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Publication: Perfection Not Required

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sometimes I think we writers would like to find the magic formula for having our books reach success. We’re constantly drawn to posts that say things like: “How to Write a Best Seller in Three Easy Steps” or “Increase Your Amazon Rankings Overnight” or Ten Ways to Triple Your Book Sales.”

I admit. Those kinds of titles pull me in.

But sadly, there are no secrets or magic formulas that any one writer can use to get an agent, or book deal, or higher sales figures. In fact, sometimes our quest to find that magic formula may actually work against us. We latch onto one thing (or perhaps several) and think “If I do THIS, then I’ll finally get an agent (or get another book deal, or higher sales, or whatever).”

One of the most common crutches I see writers latching onto is PERFECTION. They think, if only I can get the perfect opening, the perfect characters, the perfect plot, etc., then I’ll be successful. I’ll finally attract the attention of agents, publishers, or readers.

In our quest for perfection, we ruthlessly eliminate unnecessary adverbs and excessive adjectives. We trim our prose. We use strong verbs and nouns. And we avoid passive words, clich├ęs, and everything else the fiction how-to books tell us not to use.

Then once we’re done with our books, we have our critique partners or groups scour our manuscripts, rip them apart page by page and paragraph by paragraph. We tell them to sock us hard, not to hold back any punches. On Twitter we croon sadistically about how much we love making our manuscripts better even though the editing process is killing us.

Through it all, we strive hard to have a PERFECT manuscript to turn in. But, ultimately we’ve duped ourselves into thinking perfection is what it’s going to take to make our book successful (or to get an agent or publisher).

In that quest for perfection, writers spend inordinate amounts of time on the same book, perhaps even years trying to “get it right.” Sometimes I hear from writers who can’t move past the first book or two because they’re in love with them and want to make them “the best they can be.”

But the truth is—perfection isn’t required for publication. If it were, then we wouldn’t have to point our fingers at the “mistakes” in books on the bestseller lists. Bitterly we analyze those bestsellers and say things like, “I can’t believe she got away with using all those adverbs” or “His dialog was so stilted” and finally, “My book is written much better.”

Our books can be executed perfectly. We can have flawless sentence structure. We can follow all of the rules of manual and style down to the very last comma. But . . . nobody cares about a perfect book.

Why?

Because they care more about the STORY.

Now, if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you’ll know I’m a HUGE advocate of reading fiction how-to books. In fact, I just recently bought James Scott Bell’s newest book, Conflict and Suspense, and I love it.

So, yes, I believe every writer needs to study the craft and learn all they can about how to write fiction. But not so we can have perfect books. Instead so we can have page-turning, riveting, unbelievably awesome stories.

Agents, publishers, and readers can overlook our extra adverbs and missing commas IF our STORY draws them in and makes them loose themselves among the pages.

I recently started the first draft of another book (scheduled for release in 2013). Every time I get caught up in a minor detail or word choice or grammar issue, I slap myself and tell myself to focus on finding and telling a good story. Because ultimately, the books that end up being successful are the ones that tell a really compelling story.

A novelist is first and foremost a storyteller. Sure, we can and should edit. There’s no excuse for sloppiness or laziness. But we can’t let our striving to get the words “just right” stop us from what matters most: working on improving our storytelling abilities.

In fact, if we’re not achieving the measure of success we desire, then we’d be wise to evaluate whether our story is gripping enough. Instead of nit picking at the “little things” and trying to make details more perfect, perhaps our story needs a major overhaul.

There are even times when we’ll need to just say “enough” to a book, knowing we gave it our best effort, and then move on to the next story. We can’t stall on one book. Instead we need to keep writing and striving to tell riveting stories. The next one could be THE break-in or best-selling book we’ve been waiting for. But we won’t know until we write it.

What about you? Have you fallen into the trap of thinking perfection equates success? Do you agree or disagree with my opinion that having a compelling story is more important than a perfectly executed book?

