Monday, September 20, 2010


The last couple of weeks I've been down because of a number of writing-related observations. Being around sad or frustrated or angry writers has made me wonder what all this is for.

In a very general way, I think what most writers crave is to bring their story to life.

But what is life? Is it the point when the story is finished? Is it the point when you send it out to your first readers? Is it the point when it's published and you've decided you aren't going to touch it anymore?

For me, I get a good amount of joy out of finishing a story and sharing it with a few people. But the point when the story comes to life is when it's published and put out into the world. So far, this has only been the case for short stories. I crave the moment when I can publish a longer work of mine, something that I have labored over for at least a couple of years.

And, so I wonder. If that end point is really the happy spot for me, the point when I feel like I've actually brought something to life. Why am I waiting so long to reach that point?

I've finished one novel now, Rooster, and I'm at the final polishing stage of a novella, Bread. Neither one is a perfect work, in my opinion, but does imperfection mean that the story should remain dead in a drawer?

Last week, Tara Maya had a great post on Growing Up In Public. It hit on some ideas that I've been thinking about as well over the last few months. I've been so scared to publish my books because of the dreaded "record" in which bad sales of one book supposedly destroys all of your chances of ever publishing anything else. I'm wondering, what if that actually isn't true? What if I can get away with publishing my little runt Rooster just for the sake of bringing to life the results of seven year's hard work?

The thought is quite exciting...

So, the question I have for you on this Monday is: Do you think it's worth it to wait for perfection?

Or in the case of the few who say there's no such thing: Do you think it's wise to publish something that isn't your best work just to give it a life?


  1. I'm the publishing industries worst customer. When I hit upon a writer I like I read all of their other books. So my favorite authors are the ones that have a lot of books out there.
    That means I give preference to a badly written story by Asimov that he jotted down in an hour, than a decent story by someone who spent years getting every last word perfect.
    In this age of ebooks where a writer can make more money selling 2,000 copies of an ebook than a midlister can selling 20,000 of a regular book the author who puts all their stuff out there has an advantage in hooking readers like me.

  2. I don't believe in perfection, so I use the "best work" standard anyway. Or the similar standards of "something I'm proud of" or "something I'm not ashamed of letting other people read."

    If I were you, Domey, I'd follow the old saw: Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Consider the principle of declining marginal returns and ask yourself some questions. First, is the manuscript suffering from some fundamental flaws or is it otherwise semi-objectively not up to publishable quality. If so, don't try to get it published yet. If not, is it the best work you can reasonably expect of yourself _right now_? And, (I know the numbers are guesstimates) how much better could it be in a reasonable amount of time spent on revisions, say six months? Are we talking 30% better, 10% better, or 2% better? If it's under 5% or so, or if your revisions keep focusing on minor things or you keep changing things and then re-thinking and changing them back, I'd say it's time to let her fly. Don't let yourself be ruled by insecurity or fear of failure. Even if the worst happens and the book tanks, you should at least be able to look back later and appreciate that this was representative of this point in your writing development and worth the chance of sending it out. And I doubt you'll be alone in thinking the book is worthy of publication and success.

    I have to admit some bias, though. From reading your posts and some of your short stories, I think you're a superbly talented writer and I would very much like to be able to read Rooster some day instead of having it molder on some hard drive.

  3. I wish I had a good answer for you, Domey, but I am a writer who suffers being down and filled with doubt, too. I guess at some point after years of work you shoot the dice, take a risk, see what happens, eh?

  4. Domey, you could spend the rest of your life "perfecting" ROOSTER. But what will that get you? Maybe the exact same status as it would have gotten you if you published it today. Maybe more, maybe less. You can't know.

    And who's to say that if ROOSTER doesn't do well in sales, your second novel won't be critically acclaimed and you end up on the NYT best-seller list for 187 weeks.
    You can't know.

    You'll never know unless you try.

  5. The question is: what is perfection? I ask this not to be pedantic but to put perfection into perspective. I was always brought up to understand that there were two kinds of perfection, absolute and relative. Basically God would be the only thing that could ever be regarded as absolutely perfect but stepping neatly round all things theological the question we really want to answer is: what is relative perfection? Basically anything that does the job for which it is intended. What is the perfect utensil for eating chips? A fork obviously but not a pitchfork any more than a sledgehammer is the right kind of hammer to break toffee. Words are not forks or hammers but they are tools with which we try to communicate. What works for one person will not work for another because everyone is different. But every now and then the ideal reader will meet his perfect sentence and probably carry it around in his wallet for the rest of his life. That is the best any author can hope for. Actually the best they can hope for is being there to witness that moment.

