Anyone else get a little hung up on perfection in their writing? That feeling that if you could just polish your story a little more, then you’ll let someone else take a look at it? And then, after a few more days, weeks, or even months of polishing, you’re still hanging onto that idea that with just a little more work, it will be worth sharing?
It’s taken me a while to realize that I need to let that go. First of all, a book is never finished. There is always something I could change, and perhaps those changes would even make it a better story. After a book is so far into the publishing process that it’s out of my hands, I usually have moments where I realize I should have added this scene or tied up that thread, or continued a theme… or something! Writing is a never-ending process. It’s never done, and I’ve had to learn to get over that and move on.
And secondly, as a working writer, with contracts and the deadlines that go with them, I’m inevitably going to have times when life rears up and gets in the way of my writing. And when that happens, what I produce may be less than perfect.
Last spring, while writing my new release After the Rodeo, I had to wrestle hard with my perfectionism. It wasn’t easy. The revisions were due and I’d been very, very ill. Thanks to a mysterious and aggressive virus, I was on several medications that soothed my lungs, tempered my heart rate, and slowed my mind.
But I also had revisions due on After the Rodeo and I was determined to meet that deadline. My editor had asked me months ago if I could write this book quickly, to fill an unforeseen gap in the Heartwarming publishing schedule. I’d agreed, and I was not going to break that promise.
The problem was not just that was I recovering from a severe illness and taking mind-altering medications that made me want to sleep all the time. I’d also spent two weeks of my allotted revision period flat out in bed with this crippling mystery virus. That left me with two drug-hazed weeks to revise the entire book.
The thought made me cry. How was I going to produce anything worth reading in this state? I could barely string a coherent sentence together.
The only way to move forward was to let go of my perfectionism. To remind myself that I had other rounds of edits to fix all that would inevitably be wrong with my revisions. I forced myself to just focus on the big stuff, the plot, the tension, the events and the character growth. Pretty words could wait until later. Passive voice and proper punctuation and so much more would have to wait, too.
The day my revisions were due, I wrote my editor an honest explanation (Hi! Just so you know, I revised this while I was on drugs…) and an apology. I asked her to line edit with gusto, because there were going to be all kinds of issues. And then I hit send on one of the most imperfect manuscripts I’d ever hit send on. I felt like crying, because I was embarrassed and because I was relieved that despite the hardships I was facing with my health, I’d met the deadline. I’d met it imperfectly, but I’d met it.
Writing After the Rodeo taught me that sometimes imperfect is all you can give, and while that may not be ideal, it’s certainly better than nothing. My editor was kind and she worked hard to catch all of my story and sentence-level errors. The copy editor and I cleaned up the words as best we could. Luckily for me, by the time the copy edits came to me, I had a few less medications in my system!
The result is a story I’m proud of and, according to Goodreads reviews, readers really enjoy. It seems that, by letting go of perfectionism, I was able to go straight to the soul of this love story and this family story, and create something that touched readers’ hearts. I received a personal letter from one reader who said she just had to tell me how much she’d enjoyed the story. It’s moments like those that are the jewels in an author’s crown. It’s beyond wonderful to hear that your words, your vision for this fictional family, your way of telling their story, reached right into someone else and meant something big to them.
So now I’m going by a new-to-me motto, progress, not perfection. I’d heard it before, of course, but hadn’t attempted to live it until now. We’ll see how I do. I suspect I’ll still make myself crazy trying to get everything just right. But hopefully, I’ll be able to keep in mind that even while sick, and under the influence of some strong pharmaceuticals, I was able to get a book together that means something to readers, and is a positive addition to Harlequin’s Heartwarming line.