Giving up on Perfect

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Last week I gave a talk to the creative writing club at my son’s school, where I offered up three of my main mantras. Two we’ve already talked about here: “get it down, then get it right” and “butt in chair.” The third is “give up on perfect.” Weird, right, coming from a literary agent, who many imagine as I did the people who develop questions for the SATs and other standardized tests (as trolls gleefully rubbing their hands in anticipation of catching you in a mistake). But here’s the thing—there is no such thing as perfect.

That’s right. Have you ever in your life read a book without at least two typos in it? Ever? Or met an author who thinks of his/her first book with the same confidence as the one just written? No. That’s because a) there’s no such thing as perfect and b) the only way to even approach it is to strive and strive again, whether it’s multiple revisions to the manuscript on which you’re working or your fifty-seventh novel. And even with that, you’ll improve upon reaching the fifty-eighth. Oh, some people won’t think so, of course. They might prefer one over another, but that ties in with the overall premise here. There is no such thing as perfect not only because none of us are perfect—amazing, certainly…brilliant, imaginative and lyrical, but not perfect—but also because fiction is art and tastes vary. The impact of your art will always vary with your audience, and so it’s not just about the perfect work, but the perfect connection with your reader. Ain’t gonna happen. I consider my marriage one of the best in the world and I wouldn’t claim a flawless connection even with my spouse.

Now the reason I talk about giving up on perfect is that the fear of being less-than-perfect paralyzed my career for years. When I wrote early on, it was terribly self-conscious, because I put so much pressure on myself. I’d have rejected me, and I knew it. I just couldn’t seem to figure out where I was going wrong. I had the stories, the characters, the thoughts, but I struggled with committing them to paper. Then my son came along, and I didn’t write for a time. I was so caught up with my new baby, staring into his amazing little face, watching his every move and milestone, making mental note of every incredible thing that came out of his mouth (and they were legion!).

When I suddenly became fired up by a new idea, I was in a tough position. I worked all day and when I came home at night, all I wanted to do was spend time with my husband and son (and the many manuscripts I had to read). The only time I could find to write was first thing in the morning. I mean early morning, before anyone else in the house was awake. It was the only time I hadn’t set aside for anyone or anything else and the only time I could write without guilt. (I was raised in a diehard Roman Catholic family, so I’m something of a pro in the guilt arena.) The only problem? My inner editor didn’t come on-line that early. Not by a long shot. I was lucky to be able to keep my eyes open and the pen moving across the page.

It turned out to be the best thing ever. I was incapable of getting in my own way. All I could really do was channel that story, those characters that I heard in my head. Straight brain-to-page. Oh, there was editing. Much, much editing. Scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, including that first one that had struck me out of the blue. (My initial openers tend to be getting-to-know-you scenes that allow me into my characters’ heads but don’t belong in the final draft.) But in the end, I had my first published novel: PLAYING NICE, which I wrote under the pseudonym Kit Daniels.

I still do a lot of my writing first thing in the morning, my first word and first sip of coffee often going hand in hand. But I’ve learned to get out of my way.

Have I learned to accept that I’m not perfect and never will be? Well, that is a work in progress. I hope some day I’ll reach the point where I can unreservedly promote my own work without secretly thinking “but really, the next book is much better, wait for that one.” It isn’t likely, but neither are the things I write about…vampires and gods and gorgons, oh my!

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13 comments to Giving up on Perfect

  • I’m revising my sci-fi novel one more time, as I wrote the thing in 2009 and revised it after beta feedback in 2010. I’ve come a long way since then in my ability and I want it to benefit from that knowledge before it goes back out for another round of queries. I do have to force myself to stop when doing revision passes and finally say, “this is good enough” or it’ll never get sent out. There comes a point when you just have to trust you did the best you could and hopefully get a “Yes! We’ll take it!” rather than a “We just don’t feel this is a good fit with us.” I don’t need to be perfect, just good enough. 😉 Hoping I’ll have better responses this pass.

    My paralyzing fear was always “I’m not good enough” instead of “I have to be perfect” when I was younger. Sort of the same coin, but thankfully I’ve carefully cultivated more of an ego and a positive outlook on my work, not to mention logged plenty of practice, since I started writing many many years ago. I’ll get there, but I’m hoping it’ll be sooner rather than later at this point.

  • It’s so true about the ‘perfect’ thing. Notes on a Rebellion has taken two years to write and ‘I think’ I’m close to nearly done. I’ve polished the thing until it gleams, then polished again. Every little snippet I hear on the news or read on the internet about reading trends gets my thoughts racing. Am I writing in the correct genre? Will anyone other than me and my lovely readers ever read the whole thing? Have I let my beloved characters down in some way? I’ve tied myself in knots, yet the reality is, as you say Lucienne, there’s no such thing as perfect. You know what your perfect is, and I know what my perfect is and I guess it’s how it’s meant to be. So I’ll query with hope in my heart and make a wish to find my perfect agent. Lovely timely post. Thank you.

