Life is denied by lack of attention,
whether it be to cleaning windows
or trying to write a masterpiece.
-- Nadia Boulanger
John Steinbeck wrote that when he wrote a story, he would not move on the next paragraph until the paragraph he was working on "sang."
There is a phrase in the engineering world that goes like this: “Better is the enemy of good enough.” Meaning, if you try to make the design better, you’ll only make it worse. It’s convoluted, but it is how engineers think.
But it’s not how writers should think. The standard for all entertainers in the world, including writers, isn't good enough. It's perfection.
Usually, if we can't change another word,
that's when it's ready, not before.
-- Ray Bradbury
Just how an Olympic diver practices a dive thousands of times before her fans see it performed perfectly for the first time, good writing must appear as if it were written effortlessly.
Take infinite pains to make something that looks effortless.
I read somewhere that a good short story with one extra word is a bad short story. That is a high standard to live by.
My grandmother was a theater actress and my mother sang in opera and played the French horn and hung around professional musicians. This meant that I grew up around performers. I started playing the trombone at the age of eleven. As an adult, I have sat alongside professionals during many performances.
My most recent trombone teacher played in the San Diego Symphony. He converted his garage into a practice room and isolated it acoustically from the rest the house and from the outside world. There he practiced twelve hours a day, every day of the year. He did this so he could play perfectly. He practiced in every clef, played music meant for other instruments, and performed exercises that would make a mortal’s lips shrivel. One time he showed me three trombone mouthpieces he had just purchased. He played his trombone for me using each of them one at a time, and then asked me which I thought sounded best. Happily, he agreed with my choice.
He told me everyone who played in the San Diego Symphony performed perfectly. No one made a mistake. Ever.
I knew a professional violinist who played for the Tucson Symphony. She got so bored with it she started learning to play the French horn. Soon she played the French horn professionally for the Tucson Symphony. She told me her French horn’s mouthpiece, bell, and body were made by three different manufacturers from three different countries. Then she got bored with the French horn and started playing the tuba. She purchased two tubas from two countries with the intent of returning the one she liked the least.
She knew that the standard of performance for entertainment is perfection. I played in her brass quintet for a number of months. In case you don’t know, the trombone’s slide has seven positions. Position 4 is where you play the note called Middle D. Well--it is close to Position 4. You see, if the Middle D you’re playing is the 3rd of the chord, you should play it slightly flat. In her mind, every note played on an instrument had to be adjusted based on where that note appeared in the chord being played at the time by the musical group.
You try analyzing in real time the chordal progressions of the piece you're trying to play perfectly!
It is not uncommon for world-class symphony orchestras to try out new conductors over a period of time until they choose the one they like best. Symphony orchestras hire their conductors, not the other way around. I bet you didn't know that.
Even symphonic conductors must be perfect.
In case you’re not getting the point: your writing must be perfect.
This poses a big problem! How does one write perfectly?
Here is what you should do:
Work your prose until you cannot make it any better based on your level of skill and experience.
Hand your work over to the fiercest critics you can find. They will show you its imperfections.
Accept those comments and express to your critics your deepest appreciation for their generous and helpful suggestions.
Work your prose further until it meets your new level of skill and experience.
Repeat Steps 1 through 4 with new critics each time until you run out of critics.
Find more critics. Repeat Steps 1 through 4.
Ultimately, hire a professional editor. You must do this before attempting to publish your story. Even well-seasoned veteran authors must hire editors.
It is ineffective to use the same critic more than once on the same piece of work. There are many reasons for this, which I will save for another time.
Critics are good at pointing out what's wrong. They are generally not good at telling you how to fix what's wrong.
Critics’ comments are rarely completely wrong. Disagreeing with a comment won’t prevent your next twenty thousand readers from having the same criticism. You must do something about each comment, such as making the surrounding prose clearer or more interesting.
Your work’s standard of readiness is not what your friends and relatives say it is. Do not let them rush you. However--
You must set deadlines. If you have committed to yourself to completing a work by a certain date, then complete it by that date. That includes Steps 1 through 5 above. Writing is a business, not a hobby. Even if you have a day job, you must treat your writing as if your life depended on it. But you must not let writing interfere with your family life. Just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you’re not an adult.
Where can you find such a collection of fierce critics? I have found no better source than those at www.critters.org. There are tens of thousands of them on that website. They are writers from all over the world. They may not be the world’s elite critics, but who cares? Are you writing to the top one percent of readers or the bottom ninety-nine percent?
Hand over your work to them and I promise they'll teach you humility.
If you know of a better source of critics, would you please let me know? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I clean a room in my home it does not appear I've made any progress until the last fingerprint or the final errant spec of dust is removed. Then something magical happens The walls burst with light, the furniture looks new again, and I am ten years younger. This happens in a flash at the 100% complete mark. Nothing happens at 99%.
This is how readers and critics judge our fiction.
"Oh, it's pretty good," they'll say until that last extra comma is removed, when they shout in unison, "Fantastique! Incroyable!"
Throughout most of my life people used to tell me, "You're too skinny!" I have borne countless wisecracks on thinness. Then one morning, I arose and everyone told me, "Buddy, looks like your packing it in."
What happened to just right?
The point is, there is no partial credit in the fiction business. You must get it exactly right!
Most people don't know that the temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around the world are cleaned nightly by volunteer members of the Church. The cleaning procedures are rigorous and thorough. You might ask, "Why do this?" The reason is so those attending the temple the next day will have fewer distractions. A spot on the floor, walls, or furniture can help take away an hour's worth of thoughts.
The management of hotel chains have similar standards. There's a world of difference between a perfectly clean room and an almost perfectly clean room.
A note on precision
One of the classic rock bands I like is Rush. I am attracted to the precision of their sound. Listen to the video here. You can sense how accurate these performers are trying to be:
Whether you like their style of music is not my point. I could use a thousand other examples from other groups and musical genres. Precision is a central requirement to being a professional.
Compare the sound of Rush to that of the Rolling Stones:
Notice the marked lack of precision. They don't come in at the same time, they're less in tune, and they don't end notes at the same time. I don't like listening to the Rolling Stones for a number of reasons, but mostly because they seem to not care about doing it right.
No wonder they can't get no satisfaction. They may be famous, but they're not good performers.
Here is a guitarist playing Bach's Prelude Number 2 in C minor with absolute precision.
A perfect scene
Review the following scene from In the Heat of the Night (1967). Notice the dialogue, the sounds, the lighting, and the individuality of the characters and their mannerisms. The scene is perfect because it is utterly natural and is interesting to watch. This is how our writing must be.
The most famous pianist who ever lived is considered to be Arthur Rubinstein. He played at Carnegie Hall when he was 19-years-old. He performed all over the world for over eighty years.
He was asked once if, after becoming a world-famous concert pianist, he still needed to practice. His answer was this:
"If I skip one day of practice, I will notice it.
If I skip two days of practice, my wife will notice it.
If I skip three days of practice, the world will notice it."
That is someone who understands the need to continually strive for perfection. This is what we must do.
When you write you literally perform your fiction on the page, just as an actor or singer does it on stage. You must do it impeccably, as a master always does. If you can't achieve that right away, you will someday after you have worked hard enough at your craft.