Chasing Perfection

Monday, June 13, 2016

One of the hardest parts of writing a book is knowing when to stop. Not where to end the story—which I covered in last week’s post—but when to stop working on it.

No writer has ever achieved perfection, and no writer ever will. If that was my goal, I would never finish a book. So when is it time to stop working on one manuscript and move on to the next?

I try to write the best book I can at the time, then get it edited and make a few final changes before moving from the production to the submission stage. But once I start submitting, my practice has been to keep my hands off the text and concentrate my writing skills on the next book. If a publisher accepts the manuscript and wants changes, I would do that, but the initial writing process is done.

Years ago, a publisher rejected a children’s chapter book but gave me a great critique and suggestions for improvement. I agreed with everything she said and decided that the manuscript needed major revisions before being submitted elsewhere. But it wasn’t my priority at the time, so I set it aside for later. It is still waiting.

That is the only book I have considered revising based on rejections or my knowledge that the book isn’t perfect. Sometimes you just have to accept what you have done and either keep submitting or move on to the next story. If I didn’t follow that rule, I would be stuck in an unending loop searching for an unattainable perfection.

But most rules have an exception.

I recently received this rejection letter for Desert Jewels:

You have written a sensitive novel that combines an important and difficult topic with a warm family story.

However, I’m afraid that [publisher] will be passing. Ultimately, we felt that the delivery of historical information was slightly too didactic, and that the story itself was a little too spare. For these reasons, we are declining the manuscript.

The letter confirmed my own unease about the adequacy of the plot, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Even though I still think it’s a good book as it is, I also know it could be better. But should I make revisions at this point?

I’m going to try. A week or two after receiving the rejection letter, I was in the shower when inspiration struck and I thought of some ways to improve the plot. So I’m going back to work on Desert Jewels before making any further submissions.

But I’m still not seeking perfection.


The photograph at the head of this post shows a Japanese-American grocery store in Oakland, California. Dorthea Lange took the picture in March 1942 as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States Government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.

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