  6. Creativity is a living process. It's an evolution.

    It's been millions of years since hairy and stumpy Mrs Ples took that first upright step (right here in the Cradle of Mankind, about 10 kms away from where I live!); yet perfection for homo sapiens is still a long way away. Should she not have taken that first upright step? Should she have waited until she looked like Charlize Theron (born about 20 kms from where I live)? Without that first imperfect step of Mrs Ples, where would we as a species be now?

    The point is, Domey, that writing is also a creation. You have to choose what is right for you: carrying on aiming for the ever-elusive perfection for Rooster, or accept that it *is* perfect as it is (flaws and all) and let it live. Once you've breathed life into it, let it go. Then you can move onto your next story, which may be more perfect than Rooster, but not yet as perfect as the story that follows it.

    Every writer, whether traditionally or self published, should strive for a novel to be as perfect as possible at the point of publication. There is a time to push up with your front paws and take that first, imperfect upright step and wobble forward into the next step and the next...

    Good luck!

  7. Domey, Thanks for opening the discussion on this--it's something I ponder a lot, lately.

    I think Jabez makes some excellent points that I'll personally be chewing on for a bit. I can't wait to read subsequent comments!

  8. This is going to be an overly simplistic response but: (1) I'm on the fly; and (2) it's my gut reaction.

    I strongly suspect, based on what I have read of your work, that your "not perfect" is pretty damn perfect and that there are very few readers who would be able to see any true flaws. Might not be their cup of tea subject-wise, style-wise, whatever, but true flaws? Unlikely. And you're not going to change it for them, right?

    The question I suppose is do you feel there's more you want to do with it, to tell the story you intended to tell. If not, I'm thinking it's time to get it out there.

    I can't wait to read it.

  9. Davin, I've asked myself these same questions over and over. You know very well I've asked myself these questions with Monarch over and over and over and over again. You also know how I feel about Rooster, and I agree with Anne. You could spend the rest of your life perfecting that book, but it is what it is and I don't think it has any major flaws, honestly.

    It also looks like many, many people here will want to read it if you publish it. After I put Cinders out there, I can't even describe the emotions I felt - all very happy, relieved, and satisfied - with a bit of fear, of course...and I didn't spend nearly as much time on that book as you have spent on Rooster.

    Oh, I have also been looking into whether or not lower sales on one book (especially a self-published book) will effect the decisions of publishers on your other work in the future. It's possibly it can have an effect, but I do think being up front about it is essential, and would you really want a publisher or agent who would shun you because of such a thing?

  10. I think that in stead of striving for perfection, you should strive for as good as you can get.

    Perfection doesn't exist, since we're human, but as good as you get get is about the best you can do...

  11. By definition you can only have one best work. If you wait to publish until you've written your best work, you will only ever publish one thing. If you're content with that, by all means wait. I don't think many of us would be content with that.

    To head off a counter-argument, I realize a case can be made that all you're really waiting on is your best version of one particular story.

    I'm not sure that's really so.

    If you're so dead-locked on a story that you can't get yourself to stop revising it and let it out you're subconsciously waiting until the story becomes the pinnacle of your life's work.

    I would never recommend anyone wait for perfection.

    That said, don't release garbage either just to get it out. That doesn't help you, help readers, help your career, help the art, help anyone. It just adds more garbage to the dump.

    How do you tell the difference?

    We're back to those gatekeepers. Whoever they are, when you have a perfectionist streak (like I do), you need to trust those gatekeepers. When they so, "Go." You need to go. When they say, "Work on it some more." Work on it some more.

    If you don't trust your gatekeepers, you need to get some new ones.

    If you simply don't like what your gatekeepers are telling you, you need to self-check on what you're trying to accomplish.

  12. Sorry, it looks like I blogged in the comments section again. #doesntknowwhentoshutup

  13. To me my story coming to life is seeing it in book form, seeing others reading and hopefully enjoying it. I think I would put something out there if I feel that it is the best I can present at that point in time (after ensuring it is edited of course). Saying that, my first novel might not be all that great, but maybe a reader will find something they like about my writing style. Maybe they will enjoy the plots and subplots I weave into my work and excuse other imperfections long enough to stick around for newer, better stories to come out from me. I enjoy living life even if I fall on my ass more than a few times. I like to approach writing the same way. I rather release something that is pretty darn good, instead of having a nearly perfect manuscript collecting dust in my office.

