Once again, I have to take the C.S.O. to a medical procedure a little later. And once again, my “Future Columns” folder is near to bursting. Therefore, in an <sarcasm>unprecedented act of self-assertion,</sarcasm> I’m going to write about what I damned well please.
‘Tis the season to be ornery.
To me, the world often seems to be top-heavy with people striving for mediocrity. This is especially the case when I survey the world of fiction.
Yesterday, while I was waiting for the C.S.O.’s surgeon to pronounce her sufficiently healed to be driven home, I had a conversation with a young woman about trends in fiction and how she felt about them. She styled herself an avid reader – I know, I know, these days that can mean “someone who reads a book every year or so” – so I inquired about what sort of fare pleases her best.
“The story has to be interesting,” she said. “I don’t much care about the genre, as long as the central idea is intriguing.” It warmed the cockles of my shriveled old heart to hear that, as the lack of originality in fiction – especially in the offerings of indie writers – is one of my pet peeves. I then advanced my thesis that the syndrome is largely powered by writers’ desire to hop onto seemingly-profitable bandwagons. She thought about it and said that it seemed to fit the facts.
Originality is a necessary component of a genuinely interesting story. “It’s been done before” is a statement of dismissal, after all. But the lure of revenue is a powerful one – the more so if one’s fiction is one’s principal source of income. And be it candidly said, there are a whole lot of readers out there who just want to read the same thing over and over and OVER again. Which brings me to my next subject: the one in the title of this piece.
The reader hooked on some particular fictional motif – vampires, zombies, space wars, time travel, what have you – will also likely want a lot of it. Should he find a writer who’s produced a lot of it, he’s likely to become a fan who compulsively purchases the writer’s works as soon as they arrive. This creates an incentive for the writer, eager for a solid revenue stream, to “pump ‘em out,” sloughing such minor considerations as grammar, spelling, punctuation, good syntax, careful word choice, plot and character consistency, and overall coherence. Thus we arrive at the second of my major peeves: shoddy workmanship.
Now, I try not to be a total bastard about low-level errors. We all make them. The first release of my most recent novel contains a mangled sentence I didn’t notice at that time. (Yes, I’ve corrected and re-released it.) And I once opined as follows:
Sturgeon’s Law, unlike Theodore Sturgeon himself, is alive and functioning in the realm of indie fiction. You have to wade through a lot of garbage to find a jewel…and at that, some of the jewels are semi-precious at best.
Even so – and believe me, I’m fully aware of how far indie fiction still needs to develop – it’s a field of great promise. Indie is where the originality is. Yes, there’s a lot of hackneyed stuff in the indie orbit: vampires, zombies, space wars, Tolkien derivatives, and other clichés. But the stodginess of the conventional houses is such that hackneyed crap in well-traveled subgenres, easy to categorize and market, is essentially all they’ll publish. Genuinely original fiction has essentially no chance of making it past their gatekeepers. How can we know it will sell? And indeed, that is the crux, for conventional publishers must sell lots of books to meet the bills, whereas the indie is usually under less pressure to do so out of his book revenue.
So I’m in favor of cutting writers who tell decently original stories with important themes a lot of slack. It’s bit like a taste for moonshine: You can’t get it in the store, so if you want it, you have to be willing to accept a jug without a label or a Surgeon General’s warning on the side. Hell, you might be socially obliged to commune with the vendor over a jelly-jar full of the stuff while he complains about his no-account brother in law, his lazy kids, and how his bunions are just killing him.
That having been said, how much is an appropriate amount of slack? It’s a watchword of the trade – and of my previous trade, as well – that you cannot achieve perfection. At IBM, the saying runs that “You never get the last thousand bugs out.” If you’ve spent a whole year on a book, yet are morally certain – as you jolly well should be – that there are still errors in it, you must choose whether to release it and go on to something else, or pore over it just…one…last…time…
Strictly speaking, you can achieve perfection in certain matters. For example, spellcheckers are essentially perfect today. There’s no excuse for not using one. But other sorts of perfection are too elusive to make into an absolute standard, short of which your book must not appear before the public.
Now, this is neither a demand for perfection nor a “let ‘er rip” dismissal of all quality standards. Perfection is quite useful – as an ideal to be upheld and asymptotically approached. But the quest for perfection must be tempered by other considerations. Perhaps one of them is high revenue; as I don’t share that particular aim for my fiction, I can’t address its demands knowledgeably. But whatever considerations matter most to you must be part of the decision about whether “my book is ready for its close-up.”
Many years ago, there was “an exchange of notes,” as the diplomats like to say, between two high-ranking managers at my place of employment. One – call him Smith – was dismissive of the other’s – call him Jones – procedures for the release of certain critical documents. In Jones’s reply, which came close to being an invitation to coffee and pistols at dawn, he made the following admirable statement:
This strikes me as the right attitude to take. Yes, your product will contain at least an error or two. But that does not excuse a lackadaisical attitude toward such things. Rather, decide beforehand:
- What level of accuracy you will accept in your book;
- How much time you’re willing to devote to polishing your book;
- Whether you can afford the services and turnaround time of a professional editor.
Vow to adhere to your decisions about such things without hedging or “but if” exceptions, while giving your best and fullest effort to achieving the unachievable: the perfect novel.
It won’t be perfect; I’m here to tell you. I have yet to write a perfect book, but I try to do so each and every time. I’ve never yet been seriously unhappy about the ultimate product…even if I suffer agonies about the errors my earliest and most persnickety readers find in it.
Finally, the eBook revolution has made possible a major improvement in the quest for the Impossible Dream. If you release an eBook and intend to offer a paperback as well, wait on the paperback, for at least two weeks and possibly for a full month. Your early readers, assuming you’ve made it possible for them to contact you, will apprise you of some of the faults you missed. At the end of your predetermined wait interval, correct the flaws in the eBook, re-upload it to your publication channel, and then begin the production of your paperback. You’ll thank me later.
Strive for perfection. You won’t get it. But you will get excellence. Trust me on that.