Why No Book I Write Will Ever Be Perfect To Me (And Why This Is The Most Important Lesson I’ve Learned As A Writer)

1 Nov

When I read books written by other people, I’m able to tacitly accept that they won’t be perfect, or at least that they won’t be written exactly the way I myself would have written them. In fact, when it comes to other peoples’ work, I’m able to brush over things that I would consider pretty big flaws in my own. If I couldn’t, it would make reading other peoples’ work almost impossible as I’d be continually picking away at it (thinking things like ‘I’d have put a semi-colon there not a full stop’ or ‘I’d have used “vivacious” rather than “bubbly” to describe her’), and this would ruin my enjoyment of the story.

Yet, when it comes to my own writing, I will agonize over ever phrase, every word and every punctuation mark. I’ll find myself going back and forth, replacing commas with full stops and visa versa until I forget which one I started off with. I’ll change a characters hair colour from blonde to black to red and back again, hoping to create something that exactly matches the ideal of the story I have locked inside my head. Know I could spend the rest of my life trying to get each book perfect, but I’ve realised it’s unlikely that I’ll ever succeed because I’m often my own worst critic. What’s more, when I thought about it, I came to realise the reader is unlikely to ever notice any of these supposed imperfections that I sweat blood and tears over as I try to get them just right. Nor will they make much difference in terms of whether they enjoy it or not.

The reason for this is straight-forward. When the reader first meets a character, if it say a woman has long, brown hair, that’s just the way she will appear in the their mind.  They don’t know that she’s gone through more hair colours and styles than can be found in your average salon as I tried to get the description exactly right.  The same goes for minor variations in punctuation, choice of words and phrasing.  To some extent, it can even apply to who said what when, as long as someone says it to move the story along and it’s not too out of character for them. After all, while I may fret over it for days, in a post-apocalyptic world, does it really matter who, in a group of survivors, is the first to cry, ‘Zombies, run!’? What’s more important to the reader is what happens next, such as who gets eaten, who gets infected and who escapes to be attacked another day.

This isn’t to say that I don’t think editing is important. Editing is critical if you’re going to be able to write something that doesn’t have people throwing it across the room in frustration by the end of the first page (click here for a posting on this). However, at some stage, you have to accept that you’ve done all you can do and that the book is as good as you’re going to be able to get it. Yes, it won’t be perfect to you, but that’s because it doesn’t fit with exactly the ideal of the book you hold in my mind’s eye. The critical question here is, will the reader really notice the difference?

It’s a difficult step in the development of a writer to accept that the book they’ve been dreaming of writing for years will probably never be perfect in their eyes, but if they don’t accept this, harsh though it seems, it is unlikely they’ll ever get beyond the stage of repeatedly re-drafting their first novel. Some might not even get past trying to write that perfect first chapter, or that intensely gripping first paragraph or even that killer opening sentence. The flip side of this, though, is that we also need to learn when we’ve finally reached the point where further editing will make no real difference to the way the book is perceived by a reader who is coming to it for the very first time, so we don’t end the editing process too soon. Each writer will eventually develop their own rule of thumb, but one way of determining this can be found in this quote from a famous author: ‘I know I’m finished with a story when I find myself going through it and taking out commas, then going through the story again and putting them back in the same places.’ That certainly sounds familiar to me.

If you’re in any doubt as to whether you have reached that point or not (and I have to admit I’m pretty bad at recognising whether I’ve got there myself), ask some one who you can trust to give you critical feedback, but crucially who hasn’t read the piece you’re working on before, to take a look at it. Their minds won’t be tainted with previous drafts or pre-conceived ideas of what any of the characters should look like (or indeed used to look like before you changed their hair from auburn to mousey brown, or you changed one of them from a man to a woman or the other way round – this happens more often than you’d think in the editing process!). This means they’re better placed than those who have read it previously to tell you whether it still needs some tweaking or if it is ready to be sent off to an agent, your editor, or to be released out into the world (if you’re going down the self-published route).  For this reason, I don’t send early drafts to every potential reader I can think of.  Instead, I’ll keep a few in reserve so that I have a fresh pair of eyes to read it over in the latter stages to help me recognise when I’ve reached this point.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.


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