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Does Today's Writer Need to be Perfect to get Published?

Thank you for your encouraging comments in response to my last post! Your genuine warmth and support brought fresh tears to my eyes!

The path to publication can be brutal. We all face adversity and pain at one point or another. We writers can commiserate together at the difficulty. But why is it, that to an outsider the writing life often looks so easy?

My friends at Seekerville had a hilarious post on Saturday: Getting A Book Contract. So Easy, A Caveman Can Do It. Here's one of their quotes: "According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them -- and that they should write it." (NY Times)

That's a LOT of people either hoping to write a book or in the process of writing one. With so many wannabe's, the competition is tough. Most of the time writers don't have a chance at traditional publication without an agent. But even getting an agent is next to impossible--or so it seems.

With such stiff competition, most of us begin to believe our books have to be perfect in order to rise to the top of the slush pile and get noticed. We read every writing craft book we can get our hands on. We scrutinize every adverb, count each passive verb, and slash as much narrative as we can.

We analyze plot lines, deepen characters, add tension to every sentence. Some of us even hire freelance editors to help us take our books to the next level. We think if we can just get everything in our books PERFECT we'll finally get an agent to take us on or a publishing house to give us a contract.

Once we have our books perfect, we strive to write the perfect query letter and synopsis. We labor hours and hours to get them just right.

The question we must ask is this: Does today's writer need to be perfect to get an agent or book contract? Is perfection the key to opening the traditional publishing door?

On some level, I think we WANT perfection to be the key. Then we have something tangible to strive for. When we get those rejections, we can tell ourselves we just need to edit the book a little more or write a better query next time. And maybe that's partly true. We can keep on improving in our writing skills.

However, after getting back my rewrites, I realized Bethany House didn't accept my book because it was perfect. In fact, my story is far from perfect. As you know, I have several MAJOR changes I need to make along with a number of minor ones. And this is only the first of three in-house edits.

In other words, I'm not perfect and my book isn't either.

That begs this question: In today's highly competitive market, with so many talented writers to choose from, why would a publishing house offer me a contract on a book that needs such big changes?

My answer: Perfection is not the key. As much as we want a magic formula for getting published or an easy answer for our rejections, perfection is not it. Being the perfect writer, with the perfect story is NOT a guarantee of publication just like having faults does not equate automatic rejection.

If "perfect" didn't sell my book, then what did? More in the next post. . .

For today, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Have you ever felt the pressure to be perfect in order to succeed in today's competitive market?

56 comments:

  1. YES!!! I feel that pressure every day. Very eager to read the rest of your posts this week. Wouldn't it be wonderful if there way a key. If there was some magical formula we just had to follow in order to get published? Can't wait to read more, Jody!

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  2. I strive to be unique, offer something other than the well-trod plot lines. I guess that's a form of perfectionism.

    Good luck with those rewrites.

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  3. Oh...! You can't leave the post there! I was so keen to hear the next bit:) But I LOVE this post Jody. that is so true about perfection and you are right, it is not the key. However you would think it is for all the effort we put into 'perfection.' I can't wait to hear what your answer is to this massive question. Personally I think my book will be published when it is God's timing for it to be published and when I am ready for the issues I will have to deal with as a published author, not in the least all the revision process you have been undergoing. I also think my book will be published when i find the right agent to champion my work. one who believe in the passion and the way my words come together even in their imperfection. An agent who sees what the book can become and has vision for who I might become as a writer. Which again comes back to God's timing hey :) Then of course there will need to be a publishing house and whole host of other people who see the same potential.

    Many people have already championed my work to the point it is at today. All of them have been another step on the path. Another thread in the weaving. I am very hopeful that God knows what He is doing :)

    Thank you once again for your willingness to share your journey. I am learning so much just watching you :)

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  4. Thank God we don't have to be perfect.... geez that's such a far off unachievable goal!

    But I think they got your book because 1.) the story rocked 2.) you telling the story rocked and 3.) your writing rocked.

    Yeah, there were some things they'd like a little better, but you gave them a package of "well-done" stuff.

    Yes, I've felt the pressure... and it IS hard. But at some point you have to just jump in. Get it the best you can, pray about it, and take the leap. You might find there's only a foot of water and you need to go back and turn on the hose for a few more months/hours/years....

    I sent my first "proposal" and got back a "Like your story... craft needs work."

    And I've spent the last year working on that. My next query I sent, they asked for a full. So, I know that at a minimum, I've got a good bit of water in my pool. We'll see if it's enough to swim yet:-)

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  5. I've been feeling this pressure with my wip, and it was only after I forced myself to stop stressing that I was able to write some wordage. I'm still having a hard time and I'm just going to have to write what I can and go back later and delete stuff.
    I think people think being an author is easy because it's easy to write. Harder to make a good story.