  14. Since perfection doesn't exist . . . you have to feel the book is ready. Yeah, I know, most of us feel are stuff is never 'ready' ready. Still, there comes a point when, after a multitude of revisions, we go that extra step and query the heck out of our project.

    In the end, I think we as writers, should only submit our work when we - after creating the necessary distance - feel it is the best we can do. I certainly wouldn't even think about querying the rough draft of my cozy project. I love it, think it's great, but I also know there is more work to be done.

    It's at the point where I know I've done all that I can do that I begin one of the last stages of the process - querying - of bringing my project to "life".

  15. As if I haven't said enough, I'm gonna say one last thing:

    One of the things that has helped liberate me from the burden of my own perfectionism is the realizing that philosophically speaking perfect does not flawless as much as it means complete or finished the the fullness of its potential.

    It's a bit teleological and highbrow, but it helps me.

  16. Project Savior, I'm the same way when I find a reader I love. It's rare, but when I'm addicted to someone I make my way through all of their work, saving just one book in case the writer should die. So, then, I wonder...would a mediocre first book keep you from liking a reader? It seems like the first impression could be very important in this case.

    Jabez, So, here's the deal. I think I'm a decent writer. BUT, Rooster has some fundamental flaws to it. When I started it, I was very much a beginner, and I believe I've introduced some problems in the book that I never did recover from. So, this book is not perfect. It's the best I could do a few years ago, but not the best I can do now. I don't believe more time will make it any better only because I'm out of energy for this project. It sounds like you're saying not to publish it in this case. Do I understand you correctly?

    Tricia, I think perhaps I have reached that point!

    Anne, I think you make good points. Would you say this applies to all writers? You as well?

    Jim, thanks for your thoughts. Yes, it is about relative perfection, or the best we can do. Is our best always good enough? I think I set out to write Rooster with a particular goal in mind. I didn't meet that goal, but in the process I came up with something that is entertaining in spots. I wonder if that's good enough.

  17. Do you think it's worth it to wait for perfection?

    Neil Gaiman's "A Writer's Prayer" is worth excerpting here:

    Oh Lord, let me not be one of those who writes too little;
    a decade-man between each tale, or more,
    where every word accrues significance
    and dread replaces joy upon the page.
    Perfection is like chasing the horizon;
    You kept perfection, gave the rest to us,
    so let me earn the wisdom to move on.

  18. I subscribe to the idea that good writing offers some insight into the human condition.

    One of my greatest joys in writing is discovering that insight through my work and getting to share it with others.

  19. Judy, I think you express the idea beautifully. Tara Maya was thinking along the same lines, I think. I love the idea of our art evolving...but then why aren't more people publishing?

    jbchicoine, I'm glad this discussion is useful to you. I suspect it applies to a lot of us, which is why I felt the need to bring it up. I do feel like as a group we are all waiting too long.

    Jennifer, it's lovely to see you around. Rooster, unfortunately does have some big flaws. As a whole, I don't think it quite works. In parts, though, I feel like it has some really excellent sections, and I think readers will appreciate those sections. If I was to start from scratch, I could probably get rid of those bigger flaws, but I'm not willing to do that anymore. I'm done with the book. Some people will like it and others won't, you're right. Thanks for your support!

    Michelle, since you've read Rooster, it makes me a feel a lot better that you don't think it has any fundamental flaws. Honestly, that is my only concern with publishing it. The other flaws are minor to me. Regarding the sales record, I'm not worried about it as much for myself anymore. I do wonder, though, if the people who would want to read Rooster woudl read anything else of mine if they didn't like it.

    Misha, That's what I'm striving for. :)

    Nevets! That's a really good point! I think maybe I've been stuck because 1. I've revised the book since the gatekeepers have read it, meaning I don't exactly know where this book stands anymore and 2. I've been afraid to get new gatekeepers (like you and Tara Maya) because I'm worried you will also be the only people who would actually want to read my work after I publish it! This is eye-opening though. Thank you. This is why I'm stuck.

    Rayvenne, Excellently, excellently put. I am feeling the exact same way right now. I think I'm going to go for it.

    Scott, thank you for your comment. The book is as ready as it's going to be, I guess is how I feel. I could make it better, but I no longer have anymore juice for it. I'm ready to move on. I thought about just burying it, but I think it deserves more than that.

  20. Loren, that's lovely. Thank you. It's very helpful. It's an excellent point about the dread. I hate that I've reached that point.

    Wulf, that's the type of writing I like a lot too. I'm hoping I've been able to do that.