  • Lucienne, this was great. I’ve actually heard you tell someone that your next novel was much better, that they shouldn’t buy *that one*. LOL The insecurities and inner pain we carry from our youths do so often get in the way of our creative selves. And our successful selves. Everytime I get a bad review or write a book that isn’t quite up to the perfection (koff-koff) of the last one, I go into a tailspin. My inner editor just tells me I’m better off in the lab.

    I am working with a pal on a middle-grade novel right now and it’s like I need a machete to get her to put it away, stop torturing herself with it. Today I told her to start another novel. Maybe that will help. And maybe not.

  • Well, darn. Guess I’ll have to edit that e-card I made a few months back. 😉

    Thank you, Lucienne. Pretty much what Daniel said. In the past, I’ve been rejected once and taken that as a blanket “this isn’t good enough, go back to the drawing board” rejection. On one hand, it has helped me improve, but with this next round of submissions following revisions I *know* must be made, I’m going to trust that it’s good enough.

  • I’ve found that there is nothing like living with two teenage daughters to hammer home the fact that I am not perfect . . . In all seriousness, this was one of the hardest lessons I had to learn early on, and it remains one of the toughest things to convey to aspiring writers. Great post.

  • Rachel Caine has a “Surrender the Manuscript” pirate flag she flies when time is drawing close to relinquish it to the editor. I love this. It’s difficult for authors to surrender that manuscript to critiquers, agents, editors, readers because you just =know= you could make it better if you had all the time in the world. But the truth is that distance and another set of eyes/way of seeing can make all the difference. It’s why I always highly recommend critique partners or groups to help improve your work before it ever goes out on submission. It’s also why, given time, it’s a great idea to put your work away for a few weeks or a month and come back to it with a fresh perspective. I guarantee you’ll see things in a new light because you’ve had time to step away from what’s in your head so that you can view what actually made it to the page.

  • Megan B.

    I am such a nit-picker with my own work, it’s always good to be reminded that perfection is impossible. Thank you for this post, which puts it quite well.

    Of course I do sometimes worry that I revise too much. I worry that I will somehow make the piece worse instead of better. (I’m trying to convince myself that this is as irrational as my friend’s fear that over-shuffling a deck of cards can lead to them being back in their original order).

    Clearly I need to find a balance between allowing myself to revise without fear, and knowing when to stop 🙂

  • What a great post, Lucienne! It’s true. In the end, even when books are published, perfection is a matter of opinion at that point. But it’s always great to see that writers are not alone in that aspect. And you are so right about another set of eyes and distance, it really does make a huge difference.

  • This is a post that really hits home for me. One of the things that most frustrates me about myself is my tendency to hold on to the idea of perfection in writing. My head knows it’s impossible, and I’ve been able to accept my imperfection in other areas of my life, but I can’t quite stop myself from demanding perfection when I write, even though I can see how it’s holding me back. I have to speak sternly to myself about this almost daily.

  • I had give up on perfect on Saturday. I promised myself that this was the last revision I’d do of Kinslayer Winter and Saturday I finished it. So now it’s out there, hunting for an agent. Letting go of perfect is making me crazy – it’s the last thing I want to do. Bu Lucienne’s right. The book will never be done, let alone published if I don’t. It’s somewhat comforting to remember that a lot of great writers also worried about their books being adequate.

    Go, little book, go, little myn tragedye,
    Ther God thy makere yet, er that he dye,
    So sende might to make in some comedye!
    But little book, no making thou n’envie,
    But subgit be to alle poesye;
    And kiss the steppes, whereas thou seest pace
    Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, Stace.

    But whether it kisses the steps of Virgil or not, I’ve written that book and it’s out there. On to the next one!

  • quillet

    I’m such a terrible perfectionist, you really can’t tell me this often enough. Give up on perfect. Give up on perfect. Thank you. *goes away muttering* Give up on perfect. Give up on perfect…

  • sagablessed

    Good post, Lucienne. Perfect is my downfall. I re-write and re-write, but it never seems god enough. Kat said to let it go at somepoint. I get stuck on a scene and work it to death. Seems like the universe is sending me a message here, as you are saying the same thing.

    I need to trust the brain-to-paper thing a bit more. Time to get to writing another section, I suppose.

  • One of the many reasons I love being under contract and having deadlines…I don’t have time to make myself crazy rewriting a scene before I’ve finished the novel. Because of the timeline, I feel pressured to have something down on paper, something I can turn in. This doesn’t mean I turn in a draft, but it does mean that my other mantra of “getting down, then get it right” is easier to live by. As wiser people before me have said, you can’t revise what isn’t there.