Saturday, September 21, 2013
"The good is the enemy of the best." Anonymous proverb
I'm sure most readers have encountered the maxim above. The point? That it's a mistake to be satisfied with "good enough". By exerting only the minimum effort needed to fulfill the requirements of some task, you're missing out on the opportunity to produce something truly great.
Personally, I subscribe to this philosophy―up to a point. I believe that when you commit yourself to something, you should be willing to devote 100% of your effort to meeting that commitment. That means not making excuses (except of course in extreme situations like illness or family crises). It means seriously applying yourself to the problem you've shouldered, spending whatever time is realistically necessary to solving it.
In the so-called real world, I'm a teacher (among other things). Nothing upsets me as much as a student who's happy just to “get by”. That sort of student is wasting his own time as well as mine. (Please pardon my choice of pronoun. I don't mean to imply that this pattern is limited to males.) I don't know why he bothers. Sure, he may get a passing grade, but aside from that, what will he have to show for the months he's spent in my class? I'd much rather put my own effort into a poor student who is really trying to understand the material despite the difficulties than a more talented individual who isn't willing to work.
So I definitely think it's important to do one's best―up to a point. At the same time, as an author, I've seen many examples of the perils of perfectionism. I have writer friends who have been working on the same novel for years, rereading, revising, going through periodic crises of confidence about whether their book is really worth publishing. It's sad. I feel like shaking them. “Stop already!”, I want to say. “Submit the darn thing! You can't publish your work unless you submit it!”
New and aspiring authors, pay attention! You can't publish your work unless you submit it. Which means that at some point you have to stop polishing your prose and say enough is enough.
The French playwright Voltaire is credited with the reverse of the saying above: “The best is the enemy of the good.” When it comes to writing, I think this statement holds a good deal of truth. There's no such thing as a perfect story. If you're like me, every time you re-read one of your manuscripts you see some change that might improve it. Don't give in to the temptation. Decide ahead of time how many drafts you're going to do and stick to that decision. Otherwise, you'll get bogged down with one tale and never get a chance to write the others that are clamoring for your creative attention.
One thing I've learned is that it's not worth agonizing over a single book. You have to submit it, let it go and move on to your next. If I don't like what an editor or publisher has done with something I've written, I don't get my knickers in a twist. There are more stories where that came from, or at least I hope there are. This attitude helps me deal with rejection, too. Maybe I'll find another home for a rejected tale. Maybe I won't. In any case, I need to move on.
Readers are hungry. You have to keep them fed with a continuing stream of good material. Good, not perfect.
Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not excusing sloppiness, poor grammar, spelling errors or wildly-veering point of view. If you're a professional writer, you have a responsibility to learn your craft and apply it to the best of your ability. The fact is, though, the more you write, the more you hone your technical skills. If you get hung up revising one work to death, you're missing the opportunity to keep learning.
Compared to many authors I know, I do relatively little editing. I rarely do more than two drafts. I do have a tendency to edit as I write, reviewing and modifying material from my last session before settling down to attack the day's goals, so my first draft is probably more highly polished than some authors'. I'm also pretty good with the nuts and bolts―grammar,spelling, punctuation and the like―so I can focus on higher level issues like characterization, pacing and emotional impact even during the initial pass.
Deadlines are a huge help, by the way. If you're new to the writing game, let me assure you: deadlines are your friends! Once you've made a commitment to submit a work by a particular date, you can pace yourself. You can make rational decisions about how much editing is feasible. You're not likely to be caught in the perfectionist trap.
So now I'll make a possibly embarrassing admission. I just submitted a 17K story after producing only a single draft. Am I being lazy? I don't think so―and in any case, I didn't have a choice. I'm leaving in two days for a three week foreign trip, and I promised the story by October. Plus I have more deadlines stacked up when I return. It will simply have to be good enough.
In any case, I'm pretty happy with it. I've found that my best stories tend to be the ones that I write quickly, the ones where inspiration carries me along. This tale is no literary masterpiece, but it fits the call for submissions to a T. And, after reading the blurb, the publisher has asked whether I'd be willing to write a 60K novel based on the same characters.
I'm going to wait a while before I commit to that deadline!