Tuesday, March 23, 2010

When Your "Best" is Good Enough

Kelly made a post last week that talked, among other things, about writing the best book you can right now. While I agree with that sentiment, I want to add a caveat:

Yes, you need to write the best book you can right now; but you also need to know when it is good enough.

Look, a book can always be better. Tighter, smoother, cleaner. There are always scenes that could use another pass, lines of dialogue that could use tightening, details that can be honed, characters that could "pop" more. There is always something you can do to your book, always something you can find wrong that needs fixing.

I spent ages revising and tweaking Among Thieves, going over it and over it until I was sick to death of the thing. When I looked at it, all I saw were the holes: there was too much dialogue in these chapters, or too long of a fight scene over there, or some better way to move the plot forward in another section. Even when I sent it out, I saw a mixture of strenghts and weaknesses at best. I figured the book would be my "get in the door" novel -- the one that an editor would look at and say, "This isn't quite what we're looking for, but I'd like to see what else you've got."

It sold almost immediately. And had minimal revisions.

So, was I wrong? Was the book perfect? No, of course not. But it was done.

I'm the first to admit that AT still has some holes in it. But I've also come to accept that NO book is perfect, especially in the eyes of its creator. We see first what we want in our head, and then what we put on the page, and there is a gap between the two. That gap may be small or it may be large, but it's there. The story or book isn't the perfect child we envisioned. Well, as a parent, let me tell you: there are no perfect kids. And there are no perfect stories, either.

So, yes, you need to write the best book you can write right now. But you also need to realize that it will never be the absolute "best" book you can write right now. There will always be something wrong, some flaw you want to brush over, some edge you think needs just..one..more...pass with the honing stone. And you may be right. But at some point, it needs to be done.

It can be hard to know when that is, but that's part of learning how to be a writer, too. Trusting your gut helps, as does a healthy dose of criticism towards your own criticism. Readers you trust are a huge boon. But mainly, learn to recognize when you are just swishing words and paragraphs around to swish them around. Learn when your current best is good enough.

After all, you want to leave your editor something to do, right? :)


Kelly McCullough said...

I think maybe my point didn't come through as well as I'd meant then. Because I was responding to the idea (expressed by Lilith Saintcrow among others) that you can't ever know that something is good enough or that you won't ever be certain it is, or that you'll always know it could have been better if only….

Because it doesn't have to be that way. Confidence is fine. It's fine to say this book is the best book I could have written as of today, and today's the date I said it was going out the door, so out it goes. It's fine not to second guess yourself about whether it was really ready or not, despite knowing that if you waited six months or a year to become a better writer you'd be able to make it a better book.

I'm the last person in the world who would tell you to keep tinkering away with something. I write three drafts and that's it before it goes out the door. Rough. Beta. Polished. Done. And I do them with a very specific and finite time line in mind.

Rough is as fast I can write it--usually about five months. Beta is ongoing revisions from writers group plus final beta pass--one day in every two weeks for the ongoing stuff, no more than two weeks total for the final beta pass. No more than two weeks total for the final polish pass. That's it.

Then, if it sells, there's one more draft: Revision for Editor.

At root, I think the misunderstanding may come from the phrase "the best book you can write now." For me that's a concrete phrase about a specific time frame i.e. the best book I can write between now and September for example, at which point it goes out the door. Not a conditional statement about the best book I could ever write given infinite time, which seems to be the way a lot of other writers use the term.

Douglas Hulick said...

For the record, Kelly, I wasn't disagreeing with your post or arguing -- I was just trying to clarify the matter so that people didn't go off on the tangent you mention above. I think that not as many people -- and especially writers not on a deadline, or ones still struggling with the process -- necessarily make the differentiation between "best you can do, period" and "best you can do to a certain point." That was the distinction I was trying to make.

Kelly McCullough said...

Got it. More a matter of emphasis than anything there. Thanks for the clarification, Doug.