The Business Rusch: Perfection
Last week, I mentioned the blog post I had started, but decided not to publish in the midst of a busy workshop. Here it is:
At every craft workshop I teach, I make at least one writer cry. This week, I’m teaching a short story workshop for professional writers. These are workshop-hardened folk, people who have been eviscerated by the best of them, people who come to my workshops having heard that I make writers cry, expecting me to be the most vicious critiquer of all.
How do I bring writers to tears? Usually by saying this:
I loved this story. It’s wonderful. Mail it.
That’s my entire critique.
Is the story perfect? Of course not. No story is. Not a one. No matter how many times it’s “polished” and “fixed” and “improved.” No one can write a perfect story.
If such a thing existed, then we would all read the same books and enjoy them equally. We would watch the same movies and need reviewers to tell us only which movie is perfect and which one isn’t. We would buy the same comics, again, going only for the comic that is perfect, and ignoring all the others.
Am I telling people to write crap? No. Because the choice isn’t between crap and perfection. Those are false choices.
I learned this lesson long ago. Dean Wesley Smith and I were visitors at a writing workshop taught by science fiction writer and editor Algis Budrys. One of the early volumes of Writers of the Future, which he had edited, had just appeared, and he asked the students to read one of the stories in the volume.
Then, without telling Dean and I what he was doing, he asked us to comment on the story.
Here’s what I remember of the piece: It was 2,000 words long. I think we spoke more than 2,000 words in our elegant, impressive critiques.
Algis looked at both of us sadly. Then he said, “Ignore them. The story is wonderful—or at least it is to this editor.”
He had expected us to praise the story, thinking we all had the same taste. Instead, Dean and I both had gone after the story in critique mode. When a reader critiques something, he goes after it by searching for what is wrong.
And he will find something. Something is always wrong. From an infelicitous turn of phrase to a plot point that could have been stronger, something about the story does not work.
As I’m teaching this concept to my workshop-experienced students, I always begin by asking them this, “What’s wrong with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream?”
Well, we’re all raised to believe that Shakespeare is a god who never could do anything wrong. Had he done anything wrong, had his stories been less-than-perfect, we wouldn’t be reading them? Right?
If William Shakespeare—professional writer—had turned A Midsummer Night’s Dream in at a workshop I taught, I would have told him this:
“Bill, lose at least two of your endings. The main story of the play ends in Act IV, Scene 2—and then you go on for two more scenes. All of these endings would work. Pick one.”
Bill Shakespeare, dutiful workshopper that he is, would nod sadly, go back to his room, and delete one of the most favorite and quoted scenes in all of English literature. Puck turns to the audience and says,
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
I would have said to Bill, “Lovely. Thematically significant. Beautifully written. Lose it. You can do the same thing elsewhere.”
Yeah, right. My harsh words, spoken with authority, and Workshopper Bill’s insecurity would have stolen 400 years of enjoyment from audiences all over the world.
Anything can be critiqued. Criticizing something is easy. It makes the critiquer feel smart, and just a little bit superior to the writer.
But that kind of critique serves no real purpose, because that kind of critique is wrong from the moment the critiquer picks up the story or the manuscript or the 400-year-old play.
Readers read for enjoyment. They vote for what they like with their hard cold cash. Traditional publishers who recently ventured into the world of free online e-book promotions were stunned to realize that people who receive a book for free are more apt to write a vicious, nasty review of that book than people who paid money for the same book.
There are a few reasons for that. One is that people see no value in something they get for free. Dean’s discussing that bit on his blog right now.
But the one reason that’s relevant to this essay is this: If people have paid a little for a book, they have a vested interest in it. They take a small bit of the blame if the reading experience didn’t turn out exactly like they hoped. They should have looked at the cover more closely, perhaps, or read a snippet of the opening. But they didn’t. So they got a book they didn’t like. It was an accident. They’ll do better next time.
Readers are more realistic than writers. Readers understand that many, many, many books out there in the universe won’t be to their taste. All sorts of marketing tools have sprung up over the centuries to help readers find works that will be to their taste. From cover art to genre categories to back cover blurbs, all these things exist to help a reader choose the right book for them—a book they won’t regret purchasing. A book they will enjoy.
