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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 :).


( 29 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 20th, 2009 10:45 pm (UTC)
I boggled at this one, too. The only writers I've met that think they're "perfect" are the newbies that seriously need a shitload of work. Personally, I always think "I can do better", too, but if I kept working on it, I'd never submit anything.

So, I settle for "as best as I can do now". Because in five years, my best will be different. If I wait for that....... I'll never get anywhere because I'll always be waiting.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 21st, 2009 12:25 am (UTC)
It was Paul Valery, and about poetry.

If you're trying to break in, yes you want to present your best work. But once you are selling regularly, on option or contract, you have a solid relationship with an editor, and there are good reasons to NOT turn in a perfectly polished ms.

"Good enough" means "developed enough so that we can see if it works and how to move it toward its final form." The more polished the ms, the harder it can be so see deeper flaws, and the more seamless, the harder to take things apart and put them back together backwards and upside down, which is where they rightly belong.
Jul. 20th, 2009 10:57 pm (UTC)
That agent is going to be walking backwards on her statement for a long time to come. It's been my experience (which probably dates from before she learned to read) that there is an inverse relation between the writer's own estimate of his work and the objective quality of said work. I.e., the better he thinks it is, the more likely it is to be crap. And vice versa.

When I teach, I can always tell who's going to be the least talented student in the room. He's the one who, when asked what his goals are for his writing, says, "I want to win a Pulitzer." The most talented student is more likely to mumble, "I just want to make it better. If I can. If there's any hope of it."

My measure for when a work is ready to go to its agent or editor is when I can't stand it any more, it's stopped making sense, and the only way it's going to survive the great recycle bin in the sky is for me to squeeze my eyes shut, hold my nose, and fling it away. I would never have finished anything if I hadn't reached this stage of development; I tore up thousands upon thousands of words and started over, again and again, until finally I had to just grit my teeth and slog through to the end.

The only way I ever got anything into submission was by cringingly showing my scribbles to friends who also had scribbles, and having them go, "OMG, woman! This stuff is publishable!" Even then, it took a couple of years for me to believe it and start sending things out.

So, yeah. Agent isn't living on the planet I live on.
Jul. 21st, 2009 12:00 am (UTC)
That's a beautifully disapproving kitty glare you have in your icon.

And I would have liked to use this icon on my comment (which is just above msagara's). You can't, at the same time, complain about unprofessional writers who feel the rules don't apply to them because They Are Speshul, and demand that writers ought to deliver perfection - the only ones that will tend to be the ones whose critical skills are lacking.

Of course you want work polished to a writer's best ability. But that's a process, not a product: the writer who submits mediocre work might have spent just as much - if not more - time and energy producing it, and it might honestly be the best they can do at the time. Chances are that with increased learning the product will get better... but that's not even the same as 'more saleable/more attractive to an agent.'
Jul. 20th, 2009 11:10 pm (UTC)
You have this gift for making me check my last fifty LJ posts in a completely neurotic fashion. *g*
Jul. 21st, 2009 02:37 am (UTC)
Dit. To.

Jul. 21st, 2009 03:13 am (UTC)
You have this gift for making me check my last fifty LJ posts in a completely neurotic fashion. *g*

Dit. To.

This is a big example, at work, of a post reaching an entirely unintended audience, for which I grovel and apologize.

There's a balance, of course -- talking about difficulties you face with a book, its revision, etc., makes it absolutely clear that you are serious about the book.
Jul. 20th, 2009 11:40 pm (UTC)
I think this goes for all artists. There comes a point when you just have to step away and say its done. This never means you see it as "perfect". It means exactly what you described - that every change you are now making is either ineffectual or actually making it worse. It doesn't stop the instinct to keep messing with it, however, and it is in the work's best interest to get it out of your meddlesome hands at that point. At least I find this with my choreography and I've seen in visual artists I have worked with. But perfect? That isn't a word I've heard any artist, no matter the medium, utter about his or her own work!
Jul. 21st, 2009 03:37 pm (UTC)
Agreed. I don't write, but I do draw and paint, and there comes a time, when all the tweaking in the world just won't fix what I might think is wrong with the picture and I want to set the piece of paper or canvas on fire if I have to look at it any more(or the computer, if I'm doing digital work). At that point, it's as done as it's going to get without driving myself and the piece off msagara's bridge, so to speak.
Jul. 21st, 2009 12:13 am (UTC)
Thank you!
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 21st, 2009 12:47 am (UTC)
Well said. Perfectionism can even become its own problem, leading to blockage and constipated words.
Jul. 21st, 2009 01:49 am (UTC)
Writers, it seems, have a LOT in common with computer programmers. I've done my share of writing code, and all of the insecurities of writing are equally transferrable to being a code jockey. There are always bugs to fix, code to tweak, modifications to make; just at the point when you're sick of the whole thing does the code go out the door and the process starts all over again. You reach the point that the code is simply "good enough" and that things won't probably break too badly, or you hope that there wasn't anything glaring that got missed in the code reviews or the beta testing.

