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Good Enough is Never Enough. Maybe...

A long time ago, in a comment thread, I indicated that the way authors talked about their own work, in the nearly context-less space provided by on-line venues, should be done with some caution, because many people who are not writers take it as a statement about the objective value of the work.

For this reason, for instance, writing "OMG I hate every word of this book it is all complete garbage" or "OMG if I didn't need to eat, I'd throw this book out the window" can have an unfortunate effect on readers who don't have to live with writers, or who are not also writers, because the long dark night of the novel is a months-long process with which all writers are familiar, and many readers are not.

Some readers with no writer-context will take these statements as flat out objective truth about how you perceive your work, and can often come to the erroneous conclusion that you are deliberately writing crap just to cash in on the loads of money available to creative types (why yes, this was slightly sarcastic). I am not guessing or making this up, because people have told me things like this in the bookstore; I've had to explain gently (or as gently as I'm capable of explaining things) the context of the comments in the life of both writer and novel, and because I can, this eases the negative reaction.

So why, you might reasonably ask, am I mentioning this now? Well. An agent has posted a comment on "Good enough" on her blog, here.

I agree with what she's said, for the most part, because it's about the work and the dedication to the work; the doing the best you can, on a constant basis. But (you knew there was going to be a but)

Nothing should ever go out on submission or be dropped into the hands of your editor until you deem it’s perfect or as perfect as you’re ever going to get it without her guidance. Of course, “with her guidance” means perfect because you should never expect that someone else is going to fix it for you simply because it’s good enough.

This, I found problematic.

I found it problematic because "until you deem it's perfect" is a condition that would have stopped me from submitting, and ultimately, selling my first published novel. "Until you deem it's perfect" would, in fact, be a condition that would stop me from ever submitting any novel that I work on now.

True, it's "...or as perfect as you're ever going to get it without her guidance", but even then. I would never have sent a book to anyone, editor, publisher, agent, if that were a requirement. I wouldn't have a career now.

I agree that we all need to work; we need to be willing to do everything we can for a book. When I know something is not working, when I'm certain it's just wrong -- the book does not leave the house. Or me. I have, against the advice of my agent at the time, thrown out a whole book and started it again from scratch. (Third book, Sundered series. And several hundred pages of first attempt at Sea of Sorrows). But when I've done everything that I can think of, I still don't think the book is perfect or perfect enough. I ... just don't.

I can't even look at chapters of published books now (mine, of course), without moving sentences and changing words. Ever.

I've said this before, and will reiterate it here: the book goes out on submission when it's either send it to the editor or throw it out the nearest window or off the nearest bridge. If bridge, I might seriously consider throwing myself off after it. I send it when I can't stand the sight of it; when I'm pushing words around the page and in the end, they don't seem to have made any useful difference.

I can see how someone might say "It's Good Enough" to mean "I cannot stand the sight of this book anymore it is killing me".

And so, the point: It's probably not wise, even if you hate confrontation or argument, to use the phrase "It's Good Enough" when discussing your lack of desire to do More Work Right Now. If I were an author who wished to be represented by this agent, or who was already in fact represented by her, I would avoid the use of that phrase. Ever. It's better to say "I have done everything I can and I cannot think of one thing I could do to make the book a better book."

You can see how that sentence and how what I've told you here are actually not in entire disagreement. Except for the very silent except throw it off a bridge.

I've talked to dozens of writers, published or otherwise, and there is one important lesson I've taken out of those discussions: Sometimes they're speaking out of the darkest ebb in the emotional process of their particular book, and it's best to actually ignore what they feel or say about their writing at that point, relying instead on the book they actually wrote, as opposed to the one they're afraid that they wrote.

*When my husband read the post I'm responding to, he started to laugh out loud, and asked me if this agent actually knows any real fiction writers, he was so surprised. This would be because he lives with one and is fairly familiar with many others at this stage, and he has had to endure our horrible fears about the infelicities in our use of language and our ability to write, period. The idea that someone who deals with authors all the time could bluntly state what I had some difficulty with shocked him.

ETA: jmeadows has posted an eloquent, and less personally focused response here. matociquala, whose name I just mistyped five times, has posted her personal take on both issues here, and it is pure Bear :).


Jul. 21st, 2009 04:28 pm (UTC)
Right there with ya. "Perfect" is never going to happen.

Well, except... (hee!)

I, and I suspect most writers, vacillate between "this sucks rocks" and "this rocks!"

I call it the Alternate Tuesdays theory: on alternate Tuesdays, a writer will have polar reactions to the same piece of work without having touched one word of it. This week I love it, next week I hate it, the following week I will love it again. (The periodicity and amplitude of this cycle varies for different writers, obviously.)

My standard is, "I can't stand the sight of it anymore, and the amplitude of the cycle has diminished considerably. I don't love it, but I don't hate it. I just want it gone."