  21. Domey, one thing to always know about your gatekeepers or prospective gatekeepers is whether or not they can speak about market or target audience. It helps to address the concern about whether or not only they will like it. The answer to that question doesn't need to rule out a gatekeeper, but it does help you understand how to proceed from their verdict.

  22. I say pish to the market and target audience! Actually, I have a list of about ten people that are my target audience, LOL.

  23. Big D: Every great novel is flawed in one way or another. So that's one thing. Also, I agree with Nevents that you can only have one "best" work at a time. Whatever we write tomorrow will, we hope, be better than what we wrote today which is better than what we wrote yesterday (unless we're egomaniacs who think we've already at the summit of our powers and nobody wants to read the stuff those people write anyway).

    So the test for me would be, "Is this something I'm proud of right now that I want people to read?" Of course you'll write better stuff down the road. That's beside the point. Do you want people to read "Rooser" now? Do you want that enough to self-publish it, and possibly make no money but get it into the hands of a couple hundred readers?

    I also think that the "self-publishing is the kiss of death" stuff is rubbish. If you come to an agent or a publisher with a book they think they can sell, having self-published "Rooster" won't enter into their decision to represent/publish it.

  24. Mr. Bailey speaks much wisdom. Listen to him.

  25. If then people are your target audience, then you just need gatekeepers to say, "Yep, it's good for those ten people." What could be easier?

    And if an agent says, "I really think I could sell this book if only your self-published book had sold more than 15 copies," that's an agent who is not good at selling books. I know all the conventional wisdom out there among high concept agents and writers who like to make themselves stressed, but I think Michelle and the nearly-brilliant Mr. Bailey are much more on the mark.

  26. If one waits for perfection before publishing, one will likely never get there. We grow up in public, but at least we grow up. The work in a drawer -- and I have a few -- will not have contributed to that other part of the growing up process, which is being willing to take a risk. I think blogging has done a lot to help me overcome my anxiety about putting work out there that is not perfect. I find myself, as a result, being willing to send out more of my short stories and queries about my novels than before,

  27. The trouble is, what's "perfect" to the writer may not be "perfect" to the marketplace. I spent 10 years "perfecting" a novel that is unmarketable because the plot itself isn't compelling to most people.

    We get better by writing more novels, not by worrying one novel to death. I learned that the very hard, slow way.

  28. I always try to think of each work I start as "my best" work in order to ensure that I do my best on it even if I may not be as skilled as I would like to be quite yet. (Write everything as if it were your last?) But then when I don't feel like I can perfect something anymore (not becuase it is perfect but because the 'me' who wrote it is no longer the same 'me' who is trying to edit it) I abandon all responsibility of whether it is any good or not and give it to readers. If they like it I am happy. If they don't I can write soemthing else but I can't stand the idea of locking things away no matter how horrible they are. In fact it sometimes depresses me to think of all the drawer novals people have written that I will never lay my greedy eyes upon.
    So I think you should publish it but I also think everyone should publish everything if only so I can read it.

  29. Great discussion! Perfectionism is something I've been dealing with recently too. (When are writers *not* grappling with perfectionism?)I kept getting really close to finishing a book, having it ready to submit to agents or whoever and then I would ask: "Is this the best you can do?" And the answer was no and so I scrapped the book and started a new one. Then I realized I had to stop asking myself that question. Because the answer is always going to be no... And that's okay.

    Like C.N. Nevets said... you only have one *best* work. But chances are, all the others are probably going to be pretty damn good. Which should be enough...we should make that enough.

  30. I really want to read Rooster. So, there's that. :)

    Just like Michelle, when I began to think about self-publishing, I experienced a huge burst of creativity and thought of a number of projects I would like to do next. I am so enjoying working on my sf anthology, that I am considering I may do a second anthology for December.

    It's a completely different genre -- a collection of ecumenical hagiographies that I could never figure out how to place, genre wise. I wonder now, why do I need to pigeon-hole it? I'll put it up on Amazon, and let people decide for themselves what it is. I may also use Tara Maya even though it's not sf and fantasy. Readers aren't dumb, I think they can figure out if they want to read it or not. Then I have three military sf novelettes I would like to put out as one book.... and a number of other ideas.

    It is so exciting, and it is so wonderful to know that I can control the budget, the pace of production, what kind of cover I want.... and I really don't care if one book sells well and another flops. I'm not going to fire me for it.

    What if a reader doesn't like the first thing they read from me? The truth is, that could happen no matter how I was published. I be honest, I didn't care for the first Neil Gaiman book I read. He won me over with a later book. So....