When a reader samples an e-book, she gets a small portion of the novel. If it’s to her taste, she will then decide whether or not to purchase. But if the book is really, really good, the reader will punch that “buy” button just to see what happens next regardless of price. (That’s how a lot of e-books priced over $10 sell to people who swear they’ll never pay more than $9.99 for an e-book. The reader samples, gets hooked, and buys, without checking price at all.)
What does that have to do with critique? Simple. Critiquers get the manuscript for free and they’re asked to criticize it. Of course, they will find something wrong with it. In that circumstance, we all will.
So I change my students’ mindset to a reader/editor mindset. How do I do it? By giving them only three valid responses to something they’ve read:
1. I liked what I read.
2. I quit on page [insert number here].
3. I liked what I read and I would have bought this.
Book and magazine editors don’t have time to read every manuscript that crosses their desks, and certainly don’t have time to critique them. Editors want to find something the readers will enjoy. Better yet, the editors want those people to return for a second bite from the apple. So they want the readers to enjoy the first book, and come back for the second by the same author. In fact, the editors want readers to return to the publishing house again and again, which is why imprints exist. (If you liked this book by Suzy Q. Writer, then try this book by Jane X. Author, published under the same imprint.)
In other words, editors also read for enjoyment. And if they’re not enjoying a book on page 2, they’ll jettison that book. The only time they use their editing superpowers on that book is if they bought it sight unseen from a professional writer and can’t reject it for cause. Then they try to help the writer “improve” that book, when really, if the editor were an average reader, he would have simply tossed the book aside and asked for another book (maybe even by somebody else).
Harsh? Not really. Not compared to a thirty-minute critique of a romance novel by a hard-science fiction writer forced to read said romance novel as part of a workshop. You ain’t heard harsh until then.
But I’m sure all you writers out there have heard just such a critique. And many of you have taken it to heart. I know dozens of writers who quit writing because they couldn’t stand the pain they received from their peer-level writing workshop. That’s a tragedy. How many stories have we lost? How many Bill Shakespeares have dumped the “unnecessary” second and third endings from their immensely enjoyable stories because some idiot told them to?
I don’t let students drone on and on about a story, especially if they don’t like it. I will occasionally give the student something to improve the story, but before I do, I remind the student that 1) I am no longer editing, so my word has equal weight to every other reader’s word in the room; 2) I can be wrong; and 3) ignore everything I say if you disagree with me.
I go last, after I’ve heard the rest of the workshop. If anyone “buys” the manuscript at all and I didn’t like the manuscript or had found “flaws,” I remind the writer that someone already loved it and was willing to spend cold, hard cash on it.
Often, I tell writers this: Do not touch this story. Mail it. Everyone in the room liked it but me. Therefore what I have to say is irrelevant.
In other words, I never tell a student to make a story perfect. I often tell a student that the story is really good and needs to get out into the world where readers can find it.
I also teach writers bits and pieces of craft, things they might not be aware of. I don’t want them to create my perfect story. I want them to write stories that only they can tell.
So many writers table perfectly good stories because someone—often someone with power (an editor, a writer with a few novels under her belt, a well-published nonfiction writer)—will nitpick the story to death. Or suggest revisions that will alter the story dramatically. If the story already works, who cares if it has three endings? Those of us who don’t like the story don’t know if the people who loved the story loved it because of those three endings, not in spite of them.
When I became an editor, I learned just how important taste is. The difference between the short stories in Analog and Asimov’s, two of the science fiction digest magazines (that now have e-book editions each month if you haven’t seen them before), isn’t that there is such thing as an Analog story or an Asimov’s story that I as a long-time reader can tell you about. The difference is in the taste of their editors. Stanley A. Schmidt of Analog likes different kinds of stories than Sheila Williams of Asimov’s does. Occasionally their tastes overlap. Most often, they do not.
If there were such a thing as a perfect sf story, then both editors would always buy the same stories, and you couldn’t tell the magazines apart.
As readers, you all know this. As writers, you forget it.
And when you forget it, you make the weirdest decisions.
You give control of your product to the wrong people. You submit romance novels to science fiction markets (and wonder why the editor didn’t read your manuscript—was it the passive sentence on page 32?). You try to revise to please everyone in your peer-level writing group.
You self-publish your novel, make sure it’s edited and copyedited, add a fantastic cover, and then revise to address concerns posted by reviewers who gave your book one star. That’s complete and utter idiocy. Seriously.
