Do you read Seth Godin’s blog? If you don’t, start. It’s all about marketing, but even if you don’t market or work in sales, it’s just a brilliant blog altogether.
This is the entry I read the other day, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Seth talks about the myth of preparation, how there are three stages of preparation, beginner, novice, and expert.
Go read the whole post (it’s worth it), but here’s what stuck with me:
We diddle around in the novice stage because we’re afraid. We polish (but not too much) and go to meetings (plenty of them) and look for deniability, spending hours and hours instead of shipping. And the product, in the end, is not so much better.
He’s talking about business. Can you think of anything else to which we can apply that nugget of wisdom?
Think about it. Haven’t you gotten to the end of a manuscript and thought, “That’s pretty good. I’m going to query now.”
But in your gut, you know it’s not good enough. You know you need more polish. You know something’s not quite there. Maybe you aren’t the writer to fix it (yet). Maybe you bit off more than you could chew with that story. Maybe you weren’t ready to write four first person POVs.
But you put in the work! You worked hard! You read agent blogs and you got critique partners and beta reads and you revised and polished. You did. It’s as good as you can get it.
Maybe that’s not good enough. And here’s the thing: maybe you know, in your heart, that it’s not good enough.
This isn’t supposed to be a depressing post. I’m not saying we should give up. I’m saying we’re all going to keep learning — and we all have to keep trying to learn more. If you’ve reached a point where you’ve taken a manuscript as far as it can go, but your gut is still telling you, “Hey, you know, really, it’s just not quite there,” then you need to trust your instinct. Find a beta reader with teeth. Find a critique partner who isn’t spitting out the same old, “Cut your adverbs!” tripe that’s all over the message boards. That’s the novice stuff. It’s useful. That’s where you pay your dues. But when you want to make the leap to the next level, something has to change. An Olympic gymnast isn’t being coached by the same guy who taught her when she was six. A college student isn’t learning global macroeconomics from the same person who taught him “I before E, except after C.” Both teachers have value. One is not better than the other. But one can take you a step closer to expert status, and one helps you leap out of “beginner.”
That difference between querying and agented, that difference between agented and published, is finding the way to kick yourself into that expert stage.
I’m not saying this is easy. It’s not. This is hard. Very hard. I’m working harder at writing now than I ever have. I lose sleep over it. I stress over scenes, and word placement, and whether my character motivation is finely tuned. With my first novel, it was like that first dress you stitch together when you’re a kid. The stitches are crooked, it’s uneven, it’s not even something wearable. That first dress is clearly a beginner effort.
Then you do the novice dress. Your lines work a little better. You finally have the sewing machine down and your hems are straight. This might actually be a wearable product, but still, when you look at yourself in the mirror, you see the flaws, even if you don’t want to acknowledge them. (We all want to be proud of our work. There’s nothing wrong with that.)
Here’s where it’s tempting to get stuck. That dress is wearable. We say, “You know what? This is pretty darn good. No one will notice that the left boob is half an inch tighter than the right. No one will notice that I ran out of green thread at the bottom, and I had to substitute with blue.” And we might be right! This is the novel that landed me an agent. It was a good book, but not quite there. Now that I’m deep into the new one, I see every flaw in the old.
People notice the slipped stitches, the slight misshaping in a dress. They might not even know what’s not working (“Hmm. Something’s just not quite right.”), but they notice. All those tiny little flaws, the missed moments of character motivation, or the extra adverbs, or the loose fragments? They add up. Like Seth says in his piece, why bother working that hard if we aren’t going to take it all the way? We might as well stop at beginner.
The real challenge is escalating our work to the “expert” phase. You know why it’s scary? Because we’ve polished until our gut says there’s nothing else wrong. We can’t fall back on the, “Oh, well I’m still learning,” crutch. We’re putting ourselves out there as an expert, and we have to back it up.
It pays off, though. All that hard work is worth it. Really.
Besides, if we’re just going to stop at “good enough,” why waste time getting there at all?