    I think Bethany bought your manuscript because they loved it. We can love something without it being perfect. :-)

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  6. Perfection is exactly the struggle that I am dealing with. Honing a craft that there seems to be no magic formala for is a tenancious climb.

    You have brought to light some valid points to remember, for me striving is a part of who I am. In a positive sense that means I know I need to be constantly growing. In the negative sense, that reminds me this writing journey is not under my control.

    Looking forward to hearing more Jody!

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  7. Confession: I'm a perfectionist at heart. But I SO agree with you, Jody. I don't think it's about perfect writing. I think it's about authentic writing. It's something we all recognize when we read it, and it's what I'm striving toward.

    Pressing toward the goal...

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  8. Perfect? Ideal? Utopian? No such monster. Just make it as clean and tight as you can. Make sure you feel it is your best... very best effort. (Really. Don't lie to yourself.) and then throw it up and into the world. It may come back with notes attached giving you ideas to make it better, things you never thought of. It may come back to pack it's things and move to a publishing house. It may come back with a note from the teacher saying it needs to go back a grade. No matter what, when it comes back... check your instincts! GREAT POST!

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  9. Oh, I definitely feel that pressure to be perfect, Jody. No matter what I do, how many critiques I get and incorporate into my work, I keep getting told, it's not perfect yet.

    Can't wait to hear what you believe is key to selling. I'm so glad you found that key for yourself, Jody, and good for you with the spreadsheet. Watch those to-do's fall away, I'm praying they go fast for you!

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  10. I think that's definitely the perception that the industry is giving, but the books getting published *aren't* perfect---every writer I know has their editors rip into their manuscript after acceptance.

    But I think we need to make them as perfect as possible..agents and editors don't want to see a huge mess that they don't have time to correct.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  11. I'm glad you found great comfort last week. Your post really stuck with me and had me analyzing my own work. I hope I don't have to be perfect but then I would shudder at heavy words from editors only because I would wonder about the quality of my work as you did. I'm glad you're in a better frame of mind. Like I said before, I know you'll rise to the occasion. Can't wait to read your novel!

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  12. I'm kind of relieved by the idea that perfection isn't the key. Perfection is impossible. It actually gives me hope, but I'll still strive for perfection. It's in my nature. Knowing I'll never get there is just a fact. I can't wait to read your next post!

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  13. I think all you can do is the best you can. Write the best story, or create the best art you can today.

    I can't speak for writing, but as an artist I have entered juried shows and competitions. Much of this is subjective on the judge's part. I think the other part is being at the right place, at the right time. What we think of as the right place and time in reality might not be what's in store for us now. What's the adage: We make plans and God laughs.

    You were awarded your contract because of your talent and the way you strive to create the best story you can. Your editor sees this, sees the potential in you.

    We aren't perfect, but we can strive for perfection. Do the best we can today. Tomorrow we will be better.

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  14. Heavens, yes. But, my perfection can be a messy house and happy child. It's all subjective and based on what we choose to value, I think.

    And, just noticed your book title. Your story is about a preacher's wife and my story (the one on submission) is about a preacher's daughter :D

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  15. Definitely! I know that pressure. I think there's also the logic that "the better my book is, the better chance I have over one that isn't as prepared". I submitted mine too early but had to learn that the hard way. Now I'm more even more careful and thorough. I'm a perfectionist anyway, so I want each novel I write to be the absolute best that it can be. The real lesson comes in not beating myself up when I find mistakes post-submission.

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  16. Good statistic. Hom many of the 81% actually write it though? :O)

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  17. There's no such thing as "perfect" particularly in the arts. Everyone has their own opinions, likes and dislikes. The challenge is to get our work to the point where we are proud and feel (mostly!) complete.

    Good for you for facing the ups and downs of the writer's life head on and not caving in. We all doubt ourselves. That's the nature of the artistic soul. Moving forward and improving your craft is what separates those who succeed from the "wannabes!"

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  18. Confessions of a fellow perfectionist - I try for perfect because I want to give God my best. It gives me something to aim for and a standard by which to measure my progress.

    Yet, reality says perfection is never (or very rarely) actually achieved. How many published books - after all those in-house edits - still find their way to the bookstores with a typo on page 137?

    So, since perfect doesn't exist in my life or in my writing, thank God for grace!

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  19. Oh, Jody. Unfair. Can't wait to hear the rest of what you have to say. As for perfection--it doesn't exist. All we can ever do is do the best we can and keep learning as we go.
    Karen

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  20. Wait a minute, Jody, you mean...you're not perfect? :) This is a great post. I think you're right, that in our efforts to find a publisher or agent for our work, we keep honing things, believing that it's the work alone that gets us there. Not! There are so many other factors that come into play. That can be both disconcerting and also very freeing all at the same time. I can't wait to hear your perception of the other factors it took to get you in the door. :)

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  21. I will second your assessment Jodi. My book is very far from perfect and I got an agent (of course it still may not be published). I think salability (and luck) is the key.

