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!