‘Can it be possible for a thing to be too perfect?’ asked Fulgrim. ‘Surely everything that is beautiful and noble is the product of reason and calculation.’ ‘Great art isn’t about reason, it’s about what comes from the heart’ said Ostian. ‘You can work with all the technical perfection in the galaxy, but if there is no passion, then it is a wasted effort.’ ‘There is such a thing as perfection’, snapped Fulgrim, ‘and our purpose for living is to find that perfection and show it forth. Everything that limits us we have to put aside.’ Fulgrim, Graham NcNeill
There is a phrase I am seeing more and more often on social media today. It seems like a somewhat good phrase, it seems useful as perhaps a measure but a measure against whom?
“I am not good enough”, “I want to be good enough”, “you are good enough”; many variations thereof. It means you are either striving to, can easily arrive at, or have achieved some degree of minimum measure. Who is it though, that decides the measure? What is good enough?
I don’t want to be good enough, to me that sounds like admitting defeat…
The Pursuit of Perfection
It has often been said that the goal is everything is to achieve perfection, that one can do it. Our friend Fulgrim, in Graham’s excellent fall from grace biopic (or ‘Fulgrim goes down to Georgia’ as I’ve jokingly called it), devotes his life to achieving perfection in all things, he cannot accept the idea that he, with his mental, physical, and genetic advantages cannot achieve perfection.
We will stop there so that we don’t ruin a good story for one and because we have other points to make. We will come back to this one later, though.
Let us explore what ‘Good Enough’ means, shall we? The Oxford English Dictionary tells us;
Adequate. Satisfactory. It feels like we have just passed a test and been awarded a gold star by some unseen authority. It feels like we received a participation trophy. It sounds like ‘Just OK’, think about that, do you want to produce an adequate, OK, mediocre piece of art or do you want to produce a great piece of art?
Now, the pursuit of perfection is all well and good but completely impossible to attain in a mortal lifetime. One can chase it, one can seek and fight for it but one must hold firm in one’s mind that to think one could ever actually be perfect in any way is inviting madness to settle themselves into the spare room and start going through the fridge.
Perfection is a moving target, the closer you get to it, the further away it moves. To think that you can catch it would be an exhausting and frustrating affair. It would also mean asking our friend insanity to sign a lease and start moving their stuff in permanently. Fulgrim fell because of this one of those famous – ah – fatal failures; pride.
What’s an obscure musical reference in the name of love? Our Irish friends had a rather valid point, though, in that excellent song. If you now have the guitar solo stuck in your head, you are very much welcome.
Pride is not, necessarily, a bad thing as long as you know when to let it go. This is either a skill you learn, or a quality you have; I haven’t decided what I think yet.
Pride, as regulars of my comments and blog know, is something I place great store in when it comes to our work. I have discussed with many of the ‘let the editors fix the bad grammar and spelling’ or the ‘language is constantly evolving so those old rules of grammar and spelling don’t necessarily apply because they’re changing’ brigade or similar groupings.
One must have pride in one’s work, pride to produce the very best that one is capable of. Equally, one would be, therefore, ashamed if people were to see my work as anything close to inferior. I pulled 9 books from Amazon and other outlets because they needed to be polished and they truly weren’t.
Let me use an example, for those of you who have children or intend to. Would you take your children outside in dirty clothes, dirty faces, and uncombed hair? Why not? You love your children unconditionally and, to you, they are beautiful even when covered with spew at 5am. Other people will just accept them as they are and anyone that judges you is a nasty individual who doesn’t understand.
There is a reason that we have whole websites dedicated to people who have a very ‘come as you are’ attitude to late night shopping at stores such as Walmart. I would at least make a half-hearted effort to look mid-way presentable under those circumstances even if I didn’t feel like it.
Some people might call that caving to social pressure but I call it pride. You see, those that know me are very much aware that I really have no interest in what other people think about me; I don’t follow the latest fashions, I wear clothes I’m comfortable in or that were thoughtful gifts. I style my hair as I like it, I go to work and do my job then go home. I owe nothing to nobody except my wife, family, and close friends.
My work does not follow trend or fashion either. I write what I want to write, in a style I’m good at writing in. I’m also going to make damn sure that my writing goes out into the world as well-presented – with its face washed and hair nicely combed – as I can make it.
It is said that, if you aim for perfection, you will at least reach excellence. Just because perfection is unachievable, there is no reason not to try, right? Now, many are confused by the dichotomy; why put all that effort into trying to achieve something you know you cannot ever hope to reach? While, you hasten to add, tempering your pride whilst also taking it in your work?
Well, nobody ever said that this was going to easy, did they? Let me try and explain how I see it;
Take pride in the quality of your work. It’s your work and therefore your responsibility. You cannot count on other people to do your job for you.
At the same time, do not let pride blind you; you might think your work is perfect or reaching perfection when it is actually a mess of clashing chaos Slaanesh would be proud of. Accept and listen to feedback because you’re too close to see flaws. Accept constructive criticism.
It is a careful balancing act to be a writer; you do have to practise, we have to develop, and you have to make mistakes. You are learning not what is right in general but right for you as you develop your own style.
Have the pride to know when your work is good and be able to tell the difference between constructive criticism and simple sabotage on your confidence. If you have sufficient pride in your work, you have the ability to recognise when it can be improved.
