One of the more important lessons I’ve learned since I started on the path to writing professional fiction in 2008 is about letting my babies go. There is a point with every manuscript where you are so close to it, you want to just hold it tightly and keep chipping away its deficiencies, molding it gently and lovingly into the best baby it can be no matter how long it takes. And don’t get me wrong, revision is a good thing. Striving for quality is important and professional. Insisting on perfection, however, is not. Did that just rock you in your boots? Was it unexpected? It shouldn’t be. If there’s anything writing should teach you it’s that you’re not perfect.
Writing is often like holding a microscope lens up to the world and pointing out all the flaws and tears and imperfections. And the more you do it, the more uncomfortable it can sometimes be as things hit close to home and remind you of your own failures, weaknesses and imperfectness. Do you know what I mean? So many parts of me as a writer wind up there glaring at me from the page. And so many things come out through the writing which wake me up from my vain self-ignorance and glorious denial to provide a reality check. There’s always that point where I just can’t stop rewriting. I tell myself time and again “Just another little polish on those adverbs” or “Just another little trimming of expositional diarrhea” and the next thing I know I’ve done a whole new draft. Sometimes I even recognize myself putting back in things I’m sure I took out before as unnecessary. And that’s the first sign it’s time to set down the manuscript and think about what you’re doing.
Does anyone out there know what I’m talking about? And the more you study craft and listen to writers talk about it and read reviews and critiques and read other writers, the worse it can get. You realize “maybe I’m not there yet. I’m not good enough.” And you know that if this work gets published it will be out there forever representing you. And you just can’t let that be your legacy. Am I right?
Why am I thinking about this on the eve of the release of my debut novel? It’s because my friend Patty saw the 4 star review I posted of my novel on Goodreads and lambasted me for giving my own novel anything less than 5 stars. I started researching and found bestselling novelist Kat Richardson, a friend of mine who’s also on Goodreads, has given her novels 4 star reviews. So I asked her for advice.
She said this: “I believe in honesty, not self-inflation. I don’t think the books are perfect and I think 5 starts ought to imply near-perfection. I have rated some higher than others because I, as the author, feel some are actually better realized products of my intent. ”
And that made me reflect on the times since I handed in the manuscript when I’ve gone through and nitpicked the novel, worried what reviewers will say, worried what readers will think, worried about the pros I respect whom I asked to blurb my book. And then the blurbs started coming in and they were so positive. And although yes, the authors may not be telling me the flaws they see, they are willing to have their name associated with my book in a sort of endorsement and that means something, right? It’s like being accepted into an exclusive club of sorts…like my writing just became legitimately professional level. Even if it’s beginning professional. After all, it doesn’t matter how big a name, every author had a first novel. And most of them have written better books since. So letting go is part of the process, isn’t it? And as hard as it is, it’s a healthy part of it.
For me, I would never rate my own book 5 stars out of 5 because I know it’s not perfect. I know I’m not perfect. I mean, I gave Robert Silverberg’s “Lord Valentine’s Castle” 5 stars. I gave “The Lord Of The Rings” 5 stars. My book can’t even begin to compare. In fact, by those standards, I’m thinking three would be stretching. I am no Silverberg. And I am no Tolkein. But Silverberg and Tolkein started somewhere, didn’t they? And it’s probably a place very similar to where I am right now as far as how they felt about their own work. Silverberg has criticized his own early work as not very good. I read it and thought it was still brilliant. So given that reality, should I really feel too concerned about putting something out there at this time that’s not the best I’ll ever write? My answer to that is: Of course not! What I have to worry about is putting out something right now that’s less than the best I can do at this moment.
Since handing in The Worker Prince final draft to my publisher, I’ve written short stories and most of the next book in the trilogy. I have found myself breezing through certain aspects of the writing which I really struggled over and agonized through when I wrote Book 1. How can that be? And through my chat with Kat and considering Patty’s pushing me I realized it’s a natural part of growing as a writer, learning craft and internalizing what you learn. Of course things you’ve learned get easier over time because they become like instinct. And other things need to be learned. I’m sure when I finish Book 2 and turn it in, I’ll be wondering if it’s good enough. Book 3 as well a year after that. My whole career I’ll probably release every novel I ever write with the same reservations. It’s natural. It’s normal. But that doesn’t mean it’s not time to let them go.
In so many ways for novelists, our books are like babies. We do our best to guard them, nourish them, raise them up to the best they can be. But then they reach 18 and it’s time to set them free, let them face the world on their own two feet and come into their own. It’s a natural part of the lifecycle of a novel or short story. And I’m pretty sure after what I’ve experienced that as flawed as my first novel is no one is coming to stone me or insist I retract it or apologize to every other person who’s a real novelist for besmirching them by daring to label myself the same, you know? Okay, it doesn’t release until October 4th so I may be wrong, but somehow, I don’t think so. Somehow I think I’m ok. And you know what? That’s a good lesson to learn.
For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host ofScience Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.