Some nutty brand new writer, with one or two novels to her name, posted a blog on Digital Book World espousing just that. She says writers should always address their critics’ concerns.
I read that and nearly snorted my tea all over my iPad. If I even tried to address all the nasty reviews I’ve gotten over the years, I’d never write anything new. If I tried to address all the somewhat valid criticisms I’ve gotten on my books, I’d still spend forever revising.
Only a writer with one or two publications to her credit would have time to even think such a thing is viable.
Her blog post has gone viral, and I’ve seen new writers everywhere wring their hands over the fact that they now have to pay attention to their one-star reviews and constantly revise.
I’m here to tell you this: If you want a career as a writer, ignore your critics.
When the book is finished, when the book is published for heaven’s sake, then it’s done. Irrevocably done. Mistakes and all.
And there will be mistakes. Lots of them.
One of my copy editors has been comparing my final manuscripts to the previously published editions of my novels as a final prep for the books’ reissues. She’s done that for two years now, and she’s found many things that copy editors missed. (Failing to capitalize Diet Coke in a novel published by Dell, for instance.) We’re fixing those tiny copyediting things because WMG Publishing is reissuing the books. Reissues always need proofs as they go into a new format because the format itself can introduce errors.
But she’s been having fits over one of the latest two Grayson novels, which will be reissued this summer. She complained in person to me about it. I frowned and said that I seemed to recall a bad copyedit on one of the Grayson books.
She wrote an e-mail to me later saying, “You really did have a horrible [copy] editor on this one. S/he/it (and yes, that really does say a lot about it) faithfully reproduced nearly every misspelled word, and introduced some errors…in the ms. Yeesh!”
In other words, the entire book was riddled with typos—and yes, we’re fixing them. But am I taking the opportunity to revise the book? No, I’m not. The book stands as it did when I originally wrote it. Readers loved those books. I’m not going to try to invalidate their reading experience by “improving” on it. I might take out the thing that they love.
A writer whose work I adore has revised my favorite novel of hers twice, publishing each revision as a new edition, neither of which I will not buy. I loved that first edition of that book. I don’t care how much better she’s gotten as a craftsperson. That book didn’t need a word changed, in my opinion.
At the workshop, one of the students pre-critiqued his own manuscript right after I called his name. We were well into the workshop by then; the writers knew the drill. We’d talk about the manuscript and then the author could speak. But he picked up the manuscript and volunteered to throw it away before we could comment on it.
Another student turned on him and growled, “I loved this story.” Then everyone else piled on. Yep, most of us had loved that story and all of us who had loved it were deeply offended that he thought it flawed.
When you learn a new bit of craft, when your skills have improved, when a reader points out a valid storytelling mistake in your published book that would take a complete revision of that book, what should you do?
Leave the book alone.
Incorporate what you’ve learned into the next book. You’ll learn something new on that book that you can then incorporate into the next book. Keep writing, keep learning, keep improving. But for god’s sake, don’t look backwards. Those books are done.
How do you know when a manuscript is done? That’s trickier. I think you should trust the process, fix the nits, and move to the next book. Writing is a subconscious art, not a conscious one. You heard your first story before you could speak, so your subconscious knows a lot more about writing than your conscious brain ever will.
Many writers don’t believe what I just wrote, and that’s fine. You need to define it for yourself. Set a limit on revisions, set a limit on drafts, set a time limit. (My book must be done in August, no matter what.) Then release your book on the unsuspecting public.
The book will never be perfect. Take the advice that those of us who’ve worked in broadcasting learned long ago. I think it was best expressed by Tina Fey in Bossy Pants: The show doesn’t go on when it’s finished; it goes on because it’s 11:30.
Exactly. At some point, you must simply let go of that book or story or play and move to the next.
If our workshopping friend Bill Shakespeare strove for perfection, we would never have heard of him. We wouldn’t have gotten all of that marvelous writing, all of those wonderful—flawed—plays. (You don’t think A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the only one riddled with possible workshop-identifiable errors, do you? Think of Romeo and Juliet. Why didn’t those crazy lovesick kids just move to another town????)
With so many publishing options, it’s harder now for a writer to believe in her work. Does she go to traditional publishing and ask them to validate her book? Does she self-publish and hope for the best?
I understand that. I also think that writers need to understand that they’re not writing for one editor or agent or for a small subset of people like a critique group. Writers write for readers.
