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, clichés, 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.
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?