Thanks for writing this, Michelle, since I can take this and apply it to my own situation, even though it's not writing.
Jul. 21st, 2009 02:32 am (UTC)
I can see why the use of the word "perfect" in that context makes you uncomfortable, especially since--"more perfect union" aside--perfection is an absolute, and the definition of a perfect book is always going to be subjective enough to be problematic if not meaningless to a true absolutist (which, let's face it, is what perfectionism is). If you set the bar for what you consider "good enough" too high, of course you could never do anything in your life.

That said, consider the audience for that post. In my experience, it's difficult getting some people to spellcheck the submissions they send to agents, let alone search their souls as to whether they have really done everything they can to make the book as good as it could be short of throwing themselves off a bridge--so while I can't speak for Jessica, I feel like hey, if we ask for perfection, we may at least get people to proofread! Obviously this doesn't work with actual perfectionists.... but I don't think they're the people she was trying to reach, because perfectionists are going to do everything they can to make the book as strong as possible before they let it out of their hands anyway.
Jul. 21st, 2009 03:09 am (UTC)
but I don't think they're the people she was trying to reach, because perfectionists are going to do everything they can to make the book as strong as possible before they let it out of their hands anyway.

First: I absolutely agree with this. I do not think those are the people she was trying to reach. She sounded like she was on a rant about laziness.

The problem with on-line discourse and opinion is: you have no guarantee whatsoever that you will, in fact, reach the audience you were trying to reach. In my experience as an old curmudgeon, I've discovered that broad scattershot opinion of this nature is much more likely to reach the people she doesn't want to reach, and those people -- who are, in fact, usually among the ones who are reading agent blogs as opposed to the ones who do not actually spellcheck or, you know, type or read guidelines -- are similar to me before I published a book. Many of them will sit back in silence and take that advice to heart, and be paralyzed by it because she's obviously an expert and they are obviously not. I honestly do not see a way in which this will have the intended affect on the audience she is actually angry with.

Yes, there are people who will agree with it, because she is an agent. That does happen. But there are many, many people who will agree in the wrong way, and in silence. The words are just too open to misinterpretation.

I understand the frustration of dealing with people who will not revise.

I understand, as well, that if an agent feels uneasy about the quality of a client's proposal or book, it does affect the book and the enthusiasm with which it's presented. And that post, I think would be a good post. Telling people that it's the work on the words, it's the willingness to revise until your fingerpads are bleeding? That's a post that won't send people screaming under the bed in self-doubt.

Telling them that unless they feel it's perfect they're never going to make it in this business, and they're never going to be published, when demonstrably this is not the case, is hyperbole.

As an agent, whose job depends on the ability to look at words and understand their impact, I would expect her to note the effects the words she did choose are likely to have on her readers.

I chose to look at the way writers present information because I do think there are writers who hit that "throw the book off the bridge" stage who will shut down conversation by saying, in effect, "It's good enough". There are also writers who think the person giving them advice has lost their bleeding mind, and they will also say "It's good enough", and in both cases it's a form of avoidance or an attempt to shut the conversation down when they are not, at the time, able to deal with it.

ETA "not" because "do" and "do not" sort of mean the opposite

Edited at 2009-07-21 04:41 am (UTC)
Jul. 21st, 2009 05:56 am (UTC)
I have to agree with everything said in the above comments.

To put it in perspective of my own experience:
Writing isn't my main thing. It's just a hobby, and something I often do as a way to work myself through the problems of life. What I submitted on my DevArt is mediocre at best, and not worth publishing. "Good enough" to put up on DevArt. But not enough to be put between mass-produced covers.
Every time I look at them, I wonder to myself how they can be improved upon, how they could be changed to better effect the feeling I want to give.
Of course, every time I go through these thoughts, I often end up drawing a blank, and out of frustration, put them away again until next time.
Or, my singing, for which I've always had a passion. Even at the time that I hit a new personal best in my training, it wasn't nearly good enough. I had to do more to get where I wanted to be. More and more until one day I woke up and croaked like a frog. That was my equivalent of throwing the book off the bridge. Where your book would be submitted for editing/publication, I took a rest for a week.
To this day, I listen to myself and think how horrible my singing is, despite other people telling me how good it sounds. Yeah, bring in my voice tutor and see what she says.

Point: No serious artist, no matter what field they're in, will ever think their work is "perfect".
Anyone who demands that kind of attitude clearly doesn't understand the minds of the people they work with, and she needs to
1) get her head out of the clouds, and
2) think like a writer: in agreement with your above comment, she obviously didn't put any thought to the impact of her words.

And for the record? Lady of Mercy is perfect enough that it sat and continues to sit in pride of place on my bookshelf for more than ten years. Now I wish I could have seen the original copy you wrote.
Jul. 21st, 2009 10:12 am (UTC)
Mea culpa. I am that self-critical writer. I try to f'lock those posts, though.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 21st, 2009 09:12 pm (UTC)
No, no! I love reading other writers' self critical posts because they remind me I am Not Alone.
Oh, me too. Maybe we need to start the whingeing writers' community?
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 21st, 2009 06:29 pm (UTC)
Mea culpa. I am that self-critical writer. I try to f'lock those posts, though.