If you aim for perfection, you will at least approach excellence. Know, however, when to stop; you can ruin a good scene or piece of art by over-improving or over-editing. I’ve ruined many portraits of Sable by trying to refine this feature or that. He ended up looking like an angry old man!
So; what does that mean? It means that this is a far from easy job that you learn as you go along. That is where ‘good enough’ comes from. If you focus on achieving perfection as your only goal, you will never finish because everything will have a flaw or two. I have re-read scenes I have written and gone on to self-publish the book they are in. I see flaws, better ways to say things, another way to take a thread, ways to make the jokes funnier but I have to leave them alone.
Remember every lesson you learn and apply it to your next book or piece of art. What I would call my first generation character portraits were, to me, quite good when I produced them. They were good enough for the purpose I had given them. They filled empty spaces on The Chronicles of Enoch generation one website. They gave people ideas of concepts.
But, I later decided, they could be better, they didn’t quite fulfil my vision. I could do better, and that’s the secret I’m leading you towards here.
You can be as Good as you Allow Yourself to Be.
Here it is, why “good enough” should never be; first or maybe second drafts might be good enough but you can do better.
Generation One of The Chronicles of Enoch Character Portraits were good enough but the current generation are much better. In some cases, the alterations were minor and nobody but me would notice them but they made the end result better. On other occasions, the old portrait was scrapped and a new one produced. The Stranger, oddly enough, had the most redesigns. The posture, attitude, background, and appearance of ‘him’ now perfectly represents ‘his’ character. The new Lucifer pleases me immensely, that expression and posture of barely suppressed rage and veiled threat sums him up rather well.
The hard part is learning when you can improve and when you need to start again as well as when you need to leave well alone. That is why most successful or famous writers recommend at least three full self-edits on a manuscript after first draft. I had a series of chats with Ian Irvine, a very successful sci-fi fantasy author and he does four or five quite often. His reasoning is this; yes, the publisher’s editors will fix things but he is obliged – by his own internal code – to send them the very best version of his work that he is capable of.
Editors are for fixing basic grammar and the odd spelling mistake or few that you missed. They are not for continuity errors, character flaws, plot holes, or for fixing a badly put together story. Your job as to give the editor as little work to do as possible. Might sound counter-productive if you’re paying them yourself and they charge by the page or by the word, right?
Wrong. If there is a lot to fix, then they might miss stuff because it gets lost in the mess. If you have fewer errors, they can pay those better attention and be more adequately focussed on how to fix them well. Also, said editor will like you and maybe start to offer you discounts as time goes by. Do not forget, many editors are readers, some of them are writers, and all of them have contacts they can put a good word to about you.
Also, be aware, there are agents on twitter and they watch…don’t you Jo?
Simply put, you need a combination of pride, humility, integrity, and grit to be a successful writer. You need to make sure that the world at large sees the very best version of everything you produce and you need to make sure you do everything in your power to make that so.
You might think that the “grammar police” on Facebook and Twitter are a pain but they are actually good practise. If you try to get out of the habit of allowing spelling and grammar mistakes unnecessary place in your ‘professional’ social media posts, you might allow them to wander innocently into your work.
You see, achieving excellence in anything is about discipline and, ask any former soldier, that discipline will, once you’ve got it, leak into every single aspect of your life. It won’t be something you can turn on and off on demand, it will become a part of your character.
Oddly enough, agents are not looking for the number of followers you have, the number of books you have self-published or the number of fans your work may have. They are looking for discipline. You see, when an agent offers you a contract, they are making an investment. An investment of money, of time, and of their reputation and they are making it in you.
They want to see that discipline I mentioned because, if they are to get long-term return on their investment, they need that, to be sure you’ll keep producing. The publishing houses, too, are looking for the same and want to hear the agent tell them about you in those terms. They are going to be giving you money based on future sales of your book, they would like to know they will recoup at least that much, that they can rely on you when necessary.
Take Neil Gaiman, for example, the man is rarely at home. He is always on the go, touring by himself or with Amanda and the kids, promoting, selling, show-running, getting involved. I can guarantee you that there are days that he doesn’t want to do it (and I think occasionally having a problem committing to my 1 blog post a day goal) but he has that pride and that disciple and he does it. Look how he almost died of flu in Australia but kept going. He is not alone.
Being a successful author of the kind you want to be does not mean having all the time in the world to relax and write, not always. Some successful writers are busier than you can imagine but, it will pay off. Look at Stephen King, he’s done all of that and now he’s relaxing, watching Netflix, and making snarky yet entertaining comments on Twitter (I love you really, Steve).
If you want to be Steve, you have to work like Neil and observe his work ethic. There’s a reason my emails to people like Anne Rice got the ‘too busy to answer you’ reply (though Miss Anne did it in such a lovely way and you can tell she wrote it herself which counts for something) when you send them an excerpt or hello request; they really are too busy! Their schedules would make a great many of you cry, believe me.
So; Integrity (be honest with yourself and as critical of your output as you need to be in order to assure your best possible work), Discipline (to make and stick to goals, to push yourself when you don’t feel like it or feel ‘writer’s block’ exculpating itself into either your mind or vocabulary), Focus (on what is important and on what to improve and when to stop), Honesty (with yourself and everyone you deal with), Excellence (never stop chasing it, not ever).
That is, indeed, it, although it is a process and that is why your will never achieve perfection. You can keeping improving and maybe catch a sight of it through the bushes and try to sneak up on it before it sees you but that time is much hard work away.