74 comments:

  1. Woohooo! You said it, girl. *grin* Now I'm going to work on slapping myself more often and I'm going to stop worrying about some of the head hopping I did in the book coming out. lol

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  2. Great tips as usual Jody. If anything I move on very quickly. Poems are done fast, picture books are done then need to be left for ages, it's on to the next thing all the time. The slowest is right now on my MG and I'm on the home straight for edits. I love what you said about the story, for me it is all about getting sucked into an amazing story.

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  3. I've tried to find a balance point where I can get my work as good as it can be, without over-editing to the point where it starts to suffer because of it. It's an ongoing process and I find I have to check myself regularly to see whether I'm labouring over a scene too much, or it does actuyally need more work.

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  4. Jody, You make a good point. A mentor of mine, a renowned facial plastic surgeon, used to quote this saying: Perfect is the enemy of good. Do the best you can, but don't keep picking at it forever.
    Although potential may be a bad thing to assign to a sports prospect (as they often don't live up to it), potential is exactly what agents and editors look for in a writer.

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  5. This is so good Jody. For a number of reasons. But especially this one:

    Once our book is contracted, there is a very high probability that ALL the time we spent perfecting our prose will be wasted, since we could very well have to delete a lot of them.

    I'm doing a significant, significant rewrite for my second contracted book. I spent a lot of time on the prose, making them shiny as can be. Yet I'm going to have to delete those prose for the sake of taking the story in a different direction.

    So yeah....write the story. Do the best with editing. Then move onward.

    That is great advice, girl.

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  6. OMG! I dreamed this two nights ago! Two of my friends who are not writers and have never even thought about writing, wrote books...and wrote them quickly, like within weeks. And they both got published. Quickly! Each friend presented me with her book. I began reading and spotted writing flaws right away. And I thought, "How in the world did these books get published?" The answer was: they told good stories, so nobody cared that the writing wasn't perfect.

    So, all said, I find your post VERY interesting, Jody! So I guess this means I need to worry more about telling a good story than writing the perfect, industry standard manuscript.

    Thanks, Jody.

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  7. I'm so glad I gave up on perfection a long time ago. Loooooonnnng time ago. And it's so entirely freeing while writing the first draft not to feel as though I have to meet a certain standard, but rather to just tell the story.
    ~ Wendy

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  8. I do get caught in the 'perfectionism' trap, sorry to say:( Learning to work more on telling a great story than having a 'perfect' book:) Thanks for the reminder!

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  9. Hey everyone! Thanks for chiming into the discussion today!

    I have to add a BIG "SO TRUE!" to Katie's comment. I've found that it really doesn't pay to nitpick at my manuscript before I turn it into my publisher. They always have major rewrites for me, and thus I end up chopping and rewriting throughout the book. Now that's not to say I don't do that absolute BEST that I can before I turn it in. I DO edit carefully once I'm done with my first draft. BUT, I've learned the story is key and I need to focus on that first and foremost!

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  10. I am one of the worst for the perfection trap. It's kind of a ritual now at home that I'll start a story, reach chapter 3, read over what I've done, say "this is crap no-one will ever want it" then delete it and start all over again.

    Rinse.

    Repeat.

    Which is why my hubby now has me backup the files to the storage drive :)

    It's not so much perfection as I go over it and think "*I* wouldn't read this, why would anyone else?" - I'm not a very good critic I guess :)

    I just try and keep in mind a saying I have: Before you can get the words right, you have to write the words. It helps both with chapter 3 and editing in the future ... I just need to keep to it more :)

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  11. A thousand times YES—as a reader I will take a compelling story over a perfectly executed book any day. It's a lot like music for me: I'd rather hear a song where the voice and instruments haven't been fine-tuned to the point of too perfect because it takes away from the soul of the song. Some of the best books I've read have big flaws, but they've stuck with me long after I finished b/c I was gripped by the undercurrent of the story.

    Great post and subsequent comments!

