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Work world aphorism: “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.”

I’m back home from the Colorado Gold Conference. Or rather, now that I am home, I will not have to drive out to southeast Denver for anymore workshops or speakers. Because I’m cheap and did not get a hotel room. Maybe next year.

I digress.*

In any case, one thing that stuck me during the conference is how first-time authors hoping to go traditionally published have to be better than those already established.

Unpublished writers hoping to break into traditional publishing must accomplish quite a bit in their manuscripts. Every scene must develop character and advance the plot. The earliest scenes should also develop the world. Within the first ten pages, the writer must bring up the big story question/the big story goal. We must, of course, show rather than tell.  The prose must be clean, with adverbs excised, adjectives limited, and unwitting repetition eliminated. Unpublished writers whose manuscripts do not have the listed aspects are not picked up.  (Well, usually. One digression I refuse to indulge is 50 Shades of Grey. It would be disingenuous of me to do so, anyway, because I have not read the books, unless you count me laughing at YouTube videos of Gilbert Gottfried, David Sedaris, Ellen, et. al reading excerpts.)

These are all expectations I’d heard about before and which I strive for in my fiction, but they were really driven home when I attended a workshop called An Agent Reads the Slushpile. The premise was that the first two pages of attendees’ work would be read aloud. The agent (well, agents; the listed agent invited another agent to participate) would state at which point during those pages they would stop reading, and why. (Allow me a moment for self-congratulation: of the pieces randomly selected for reading, my 2 pages were the only ones for which the agents never said “Stop.”)

It’s a lot to accomplish. It’s hard to accomplish. And even success doesn’t guarantee an agent or publication with that manuscript.

Yet in the past few months, I’ve read quite a few books by writers whom I admire, for the most part. They’re intelligent, insightful people. I follow and enjoy their blogs. I enjoy the premises of their books.

But the writing itself is often clunky. Telling, rather than showing, abounds. Adverbs have not been corralled into their corners. The first ten pages certainly do not introduce the story problem, and while there may be some interesting character development, there’s not much, yet, in the way of plot.

This is not to say that the already-established, working writers did not have to pay the same dues in perfecting craft to get to the point where they are published. Case in point: I recall one author relating an anecdote. She was in the bar, talking to a pre-pubbed writer. The pre-pubbed writer was on her 10th draft of her book. “And I thought,” said the published writer, “‘Oh, I remember those days. But there’s just no time for it now. I can’t do 10 drafts. I have deadlines.”

Which, finally, brings me around to the title of this post.

I am not a fan of the aphorism “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.” At least not in the context of the work world. I understand it in terms of personal satisfaction. Sometimes, you just have to let things go. Sometimes, there is no perfect.

But there is often better. There is often improvement. And I wonder about my own standards, should I become published.** I like pretty language. Not to the detriment of character development or plot (I often find wholly literary books boring), but I like there to be some beauty to my prose. I like it to be evocative. And while sometimes the perfect words come during the first draft, or even the second or third, there are times when the same amount of drafts yields only serviceable. It works, but it could be better. It’s a rough guess, but I’m thinking that when working under publisher-induced deadlines, I won’t have time for more than three drafts. Off it will have to go, and it could very well be that serviceable is what ends up in the published book.

I think I’d have regrets about that. But I also know there are things I could regret more. Not eating, for one. Not being able to pay the mortgage, for another. Truthfully, it’s made me a little more sympathetic toward the writers I mentioned earlier, whom I admire but who allowed some of that clunky prose to make it to the publisher, and thence to print or e-ink. Because when it’s your job, not a hobby, when you need the book done so you can have food and shelter, yeah, there’s not time for perfection.

Now I need to go back to making my work as close to perfection as possible, so I might one day have the option of just letting things be “good enough.”***


*Though for once, I can blame digressions and lack of cohesion on sleep deprivation.

**All right, optimistically: when I get published.

***And yes, I do still have mixed feelings about that. ~850 words’ worth, to be exact.

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