No, no, no - it wasn't my intent to silence anyone; I am hardly the poster-child for unselfcritical writing posts. I think that my main point was that there are reasons writers say many things, and those things are not always connected to either the work they do or are willing to do.
Jul. 21st, 2009 09:11 pm (UTC)
I didn't take it that way, truly. You're quite right, too -- with me, a lot of the complaints about evil book are frustration and steam. Or some such.
Jul. 21st, 2009 10:46 am (UTC)
There are two parts to writing a good book: writing skills and editing skills. If your critical skills - the ability to see what is wrong and how it might be fixed - are lagging behind your writing skills, your work will be as good as you can make it. At that point, you need third party input - critters, agents, editors - to give you a perspective of how it stands up in the marketplace.

If your critting skills are ahead of your writing skills, and you can see that something isn't quite there yet, but you cannot make it better, you'll be more frustrated, but you've also reached the point where you need to send it out into the world because you're more likely to acquire the necessary skills writing something new.

There very demonstrably *is* such a thing as 'good enough' in publishing - books that hit the right button for their intended audience. And conversely, there are beautifully written, polished-to-perfection books that just aren't right for the market.

I like citing this photo: it's technically near-perfect, but no amount of photographic skill would have turned it into something you want hanging on your wall. Even if you turned it completely inside out with photoshop, it would still be of limited artistic merit.

Writing can be like that. (And sometimes, grr, the market does not like the kinds of books you like to read/write, so the message to those writers is 'you're not good enough' when it ought to be 'youre very good at producing something I don't like, so I won't buy it however brilliant it is'. We all have preferences like that.)

For me, a work is done when I can't see how to make it better and instead shuffle deckchairs on the Titanic. I don't go through the 'I loathe it' phase, but there's a point of diminuished returns - and most writers need to stop believing that there is such a thing as perfection, because, well, art is subjective, and no two people will entirely agree on any complex work of art.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 21st, 2009 06:30 pm (UTC)
From my point of view, few books are perfect. Few books are even as good as they could be -- they may just be as good as I can convince the writers to make them. Or as good as that writer, that year, is capable of making it.

This. Thank you. Most of the editors I know reasonably well don't actually expect to derive much knowledge about what's on the printed page until they read the printed page; they're aware that authors are, umm, not always completely objective and rational about their own work.
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."
Jul. 21st, 2009 07:43 pm (UTC)
I cannot imagine ever submitting anything to anyone ever if it had to be perfect.

I am willing to settle for "it is as good as I can make it". If that's not good enough for whoever I submit it to, more than fair, but at least I'll have that information to go on, and maybe a clue as to why.
Jul. 21st, 2009 10:22 pm (UTC)
Great post! That agent is a nong -- and thankfully not mine! *g*

I've reached the point now where I'm perfectly comfortable handing over a draft ms to my editor and saying, Here's where I'm up to, here's what I'm thinking, here's where I think I've screwed it up, here's what I think is missing and needs to be put in next draft -- am I on the right track? That's the basis of our editorial conversations of a work in progress. I used to think I had to hand in a perfect ms, but I learned I didn't. Because it's just not finished at the start of the process, it's finished at the end, after consultation with an objective observer. I used to be scared to show earlier work because I thought my editor would think I was a crap writer. Now I understand that it's okay to be wobbly in the earlier drafts because that too is a part of the process -- figuring things out in an active story. That's part of the actively organic smooshy soup of writing a novel. For me, anyway.

Also? Could not agree with you more about being careful what you put in blogs.
Jul. 22nd, 2009 01:07 am (UTC)
I've found myself saying sometimes that "good enough isn't" or "there's no such thing as good enough" but I think I've always unconsciously translated "good enough" as "not yet as good as I can possibly make it."

Which isn't what the phrase says or maybe even means to anyone else. And I definitely struggle with perfectionism issues myself, and with accepting that there's no such thing.

But I haven't yet found a better way to frame the fact that "settling" doesn't work--it will never be perfect, but that doesn't mean, ideally, we ought to stop short of it being the best we can figure out how to make it.

(Except then time comes into it too. Because given an extra five years, any book can be better, of course.)
Jul. 22nd, 2009 09:38 pm (UTC)
I had a longer post which our network seems to have eaten, so let's see if I can boil it down to two salient points:

"Perfect." The agent keeps using that word. I don't think it means what she thinks it means. Used as written, it sets the bar so high that no-one will ever reach it.

That's said, she's not just wrong about perfection vs. "of high enough quality" (my rephrase) with respect to writing fiction. It's equally wrong about non-fiction, manuals, programming, systems design, engineering, and cake baking. In all those cases, I strive for one of two criteria. If I'm trying to make that critical first sale, it's "is it good enough to exceed the customer's expectations?" If it's an established relationship with the customer, it's "is it good enough to meet the customer's expectations?" (An aside: in an ideal world, the two would be identical. In the real world, they're not.) And yes, I do or have done all the above professionally except for cake baking. In that particular case, I only had to make children and adults happy. This may or may not be a higher bar, but I got no complaints.
( 29 comments — Leave a comment )