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  12. I'm such a perfectionist, so this is a relief to hear. I think there is a combination of so many things that help some people to "make it" and some people to not. But I really like your advice to find and write a compelling story first and foremost.

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  13. There have been times when I've read a book and found several places that the copy editor missed. Usually grammatical errors bug me (particularly because I teach writing so I automatically look for them no matter what I read), but like you said, if I love the story and the writer I don't mind them as much. On the other hand, if there are too many errors, it can be distracting.
    I think that the American work ethic not only puts us under pressure to work hard but also to produce perfect work; it's hard to keep up with that all the time, though.

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  14. Have you been looking over my shoulder lately, Jody? Because perfectionist is my middle name. ;)

    You're so right...I have to remind myself to step back often. It's hard for a details person like me, but I want that story to sing. :)

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  15. I wear both hats -- a writer and an editor -- so sometimes it feels like my internal editor works overtime.
    But I realize there's never a perfect ms & I have to let it go, knowing there's typo or two hidden in the pages when I push "Send."
    But you're right, Jody, that editors overlook those fixable things in favor of story.
    However: If you're ms is an absolute mess of misspellings and grammar errors, I think you are making it harder for the editor to find that compelling story.
    ;o)

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  16. Very well said, Jodie. Telling a compelling story draws the reader past imperfection. Great advice!

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  17. Jody and all,
    I've never been the best grammarian. :) When I was just learning to write a well meaning friend used to rip my work apart because of this issue missing the important part, the story. Not to say that grammar, etc. isn't important but that can be fixed along the way.

    I love what Richards surgeon friend said,"Perfect is the enemy of good. Do the best you can, but don't keep picking at it forever."

    I think what Katie and Jody said is so true about the fact that you are going to rewrite this manuscript to some extent after you turn it in. That's one of the things I didn't realize when I turned in my first manuscript. Not that I wouldn't have to work on it further but the extent I had to work on it. My editor cut 26,000 words and this was a manuscript they liked! Perfect is not the goal. Story is the goal.

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  18. Great post, Jody! I've been studying novels in my genre this month, and I break them down by major plot points. The ones I enjoyed the most have clear, easy-to-identify plot points. The ones I enjoyed less? Skipped a few major plot points. Storytelling and strong structure go hand in hand. :)

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  20. I 'forgive' an awful lot if I love the characters - if I want to follow them anywhere they lead me, I'm hooked.

    I also find I am far more forgiving of errors or the "not perfect book" now that my own are published. You sure learn to be humble when you find errors in your own "perfect" work :-D.

    I believe in many "go throughs" on my novel - to make it as "perfect" as I can, because I owe that to my readers, and since I am also an editor, I have that eye as well; however, yes, there is a point where the novel should be DONE, and we hope for the best!

    One final thing, when we (editors at Rose & Thorn) read submissions, we don't look for the "perfect" story but instead the one that engages us with it's character(s) and their journey.

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  21. Just the thoughts this perfectionist needed today -- thanks!

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  22. Jody, you said it so well! The books I remember the most are the ones with the riveting stories.

    Great thoughts as always!

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  23. Definitely true on all counts here. And let's call this perfection-drive by its true name: procrastination! A lot of time, I spend so much time trying to 'perfect' that I'm avoiding the real work, which is, as you say, storytelling.

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  24. Good point, Jody! Thanks for the reminder that it's about the story, not about the sentence structure :-)

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  25. Great post, Jody! Be a storytelle first!

    And I think a most important part of telling that story are the characters. I can forgive a book if the story and writing is a bit flawed or rambles on if I LOVE the characters. I can more easily suspend disbelief. But if I can't connect to the characters no matter how great the story is I cant finish it. I guess writing in a way is a social connection too, just like the part we play in social media - when we must come out of our writing hole.

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  26. Thank you thank you thank you! I'm learning this right now. (Recently I started counting adverbs in every chapter - sweating every one of them.)

    We need to hear this from authors, Jody. We can get trapped in our own fear (ugly word) of not being perfect before sharing our story.