And it’s up to the writer as to how to find those readers. As Sarah Hoyt said in last week’s comments, ask yourself, “How will this book best reach its audience?” The key words here are “book,” “reach,” and “audience.”
Not “How do I impress Editor A?” or “How do I get an agent?” But how does this book best reach its audience? Sometimes that answer is through traditional publishing. Sometimes that answer is to become an indie writer.
The question should never ever be, “How do I write the perfect novel?” because the perfect novel or short story or play or article or essay does not exist.
A better question is, “How do I make the book the best it can be?” That you have to answer for yourself. Me, I make sure I have outside help—a dedicated first reader or two or three before my book goes to my editor in traditional publishing or to the editor I hire when I self-publish. A copy editor in both cases to make sure that my dyslexia doesn’t make my books impossible to read. A “stet” stamp so that I can disagree with said copy editor when I wanted a particular misspelling or poorly constructed sentence to stand for story reasons. (Allyson Longueira has a great post on this very topic.)
The best possible cover. The best possible interior design.
Sometimes I get a say in those last two things. Sometimes I don’t.
I also don’t always get a say in how the books get distributed either. Remember, my goal is to find my audience, and when my traditional publishers choose not to pursue every distribution option open to them (because it’s too much work or there’s “too little return”), I get angry.
My readership varies from book to book, series to series, genre to genre. I never know who will like something I wrote. I just have to give that person the opportunity to find what I did.
Sometimes readers like my work. Sometimes they don’t. Once the book is released into the wilds of publishing, however, it’s done. Finished. I will not revise a published book.
Is my craft better than it was twenty years ago when I published my first novel? Oh, hell, yes. But my craft is so much better that I could never have written that novel now. Because there’s something in the middle of it that no established writer, steeped in craft, would ever attempt. At the time I wrote the book, I didn’t know you couldn’t do that thing, so I did it.
Had I workshopped that novel, more experienced writers would have told me to remove that thing. Yet that thing is what readers remark on the most about that novel.
When you strive for perfection in your writing, you’re dooming yourself to perpetual failure. When you strive to be the best you can be, you will have a fulfilling life.
Writers who are always improving, always learning, move forward. They are secure in the knowledge that the book they wrote ten years ago is the best book it could have been given their level of craft and their understanding of the art of writing at the time they finished the book. They’re better now, so they write new things, explore new pathways.
They also realize that they have a career, not a novel. The people who tell you to endlessly revise, the people who tell you not to try something new until you’ve mastered the old, the people who believe that you should make every word perfect before you move onto a new project, those people don’t have writing careers. They might have things that seem like writing careers, like a few published stories, one or two novels.
But they don’t make their living from their craft (in other words, publishing their writing). They also approach storytelling from the point of view of perfection, not the point of view of enjoyment.
If a flawed novel entertains, it has done its job.
How do you know if a novel entertains? Talk to its fans. Look at its sales figures. See how many people recommend it to their friends.
How do you learn to be the best writer you can be? Step one: Read other people’s work for enjoyment. Stop critiquing manuscripts. Stop thinking everything can be perfect.
Then write a lot. Practice, practice, practice. Find your audience—and respect them.
After all, they’re forking out their hard-earned cash to pay for one of your stories. If they buy more of your work, then you’re doing something right.
Perfection in publishing—like perfection in life—does not exist.
So why do people cry in my craft workshops? Essentially because I tell them they don’t have to be perfect. They just need to have fun. They need to share that fun with their readers. Writers understand that. We all do. We like to share our work—the best work we can do—with other people. Not perfect work. The best. Even if it has two additional unnecessary endings.
See why I didn’t publish this last week when I had no time? I knew this one was going to cause a firestorm of comments, and I knew a bunch of you would ask for clarification. By the way, if you can’t be polite in the comments, you’re not going to get your comment published.
Someone once suggested that I shut off the comments to save time, but I value them. I value the e-mails and the links you send as well. I also value the donations, which keep me going on the nonfiction portion of my career. This nonfiction blog will continue as long as the readers support it financially. When that stops, I stop, because I have a lot of fiction stories to tell, and this blog takes some of that fiction time.
Thanks to everyone who has contributed in the past to keep this blog going. I appreciate it.
“The Business Rusch: “Perfection,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.