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  22. I think you're right. If perfectionism is the only thing holding us back from being published, we have something tangible for which to strive. It's hard to remember that God's timing and God's will are also a part of the process.

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  23. I hear the pressure, but I don't listen. I can't be perfect, but I can sound my voice. And sound it, I shall.

    Thanks for sounding yours so wonderfully.
    ~ Wendy

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  24. (Drat, I somehow spelled your name wrong in my last comment, despite double-checking your header before posting... argh! Sorry.)

    I guess I'm just hoping that my book is as perfect as I can get it by myself. After that, it either is the right kind of book for the market, or it isn't, you know? Either it has the right kind of potential or it doesn't. All I can do is my best up to this point... because otherwise I could just edit forever...

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  25. Jody, this was my big 'a-ha' from last week's post. Not that I don't believe you're an extremely talented writer. I do. In fact, I believe that even more so, given what you shared about your edit process. In spite of the changes they want, they still contracted you.

    That's tremendous encouragement to all the writer perfectionists of the world!

    Maybe we need to let up on ourselves. Finish our stories, polish them, and then launch into the publishing deep.

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  26. I'm happy that perfection doesn't seem to be the key, but you're right about the idea being a bit appealing. There are times when it seems like the right formula of genre and passion and well, perfection of manuscript, seems to be what it takes to get an agent or get published. Sometimes I'd love there to be a formula. But ultimately, I love that there isn't a formula. I love that sometimes exemplary writing and a spark of passion are what makes it and others, it's a stunning story with noticeable flaws.

    Thanks for the post!

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  27. Yes, I feel the pressure to get it perfect, but that can be said for everything I do. I have that dreaded perfectionist streak that God has been working on, in me, during the last few years. So your conclusions in today's posts are quite a relief for the rest of us wannabes. Can't wait till next time.

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  28. Perfection in writing is a compulsion that I can't overcome! I rewrite until I memorize the words. My shredder does overtime and needs to cool off most days. There reaches a point after all that and the critiques of my writers group, where I convince myself that it's good enough...my best job...and send it out.

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  29. Maybe your book was must amazing but there was some formula they like that you didn't know about.
    My husband thnks I should think like he does. Perhaps your new revisions will be more like your house's "thinking." Anyway, I know you will do a fine job.

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  30. Perhaps it's not perfection that I feel I need as much as being a mind reader! I hear so much about authors getting contracted only to have to change everything from their main character to their ending. I just find it so strange to write a story, get it picked up, and then have to turn it into another story.

    Jen

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  31. Yes, I do. One word that scared me a few weeks ago was "stellar." I read an agent's blog posting that said a new author hoping to break into the publishing world must have "stellar" writing.

    Now that I think of it, I've been in a dry spot since that time. I didn't connect the dot from that comment to my current writing blockage. Thanks for helping me solve that mystery!

    I believe our writing does not need to be perfect as long as there is potential in it. And James Watkins says the key to getting published is Network, Network, Network. So a big factor is connecting up with people who can help you, whether that means a writing group, editors, critique partners, or a mentor. If you don't have any of those, ask God to send you some!

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  32. One of the best and yet most frustrating things about this business is that 'perfect' is in the eye of the beholder.

    Perfect writing is so subjective. I think Dick Francis writes perfect mystery/thrillers, and yet, if you look at his reviews on Amazon, some folks disagree (quite nastily in some cases. :( )

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  33. Jody,
    I know that going through this process, while painful and discouraging, will make you an even better writer. I'm praying that God gives you the stamina, teachable heart and confidence to persevere.

    As you said there's so much competition in writing. I think what's more important than perfection is passion. Writing what God puts on our hearts.

    Blessings!
    Kelli

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  34. Perfection is such an elusive thing! Striving to make our work the best it can be is a long process and we're so close to it that often we're not the best judge of whether our attempts are successful. Thankfully there are agents and editors! Good post, Jody. I'm looking forward to its continuation tomorrow. :)

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  35. Too many times, perfect writing becomes writing that is too careful, stilted, and stale. I aim for writing that is true to the story, the characters, and myself.

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  36. I guess it's nice to know we don't have to strive for perfection because that's not really possible. All we can do is write the best story we can and hope someone in the industry likes it enough and believes in it enough to take us a step closer to publication.

    Lynnette Labelle
    http://lynnettelabelle.blogspot.com

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  37. If I have to be perfect, I'm sunk. I am a perfectionist who is imperfect trying to write with excellence to reach other imperfect people.