    Have you ever considered developing a book on writing? You should.

    Thank you again. Have a beautiful day. :)

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  27. Aw, thanks for your very kind words, Tracy! I appreciate the vote of confidence! :-)

    I'd like to second what some of you are saying about not skimping on the editing. Yes, STORY is paramount, but that in no way excuses us from skimping on editing (and that means hiring a professional editor for self-publishing). We still have to present our books in a professional manner. Readers deserve as clean as a read as we can give them.

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  28. Wonderful post, Jody! We have to remember to write for ourselves. Most of the time, the perfection we seek is based on some unknown standard and we lose our heart and soul trying to attain it. www.helpmeselfpublish.com

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  29. I think I tend to use the "it's not perfect" excuse to postpone the next step in my writing.

    This is a great thought to ponder, not just in writing but in every area of life.

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  30. Love this, Jody - all of it. Terrific timing for me personally as I push myself forward in this first draft, fighting the urge to go back and edit what's already there:) Thanks for the wisdom!

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  31. Perfect timing! I'm going through this today. It's possible I've "unwritten" more than I've written today in the quest for a perfect manuscript. -Perhaps I should just step away from the keyboard! :)

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  32. SLAP! Thanks I needed that! I have been spinning for the past week trying to make my chapter perfect and couldn't move ahead in my story. Thanks for sharing.

    Sue

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  33. I agree...mostly. But when you said that readers could overlook a few missed commas for a good story...well, the psycho editor with a blood red machete...I mean, pen, ahem...came out and screamed "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

    But otherwise I do agree: perfection doesn't necessarily sell. And a manuscript that sits in a Word file, waiting to be perfect, absolutely can't.

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  34. Hi Jody. I'm reading The Doctor's Lady right now and loving it!
    I just submitted my first manuscript to an agent who requested it. I was amazed at how long it took to edit it with the help of my critique partners. I've heard not to turn anything in unless it's perfect.
    So, how do you know when to quit editing - especially if it's going to be revised anyway?

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  35. Hi Marilyn! Glad you're enjoying The Doctor's Lady! Yes, "perfection" is one of those myths perpetuated around the writing world. I think we should do the best we can to turn in an edited manuscript. And we obviously need to have a basic level of fiction-writing skill and know-how as well. But agents and editors aren't looking for perfectly written books. They're more interested in a riveting story. When my first book sold, I was surprised at how much editing (major rewriting) my publisher asked me to do. But in hindsight, I can see that they really loved the story and they were willing to help me make it even better.

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  36. Yes, that elusive perfection can really stall everything. And when I finally decide the story is ready, I get hung up on trying to create the perfect synopsis, and the perfect query letter. It's self-defeating. I know it, but I still do it.

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  37. Yes! This post is just what I needed today. I'm paralyzed right now because of my perfectionism. I'm trying to edit this manuscript, but it has been a struggle. I need to let go of my perfectionism and get it done. Great post.

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  38. I'm just going to say ditto to Julie Jarnagin and leave it at that! :-)

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  39. I do agree the story is the most important thing - after all, that's what gets us excite to write the novel in the first place. We don't plunge into that first draft salivating over the commas and adjectives - we love our characters and can't wait to tell what will happen to them.

    However it does bug me when I'm reading a published book and there are many flaws - whether grammatical, repetition, research errors or stylistic flaws. It pulls me out of the story. But I don't really blame the author as much as their editors.

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  40. Awesome post. It reminds me of the Wayne Gretzky (hockey player) quote: You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.

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  41. Hi Jody -

    I gave up trying to be perfect a long time ago. Whoever gets their hands on our books - editor, agent, or critique partner - will find something less than perfect.

    I'm more concerned with giving the reader a great story and engaging their heart and mind.