    I feel that as long as I make each book as good as it can be WITHOUT MAKING IT ANOTHER BOOK, then I can put it out there. In choosing stories for my present anthology, I excluded a few I love because I think I can still make them better. That's fine too.

  31. At the same time, I just had a panic attack last night, as I was writing the introduction to one of the stories, because it hit me: "What if everyone reading these stories thinks they are really dumb?"

    And I wanted to back out of the whole thing.

    I realize that I cling to the thought of gatekeepers as a crutch, because I am, at heart, a coward. I am terrified of being laughed at as a terrible writer. But would a gatekeeper really solve that problem?

    Isn't it terrible to not do what you love, or share what you love, because you are afraid? Isn't it better to fail bravely than live a shrunken, withered life because you lived in fear?

    Like Nevets, I just decided to blog here today.

  32. I'll tell you right now that everything I've written *after* Tempest is better than Tempest. That said, Tempest isn't bad. ;-)

    As has been said above, everything you write is always going to be better than the last thing you wrote (if you're continuing to grow as a writer, anyway - and knowing what I do of you, that's true).

    Do I think publishers are smart enough to realize a self-pubbed book won't sell as many copies as a trad. pubbed book? Absolutely. And if they aren't, I don't want them touching my stuff.

    For me, it all comes down to "why I write". I write to share my stories with people, not to toss them in a drawer (well, not most of them, anyways) or let them drown in a slush pile somewhere. So to me, getting my work out in the public eye, no matter how small the audience is important to me. Having validation from the publishing community is secondary (or less, at this point).

    Personally, I'd love to read your my completely selfish side wants you to self-publish it so I can read it. I have absolute faith that your work is well-written.

    But the more practical side of me says you should go with your gut, because self-publishing can be emotionally draining if you're not ready for it...and I'd hate for anyone to make the decision and regret it.

    If you do publish - count me as a buyer. :-)

  33. In follow up to your question to me, the answer is yes.

    I worked on MASQUERADE for almost 18 months. I sent it out. It came back rejected. I worked on it again until I thought it was "good enough". Because nothing is perfect. I got some partial requests. Will I work on it again? Probably. But not right now.

    Right now, I'm working on my second book trying to get it ready for submission to agents. Is is perfect? Hell no. But it is the best book "I" think it can be. Will the agents think differently? Probably. Will I revise it to their specs? Yes. Will it be perfect for the editor? Probably not. Will I revise it yet again? Yes. Will it be perfect. No. Nothing is perfect. Will it be "good enough"? Yes. Yes it will.

    I'm proud of it the way it reads right now. I'll be proud of it when I send it out. I'll be proud of it when it gets published.

    I wrote it. I stand behind it. It's not perfect but it will be "good enough".

  34. Scott, thanks. I do want people to read Rooster. I think some people will enjoy it, and I hope to get it to those people (and maybe only those people?). A couple hundred people seems like an over estimate to me. I'd be content to sell 50 copies.

    Judith, It's comforting to see you also in a period of transition. It is freeing to be less scared, isn't it? Would you ever publish those earlier works? Do you consider them wasted?

    Anne, thanks for the advice. I feel like I've been a bit paralyzed and I'm tired of it too.

    Taryn, thinking of all those locked up books is sad isn't it? That was the inspiration for this post. I don't want Rooster to be locked up anymore.

    Valerie, very well said! I am making it enough. I feel like my task at hand is to now make sure I present an accurate image of my book. I want people to know what they're getting into, but maybe all that is too subjective to describe accurately anyway.

  35. Domey, I was addressing more the scenario where one is considering whether to keep working on a novel or try to publish it, instead of your situation, where you know you're not going to work on it anymore but the decision is whether to publish or not. In your case, I'd say fall back to the "is this something I'm proud of the way it is" standard that Scott mentioned.

    Also, the "fundamental flaw" stuff I mentioned earlier -- I was envisioning flaws so big and bad that the story just doesn't really work for most readers or isn't really of publishable quality -- a pretty high bar. Though of course it's still a very subjective matter. Not that that's a problem, as the decision whether to publish (or try to get published) is a very personal one for the author to make.

  36. Also, I see you've followed up Scott's "don't rush" post with a post titled, "waiting." Is that a coincidence, or is there a theme brewing?

  37. Anne said, "We get better by writing more novels, not by worrying one novel to death."

    I agree. But I also agree with Domey that a book is in some sense, a performance, and it isn't complete until it's shared. One reason I've been thinking of self-publishig the book I've been working on for ten years is exactly so that I can let go and move on.


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