"Send Us Your Best Work:" But What Does That Really Mean?

Last night, Mark and I went another round in the battle of what he calls "Kathryn Paterson's existential writing angst." I was frustrated after a hard day of revision, the kind where I was splicing together the best of two chapters in order to tighten my rising action and make the early part of the story move. I had literally taken both chapters and used three different colors of highlighters to try to figure out which pieces of the chapters I actually needed. The sentences that absolutely had to be in the story I marked in orange, the ones that I liked the spirit of, but not the execution went in pink, and stuff I liked but didn't really think I needed went in blue. The stuff I knew for sure I didn't need I didn't mark at all.

The idea behind this was for me to start seeing the skeleton of those chapters a little better, and to help me reorganize. But it was hard, because there were sentences that I thought might seem dull to readers that people who have not lived with this novel for 4.5 years have actually found fascinating, so I wasn't sure. And yet I am conscious of wanting to move the story along and pace this first part in a way that absolutely demands the reader turn the page.

When I flopped, bleary-eyed on the sofa, Mark asked how the work had gone, and I burst into tears. "I'm just so blind now," I said. "I just don't know if what I'm doing is making the book any better."

"Well, maybe it's time you just sent the book to that agent," he said. I shook my head.
"I know it's not good enough for that yet. From chapter 3-5 there's no narrative drive."
"Okay, so what you're saying is that out of an almost 300 paged book, there is a small section that doesn't have narrative drive?"
"Yes. But that's important."

Mark didn't get it. His fear is that thirty years from now, I'm still going to be working on this book. He thinks it's good now and just wants me to send it. I told him I'm not sending it until it is my best work, but then he asked me what that really meant. And he has a point. I know editors and agents say that, but what does that mean?

Does it mean get it to where you're happy with it? Because for a perfectionist like me, that's never going to happen. I will always see the flaws. Does it mean get it to a point where you can't figure out what to do next and need agent eyes on it? Okay, well, then I think I'm a couple of months off that. Does it mean get it to where I can stand confidently by the story I've written, and know that, for now, at least, I've done my best? Yes, perhaps I can get there too.

Sometimes I wonder if the best books (not necessarily mine!) never get published because their writers are never done with them. And while agents and editors will say on their blogs that they get nervous when a writer says s/he knows the book needs another edit, they can't possibly expect perfection, can they? Because the "perfect" novel doesn't exist. And as Mark said to me last night, there's a fallacy in the "best work" concept, because if it's really the "best" I can do, then why would I need an agent or an editor to make it better? Won't they bring out in me a new best?

I see a lot of work out there that is really rough. Some of it is published and some of it is not. I know my work is better than that, or at least more polished. But until I can make sure the arc of the story is working well, I see no reason to send it out. And yet I am conscious of not wanting to take too long, and also not wanting to overpolish. But since I am a perfectionist, am I just going to have to let go before I'm ready?

Comments

blossoming said…
I feel your pain, Kathryn. This is the quote I kept posted above my desk for months:

"A painting is never finished -- it just stops in interesting places." (Paul Gardner)

In looking for the source, I came across another relevant quote, I think:
"Each painting has its own way of evolving... when the painting is finished, the subject reveals itself." (William Baziotes)

One suggestion is to look at very very early drafts of the novel, and see how far you've come. I recently unearthed some old outlines and drafts for my dissertation. Skimming them, I finally realized how much work I had put into the final product, which still felt "unfinished" and "not ready" when I deposited it.
Jeanna Thornton said…
WOW! Your post is close to my heart as I struggle with the completion of a three year commitment. Your words are exact and pure. Again, thank you for sharing your struggle. I can't wait to read your book when you let it go. Keep going!!!
The thing is I'm still on Draft 3. There was a huge difference between Drafts 1 and 2, because I almost rewrote from scratch the entire thing. (There's about a 10-15% overlap) Draft 2 seems very polished because I put so much work into it (it's really sort of Draft 2.5), but it still has some structural issues, and that's what I'm working on now. But what I'm realizing (now that I've had some distance from the defense) is that there is some really great writing there. If I really wanted to, I could scrap parts of it and rewrite from scratch again and probably have a better structure, but neither I nor Mark (nor my mother, nor any member of my committee) think I should do that. But it's hard to figure out what to tighten when a lot of it is already so good. And yet, I feel in my heart that it can be still better, that the STORY can be better and move faster.

I guess I still see a riveting story lurking in this manuscript, but right now a lyrical, slower paced, poetic book is what's on the page. My penchant is for riveting, but by talent is for lyrical, and the difficulty is combining the two. I think I've finally figured out how to do it, with the work I did today, but gosh, I just keep wondering if anyone is even going to find this thing remotely interesting. But then I find a revision note that says "revisit that how to draw your own blood email" and I think, hmmmmm, maybe so . . .
Thanks Jeanna! And jinx! We posted comments at the same time!
Joni Rodgers said…
Short answer: Yes.
Vicky said…
Do you have a beta reader? Seriously, I think you're probably too close to the work to have any objectivity about it. Get 1 or 2 people to read the entire book, use only the feedback that resonates with you, and then submit.

Fear is the greatest enemy in the publishing business.

Good luck, Kathryn.

BTW, my editor loves my perfectionism. :-) She gets very clean copy from me - LOL. See, there's always a positive aspect.
It's not ready for a beta reader at this point, because I know there are weaknesses in the story. To be honest, I really don't think I could take another outside point of view at this time, except for an industry professional's. Draft 1 was read by my workshop and Draft 2 was read by my whole committee (separate readers from my workshop), my parents, and Mark. At this point, I think I just need to do what I know I need to do and send it out.

The blindness will go away if I take a day or so off that particular section and work on another. I think I just worked on it that day for too long.

But thanks.
On the other hand, maybe having a couple of brand new readers look at it (when I'm done with draft 3) could help. I'm just wary of "too many cooks."
Vicky said…
I do understand what you're going through. Sometimes a writer needs to put the giant puzzle together on her own for learning purposes. Just before sending my book out to agents, I'd gone through a terrible struggle through a section near the end of the book. By this time, I'd gotten feedback from agents, but resolving the issues proved frustrating. I drove my critique partners crazy. They kept telling me they just wanted me to finish the book. The thing is I'd gotten a lot of interest from agents, and so there was a lot at stake. It was at this point that I decided I had to do the final revisions on the last quarter of the book on my own. When I did, I began to trust my own vision of the book. Oh, I made a lot of wrong turns. Our top of mind solutions are usually cliche, aren't they? The point is that I took responsibility for the story, and when I did that, I became more confident in what I was doing. Then one night, I was shocked to realize I was near the end. I wrote like the wind, cried like a baby as I typed out THE END, and without a backward glance, I emailed that manuscript to three agents. And all three offered respresentation.

Own the decisions you make about your book. But be honest with yourself. If you're letting fear stall you, then you must face it or you'll never submit the book. And then you most certainly will fail.

Reach deep inside and find that core belief in your ability to write a good story. Then... Just Do It.
Jeanna Thornton said…
Vicky...so beautifully said!
Thanks, all. And Vicky, I think you are right about the fear. I've been trying to face that myself. I fear not being good enough, but I also strangely fear success. Because once success comes, there really is no turning back, you know?
Oh, and if I hear one more person call what I'm doing "polishing," I think I'm going to hit them! I WISH!
Mylène said…
It's a bit hard to say this without having seen your manuscript, but I would still tend to agree with Joni: the answer is yes. I've been reading your posts closely for a while now, and it really seems as if you understand this book and its characters intimately.

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