or two.) But your manuscript can--and should be--great, rising to the level of awesome. And awesome is what (I believe) agents hope lands in their inbox. :)

Have you ever battled with the quest for perfection? And how do you keep it from sabotaging your novel?

*YOU ARE UNIQUE, and so is your writing style. :) Do what works for you. Same for your journey toward publication: it's YOURS.  Own it. :)  Any thoughts/advice/tips on writing and publishing you find on my blog are my own, and what worked for me. The internet is flooded with writing and publishing thoughts/tips/advice. Use what helps you, and ditch the rest. :) Including this thought. hehe

Clarification: Just to be clear, I'm not advocating shipping out manuscripts full of typos. Far from it. If you've done everything to make your MS the best it can be, you've already run Spellcheck countless times. :) I'm just cheering for you to take the query plunge WHEN YOUR MS IS READY. Don't keep obsessing over word choice forever, letting fear that your MS isn't "perfect" hold you back. :)


  1. I love any blog post that starts with a good quote from Voltaire. :)

    I usually struggle with the quest for perfection in the initial round of edits, when a part of me always wonders whether I should just throw out the whole manuscript because it's not achieving what I want it to. It's only because my WIP has really good parts, little nuggets of truly beautiful prose that express exactly what I want them to, that makes me able to get past the desire for perfection on the first read and work at the book until the whole thing is what I want it to be.

    I also pretend that I'm the only person who will ever read the novel; so I have no one to please but myself. I have no desire to tweak, then, because my self is strangely okay with awkward typos here and there.

    1. Jenny,

      I do the pretend thing too! It totally frees me when I write.

      And I love your perspective on how to conquer the perfection-beast. :) Well-said .

      Happy writing!