    Blessings,
    Susan :)

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  42. I'm agreeing with Katie and Jody here. I nit-picked my debut novel to death. I wrote my second novel much quicker (well, more like I REWROTE it much quicker) and tried not to nit-pick. So how did the second one turn out compared to the first one? LOL! I'm not sure yet, but I hope to be finding out shortly. :-)

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  43. Great post, Jody. Perfectionism is such a killer. I'm rapidly becoming disenamored with books, articles and blog posts promising the secret to readers' sweet embraces. There are some basics, but the rest is so dependent on who one is, what one is writing about, and how you want and can connect with your audience. The formula is different for each writer. Better to concentrate on your own than try to reach somebody else's notion of perfection.

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  44. Loved this post, Jody.

    You said it all right here. It's the story that counts.

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  45. Jody, I've totally gotten trapped in the "perfect" mode, and it slows me down and becomes frustrating. But like you, I slap myself and remember that story matters most!

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  46. At long last! Thankyou, Jody, for writing that wonderful post. . .I feel like I have just woken up like a dazed hedgehog from six long months of lonely hibernation, and been slapped across the face with a cold wet flannel. Wake up! Ah! My eyes are now open, and instead of crawling forward two steps and then back one, I now, at long last, understand: Just get the story down first. I spend every day killing adverbs, just because certain people say you should. My eyes are now open, and I can see the other side of the road. . .clear(ly) Many thanks!

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  47. Great advice, Jody! I recently read an amazing story by a first time self-published author. It wasn't perfectly written, and the writer even admits that. He said he's not a writer, he just had a story to tell. The book was a page turner, and it got great reviews. It was a wonderful reminder that the story is the most important.

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  48. Jody,
    I'm so glad Kristin Lamb mentioned this post in her blog today and I'm even happier that I read it!
    This is exactly what I needed to read to get my head back in the game.
    I've been so worried about all the details of making my WIP "perfect" that I have put telling the story on the back burner. You are so right, it has be to a good story or the readers will pass it by. I need to make the story a priority and worry about the rest after I've gotten the draft finished.
    Thanks for helping to put me back on track!

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  49. Just popping in to say how much I appreciate everyone's honesty and openness on this topic! Seems like something we all struggle with from time to time!

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  50. Gee, Jody. Just let a gal's dirty laundry hang for all to see. Perfectionist? Yep. Storyteller? I hope so.

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  51. Thanks for your great post. I find it both helpful and timely!

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  52. I agree completely! You don't know which of your stories is going to resonate, so you have to work on more than one.

    It's funny that in life, we only get to be one person and have one personality, and we're always trying to be better. Books, however, aren't like that. We can dabble, we can experiment. We can try out being unlikable and selfish, and it won't get us kicked out of the family. :-)

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  53. 100% agree. This is something I struggled with for a few months as I read the various best-bestsellers (Da Vinci Code, Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Until I realized this truth,

    "perfection isn’t required for publication"

    You took the words right out of my mouth.

    Really it comes down to having the great story (and marketing and luck). Glad someone has brought this up.

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  54. Gibson, yep! I recently read the Hunger Games. The book isn't perfectly executed. But the story is riveting.

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  55. Just think of Twilight. Technically, the book really isn't an amazingly written book. And yet she somehow hooked many people with her story. (I'm not a huge fan of Twilight, I'm just making a point.) This is something I have to constantly remind myself as I write, because I tend to be a perfectionist. I don't like anyone even reading my stuff unless I feel like it's perfect...which stunts a lot of creativity. I've learned a lot about just letting go in the last year or so.

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  56. oh man! so very true. I've been picking apart my manuscript for months and I lie awake at night wondering if it will be good enough, but you are right. I've read (and loved) many books that now as a writer I see are slightly flawed but the story was all that mattered. Im hoping my novel will have that same effect. great article! just what I needed to hear right now.

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  57. oh man! so very true. I've been picking apart my manuscript for months and I lie awake at night wondering if it will be good enough, but you are right. I've read (and loved) many books that now as a writer I see are slightly flawed but the story was all that mattered. Im hoping my novel will have that same effect. great article! just what I needed to hear right now.

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