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  38. Oh, I'm always feeling like I'm supposed to be perfect and like my manuscript should be close to perfect. It's very difficult to live up to, which is why I many times fall down from that high standard. It's nice to think maybe we should loosen our standards a little and let the creativity work.

    Great message, Jody. I'm already looking forward to Wednesday.

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  39. Yes! Great post! This is a competitive business. It's impossible not to compare. I'm constantly striving to better my writing, but you're right, perfection doesn't sell. Technically, we have to be great, but I think in the end, voice and story are what sell a book.

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  40. Yes! Yes! Yes!! And then I give it up:) LOL Cause I'm not and I know my book won't be either but hopefully enough will shine through to make it ok.

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  41. This is a great post, it really makes it clear that we all struggle with the same realities. I think it's been ingrained so much that we need to have it perfect to like you said rise above the slush pile.

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  42. For me, perfect is for math equations. In art, in my opinion, there is no "perfect". There is only beauty, power, emotion. What I want as a consumer of music, art, writing, dance, and drama is passion, not perfection. I want the heartbeat of life to underline every sentence, note, motion.

    And life is not perfect--at least mine sure isn't. :)

    Great post, Jody.

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  43. I definitely feel pressure to strive for perfection even though I know it's an impossible goal. It's good to know that you don't have to get there. But of course that begs the question--what does it take then? :)

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  44. Can't wait for the next installment!

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  45. I think to some degree most of us strive to have some level of perfection in our lives. I've found over the years that sometimes it's the little "flaws" make you stand out in the crowd.

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  46. Hi Jody -

    I do feel that pressure to get my manuscript perfect. Yet, I have heard so many writers say their books need major editing even after a contract is signed.

    For me, this is where trusting the Lord comes in. I do my absolute best, but only he can open the doors to publication with a traditional house.

    Blessings,
    Susan :)

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  47. First, I have MISSED your blog! I sort of fell of the radar somehow, I think it has something to do with my Google Reader.

    Second, I was in agony reading your last couple of posts. You have the heart of a warrior, Jody! I am realizing that I'm going to need to toughen my skin A LOT in order to brace myself for the editing process. Thank you over and over for sharing this (very emotional) process with us. You are amazing!

    Third, I absolutely feel the pressure to be perfect to succeed, and not just in my author world either!

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  48. I always feel like I need my book to be perfect! But, why would they even have an editing process if they only bought perfect books?

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  49. This post is very encouraging to me. Since I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist myself. Thanks so much!

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  50. At the moment, I do not know which is more comforting to me, the fact that there are so many inspiring authors out there like me, or that someone stuggles with first-novel-perfectionista syndrom as well.

    One thing that got me over that and up the mountain was the fact that since life is not perfect, and neither is your vocabulary or grammar, then your novels should not be either. I enjoy, no, relish a story more if I can find mistakes (example: you don't spell 'aging' with an 'e'). :) Great post here Jody, I appreciate your insight! And keep on banging out that story!

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  51. I enjoy all the comments that accompany your posts, Jody. There's always lots of interest in them. How to spell ageing/aging is something that sent me to my dictionary to confirm that both are actually correct, the former being British English and the latter being American and Canadian English. Who'd have thunk it? ;)

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  52. I do try to be perfect, knowing I'm never going to be, that I have no chance at such a thing. But I do know that if I work at it, I will get close. I doubt there's a book out there that is perfect, even many of my favorites. It's probably why I like them so much.

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  53. I never stop striving for perfection, hoping to reach mediocrity. Just kidding. I am a perfectionist through and through.

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  54. I guess I'm on the opposite end of the spectrum. I had a really great playwriting professor who was talking to me about 'writer's block' and the blank page once. He said, 'It's not cement, just write! You perfect it later - it's called 'editing'...if you get wrapped up in perfection, you'll never finish a sentence.' So, I've never gotten myself worked up striving for perfection, though I do strive to tell a good story. Thinking of the 'blank page' as clay instead of cement has always given me an image and feeling of great flexibility when I write. I think, because of this, I do not strive for perfection and perfection is not a thought in my mind when I'm writing. It's probably the reason why I haven't suffered from writer's block either.

    We are not perfect creatures - so doesn't it figure that we are wasting our time if striving for that ever elusive....perfection when it comes to our writing?

    Just my two and a half cents!

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  55. While we all know deep down that nobody is perfect, it CAN feel like a book has to be perfect to get published. Thanks for the post--it offers hope. :)

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  56. I fear not presenting a perfected piece. I think this is what puts me off finishing. While I am writing it I do not have to think about perfecting it.
    Your post is encouraging thanks.

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